Holidays in Arizona: Living the American cliche

Arizona is one place that I always really fancied going to. But for one reason and another, I’d never actually made it, even when living in California at the turn of the Millennium.

But seeing as it was my 50th birthday this year, it fell to me to choose our holiday destination and so I wanted to go somewhere that felt at least vaguely meaningful. After tossing up and rejecting places like Sri Lanka, which I’d love to go to but have no emotional connection with, inspiration hit. Arizona with its red cliffs and mesas rising out of the desert floor was the only place that would do.

As I’d not returned to the US since leaving there 16 years ago, however, I didn’t want just any old vacation. It was the full American cliché or nothing: a road trip in an RV (recreational vehicle) a la Jack Kerouac – or not quite, but you know what I mean. A burst of hedonism in Vegas, Nevada, where my Beloved and I got engaged. A dash of kitsch in the stunning New Age mecca of Sedona, renowned for its energy vortexes and UFO tours. All topped off with stacks of natural wonderment at the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley, the scene of so many old cowboy movies in the north of the Navajo Nation reservation.

Sedona
Sedona

And what do you know – the US was just as I remembered it. Big and brash and beautiful – subtlety isn’t generally the word that springs to mind for this fascinating country.

But sadly, one thing that had changed was simply the cost of the place – in fact, it was eye-wateringly expensive. In my day, eating out and going out and clothing yourself in fine raiment was a relatively cheap activity, especially when compared to the UK.

But no more. The whole sterling-crashing-through-the-floor thing since the Brexit referendum decision undoubtedly hasn’t helped, but the US is bloody pricey for a Brit these days. The country’s average median wage of $55,775 (£45,336) has shot ahead of the UK’s £27,600 and it’s reflected in the everyday cost of living.

Even in Vegas, which we initially flew into and where at one time food and drink was as cheap as chips in order to keep everyone in the casinos and in or around the gaming tables, prices were exorbitant. The most cost-effective meal we could find, for example, was an all-you-can-eat buffet at The Wicked Spoon restaurant in the Cosmopolitan casino and hotel, where we were staying, for $27 (£22) per head.

Which incidentally served truly excellent fare and meant that we didn’t have to eat again that day – just waddle back to the astounding so-called “wrap-around suite” with bedroom, living room, kitchen, two huge bathrooms and an immense balcony surrounding it (hence wrap-around, I guess) that my Beloved had cleverly managed to blag with tales of our Vegas engagement and the fact it was my 50th.

Anyway, the reason for the hike in Sin City’s food bills is, it seems, linked to hotel occupancy rates. Oversupply and dwindling demand means that they’re now hovering at around 50% so it’s all about making up the shortfall elsewhere – and that’s despite the fact that the average punter budgets to spend a huge $530 (£433) on gambling during their stay – according to the local freebie guidebook, ‘Vegas2Go’ that is anyway.

Another world

For our obligatory night of hedonism though, we decided to abandon the Strip altogether, which is uptown, and follow our taxi-driver-from-the-airport’s advice to go downtown – to Fremont Street, which is in fact the original Vegas and where it all started in the first place. And what a great decision it was.

Despite having visited for years, it was our first time there. And it was fab – just like the Vegas of old. Tacky and glitzy and over-the-top – and a fraction of the price of the now largely sanitised Strip.

The Strip, Las Vegas
The Strip, Las Vegas

One old cliché that I was pleased to see hadn’t gone bye-the-bye though was the vast quantity of food still dished up in restaurants and diners. So huge are the meals, in fact, that the only ones we didn’t share were the entrée-sized starters, and we didn’t eat many of them really – we were in an motorhome remember, which meant barbecuing most nights in one of the excellent fire pits provided in RV parks dotted around Arizona.

Incidentally so common is the whole RV experience in the state that even regular parking lots have huge spaces marked out to cater for them, which given their massive bulk is a real godsend.

And that leads me on to the life of the RVer, which it must be said is another world. A lifestyle pursued by many so-called snowbirds or retirees who sell their worldly goods to buy motorhomes and move south to warmer climes for the winter, it has a language all its own.

There are “full hook-ups”, which mean you can connect to the RV site’s water and electricity supply rather than use your own. There are dumps, which as you might suspect are special holes in the ground in which to pump your “black” (toilet residue) and “grey (washing up and shower water) waste” into the cesspit lurking beneath.

And then there are “pull-throughs”, which is shorthand for saying that on leaving, you can drive your vehicle straight through your assigned plot on the RV park rather than have to manoeuvre the damn thing to get out. Which is no mean feat.

At only 22 feet, our motorhome was just a baby known as a “Minnie Winnie” (Winnebago). I never actually quite got up the courage to drive her though, being somewhat put off by the fact that, even though my Beloved is a very experienced motorist, he spent the first couple of days racked in terror trying to handle her huge dimensions.

