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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.

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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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Taipei – how to spend 2 days in Taiwan’s intriguing capital

February 19, 2020
Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall and jazz band

Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall

Two things I learn in the first hour of being in Taipei. First, that Taiwanese people are very friendly. Our guide Eddie gives us a warm welcome at arrivals and steers us to the cash machine (better than going to a money exchange) and the place to get a SIM card. His quiet, friendly manner is a taste of things to come as most of the Taiwanese people we meet are polite, approachable and many speak English.

Secondly, the Taiwanese queue. This starts with a long orderly line at passport control and is echoed whenever there is a wait wherever we are on the trip. As a Brit this makes me very happy.

Otherwise, my knowledge about the island is practically zero. I decide to let the Taiwanese Tourist Board, who have invited me to their country, guide me and to go with the flow.

While Taiwan is, fiercely, not part of China it has been influenced by its neighbour across the water, especially as there have been many waves of immigrants at times of conflict. It also bears the legacy of 40 years of occupation by Japan. This visit revealed that the island, culture and food have an identity all of their own of which the people are very proud.

There are are masses of things to do in Taipei. Here are some suggestions based on a couple of days exploring the capital city of Taiwan:

Immerse yourself in a street market (and bring an extra stomach)

It seems that everyone is on a scooter, including children perched precariously on their mother’s laps. Many are colour coordinated, their passenger’s helmets shiny in pastel pinks and blues that match the smart paint of the two-wheeler;  backpacks crammed with school books or groceries complete the look.

The rows of revving scooters halt at the traffic lights as we join the throng surging across to Ning Xia street market.  Vibha from Voyageur Chic is my travel partner and she is as enthusiastic as I am to dive into the Xiao chi, literally small eats, that are part of the culture. People weave in and out, and form queues, at rows of kiosks and tables on the pavement where cooks are busily stirring, steaming, boiling and frying up food.

A stall holder encourages us to taste some fresh fruit laid out like a rainbow, before she chops and hands it out in bags. Trying the fruit in season is like tasting it for the first time; I eat some custard apple, biting into a rather dull, cream-coloured slice, which explodes with sweetness. On another stall the fruit is displayed on ice, bright colours glowing in a misty cloud.

It’s the start of the weekend and the market is heaving with people; we join the slow shuffle through a narrow alleyway between stalls. My eyes are on stalks at the variety of food on offer which ranges from the irresistible to some that will appeal only to a more adventurous eater – this is nose-to tail eating. Duck heads, pig intestines, chicken’s feet and ‘frog’s eggs’ stalls are doing a roaring trade. I thought these were real frogs eggs because of the large green frog sign but it’s a lemony drink made of a kind of transparent, gelatinous seed. Rong’s pork liver, which boasts proudly ‘since 1950’, is next to the stall with pig tripe soup.

This only adds to our hunger though and we are overwhelmed by the choices of what we should sample. Dumplings are everywhere, fried, steamed, boiled or saucy.  Gua bao, buns made fluffy by steam, are filled with braised pork belly, pickled Chinese cabbage and powdered peanuts. Soymilk chicken is ladled over noodles, large funghi are grilled whole then sliced and corn cobs speared on wooden sticks. Delicately folded rose shapes of ham protrude from sweet, crispy rolls with cucumber, tomato and boiled egg – a salad boat sandwich. Little eggy balls sizzle in round holes on a special griddle; these are Takoyaki or octopus balls, a legacy from the Japanese occupation. Apparently there are fried taro balls filled with custard too – how did I miss those?

On one corner, a man hunches over, sorting through a pile of curly, pink water chestnuts (a variety called caltrop) which look like flying bats. They are roasted until fluffy inside then cracked open for their single seed.  A young guy behind the ‘roasted beef’ stall checks his phone with one hand and snatching up a kind of flame thrower with the other. It’s like he’s in a club as he gyrates his whole body and the torch follows suit in a circular arc above the pieces of meat.

There’s a sudden waft of a quite revolting smell. I know without looking that this is the legendary ‘sticky tofu’. It’s a popular delicacy and once you encounter the pervasive aroma you notice whiffs of it everywhere.  I hear it’s delicious but am not brave enough to try it this time, without a peg for my nose.

Watching cooks preparing oyster omelettes is mesmerising but the queues are forbidding (see below). Vibha and I decide to try beef noodles instead, which are a traditional dish found throughout Taipei.  We sit at a wobbly table squeezed next to the pavement to eat. The round slices of beef, marbled with fat, are slow-cooked making a rich, stock bath for the noodles and greens.

