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Herb – a cook’s companion: cookbook review

July 20, 2021

cookbook and onion tartOpening a new cookbook on your kitchen table, tearing scraps of paper to mark the most tempting recipes is such a pleasure. But the cookbooks that you put on your bedside to delve into more deeply, savouring the stories, slowly turning the pristine pages are the ones I treasure most.

Herb/a cook’s companion by Mark Diacono falls firmly into the second category and couldn’t have come at a more perfect time.

Since last Autumn, every time I’ve drawn the curtains I see a large garden. It’s abundant with grassy knolls, wild meadow areas, an apple tree, hedges and flowers, but no edible plants.  The unpredictable impact of the pandemic meant that a brief stay turned into a longer one without a firm end date in sight. I made tentative plans for a herb garden, dug out a border and ordered some seeds. In part, this was a longing for the freshness, flavour and profusion I’ve become used to in Dubai. Shoppers – both men and women – inspect every bunch, raising them to check the scent, the buoyancy of the leaves, the crispness of the stems and return them to the shelf with a look of disparagement if they fail the test.

Herb garden is probably a grand name for my tentative steps into horticulture; a small bed with a few aromatic plants might be more accurate. I scrounged a few cuttings, planted a lot of seeds in pots and sprinkled into the ground. The result has been mixed, I’ve learned a lot, some have not thrived, but I have a few herb varieties in abundance. I need inspiration and advice for dealing with quantities that far exceed the sad, limp offerings of British supermarkets.

herb cookbook

Herb/a cook’s companion is a beautiful book to handle; the hard cover is embossed with green leaves, it’s solid in my hands and very tactile. To describe Herb as just a cookbook is inaccurate, more a comprehensive guide to growing, harvesting and storing herbs as well as using them in the kitchen.  While the recipes and ideas are inspiring for my glut of herbs, it’s the book I wish I’d had before I sent off for a single seed packet or dug my trowel into the soil.

Mark Diacono is a new name to me even though he’s extolled as an ‘award-winning (and green-fingered) food writer‘ on the jacket. Brought up with a reverence for books, I  have an aversion to defacing them otherwise my pencil would be underlining great sections of his beautifully crafted passages. By the light of my bedside lamp I’m immersed in a scented border or over a pestle and mortar effusing potent aromas.  A few examples (I could easily have included more):

‘Anise hyssop looks like the offspring of a one-night stand mint had with a nettle.’

‘I used to think of dill as I do Peter Cushing: cast in a few specific roles, for which only it will do.’

‘This is the brother of the bulb fennel – both Foeniculum vulgare – this one lanky, the other has the bigger arse: Laurel to the other’s Hardy.’

‘Much as I am unable to pass a football without inclining my foot towards it, I bend to every lavender plant and play the softest tug of war with its flowers to lend my hands its scent. Somehow its perfume matches its colour. It is, like New Order’s ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’, as much uplifting as melancholy.’

‘This is fresher than Mae West after three gins.’

‘Once in a while, an ingredient tugs at your collar. You’ll be watching the match, chatting to a loved one, engrossed at the cinema, and a biplane will fly across your mind trailing a ribbon that says, ‘I wonder what that would be like on hot chips’ or ‘if I sprinkled that on a steak before frying as well as after…’. This salt is one of those.’

herb cookbook

The book starts with ‘Herb Skills’. Mark says that this chapter will ‘guide you through all you need to get the best from herbs in the kitchen, to capture their flavour, to preserve them, to know how and when to add them. It has all the principles you need to grow herbs too…’

This would have been so useful when planning and planting my own patch, rather than juggling individual seed packets. It gives an overview of the soil types needed, the aspect, and choosing what to grow. He recommends this is based on your personal preference; what you eat most of, ease of growing, and also a bit of exploring the unknown. Mark invites you into the garden with a clear and comprehensive guide to preparing the soil, planting out, dividing plants, watering, feeding and harvesting.

Once you’ve got them into your kitchen, there’s advice about using fresh or dried herbs, the art and methods of chopping them, capturing and preserving their scents and flavours. He takes you through freezing, drying and infusing into salts, syrups, vinegars, oils, butters and jellies.

In the chapter on individual herbs, listed in alphabetical order, each one is given a dedicated page giving varieties, growing, harvesting and how to use in cooking including a list of things they have an affinity with. I love the heading for the introduction ‘The bouncer at the door’ as Mark explains how he has chosen which herbs to include, ‘…a personal selection, with all the bias, contradiction and inconsistency that implies.’ There are many familiar friends like oregano, thyme, parsley, basil and rosemary. Then there are those I’ve never heard of including shiso, pineapple sage and winter savoury:

Shiso aka perilla, forms a rope bridge of flavour that spans the gap between mint and cumin.

herb cookbook with cherries and chocolateRecipes are the heart of the cook’s companion starting with some classic, herbal combinations. These have a lot in common but help you learn about the countries they come from in the way they differ. Simple, fragrant blends like French pistou, persillade,  Italian pesto, North African chermoula and adjika from the Caucasus plus their punchier relations – chimichurri and salsa verde.  Concoctions of salt, butter, oil and vinegar sit alongside interesting chutneys. One simmers nectarines and onions with lime leaves…

What is the collective term for supermarket nectarines…? An impersonation? An apology? A scandal of nectarines; yes that’ll do.  Cooking is their only salvation…

The book is then divided into Small Things, Soups and Sides; Bigger Things; Sweet Things; and Drinks. Most have an image of the finished dish opposite the recipe (but not all).

Again Mark brings fresh ideas with the familiar herbs, but unless you have a garden as prolifically stocked as his you may not be able to make several of these recipes.* However, if there weren’t recipes for the wide range of herbs for which he extols the virtues then this would be just another herb recipe book (there are many) and rather miss the point.

Take dried epazote (‘picked fresh [ ] it is a disgrace. You may as well suck your dog’s bed.). Mark uses it in a sumptuous-sounding Mole Verde – a lake of green, sunken with crisply-fried chicken and toasted pumpkin seeds. And there’s Apple, Quartered Charred Little Gems, Pancetta, Shiso ‘Zaa’atar where the plate is strewn with shiso’s spiky, purple leaves.

Chervil and lovage crop up quite often; these are not found in my local Morrison’s. And I don’t have access to the leaves of fig trees, blackcurrant bushes or rose scented geraniums.

herb cookbook

 

For some recipes, only the chosen herb will do, but for alternatives are given for many. I miss the huge bunches of fresh fenugreek that are available in the Middle East for making Methi Paratha, however there’s an option to use dried.  For Lamb Dhansak he says that the fenugreek leaf steals all the glory but using mint and coriander instead makes a very different, but very good variation. With others you might have to use the recipe as a guide and tinker a little.

The dishes are fresh and bright, or deeply comforting and the herbs bring old favourites to life. Herb Tempura, Herby Egg Mayo on Toast, Thyme and Parsley Honey Bread and Butter Pudding, Bay Chestnut Chocolate Cherry Cake for instance.

Several recipes are great ideas for assembling herb-laden ingredients especially salads: Spelt with Cucumber, Lemon, Lovage and Mint; Griddled Peaches, Basil, Watercress, Parmesan and Pine Nuts; Cherries, Lancashire Lovage, Honey, Lavender.

While writing this with the windows wide open, fanning myself on one of the hottest days of the year, the prospect of beef that’s been braised in ale with persillade or rosemary and fennel infused porchetta are deeply inviting for later in the year when there’s a nip in the air.

There’s odd quirky recipe; Tarragon and Olive Oil Ice Cream anyone? Intriguing. The drinks range from Raspberry and Lemon Thyme Switchel to a Tarragon gimlet.

Thyme is abundant in my herb patch right now. While thumbing the pages for inspiration I stumbled upon a tart that uses it liberally in the pastry and the filling. As it’s summer I used onions rather than leeks (sanctioned in the intro). It’s a simple recipe and I liked the easy way of folding in the rather ragged edges of my pastry rather than coaxing it into a tart case. The slightly medicinal tone of thyme and bay leaves are the perfect foil for the sweetness of the slow-cooked onion especially with a dusting of cheese that turns golden.  It’s vying for first place with my regular favourite onion tart (from Tamasin Day-Lewis – Art of the Tart).

Herb/a cook’s companion has moved into my kitchen but it’ll spend equal time as a bedtime read or out in the garden.  This book will definitely earn its keep.

*You can buy an extensive range of herbs seeds and plants online from Mark’s Otter Farm.

Thanks to Hardie Grant – Quadrille who published this book and sent me a review copy. All views my own.

Do you have any favourite herbs? How do you use them?

Please forward this review to any herb-growing friends you think might be interested or share on social.

No fixed abode – stories from a travel nomad about life without a permanent base

June 8, 2021

Epheseus

If hoarding was an Olympic sport my parents would have been in joint gold medal position. I’ve inherited some of these squirrelling away genes and have my fair share of ‘collections’ and things I can’t bear to part with. At the World Tourism Forum in Istanbul I met several people who made my mind whirl with possibilities and a little incredulity. They are full time nomadic travellers who spend their lives on the road with no fixed abode.

What do you do with your stuff? This was thing I couldn’t get my head round in the life of a global nomad. I’d heard of travellers who roam the world without a permanent home but this was the first time I’d met any. Travel tales were casually dropped into conversation; names of cities and countries sprinkled like pebbles on a path.

Did they plan this way of life or drift into it? How do they cope with having all their possessions in one or two suitcases? How about finding clothes for all climates and activities – and what about the washing? Do they miss cooking (this would be a sticking point for me)? And do they ever envisage a future where they own bricks and mortar?

I got to chat with Jane Mountain from My Five Acres as we explored Izmir in Turkey who enlightened me.

Update: I drafted this post several years ago. Since COVID restrictions and lockdown have taken over our world, this conversation and way of life seems so far away. How did it affect Jane and Stephen? Answer at the end.

Jane on a boat

Jane of My Five Acres

Did you plan this way of life or drift into it?

Our transformation into full-time travellers was partly planned and partly accidental. We had been living in Los Angeles for several years and our work visa was about to expire.

Since we had to sell our house and leave the country anyway, it seemed like the perfect time to do an extended trip. We set out on bicycles from Rome in 2013, not really knowing how long we’d be gone or where home would be when we finished travelling. During the bike trip, Stephen taught yoga all along our route and we blogged every single day (for 19 months!). After we were tired of cycling, it just seemed natural to keep travelling, teaching yoga, and travel blogging.

Stephen in shower made of a coconut

Stephen in a shower made of a coconut. My Five Acres

How do you cope with having all your possessions in one or two suitcases? Are there any tips – especially about packing and clothing?  How about finding clothes for all climates and activities – and what about the washing?

