Friday, 16 May 2008

How fat is Yorkshire?

It seems to be the year for celebrities coming to Yorkshire telling us how to lose weight. First there was Jamie going to Rotherham for his new tv series Ministry of Food. Now it seems Sarah Ferguson has been hanging out in Hull for the last six months trying to help a family lose weight. I'm starting to get quite scared to go to the chippy, in case Gillian McKeith's in there, hiding behind the vinegar and waiting to pounce.

It made me wonder, anyway. Is Yorkshire that much fatter than everyone else? Or have they just come here because Yorkshire folk are plain speaking and salt of the earth and have accents that come over well on tv?

Well, it turns out that Hull is the fattest place in England. Not the rest of Yorkshire - apart from Middlesbrough at number 10, none of the other fattest towns is in the region (though 6 are in Lancashire, so there). However, according to the Yorkshire and Humber Public Health Observatory, which measures these things (presumably from a tower, with a telescope), we are basically fatter than most of the country, as well as doing less exercise and eating fewer fruit and vegetables.

Interestingly, though, it seems from this report that though Yorkshire adults should lay off the roast pork and crackling, Yorkshire and Humberside children actually have the lowest rate of obesity of any of the regions. The reason is obvious. We keep them thin, so they can fit into all the little crevices when we send them down the mines.

Monday, 12 May 2008

Eating winkles with a pin

Spent most of Sunday on the south beach at Bridlington.

Fish and chips taste pretty good in a beach tent when you've been swimming in the North Sea and need some stodge. (Must be the Yorkshire terroir again.)
The 1912 sailing coble the Three Brothers was out in the morning, criss-crossing the bay. After lunch we headed into town to see her in the harbour. One of the fishmongers near the harbour was selling bags of winkles for 80p, complete with pin.
Eating winkles is fun. First you use the pin to flick off the operculum, the shell-like trapdoor that covers the opening. Then you root around with the pin to find the winkle and pull it out. They're narrow and fragile towards the end so you have to go very, very carefully to get them out intact.
It's best not to look too closely at them, because they look gunky and snotty and not the kind of thing you would really want to eat. But the taste is great - delicate, fresh and salty, with none of the rubberiness of whelks or mussels. They slip down like tiny oysters.
The MCS gives winkles a rating of 2, which means 'sustainable - eat more!' As if I needed an excuse.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

How to make perfect crackling

It must be Pork Week on Yorkshire Food. On Sunday I had the most fabulous roast pork, the meat all scented with fennel and garlic and masses of fluffy, crisp crackling. And I made it all by myself!

Scotts have to take some of the credit, since the feast started off as 1kg of their boned and rolled pork loin (£7.50ish). It's not true that you need a big joint to make decent crackling, by the way. Though if you love crackling as much as I do you might need a big one to make enough. I take it for granted you will buy decent pork with fat under the skin.

The rules are not complicated. You don't need to get it out of the fridge yesterday and pour boiling water on it. Honestly, it's this easy.

1. The skin has to be properly scored.

If the butcher hasn't done it already, use a sharp knife or Stanley knife to cut incisions through the rind into the fat. You can be rough and ready because you won't see the scoring when it's cooked. About 5mm-1cm apart is right. Simon Hopkinson explains: 'As the fat melts and starts to bubble under the scored rind, it pushes up between the strips, frazzling them.'

2. It needs to be dry.

If you leave it festering in its plastic bag until just before you need it, it will be soggy and end up like leather. Fridges are dry environments, so you could leave it in there, unwrapped, on a plate. Maybe take it out of the plastic bag an hour or so early and blot it hard with kitchen roll.

3. The oven needs to be hot.

I had mine at 240c for the 20 minute sizzle then turned it down to a positively tepid 220 for another 50 minutes. You don't need to worry about the meat drying out - there's too much fat around for that.

It worked fantastically - 100% of the skin crackled. When I carved, it came off the meat like a big moist, airy, crackling tunnel. I had salted it slightly, which helped with the flavour, and rubbed the ends of the meat with a mixture of crushed garlic and fennel seeds. Because it is Yorkshire in spring, I served it with rhubarb, which turns out to beat apple sauce hands down - it is just so much pinker and fruitier.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

So what's really in a Yorkshire salad?

Have you ever heard of Yorkshire salad?

I hadn't, until last Sunday when we had lunch in the cafe at Sledmere House. Sledmere is a decent eighteenth century pile in the East Riding. Like all the best country houses, what you see isn't actually what you get - Sledmere was gutted by fire in 1911. It was carefully rebuilt, however, and stands today as a proper country house and tourist attraction, with a play area, extensive gift shop and very nice cafe.