In fact, every time we took off across one of the vast, open plains that seemed to link many of our destinations, his arms were nearly ripped out of their sockets trying to keep her in a straight line as her massive surface area led to us being buffeted about by the wind. By the end of our trip though, it should be noted that my Beloved had developed serious RV-envy and was unable to let even one of the immense bus-size creations lumber by without obsessive online searching so he could sigh over their vital statistics.

Other great clichés

Another great cliché lived and experienced, meanwhile was getting to travel on Route 66. In fact, this most famous of US roads also known as the “Main Street of America” or the “Mother Road” kept popping up all over the place, and not necessarily where you’d expect either.

One of the country’s first highways connecting Chicago, Illinois, to Santa Monica in California and romanticised in song, we first picked it up on our initial stopover after Vegas in a non-descript town called Kingman – which nonetheless makes the most of its meagre assets by pushing itself as “The Heart of Historic Route 66”, complete with nostalgia-inspired motels and diners for tourists.

We then ran into it again passing through a similar town called Seligman. And somewhat surprisingly once again going up to the Painted Desert in the north of the Petrified Forest National Park, with its ancient trees that have turned to multi-coloured stone and crystal as a result of water containing minerals seeping through the mud, sand and volcanic ash in which they were buried and filling up the decaying wood.

But that’s Arizona for you – just full of amazing natural beauty. In fact, much as I love California, which is definitely more diverse, I would have to say that Arizona has the edge in terms of sheer, unadulterated drama – not least because it’s amazing mesas and buttes are, in the main, a breathtaking red.

And despite being a shameless tourist trap, the reddest piece de resistance of all is, of course, Monument Valley  (which is actually on the border with the state of Utah) in the 16 million acre Navajo Nation, by far the largest native American reservation in the US. Full of astounding sandstone shapes towering out of the ochre desert floor, you might well have seen it in one of director John Ford’s old cowboy movies with John Wayne as the main man.

Monument Valley
Monument Valley

As to how Monument Valley came to have this starring role though, that was thanks to a white couple, Harry Goulding and the wife he nicknamed “Mike”. They had come to the area in the 1920s and established a trading post there for the Navajo tribe to exchange their livestock and handmade goods for foodstuffs and manufactured goods.

By the 1930s, however, the Great Depression had hit and people on the reservation began to starve. But Goulding had heard that a movie production company was scouting for film locations in the area and so set out with Mike for Hollywood with their last $60 in their pockets to round up interest.

A combination of luck and perseverance led to them meeting Ford, who on seeing photos of Monument Valley was sold. And the rest is history, as they say – although the plight of many native Americans in their own country is, sadly, still marred by the same poverty that afflicted them in the 1930s and the same racism that weaves through the very fabric of those old-fashioned westerns.

Nonetheless, I can honestly say that, with only one or two exceptions, the Americans we met of all colours and creeds were as friendly and as positive and as welcoming as I remembered them. And I really can’t think of a better cliché to live up to than that.

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Taking afternoon tea: A great British tradition

It’s difficult to think of anything more English than afternoon tea – or “low” tea as it’s also uncommonly known.

 

With its dainty sandwiches, melt-in-the-mouth scones and multitude of pretty confections, it really is one of our most noble British institutions. So I feel it’s my duty to give heartfelt thanks to TV programmes such as The Great British Bake Off for rehabilitating the tradition and restoring it to national glory after so many years spent languishing quietly in the parlours of maiden aunts.

 

And in honour of this ritual, which has such a special place in our collective hearts these days, I decided to dedicate one of several 50th birthday celebrations to partaking of its delights. So following a recommendation from my Beloved, we plumped for a family afternoon out with both sets of parents at Luton Hoo. The former manor house in Bedfordshire was formerly owned by the Anglo-Norman de Hoo family, which a couple of generations after the name itself died out, spawned Anne Boleyn of King Henry VIII fame.

Luton Hoo gardens
Luton Hoo gardens

Anyway, not to be confused with Sutton Hoo, a renowned burial site of Anglo-Saxon royalty near Woodbridge in East Anglia, the mansion with its stunning vista, originally landscaped by none other than Lancelot Capability Brown himself, is now an 18-hole golf course and spa hotel. And the rather odd name ‘Hoo’ is less of a badly spelled question, it seems, and more of a Saxon word meaning “spur of a hill”.

 

As for afternoon tea itself, although very nice, the wealth of tiny, rich cakes made it somewhat sugar-rush-inducing, which lost it marks. As a result, it failed to make it into the global top three carefully devised by my parents and myself over several years. After jointly indulging during various trips both at home and abroad, the number one slot simply has to go to the exquisite repast provided by the Saxon Hotel in Johannesburg, which was only enhanced by its discrete and solicitous service.

 

Next by mutual agreement came the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin, followed by Tea at the Ritz in London, which despite the cliché managed only a (very worthy) third.

 

High and low tea

 

But it all set me to wondering just where this glorious convention came from in the first place. Interestingly, while the name itself obviously refers to the beverage that sits at its heart, its application appears to be of rather more mixed heritage.