Wandering out at the other side of the market, food gives way to different stalls. Children perch on stools playing brightly lit games, colours flash and jingles blare – a kind of outdoor real life experience of a computer game. Washing up bowls of water are lined up on the pavement with little fishing rods at hand for people to try and hook a live shrimp. I scoot past a woman, she’s laughing while shooting small coloured ovals out of a wall with a gun. The main street beyond is quiet and calm after the frenzy of the market but I realise that the experience was not intimidating in any way. There was no jostling or pushing, stall holders smiled, there was no hard-selling just helpfulness, it was a pleasure to take in the myriad of sights and aromas the Taiwanese way.

Try an oyster omelette at a Michelin-starred street cafe

We really want to try the famous oyster omelette at the Ning Xia market, but so does everyone else.  There are a couple of similar street cafes which have a snake of expectant diners outside but only one has a Michelin star and that’s Yuan Huan Pien. The wait can be up to an hour and a half if you go on a weekend so we come back on Wednesday at 6pm and are seated at a shared formica table within 15 minutes. The cooking takes place butted up to the front window. The chef sprinkles oil, cracks eggs and scatters green leaves methodically and with a flourish, as if being filmed for Chef’s Table.  This is a Taiwanese delicacy and there were covert, inquisitive glances from the women by us at the table. A  ‘special sauce’ thickened with powdered sweet potato is poured over the top. Personally, I find the gelatinous texture of the sauce really challenging, while Eddie and Vibha tuck in with relish. I think the taste and texture is polarising but I’m glad I tried it.

Rong’s pork liver stall and Liu Yu Zai deep fried taro balls are also recognised by Michelin.

A sense of Taipei’s varied past on Dihua street

We step out of the taxi into the warm sunshine into the Dadaocheng district. It was once the very heart of Taipei and Dihua is one of its oldest streets; it’s easy to imagine the grandeur of those times by looking up at the various styles of building. There is so much to photograph, a mixture of architecture influenced by waves of traders. They arrived the late 1880s when the Tamsui Harbor was built nearby in and became the most important commercial port in Taiwan, especially for lucrative tea exports.

Thousands of people crowd into this narrow street a few weeks before the lunar New Year and flock to a bazaar to buy the traditional herbs, sweets, fabric and fruit for their celebrations. But today it’s quiet and, after a foray into the dark basement of the Yongle market (see below), we meander down the road jumping back onto the covered pavements when beeped at by a yellow taxi or buzzing scooter.

man weighing out chinese medicine

Blinking in the sunlight,  I raise my eyes above the modern red and yellow signs and arches over the pavements. The old red brick and carved stones are the story tellers of the past. There are long windows, their wood panels precise like graph paper, intricate wooden carvings and swallow-tail roofs from the Qing dynasty even some stucco finishes of early Modernism. Also are rows of elaborate facades with sculptural flourishes and ornate cupolas of the Baroque revival built by the Japanese during their occupation. The Art Deco lines of A.S. Watson and Co., built in 1917, was the first Western pharmacy in Taiwan (in contrast to the many traditional Chinese medicine shops further down the street). It has been restored impeccably inside and out and you can stop there for tea and scones (a nod to British involvement in the tea trade). However not all the buildings have been rescued from decades of neglect when the area was deemed of insufficient cultural value and plans were drawn up to demolish them. Thankfully, Dadaocheng was saved and the layers of peeling paint and slightly ramshackle look, especially in the side streets, is something I’d like to go back and explore.

The shops selling Chinese medicine display their potions, leaves and unctions on little tables along the covered pavements. Many display the tongue-shaped, orange plastic wrapped ovals of dried mullet roe (Karasumi), considered a delicacy.  We enter one shop and step back in time, the walls are lined with wooden drawers and the shopkeepers completely ignore us, totally engrossed in weighing out mixtures of dried bark and funghi on brass handheld scales. The business has been running, unchanged for over 100 years, an abacus lies on the counter a legacy of a computer-less age.

It’s hard to believe that the compact Xia-Hai City God Temple, which dates from 1859, contains six hundred deities. The dipping curve of the tiled roof, topped with a pair of dragons like curlicues, is squeezed in between the buildings.  The presence of Yue Lao, the God of Love, explains the throng of younger people who follow an intricate ritual, lighting sticks of incense at the smoking black cauldron on the pavement, praying for their Mr or Miss Right to come along. If I had known about the ‘Wife of the City’ god, who has the power to domesticate husbands, I might have nipped in to burn an offering myself.

Married couple

Just married

Innovative small businesses have started to spring up in Dadaocheng. We duck into Salt Peanuts, where the counter is made from recycled wood, fairtrade coffee is served along with their famous brunches and cinnamon buns. The shady courtyard is shared with Peacock bistro which is also environmentally conscious and boasts local, organic produce, fusion cuisine and mean cocktails.  Alternative, cheaper refreshment can be found on the nearby street corner stand where oranges are squeezed to order, at speed, with a vintage press.