Now, a Yorkshire salad, according to the menu, is a salad with York ham and piccalilli. This works very well. While psychologically, piccalilli may evoke Boxing Day and the dried-up crusty bits around the rim of a jar that's only opened once a year, it's actually a lovely thing to have with ham. Its mustardy, vinegary bite cuts through the fat sweetness of the ham very nicely. This was also the largest portion of ham I'd ever seen - if I'd laid it out flat it would have covered half the table. Great value. I'd recommend it.

So when I got home I googled Yorkshire salad. Was this something Sledmere had invented, or had I been missing something? Was this one of the world's great salads, recently pushed to the sidelines by upstarts Caesar, Waldorf and ni├žoise?

I didn't get an awful lot of hits. On the Sheffield forum (Sheffield has a forum?) Banjo Griner enthused about eating Yorkshire salad with Yorkshire pudding - 'That's finely diced onion and cucumber steeped in vinegar by the way. Very traditional way of serving Yorkies.' and Supertyke agreed: 'My dear old mum used to love yorkshire salad B.G. - And it really is a tasty way to eat yorkies - (puddings not dogs!!) though it doesn't particularly sound appetising - folks should try it...'

Elsewhere in cyberspace, Alison Hammond gave a recipe - lettuce, onions, mint, sugar and vinegar.

I can't help thinking some combination of these recipes is called for. Caesar salad has its croutons, so how about serving Sledmere-style salad with a Yorkshire pudding on top?

Friday, 2 May 2008

Stand by your ham

I had an email today from the Pigs Are Worth It campaign, because I signed their petition for higher prices to be paid to farmers for pork.
The problem is that feed costs are almost twice as high as they were a year ago. However, as the campaign reports,
'Due to price pressure from supermarkets, farmers are now being paid around £1.10 per kg for a pig that now costs them £1.44 per kg to produce. For every pig a farmer rears and sells, he is likely to lose over £20.'
The campaign is asking supermarkets,
'to pay an extra 34p per kg to help preserve British pig farming. If this price
rise were passed on to shoppers, it would only mean between 7p and 17p on the
pack price of typical pork products.'
I have every sympathy with British farmers, and it's not that I personally mind paying extra for the higher welfare pork which is produced in this country. However, there is one thing about this campaign that sets my teeth on edge. This is, that the way it is pitched buys right into the supermarkets' claim that they have no alternative to charging the prices they do.
We all know that supermarkets make massive profits. In 2006 Tesco reported profits of £2.2 billion - that's around £34 for every man, woman and child in the country, or £136 for my immediate family. Or, to put it another way, the extra 17 (or 7) pence on 800 (or 1943) packets of bacon. So I should think they can well afford it.
The pig farmers have recorded Stand By Your Ham, a version of the Tammy Wynette classic updated to put the point across about the dire state of the pork industry. You can listen to it here. It was so dreadful it made me laugh and cry at the same time. Very best of luck to them.

Thursday, 1 May 2008

Yorkshire Terroir

I've been reading Stuart Maconie's northern English travelogue Pies and Prejudice: In Search of the North. Maconie is a Lancastrian so I can't be too nice about it. Actually, to quote a joke from the Yorkshire chapter, it were alreet for them as likes laffin,' by which I mean it was very funny.

The pies and black pudding appear in the Lancashire chapters, of course (do I sound chippy?) but in Harrogate, Maconie goes to Betty's.

'I once knew a girl who worked at Betty's for a summer,' he tells us, 'and she
said that there was something about the starchy, lacy white uniform that drove
men wild. She was forever fending off amorous middle-aged punters in cardies and her boyfriends were always asking her to wear it at home.'

There is a whole chapter on Yorkshire, 'Cardboard box? You were lucky', and here Maconie says something rather interesting. He visits Slaithwaite (pronounced Slawitt),

'what the French might call Le Yorshire Profonde: Deepest Yorkshire.
The comparison here, at first ridiculous, between the rough-hewn,
hail-hardened tykes of Yorkshire and the indolent gastronomes of the sun-kissed
Dordogne, actually makes sense. Yorkshiremen and Frenchmen alike share a
stubbornly unreasoning pride in simply being a Yorkie or Frenchie. They believe
they have the best food, the best rugby teams, the most beautiful women
[Really?]. They share an almost mystical attachment to their native land. Just
as the wine-growers and peasants of the Languedoc believe no-one is their equal
in the cultivation of the grape, so Yorkshiremen think their beer has no equal
but is similarly, mystically, bound to the soil, like the friend of my editor
who loves Tetley's bitter of Leeds but says that 'it dunt travel'. In other
words, it only really tastes right in Yorkshire. The French call it 'terroir',
the sacred, inexplicable union of weather, ambience, landscape and history that
imbue a region and its drink. Yorkshire calls it things being 'proper'.'