 

I am a minimalist at heart, so I found that getting rid of all the unnecessary clutter we carry through our lives was very therapeutic and freeing. It filled me with joy! For my husband Stephen, who is a bit of a pack-rat, it was initially a nightmare. But after going through the process, he admitted to feeling lighter, too. We did hang on to some of our most prized possessions (Stephen’s record collection!) which are in a storage unit back in Canada.

My biggest packing tip, if you’re setting out on a long multi-country trip, is to avoid packing for the entire trip. Instead, just pack for the first few months, then pick up and discard clothing you need as you go. For example, I just spent three months in the steamy climate of Vietnam and then flew directly to winter in Europe. On my last stop in Vietnam, I gave away my light trousers and got a couple of pairs of winter trousers tailored there. For expensive items like hiking boots and winter jackets, we do carry them with us, even to the tropics.

Laundry, which is a chore to most people at home, becomes a luxury on the road. The most wonderful sentence you can utter to a full-time nomad is “Feel free to use the washing machine.” The sight and smell of our clean clothes can fill us with joy! We usually do a small hand wash in the hotel room sink every couple of days and then use a laundry service or a laundromat once every couple of weeks.

people cooking

Food experience. My Five Acres

Do you miss cooking?

Absolutely! We are both food-obsessed and we love to cook and eat. We often imagine opening a vegan cafe when we getting tired of the travel life.

We find that eating in restaurants every day quickly turns from exciting to dull and we find ourselves longing for a home-cooked meal.

To work around this, we stay with friends as often as possible – full-time travel leads to a network of friends worldwide who are very generous with their invitations! We also choose hostels that come equipped with kitchens and we spend some time house sitting for people who we find on TrustedHouseSitters.com.

A trip to the grocery store in a new country is one of our favourite adventures.

(Two pics above from How to spend 2 days in Taipei  – My Custard Pie)

Do you envisage a future where you own bricks and mortar?

We do plan to settle down eventually. In every new place we visit, we are constantly asking each other: Would you live here? Could this be the place? How long could we live here before we got bored? Right now, Lisbon, Portugal, Luang Prabang, Laos, Gabriola Island, Canada and Sri Lanka are all on the short list.

Wherever we settle, it will be in a small space just big enough for a few possessions and the two of us. We dream of a tiny house or a small cosy apartment that we can leave for months on end as we travel!
What the best thing about this way of life?
The best thing about travelling constantly is the utter freedom of it. Right now, our plans only extend for the next two days. I know we’ll be in Bucharest for two more nights and I have a vague idea about the other places we’ll visit in Romania while we are here, but that’s it. The lack of planning leaves us wide open to snatch up new opportunities and new adventures as they come along.

…and the worst thing?

The worst thing about being away from home is the lack of community. We really miss having our circle of friends close by and we miss being able to visit with our parents and watch our nieces and nephews grow up. Stephen also misses having a dedicated group of yoga students that he can work with on a day-to-day basis, watching them transform as yogis and people. And sometimes, when I am in a less-than-stellar hotel with a squeaky spring-filled mattress, I really miss my own comfy bed.

hostel bed

Nguyen Shack in Phong Nha, dorms consist of two bunk beds with only three walls. The third is open to the elements. My Five Acres

What advice would you give to someone who wants to travel long-term?

Travelling for long periods is very different from going on a short one or two-week vacation. Instead of filling each day with plans and activities, we let our destinations reveal themselves as we live and work in the area. We move very slowly, often spending ten days in a city that most tourists would give 24 hours. It’s also important to plan rest periods where you stay put for a month or two, to give yourself time to recover and to process all the new experiences and adventures you’ve had.

Jane in Latvia. My Five Acres

What impact has the COVID pandemic and lockdown had on your way of life and future plans?

The pandemic has turned our lives completely upside down. When it hit, we had just settled into a temporary home in Bali. Stephen had a full-time gig teaching yoga but when the tourists went home, that job disappeared. At the same time, the traffic to My Five Acres took a nose dive, shrinking by 90% almost overnight.

We spent the summer staying at home in our Bali villa and planning for the future. It was clear that our income from yoga and blogging was not going to bounce back any time soon. So we made the gigantic decision to move home to Vancouver. We are now settled in a tiny apartment, just like we always pictured, with a spacious kitchen to cook in and Stephen’s record collection to entertain us. We have friends all over the city and family nearby.

Vancouver is a cultural meeting place and its restaurants reflect that, so we can still travel with our tastebuds. Crispy dosas, fragrant noodle soups, crunchy banh mi, perfect pizzas, soft steamed buns… they are all on our doorstep.

I don’t think our nomadic life is over forever but, for now, we are making the most of waking up in the same bed every day and having full access to our own washing machine.

Find out more

Jane is a travel blogger who believes every trip should widen your perspective, challenge your beliefs, and shake you awake into your own life. She knows that know that travel can help you transform into the person you truly are. If you want make your next trip transformational, visit My Five Acres. Follow Jane and Stephen on Instagram too.

Stephen and Jane of My Five Acres on a beach

Stephen and Jane of My Five Acres

No surprise I think this post is essential reading:

Foodie Travel Tips – How to Find the Best Food While Travelling

Read more about our experiences in Turkey:

Saturday night at the Kemeralti Bazaar in Izmir – My Custard Pie

How to visit Pergamon, Ephesus and the rest of the best Izmir attractions  – My Five Acres

So would this way of life suit you? I’d like the adventure but I’m not sure I could give up my permanent base forever.

Travel nomad

11 years of food blogging – 11 things I’ve learned

February 3, 2021

Sally in Baku

Sitting at my computer, I’m breathless with excitement. Something has dawned on me and it is so compelling that I must to do it immediately. Going to wordpress.com I set up a new blog, choose a theme and click on the ‘new post‘ button. But what should I write? I have no direction, no focus, no purpose; I just know it has to be about food.

That was 11 years ago today. Why did I start My Custard Pie in such a flurry? I’d discovered a world of fascinating food blogs online and wanted to be part of it. That’s the short version.  I had a point and shoot camera and a lot of enthusiasm but that was it. How and why I’m still going 11 years later is much more complicated. Something started on a whim without any real rhyme or reason has changed my life in ways I could never have imagined.

But first, regardless of how long you’ve been reading, I want to thank you for being part of the last 11 years. I wish it was possible to pour you a cup of tea, cut you a slice of cake to let you know how grateful I am.

There is so much going on in this online world, there is so much competition for our time and energy but this little corner of the internet has been a constant source of peace, calm, pleasure, excitement and discovery for me and I feel so fortunate that you’re here to share it.

The other things I’d like to share are a few lessons I’ve learned over the last 11 years. It’s definitely a journey and I don’t think there will ever be an ending. Taking this time to look back has made me so grateful and slightly amazed at all that this blog has brought me. So this is about the story so far but also how to prepare for going ahead too:

People who like good food are nice people

I’m digging into a slice of cake that’s deep purple. As my fork cuts through the fluffy cream, its maker explains that the natural colour is due to a yam called ube in the Philippines. Our lives are very different, we live on opposite sides of the city, come from opposite sides of the world, but this cake has connected us. We’ve formed Fooderati Arabia which unites food bloggers in Dubai of all ages and nationalities. We explore so many experiences together over several years, including this afternoon in a cafe sharing homemade cake.

When I wrote my first blog post, in isolation behind a screen, I never dreamed how many people would come into my life. Online and in person, very many of them have become close friends. Meeting people with a shared passion gives immediate common ground especially when it’s around something that can be shared in so many ways.  From exchanging recipes, to sitting round a restaurant table, it’s the generosity and openness of spirit; I joined a community of food lovers around the world. That wonderful connection is a driving force – because the joy comes from people to share our thoughts, opinions, recipes, experiences, successes, disasters and enjoyment of delicious things.

Success means different things to different people

Food blogging was an experience rather than something with an end goal when I started out in 2010. These were exciting times as things started to evolve in a whole new online world of voices and opinions. Many of us wanted to learn more about this fascinating and rapidly changing digital means of expression. We had a desire to improve our skills whether it was in food photography and styling, cooking, recipe writing, the tech side of blogging or all of these things.

As blogging became more recognised and established, some stepped out from the crowd. They became food photographers, stylists, published cookbooks, founded review sites, worked for food magazines, moved on to careers in radio and TV.

The internet is now awash with advice about how to create a successful i.e. very profitable, food blog (or Instagram/YouTube/TikTok). Much of the advice is the same, narrowed down to what will get traffic and followers, and there are so many blogs out there that also look the same.  I’m not criticising the aim of making money in any way but it seems that aiming towards a single benchmark of success can overshadow the less lucrative, but just as valuable, benefits of sharing your passion for food online.

Enjoy the journey

So I’m probably a bit nostalgic for those early days when we wanted to improve our skills but profit wasn’t the primary motivating factor……and it was fun! And carries on being fun.

As I take this time to look back over my old posts… the really old stuff… I can see eagerness, simplicity, openness (even if I cringe at the quality). There have been so many special moments, events and opportunities over the last eleven years that, without prompts, all blends into one. The thing that does stand out is the amount of joy and laughter.  It’s important to remembering how magical this is because….

Find inspiration not comparison

I’ve beaten myself up so many times about not achieving things that others did. Seeing many friends take beautiful food photos while I still struggled to get there. Reading blogs where the amount of posts published were overwhelming in quality and quantity. In recent years Instagram has ramped this up considerably with the perfect creations that ooze from the feed.

“We’re very good at self-criticism in this country (UK). Indeed, I’d say that as a nation we suffer from a crippling dose of insecurity.” Mariella Frostrup.

How this resonates, but I now have some better ways to deal with it:

Limiting how much I consume of the type of online content that makes me feel envious, daunted (i.e. I could never achieve that) or out of my league.

Do I really want to emulate that content at the end of the day? Is that a priority of what to do with my time and energy?  Is this really my kind of style anyway? It’s easy to get sucked into a ‘cookie cutter’ trend. I remind myself to do the best that I can with the resources around me.

Instead I visit sites and accounts that make me feel joyful and at ease and follow people who I have a lot in common with or relate to.

Looking for inspiration in totally unrelated places. If I’m getting overwhelmed by it all I go for a walk, reach for a book or, in times before lockdown, go to an art gallery, museum or interesting building.

Instead of looking at my phone when I wake up I keep a pile of books with different artists’ work by the side of my bed. If I immerse myself in one of these, even for five minutes, it sets the tone for the rest of the day and gives me impetus.

Creating something in a totally different way. Splashing about with watercolour paint, trying calligraphy, tearing up paper into a collage, making loose sketches of ordinary things or making something like bread or pasta that involves getting my hands into dough. This takes my brain to a different place.