 

At the lower end of the social scale during the Industrial Revolution, when working class families came home after a wearying day at their looms and factories, they apparently sat down to a table set with all manner of cold cuts, bread, butter, pickles, cheese and, of course, the drink of the day, tea. Because the meal was partaken of at a high dining table rather than a low tea table near a sofa or chair in the drawing room like the aristocracy, however, it was known as “high tea” – a name with which afternoon tea, or low tea, is all too often distressingly confused. And as might be expected, “tea” is still the working class name assigned to one’s big evening meal to this day.

 

As to the original creator of afternoon tea as we think of it now, meanwhile, that is believed to be one Anna Maria Stanhope, Duchess of Bedford and one of the young Queen Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting. Because the upper class lunchtime meal was petite and the evening meal distinctly large and late, the Duchess proclaimed that she suffered from a “sinking feeling” at around four o’clock in the afternoon.

Afternoon tea at the Saxon, Johannesburg
Afternoon tea at the Saxon, Johannesburg

At first, she had her servants sneak her up a pot of tea and a few dainty morsels of bread to tide her over. But as time went on, she adopted the habit of inviting friends to her rooms in Belvoir Castle, Leicestershire, during the summer months to indulge in a cup of tea and a bite to eat at five o’clock.

 

Her menu consisted of bread and butter sandwiches, small cakes and assorted sweets – and the practice proved so popular that she transported it to London when she returned for the Season. There she sent cards to friends asking them to join her for “tea and a walking in the fields” and her quaint idiosyncrasy was quickly picked up and emulated by other society ladies, making it quite the thing to do.

 

At this point though, I feel I must inject and clarify the difference between afternoon tea and a cream tea, which is something different again and is actually thought to be a much older tradition. According to local historians, the dish was actually created by monks at the Benedictine Abbey in Tavistock, West Devon, around 1,000 or so AD.

 

Cream tea

 

They had suffered their home being plundered and wrecked by a band of marauding Vikings, but Ordulf, Earl of Devon, sent some workers to try and sort out the mess. They were lucky enough to be fed on plates of bread, clotted cream and strawberry preserves for their trouble – and so the Devon cream tea was born, although the bread eventually morphed into scones, of course.

 

Anyway, so popular did the cream teas prove that the monks continued serving them to passing travellers, which saw their fame only grow and spread – although such idle talk is, of course, hotly disputed by arch-rival Cornwall, which also claims the cream tea as its own.

 

But there is, of course, a significant difference between the two varieties: After breaking (rather than cutting) their scone in two as is correct practice, the good people of Devon cover each half with thick clotted, (rather than whipped cream, God forbid) before putting strawberry jam on top. In Cornwall, however, it is de rigueur to butter your scone first, layer on your strawberry jam and then complete the whole pretty picture with the aforementioned cream dollop.

Cream tea
Cream tea

On a final note though, there is, unsurprisingly given its origins, a whole raft of etiquette associated with the afternoon tea tradition, which I learned by strange coincidence only the week before my Luton Hoo jaunt from a speaker at a Women’s Institute meeting. Although my pearls of wisdom were to fall on deaf ears on the day itself, I nonetheless did attempt to appraise my recalcitrant audience of the finer points. These include:

 

  • placing your napkin on your knee as soon as you sit down, ensuring it’s folded down the middle into a rectangle shape, with the fold facing your stomach. If you have to leave the table at any point (not recommended), be careful to fold the napkin up and place it on your chair rather than just dumping it down on the table, covering your fellow guests with crumbs in the process
  • putting sugar in your cup first, followed by tea. Last of all comes the milk – a sign in the old days that you were wealthy enough to afford porcelain rather than regular china, which would shatter with the heat if milk wasn’t poured in first to cool it
  • stirring your tea by placing your spoon at six o’clock and folding it towards the 12 o’clock position, being careful not to chink against the sides and set everyone’s teeth on edge.

 

So as you can see, although such great English habits may appear to have been invented quite arbitrarily to confuse the lower classes, there is some rhyme and reason to them, no matter how obscure.

 

 

 

Urban foraging: Food that’s wild and free

Being a bit of a hippy at heart, I’ve really quite fancied the idea of doing some proper foraging for a while now.

 

On the one hand, if Armageddon were to strike, I’m sure being able to identify which plants are edible and which are likely to kill us off would be a fairly useful skill to have.

 

But on the other, it’s just a lovely, satisfying thing to do – to roam around in nature and truly know what it is you’re communing with at every level. In other words, being familiar with the culinary use of your chosen shrub or flower, its medicinal purpose and even its spiritual meaning, as they all have one. So it’s about getting to know the beautiful, green world around you and truly being at home and feeling part of it.

 

The most amazing foragers I’ve come across, it must be said though, are the Iban, a tribal people who live in the rainforest in Sarawak in the Malaysian part of Borneo. My Beloved and I went on holiday there a dozen or so years ago before the destruction of the forests by loggers and palm oil producers really started taking hold.