I like the idea of Yorkshire terroir. It's true. You do need to have walked four miles across damp moorland to really appreciate a proper tea.

By the way, the beer in the photo is Yorkshire Terrier, from the York Brewery as recommended by my beer guru Lynn. I'm going to drink it and post about it soon.

Monday, 28 April 2008

Now Jamie's going to Leeds!

Not content with teaching people to cook in Rotherham, Jamie Oliver is planning to open a Leeds branch of his restaurant that trains disadvantaged young people to be chefs, Fifteen.

Jamie Oliver=A Good Thing
Fifteen=A Good Thing.

But I'm not sure he can get away with charging £7 for beans on toast around here....

On not making a fool of yourself in butchers' shops

People my age don't go into butchers' shops very much. Some of us are vegetarians, of course, and others don't cook anything more complex than pasta and pesto. But most of us get our meat from the supermarket, and the reason is this.

We're scared.

Yes, scared. It's not the red-faced men wielding cleavers, or the unidentified red slug-like things lurking in trays in the window. We just don't know what to ask for. And we're scared stiff of embarrassing ourselves.

In a supermarket, everything has a label with price, quantity, how to cook it and how many it serves, not to mention what it actually is. In butchers' shops, meat sits around in unmarked trays, only occasionally labelled. And lots of things aren't visible at all - they live in the mysterious other world called Out The Back.

First of all you have to queue up. If it is a good butcher there will, generally, be a queue. Then you have to make your request, specifying what you want and how much, in front of everyone in the queue. Public humiliation is only moments away. And you have no idea how much it will cost - Nigella will gaily tell you to order a 3kg joint of beef, not bothering to mention that it is over £10 a kilo. You are not married to a Saatchi. If you are lucky you clocked the price list just before ordering and made a rapid adjustment just in time. If not the butcher will spend what seems like ages cutting you a hunk of beef and you will have to get him to go away and cut a bit off. He will roll his eyes and eight ladies with shopping trolleys on wheels will tut in the queue behind you.

He will also ask you an incomprehensible question, like 'Do you want that Spanish trimmed?' or 'Fore-rump or topsiderib?' You say 'Spanish trimmed' because he made it sound like a good thing, and he disappears Out The Back for a full ten minutes to do something complicated involving a lot of banging. The eight ladies tut some more.

I made a fool of myself once in Scott's of York, over some scrag end of neck. It was the first time I had ever bought scrag end, but Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall recommended it for Tunisian lamb with aubergines in his Meat Book. I ordered a kilo. The trainee butcher fetched it and weighed it out for me. 'Eight pounds,' he said. 'Is that all right?'

I was a bit startled. I'd thought it was a cheap cut. Still, lamb shanks used to be cheap once but they aren't now, and Scott's is a top quality, Rick Stein Food hero sort of butcher. I was just handing over my ten pound note when one of the senior butchers noticed that the butcher apprentice had made a mistake. He apologised and sorted it out, but, obviously it was me that looked stupid. I could see the other customers thinking 'Well, that one's got more money than sense!' Scrag end is usually about between one and two pounds a pound. Butchers' shops are full of traps for the unwary.

Anyway, I've been into butchers' shops a lot now, and I've learnt a few things, so I'm going to share my wisdom with you:

1. Butchers are lovely. They don't actually mind at all if you ply them with questions and ask their advice. You can say 'Will that be enough for three people?' and they will say 'Three greedy people or three people with small appetites?' and you'll end up with just the right amount. If you say 'Oh dear, I'm not sure I can afford that much,' they'll suggest a cheaper alternative. They are as useful a source of cooking advice as Nigella or Hugh, and much more attuned to what is available to you and your budget.

2. They particularly love selling you cheap, manky-looking things like scrag end and offal. This is because a good butcher will be aiming to do something called 'balance the carcass'. Rather than ordering in a hundred chicken breasts and three dozen pork chops, a butcher will want to buy whole animals and manage to sell all the parts of them. He needs people who know how to cook in order to do this. So asking for the giblets does not make you a nuisance, it gives you credibility. The ladies in the queue will be impressed, too.

3. There are several good books around explaining about the different cuts of meat and how to cook them. I rate the River Cottage Meat Book very highly, but there is a cheaper one by Anthony Worral-Thompson and you should find a section on this in any good book on cooking techniques.

4. Scrag end of neck (which is lamb, for the uninitiated) is fabulous. If you slow cook it it ends up delicious and melting and falls off the bone.

I also want to say a few things to the butchers of the world:

1. Don't assume everyone speaks butcher language. Those charts with different bits of the animal are good, and they're something to look at while we're waiting in your long, long queue.

2. Label things as much as you can. Apart from anything else, it gives us ideas of what else to buy and promotes impulse buying.

