Archive for the ‘Food’ Category

5390764898_f401fa9c11_oWE CALL it guerrilla cooking. You’re in a place that’s not your own, the knives are blunt, the pan handles wobble and food clings to the non-stick pans like barnacles to a rock.

If you’re lucky, the batterie de cuisine might include a potato peeler, a sieve, a couple of wooden spoons and a plastic cutting board.

There’s never enough counter space, the lighting is inadequate and the store cupboard – if it contains anything – will likely be the last resting place of herbs and spices that have long since departed from useful culinary purpose.

Our apartment at the Seminario here in Leon, Spain, sits at the luxurious end of the scale of meeting hunter-gatherer needs.

It has a two-burner induction hob, one large, one small and a microwave oven – great for warming plates. There’s no grill, no toaster, no oven and the big saucepan takes up so much room that the second hob plate can’t be used; the other pans simply don’t fit.

I’m not complaining. It feels good to be adaptable, to slough off the need for mixers, blenders and drawers full of gadgets and to get back to a simpler form of cooking.

For inspiration you need look no further than this corner of Spain for a great tradition of one-pot dishes, soup-stews using local ingredients that can be prepared with the minimum of fuss.

It all begins in the market and a search for, in my case, the makings of a fabada, a pork and beans concoction loved by urban cowboys everywhere.

There are lots of variations including some that make use of pig’s trotters, ears and tails, but for my dish I bought direct from the farmer a ready-made meat pack specifically for such a stew. It contained a slab of pork, richly layered with fat, a chunk of salty bacon, some black pudding and a chorizo sausage.

At least as important as the meat are the beans. Cookery writer Elizabeth Luard explains in her book – The Cooking of Spain – that the original faba of the fabada were broad beans until, somewhere along the way, they were supplanted by haricot beans from the New World.

We found them at the market although, when I heard the price, I fear I blanched more than the beans. They were an eye-watering 12 euros a kilo – an incentive, if ever there was one, to grow your own.

I bought half a kilo and then only needed half of them to add to my stew. The plump capsules cooked up a treat, absorbing flavor, delivering a silky texture and all the while holding their shape.

When I’ve made bean stews in the past it’s not uncommon, especially with butter beans, for them to break down into an unappetizing slush. Not these, even on reheating, which is essential with a fabada, a dish that is great on the first day, better on the second and even better on the third. Buen provecho!



36609180173_a679c4901a_oIF SECULAR Spain has the equivalent of a sacred ritual it’s the “Ir de tapas” hours that span the time between the end of the working day and the start of the evening meal.

Tides of people are drawn by the gastronomic gravity of bar snacks that can be as simple as a disc of bread topped with serrano ham or as exotic as cow’s lips in an oily tomato and onion sauce.

Even if you’re aware of the peculiarities of the Spanish working day it can still be perplexing to be in a place where streets and bars are teeming with people one minute and then, as if by some invisible signal, empty the next.

Most Spaniards start their jobs at 9am, finish at 1.30pm then resume work from 5pm until 8pm.

Lunch is the main meal of the day, usually served around 2.30pm, so a couple of tapas might be squeezed in before then, but the main time for socializing and bar-snacking is in the evening.

Between 8pm and dinner time the bars fill-up, animated conversations begin, the volume rises. Points are driven home with wagging fingers, and expansive gestures give emphasis to argument. It’s all good-natured even if it seems, at times, that things are getting heated.


The bars tend to be on the small side so people stand, tightly-packed at the counter, or perch drinks, snacks and elbows on shelving tacked to the wall.

Drifts of discarded napkins are a good sign and not an indication of slovenly bar staff.  Lots of litter attests to high turnover and a place the locals like. That, in turn, means the food is good and the price is right.

Here in León, the tapas are still free if you buy a drink – a small beer or caña opens the door to a variety of appetizers; sometimes you get to choose from what’s on offer and others you take what comes.

Jamón Jamón, round the corner from our apartment, only ever has one tapa – a hunk of bread topped with ham, chorizo, salami and a slice of manchego cheese.

