conservation, countryside, environment, food, food and drink, leisure, lifestyle, plants, Uncategorized

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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British cuisine entertainment, conservation, food and drink, tourism, wildlife

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

conservation, countryside, wildlife

Keeping Britain wild and free

It does strike you that human beings can be a contrary bunch sometimes.

 

On the one hand, you’ve got the whole re-wilding movement currently going on in the UK. Its aim is to try and restore and protect key wilderness areas and return various habitats and species to the British countryside after they disappeared years ago, mainly through our own fault.

 

On the other hand, we’re now also trying to eradicate loads of other things that we’ve introduced from elsewhere over the years either by accident or design, but which we no longer like. Surprise, surprise, just like the scenes we’ve witnessed so often in horror movies, we’ve found that, once out of their own natural habitats, such immigrants have a habit of becoming dysfunctional, getting all invasive and starting to kill off the locals.

 

Prime examples here include the infamous Japanese knotweed , which can grow up to 20cm per day and apparently costs the UK economy £166 million per year both in terms of getting rid it and in house price devaluations as a result of it.

Japanese knotweed
Japanese knotweed

Another nightmare is the North American signal crayfish, which is killing off its native white-clawed cousins in our streams, rivers and lakes by being bigger and more aggressive, and grabbing most of the food supply for itself. To make matters worse, it’s also spreading some awful disease that’s proving deadly to its smaller and more genteel relations.

 

Anyway, to get back to the notion of re-wilding for a moment: although creating and conserving green spaces full of indigenous flora and fauna for everyone to enjoy might not seem a particularly controversial idea, in practice, it’s caused a firestorm.

 

One of the problems is that the term itself seems to mean different things to different people, a situation that’s led to lots of heated debate among conservationists and wildlife lovers alike, some of it rather ill-natured.

 

The launch of a charity called Rewilding Britain, which claims George Monbiot, environmental activist and Guardian newspaper columnist as its unofficial figurehead, for instance, seems to have been particularly divisive. It launched itself onto the national stage in July by making a headline-grabbing call for the reintroduction into Scotland of Britain’s former apex predators – lynx, wild boar and wolves – which had previously been hunted to extinction.

 

In fact, its aim is to see three core areas of 100,000 hectares of infertile land across the UK rewilded by 2030. About one million or so more would then follow by the end of the century to be given over to these predators and the natural ecological processes that support them.

 

The apex predator debate

 

The charity’s argument is that, as important keystone species, they would help to make the country’s natural ecosystems stronger, not least as a result of hunting overpopulated species such as deer, which are causing massive damage to forests and woodland across the country.

 

The farmers, on the other hand, have been up in arms about it all, protesting that wolves, in particular, would kill too many sheep. They have also refused to be pacified by protestations that most European states acting as home to such predators have compensation schemes in place.

 

A passionate supporter of the rewilding viewpoint, meanwhile, is Paul Lister, a multimillionaire, heir to the MFI fortune and founder of The European Nature Trust. He bought the Alladale Estate in Sutherland, Scotland, about 10 years ago in order to turn it into a wilderness reserve, which he has been in the process of doing ever since.

 

To that end, he’s planted 800,000 trees, restored 224 hectares of degraded peat-land and, happily, reintroduced our native red squirrels. But for him, such progress is still not enough. The vision will not be complete until he introduces large predators in the shape of lynx, wolves and bears, not only to control the rampant, resident deer, but also to create an ecotourism attraction and generate local employment.

Wolf
Wolf

But the idea hasn’t gone down too well in some quarters, to say the least. Ramblers who have a legal right to wander on Lister’s land, are unhappy at the thought of it being fenced off to create a so-called “giant zoo”. A few locals are also fearful that the animals will break out and end up snaffling livestock – or even people.

 

Some conservationists are just as concerned about the potential impact on the animals themselves of being released into territory now unfamiliar to them.

 

Anyway, the upshot of the outcry has been that Lister now plans to conduct a six-month study into the socio-economic impact of his proposed move – a scenario that means it’s probably unlikely to happen any time soon.

 

But not everyone in the conservation movement is convinced that rewilding advocates should be placing quite so much focus on reintroducing big beasts. Instead some believe it should be much more about expanding natural habitats, increasing biodiversity and helping communities reconnect with nature.