3. Put your price lists where we can see them, in big easy-to-read letters. It's amazing how many butchers don't do this. You might even want to put them online, so we can work out how much our recipe is going to cost before we come.

I am not scared of butchers now. I no longer bicker with my husband as to who is going to get to wait outside with the buggy in the rain, and who has to go in and face the scary red slugs and the men with cleavers.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Strawberry ice cream and pigeons

Monthly farmers' market at Murton last Saturday. Top buys this time included locally-grown strawberries, and pigeons from the Black Sheep Meat Company.

I have a new ice cream machine, so the strawberries were made into strawberry water ice - simply pulp and sieve the strawberries, add lemon juice and icing sugar, and freeze in machine. The pigeon breasts were flash-fried and went into a salad.

Verdict on both - the strawberry water ice was great, but a little too sweet, because the strawberries were so sweet to start off with. The pigeon breasts tasted like little morsels of liver. Thrown into a salad of spinach and lettuce leaves, with crispy bacon on top and a red wine vinegar dressing, they were lovely.

Thursday, 10 April 2008

Jamie on a budget in Rotherham!

So apparently Jamie Oliver will be cooking on a budget in his new series.

In a series this autumn inspired by the Ministry of Food in the Second World War, he will be teaching people how to cook in order to beat obesity and related illness. And he's going to be doing it in Rotherham. Jamie, God bless him, said,

"We spend over £2 billion a year on ready meals, and that’s not even counting junk food and takeaways....Millions of people up and down the country are really busy, they’re on tight budgets, and no-one has bothered to teach them how to cook. It’s no wonder that the last thing they want to do at the end of the day is cook a meal from scratch."

This, of course, is where his School Dinners Campaign met with most resistance - mums were passing burgers through the fence to beat the school's ban on kids going out of school for takeaways in the lunch hour. Rotherham is not a rich place, though there's currently lots of energy and imagination going into its regeneration. So he's going to have to cut down the cost of his ingredients quite considerably.

A budget-aware approach to cooking hasn't been much in evidence on tv lately. British society recently has felt time-poor rather than cash-poor. However, I can't help thinking this is going to appeal to a much wider audience than just those on very tight incomes. Even those of us with decent wages can blench at the cost of the ingredients going into a Jamie dish. Watching him make consomme last summer with 2kg of organic tomatoes (cost £10-15 at Sainsbury's) you couldn't help suspecting he had lost touch with his roots (if not his fruit and vegetables). We were meant to grow them ourselves, of course, but the weather was vile last year and we don't all have a big garden or a greenhouse or a bearded gardener called Brian.

Anyway, economy, practicality - where better to start than Yorkshire? I can't wait!

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

The best Yorkshire curd tart

This is the first time I've ever posted a recipe directly on this blog, because it is the first time I've ever cooked something that made me want to go 'Go on! Try it!' knowing most people won't already have done.

I have been looking for a good recipe for Yorkshire curd tart for some time. They're a regional food that is still very much in evidence. Betty's do a sublime one. The cheesy, spicy flavour of these tarts is quite distinct. If made with a good crisp pastry to contrast with the light, rubbly texture of the filling, they can be fantastic.

The first problem was what sort of curd cheese to use. Traditionally they were made from 'beastling' milk - cows' colostrum - as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall shows us on River Cottage Road Trip. But you can't get colostrum easily these days, except powdered, in tins, for bodybuilders.

Traditionally, these tarts also contain rosewater, but I had never seen that in a recipe, and these days they always have dried fruit in.

It all came together when I found this recipe, which I have adapted below. It includes the rosewater (Click on the link to find out how you can make your own!) You make the curds yourself by curdling hot milk with lemon. I left out the raisins and made the pastry a touch richer.

Making the curd is easier than you can possibly imagine. It is also magic - seeing the curds slowly appear from a pan of milk! Children would like this bit.

When baking, make sure you open the oven a crack to breathe in the scent of warm rosewater as the tart cooks. It is really the rosewater that is the secret of this tart. It blends with the spices to evoke summer gardens, pot pourri, Tudor farmhouses with roses round the door and dark oak furniture.... Give it a go!



For the pastry:

4oz plain flour

1 oz icing sugar

2 oz butter

2 egg yolks

For the filling:

3 pints whole milk

juice 1 lemon

4 oz butter

2 tablespoons rosewater

1 whole egg

2 egg whites

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg

handful of currants (optional)

The day before you want to eat it, make the curd. To do this you simply heat the milk almost to boiling point, then take off the heat, add the lemon juice and stir until it curdles. It will look like baby sick! Allow to cool.

Put a sieve over a large jug or pan and line it with muslin. Pour in your curdled milk and allow it to strain overnight.