Iban longhouse
Iban longhouse

Sarawak at that time was known to be one of the six most biodiverse regions in the world and, amazingly, a hectare of rainforest there traditionally had more tree species in it than all of the European countries put together – until they started being ripped up to plant palm oil monocultures, that is, in order to feed the developed world’s apparently insatiable lust for the stuff.

 

Palm oil, it turns out, is a key ingredient in nearly half of all our mass-produced goods, ranging from cosmetics and toothpaste to cakes and sweets and we seem just as dependent on it as we are on black gold – and at a similar cost to the environment too.

 

Anyway, while we were in Borneo, we were lucky enough to spend a couple of nights in a longhouse with the Iban people in order to find out a bit more about where and how they lived. One fascinating morning, we went out on a rainforest walk with a guide who showed us plants to cure every kind of ailment, including one thought to have potential in the fight against AIDS.

 

But even more amazing was a canoe trip upstream into the rainforest. On stopping the boat at some apparently random spot, an Iban man threw a jala (throw-net) into the river and ended up with an impressive enough catch of pretty silver fish to feed our little party for both lunch and dinner.

 

Then on disembarking, our hosts started poking around in the fecund undergrowth and began pulling up what I would have sworn was a bunch of weeds, but which turned out to be the most delicious savoury accompaniment to our meal. This was cooked together with the fish in long bamboo poles buried in a hastily dug out pit by the water’s edge. It was gorgeous – and all the better for being devoured outdoors.

 

So suitably inspired on returning to the UK, I bought myself a “Food For Free” guidebook and dragged my Beloved out for a couple of Sundays on the trot to see what we could find.

 

To forage or not to forage?

 

I even did a foraging course in deepest Essex in a bid to get up close and personal with the help of a guide rather than simply try to work things out from a book. Sadly though, I could barely hear a word of what was said, let alone get near enough to spot the various plants under scrutiny as there were just too many people in the group. The only thing I gained from the experience, in fact, was a rather nice nettle soup at the end.

 

And so it all kind of fizzled out – until the end of last year, that is, when my parents asked what I’d like for Christmas. And it struck me that what I’d really like to do was go foraging with an expert again as a way of sparking a somewhat more sustained interest.

 

So one short Google search later and I’d unearthed Robin Harford, who seemed to come highly recommended – and with good reason. His enthusiasm and obvious passion for his subject proved infectious – despite the bitingly cold wind gusting through the somewhat desolate and deprived environs of Westbourne Park where our adventure took place.

 

Although Robin offers foraging courses up and down the country in plenty of rural hotspots, I’d been intrigued by the thought of what he might be able to conjure up in the great metropolis of London and so had signed up for a morning’s session there instead.

Westbourne Park
Westbourne Park

And I wasn’t disappointed. Although somewhat less than prepossessing at first glance, the Park proved to offer a veritable cornucopia of wild food that most of us, bar a few dogs, would simply pass by and not even notice. Traversing from one end to the other, we uncovered everything from chickweed (salad greens) and ransoms (wild garlic) to the flowers of Japanese ornamental quince (for salads and decoration).

 

It was just a pity that some of the residents of the dreary and alienating high-rise tower blocks didn’t get a chance to join us too as such nutritious free-of-charge additions to their diet might have proved welcome. One for Jamie Oliver’s Ministry of Food healthy cooking gang to think about maybe.

 

Or maybe not, if the likes of Bristol City Council has its way. Because the Council is proposing a series of 34 new by-laws to cover the 212 parks and green spaces around the town that, it is feared, would effectively put paid to foraging in the area – and possibly elsewhere if other local authorities follow suit.

 

The by-laws, which were put out to a consultation that ended on 20 March this year, include a ban on removing “the whole or any part of any plant, shrub or tree”, a stricture that could mean traditional activities such as blackberry-picking, scrumping apples and even pulling mushrooms are effectively outlawed.

 

Although the Council insisted that it was not trying to do any such thing, it also pointed out that it had received more than 3,000 complaints about “nuisance in parks” between 2011 and 2013 and so was trying to protect plants from damage as a result.

 

The problem is that, while it undoubtedly means well, a failure to think through the implications of its proposals in a thorough and careful fashion could have serious ramifications for us all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Organic wine: Keeping it real

April, it turns out for all you imbibers out there, is Real Wine Month. Although the naïve among us may be thinking at this point, “well, isn’t all wine real?” it appears that some of it these days is more so than others.

 

So just what is Real Wine then, I hear you ask? First and foremost, it has to be organically produced – according to industry body the Soil Association, this means “lower levels of pesticides, no manufactured herbicides or artificial fertilisers and more environmentally sustainable management of the land and natural environment”.

 

And this approach, although scarcely ubiquitous, is definitely garnering respectable levels of sales since it started first appearing in supermarkets in the late 1990s. As a result, Bord Bia, the Irish Food Board, valued the UK’s organic wine market at about £12 million last year, while the Soil Association’s Organic Market Report 2016 indicated that organic’s share of the total UK food and drink sector was a respectable 1.4%.

