BBC Dish Up (notes from a small kitchen, part 2)

I’ve been involved in promoting a new BBC campaign, Dish Up, aimed at breaking down barriers to cooking, and getting the inconfident and self-proclaimed incompetent into the kitchen. The campaign is based around a website, which contains recipes, all very simple and easy on the kit and the ingredients, along with articles, tips and tricks which link to the various reasons people gave for wanting to learn to cook. The Beeb did a survey to inform the website content, and show the scope of the problem. 1 in 2 men and 1 in 3 women said they’d never been taught to cook.  So what?, I hear you cry. Teach yourself (which is what I did in my teenage years). It’s not that simple. 19% of the population say they don’t think they can cook at all – higher for the under 24 year old age group. And around 50% of the population say they’d not feel confident in cooking relatively simple things like toad in the hole and macaroni cheese. We’re spending less time cooking, and are more likely to eat ready meals and entirely no-cook meals more and more of the time. And, as has been repeatedly shown by various studies, that’s not a good thing. There are potential health dangers in high consumption of heavily industrialised foods, including the simple fact that portions are on the large side. Even if you genuinely don’t care about the taste of your food, and can happily ignore the various issues around sustainability, in both food and environment terms, there are still loads of reasons to cook. 

The Dish Up survey suggested that the main motivators for wanting to cook are health and saving money, but there are also factors around sociability, family dynamics, and enjoyment. There are so many barriers to cooking, but the main ones seem to be perceived cost (presumably the people who cited cost as a motivator for learning to cook are either different respondents or maybe, I hope, aware of the reasons for very cheap processed foods) hassle factor (cleaning a microwave is hell vs a hob and a knife, I’d say, but hey), and time. Keen cooks will be aware that all of these barriers are rubbish, if you pick the right recipe. More pernicious, I suspect is the fear of failure, unrealistic expectations based on the incredible stuff produced by the ‘amateurs’ on Masterchef and GBBO, and a lack of motivation to just get in there and have a go. Anyway, there’s loads of stuff on the website to tackle these misconceptions, and I had a crack at challenging and encouraging wannabe cooks over 3 hours of radio interviews on Friday 22nd, when the campaign was in full launch mode.

I also thought I’d see how well I practise what I preach, and since we’re once more in a French gîte, with its random range of equipment and limited scope for ingredients (very little here, don’t want to spend a fortune stocking up on my full range of stuff from back home), the time seems perfect. The gîte, by the way, is stunning, but the owners admitted they never cook, and gave us a comprehensive list of local restaurants. As a result, the kitchen is one of the most poorly equipped I’ve ever seen. 3 saucepans, a frying pan, some flexi-mats (one of which is split) as chopping boards, and oven proof dish, a lemon squeezer and some tableware. The only knife is a bread knife (I have brought a 10 inch cooks knife and a paring knife). No mixing bowls (though it does have a lettuce washer). I made mayonnaise on day 1 in a mock flowerpot which was being used to keep the dishcloth in. And I did buy a couple of cheap 70s mixing bowls at a car boot sale on day 2. Clearly, I’m no scared, inexperienced cook, and I have a tendancy to buy fresh, as-near-to-unprocessed-as-possible produce. And I’m not on a scarily tight budget (but neither, necessarily, are the uncooks that the Dish Up campaign is aiming at – this isn’t about food poverty, but people not cooking in general). Otherwise….here goes.

Day 1: olives, cheese. It’s Eurovision, so finger food is important to allow all attention to be on the screen. Fried sand smelts, battered in a fizzy water, flour and egg batter and shallow fried. Boiled artichokes with tartare sauce (home made, we’ll never use a whole jar of mayo). Massive box of strawberries and unpasteurised cream (there are some large advantages to being in France). 

Day 2: yoghurt and jam for breakfast, picnic lunch, dinner of tuna marinated in olive oil and garlic, briefly blanched globe artichoke and cheese salad, more strawberries. There are now no more strawberries.

Day 3: breakfast poached egg and asparagus. Put slotted spoon on list of things we need to buy.  Lunch, local brasserie. Dinner, endlessly cooked white beans (can get them tinned, but we have the time, and they are way cheaper with more variety in a plastic net), with tinned chestnuts and mushrooms and cream sauce, with boudin blanc, fried and sliced and chucked on the beans with some lettuce as a sort of hot salad beast. Oodles of watermelon. 