Do what’s right for you

When I bought a dining table for my new home in Dubai in 2000, it had to be circular so everyone around it could join in the banter and discussions. I started blogging because I wanted to be a part of the conversation about food, and I wanted to spark some of my own too. Sitting at my desk right now I’m imagining us all at one big virtual dinner party around that well-worn round, wooden table.

The blogging model is about ‘influence’ now, being an authority on something and building a tribe. That tribe is full of people who hang off your every word, buy your courses, learn from your wisdom, covet your merchandise.  This works for some people and I’m a loyal fan of some who inspire me. I think they are happy being at the head of a long rectangular table sharing their wisdom or opinions. I’m more comfortable exchanging ideas with my community so we can find out what works for us together.

As for paying the bills as a consequence of food blogging, my opportunities came in a slightly different way. Improving my own content and growing my online platforms meant that several food businesses got in touch.  They wanted my advice and expertise to do the same for their operations. So My Custard Pie became a shop front, in a way; demonstrating a track record and building trust (that my CV in marketing communications did not achieve). So quietly, behind the scenes, I’ve been advising, creating content and managing digital strategies for artisan food businesses for many years now. Believing in their products is important for me, to deliver something authentic; essential for their success and it taps into that driving force that got me started over a decade ago.

The niche alternative

‘Find your niche’ is the holy grail of all advice for blogs now. If you narrow down and become an authority in that particular area you will have a better chance of success.

Back to the definition of success again. There’s been an explosion of vegan food bloggers/Instagrammers as more people are eating plant-based food and a few have gained a massive following.

Personally, I may dip into these sites randomly when looking for a recipe but the ones that have been constant favourites over many years are less easy to define. For example:

Smitten Kitchen – homecooking recipes (too broad a topic to be a niche)

David Lebovitz – home baking recipes (ditto)

Ms Marmite Lover – “This is my food and travel blog, with recipes, reviews and travel stories. I also stray into politics, feminism, gardening.”

It’s their unique voices, styles of writing, personal perspectives and refusal to be anything other than themselves that sets them apart. They are their own niche.

Readers expect some consistency – nuclear physics one week and jazz artists the next might be a stretch – but knowing what you stand for is more important in my opinion.

With Deb from Smitten Kitchen and David L. it’s their wry sense of humour and the meticulous testing of their recipes. Kerstin gives you a very honest view, and is not afraid to be controversial.

Things will change

In 2010 I had two school children at home, two dogs, juggling freelance work with taxi driving said children all over Dubai (and the traffic was horrendous then). I was cooking for a family that behaved like Masterchef judges (including one fussy vegetarian) and buying from the few supermarkets available. Over that time work changed, the children grew up and left, I travelled a lot more, artisan food producers and an organic farmers’ market were established, I was cooking for two (just one Masterchef judge), I could cycle to get my food from local shops.

In the last decade climate change has become climate crisis, and the entire food system (from agriculture, pesticides, food miles, packaging etc) has a massive impact.

It’s when I follow my instincts, rather than worrying about whether a blog post or content is out of kilter, that it seems to strike a chord with people. Plus I sleep better at night.

Say yes to everything then learn how and when to say no

Yes and No

The first time our little gang of food bloggers were invited to something we were very excited. It was the opening of a pizza restaurant by a slightly alternative brand. We took it very seriously, ate the free pizza, interviewed the founder, discussed and made a record of our opinions and I diligently wrote it up in a blog post.

After that there were a couple more invites, then some more, then it started to snowball. They weren’t all of the pizza kind. Dubai is a city with over 11,000 restaurants and 100 plus 5 start hotels many with several high end dining places inside. Some of the invites were to dine out, some for cooking sessions with their chefs – some with famous ones, others to special events. All of them sounded fantastic and I accepted them with excitement and gratitude. There was a couple of years that passed in a blur as I was going out so much. I don’t expect sympathy, but I was exhausted. Some of the blog posts I wrote then are exhausting to read too – but are they interesting or relevant now? Accepting all the invites was taking me away from what I really loved about food – simple ingredients, artisan producers, home cooking, traditional recipes from a range of cultures. It taught me a lesson – I can’t say the hard way as it was a huge privilege. I began to refuse everything unless it really intrigued me, fitted with what I was really interested in, or I thought would be good to write about.

Yes

Saying yes to things that scare you is something I’ve learned the benefits of – although it often didn’t feel like it at the time.

Sara Tasker says “I’m an introvert in real life, but an extrovert online. I’ve made that category up, but I reckon it’s a thing. Who can relate?”

I certainly can and I never counted on stepping out from behind my screen to do cookery demos in real life, on video and Instagram live; be a regular guest on radio, interview some revered celebrities and culinary icons; be part of expert panels and moderate a discussion between some imminent names in the restaurant world and many other, frankly terrifying, things.

This hasn’t always gone smoothly, but little by little I’ve got better at leaving the sanctuary of my screen, testing myself and developing new skills.

No

Paid collaborations between brands/companies and bloggers was slow to start in Dubai. In food, big brands had the budgets when it happened and this is at complete odds with my whole food, artisan, sustainable, down to earth ethos. When I’ve considered some proposals which might be feasible I’ve felt uneasy so knew I had to refuse. Payment shouldn’t change whether or not I’d endorse something. If I erode the trust you put in me I’m on a slippery slope. Occasionally the stars have aligned and it’s been fun to work on a project with something I use in my kitchen already. For me, sticking to my principles is vital, and while sometimes it’s hard, this is the most important place to be firm on saying no.

Nerves are a good thing

My pulse quickens, there’s a feeling of butterflies in my stomach and slight dread.  This happens before everything I do for My Custard Pie. Every blog post, article, Instagram post, photography session, Facebook post, interview – everything. It’s sometimes hard to overcome (hello procrastination) but I’m compelled to push on and do it anyway.

Quoting Katie Piper “I don’t get obsessed with nerves and eliminating nerves, because it’s really important to have that little bit of adrenalin, to have some butterflies, to be present and be quite excited with some nervous energy, enjoying that moment, because I think when that’s gone, that’s when you know it’s time to give up that part of your life because you’ve lost the love” (interviewed by Viv Groskop on this podcast) ”

If My Custard Pie ever disappears you’ll know that the butterflies have flown!

Progress not perfection

This is something I’m still working on and is my mantra for 2021. It’s learning to press publish on a blog post when it’s ‘good enough’. It’s taking many different pics with alternative layouts and food styling using my iPhone rather than spending ages agonising over one image. It’s sharing every day experiences rather than waiting for special events. It’s doing something in the time I have available instead of waiting for the ‘right time’. It’s being brave, taking a leap of faith and saying I will do this (rather than think ‘I might fail’ or ‘this might not work.’

And back to comparison again, it’s about forgetting how everyone else is doing, and giving yourself a pat on the back for how far you’ve come. Looking back on my shaky pics, wobbly writing and wildly varying subject matter of when I started out I think I can see some improvement, one small step at a time.

Your entire life can change course because of a split-second decision

So back to the beginning in that slightly crazy moment when I unleashed some thoughts into the world. I stepped into a world of delicious possibilities that’s taken me so many places.

I’m deeply grateful that you chose to be here, to savour this food-focussed journey with me.

Simple Beef Wellington with Dijon mustard

December 17, 2020

Beef Wellington on a plate

Beef Wellington was first thing I cooked when I had people round for a ‘proper’ dinner party i.e. sitting round a dining table rather than crammed into the kitchen. Entering the room triumphantly with a generous rounded golden dome of pastry, cutting into it with a satisfying crunch to reveal moist, pink fillet steak surrounded with a soft blanket of Dijon mustard, soft mushrooms and onions, the thrill of serving something to your friends which is definitely not a weeknight meal but something delicious to be shared.

The first cookery book I remember buying was The Cook Book by Terence & Caroline Conran from Habitat. I carried it back on the bus in a carrier bag with a chicken brick (a 1970s trend) which was so heavy my arms ached for days. There were no pictures of the recipes but some lifestyle images of aspirational occasions including one where they broke chunks off a huge slab of Parmesan and floated lighted Amaretti wrappers up to the ceiling after eating Beef Wellington. I longed to be part of this (very affected) world but came down to earth (or modified my dreams) to just the main course.

Beef Wellington on a baking tray

Some recipes call for some eggy crêpes to be wrapped around the meat which is a bit fiddly. In recent years, a recipe that uses prosciutto instead of crêpes has taken off, promoted by Gordon Ramsey. This is not traditional and the porky saltiness fights with the beautiful beef in my opinion. The classic original calls for pastry, beef fillet, mushroom stuffing and a generous coating of good quality Dijon mustard around the beef to enhance its flavour. I use Maille – this is a French recipe after all.

Making Beef Wellington takes a little bit of courage (rolling the pastry is a knack and getting the temperature in the middle right a bit nerve wracking) but this is a simple recipe where all the ingredients shine. It can be made ahead up to the stage where you wrap the pastry around it and put in the fridge. Just paint it with beaten egg and put in the oven. It might take a little longer to cook as the meat is not at room temperature (but you need to keep the pastry nice and cool).

Try it for your next celebration dinner or as a fantastic thing to share when your friends and family come round.

Beef Wellington or Beouf Wellington

  • Servings: 5-6
  • Difficulty: medium
  • Print

Ingredients

  • 1kg centre cut of beef fillet (from a tenderloin)
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 2 tablespoons of Maille Dijon mustard
  • 60g country bread without crusts
  • 600g mushrooms (white, chestnut or mixed)
  • 1 knob of butter
  • 1 red onion, chopped finely
  • 1 clove garlic, chopped finely
  • 2 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 500g puff pastry
  • Plain flour (to dust)
  • 1 large egg, beaten
  • Sea salt and ground, black pepper


Directions

Preheat oven, and a baking sheet, to 200˚C (180˚ fan) and arrange shelf in lower third of oven.

Pat the fillet of beef dry with kitchen paper. Put a tablespoon of oil in a frying pan and heat it until it shimmers. You want it to be as hot as possible. Sear the fillet of beef on all sides and the ends, browning in parts. Turn it regularly so that it doesn’t cook inside.

Remove and, with a brush, liberally coat the fillet with Dijon mustard in an even layer. Leave to cool.

In a food processor blitz some fresh bread into medium-sized crumbs. Remove to a large bowl.

Break the mushrooms into large pieces with your hands and blitz in the food processor. You might have to stop and stir the mixture a couple of times so the mushrooms don’t blend to a mush. The pieces must be quite small but leave some texture. Alternatively, you could chop by hand.