 

So far, so good, particularly in a world where more and more people are interested in the provenance of their victuals and are keen to reduce the amount of chemicals smothering them at every turn of the production process.

 

But an interesting subset of the organic market is the lesser-known biodynamic movement. Started by Austrian philosopher and esotericist Rudolf Steiner in 1924, it aims to ensure that farms and vineyards are based on balanced ecosystems in order to “renew the vitality of the earth, the integrity of our food, and the health and wholeness of our communities”.

 

This means that, in the words of the UK’s Biodynamic Association, which was set up in 1929, these sites must become self-contained living organisms “with a healthy balance of animals (livestock), crops and wild plants”. But they also have to be ecologically, socially and economically sustainable in order to warrant using the internationally recognised but fiercely difficult-to-obtain Demeter Certification Mark, which covers both production and processing activities.

 

Biodynamics is not just of this earthly plane, however – it also has a spiritual element. As the Association points out: “It is founded on a holistic and spiritual understanding of nature and the human being”, which means that “the farm, its crops and the farmer becomes more attuned to local seasonal and broader celestial cycles and rhythms”.

 

To this end, an astronomical calendar based on the moon’s sidereal cycle is used to determine auspicious times to plant, cultivate and harvest. The soil must also be treated with special herb-based preparations. For example, compost is made from six medicinal plants including oak bark, which has to be stored in a mature cow, sheep, pig or horse’s head as this is said to act as a catalyst for fermentation.

 

Keeping it real

 

While such ideas may not be everyone’s cup of tea, the approach does undoubtedly seem to work. For example, my Beloved has developed an unfortunate intolerance to sulphites, which have traditionally been used as preservatives during the wine-making process.

 

Give him a regular glass of something and, by next morning, his poor lips will have swollen up like he’s just had a load of botox. But pass him a glass of pure biodynamic loveliness and everything’s fine and dandy. It may cost that little bit extra but it has to be worth it to lose that rather unflattering trout-pout look.

 

And he’s not the only one being won over. While Marks & Spencer already stocks a handful of such wines, Waitrose apparently sells more than 20 different biodynamic varieties and growing.

 

Even more intriguingly, both supermarkets also apparently arrange their wine-tasting sessions around “good” and “bad” days in the biodynamic calendar as they swear you can taste the difference.

 

So despite the fact that yields based on this approach are significantly lower than more traditional methods – 25 to 30 hectare litres per hectare compared with the usual 40 – interest is growing, especially among vineyards in the Loire Valley, Alsace and part of the Languedoc in France as well as in Penedes, which is south of Barcelona in Spain.

 

The final, and even more rarified, category of vino to fall under the banner of Real Wine, meanwhile, is natural wine. Although there is no official definition for or certification of this approach, it basically means producing your wine with minimum intervention, which includes picking all of your grapes by hand. You also can’t go around sticking little added extras into the mix such as sulphites, sugar or external flavouring from oak barrels, and you’re not allowed to take things away either, for example by filtration.

 

While there are a number of natural wine associations in central Europe and countries such as France, Italy, Spain, the most likely place to get a sip of the stuff is at events like The Real Wine Fair, which is taking place from 17 to 18 April at Tobacco Dock in Wapping, London.

 

But you never know, you might also be able to find it on the wine list or catalogue of one of the 200 or so restaurants, bars and independent retailers also taking part in the Real Wine Month festivities. Our very own Joseph Barnes Wines here in Saffron Walden, in fact, hosted a most enjoyable wine-tasting event last Saturday night – and much biodynamic merriment was had by all. Cos one of the secrets to success really is about keeping it real. Always.

 

 

 

 

Is the end nigh for our Great British staples?

I’m not entirely sure what it says about the Great British People, but the top  symbols of nationhood that make our chests swell with collective pride relate to food and drink.

 

First on the list of iconic delights is the inevitable Sunday roast, complete with meat and two veg, roast potatoes, and of course, Yorkshire pudding, said by many to be our national dish. Second is greasy takeaway staple fish and chips, followed by the BBC, the Union flag, Wimbledon and that most enduring of British cliches, the “nice cup of tea”.

 

So it was with shock that I learnt recently that sales of our national beverage are actually in decline – between 2010 and 2015, it seems, overall black tea volumes slumped by a huge 22% from 97 million kilograms to a mere 76 million. And according to market research agency Mintel, this outrage was attributable to one key thing – dwindling teabag purchases.

 

Sales of your bog-standard black teabag nosedived by 13% between 2012 and 2014 to £425 million as people such as myself forsook them with gay abandon for healthier, trendier – or, in my intolerance-scarred case, caffeine-free – alternatives ranging from green tea (sales up 50%), fruit and herb (up 31%) and speciality blends such as Earl Grey, Darjeeling and Assam (up 15%).

Nice cup of tea
Nice cup of tea

The increasing popularity of coffee, stimulated by premium-priced coffee shops springing up on every street corner – more than 20,000 such establishments now exist across the country, it seems – also didn’t help, of course, but did serve to create a market currently valued at more than £1 billion per annum.