Here I will give you a very important tip. Make sure the edges of the muslin are over the pan (or, if you are using a jug, stand the whole thing inside a bowl) because the whey will drip from the corners and could end up in a puddle on your kitchen worktop!
These are the curds draining:

And after they have drained overnight:

The next day, make the pastry by sifting together the flour and icing sugar, then rubbing in the butter by hand or in a food processor. When the mixture resembles breadcrumbs add the egg yolks to bring it together into a ball. Wrap in cling film and allow to rest in the fridge for an hour.

Before making the filling, turn on the oven to 190 c and put in a baking sheet to preheat.

To make the filling, simply beat together the softened butter and rosewater, then stir in the curds. Finally, beat in the eggs, the cinnamon and the dried fruit if you are using it.

Line a greased 8" tart tin with your pastry. Fill with the filling and sprinkle with nutmeg. Bake on the preheated baking sheet for 25-30 minutes, until the pastry is crisp and shrinking away from the sides of the tin and the top is golden brown.

Great British Menu

There's a new series of Great British Menu, the tv contest which brings together the local food thing and Masterchef-style competitive cookery by bringing chefs from around the country to represent their region.

In the March 20th heat of the regional selection round, 4 northerners cooked against each other. The winners were a Yorkshireman (adopted) and a Lancastrian, Anthony Flinn and Nigel Haworth.

Here is the recipe for Flinn's winning dish, Cannelloni of cucumber and cream cheese with muscovado jelly and yoghurt ice cream. It apparently takes one to two hours to cook and has so many ingredients in it's not funny. (There's not a huge amount of regionality here either - unless the oats in the caramel on top.)

Flinn used to work at El Bulli so he does all that molecular gastronomy thing. This kind of food is great to eat. It has also started to trickle down to British cooking more widely, with innovations such as Heston Blumenthal's triple-cooked chips reaching a wider audience. However, as a spectator sport I find this kind of cooking a bit dull. If you couldn't possibly hope to replicate it at home, watching tv cookery becomes a detached affair, consisting of admiring from a distance rather than eagerly engaging.

But there is another reason to be concerned by this. Joanna Blythman puts her finger on it. In her book, Bad Food Britain, she writes,

'The balance of culinary power in Britain has now swung away from the domestic zone, where its keepers were women who passed on their accumulated knowledge, with their egos held well in check, to the male zone, where its new luminaries are a bunch of flashy performance artists....The focus of food fashion has become more rarefied, arcane and preoccupied with the endless pursuit of novelty; in fact, it is entirely detached from most Britons' domestic cooking experience.'

And why should this matter? Because it makes people feel that cooking is something difficult, even unattainable. Blythman goes on to quote Arabella Weir:

'All that plethora of cookery shows really does is make me feel insecure. They don't make me think, "Oh, what a great thing to do with scallops and chives." I just think, "Oh God! I'm just a fat oaf who lives in a horrible kitchen!'"

Cucumber cannelloni or Delia's cheaty tinned mince special - there doesn't seem to be an awful lot in the middle at the moment....

Monday, 7 April 2008

Wold Top Brewery

This is our local brewery.

According to the website, they use 'traditional methods to produce high quality beers that combine the characters of the Yorkshire Wolds and the East Coast. We use high class home grown malting barley and the purest chalk filtered water from the farm’s own borehole to a produce a range of award-winning cask and bottled real ales.'

They're quality.

So far we've tried two. Wold Top Bitter was the first beer they made. Delicious, very drinkable, and just so much more interesting than John Smiths. The other, a light summer beer called Wold Gold, apparently won gold for 'best premium bitter' at the Society of Independent Brewers North awards. But you don't need to wait for summer to drink it - it was sleety and windy here when we tried it but it still tasted good.


I was standing in my favourite deli the other day choosing things for a soup-and-bread-and-things lunch.

At the back of the hams was a dark-reddish meat. 'Ox tongue' said the label.

Tongue is one of those things I would have thought I must have eaten before. This is because it is familiar to us from children's literature - all those interminable massive farmhouse teas served to the Famous Five after an adventure, with fresh bread and butter and a cold tongue and lashings of something or other to drink. But I couldn't have said what it tasted like. It normally counts as offal, of course, although it's really just a big muscle. My husband insisted it was chewy, and you'd be able to feel the taste buds as you ate it.

Anyway, I bought a few slices, and guess what? The children loved it. 'Muh! Muh!' said the baby, stuffing it in and holding out his chubby fist for more. My two year old made a grab for the bit on my plate.

For any other tongue virgins out there (fnarr) it just tasted like a rather beefy sort of ham. No taste buds or anything weird, and not at all tough.