Melt a knob of butter in the frying pan over a medium heat. Sauté the onion and garlic with the thyme leaves until it softens but doesn’t colour.

Transfer the mushrooms to a sieve set over a bowl. Take out the mushrooms a handful at a time, squeezing to remove as much water as possible and put into the pan with the onion mixture.

Cook, stirring frequently, until all the water has evaporated and the mixture holds together. Take the pan off the heat, season the mixture well, leave to cool then stir into the bowl with the breadcrumbs.

Dust your work surface with flour and roll out the pastry evenly to a large rectangle, about 30cm x 40cm.   It should be about 3mm thick so you might need to roll it larger. Trim to size (you can decorate the Wellington with the trimmings later if you wish).

Carefully transfer the pastry to a piece of greaseproof paper slightly larger in size. Paint a 5cm margin around the sides and the top edge with beaten egg.

Starting at the edge nearest to you, spread the mushroom mixture evenly over the pastry up to the 5cm margin on three sides but right up to the bottom edge. Put the fillet of beef lengthways in the centre of the pastry. Roll up the pastry away from you around the fillet using the paper to smooth it firmly around the meat. You want to remove any air pockets. Press the overlapped edges together with the handle of a spoon and then position it with the seam underneath (if it overlaps too much trim the excess – a big double layer of pastry may not cook through). Fold the pastry at each end of the Wellington like you are wrapping a present. Use an extra dab of egg wash if you need to, sealing it firmly. Brush all over with the beaten egg.

Transfer the greaseproof paper and wellington onto the hot baking sheet and cook for around 25-40 minutes depending on how well done you want the meat, and the pastry is golden (if it starts to brown too much cover loosely with tin foil. Carefully insert a meat thermometer from the side right into the centre to check the temperature. It should be 50˚C for rare, medium rare 60˚C, medium 65˚C and well done 70˚C.

Remember that it will carry on cooking while resting and the ends might be a little bit more well done.

Remove from the oven and leave to rest for 5 minutes, then cut into large slices. Serve with gravy and lightly cooked greens.

This recipe was commissioned by Maille, and, as I have always used their mustard, this was a pleasure. I only write about things that I genuinely cook with or endorse.  All opinions my own.

You might also like:

Top 10 Cookbooks which have influenced me

Your guide to ghee; through the eyes of people who grew up eating it

December 4, 2020

coriander spices and ghee

The golden ghee on the spoon appeared to have more in common with body butter than cooking fat. It smelled a bit like caramel, was soft and grainy, melting on the tongue and tasting like fudge. I wanted more.

This was totally different from the ghee in green tins, piled high in Dubai supermarkets. I now understood why friends back in the Emirates went misty-eyed when talking about ghee and said they only used homemade.

I fried things with my ghee, stirred it into cooked lentils, rice and pasta, roasted potatoes and parsnips in it (fantastic by the way) and tried to resist eating it straight out of the jar. It was a gorgeous game-changer but when I raved about it to friends in the UK there were a lot of questions that I couldn’t answer with conviction.

So I sought help from friends of Indian heritage who grew up with ghee. They shared their knowledge, experience and much, much more. They told me stories that are not just about something delicious to eat; ghee is woven into their lives, memories and culture. This is a guide to ghee through their eyes:

What is ghee?

Used for centuries as a way of preserving cream from the family cow, ghee is a type of clarified butter that can be heated to high temperatures for cooking and will not go off for a long time. It’s known as ghee in India (a Hindi word) and at the heart of all the stories here. So many people I spoke to described it as a pot of gold.

Ghee is used in other countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka but there are variations of clarified butter in countries around the world. From a type of fermented ghee called smen that is used throughout the Middle East and North Africa to beurre noisette in France. Ghee is also used in UAE cuisine which is a fusion of tradition and trading influences, a topic for another day.

ginger spices and ghee

Making ghee

“The ghee parable” as Shiyam called it.  He told me that ghee was born out of necessity. Butter has a shelf life of ten days and will become rancid, while clarified fat will keep for up to 100 days or more. Cow or Buffalo milk is soured by lactic acid bacteria into dahi (curd), it is churned to obtain butter, the leftover buttermilk is made into chaas. Souring improves the quality of butter and imparts a unique flavor to the ghee.

Butter from the sour curd is heated between 90-120C, the water evaporates and the milk solids that brown, drop to the bottom of the pan. The clarified ghee is rich in antioxidants which delays the onset of rancidity. 1kg of cultured butter will yield 650-700g of ghee.

Shiyam grew up eating ghee, “We have cows and buffalo at home in India. My grandmother lives in a small town called Udumalipettai, in the foothills of the Western Ghats.  She makes homemade ghee and has a ritual; she churns the curd everyday and collects butter in an earthenware pot at six in the morning. She uses a long, wooden churner with a bulbous head attached with string. The rhythmic strokes, and the ray of sun hitting the pot, warm the curd just enough to separate the butter. 

The butter which is derived from curd has a funk which develops over a couple of days. 
In a copper (kadai) she sets the butter on embers (choola is the traditional wood burning stove). The butter melts and starts to bubble, the smell wafts through the house. She increases the heat slowly and this lets the water evaporate, the milk solids to settle to the bottom and the milk to brown. She adds a few sprigs of moringa leaves to flavour the ghee during the summer; during winter she adds black peppercorns and betel leaves as it has warming properties. 
The ghee is gently strained and stored in a brass container. 
Jaggery (a type of unrefined sugar) can be added to the milk fat along with cardamom and edible camphor and reincarnated into a sweet.  As kids we used to fight to clean the vessel as you get to scrape the leftovers.”

This same ritual is passed down through generations. Sarah’s mum was a teacher so juggled prepping ghee for her family with a full-time job where they lived in Pune (Poona). “My mum used to make ghee every two weeks. She would boil milk (from glass bottles) until a thick layer or skin formed. This would be skimmed off and kept in a tub in the fridge, then made into butter. She would cook this slowly until there were 3 layers – milk solids at the bottom, clarified butter in the middle and foam on top. When the milk solids turned golden brown, she would skim the foam off and strain the liquid. She poured it into a jar, left it to cool, then kept it in the fridge. She would use the milk solids in sweet chapatis, with a bit of sugar and some cardamom. They were a lovely treat.”

Devina’s mum shed light on how to adapt traditional ghee-making to a busy life in the city of Dubai. “In India, people first collect the malai (cream) which forms on the milk after it is boiled. After a lot of malai has been collected, it is boiled on a low flame until it turns liquid and translucent. Care must be taken not to burn it at the bottom, and it should be a nice golden colour.

Here in Dubai, we don’t have time to collect malai and boil milk! So I boil unsalted Lurpak butter instead using the same method. Just take care not to boil it to the extent where it burns – this is because the milk solids which separate from the liquid can burn and give off an awful smell.”
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ghee and spices

Cooking and eating ghee

“Growing up in an Indian household the use of ghee is the inevitable,” says Delna summing up the thread that is shared by all.   “I’d even go one step further to say using ghee is also a sign of extending heart-warming hospitality, love and care for your family and guests. It’s that sudden gush of aroma when food is served that only ghee can achieve, which sets the tone of ‘we’ve prepared the very best for you’. This may be a generous smear of melted ghee on Indian breads (rotis, naans), mini-dollops of ghee as the finishing touch of the biryani before it goes on dum (steam cooking) or even using ghee, instead of oil, in the tadka (seasoning) of spices and herbs as the final step when making dal (lentil curry) or rasam (spiced pepper water).”

“Any roti or any hot or reheated bread with ghee works,” advises Mufaddal, “like good bread with good butter – you don’t need anything else.” This ideal partnership of bread and ghee is eulogised by everyone:

Sarah’s mum would wake up early and make rotis, putting a dot of ghee on each while still warm as she slipped them into lunchboxes for school. Delna remembers that on a rainy day or a cold winter morning her Mom would enjoy her cup of chai along with a toasted slice of bread with a generous spread of ghee sprinkled with sugar.

This was called ‘toop-sakhar’ (ghee-sugar) in Devina’s house and she asked her Mom to make it for a snack as she ran into the house after school. She also has fond memories of her Dadi (her paternal Grandmother) “who used to make the best puran polis in the world”. These are an Indian flatbread that are stuffed with a mixture of dal and jaggery then doused in ghee. She says that every sweet bite is a reminder of her Dadi’s generosity with her time and food.

Using ghee for deep of shallow frying, instead of oil, is a practice that goes back centuries in India. But these days, good quality ghee is prized as too good for using as a cooking medium. It’s eaten as is (as I discovered) or for finishing a dish at the end where it adds a lot of richness and flavour. ‘We drizzle it over everything’ is a phrase I hear again and again.  This is either plain ghee or as a tadka, which translates as tempering. Whole or ground spices are briefly roasted in ghee to infuse it with their flavours and aromas.

Ghee is added to dals, khichdi, curries and rice dishes like pulaos (pulavs, pilafs). It would be impossible to imagine a good biryani without this luxurious final flourish. Others have suggested using it to make paneer masala, daal fry, roasting chicken and potatoes, in scrambled eggs, spreading it on toast, mixing it with honey to put on bread and even in baking. Eating ghee is used as a way to ward off hunger by having a spoonful first thing in the morning or stirred into hot milk to prevent midnight cravings.  As Sarah says, “That’s the tip of the ghee-berg”.

The caramelisation that makes it golden and slightly sweet, combined with its luxurious aroma and creamy taste is why it’s been popular in Indian cooking for so long and, more recently, gaining wider popularity, explains Delna.

Ghee is also at the heart of many Indian desserts, like semolina pudding and sweets. Sarah loved the smell of ghee when used in “mithai” especially when given Diwali sweets from friends. This aroma is something that divides people however and she says that her family don’t like it.

It’s clear that ghee is fundamental to Indian cuisine. “Using ghee in my cooking is non-negotiable,” confesses Delna.

Other uses of ghee

The role and importance of ghee in Indian culture is as important as in the kitchen. Shiyam sums it up, “From birth to death ghee plays an integral part.

Ghee signifies purity. It is a source of nourishment, energy, power, intellect. Annaprasanam is a ceremony that happens when a child turns six months. This is very significant as the child eats rice for the first time. Rice is cooked with ghee and jaggery and fed to the child.”

I mention smelling the scent of ghee when threading our way through the narrow lanes near the Creek in my post about Diwali in Dubai. This is because cotton wicks are put into small dishes and submerged in ghee to be lit at the Hindu temple or for religious ceremonies in the home.

Ghee is used extensively in Ayurvedic medicines. It’s one of the ingredients allowed in the Sattvic diet (which is based on whole unprocessed vegetarian foods) as it’s said to contain the essence of grass and plants that the cows eat.