 

Andrew Bachell, Scottish Natural Heritage’s director of policy and advice, for one, told farmers’ publication FG Insight: “Rewilding isn’t just about releasing large animals. It’s also about regenerating natural woodland or allowing areas of coast that flood naturally to flood again, and creating wildlife corridors.”

 

Different angles

 

Moreover, Rob Bushby, UK manager of conservation and rewilding charity the John Muir Trust’s environmental award scheme points out in a blog that to put so much focus on the predator message is potentially damaging to the entire movement by making it “overly focused, niche and confusing”.

 

It has, he believes, resulted in the term ‘rewilding’ being “associated with ‘conservation nut jobs’, slaughter of livestock, and even absconding of babies (Scotland on Sunday). It’s alienated and antagonised many that would be our natural allies”.

 

As a result, says Busby: “By focusing on one dimension and one or two species, ‘rewilding’ is in danger of becoming a tarnished brand associated with polarised and rancorous debate.” Which would be a shame really as its intentions are good and its aims actually relatively modest.

 

Another set of people with equally good intentions but coming at things from quite a different angle are the invasivores. A movement born in the US, it involves people going around eating invasive species in a bid to control burgeoning populations.

Signal crayfish
Signal crayfish

A pioneer of, and cheerleader for, this novel approach is Joe Roman, a conservation biologist who works at the University of Vermont and set up his own website called ‘Eat the Invaders (Fighting invasive species one bite at a time!) in 2003 to spread the word. It is packed not only full of information about individual species, but also about their nutritional value and possible recipes that can be used to cook them.

 

Although Roman acknowledges that dining out on invasive species alone won’t solve the problem, he believes that it’s a useful, and also enjoyable, entry point into the issues involved.

 

As he told US news broadcaster CNN: “I spent my career trying to control people’s appetites, to manage native species so we don’t deplete them. Here is a case where voracious appetites do the environment a favour. You want it not to be a chore, to be fun, and tasty!”

 

And you can see his point – according to the GB Non-Native Species Secretariat, non-native invasive species actually cost the UK economy about £1.7 billion each year in damage and clearing up the mess. A fact making it surprising perhaps that we haven’t seen more invasivore restaurants springing up here a la US.

 

In fact, the nearest thing we’ve got to it so far that I’ve been able to discover anyway, is environmental campaign Crayaway’s Crayfish Bob pop-up restaurants. They travel up and down the country dishing out signal crayfish for people to feast on at festivals such as Glastonbury.

 

Which certainly puts a whole new spin on the phrase, “Eat and drink for tomorrow you may die”.

 

 

 

 

 

countryside, leisure, tourism, UK

Saffron Walden: A little town making it big

There are a number of reasons why my charming, little home-town of Saffron Walden in North Essex is special, it seems, not least of which are its sausages.

Burtons Butchers’ King Street banger, which comprises 80% Blythburg free range pork as well as a few secret spices, has just been awarded a rare five-star rating by the Sausage Review website, whose members go around the country evaluating the nation’s best and worst.

Burtons Butchers, Saffron Walden
Burtons Butchers, Saffron Walden

But it doesn’t stop there. A further three varieties on top of the recent King Street celebrity have also been entered into that culturally vital event, the British Sausage Week competition, which will be judged by Michel Roux Jr, Michelin-starred chef and owner of London’s upmarket Le Gavroche restaurant, at the start of November.

But its superlative sausages aren’t the only reason that Saffron Walden has been hitting headlines lately. Another is its world-class concert hall, which was built from the ground up with state-of-the-art acoustics in mind and is already gaining a reputation for itself. Growing numbers of people from as far away as London are now making the hour-long train journey from Liverpool Street in order to park themselves on one of its 730 really quite comfy seats to listen to classical music – although some might argue it’s shame that its remit is so narrow given the quality of the space.

Anyway, the Saffron Hall, as it’s known, was opened in 2013 at the 2,000-learner-thronged County High School while my Beloved and I were away in South Africa. This momentous event occurred following a £10 million donation from the Yellow Car Charitable Trust on behalf of a rich, local benefactor, who apparently loves classical music and wanted the children and local community to do likewise by providing them with access to outstanding facilities.

