Monday, July 25, 2011

A farmers' market odyssey begins

Three weeks into my new London life, I am still finding my feet.

I have managed to avoid starvation and also shopping in the big supermarkets. So far the mainstays of my food shopping have been the ethnic grocery stores which are all around my bit of South London, and also a couple of street veg stalls in Camden. I have bought more of those £1 bowls of bananas/ peppers/ tomatoes/ aubergines/ anything else you can think of than I have previously bought in a lifetime. (Often these bowls are brilliant value, though perhaps less so with things like onions which don't cost that much at the best of times. I rather like the certainty of knowing how much I am going to spend - I guess other people do too, which is why they are popular.)

Many of these ethnic stores have a wide range of fruit and vegetables, usually in decent condition and at reasonable prices. My only quibble is that rarely does it say where the produce is from (this applies to most of the street stalls I have come across too). Now I would prefer not to buy more imported produce than I need to. At this time of year there should be plenty of English courgettes, tomatoes, cucumbers and many other things, but I have no idea where my shopping is from.

So I am going to try out the farmers' markets of London in an attempt to get a bit more traceability, if nothing else. I have an ambition to visit every farmers' market in the capital. I have no idea whether it will be the best thing I have ever done or a way of spending a lot of money on not much.

I will report back here on how I get on.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Monstrous cupcakes at the country fair

It was Lambeth country fair at the weekend - something of a contradiction in terms you might think.
It was a huge event, bringing the countryside to an urban park. There were rare breed animals - my favourite was the sow with 13 tiny black piglets - sheep-shearing, music, a flower show, plants, a funfair and plenty more.

There was every variety of hot food you can think of, from pizza to samosas to jerk chicken to Dutch pancakes to cupcakes. Some produce as well, including London honey, cider and cheese. It would have been nice to see a bit more of a farmers' market element to it, especially once my appetite had been whetted by the produce show. Now I do like a produce show. There is something delightful about competing to see who has grown the best cabbage or leek. These blackberries were particularly beautiful.

I was even more impressed by the cupcakes, especially the monsters! Faintly surreal were the animal sculptures made out of fruit and vegetables. For some inexplicable reason I failed to photograph these but a royal wedding carved in vegetables was the highlight, along with a fennel elephant under pepper palm trees. I'm afraid you will have to make do with the cupcakes.

And if you want to see what the vegetable animals looked like, you can do so at the Urban 75 blog.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

A load of tripe

Did anyone see The North on a Plate the other night? It was pretty good actually - though you could tell it was on BBC4 (lots of talk of terroir and references to Rousseau).

Tripe played a starring role in the programme. I never knew that there were actually four different types of tripe - one for each stomach of the cow. They have great names - blanket or smooth type, honeycomb/pocket tripe, leaf/book tripe, and reed tripe. 

At Bolton market you can buy it ready to eat. People eat it cold and sprinkled with vinegar, though presenter Andrew Hussey didn't even attempt this. Bolton used to have a chain of restaurants called UCP (United Cattle Products), specialising in tripe. For some reason these restaurants no longer exist.

Sorry about the disgusting picture! Photo by Charles Roffey

Does anyone eat tripe any more? Lots of other countries do. In Florence, for example, they love it and eat it from street stalls. Particularly popular is lampredotto, which is reed tripe from the fourth stomach, which is softer and outside Florence, not eaten as much as the others.

Last year the Scottish government spent £300,000 on promoting tripe, including a new guide for meat processors on how to harvest it from the carcass. Apparently offal, cheeks and such like are known in the meat trade as "the fifth quarter". Quality Meat Scotland, which was behind this initiative, says that between 2008 and 2010 the Scottish meat industry turned the £2.2 million cost of disposing of non-carcass parts into a £13.3 million revenue stream. I'm not sure whether this is because of a rush in demand for tripe, or because they were doing something else with it - selling it for dog food or fertiliser, maybe.

Let me know what you think about tripe...


Tuesday, July 12, 2011

An unusual kebab shop

Sometimes you hit on somewhere more or less by chance, and find that fate has led you to a happy destination.

And so it was with Cyprus Mangal, on Warwick Way in Victoria/Pimlico.

We were actually going to go to Kazaan around the corner, but when we got outside we realised that we had already been there! The previous visit was actually some time ago, but only our second meal out since living to London merited somewhere new, I felt.

As we wandered about without direction we noticed what at first looked like no more than a kebab shop. Then we realised there was a restaurant at the back, and another one downstairs. It seemed busy, and the smells were appetising. It was also cheap - so we did not have much to lose.

It was actually bloody good. They do all kinds of kebabs, served on warm flatbreads, speckled with sesame seeds and more substantial than pitta bread, with proper salad on the side. Kebabs have something of a bad name - they rank with ordering a vindaloo, peeing in the street and falling asleep on a night bus as things most people only do when they are drunk. Cyprus Mangal, however, sells proper kebabs made from real meat, not ground-up bits of unspeakable animal parts.

They also do lots of mezze - you can get selections of hot or cold mezze, or a whole banquet. The borek were triangular like a samosa, not cigar-shaped as they are more often found. They could have been a bit plumper with filling, but the herby cheese was good and the pastry light. Grilled halloumi doesn't really vary very much, and nor do falafel, but I was quite happy with these specimens. We also had some whitebait and some sliced Turkish sausage which was deep red in colour and full of flavour.