 

Incidentally, coffee when first brought to Europe in the 16th century was apparently viewed with suspicion, being as it was the drink of choice in a Muslim world that Christendom had been at war with for centuries. On rather adventurously giving it a go though, Pope Clement VIII, under pressure from his advisors to declare it the “bitter invention of Satan”, is said to have stated: “This devil’s drink is so delicious…we should cheat the devil by baptizing it!”

 

And this ringing endorsement led to it it taking off all over the region pretty quickly after that. Europe’s first coffee house opened in Vienna in 1645, while the UK’s followed in Oxford seven years later – and still exists to this day under the name, The Grand Café.

 

Within as little as 25 years, some 3,000 or so such concerns had sprung up across the country, becoming popular places to meet and chat about the news, politics and gossip of the day – to such an extent, in fact, that Charles II tried unsuccessfully to get them banned in 1675 for being hotbeds of sedition. Unusually coffee shops were open to all men irrespective of their social status and so were associated with such dissolute notions as equality and republicanism, which obviously didn’t go down too well.

 

Anyway, even though the devil’s drink may once again be trying to assert its  fiendish grip on the nation, reassuringly according to the UK Tea and Infusions Association, black tea is still by far the country’s most popular hot drink. More than 165 million cups are imbibed every day compared to coffee’s mere 70 million.

In fact, more than half (54%) of the population drink at least one cup each day, with men aged between 16 and 44 being the biggest fans (four out of five indulge their vice on a daily basis). The only people that drink more of the stuff per head than us apparently are the Irish.

 

Great British bangers

 

Another staple that seems to be falling equally foul of the current migration to all things healthy, however, is the Great British Banger. According to the Office for National Statistics, the number of sausages sold has slumped by more than a quarter – or a huge 260 million packs – since 2008 – although the value of those sales has dropped by a mere 2.1% to £820.7 million.

 

The problem seems to lie in the fact that shoppers are now moving to healthier, non-processed meats such as chicken and steak, put off by reports of sausages’ high fat and salt content as well as the inclusion of cheap fillers such as breadcrumbs or wheat rusks.

 

But people also didn’t appear too keen on reports last June that the superbug MRSA had been found in sausages and minced pork sold in UK supermarkets. Or on last October’s revelations from the World Health Organisation that processed meat was a major cause of cancer – all of which, when taken together, has unsurprisingly done a fine job of hammering sales.

 

But it’s a shame in a way because sausages are, apparently, one of our oldest processed foods. A culinary gift from the Romans, their name is derived from the Latin word “salsus”, which means something salted.

 

Sausages
Sausages

They gained their nickname of “bangers’ during the First World War though, when food shortages led to a big reduction in meat levels. As a result, they were packed with scraps, cereal and water, which made them pop, hiss and even explode when cooked over open fires in the trenches.

 

But despite the sausage’s demotion in status in the national diet, thankfully all is not lost – last month, we were able to stand proud once more when the humble black pudding was dubbed a “superfood” by online health retailer, MuscleFood.com – and the word seemed to spread like wildfire.

 

Packed with protein, practically carb-free and rich in iron and zinc, the (pig’s) blood sausage and staple of the ever-popular full English breakfast was ranked among black beans, sprouted grains and kohlrabi (the new kale) in terms of health-giving properties.

 

Although various spoilsports have since burst the bubble by indiscreetly mentioning its high fat and salt content and equally high calorie count, that doesn’t seem to have put off sales of the Stornoway Black Pudding, for one. This particular titbit was awarded Protected Geographical Indication status in 2013, putting it on a similar footing to champagne in France and tea in Darjeeling.

 

As a result, Charles Macleod Butchers in Scotland’s Western Isles told the Mail that it had seen postal demand for its iconic delicacy jump eight-fold in the days after the story broke, and the expectation is that sales will as much as treble over the next five years on the back of it.

 

So despite ongoing fears of obesity epidemics, endless food and drink fads and all too frequent food scares, it seems that at least some of our Great British staples could triumph yet.

North Norfolk: From coast to cuisine

It’s become something of a tradition for my Beloved and I to spend a couple of days between Christmas and New Year up on the wild and rugged North Norfolk coast – although inevitably there was a bit of a hiatus for a couple of years when we lived in South Africa.

 

But things haven’t half changed there over the years. While a healthy tourist trade always meant that it was never exactly down at heel, the place is now oozing with rich Londoners to the extent that the average asking price for a (second) home in celebrity-strewn Blakeney is over £500,000 and an expansive dwelling in the bird-watching capital of Cley-next-the-Sea (pronounced ‘Cly’ rather than “Clay”) just went for £1.5 million.

 

Which is all very well, but it means that, like all too many places in areas such as Cornwall and the Lake District, the locals, many of whom have minimum wage jobs, can no longer afford to buy there. So they have to try their luck with council homes or social housing instead.