Is ghee actually good or bad for your health? Like many ‘superfoods’ there are lots of disputed claims about whether it is beneficial for health conditions such as heart disease, cancer, improving eyesight and boosting the immune system to name a few, or whether it’s a contributing factor to obesity and increased levels of cholesterol in the blood.

In the past it was attributed as a factor in weight loss and, more recently, approved for Paleo, GAPS, FODMAP, Whole30, Banting and Keto diets. Without going down a ghee-health rabbit-hole, my own view is that most whole foods aren’t harmful if eaten in moderation as part of a balanced diet. Really good quality ghee does contain vitamins A, D, E and K and very low or nil levels of lactose and casein (which could be good for those intolerant to them).

It’s also a traditional Indian home remedy. I’m told that it makes a great natural moisturizer (although Mufaddel says that the smell can be an issue for some. Eau de ghee anyone?) “Use it on the soles of your feet, rub them and sleep well” recommends Cherida.  Delna agrees with its hydrating effects on lips, knees and elbows and says to mix it with a little bit of gram flour and turmeric powder, for a soothing no-fuss face DIY mask.

She tells me about a visit to an Ayurvedic resort in Mysore, India. “They kick-started our days with a spoonful of ghee, followed with some warm, melted ghee poured down your nostrils to clear stuffy noses followed by a neti pot rinse (the best sleep those days as my nostrils were superbly clear!).”

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ghee and spices

Where to get good ghee

“It’s common to hear many conversations around ghee – from the most recommended and traditional brands in the market to sharing homemade ghee recipes which many mothers will take great pride in,” Delna tells me.

If you’re lucky enough to find some ghee that’s homemade to a family recipe in an Indian kitchen, treasure it. You could also try making your own – there are hundreds of recipes online.

Be discerning if buying ghee as there is a huge difference between the bland mass-produced stuff and the irresistible, small-batch pots of gold.

In Dubai, Cherida recommends buying Natureland A2 ghee from Organic Planet in Karama while Noorin Ansari stocks up on locally made ghee from the Waterfront market in Deira.*

In UK, the one that’s opened my eyes to the ambrosial qualities of the good stuff is Happy Butter Organic ghee** which is handmade in small batches using local, organic milk, by Kate and Rupert, in a Devon village (coincidentally 20 miles from where I am right now).

In your kitchen

Word of the delicious properties of ghee is spreading. While still fundamental, it’s not solely used in traditional Indian cooking any longer. Keen cooks and chefs are exploring how to use it with other ingredients, cuisines and cooking methods. To quote Happy Butter, ‘From bulletproof coffees, frying salmon, roasting chicken and potatoes, frying pancakes, and as the oil in any dinnertime cooking, it deserves centre stage in your kitchen.’

A quick note on storage; ghee is fine kept in the cupboard just as you would olive oil or other cooking mediums. There is no need to refrigerate unless you get water or any other food-stuffs into it. Keep dry and in a dark place – it won’t be there for long once you start using it, trust me.

Delna has the last word: “Before the world claimed and magnified it’s benefits to the world through fancy labels and packaging, our good ol’ Indian grandmas have been propagandizing the use of ghee from times past. I remember a phase when ghee was frowned upon as ‘fats to avoid’ but today, I’m glad to say, it’s the one thing we all embrace and for all the good reasons.”

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Jar of Happy Butter ghee

Happy Butter Organic Ghee

Contributors

Many thanks to everyone who helped with my research and were so generous in sharing their personal stories:

Thanks also to Cherida Fernandez, Noorin Ansari, Stephanie Mahmoud, Nahlaa Tabbaa, Ritu Chaturvedi, Torie True, Jules and everyone who sent me their suggestions on Instagram.

And there’s a fascinating ‘Deep Fried’ podcast about ghee from Frying Pan Adventures that’s well worth a listen.  *Noorin and Cherida are guests and the latter has written a blog post: Ghee-wiz– Discovering the surprise that clarified butter holds.

** Disclosure: Kate and Rupert from Happy Butter Organic Ghee sent me some jars of their ghee. I’m under no obligation to write about it but the quality and taste is extraordinary and they’ve converted me to the ambrosial qualities of ghee. There will be a jar in my kitchen from now on.

Tell me more

If you’d like to share your stories about ghee, your favourite ways to use it and the part it has played in your life, I love to hear from you. Have you used clarified butter from a different origin (I’m especially keen to learn more about how it’s used in the UAE). Please send any questions about ghee too – if I can’t answer them I know someone who can…

Discovering Diwali in the heart of Dubai

November 15, 2020

How much do you know about Diwali? I was pretty clueless until I spent an evening in the historic area of Dubai called Bur Dubai during the festivities. My eyes were opened to the traditions, the meaning, the rituals, the excitement and, of course, the food. Join me on that journey…

It’s calm crossing the Dubai Creek on an abra but this is swiftly left behind as we land at the water taxi station and enter the Fabric Souk in Bur Dubai. This lively hub of shoppers and shop keepers is particularly busy and the frenzy intensifies as we dive into a narrow corridor. Small, shopfronts are open on either side displaying a bright array of goods, stacked in Jenga-like towers without a single inch of space to spare.  Fluorescent strip lights make the bright colours even more dazzling.

We are led through these crowded paths by my friends Arva and Farida from Frying Pan Adventures. We’re in this part of Dubai because of its trading links to India which merchants from the country have used as a trading base since the mid-19th century. After the discovery of oil and economic boom in the 1950s, the Indian population grew and businesses thrived, particularly in Bur Dubai.  These days Dubai is home to 200 nationalities of expats, but the majority are from India and many still live in this traditional heartland. As Diwali is the most important festival of the year for most people in India we are in the right place to find out more.

stall with jewellery and statuettes

people buying garlands of flowers for Diwali

As we shuffle through the corridor barely wide enough for two people to pass there is so much to take in.  Arva shows us what is being sold for the celebrations and tries to explain, in a nutshell, what Diwali is all about, which is not easy. There are innumerable dramatic, mystical tales in Hindu scripture and Diwali commemorates many important events. Among them, Lord Rama returns from exile, Lord Krishna kills an evil demon, the Goddess Lakshmi is born from the churning of the cosmic ocean of milk;  it marks the start of the Hindu New Year and celebrates these new beginnings, the triumph of good over evil, light over darkness, and knowledge over ignorance.

Flower shops are doing a roaring trade and men pile garlands of vivid, orange marigolds into blue plastic bags. Beautiful strings (mala or haar) of jasmine and roses dangle from above and their scent mingles with the buttery smell of ghee and incense. Flowers have a role in many parts of life in India and are woven into art and literature. ‘Puja’ is the Hindu worship ritual meaning ‘flower act’ and there is a particular type of flower linked to each god.

Yellow flowers are also scattered over prasad which are small plates of food and drink that are being sold. An apple, an orange, a bottle of milk and some sweets; gulab jamun or laddus are typical. They are taken to the temple as an offering and are blessed.

Diwali or or Deepavali is also called the festival of lights and people are buying little terracotta dishes or diyas are filled with ghee (clarified butter) or oil and a wick to be lit in the temple or at home. Deepavali is from Sanskrit and means a row of lights. One Hindu temple is actually over our heads (next to the Sikh Gurdwara) and worshippers climb stairs at one end of the building and come down at the other in a constant, one-way-system procession. The other temple is in a nearby courtyard.

We leave the alleyways and head out into the streets. Coloured lights hang in streams from every single balcony and families wander along the pavements wearing brilliant robes and saris.

At one entrance Arva speaks into the intercom and invites us up into an apartment block. A hush descends; flames flicker outside every doorway and rangoli cover parts of the floor. These are artistic designs made of brightly coloured powder (or sand, ground rice or flowers). The patterns are often passed down from one generation to another.

people making rangoli

Back out onto the streets there is excitement as a robed man with a large drum appears and starts a frenetic beat. A crowd gathers quickly; some men catapult out and start dancing energetically, pounding their feet, bowing low to the ground, waving their arms and clapping.  Most things in Dubai need official permission and I get the feeling that this spontaneous, public merrymaking is not quite within approval which seems to add another layer of illicit pleasure. The drummer disappears suddenly, to another corner with other eager dancers no doubt.

As we pass a glass-walled jewellery shop, the people inside invite us in to join their family celebrations. A small altar contains the remains of offerings and everyone sits crossed legged on rugs on the floor enjoying a shared feast. We’re welcomed with drinks and sweets – it feels like such a privilege to experience this special festival through their warmth and generosity. A toddler is dressed in embroidered clothes and jewels that my children would have longed for when they were little.

Hindu scripts and offerings

The excitement on the streets has ramped up a notch as groups of teenage boys run around tossing fire crackers onto the pavements and disappearing into the smoke when a police car appears*.

Families are out there too and a father throws a fire cracker at the feet of his young daughter. She laughs with joy but I’m appalled; years of ‘never play with fireworks’ messages on Blue Peter before Bonfire night make me unable to stop worrying. They are oblivious.

Maya Angelou said “I want all my senses engaged. Let me absorb the world’s variety and uniqueness.” As we wandered back, I was reeling with impact of the evening’s experiences through sight, touch, scent, sound and taste. It’s something that has stayed with me ever since. It wasn’t just a massive eye opener into the world of people I lived parallel to.  To quote Kant,  “All our knowledge begins with the senses, proceeds then to the understanding, and ends with reason.” A night out in Bur Dubai during Diwali could be the answer to a lot of things these days.

Traditional Diwali food and sweets

Like all festivities, food is at the heart of the five days of Diwali. Savoury snacks are popular, mostly fried like samosas, vada, chakli, bonda, murukka and tikki. Also common are little flattened, spiced grains of rice called churwa or chivda. The types served varies depending on traditions within the family and which part of India they are from.

Arva from Frying Pan Adventures (who is not Hindu) says that on the savoury front most people offer snacks like churwa and she’s never had a main course that’s particularly associated with Diwali. Usually people bring out the fanciest and richest dishes but sweets are the most important.

The choice and volume is quite mind boggling with huge trays of them in shops or traditional homemade ones.

Friend Devina aka FooDee says “I’ve always had a sweet tooth, so Diwali conjures up images of an endless array of mithai (sweets). I love most mithais fairly equally, but I am extremely partial to ‘pedas**’, which you’ll find in any Indian sweet shop. They are usually round or oval, melt in your mouth, and a little thick and made with sugar and dried evaporated milk (khoya). Flavourings can be added to this, from saffron to cardamom and even chocolate. I’m salivating just thinking about it.”