Day 4: Lait fermenté pancakes (essentially buttermilk ish pancakes) with cheese and butter for breakfast, lunch ham and cheese in a baguette. Apples, more watermelon (now all gone). Dinner, veal chop, cooked over wood on the gîte BBQ (long story, but there was no charcoal, and Monsieur gave me a load of kindling and assumed I could light a fire), with more artichoke salad and black pudding.

Day 5: more pancakes, decided to buy some muesli as by now groaning. Lunch an ice cream (cider sorbet, ahem), as breakfast was so large and so late (I’m on holiday!). Dinner fried floured mackerel fillets, tomato salad, melon. 

Day 6: muesli. Epic lunch at a recommended resto, followed by a cheese crawl round Camembert and other cheesy villages. Dinner, as a result, was cheese, saucisson, pickles and baguette. And strawberries, now happily replaced.

I could go on, but it will get repetitive. As an experient in whether I can do as I say, not just say it and ignore my own advice, it was a success. I suppose the outcome wasn’t necessarily in doubt – after all, I managed 3 years as an undergraduate with one frying pan, one saucepan, an electric wok and a toastie machine. (You can do an entire fry up in a toastie machine as long as you get the right model). I once made fresh pasta by dint of crouching on the floor, which I’d stuck greaseproof paper to, rolling out the pasta with a wine bottle. But time moves on, and I’ve got very used to a well-stocked kitchen and zillions of things lacking here, like mixing bowls, graters, and cake tins. Conclusions? I don’t feel like a hypocrite, promoting the fact that cooking doesn’t have to be complicated or kit-heavy – unless, of course, you want it be, and that’s fine too.

Further reading 

BBC Dish Up is here.

For processed foods and health, Joanna Blythman, Swallow This (occasionally a bit Daily Maily, but a good and interesting read)

For a more general debate on food and sustainability, anything by Michael Pollen and also Jay Rayner, Hungry Man in Greedy World. (Includes must-read chapters on supermarkets and farmers markets)

Brilliant broccoli

My broccoli is about to come to an end. For over two months now it’s kept me in lunches and dinners at least twice a week. I’ve also turned up to friends’ houses armed with a generous bag on at least four occasions. I’ve loved every minute of it but, as usual when things are glutting, I’m not that sad to see it start to flower and to realise that its time is nigh….time to stick the squash seedlings in the veg patch instead.

Given that it’s nearly the end of the season, this isn’t the most timely of posts, but hey. If your brocs are still going (or if you’re buying them from the market, supermarket, grocer etc, when the season is a bit longer than that allowed by the vagaries of my veg patch), and you’re starting to rather desperately seek ideas for it other than boil/steam and slather with butter, what’s the historical angle? Well……er……mainly its boil and slather with butter actually, but there are a few alternatives around. 

Broccoli is a relative newcomer to the UK, with the first mentions of it in print at the beginning of the 17th century. There are so many new introductions in the 17th century that, in culinary terms, it’s a dead exciting period to study. I wonder whether the tumult of the mid-century, with the interregnum, and the lapse of censorship, the spread of new and often radical ideas, and the total reshaping of British society, helped hasten the adoption of new foodstuffs. A country in which anything can be said, and anything discussed, is surely a country at its most receptive. Culinary conservatism tends to be deeply embedded, and I don’t think it’s coincidence that so many new foods and techniques are embraced in the 17th century (that and, obviously, new world foods finally creeping up from Spain and across France to leap the channel, and the winning of the right to trade with Spanish America at the end of the century). Broccoli isn’t a new world ingredient, however, it’s firmly old world, probably a byproduct of attempts to breed better, white, juicier cauliflower.

Once introduced, broccoli gained a following fairly quickly, though right up to the 20th century it remained associated with cauliflower. Most recipe books suggest that you boil it and serve it with butter, or treat it as per cauliflower which, increasingly, means covering it with decent cheese and sticking it in the oven. That works a treat with the big headed broccoli which I associate with my childhood (and which were invariably cooked to mush and served with a hideously bland white sauce). Growing up, all broccoli was the huge, stringy stuff, with nary a sprouting broccoli to be seen. Now it’s everywhere, and has a tendency to command occasionally shocking prices. Surprisingly, though, the sprouting stuff predates the other stuff, and, indeed, was all you could get when it was first introduced. Inevitably, the Victorians threw themselves enthusiastically into breeding it, and by the mid 19th century, you could choose from green, purple, red and brown sprouting broccoli. The purple sprouting sprigs we devour today are, once more, but a pale shadow of the glories of past veg patches. The modern reinvention of sprouting types seems to be relatively recent – the last 30 years or so. Maybe we’ll slowly get back to the Victorian broccoli heyday. (I’m going to help the process this year by planting both sprouting brocs and walking stick broccoli, which I’ve been dying to grow for years – it can reach 3m high and is a classic example of the 19th century being both brilliant and random at the same time).