A particular feather in the Hall’s cap though has been the fact it managed to snare the well-regarded Angela Dixon, former head of music at the Barbican Centre in London, as its chief executive. An Essex girl, having been brought up in Benfleet and having lived in the village of Whittlesford for years, she apparently had had enough of chasing around the world. And so when a local job came up, she jumped at it.

And her international connections have certainly helped in attracting world-class performers to what, in the early days at least, amounted to an untried and untested venue. Now though everyone from internationally-acclaimed Russian conductor Vladimir Jurowski with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in tow to top-flight violinists Maxim Vengerov and Nicola Benedetti have strutted their stuff there.

A lot to offer

Somewhat embarrassingly, however, it seems that the rest of the town hasn’t quite caught up with its new-found reputation as a destination for the glitterati. In a place that has never knowingly kept late hours, the rumour goes that when staying at a local boutique hotel complete with rather overpriced gastro-pub in the centre of town, Benedetti had to go to bed hungry after a concert when she was told the chef had upped sticks and gone home. So let’s hope they sort that particular little issue out before she comes back for a revisit in November.

Anyway, moving swiftly on, it seems that the Hall was lucky enough to receive three years of funding from Yellow Lorry to see it through until the end of the 2017 season – by which time it really needs to have become as self-sufficient as possible. Things appear to have got off to a good start though as the venue apparently generated £280,000 last season and so good luck to it – it certainly can’t do Saffron Walden any harm in tourism terms at the very least.

Because this lovely old town, which incidentally is constantly being named as one of the best places in the UK to live and swiftly becoming a commuter-belt haven for ex-Londoners, really does have quite a lot to offer in that department. If you’re into architecture, for instance, it’s a complete dream as much of the centre has been preserved in aspic.

The story goes that local grandee Lord Braybrook, whose family seat was the now English Heritage-run mansion Audley End House, wasn’t too keen on having the London-to-Cambridge train line coming into Saffron Walden and spoiling his nice agricultural idyll – and so the Industrial Revolution, and its concomitant modernisation, completely passed it by.

As a result, you’ll find genuine buildings that are everything from late Georgian to Victorian in origin, with a good few medieval ones thrown in for good measure. A further plus is the widespread presence of a particular kind of decorated plasterwork traditional to East Anglia known as pargeting.

The Sun Inn, Saffron Walden
The Sun Inn, Saffron Walden

Designs range from simple geometric surface patterns to elaborate sculptured flowers and figures of people and animals – fine examples of which can be seen at the Sun Inn where Oliver Cromwell is said to have resided during his 19-day stay in the town in May 1647. At the time of his sojourn at the heart of the English Civil War, he was in the middle of talks to try and reach a settlement between Parliament and his New Model Army apparently.

Ancient history

One of the town’s oldest buildings, however, is the imposing Church of St Mary the Virgin, which takes the crown for being the largest parish church in Essex. Dating mainly from the end of the 15th century and dominating the skyline, it was built using wool money – the area’s major trade for centuries – very patently to show off the wealth of this still well-heeled town.

In fact, even its name is linked to wool production. Originally know as Chepyng (an Anglo-Saxon word for Market) Walden when it was granted a charter around 1300, the town started growing saffron crocuses in the 16th and 17th centuries to dye its own wool and keep prices elevated. But it also made lots of money on the side selling this precious commodity as a condiment, an additive to medicines and perfumes – and even as an aphrodisiac.

Anyway, as the saffron industry started petering out by the end of the 18th century, it was replaced by malt and barley and Saffron Walden morphed into a Quaker town. The most influential family then were the Gibsons, who helped found Barclays Bank and contributed to building a number of iconic buildings in the shape of a distinctive town hall and museum.

 

Saffron Walden market and town hall
Saffron Walden market and town hall

And there are still remnants of that legacy to this day in the shape of a Friends Meeting House in the High Street and a private Friends’ School, which has seen such luminaries as Russian dictator Josef Stalin‘s granddaughter Olga Peters and Tom Robinson of Tom Robinson Band fame pass through its doors.