Rugged hampers

My favourite deli, Atkinson's of Pocklington, runs a business selling foodie gift hampers, including a whole set based around Yorkshire produce. They are full of appealing things like Taylors tea, Cropton beer and Wensleydale and Swaledale cheese.

"Our range of hampers suites all tastes", they say on their website. "However should you feel you would like a 'More Rugged' hamper then please contact us to discuss your requirements."

The mind boggles. What would be in a rugged Yorkshire hamper? This is what I imagine:

A whole ox tongue
Black pudding
Pease pudding
Pickled red cabbage
Large tin of parkin
Rhubarb wine
Pork pie

Purple sprouting broccoli #2

Yes, it really was that good.

Purple sprouting broccoli #1

Fresh, local, lightly steamed, smothered in anchovy and chilli dressing from the River Cottage cookbook. And all for me.

Meltons Too Damn Slow

Took the family to Meltons Too in York for Sunday lunch the other week.
Meltons Too is one of York's entries in the latest Good Food Guide. It regularly gets recommended in the Knowledge section of The Times, in the bit where they lift restaurant reviews from the Square Meal website. Recently they were plugging it as the top 'child friendly' restuarant in the north of England.

The food was nice enough. I had a creamy Whitby crab chowder gratin (which I assume was a nifty way of recycling the previous night's soup) and my husband had an exiguous portion of roasted vegetables which made him complain for hours about the quantities and how he could have made the same thing at home for a tenth of the price etc etc.

Problem was, it took 40 minutes to arrive, and that's after we waited 10 minutes to have our orders taken. So having arrived at one o'clock, into a not particularly busy restaurant, we didn't get anything to eat until ten to two. My two year old grew sad and pale. My baby shrieked. We gave them biscuits, and milk, thus ensuring they wouldn't be able to eat their dinner when it did arrive, which was a pity, because babies love roasted vegetables and creamy crab.

I like it when restaurants try to be family friendly. I can change a nappy on a few square inches of toilet floor, but a changing table in the loos still makes the job quicker and easier. It's good to have the option of child-size portions, and it's great when a restaurant is basically friendly to children and doesn't mind the odd toddler toddling around the room. But all these things are as nothing if you don't have speed. I hate to say it, but this is where MacDonalds scores ten out of ten and Meltons Too, two.

Thursday, 6 March 2008

Breaking Into Tesco

There's a new foodie tv series, Breaking Into Tesco. In a twist on the current local organic Zeitgeist, participants have to invent a processed food product to pitch to Tesco.

Unlike the inspiring Masterchef, where we we watched talented cooks making impressive food, this series featured contestants who didn't seem to have much of a clue.

One of the contestants had invented cherry ravioli. There's nothing wrong with the concept of sweet ravioli, though Tesco's shoppers may not be ready for it yet. But it didn't seem to have occurred to him that cherries are seasonal and so may not be the best choice for a retailer that likes year-round consistency in what it stocks. It also seemed to be news to him that egg pasta is nicest if made with lots of eggs.

Then there was the woman who made 'free-from' muffins. This was a noble aim, and she threw herself into it with embarrassing gusto. But when her original muffins weren't muffiny enough in texture, it took Simon Rimmer to suggest she added beetroot. Now, wouldn't you have thought, given that carrot cake has been around a few years now, that if you were that interested in developing sugar-free cakey things, you'd have thought of trying a bit of root vegetable yourself? At one point she complained, 'I'm not a scientist', which made me throw my copy of Harold McGee at the screen. Is random messing around in the kitchen by members of the public with no special knowledge really the best way to come up with a new product? Can't Tesco do better themselves with their highly trained food scientists and research labs? Really? Surely this show's not really just a barely disguised advertorial for Britain's biggest supermarket?

Monday's winner was a Malaysian woman from York, Jennie Cook, who wanted to sell a noodle soup to officeworkers for lunch instead of a sandwich. Unlike the others, she seemed to know what she was doing on the basic recipe. Her only problem was how to do it in one pot to keep the packaging down without the noodles getting soggy. Jenny was quoted in the Yorkshire Post saying that she entered the competition because,
'I do not like cooking just for myself....I want to see supermarkets
stocking my dishes so I do not have to prepare them myself and can just nip
down the road to buy them and heat them up in the microwave.'

Good luck to her, particularly as she seemed to be the only one on Monday who knew what she was doing.

Of course, I might be being unfair. They might all have been highly educated foodie experts ruthlessly edited to look bad. But then, that's tv for you.

Monday, 3 March 2008

Pigs' trotters are good for your skin

...according to this article in the Telegraph.

Apparently there is a new restaurant in New York, Hakata Tonton, specialising in 'collagen cuisine'. Pigs' trotters are high in collagen, the protein responsible for skin strength and elasticity. As you get older its degradation leads to wrinkles. So if you eat pigs' trotters, so the argument goes, you'll replace the broken-down collagen and have lovely younger-looking skin.