Indian sweetsSome of the most popular sweets eaten at Diwali are:

Besan laddu (or laddoo)

Made with gram flour or chickpea flour (called besan in Hindi) which is added to ghee (clarified butter) in a pan on the stove then stirred and toasted until it’s a golden colour. Sugar, nuts and cardamom are added to the paste and rolled into balls. Like many sweets at Diwali they can be garnished with nuts or edible silver leaves (chandi ka vark).

Pera or peda**

Khoya or Mawa are milk solids made by evaporating the moisture from the milk over heat very slowly. Sugar, and sometimes cardamom, is added once cooled and they are shaped into discs by hand or using decorated moulds to make pera. Khoya used to be made from scratch, reducing milk straight from the cow, but now people usually buy their milk solids or use milk powder.

Barfi

There are many different flavours and ingredients used to make barfi such as varieties of nuts, all kinds of fruits to flavour and fragrant spices.  The base is a kind of fudge made with reduced condensed milk and sugar. At Diwali they are usually cut into diamond-shapes and decorated with vark. This edible foil usually made from silver or gold and has been used since ancient times due to the Ayurvedic practice of using precious metals for medicinal reasons.

These types of sweets are more likely to be homemade:

Gulab jamun

One of the most popular sweets, these are deep fried balls of dough (sort of mini-doughnuts) made with khoya and soaked in fragrant syrup usually flavoured with rose and cardamom.

Rasmalai and Rasgulla

The base of these soft spongy discs is quite similar. Lemon juice is added to saffron-scented milk to make curds which is strained of moisture and made into a paste called chena with cornflour. They are boiled in sugar syrup. Rasmalai are are served with a thick, nutty, scented milk-syrup.

Diwali table with candles and sweets

Ghughra

Chirag who gave me his Mum’s homemade sweets (pictured above) says that the little crescent shaped one is a must on the Diwali table. It’s called gujiya in Hindi and ghughra in his mother tongue of Gujurati. He compares it to a tiny sweet fatayer, fried to give the outside a nice crunch with a rich filling that is supposed to give you energy and brain power (and maybe, a tad of cholesterol).

This rich filling is usually made with ground nuts and dried fruits, sugar, spices like cardamon or cloves, mawa/khoya and semolina.

This is just the tip of the Indian sweets iceburg though. If you have chance to visit an Indian sweet shop, ask for advice or, if you’re really lucky, seize the opportunity if invited to someone’s home for Diwali (post COVID). I found Cook with Manali blog a really good resource for explaining how to make homemade sweets.

men dancing

This all happened in 2015 at the invitation of my dear friends Arva and Farida from the fantastic food tour company Frying Pan Adventures. It took me a while to process the whole experience and I felt too overwhelmed to write about it feeling I couldn’t do it justice.  With so much going on that night, I wasn’t very focused on my photography (which I don’t regret) but my images are not great in quality or in capturing the magic of the evening. With so many people unable to celebrate Diwali the way they’d like to this year due to COVID, I felt compelled to share this story, especially as we all need a bit more openness and understanding at this time.

I’d love to hear what you think. And if anyone wants to share their knowledge of the vast ocean of Indian sweets please comment below.

*The police wouldn’t arrest them, probably just give a gentle warning.

Banana, date and walnut muffins

October 6, 2020

Banana date muffins and a cup of tea

Things are a little bit bonkers now.* I’m sitting upstairs at my desk listening to birds cheeping; is it my imagination or are there more of them about singing their hearts out? If we could translate would they be saying ‘we can breathe…’?

KP is downstairs listening to music non stop. Can you work with a loud background soundtrack? Even peaceful classical intrudes on my thoughts so I close the door to keep out everything – from The Comet is Coming (which I love when not working) to Les Miserables soundtrack (which I loathe in any circumstances).

We’ve fallen into a bit of a routine around tea and cake. The future is uncertain so I’m focusing on the small things, one day at a time, and therapeutic baking works for me.

If Twitter chats are anything to go by we all seem to have a lot of ripe bananas needing a purpose. I think muffins are often very overrated. These are more like mini, gooey banana cakes and they get better as you keep them. Can you swap the nuts? Of course, use whatever you have in the cupboard. Could you leave them out? I think so, the muffins would just be a bit gooier… never a bad thing.

If you’re after a more traditional banana bread, I can vouch for this Smitten Kitchen recipe I made last week (fantastic).

*I wrote this during lockdown and a two week anti-COVID curfew in Dubai. We left our villa of 20 years (far too big for two people) and I’m now in the UK with family. Life is rather different especially as KP is still in the UAE. It feels like a completely different world (which it is for us all) – but baking is still comforting and provides necessary warmth as the rain lashes down outside the window!

Banana, date and walnut muffins

  • Servings: 12
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

A great store cupboard recipe for using up overipe bananas. Warm with spices, crunchy with nuts and treacly with dates and brown sugar. Serve with yoghurt for breakfast or a cup of tea in the afternoon


Ingredients

  • 2 ripe bananas
  • squeeze of lemon juice (about a teaspoon)
  • 210g plain flour
  • 80g caster sugar
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
  • 6 cardamom pods (or 1 teaspoon of ground)
  • freshly grated nutmeg (generous 1/2 teaspoon)
  • 1/2 teaspoon fine salt
  • 90g fresh dates, pitted and chopped*
  • 65g walnuts, chopped roughly
  • 110g butter melted, at room temperature
  • 100g dark brown sugar
  • 120ml plain yoghurt (8 level tablespoons)
  • 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract


Directions

*chop the dates coarsely if you want chunks in the muffins and finer if you just want them for sweetness and texture.

Line 12-14 holes in standard muffin trays with paper cases or greaseproof paper (depending on the size of your bananas how much mixture there is).

Break up the banana into a bowl and mash it with a fork until mushy. Stir in a squeeze of lemon juice.

Sieve the plain flour into a large bowl. Add the caster sugar, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda, ground cardamom, nutmeg and salt. Stir well to combine. Sprinkle the dates and walnuts into the dry ingredients and rub them in with your fingertips. You want the date pieces to be separated and coated with flour.

Whisk together the melted butter, and brown sugar in a medium-sized bowl. Stir in the mashed banana, yoghurt, eggs and vanilla extract until mixed together.

Make a well in the centre of the dry ingredient and pour the banana mixture into the middle. Use a spatula to gently fold the flour in from the edges. Don’t overmix, a few lumps of flour still showing is fine.

Spoon the batter evenly into the 12 muffin cups. You can use a 50ml ice cream scoop – slightly rounded scoops should portion it equally.

Bake in an oven preheated to 190C for 25 minutes or until golden brown. You can swap the tins around 10 minutes before the end to make sure they cook evenly. They are ready when springy to the touch and when you stick a wooden skewer or toothpick into the centre it comes out clean or with a small crumb attached.

Remove from the tins and cool on a baking rack. Store in a tightly closed container. No need to refrigerate especially if you eat within 3 days (or you can freeze them).

Banana date muffins and a cup of tea

I photographed these very hurriedly. I promise the one to the right was not burnt even though it looks like it in the shot!

I hope you are coping with COVID, lockdown and everything life is throwing at us at the moment.

Whole Grain Sourdough at Home by Elaine Boddy: cookbook review

October 3, 2020

Sourdough by elaine boddy book

Sourdough from scratch

Sourdough was the darling of lockdown. Perfect loaves with stretched crusts dusted with circles of flour, cut open to reveal a honeycomb of holes formed by abundant, fermented bubbles. Instagram was full of these gorgeous things (along with a landslide of banana bread).

My experience of baking sourdough bread has not produced such splendid bounty. Starters have been like demanding children that can misbehave at any time. Domed perfection is elusive – more like a flat boulder. And the cookbooks I have on the topic (and there are many) give either scant instruction or overwhelm with an opus of percentages, scientific theory, technical terms and recipes which extend for pages.  This is especially true of baking with whole grains where there is a dearth of information amid the white flour versions.

So my enthusiasm for sourdough baking had waned, and then along came Whole Grain Sourdough at Home by Elaine Boddy.

I’ve known Elaine online for countless years via our blogs and can’t remember how we first connected.  ‘Healthy, tasty food that I love to make, eat and share’ was at the heart of her Foodbod blog and she filled her corner of the internet with delicious recipes inspired by her time in the Middle East.  So when Elaine came back onto my radar recently with a new blog and at the centre of a sourdough community with bakers around the world, my interest was piqued. Her Instagram feed is full of beautiful loaves and she shares many freshly-baked success stories from people who have followed her methods on her Instagram stories every day.

It’s Elaine’s distinctive method that is at the heart of her book although she downplays this saying that it’s something she’s developed that fits in with her life. The tone of the book is friendly, the instructions clear, there is no hype just an openness to share her experience of making sourdough that she finds so rewarding.

Elaine’s sourdough journey

So how did she get here? Through her Foodbod blog she made lots of connections including Celia of Fig Jam and Lime Cordial who sent dried sourdough starter to people around the world. Some went to Selma of Selma’s Table and it was from Selma that Elaine got her own dried starter.

Elaine says, “Sadly she is no longer with us but she was the one that inspired me. I made my first ever loaf – which was amazing. This dough grew and this loaf grew, I broke all the rules and ate half the loaf immediately. My son has always been a bread lover, he had some too and decided that he wanted sourdough on a regular basis.”

Like most people she read a lot about sourdough and baked a few ‘bricks and frisbees’.  She refuses to use the term failure and says every loaf is a step to learn more about baking. As sourdough became a regular part of her routine due to her son’s demands – “I had to make enough for breakfast, lunch and dinner everyday” – a method evolved that fitted into her everyday life.

Elaine joined several online sourdough groups and found there was a negative response to her approach from some people. She says that there was a bit of snobbery about sourdough baking and ‘the right way’ of doing things. So she set up her own Facebook group which grew quickly into a supportive, generous, sharing community of avid sourdough bakers all around the world. Elaine doesn’t think there is a single way to bake it, just the right way that works for you.

Coiled filled sourdough rolls in a book

Coiled filled sourdough rolls

What you’ll find in the book

I think the real difference about Elaine’s book and her whole approach is explained in the title ‘sourdough at home’. Most other books are written by chefs who make bread in large quantities in restaurant kitchens – the amount of flour they use and the starter they discard is prohibitive. The waste when making sourdough is one of the things that was off putting to me. Elaine makes her bread to an achievable scale, without discarding excess starter and without taking up masses of room in the kitchen of home cooks.

To quote a sentence from her introduction:

I am a self-taught home baker; I bake bread for my family in a standard domestic oven, in a typical home kitchen, with everyday ingredients that are easily accessible and with kitchen equipment that is readily available and inexpensive.