Eddie is bemused that we’ve taken so long exploring just one part of the street and says his usual tourists breeze down very quickly. For Vibha and I, a couple of hours stroll only scratches the surface of the oldest street in Taipei; we’d love to dig deeper and have a whole day (or even more) to explore tea makers and tea houses, museums, other temples, a puppet theatre, pastry shops, a Presbyterian church, a Michelin starred noodle house, a long-standing ice cream shop and even a gin maker that are all crammed into a few narrow streets.

Deep dive into Taiwanese food at the Yongle market

Some of our time in Dadaocheng is spent in the Yongle market; we go down the steps and enter another world of food. At the front, a fried chicken stall does a brisk trade (fried chicken is another Taiwanese obsession). A lady adds boiled eggs of a vermilion hue to trays of crisp thighs and ‘oil rice’ (you fan). This is a traditional gift for new mothers – which there seem to be a lot of given the queue.

Meat stalls display their wares in abundance. A butcher peers out from a flourescent square of light, cleaver in hand, huge sides of ribs hanging above his head, intestines dangling, pork legs complete with trotters spilling over the counter.

We see men sitting on high stools devouring noodles but a visit here is an insight into what people eat in their homes.  A woman pulls balls of elastic dough and deftly swirls them onto circular hotplates with her bare hands, making thin pancakes. A serene gentleman with a crinkled face is totally engrossed in dumpling making, pleating the edges and lining them up in impeccably neat lines.

On a table, metal trays contain small balls, long golden cylinders, pinkish cubes, orange-striped sticks and thin squares like crackers – all things made of fish. On another, a row of plastic bags are filled with cooked noodles. Long beans, kohlrabi stalks, Chinese cabbage and fresh leaves lie in baskets. Bunches of sausages in varying colours hang over tubs of liver. A man feeding unidentified meat through a mincer seems unconcerned by the menacing blades whirring near his fingertips.

The Yongle market was founded in 1896 and housed over a thousand fabric merchants. Although diminished, the floors above the food market are still dedicated to tailors, silks, cottons and threads. Eddie tells us that fashion designers shop there for raw materials.

A bird’s eye view from the Taipei 101 tower

Looking down over a city really gives a sense of the place and there is plenty of window space on all sides of the 101 tower to get the measure of Taipei. The city buildings are clustered together and surrounded by mountains which you don’t get a sense of at ground level. You get to the entrance through a gleaming, luxury mall and Stephen, our other guide, tells me that the building is 100% green. It’s a sudden contrast between old and new Taipei as we’re whisked up in the world’s fastest lift.

view of Taipei

The 101 tower was the tallest building in the world when completed in 2004 until overtaken by the Burj Khalifa in Dubai in 2010. There’s a post box at the top so I quickly scribble some cards to my family. We scale new heights by going up to the observatory deck and it’s lovely to be out in the sunshine and get a more precipitous view while also watching some girls who are absorbed in taking selfies. On the way down we pass an enormous sphere which at 660 tons is the world’s largest and heaviest wind damper, anchoring the building from swaying in high winds (a worrying thought).

Down on the pavement there is a large love heart attracting a queue for Instagram poses. I give this a miss and get talking to a group of schoolboys who are collecting donations for a local, charity project. Their English is perfect (they come from the most prestigious private school in Taipei) and we have a really enjoyable, lively conversation. “Wow, you live in Dubai!” they exclaim before suggesting a group photo. More posing is going on in front of multi-coloured tiled walls. A group of women with their arms around each other roar with laughter; an old couple put their heads together in a quiet, contented way that’s lovely to obverse.

Lunch at Din Tai Fung

At the bottom of some steps in the basement of the 101 tower is the entrance to Din Tai Fung. The queues for this famous dumpling restaurant, which was started in Taipei, are always long at the branch in Dubai and here the lobby is full of people waiting to get a table. They mill around the shops checking the sign that displays the next number and how long the wait is (over an hour). Being with a guide means we go straight into the restaurant which is large, tables close together and people busily engrossed in eating. The dumpling makers are behind glass; dressed in white, wearing blue facemasks (so ubiquitous here) and pleating wrappers precisely at at speed. It looks like a space age factory and is utterly mesmerising. Tearing myself away, I sit at our table and the dishes of food are delivered thick and fast. They have been chosen for us so we just tuck in. Eddie demonstrates exactly how to eat the soup dumplings as there is a knack – not mastering it means risking a chin or t-shirt dripping with broth. I’d always wondered what the fuss was about but here the dumplings are sublime and I can’t stop myself from eating countless quantities of them, especially the pork-filled Xiao Long Bao. Pineapple cake and chocolate-filled dumplings leave us rolling out the door.