With stacks of Turkish flatbread as well as the rest we were straining the seams of our trousers by the time we left. It was all washed down with the Turkish lager Efes, which will hold fond memories for those who have been on holiday to Turkey (you can get English lager too). The bill was very reasonable - about £8 for a kebab to eat in, or £13 for enough mezze for a meal, and £2.65 for a bottle of lager. We may well be back.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Chocolate edamame beans

Whatever next...Edamame beans, also known as soya beans, covered in chocolate.
I happened to come across these, made by Itsu, part of Metcalfe's Food Company. They tasted quite pleasant, in that they were covered in a fairly chunky layer of chocolate. The bean inside had a slight cruch but virtually no discernible flavour, which I suppose was better than it might have been.
Now there was nothing actively wrong with them, but it seemed like something that was wasting time trying to be healthy.  If you feel like chocolate, why not just eat a small amount of good-quality dark chocolate? I suppose the edamame beans add protein, but then so does a chicken leg from KFC.

I also tried some wasabi popcorn from the same company, which is a bit weird (if you haven't tried wasabi, think popcorn with horseradish) but probably is reasonably healthy. They do yoghurt coated soya beans, too. (What is it with yoghurt-coated things? Yoghurt has a reputation as a health food but by the time you add a load of sugar, is it really good for you?)
And then there are rice cakes, coated in yoghurt, milk chocolate or dark chocolate. Apparently these have "Less fat & calories than biscuits, chocolate bars". I am sure this is true, but if you eat one of those, at least you know you having a treat, the sort of thing you should eat sparingly. If you eat a yoghurt flavoured rice cake, you probably think you are eating healthily, and might eat more of them accordingly.

Monday, July 4, 2011

First impressions

I arrived at Liverpool Street station - a place I have been many times before - but this time arriving as a London resident. It felt different.
I stepped outside with my bike, and noticed the noise, the rush, and the traffic. Still, I cycled to my destination and arrived in one piece, which felt like a minor achievement.
One of the priorities at a time like this is to be able to make a cup of tea. We found the kettle relatively quickly - but its plug was missing. Was this our removal men, who did the packing for us, displaying a twisted sense of humour? Some hours later we discovered the plug, in a completely different box - one labelled "books", in fact, as if to minimise the chances of us finding it.
By evening we were so exhausted we went to a nearby Italian - of which more later - for pizza.
The first meal in our new kitchen was the next day, and was dictated somewhat by the fact that the fridge/freezer had stopped working, so everything perishable that we had brought with us was warm/ defrosted.
Pasta with (once frozen) green beans, an already-started on jar of pesto and plenty of grated cheese was perhaps not a gourmet dish but was remarkably edible, at least if your appetite has been whetted by unpacking lots of boxes.

It is as simple as it sounds - boil the pasta, throw in lots of whole green beans (you might call them French beans), topped and tailed, a couple of minutes before the end of cooking time. I used frozen beans but if you have fresh, the texture will be better. Drain when ready and stir in pesto to taste. Serve with grated Parmesan, or mature cheddar will do if that happens to be what needs using.

Friday, July 1, 2011

The times they are a-changing

Tomorrow is the day of the big move to London, and I have been thinking about change.
In what feels like fast-moving times we cling on to the familiar. Were things really better in the old days? When it comes to food, tasting a familiar food is a bit like hearing an old song - it can take you back to a certain time in your life. Even just thinking about a Snicker’s bar takes me back to standing at the bus stop, waiting for the bus home from school. Have you ever had Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups? They are an American invention - you used to be able to get them in Woolworth’s (strange how even that is now part of history). I loved these beyond measure - they were the pinnacle of gourmet confectionery as far as I was concerned. Now I hardly dare eat one. I suspect the memory is better than the reality, and that my taste buds have probably moved on.
We refer to certain dishes as “comfort food” - an elastic term which might cover shepherd’s pie or a sponge pudding. Does the comfort come from the reassuring stodge, or the fact that these dishes are soothingly familiar?

In the case of food the traditional seems like a better option than the artificial flavours and mass manufacture that dominate our food culture these days. Is a backlash against this finally beginning to take off?
I was with a few friends in a Norwich restaurant last week. On the drinks menu were soft drinks from Claire Martinsen’s Breckland Orchard, a Norfolk company which has gone from strength to strength since it was founded a couple of years ago. These are old-fashioned drinks made in small batches, with a touch of nostalgia about them. Nearly all of us ordered them and we all had a different flavour. They are cool and refreshing, perfect for a hot day. The pear and elderflower tasted more of elderflower than pear to me, like an old-fashioned cordial with a fruity back-note. More unusual was the strawberry and rhubarb, which tasted uncannily of those rhubarb-and-custard sweets which you can buy from big jars by the quarter-pound. I even checked the label for its ingredients, but it does seem to be made with genuine rhubarb juice, not crushed-up sweets as I had imagined!
I also tried the sloe lemonade, a new flavour which had just a hint of sloe - more like lemonade with an edge. There is a more traditional cloudy lemonade, too.

If you prefer a cheaper, home-made alternative, make your own lemonade - just squeeze a few lemons, finely grate the rind of one of them, and dilute with water and sugar to taste. Best served chilled, and some ice cubes and mint leaves will finish it off nicely.