We talked broccoli on The Kitchen Cabinet recently*, and I struggled to find an interesting recipe with which to regale our audience, both in the theatre and in the wider radio-listening world. Best I could do was this one, from Errol Sherson’s Book of Vegetable Cookery (1931). Maybe I’ll use the last of this year’s produce to try it. I’ll probably just griddle it or steam it and slather it with olive oil, or butter, lemon juice, parsley and a bit of chilli though, Sometimes, really, unimaginative though they are, the old ways are the best.

Sherson, Veg Cookery, on broccoli

* The Kitchen Cabinet, series 10, episode 2, from Bury St Edmunds. Air date on BBC Radio 4, 10.30am 23rd May 2015, repeated 26th May. On BBC iPlayer radio for 30 days after broadcast date, or as a podcast. Podcast links here

Gardening for food historians

Growing up, my father had a rhyme he used to quote at the first sniffs of spring:

Spring is sprung, the grass is ris; I wonder where the birdies is.

I can’t get it out of my head now, whenever the first signs of spring occur – and then at the second, third, fourth etc. it’s been going round in circles since the first bulbs started to sprout. And come April, I tend to go into a gardening frenzy. It’s usually a month with work gaps in for me, so I can go and enthusiastically plant seeds and revel in having permanently muddy fingernails. I’m aware, by the way, that much of what I plant will fail miserably, and I’ll end up buying plug plants anyway, but the joy lies partly in the work and partly in the hope. And now I have a bigger garden, I might eventually become a better gardener. I fear my problem is that I garden as I cook, with only the slightest regard for the recipe (planting guidelines), and a sort of gung ho attitude to little things like amounts (e.g. of watering) and conditions (ovens, room temperatures, soil types, amount of sun….). This year I have bought two brilliant and complementary books; Mark Diacono’s The New Kitchen Garden, and James Wong’s Growing for Flavour, and am trying to consult them before I plant stuff, and not after it’s dead and buried in the compost heap. We shall see…

So, if you want to garden with an eye to historic cooking, what kind of things do you plant? My criteria were simple: useful, especially for public demos and/or TV (producers always want unobtainable things out of season); pretty, as the garden isn’t very big; tasty, because life is too short to eat risotto; unobtainable through normal sources (market, supermarket, friends, the web). Oh, and preferably easy to grow and requires little maintenance. I tend to favour perennials as well, not least as they often have a longer period reach and are therefore more versatile.

My eventual list (and it may well yet grow, and will certainly change next year):

Trees: quince, medlar, Norfolk Biffin apple, Pitmarston Pineapple apple. (The latter two are to be trained as espaliers. I now have a hankering after a fruit arch with a pear and another apple, for which I hold the below illustration directly responsible).

Pear arch for a cottage garden, from The New Century Book of Gardening

Soft fruit: entirely unhistorical but practical thornless blackberry. There’s a hedge down the road for the evil attacking type. Red, black and white currant. Gooseberry, barberry, grape and strawberries (these last failing to do anything at the time of writing).

Herbs and green stuff: cardoon, erigno, sea kale, mallow, angelica, English mace, hyssop, clary sage, lemon verbena, lemon balm, lots of types of mint, comfrey, salad burnett, rosemary, oregano, marjoram, thyme, parsley, basil, sage, licorice, hop (still apparently dead), rocket, purslane, chard, rose of edible petal and hip type, good king Henry, tansy, sorrel, wild garlic (boat out on survival), borage, rue, skirret, globe artichoke, and does rhubarb count here?

Veg: Jerusalem and Chinese artichoke, tomatoes (yes, I know they are fruit), squashes of various kinds, aubergine, peas, turnips, salsify, broccoli including the epic looking walking stick broccoli (couldn’t resist), Brussels sprouts (post 1830, but hey, I still like them), runner beans, chilli.

It looks like loads (and I want to put a morello cherry on the front of the house as well, not to mention a damson up a fence), but I only have one of each, or a small patch of each, in some cases. And I’m hoping it’ll fuel many a happy historic cooking bender later in the year. Oh, and there’s not a lot in the whole space which is not edible. With any luck, most or even all of it will grow, and I can report back. Treat this, therefore, as a taster of what’s to come…and if you’ve any suggestions of your own, bring them on!

Sea Kale, before I ate it


Cardoon, in all its sculptural glory – and YES, it grows under leylandii