It’s always lively and they serve really good wines as well as beer. Albariño from Galicia is the pick of the whites, while the local red Bierzo is well-liked. Measures are generous and two drinks with tapas will cost around 3.50 euros.

Another good pitstop is Bar Rua 11 where the local specialty is what we would call blood sausage (morcilla) though it’s not served in a sausage casing, nor is it sausage-like.

It’s black, it’s shiny and the texture is more akin to that of bread sauce mixed with diced onion.

It’ll be served spread across a flat plate, topped with toasted pine nuts and accompanied by a side of apple sauce. If you want to blend in, make a barco (boat) with the ever-present slabs of crusty fresh bread and mop up any residue.

Some places are as much about atmosphere as tapas and La Cantina is one. It’s a scruffy place of rough walls and gloomy corners watched over by a host whose previous job was surely as a circus strongman.

He likes to see things done in the traditional way so the tapas are all made in-house with no concessions to faddy customers. It was here that I had meltingly soft pillows of kidney in a rich tomato stew and sampled tripe in an unctuous sauce.

It’s also where I had cow’s nose (morros), complete with nasal bristles that hadn’t been adequately removed, in a greasy pool of oil and fat.

I won’t name the place where the tapa purported to be paella but tasted like it came out of an Uncle Ben’s packet; it was a rare lapse in the fields of grazing pleasure.


SPAIN’S northwest corner is riddled with “ghost villages”, former communities where the people have gathered their most precious possessions and gone.

Homes are abandoned, tended land runs to weed, and livestock is absent.

There are around 1,500 such villages here out of 3,000 across the country, an exodus towards greater opportunities and an easier life.

Economic migration from rural hardship is nothing new; it has gone on for centuries and is not just confined to Spain.

The Irish, the Portuguese, Italians, Poles, Romanians and many more have seen mass movements of populations in the past and in present times.

The United Nations expects almost 70 per cent of us to be living in urban areas by 2050, up from 30 per cent in 1950.

Hiking through the Apuane Alps in northern Italy a few years ago I saw first-hand the reality of this transitional tide.

Passing through a beautiful stone village I met the only inhabitant, an old woman who kept a couple of dogs for protection and company.

The sense of isolation, of loneliness, of vulnerability was palpable.

Scan the internet on the topic of the empty countryside and you’ll see it’s rife with stories of villages for sale and properties that can be bought for a pittance for those willing to rough it.

Managing without running water, mains electricity and the support infrastructure of the modern world is unthinkable for most of us.

The dream of a pastoral idyll pales quickly when the reality of life without immediate access to supermarkets, healthcare and communications kicks in.

Perhaps the demise of rural communities is inevitable, even desirable when it comes to the efficient delivery of goods and services.

But there are social and societal consequences that have value beyond the balance sheet.

Pride in locality, in connection to the land and to its history helps define who we are. Losing rural communities tears at the fabric of culture.

As villages wither the rich diversity of dialects, foods, music, dance and dress are replaced by increasing homogeneity – and that leaves us all the poorer.

Spain still has strong ties to its folk culture and isn’t embarrassed by its agrarian roots which may be why it’s one of the best places in the world to eat.

Here in Leon we’re coming up on a festival of morcilla, a week-long homage to blood pudding in all its wonderful, grisly forms.

Like it or loathe it, it’s a reminder of a time when most people made their living from the land, hunger was commonplace and nothing was allowed to go to waste.

Rural living still has many lessons for the modern world.

Use your loaf, buy village bread

Posted: September 23, 2017 in Food, Spain
Tags: , ,

The little panaderia round the corner from our temporary home in Leon, Spain sells bread by the names of the villages where it’s made.

It comes in a variety of forms – plump cushioned domes, low-rise pads, crispy truncheons, long and short – and all are delivered daily.

None last more than a couple of days because of the absence of preservatives, but taste trumps shelf-life in this part of the world and frugal habits of the old Spanish cocina mean there’s always a use for stale bread.

Made with only four ingredients – flour, water, salt and yeast – it’s at its best, like all breads, while still warm; definitely not more than a day old.

It’s pleasing, too, to entertain the notion of buying into a traditional, artisanal way of life, that supports a rural community and helps a village survive.