Contemplation at Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall

Walking through the gardens, it’s good to move our legs after such a feast and we climb the long, steep flight of stairs at the side of the Chiang Kai Shek memorial hall. The size of it and the towering, white walls made of Taiwanese marble is dramatic, causing a crick in your neck as you look up.

The 89 steps, match the age of Chiang Kai-shek when he died; he is a controversial figure in history. It’s quiet as we ascend, breathlessly, except for a young couple draping themselves over a bannister, poses captured by their photographer. Turning the corner we see crowds gathered at the entrance for the hourly changing of the guard in front of a bronze statue of Chiang Kai-shek (intentionally resembling the Lincoln statue in the US) but there is no way we can see over the throng. We’d rather gaze out, over a carved, marble mural of swirling clouds that cascades between the two staircases to Democracy boulevard, a wide area flanked by symmetrical gardens, borders clipped and lined with precise topiary. It leads the eye to the curved red roofs of the National Concert Hall and the National Theatre, both decorated in elaborate Chinese style; they stand on either side of Liberty Square ending with a grand gate at the entrance.

The whole site is promoted as a place dedicated to art and leisure. People practice Tai Chi, play chess, birdwatch and feed the wildlife. There are keep-fit paths and open spaces for exercise like stair climbing events organised via the ‘Meet Up’ app.  As we stroll down, there is an excellent jazz band playing in the middle of the boulevarde with the Memorial building as a backdrop.

For all the beauty and enjoyment of this place, the Memorial stands in recognition of an authoritarian leader who crushed any dissent and presided over a time of great suffering. This included the February 28 Massacre and four decades – the longest period of martial law in world history – of ‘White Terror’. The deaths, disappearances and imprisonment of tens of thousands of people is still fresh in the collective memory of the Taiwanese people.

Given time there are extensive landscaped gardens to explore, with woods, waterfalls, ponds and ornamental bridges, but again we scratch the surface of this place. I don’t see any food places on our visit, but this would be the perfect place for a picnic. The sun is starting to go down as we leave and we don’t even squeeze in the obligatory pose in front of the main gate. A lazy afternoon’s exploration here would be a wonderful thing.

Submerge in hot springs at Beitou

It’s dark when our driver drops us at the door of the Radium Kagaya hotel and we are greeted by some women dressed like Japanese geishas and welcomed into the building. Immediately soothed by the calm interior of blonde wood and glass we say goodbye to Eddie and we’re whisked up in the lift, very unsure of what a Japanese hot spring experience is.

Beitou is part of Taipei but the hot spring village is in a verdant valley at the foot of a mountain range with a dormant volcano and close to a National Park. The area was developed during the Japanese rule of Taiwan. It went downhill for a time but today it’s a major tourism destination; a place where many locals from Taipei come to enjoy relaxation and a getaway from the city.

In a private room I put on my swimming costume and slip into a kind of sloping bath full of naturally scalding hot spring water. In my screen-centred life, it’s unusual to not be plugged into something distracting like a podcast or scrolling, so just lying there immersed in searingly hot water forced me to quieten my mind. I can see the appeal of the solitude, sharing the experience in a larger pool outside or gentle chatting with a group of friends. In other rooms there are more traditional, round, wooden tubs where people wallow for hours. Eddie is amazed that we’ve been such a short time and, with regret, we refuse a tea ceremony as we’re still full from our enormous lunch.

This would be a charming place to stay for longer and to experience the natural beauty of the area.

Serenity at the Bao’an temple

The Dalongdong streets are eerily quiet. We peer through the railings at the darkened Confucius temple which is open during the day and is now closed. In contrast, the Bao’an temple across the street gleams like a jewel and can be visited, free of charge, from early morning to late at night.  Now given an award by UNESCO, it has been restored beautifully and the wooden carvings, dipping roof, intricate stonework of swirling dragons and lions and elaborate paintings glow in the candlelight of offerings as well as the electric variety.

Motorbikes driving past the Baoan temple

An impression of the temple – without a tripod it was difficult to take great pictures the dark

The story of the temple’s evolution mirrors the turbulent history of Taipei.  From its humble beginnings as a small, wooden shrine of worship by immigrants travelling across the sea from Tong-An in the Fujian province of China, it was rebuilt as a temple, and place of safety, as the population in Dalongdong grew. It survived occupation by the Japanese when they took it over for non-religious purposes, bombing during World War II, and as a shelter for homeless refugees for a couple of decades. A chequered restoration initiative gained traction in the 1980s and led to the exquisite and flawless complex of temples and shrines of today.