 

It also means that these charming little villages with their narrow streets bursting with Dutch-gabled houses and flint-pebble former fishermen’s cottages become the equivalent of ghost towns for much of the year, springing briefly to life only over the summer holidays and at big festivals such as Christmas and Easter. Which doesn’t really seem right to me.

 

DDutch-gabled house and flint cottages in Cley
Dutch-gabled house and flint cottages in Cley

One thing that this influx of wealth is doing for the county though is transforming it into quite a culinary mecca – often with prices to match. In fact, to reflect this phenomenon, a new monthly magazine called Feast has just been published in a bid to tap into foodie interest in the area. Dishing up everything from restaurant reviews, interviews with up-and-coming chefs and a selection of gourmet recipes to try at home, its advent makes sense in a region intent on making the most of what it’s got.

 

And what this flat and fertile land has most of, apart from tourism, is food and farming, which accounts for more than 20% of local jobs. The biggest arable crops around there are sugar beet, oil seed rape, wheat and barley (for brewing – as well as the more established Woodforde’s, Norfolk now boasts an impressive 25 microbreweries). But you’ll also see lots of plump, pink pigs snuffling around in big, open, muddy fields and generally seeming to enjoy life, which is good to see.

 

More than one of them though is likely to make a star appearance at the annual, six-week-long Norwich Food and Drink Festival in the Battle of the Bangers competition. Here members of the public vote for their favourite sausage from a selection provided by 10 local butchers.

 

Norwich, Norfolk’s county town and England’s first Unesco City of Literature  (Edinburgh in Scotland sports a similar accolade), has for the last decade been hosting the festival, which also invites local schools to participate in the Tallest Jelly Competition – an event sadly cancelled last year for reasons unknown.

 

But the whole Festival is all very professional, it seems, jelly setbacks notwithstanding. Run by not-for-profit organisation Norfolk Food and Drink Ltd, the key aim – very sensibly – is to encourage visitors to come to the region at a time, in September and early October, when the whole tourism thing is cooling down after the summer rush.

 

Norfolk wildlife

 

Conveniently though, it also fits in nicely with game season. So if you’re partial to a bit of pheasant or even the odd teal, which I must confess I’d never eaten before but which my Beloved and I picked up for a song in a local butcher’s in the charming market town of Holt, then treat yourself.

 

The teal, which is a small freshwater duck with a green-coloured band on its wing, was lovely by the way – not that dissimilar to partridge, and definitely less ‘gamey’ than something like woodpigeon. We indulged on New Year’s Day.

 

Anyway, scrummy food isn’t the only thing that Norfolk’s developed a reputation for. The other is the largely unspoiled nature of much of its coastline and the nearby wetlands, marshes and lowland meadows. These account for just over half of the 65 habitats listed in the UK’s Biodiversity Action Plan as being priorities for conservation and are havens for all kinds of plants and animals.

 

Cley-next-the-Sea, where we stayed, is in fact an internationally renowned destination site for birders and twitchers, and the adjoining Cley Marshes were even nominated as “Nature Reserve of the Year” in the BBC’s Countryfile Magazine’s awards towards the end of 2015.

 

But the Marshes have got a bit of history behind them too. After a bunch of friends, under the leadership of one Dr Sydney Long, got together in the George Hotel – which still exists to this day and was, as it happens, where we resided during our trip – for a conflab in 1926, they purchased an initial 400 or so acres of land on today’s site for an impressive £5,160 (around £2 million in today’s money).

Cley Windmill
Cley Windmill

The aim of the Norfolk Naturalists Trust as they called themselves, was to create a bird-breeding sanctuary. And the idea proved such a success that the Norfolk Wildlife Trust as it is now known, will celebrate its 90th anniversary this year after having acted as a blueprint for a further 47 such native conservation charities up and down the country.

 

But the original site also now houses a pristine Visitor Centre, from which you can sit and spot everything from marsh harriers and terns to spoonbills – and where you can even treat yourself to a mean bacon sandwich. Not that we spent the entire break eating, I hasten to add.

 

But even if we had, a hearty walk along the pounding seashore to visit the seals at Blakeney Point will soon sort that kind of thing out. The colony there is a lovely, honk-y mix of common and grey seals of all ages and persuasions. But about 15 or so years ago, the former were badly hit by an outbreak of distemper, which cut their numbers to as few as 400.

Seals at Blakeney Point
Seals at Blakeney Point

Now though, thankfully, their fortunes have revived and by the start of 2015, Blakeney Point had become the largest seal colony in England. Which also implies that fish stocks must have recovered at least enough to support them too. And that can only be a good thing – on all counts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The English wine industry: A great British success story

Traditionally the UK has been a proud nation of beer drinkers – and popping down the pub for a pint has been a characteristically British pastime since time immemorial.

But times are changing, it seems. A poll published earlier this year by the Wine and Spirit Trade Association (WSTA) revealed that wine has now become the tipple of choice for three out of five of us.

This equates to a huge 30 million or so regular topers drinking on average 10 litres of Pinot Grigio, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc each as their top three snifters.