33745643431_5b4a5133cf_oGrape, Olive, Pig

Matt Goulden serves up hearty slices of life in Spain fusing foodie passions with history, curiosity and the joy of discovery.

The book is part travelogue, part chef worship, part love affair and it’s zested with deep respect for what is now his adopted homeland.

He takes us to the coast of Cadiz in the hunt for endangered Bluefin tuna, a village near Salamanca for ritual slaughter of acorn-fed pigs and to the freezing waters of Galicia for the perilous business of barnacle gathering.

Each of the chapters is a self-contained essay, a stage-by-stage gourmand route map to the heart of the nation’s soul, with stories told through the eyes of shepherds and slaughterhouse workers.

The drama of the almadraba, the ancient method of netting tuna, is Hemmingway-esque and one of the best.

The excitement of what’s about to unfold is tinged with superstition and fear: Will the catch measure up? Will the marine gods be kind? These are the brooding thoughts running through the mind of Antonio Gonzales as he “takes a fisherman’s breakfast of cigarettes and silence”.

It’s the descriptive passages around the events and characters we meet where the book is best, lifting it above a mere tasting menu of food indulgences.

Where it’s not so good are the parts of overblown prose like this description of a meal:

“Adria has long said that he’s not in the business of giving pleasure; he cooks in order to produce emotion. And there was no shortage in the range of feelings he pulled out of us that night. Like a hallucinogenic experience, we cycled through stages of nervous energy and quiet contemplation, inexplicable nostalgia and intense, childlike joy. If I really look back at my romantic life, it can be boiled down to one simple objective: to find the best dining partner possible. And here she was”.

The book is rife with similar passages that would be better served up in Private Eye’s Pseuds Corner and as my rapid and greedy consumption continued I began to experience symptoms over over-indulgence, there was just too much of it.

For that reason it slipped down in my rating which is a shame because, like a curate’s egg, it’s very good in parts though probably best savored in individual chapters rather than gutsed-down at a single sitting.


As the world’s population rises, land and water availability dwindles, eco-systems succumb and climate change havoc sets in, the need for secure future food supplies is driving a worldwide agrarian power struggle.

The sheer scale of what’s taking place is matched only by the greed and venality of the players involved – countries, governments, agribusinesses, drug cartels, commodity traders, bankers and chancers all competing for fat profits from a carve-up of continents.

Journalist Fred Pearce spent a year visiting places as far apart as Patagonia and Zimbabwe, Ukraine and Australia to report from the emerging frontlines of the politics of food.

What he found were neo-colonialists being aided and abetted by a parade of despots and dictators, corrupt politicians and cut-throat businessmen. And, as ever, the big losers are the pastoralists, the subsistence farmers and the poorest, marginalized peoples.

So-called “empty lands” are the prime target for much of their attention; bribes are paid, locals are forcibly evicted, promised jobs, schools, hospitals and improvements fail to materialize and the environment takes a beating from which it may never recover.

It was soaring food prices that fueled the revolution in Egypt which led to the overthrow of the Mubarak regime. That may explain why Middle Eastern petrodollars are pouring into farming in Africa: Food insecurity equals political unrest.

But there are other factors too: Rising demand from China and the Far East for meat, an increasing requirement for biofuels from the US and Europe, a need for more rubber plantations as car use climbs in emerging economies and a growing appetite from agribusinesses for soy and palm oil products.

Pearce’s big picture reporting gives the Who, What, Where and Why of what’s taking place in a way that piecemeal mainstream news fails to capture. And, bleak as the landscape is, he doesn’t cloud his writing with hyperbole or environmental evangelism.

Best of all, he gives voice to advocates for alternative agriculture options that don’t destroy the environment, don’t displace people from tribal lands and don’t end in a Malthusian nightmare of famine and death.

The David and Goliath battle being fought in Washington State over the labeling of genetically modified food (I-522) goes to the vote on November 5, but whatever the outcome it won’t deal with an underlying lack of transparency about what’s in our food.