It’s a sensual overload walking through the carved gateway, with vibrant colours, stirring paintings and so much gold glowing through the mist of incense and scent of pink Taiwanese lilies. The layout is in accordance with the principle of Feng Shui which is said to attract good luck and ward off misfortune; it certainly feels like being enveloped in a cloak of calm tranquility.  Without a tripod it’s difficult to take really good pictures in the dark so I wander around taking it all in, marveling at the different shrines, extravagantly ornamented rooms with altars bathed in gold, each dedicated to different deities, many to the natural forces of nature and those of daily life, from The Kitchen God to the Goddess of Childbirth.   Worshippers give their offerings quietly and kneel to honour the gods, particularly the Bao Sheng Emperor to whom the temple is dedicated, who they pray to for good health. The visit, for me, is a spiritual experience in the modern sense and I leave with a lighter step.

If you only have time for one visit, the Bao’an temple is considered one of the top to visit in a city that’s home to many beautiful temples, dedicated to a blend of religions.

Visiting Taiwan

Two days in Taipei was just enough to get a good impression of all that the city has to offer but I really want to return for a deep dive into this fascinating place. Overall Taiwan was clean, friendly and had such a diverse range of things to do and experience.

I’ve been recommending a visit, very enthusiastically, to everyone who has asked me about my trip (that’s what I’m doing if you see me in the middle of a supermarket aisle nattering). The story of our travels out into the rest of the country will follow – there are so many really special things to share. I’ll put a link here once it’s live (and pop it into my monthly letter with some extra details too).  Let me know if there’s anything else I can help with.

More info

Street markets: Ning Xia, near Dihua street (see above) is where Vibha and I went three times. Shilin Night Market has over 500 street food vendors in an underground food court. Raohe Night market, like Ning Xia, has three stalls that feature in the Michelin guide. Tonghua Night Market and Nanjichang Night Market are two more but you could spend at least a week exploring and not visit them all.

Where to stay: We stayed at the arTree boutique hotel which was really unique in style as everything was designed around nature. It was really comfortable with very spacious rooms, luxurious baths and intelligent loos! Very Zen. Breakfast was a large buffet selection of Taiwanese food.

Hiring a guide: Our guide Eddie soon tuned into what Vibha and I were really interested in as well as imparting a wealth of knowledgeable about this multi-layered city. Having a guide helped us jump some queues too (email me for Eddie’s Whatsapp details).

Restaurants: We ate street food, in the main, while in Taipei but visited the Peacock Bistro on Duahin street serving fusion food with organic ingredients, homemade preserves and great cocktails. Salt Peanuts, for coffee, buns and brunch is across the courtyard. Din Tai Fung is in the 101 building.

Further reference: Josh Ellis Photography for some beautiful pictures of the Baoan temple. There’s a comprehensive guide to the Beitou Hot Springs on Spiritual Travels (will make you want to go immediately).

Note: This trip and the flight was provided by The Taiwanese Tourist Board. Thanks to everyone who made the whole experience really special. All views remain my own, as always.

memorial hall in Taipei

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A dessert from Brittany – how to make Far Breton

November 14, 2019

Far Breton with eggs sugar and tea

We weren’t at a small, artisan producer where I stuck my rubber-gloved hands into a huge wooden churn and helped to heave out a gleaming yellow mass. We weren’t at a fine French restaurant.

This was a pristine factory with immaculate steel, metal stairs, and quiet automation where we padded around cocooned in plastic coverings from head to toe. Yet it was here that I tasted a dessert that had me begging for the recipe long after returning to Dubai. Far Breton.

This whole tale starts with butter and a tour of Brittany and parts of Western France famed for its lush, green grass. This particular day started with a visit to Echiré where the eponymous butter has been made, at the same location, since 1894. It was very hands-on, as mentioned above, and we delved deep into the history and the process, watching every stage of creating the creamy, salty butter that is savoured by good food lovers and top chefs. The Japanese are wild about it too.

By the time we got to La Toile a beurre restaurant in Ancenis we were ravenous. We ate well – meaty dorade fillets with citron confit, buttery mashed potato, farmhouse chicken infused with thyme, local strawberries in a nest of rhubarb and biscuit to name a few dishes – so sated and in post lunch stupor we reached the Paysan Breton butter-making facility.

Paysan Breton

Being led round the factory where one of the biggest brands of butter in France is made was quite a contrast to our earlier visit. However, Paysan Breton is a cooperative, co-owned by the farmers that supply the milk (which is all from grass-fed cows). The pats of butter are shaped to resemble handmade ones with curved edges and ridges that the wooden paddles would have made in the past.  There are five different types of butter in the range including one flavoured with salt that’s traditionally harvested by hand from the nearby marshes of Guerand, one with sea salt, and a demi-sel which is so important to this recipe. It’s this value put on ingredients and provenance that’s so impressive from a major manufacturer.