Other novel things that the place is known for, and for which it is actually unique in the UK, meanwhile, are its two historic mazes – a restored Victorian yew hedge one in the Grade II listed Bridge End Gardens and an ancient turf maze on the still quite extensive Common.

Remarkably the turf maze is the largest example of its kind in the world and is one of only 11 to survive in Northern Europe – eight in England and three in Germany. And they’re important in social history terms because, since medieval times, they’ve been used for religious purposes and as part of community festivities such as village fairs.

According to the medieval Christian worldview, for instance, mazes represented the journey of the human soul, in which the goal was clear but the path to achieving it confusing. So it was considered an act of devotion to walk them in meditation and prayer – something that, in an unspoiled, rural idyll like Saffron Walden, it’s still perfectly feasible to do to this day.

British cuisine entertainment, export, food, import, leisure

Food, glorious British food

There’s nothing at the moment that’s quite able to rival “The Great British Bake Off” in terms of feel-good TV, as far as I can see.

The much-discussed cookery competition is all about artsy-craftsy creativity, good, wholesome rivalry and everyday, everyman-kind of contestants – even though most of us have nowhere near their level of amateur baking skill – courteously sparring for a place in the final.

It’s all very civilised and quintessentially British – you certainly couldn’t imagine it getting past programme commissioners anywhere else in the world. And it’s breathtakingly popular, pulling in an average audience this year of 12 million, up two million on 2014. Its success even means that it’s now in the process of being reworked for a US audience, albeit for a second time.

So the good-humoured Bake-Off, as it’s known to its fans, is thriving, pandering presumably to the nation’s collective nostalgia for cream teas. And our mutual need for a bit of light-hearted frippery in a world that can at times appear all too dark elsewhere – the programme was born, after all, in 2010 at the epicentre of the worst global recession since World War II, and at a time when we definitely all needed cheering up a bit.

But that’s not the only thing the reality TV show can be credited with – it’s also been acclaimed for spurring a huge resurgence in interest in home baking. A phenomenon that has led, among other things, to the omnipresence of cupcakes in British high street stores and the revival of such kitsch delights as multi-coloured china cake stands, a traditional bit of grandma’s crockery not so very long ago assigned to car boot sales.

cakestand

In fact, in the wake of the Bake Off phenomenon, the UK home baking industry has apparently leapt in value from a mere £523 million in 2009 to a vast £1.7 billion last year – with people spending £176 million each year on cooking chocolate, sprinkles and other decorative delights alone.

Even the Women’s Institute, with its reputation for Jam, Jerusalem and fabulous cakes, has benefited from this great culinary upsurge, with membership now at its highest levels since the 1970s.

Mixed foodie fortunes

But despite our current national obsession with foodie TV shows, celebrity chefs and aspirational cook books, it seems that cooking more mundane fare from scratch is actually on the wan – and has been for some time.

For instance, retail analysts Kantar Worldpanel pointed out a few years ago – and I can’t imagine things have changed much since – that members of the great British public, and especially those who are short of time, money or both, are spending larger chunks of their food budgets than ever on frozen and chilled ready meals – something that can’t be doing much for the nation’s collective waist-line in today’s age of obesity.

In fact, it seems the UK now has more amply-sized residents than anywhere else in Western Europe apart from Iceland and Malta, with 67% of men and 57% of women weighing our great land down rather more than they should, according to a recent study published in the Lancet medical journal.

As to how this translates into time spent slaving in the kitchen as opposed to sticking something in the microwave, the average time taken to prepare the main family meal has plummeted from 60 minutes two decades ago to around 32 minutes today. Which kind of says it all.

Moreover, the renaissance in restaurants serving British cuisine that we all heard so much about a few years ago now appears to have stalled, particularly outside of London.

P1010639

Instead, according to specialist food service market researchers Horizons, the average UK town centre is jam-packed full of Italian-style chains (25%) and curry houses – some 12,000 apparently, although a national shortage of chefs is currently raising fears that up to a third may have to close over the next few years due to the government’s controversial immigration cap. But British cuisine is way down on the list of favourites at a mere 9%, ranking lower than American food (12%) and only just ahead of Japanese and Mexican (6% respectively).