There is thorough attention to detail, for instance she warns not to throw starter down the sink or it will harden like cement and a comprehensive explanation of the flours used, their origins, their make-up, the way they might behave. Elaine also gives timetables so you can work out when you need to do each step for making the loaf right from taking the starter out of the fridge to taking it out of the oven.

Thumbing through the pages and the beautiful, simple photography, there are so many recipes I’d like to try. As well as the master recipes using white flour, wholemeal flour and the different ancient grains, she adds other ingredients like poppy seeds, walnuts and peanut butter; she suggests ways to use other liquids such as beer and buttermilk instead of water.

Whole wheat, tomato and garlic focaccia in a book

Whole wheat, tomato and garlic focaccia

Ancient grains and appealing recipes

Where most sourdough books focus on white flour she dedicates the majority of pages to whole and ancient grains including whole wheat, einkorn, spelt and rye. Her recipes prepare you for the different way these flours will behave and I have never come across such a comprehensive guide to baking with them.

There are ‘baby loaves’ with roasted cashews; almonds and raisins; chia and flax seeds. In the slices of dimpled, sourdough focaccia you catch glimpses of molten Cheddar in the holes; roasted tomatoes and garlic are scattered over a deeper brown wholewheat version. Elaine includes recipes for tin-baked sourdough loaves for making sandwiches, a variety of biscuits (I’d call them scones), ten types of rolls some coiled and filled.

I’ve bookmarked the ones made of khorasan flour which ooze warm almond butter and banana.  One tip she gives for her oaty, seeded or nutty crackers is that they freeze well. I’m already planning a time to whip some out and serve them just cooled from the oven with a cheeseboard (on day in the future when we might be able to share one again).

It is her unassuming approach of documenting her journey and passing on things that work for her that sets her apart. She stresses that there is no single method to making sourdough and that everyone must experiment to find the best way for them. It’s this generosity of spirit that has inspired her followers to share their own bakes with pride and asking for her advice when things don’t work quite as well as expected.

Whole grain sourdough book with bread and butter

What Elaine says about her book

I’ve interviewed Elaine a few times and she explained what she has included in her book:

“As the title says it’s about wholegrain sourdough with over 60 recipes using lots of different flours but also basics as well at the beginning of the book.  I’ve tried to put all the information I ever get asked; details on how to make starter using strong white bread flour and lots of different flours. Information about sourdough success with full details on how to make my master recipe, the reasons I do the things I do and any help you need for your dough.

If you are new to sourdough you can pick this book up and make it from scratch. If you are well versed in sourdough you might find some hints and tips in there that you haven’t seen before. Recipes all of the recipe include whole grain and ancient grain flours that includes wholemeal, wholewheat, einkorn, spelt, rye, emmer, khorosan and more. All recipes include at least two of those flours and some contain other ingredients like seeds and nuts, also how to use the dough in other ways.

I explain how to use the flours, how the flours will feel, how they will behave, how the dough should look, how it should feel as it goes on and how it should develop. The book will guide you through using these flours in your breads and then taking it forward into other ways of using them.

I love grains, when the publishers  contacted me and asked me to do a book about grains I was very interested. I use grains in many of my meals. I often throw them in dough too. So to have details in the book about how I use them is wonderful. There are full details in the book on how to cook grains and how to use the grains.

My book includes tips and lots of alternatives, things you can add, and things you can do differently.”

sourdough loaf

Sourdough loaf made by Elaine

What you’ll need to bake sourdough and more

Elaine started her sourdough journey without any particular equipment and still keeps things simple recommending a pyrex bowl, a shower cap, a banneton, a lame and a roasting pan or pot as some equipment you might like to invest in eventually. Digital scales, a good bread knife and a filter for your tap water are also covered. Again she explains what part these things play in the process so you know why they could impact the result.

The thing that threw me completely was an alternative of putting the bread into a cold oven. This advice that flies in the face of everything I’ve ever read but is the method Elaine uses most often now. I can’t wait to try it.

All my kitchen stuff is in storage right now but as soon as I have access to it I’ll let you know how I get on. I can’t wait to get my hands into that dough and, who knows, you might be seeing slices of it on Instagram spread with good butter.

I’ve tried to be objective with my review even though I know Elaine but honestly I really cannot fault this book. It’s truly a comprehensive guide, beautifully written, very accessible, reflecting her dedication to experimentation and natural curiosity about sourdough and grains. If you only buy one book about sourdough this should be it.

Advice from Elaine

You can find Elaine on her website, Instagram, and Facebook where there is lots of helpful information. She has a supportive Facebook group dedicated to bakers of sourdough who want to discuss what they’ve discovered, share their triumphs and learnings in a very nurturing and generous environment. She says “It has been a joy to see so many people getting involved and being able to share this amazing joy from my kitchen to theirs.”

My interview with her is on her Instagram IGTV.

So have you tried making sourdough and how did you get on with it?

Oats in the North, Wheat in the South

April 5, 2020

cookery book and baking tins

“Can you remember all the cakes Mum used to make?” I asked my sister this week. There was always cake in our house and most of it was homemade. Occasionally an exotic ‘shop-bought’ McVities Jamaican ginger cake appeared and we peeled its sticky crumb from the crinkled paper casing.  Otherwise there was a rotation of staples: coffee walnut cake smeared with smooth, bittersweet buttercream; Victoria sandwich, both halves stuck together with strawberry jam and vanilla buttercream; spiced farmhouse fruit cake studded with raisins, sultanas and the odd bright glace cherry. We complained about caraway seed cake tasting of aniseed with a crunchy sugar roof (but ate it anyway) but fell over rock cakes as soon as they’d cooled from the oven, their magic fading overnight. There were ‘rib-sticking’ flapjacks (my mother’s description), a Bakewell tart or homemade ginger cake.  It was part of daily life to eat a slice with a cup of tea after lunch or later in the afternoon.

There were always biscuits in a tin too but these were never homemade. Always rich tea (for dunking) with a changing cast of digestives, custard creams, ginger snaps, Marie, bourbons or Garibaldi (aka squashed fly biscuits).

The baker’s van delivered floury white baps, brown tin loaves and sometimes a picturesque cottage loaf, two rounds stacked on top of each other like an upside down mushroom. We visited the baker to choose a ‘sticky bun’, often after a trip to the dentist (I wonder why) and would dither over a Chelsea bun, an iced bun or a honey bun (which I’m sure didn’t contain an ounce of honey but stood in a sticky puddle of lard). Toast was a staple and I remember using a toasting fork in front of the coal fire before we had central heating. We ate crumpets, for breakfast I think, and spread butter and golden syrup on top which trickled down through the holes onto the plate in a glistening pool to be wiped up with fingers at the end.

This is how baking was woven into my everyday life while growing up a few decades (ahem) ago. So how has every small detail of my personal memories of very, ordinary British family life found their way into a new book by an author from Belgium?

cookery book on a baking tray

Oats in the North, Wheat the South – The History of British Baking, Savoury and Sweet by Regula Ysewijn is that book. The cover embossed in gold and white on green would look at home in an old second hand book shop. Inside, the pictures of cakes and bakes against humble backdrops like bread boards or tin trays give a nod to the past; these are interspersed with images of rolling landscapes and cobbled streets. Regula herself appears in a few photographs, her dresses red with slender bodices and wide, stiff, calf-length skirts echoing fashions after the Second World War. However, this is not a pose put on for the book.

My path crossed with Regula’s, when blogging was in its infancy, at an annual event – Food Blogger Connect – in London. Everyone liked her friendliness and warmth; her focus, honesty and enthusiasm marked her out as someone to watch. I remember her attention to detail in the photography sessions and when she progressed from attendee to speaker, her audience were totally absorbed by the inspiring sessions. This rise was echoed in the food world and she soon became a respected member of a more famous group of culinary experts including Jamie Oliver.

Along with her photographer husband Bruno, she honed her visual craft and published her first book Pride and Pudding, a history of British food with recipes, followed by The National Trust book of puddings: 50 irresistibly nostalgic sweet treats and comforting classics. She became a household name in her home country as a judge on the Belgian version of Bake Off.

From the first Food Blogger Connect, while most of us were in comfortable jeans and casual wear, she looked like she was just off for a spot of old-fashioned ballroom dancing. Her long, red hair was always piled up in a twisted crescent pinned with red blooms, her voluminous dresses nipped in at the waist, spotted with red and white, a cropped cardigan over her shoulders and a slash of red lipstick across her pale complexion.

cookery book open on red and white tea towel

When opening Oats in the North, Wheat in the South, one of the first things you read is an acknowledgement that the sugar trade had a human cost, that of slavery. It sets the tone as the book is a pleasure to read and while expounding the joy of baking it is not frivolous.   A foreward written by renowned food historian Dr Annie Gray (who you may know from The Kitchen Cabinet podcast) describes the book as ‘a love letter to British baking and all that implies’.

Regula introduces the book and sheds some light on her motivation and qualification to write it. As a child she became obsessed with all things British. Her parents watched BBC programmes, historical dramas and documentaries which gave her a rather idealised view of a land of rolling hills, castles, quaint rituals and royalty. In later years she read Jane Austen and watched Eastenders avidly.  When she was nine, her parents gave in to her pleas to visit and spent their holidays exploring villages and towns from coast to coast. Their journeys were at a time before gastropubs and fusion food. The bakeries, high streets, cafes and inns of each town revealed unique, regional favourites and were a world away from the delicate pastries of the continent.

These years of discovery, through a fervour for collecting personal anecdotes and family recipes, and her growing collection of historical cookery books, are the foundation of this book.

The divided climate of the British Isles with its impact on food and agriculture is behind the title.  In the North conditions are too wet and cold to grow wheat so oats are a common ingredient for much of the cooking.  Griddled recipes rather than oven-baked dominate, some drawn from the influence of the Vikings. In the South, bread bakery is more prevalent with greater access to wheat.

There’s a summary of the common ingredients and equipment required for British baking before you dive into the main sections of the book. The recipes are broadly divided into cakes, biscuits, buns, griddle cakes, bread, pies and tarts plus a special section dedicated to gingerbread.

cookery book showing gingerbread recipe

Stories about the origin of each type of bake, the history, the variations, the name, the traditional ingredients, its earliest documentation, rituals behind it and how Regula found the recipes are woven into the book. It’s a good read even if you don’t make a single recipe; however that’s not my approach and torn scraps of paper stick out of my copy marking a sheaf of recipes I want to try .

Among the smooth, heavy-weight pages are things that I’ve never considered baking from scratch until now – custard creams or rich tea biscuits for instance. There are familiar old favourites like sticky flapjacks, hot cross buns, lemon drizzle cake and recipes for nearly everything mentioned in my childhood reminiscences above.