Returning to a conference room we were rather daunted to see another spread of food but it’s amazing how your appetite can be rekindled. We tasted and compared all the butters and then attacked the traditional butter-based dishes from the region.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating could have been coined for Far Breton.  Unassuming in looks with a dark brown sunken top, once cut into there was everything that appeals to a custard lover like me. A creaminess of eggs, milk and vanilla with deep, goey prunes lurking delectably at the bottom. The maker of this perfect pudding was a factory worker called Justin.  The memory of the Far Breton stayed with me, I needed to make it myself.

So one Friday morning, Tiffany (a fellow butter tourist) and I rolled up our sleeves to make the recipe, translated into English for us from Justin’s original.

tray with tea, sugar and far breton

Good ingredients make a difference

Far Breton, also known as Far aux pruneaux, is a very simple recipe but success depends on using the right ingredients:

  • Flour – plain, white flour, organic if possible.
  • Sugar – caster sugar (you could use the golden type).
  • Butter –   The last coating of melted butter poured over the top adds another layer of buttery flavour and leaves little crunches of salt so using demi-sel (slightly salted) is important. It needs to be a good quality butter like Paysan Breton (available in Carrefour in the UAE) as the Far Breton depends on it for its taste.  The irregular grains of salt add to the texture, but you don’t want it to be too salty so regular salted would be OTT.   Perhaps you could use unsalted butter and add a little sea salt of your own – from reading the packets I think it might be a 2% ratio – however I haven’t tested this method myself.
  • Eggs – free range, organic.
  • Milk – full fat, organic, local if possible. In UK I would use something like Jess’s Ladies (winner of the best producer in the Observer Food Monthly awards 2019). In the UAE, Organiliciouz local organic milk.
  • Vanilla – As always the quality of vanilla is really important especially in such a simple dessert as this where the eggs, butter, flour and sugar are a lake in which the prunes sink, like juicy pebbles, at the bottom. There is nowhere to hide. Use a teaspoon of vanilla extract (here’s how to make your own), or the seeds scraped from a vanilla pod or two (like we did) or a sachet of good quality vanilla sugar (which the original recipe calls for). DO NOT under any circumstances use vanilla flavouring or essence.

Important:  before you race off to gather the ingredients and put the oven on, please note you MUST use demi-sel butter*. The last coating of melted butter poured over the top leaves flavour and little crunches of salt.

tea, milk, butter, far breton

Far aux Breton

  • Servings: 4
  • Difficulty: easy
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Also known as Far aux Pruneaux, a traditional dessert from Brittany, France, made with simple ingredients. A celebration of delicious dairy produce


Ingredients

  • 4 eggs
  • 60g “demi-sel” butter (plus extra for greasing)
  • 260g plain flour
  • 240g caster sugar
  • Seeds scraped from 1 or 2 vanilla pods
  • 1 litre of full-cream milk
  • Dried prunes 250g – 500g according to taste (I used 300g)

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 200°C.
  2. Beat the eggs in a jug. Melt the butter, either in a pan on a very low heat or on a low setting in the microwave. Do not let it sizzle.
  3. Put the flour, sugar and vanilla into a large bowl (or the bowl of your food mixer). If making by hand, make a well in the middle, pour the eggs into it then start to gradually incorporate the flour into the eggs by bringing it in from the sides, a little at a time.  Alternatively do this in your food mixer on a slow speed.
  4. When your batter is smooth add 20g of the melted butter, then pour in the milk slowly while stirring with a whisk or wooden spoon. This can also be done on slow speed in the food mixer.
  5. Butter a baking dish generously, then pour in the batter. Place the prunes into the dish, spacing them evenly into the batter.
  6. Bake on a medium shelf for 50 minutes.
  7. Remove from the oven and brush the rest of the melted butter over the top of the Far aux Breton evenly. Spread right to the edges so that some butter can seep down the sides of the dish.
  8. Place the dish back in the oven for an additional 10 minutes.  Remove and leave to cool to room temperature before serving.

Best eaten the same day. It solidifies if kept in the fridge.

Far Breton

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This is just a small jigsaw piece in my journey in butter. Tell me if you’d like to know more. I didn’t know there was so much to learn about such a simple ingredient.