I'm no nutritionist, but surely the problem with this is that when we eat food we digest it and turn it into something else?

If anyone wants to test it, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's brilliant River Cottage Meat Book includes at least four recipes for pigs' trotters. I will be looking carefully at his skin next time he comes on tv to see if he has any wrinkles.

Friday, 29 February 2008

More Yorkshire food blogs

Eating Leeds is great. It's by a couple of young metropolitan types (or so I infer) who write beautifully, take really nice photos of the stuff they cook and seem to be in the know about food.

Yorkshire Deli, by some people who run an online store and a cafe and shop in Ilkley, is very informative and goes into detail on particular ingredients. They should post more often (hint).

Paganum is a Yorkshire Dales food blog by a producer.

Eat In Yorkshire is well classy. It's by the former food and drink editor of Yorkshire Life magazine (get a load of the January posting, where she tells you all about her differences of opinion with the editor) and links to an archive of her restaurant reviews.

My top foodie mistakes #1: crispy duck

Or, buying spring roll wrappers instead of pancakes.

Jamie's Dinners by Jamie Oliver (God bless him) tells you how to make crispy duck. It's easy. You bung a duck (or in my case, a couple of breasts) in a hot oven where it crisps up all by itself without you having to do anything clever. You cut up some cucumber and spring onion. You make some plum sauce by boiling up plums with sugar, soy sauce and pinches of chilli powder and five spice. You shred the duck with a couple of forks.

Then you unwrap the pancakes. They appear to be made of plastic. The instructions tell you to dip them in hot water. So you do. They soften, and suddenly become very, very sticky. You drop one. It folds up. You peel it apart, and then the corner folds into itself again, and sticks. Something seems to be wrong. You have a hunch that making a pile of them in a bamboo steamer would probably not be a good idea.

In the end I served them all pre-filled, on a plate, which misses the point of crispy duck. More importantly, it was like eating crispy duck in plastic wrapping. It was one of those meals where you start off thinking 'this isn't too bad' but as the meal goes on you think 'actually, this is really quite awful' and in the end, 'I don't think I can face another.' We ended up unwrapping them and just eating the duck. Which, as it came from Loose Birds of Harome (bought at Murton farmers' market) had lived a full and happy life and was delicious.

Wednesday, 27 February 2008

The Farm

I've been reading The Farm by Richard Benson.

The author grew up in an East Yorkshire farming family but moved to London to be a journalist. Later, when things got so bad that the farm had to be sold, he came back to help his parents with the sale. It's the story of what life was like in a farming family in the second half of the 20th century, and also how his parents managed to adapt when they couldn't carry on with the only way of life they knew.
It's funny as well as sad and he writes about Yorkshire very well. And it answers a question that has been bothering me for a while: why are there so many tractor magazines in our local newsagents?

You can read an article he wrote in The Observer about the food they used to eat. Pork features heavily.

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Old men on the bus

There were two old men on the bus today talking about gardening. One of them said, 'My germination rate improved considerably when I got a heater for my greenhouse.'

Never assume that local food is necessarily low-carbon....

Monday, 11 February 2008

Roast beef at Beningbrough

It thinks it's spring. The chives are snaking up in their pot and the mint is already an inch high. There are crocuses on the lawn and the birds are singing non-stop.

It's the first time it's ever been spring on my birthday, so we decided to celebrate with a trip to Beningbrough Hall, a National Trust house on the edge of the Ouse just west of York.

Naturally I have a foodie ulterior motive. The National Trust has enthusiastically embraced the local food agenda in its restaurants, along with child-friendliness - baby changing rooms, plastic bibs and bowls shaped like frogs, and spectacular bead mazes to play with. Not only are these big enough for a one year old and a two and a half year old to play on at the same time, they're too big for either child to snatch. (We have an ongoing issue with snatching at the moment.)

We joined the Trust in the autumn when we were temporarily based in Cambridge. Mainly it was for the food - rare breed sausage sandwiches at Wimpole Hall, Anglo-Saxon root vegetable hotpot with dumplings at Sutton Hoo, a delicious pork belly confit at Ickworth and fidget pie at Anglesey Abbey (twice). Their restaurants do that thing that Gordon Ramsay always insists on in Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares of not having too much on the menu, just a few interesting and individual dishes cooked as well as possible.
In fact, there wasn't a lot of choice at all at Beningbrough. If you didn't want a sandwich or vegetable hotpot it was roast beef and Yorkshire pudding served with vegetables from the kitchen garden. We had already looked round the garden and the cabbages were truly massive, taller than my two year old. You could have built an emergency wilderness shelter out of a couple of leaves.