 “Big Ag” has plenty to answer for in this regard with its squalid practices, revolting standards and profit-at-all-costs attitudes; it also makes an easy target for consumer ire in the current debate.

Much harder to swallow is our part in this sorry state of affairs. For the most part we passively tolerate the behind-the-scenes manipulations we all know of but would rather not think about.

Time and again we choose price over quality, price over decency and price over compassion.

People coyly describe things as being inexpensive or good value when what they really mean, but can never quite bring themselves to say, is cheap. Cheap is synonymous with tawdry, with nasty, with poor quality, with corner-cutting, which is where we are with much of our food chain.

Yet cheap is what we require of “Big Ag”. And we reinforce this message every time we go to the supermarket. Cheap chicken is cheap for a reason. Every time we choose one over more expensive alternatives we are endorsing practices we claim to dislike.

Cheap is the reason corn oil finds its way into bread and chocolate and infant formula and thousands of other unlikely places. Cheap is the reason antibiotics are routinely used in meat production where animals are kept in close confinement. Cheap is why we have monoculture crops needing genetic manipulation to resist pesticide sprays. Cheap is why we have habitat loss and wildlife population crashes.

When viewed in this way our food choices aren’t quite so cheap. In fact they come at a very high price. And they’re paid for by the animals we eat, the landscapes we despoil and the water resources we plunder.

The “No” lobby on I-522 will continue to claim that the GM labeling requirement is ill-conceived, unworkable and will add to weekly grocery bills. They will continue to obfuscate and sow doubt and promote confusion.

But as consumers we shouldn’t allow that to cloud the real issue: We have a right to know what’s in our food, a right to transparency about its production and a right to hold the industry to higher standards.

Until we accept that we’re prepared to pay more and start showing that through our shopping habits “Big Ag” won’t budge. If things are to change we have to start by rewarding the producers who meet these requirements and by leaving on the shelves the products of those who do not.

It would be funny if it weren’t so serious. Our food supply, that is. It’s so mislabeled, adulterated and tainted it’s a joke – except this is no laughing matter.

How did we get into t7740699350_d1548b91a7_zhis position? Why do we allow this nonsense to continue? Who’s to blame and who’s going to fix things?

The scandal of horsemeat being sold as beef in Europe isn’t confined to one or two dodgy deals. It’s not just horsemeat. And it’s not just Europe. This is the dark side of business; highly profitable, sometimes illegal and poorly policed.

It’s where vested interests steer government policy, where political ideology insists on “light touch” regulation, where ‘red tape’ has been cut along with burdensome tests and inspections.

It’s where the industry insists it can police itself and it’s why in the UK watchdog, the Food Standards Agency, has had its budget slashed and the number of inspectors has fallen.

The agency’s former CEO Tim Smith – now at supermarket chain Tesco – said in his final annual report that the FSA had saved almost a quarter of its previous year’s budget and further cuts of a third would follow.

We’ve naively bought into the idea that government agencies are protecting our backs but they aren’t. They’ve been emasculated.

Horsemeat is only the latest in a long line of food scandals to affect the UK. Twenty-or-so years ago it took the BSE scandal (commonly known as mad cow disease) for us to learn about the practice of diseased cattle being ground up and fed back to healthy animals.

When fears arose that the disease of the cows’ nervous system could pass into humans millions of cattle were incinerated in vast pyres. Images went around the world, the tragic end result of the folly and greed in our food chain.

In recent times we’ve had:

  • imported Italian wines laced with ethylene glycol (more commonly found in windscreen wiper fluids)
  • hydrolised protein injected into chicken (leaving residues of beef or pork)
  • dioxin in mozzarella (said to have been caused by illegal waste dumping by Naples gangsters)

Go back to the days of Charles Dickens and there are stories of bread being laced with chalk, alum and even ashes and bonemeal.

The chicanery persists in all kinds of areas. Have you bought good olive oil recently, or at least what you thought was good olive oil? There’s lots of reassuring imagery on the shelves, bottles with Italian-sounding names, tricolor flags, extra virgin labeling and overtures about natural goodness.

There’s no mention of it being tankered around like crude oil, or cut with cheaper, undetectable seed and nut oils – or worse. Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil.