Favourite comfort food when nothing else will do? Some surprising answers revealed

October 28, 2019
marmite toast and tea ready for breakfast
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You may be thinking shepherd’s pie with a fluffy, crunchy mash hat, a bowl of soothing dahl, a dish of slippery, spicy noodles, a full English roast. But we’re not talking about that kind of comfort food. I mean the thing you want when you’ve taken to your bed or crawled through the day feeling distinctly below average. You need to eat but you fancy nothing – except that one thing. It has no rhyme or reason. A deep craving that often makes no sense at all but it’s the only edible thing to tempt your palette. If you’re lucky it will be made for you and brought to you on a tray to eat in bed. We’re not talking high end cuisine here. It could be from a tin, a packet or a jar.
I pondered this question as I found myself in that situation, savouring each bite of Marmite toast. Brown toast, maybe sour dough if I’m lucky but anything will do. The butter has been hacked off the block so some of it has melted and some is floating like little yellow islands. The Marmite is glossy, dark and scraped on in exactly the right measure,  not too thick, not too thin. Crunchy, creamy, buttery, savoury, salty and restorative.
I asked a few people I like and admire to share this inner secret.  It’s interesting how many draw on childhood memories, reaching for an edible comfort blanket when life was simpler. I think it’s a confession of what we crave when we feel most vulnerable so I’m very grateful for their honesty. Here are their answers, in no particular order…
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Leyla Kazim – The Cutlery Chronicles

Leyla Kazim of The Cutlery Chronicles a beautiful food and travel blog. Among her long list of accomplishments she’s been a judge for BBC Food & Farming Awards 2019 and a judge on Channel 4’s brand new TV series “Beat The Chef” She lives in London (when not discovering delicious things round the globe).

“My ‘go to’ comfort food is a Cypriot pasta dish, and probably in my top 3 noodle / pasta dishes ever. We in my family call it ‘Turkish macaroni’. It’s just five ingredients and is incredible.

You finely grate halloumi and mix it with a ton of dried mint. You boil some pasta in chicken stock but don’t drain it, you want to keep it pretty wet. When the pasta is cooked, add the cheese and mint mix. Add inordinate amounts of lemon juice, fully combine and that’s it. A chicken-y, salty, lemony, carby hot plate of pure comfort. It is THE best.”
Find the recipe on Leyla’s blog).

 

a plate of halloumi pasta

Image by Leyla Kazim – Cutlery Chronicles

 


Diana Henry

Diana Henry is an award-winning food writer, journalist, broadcaster and the author of ten cookbooks. She grew up in Northern Ireland and now lives in London. I have a lot of cookbooks, including four of Diana’s which all have well splattered pages from use. My collection pales into insignificance compared to hers of over 4000 which line the walls of her house in multiple book cases.
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“Cheese on toast is my thing (even toast with Dairylea cheese spread, shock horror). Also, fish fingers, baked beans and Heinz tomato soup. You seem to go back to the things you had as a child or teenager. If I make a proper meal for comfort it is generally shepherd’s pie or a baked potato with butter and yoghurt, grated cheddar and spring onions.
A cup of tea – quite sweet – also always soothes, as does a glass of milk.”
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collection of Diana Henry cookbooks

My collection of Diana Henry cookbooks

Read more about a visit to Diana’s house and her book Salt Sugar Smoke about preserving including a recipe for purple pickled eggs.

Sara Tasker – Me and Orla

Sara Tasker is a photographer, writer and business coach offering advice for a huge community of online creatives. She’s an Instagram expert (which is a understatement) and, if you’ve been anywhere near the platform, you’ll know her as Me and Orla.  I joined Sara’s inaugural online ‘Instaretreat’ and have benefited from her wise words on an almost daily basis.  She lives in rural in Yorkshire in a house with a cosy (and Instagrammable – check her IGTV) kitchen.
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“My absolute favourite comfort-in-a-bowl is hash browns and baked beans. Bonus points if there’s crispy bacon too, but I’m honestly happy either way.”
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a bowl on hash browns and baked beans about to be eaten

Image by Sara Tasker – Me and Orla

 


Kellie Anderson – Food to Glow

Kellie Anderson is a health educator, food writer and recipe developer with a beautiful blog called Food to Glow. I’ve known her from the early days of our blogs and have no idea how she comes up with delicious healthy recipes consistently while also working as health educationist and nutrition adviser with Maggie’s Cancer Caring Centres. She’s from Florida but met up for a cuppa the summer in Edinburgh, Scotland where she now lives.
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“I would say toast too, from my homemade sourdough bread. But, upon reflection, I have a stash of grits – stoneground, dried white corn that’s a southern US staple – that I turn to for comfort. Fortunately I rarely need to dip into it – thank God, because I have to bring it over specially from the States so it is very precious. But when I do it works like a magic balm to soothe me. Grits, with a big knob of good salted butter and grinds of black pepper, remind of being at my grandmother’s kitchen table. The breakfast table would always be overflowing with fantastically fresh food from her huge garden, but there was always grits and fried eggs from the hens scratching around outside. Just typing this is making me hungry!”
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Not grits but definitely comforting. Creamy roasted cauliflower soup recipe and image by Kellie – Food to Glow

 


Claire Robinson – Weekend Candy

Claire Robinson is the founder and editor of UK online travel magazine Weekend Candy. Claire’s mantra is “two days – make them count” – and she does. You can find a treasure of ideas for short trips in the UK on the site. Claire’s an award-winning writer, advertising creative and digital creative director.