Kitchen garden at Beningbrough

Fortunately the chef had resisted the temptation to cook cabbage, and the meal came with some tender cubes of swede and carrots nicely spiced with (I think) caraway. The beef was organic and tough but flavourful. It was one of those meals that isn't in the least bit lacking for being perfectly seasonal. And amazingly, for Feb, we ate it outside. My husband just had a Wensleydale cheese sandwich - his choice....

Sunday, 10 February 2008

7 reasons why Yorkshire food is the greatest

For some reason, culinary Yorkshire doesn't seem to be on the map as much as I think it ought to be. This is a list of things that I think are great about Yorkshire food.

1. Offal has always been in fashion.

And not just any offal. In Yorkshire it's not just soft things like chicken livers and the odd kidney. Here, it's tripe and brains.

2. In Yorkshire, farmers' markets are not poncey or ridiculously expensive.

How could they be? They're full of farmers. They first time we went to the York Farmers' Market at Murton I thought I must have got my wires crossed, because there were people outside selling chicken feed and you have to walk past a ring where they auction cattle. Besides, Yorkshire people are notoriously mean - as M.C.F. Morris wrote in 1928,

'The love of bargaining is a very noticeable feature in the Yorkshireman's character, and in that work it is not easy to get the better of him ; he fairly revels in the contest. He enjoys it as the ordinary man would in playing some absorbing game.'

NB. This may not apply in Harrogate.

3. In Yorkshire they still have proper shops.

Butchers, fishmongers, greengrocers.... for all those times when Waitrose and Aldi between them fail to satisfy.

4. Yorkshire has the best reasonably priced restaurants.

Obviously there is no Fat Duck or Gordon Ramsay round here, but Yorkshire fills 36 pages of the 2008 Good Food Guide , with a meal at most of the listed restaurants £30 or under. OK, it's a big place, but the whole of East Anglia only gets 28, and most of them cost way more. It's a good range, too - trendy city brasseries, gastropubs or just really really good fish and chips.

5. Fish and chips

You can get fish and chips anywhere, but try getting some better than the ones you'll find on the Yorkshire coast - at the Magpie Cafe in Whitby or the Golden Grid at Scarborough.

6. Yorkshire is full of local producers

It helps being a county with a load of agricultural land, of course. There are fish from the coast, sheep from the Dales, cheese from Wensleydale and Swaledale.... Near us there are happy pigs and plenty of cattle. Further west is the sinister-sounding Rhubarb Triangle (enter at your own risk).

7. Afternoon Tea

Maybe it's the climate, but afternoon tea is taken seriously here. You can expect to get a proper pot of good strong tea and no-one will give you a funny look if you ask for some extra hot water to adjust the strength/make it go further. Top of all afternoon tea experiences is Betty's at York or Harrogate. If you can't face the queue, at least get some cakes from the patisserie to take home. Yorkshire curd tarts are the local speciality, and no longer made from cow's colostrum.

There must be something in the food around here....

At some point when I was pregnant with my second child, I suddenly started getting obsessed with food.

It might have been something to do with hormones. Or to do with reading the Joanna Blythman book Bad Food Britain , which made me think I didn't want to ever eat a meal consisting of a Peperami and 4 packets of crisps again. Maybe it was some primeval regressive anti-feminist urge to do with feeding my family, or the boredom of maternity leave, or the River Cottagey local food Zeitgeist that was sweeping the middle classes. (All of a sudden simply everyone had an organic box!)

Whatever the reason, I started cooking. I started going to farmers' markets and butcher's shops and greengrocers and ordering organic boxes and growing herbs. I became very boring. My husband humoured me, assuming it was only a phase, drove me to the farmers' markets and ate the organic cabbages.

But I stopped being pregnant, and was still obsessed. So he thought maybe when I went back to work I'd be back to normal. Instead the obsession had only got worse and every spare minute, when I wasn't working, was spent fantasising about food. And we were eating really, really well, for not that much money. And something struck me.

It was because we were living in Yorkshire.

A lot of the things Joanna Blythman says about British food - the lack of local individuality, the shortage of decent independent shops, the replacement of authenticity by chemistry and taste by visual appeal - had rung true with me in general. But round here (on the border between the East and North Ridings) they're amazingly easy to avoid. We found countless fabulous small producers, excellent restaurants and intriguing suppliers. But more importantly, because this is Yorkshire, they were surprisingly cheap.

The point of this blog is to celebrate Yorkshire food and share some of our discoveries. It will also allow me to bore on and on at length about food into cyberspace, thus releasing my husband from the burdensome duty of listening (and allowing him more free time to do the washing up.)
I hope anybody who reads it (if anybody does) will feel free to add their own tips, links and favourite Yorkshire-foodie suppliers.