As I lived in the city of Bath for a while I feel duty-bound to try all three of the recipes for Bath buns. I test every recipe for Cornish pasties that I come across as I’m still looking for the perfect one, and keeping in the South-West, saffron buns and Devonshire splits are marked too.  A rather embarrassing early post on this blog documents making digestive biscuits in 2010, so I think it’s time for a refresher.

I’m fascinated by a compendium of traditional bakes that, as a Southerner, I have no knowledge of, like bannocks, Fat Rascals or Goosnargh cakes. Beef pies cast a light on London’s ‘pie and mash shop’ culture. It shows how, as the world becomes homogenised through international foods, cookery shows and multinational companies, our regional heritage remains alive and varied.

Or does it? Regula recounts her encounter with a ‘guess the weight of the cake’ competition at a village fete. These traditions are utterly familiar, part of my upbringing but also seem so distant (perhaps that’s also due to living out of the UK for a while); will these bucolic customs endure? Change is sometimes alluded to – she mentions that my favourite wobbly, vanilla-flavoured custard tarts are being nudged aside by the sweeter, caramelised, flaky Portuguese ones. She describes afternoon tea as I remember it, with an array of dainty sandwiches, followed by scones, then a slice of cake. These days most are dominated by sweet confections such as coloured, French-style macarons, with barely a savoury in sight.  And most revolutionary of all, the dramatic rise of coffee drinking in the UK threatens to overtake consumption of the British cuppa.

cookery book on baking trays

Apart from the excellent recipes, the meticulous research and beautiful quality of this book, it’s a record of Britain’s heritage and geography through high streets, home kitchens and a way of life which continues to evolve.

Regula has said, “Every book I write is about preserving a heritage, because in the present day far too much importance is given to new and exciting things while the past holds a treasure of beauty that is often forgotten.”

One could argue that a return to baking cakes and biscuits is out of kilter with the modern diet. However, in the early 1960’s the Chorley Wood baking method was developed in Britain and exported around the world meaning that most bread is ‘ultra-processed’. A recent article ‘How ultra-processed food took over your shopping basket’ by Bee Wilson documents the findings of Brazilian nutrition researchers led by scientist Carlos Monteiro tracking the changes in the diet and health of the nation since UPFs arrived. To Monteiro, the bag of sugar on the kitchen counter is a healthy sign, not because sugar itself has any goodness in it, but because it belongs to a person who cooks (including healthier homemade traditional dishes).  Another reason to look back to the past?

In these turbulent times, I’ve certainly found comfort by escaping into the pages of this beautiful book, either curling up on the sofa or at my flour-dusted kitchen table.

Oats in the North, Wheat from the South: The history of British baking, savoury and sweet by Regula Ysewijn (Murdoch Books, £25). Photography by Regula Ysewijn. Thanks to Murdock Books for sending me a copy to review. The pages will soon have thumbprints of butter and jam – the tell-tale sign of a well-used cookery book.

Just for fun – A few old pictures from the Food Blogger Connect days…

 

The link between coronavirus and food – what can we do?

March 18, 2020

plate,knife, fork, glass, bread board

To the question ‘Isn’t writing about food frivolous? Aren’t there more important topics?’, I have always said no; what is more important than food and water? The current coronavirus pandemic has laid bare just how vulnerable we are to food-related issues, large and small.

‘It’s not just about getting enough to eat when cracks can appear overnight in food supply chains where control has been handed over to an elite group of large commercial companies, eroding diversity, with little say from Governments. When there is the whiff of a threat panic sets in and the ‘every man for himself’ herd mentality comes into play rapidly, as, among other extreme reactions, people begin to food hoard. The bigger picture when it comes to food is how this affects the planet, the structures of our societies, and even where the virus comes from.

What caused the Coronavirus in the the first place?

Dan Saladino, talking on the BBC Food Programme, says that evidence so far points to a market in Wuhan in which wild animals were brought together and slaughtered. Through them, a virus (originally carried by bats) was transferred along the food chain and into humans. It’s a zoonotic disease and is not the first to infect humanity, but the rapid changes in our food systems mean that it certainly won’t be the last.

Dan interviewed Professor Andrew Cunningham of the Zoological Society of London, an expert on how these diseases spread from animals and into humans. He explained why viruses are now jumping species at a greater and faster rate. Measles is thought to have been a zoonotic disease, and passed from animals when they were domesticated to become a humans-only disease. HIV also originated in wildlife. In our history, the human race has been exposed to relatively few pathogens carried by wild animals.

Our growth in population and greater connectivity (like air travel) means that viruses are now spreading on an unprecedented scale. In the past, when small communities were infected, people either got better or died before infecting others so the virus abated.

On the BBC Food Programme, Dan asked Professor Cunningham to explain more about the original cause of Coronavirus. A newly affluent China has fueled demand for more wild animals and a new trend for eating exotic meat (seen as a delicacy) which was not part of traditional Chinese food culture. Large markets of live wild animals imported from various parts of the world have been collected together like never before, especially in the last decade, says Professor Cunningham. Species are mixing in unnatural conditions, then being slaughtered in the market, with humans congregating in large numbers around them. There is a demand for ‘warm meat’ so people are exposed to blood and other bodily fluids from these animals at the market and when they butcher them at home. The wildlife supply chain from China extends right around the world breaking all the natural barriers that humans have evolved with for millions of years. Ecological and geographical barriers are being smashed by this supply chain.

But it’s not just in Chinese markets where our interaction with bats is increasing, both directly and indirectly, more than in our entire history. Due to food shortages in some parts of the world, bats are being hunted in greater numbers, and, also, we are encroaching into bat habitat.

An example is the industrialisation of pig farms in Malaysia, in the 1990s, which encroached into bat habitat. Fruit orchards were planted in close proximity to the pig farms. The bats would come in and eat from the orchards then drop contaminated fruit into the pig pens and be eaten by the pigs. This is how the Nipah virus was transferred from bats into pigs which led to the eradication of the Malaysian pig industry and the deaths of over 100 people.

The impact of food production on the climate crisis is now recognised more widely. Industrial farming of animals and their gas emissions, industrial agriculture with deforestation, mono-crops and how chemicals are degrading the fertility of soil and killing species such as bees and birds, all effect the planet and the balance of nature.

What hasn’t been discussed widely, is as we change land use (and change the planet), our agriculture becomes more invasive into nature. Coronavirus exposes a further weakness in that system which, according to Professor Andrew Cunningham, is a warning shot. The fatality rate of coronavirus is thought to be 2-3% at this stage, but among other zoonotic diseases, Ebola has a 50% fatality rate, Nipah a 75-90% per cent fatality rate, so, as the Professor says, there is an urgent need to fund the work that needs to be done to stop the next pandemic.

sweetcorn, pepper, cucumbers, chillis and courgettes

Changes in our food system

In my lifetime I’ve witnessed a complete transformation of how we grow, buy and consume food. I lived in a small village quite near to a town (which had a fishmonger, some greengrocers and one small supermarket). In the village, we had two local shops which sold fresh vegetables available in season, where we shopped little and often. In the winter we relied on root vegetables, brassicas and the like, and orchard fruit such as apples and pears which were stored (naturally wrapped, not in gas-filled environments). Imported fresh goods were limited (bananas and lemons primarily). Spring and summer fruit and vegetables were welcomed as they broke the winter dearth with variety and taste. Food was valued, food waste was minimal, convenience food limited. Fresh milk was delivered by the milkman (reusing glass bottles) and bread by a bread van. Cows from a couple of farms wandered down the road twice a day from surrounding fields to be milked in the milking parlour, their milk was then bottled locally.

It was not all idyllic and undoubtedly this came at a cost, both economically and socially; there were fewer women in the work place and more ‘housewives’ to prepare food from scratch for instance. These were transitional times with WW2 privations still very much in living memory.

This sounds like ancient history instead of just a few decades ago. Choice of food was limited in a way that seems inconceivable now when we can buy anything we want, at any time, from round the world.

However, our supply chains of food have become more centralised and opaque. In the UK, the BSE epidemic demonstrated how the ingredients of cow feed were disregarded in favour of cost-cutting and resulted in a new disease. The horse meat scandal showed that ingredients are difficult to trace and can slip easily into the food retail system.

What can we learn from this?

In a recent video, Russel Brand examines how coronavirus casts a light on the whole structure of our society.

“That we can’t just live in abstract economic systems, just do what we want and limitlessly consume without consequences” he says. “The way that it feels when our cathedrals of consumerism are laid bare, the empty breadless, riceless shelves. And you realise, ‘Oh this is invisibly held together by systems we don’t think about’.”

He quotes Zia Tong, “Everything is filmed today except where our food comes from, where our energy comes from and where our waste goes”.

How can we change things?

It’s very hard to know isn’t it? And easy to be overwhelmed. I do believe that after this coronavirus crisis we will never go back to ‘normal’ – and that will have a much wider impact than whether we can get a tin of baked beans or not. Trying to be optimistic, maybe it’s a good thing as a catalyst for meaningful change, especially relating to food?

This is what I’m going to do, but don’t claim to have the answers:

  • Questioning everything we eat. How it was made or raised, it’s impact on the people who made it, the ingredients, where it or the components are from, the way it was produced and the way it got to us. It’s not as easy as boycotting plastic bags – the information around food is, as demonstrated, often misleading or obscure. Consumer power is part of the equation; where we shop, our support of producers, our influence on where things are sourced. It may mean changing what we eat and the way we cook and eat, we may not always get it right, but we have to make the best decisions we can.
  • Spreading the word. I consider myself pretty well-informed about the issues around food but the information from the BBC Food Programme about zoonotic viruses chilled me to the core. I’m sure that if it was known more widely it would be the wake-up call that Professor Cunningham says it should be. This is why I wrote this post and will continue to use any channels (in person or online) that I can to influence the people around me.
  • Pressuring governments or those in power. It has to be a greater priority. Leaving things to the free-market and in the hands of fewer and fewer powerful companies dedicated to share-holder value and profits will never work. We need the people who we elect to look after our interests to do exactly that – and it will only be achieved if we reassess our food system and the way we treat the planet.

And finally, I believe that the only way to effect real change is by supporting each other. I’d really appreciate your feedback on this – whether you agree or disagree – and if you have recommendations about how we can do something meaningful together.

Thank you

Sources:

All the information about the transfer of viruses was from this BBC Food Programme episode with Dan Saladino and Professor Andrew Cunningham, much of it quoted directly.

Coronavirus: What Has It Revealed? by Russell Brand

How long before our soil gives up? Guy Singh-Watson, Riverford

plate, knife, fork, glass, bread board

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