She’s worked on many creative campaigns over the years for comfort food and drink brands (think Lurpak, Anchor Cream, Pukka Teas, Carte Noir and Philadelphia).

We met up at Blogtacular but Claire lives in my home county of Gloucestershire in the UK.a

 
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“My go-to comfort food is far from fancy but as close to healing magic as you can get: a good old-fashioned, please don’t judge me for it, crisp butty. Yup. Slice me some thick white tiger bread, cement it with real butter, layer with salt and vinegar crisps, and dollop with mayo. Voila! Bob’s your uncle, Fanny’s your aunt and all things in life feel delicious again.”
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Claire from weekend candy on a boat

Claire on a Weekend Candy weekend. Perhaps the secret sandwich is in the canal boat?


Arva and Farida Ahmed from Frying Pan Adventures

My friends Arva and Farida Ahmed from Frying Pan Adventures were pioneers when they set up the first food tour company in Dubai. It was so unprecedented that the trade license bods were at a loss for a while. I’ve lost track of the amount of tours I’ve done with them – the original and best food tour company in Dubai. They live in an area of Dubai that’s chock a block with little restaurants of tempting food – and they all deliver within half an hour. Their extended family is nearby so if they are under the weather they all support each other. I say all this as it explains why they sent lists of comfort foods!

Arva

“1. Tomato soup, the super processed cup-a-soup kinds, with croutons, less water than the ratio recommended on the packet so it’s really thick (I love if some of the bits of soup powder remain clumpy cause it’s like a knob of concentrated flavour) – alongside 2 slices of well-browned toast with salted butter.
2. Grilled chicken wings with lemon and garlic. Dipped in hummus and Arabic style red shatta (chilli sauce), yes in both simultaneously.
3. Chicken Won Tons with soy sauce and chilli – the kind at Din Tai Fung.”

Farida

“My go to comfort foods when I am under the weather (or when I have the blues) are:
Home-made khichdi (the forefather of kedgree & perhaps even koshari!). Simple rice and lentils (moong, masoor or toor/tuvar) cooked with turmeric, a pinch of salt and softened to a slightly mushy consistency with desi ghee. Mum will sometimes temper this with cumin and onions for added flavor and aroma.
I usually like to pair that with Pepper Rasam (the forefather of Mulligatawny some would say) which is a soupy concoction that consists of tomatoes, ground whole black pepper corns, cumin, garlic (optional) and tamarind; tempered with ghee, red chillies, curry leaves and mustard seeds.
These have always served to rejuvenate my flagging spirits and bring back zen to my soul :)”
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Samantha Wood – Foodiva

I met Sam just before she set up the first independent, impartial restaurant review site in the UAE, about 10 years ago.  With more restaurants per capita in Dubai than anywhere else in the world, intelligent and entertaining reviews are vital and it’s become a trusted, authoritative guide which has, deservedly, won many awards. You can also join her for high-end food tours. I asked where she got the recipe for her bowl of comfort (see end of quote). Due to KP’s distant Cypriot heritage, we make it at Christmas – find his family recipe here.
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I grew up mostly in Cyprus (and the Caribbean), and the one dish that is etched in my memory from my childhood and that I still make to this day is avgolemono soup. A dish that takes a patient cook to concoct – all thanks to my Cypriot mother’s fair hand, as well as my grand-mother’s. Avgolemono literally translates to egg and lemon soup – however chicken and rice are also key ingredients. A chicken-infused rice broth was whisked with farm-fresh eggs and the juice of lemons from our neighbourhood orchard. Pure soul food – so comforting and therapeutic that I was always begging for seconds and could happily finish off the pot by myself.
I buy every new Greek or Cypriot cookbook that is released, so am always trying out new recipes! The latest one is from Georgina Hayden’s Taverna cookbook.”
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avgolemono soup with ingredients eggs and lemons

Avgolemono soup – click for recipe

 

I hope you enjoyed these answers that are a small jigsaw puzzle piece in everyone’s lives formed by a myriad of things from upbringing, tradition, television advertising to what was available at the corner shop. I’m really very grateful to everyone who gave me their candid responses to share with you.
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Here’s where to find everyone:
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So will you share your ‘comfort food in the darkest hour’ with me?  Confess all – no judgement!