As a result of this new-found enthusiasm for all things grape-y rather than grain-y, the entire sector is now worth a huge £17.3 billion. It supports 270,000 jobs and contributes a significant £8.6 billion in taxes to the Chancellor’s coffers.

Even more amazingly though, the UK also boasts an unexpected 572 commercial vineyards, which are found mostly in England, although there are also 22 in Wales and four in Scotland too. They produced 6.3 million bottles in 2014, an increase of 42% in volume terms over the year before, according to professional body, the English Wine Producers.

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Although such figures pale into insignificance behind France’s seven to eight billion bottles, the market is still only a young one. But it’s growing fast. And this growth is at least partially due to fact that the amount of land given over to vineyards has doubled in the last seven years, now standing in excess of 4,900 acres (2,000 hectares).

The shift has come about as a result of increasing numbers of farmers turning their land over from arable crops to vines – despite the hefty three to five years it takes for them to mature enough to produce wine grapes, explains Charles Hardcastle, owner of Joseph Barnes Wines, a lovely boutique wine shop in Saffron Walden.

And the reason is simple – despite the long lead-time, as and when the crop arrives, it tends to be much more profitable than traditional alternatives. According to the Wine Investment Fund (WIF), which invests in fine wines from Bordeaux, it is also a gift that keeps on giving, especially in bad times.

WIF believes that, as a commodity with similar characteristics to gold, fine wine tends to benefit from uncertain economic conditions such as those that we have at the moment.

Growing industry

But while gold is currently losing its lustre as an investment ‘safe haven’, “wine’s intrinsic value and inherently diminishing supply dynamic should mean that it retains its appeal in unstable market conditions”. Apparently.

Anyway, other reasons for the rapid growth of the English wine industry in particular, says Charles, include lots of new investment in cellar technology, machinery and, importantly, temperature control.

But it also helps that the UK has got warmer over the last few years due to climate change. “English wine-making is growing rapidly as the country gets warmer and we’re now seeing grapes that you wouldn’t have grown 10 years ago,” he explains.

Chardonnay and Pinot Noir have, in fact, now become the most popular national choice of varietal, not least because they cope well with our still relatively cool climate. And they also happen to love the chalky soils of Sussex, Kent and much of Essex just as much as those of France’s Burgundy and the Languedoc.

But it is sparkling wine that has been the UK’s true success story. Although it still accounts for only 1.5% of domestic purchases, producers won an impressive 14 gold medals in the International Wine Challenge this year compared to just five last year.

As a result, at least two thirds of UK production is now given over to it due to the higher margins that it generates, with volumes having grown by a massive 150% over the last five years.

The only small fly in the ointment is that English wines are still quite expensive for what they are. Charles estimates that you’d probably pay £9 to £10 for an English wine that would cost you maybe £6 or £7 for an equivalent French one – which, incidentally, is still the UK’s favourite wine producing country behind only Australia, but ahead of Italy (data from researchers, the IWSR).

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But that hasn’t stopped high street chains such as Marks & Spencer and Waitrose getting in on the act, with the latter reporting a 95% increase in 2014 sales over the previous year. In fact, Waitrose now offers more than 100 varieties of wine from both England and Wales.

Success story

But as well as the supermarkets’ support – something that Charles points out has been directly responsible for our new-found love of wine no matter what its origins – another thing that’s helped the British industry to blossom is the fact that English food has started to become trendy again.

And of course chefs are often keen to offer local wine in order to complement their local fare – something that has resulted in it appearing on the menus of restaurants owned by such celebrity greats as Gordon Ramsey, Heston Blumenthal and even home-grown North Essex boy, Jamie Oliver.

Anyway, the reason that I started looking into all of this in the first place was the fact that my Beloved and I took ourselves off to an English wine festival last weekend, at least partially to see how it compared with the fabulous three-day event held each year in Stellenbosch where we lived for nearly a year while in South Africa.

Although not quite on the same scale, it was held at the New Hall Vineyards, which is one of the oldest and largest in the country. Set up in 1969 in the small Essex village of Purleigh near Chelmsford, it comprises 100 acres of vines.

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And my favourite tipple there had to be the Huxelrebe, which is a German grape, tasting – to my uncultured palate anyway – not dissimilar to a nice, crisp Pinot Grigio.

The worst, on the other hand, was the Baron’s Red. But, I’m reliably informed by Charles, the climate still has a bit more changing to do before it’ll warm enough to make the most of red varietals really.

Anyway, one little money-making venture that I’d not come across before, despite having been a regular visitor to Stellenbosch’s wine farms when we were there, was the idea of an “own you own vineyard” scheme.

What New Hall proposes is that for the tidy sum of £350, you can rent yourself a vine row for a year, or two years for £650. They’ll look after it for you as part of the price, and then subsequently process your grapes at a cost of £1.98 per resultant bottle of wine, or £7.73 if it’s sparkling.

So it’s nothing if not entrepreneurial. Which is presumably why the English wine industry – despite the cynics – is rapidly starting to become one of the UK’s big commercial success stories.