How about fish? The fashionable sushi bars and restaurants aren’t necessarily giving you what you’ve paid for. A recent survey by ocean protection group Oceana found 28 different species of fish in 120 samples they took from products labeled red snapper. Seventeen of those weren’t even in the snapper family. Full story at the New York Times.

Corners are being cut everywhere, in the worst cases by out-and-out criminality and in others, more surreptitiously, by food scientists and marketers seeking to pare costs to the bone to maximize profits.

In the current crisis I’ve seen any number of misguided comments about how there’s nothing wrong with eating horse anyway. How the response has been hysterical because of the relationship humans have with horses. It’s not as if eating them poses a risk to health; the French have been eating them for ages, and we eat cows, pigs and sheep, so what’s the beef, so to speak?

That’s not what this is about at all. It’s about trust and integrity and allowing consumers to make informed choices about what they’re paying for. If it’s labeled as horse and sold as horse then fine, otherwise it simply shouldn’t be there.

We trust supermarkets to honor their bond with customers (the best ones do), to ensure that the producers and suppliers they use give us what we pay for, without adulteration.

We also idealize about organic, cruelty-free, food that fits our idea of pastoral harmony, where man is in balance with nature, where animals live happy lives and where farmers manage the land as custodians for the future.

Above all though, we want all this to be cheap. Not cheap and nasty, but cheap and valued or, as Americans say, inexpensive.

That’s the dilemma we have to face and the one supermarkets have to overcome. We endorse the best practices for food production but we can’t, or don’t want to, swallow the price tag that comes with them.

Not everyone can do their shopping at high-end organic stores, or buy heirloom this and hand-dived that from farmer’s markets, but as consumers we have a power that can be exercised every time we shop. We have the power to change the status quo and the power to change what appears on the supermarket shelves.

Every purchase we make is a casting vote that registers approval of a product, an acceptance of the air miles, or the husbandry, or the out-of-seasonality that puts it on the shelf.

And every purchase is logged and recorded by the store, signaling to them that they’re getting it right, that they’re delivering a product – at a price – that consumers want and that is earning its keep on the shelves.

Until we accept that some things need to be reassuringly expensive, that we’re prepared to pay for quality – even if that means we eat something less often – and that the choices we make really matter, then the next food scandal will be just around the corner. And we’ll all be complicit in it.

How does the prospect of tucking into tissue-engineered skeletal muscle take you? cows

Hmm, thought not. But if researcher Mark Post has anything to do with it then laboratory-grown meat will be coming to a plate near you.

Post is the Professor of Vascular Physiology at Maastricht University in the Netherlands and is an expert in tissue engineering.

He believes that within our lifetimes we’ll be consuming meat that comes from a petri dish rather than from an animal.

The idea that people will never adopt in-vitro meat, that there is a natural aversion, can be overcome, he believes, by getting good information into the public domain.

It’s why he was at the IQ2 “If” Conference at the Royal Geographical Society last week, explaining that he thinks that lab-grown meat will be part of all our futures.

He starts with the principal that animals are very inefficient at converting vegetable protein to animal protein and that the World Health Organisation expects meat consumption to double by 2050.

Since we’re already using 70% of our arable lands for meat production, we’re heading down an unsustainable track, he argues.

Factor in greenhouse gas emissions from livestock and he believes lab meat, which, he says, can be produced using less land, less water and less energy, has real benefits.

Post uses  stem cell muscle from an animal to start the process in the lab: “We can make strips of muscle out of this and it starts to move – we can electrically stimulate it and it starts to move even more vigorously.

“We start with these very simple strips of scaffold and we grow skeletal muscle on those strips so we can get a 3D structure.

“Of course this doesn’t come for free. You need to add sugars and proteins and fatty acids, but the thing is you can play with it and make it much more efficient than a cow or a pig can do.”

Post also sees the potential to tweak the feeding of the cells to create a healthier product but it’s clear he still has a long way to go and the barrier to uptake isn’t just consumer acceptance.

Taste, texture and protein content are just some of the practical issues he has to overcome if the idea is ever to become a reality.