Surprisingly though, particularly given the unflattering reputation of British food abroad, it seems that our export trade in the stuff is booming. This apparent distaste for our hearty fare was incidentally cruelly but aptly encapsulated by former French president and prime minister Jacques Chirac at an international get-together in 2005 when he said: “One cannot trust people whose cuisine is so bad. The only thing they have ever done for European agriculture is mad cow disease”. Charming.

Food import and export

Anyway, in a sock in the eye for the now discredited Monsieur Chirac, the Institute of Export revealed earlier this year that the UK has now wangled its way into exporting culinary delicacies to a host of proud nations that are generally known for producing those very same foods domestically. So rather deliciously, this means selling huge amounts of tea to China, cheese to France (22,000 tonnes, in fact, Mr Chirac) and chocolate to Switzerland, to name but a few.

JacquesChirac

The entire sector is, as a result, now worth an eye-popping £19 billion a year and consists of as many as 2,500 companies selling their wares to 150 countries across the globe.

On the other hand and much less positively though, it appears that the country is playing fast and loose with its food security by relying on huge imports of fruit and veg from overseas that could just as easily be produced at home.

A report published earlier this year by the House of Commons’ Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee unveiled that the UK’s “self-sufficiency ratio” – which compares the amount of local food produced with levels of imported goods – has declined from a peak of nearly 87% in the early 1990s to a mere 68% in 2012, the last time figures were available.

In terms of fruit and veg that could be produced here, meanwhile, the ratio plummets still further to 12% and 58% respectively, with a huge £8 billion’s worth of goods being imported instead.

Which somewhat worryingly implies that, should the country hit trouble, whether that be as a result of conflict, pestilence or climate change-generated food shocks, we’re all likely to end up being scurvy-ridden. And vegans to boot due to the British livestock and dairy industries’ heavy reliance on imported soybean for animal feed from countries such as China, India and various parts of Africa.

All of which will, of course, make us even keener to watch Bake Off in order to cheer ourselves up and see exactly what it is we’re missing.

Croatia, holiday, leisure, tourism

Dubrovnik: Britain’s latest holiday mecca

Dubrovnik in Croatia has these days become a favoured holiday destination for lots of Brits. And Americans. And Germans. And Roman Arkadyevich Abramovich, Russian oligarch and owner of English Premier League football team, Chelsea.

Worth a jaw-dropping $9.1 billion, which according to Forbes, makes him the 137th richest person in the world, his $1.5 billion, 557-feet, super-sleek super-yacht Eclipse can usually be spotted sailing around off the stunning Dalmatian coast for a couple of months towards the end of each summer – a ritual performed for the last three or four years apparently.

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Strangely though, he is said to never actually disembark and avail himself of the local delights, preferring instead to simply float around different parts of the bay and view things from a distance. Which seems a bit of a shame really. But maybe having all that money isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be.

Eclipse, which was custom-made to Abramovich’s own specs in 2010, is for example reportedly kitted out with a missile defence system, armour-plating around his master suite, bullet-proof windows and an anti-paparazzi system.

This laser-based system can allegedly detect the electronic light sensors of digital cameras, which it targets with a beam of bright light to overexpose any privacy-busting photos having the audacity to be taken – an ideal accessory for anyone who guards his persona as international man of mystery as jealously as Abramovich does.

But just in case you come away with the mistaken notion that the guy is all work and no pleasure, the yacht also boasts a dedicated disco hall, two swimming pools, two helicopter pads and a mini-submarine, doubtless so he can enjoy the local aquatic life without having to mix with the rest of the tourist hoy-polloi.

In fact, when first built, this extravagant plaything was apparently the largest private yacht in the world – although it has since been usurped by younger model, Azzam, thought to be owned by Shiekh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, emir of Abu Dhabi and president of the United Arab Emirates.

Not to be outdone though, there are now rumours that Abramovich is in the process of going one better and having the ship to beat all ships delivered into his tender care next year.

Boats of stature

Anyway, Eclipse isn’t the only boat of stature that can be seen sailing around Dubrovnik’s shores by any stretch of the imagination. Astoundingly for a small, essentially medieval-turned-Baroque town following its rebuilding after a devastating earthquake in 1667, half again of its entire population of 40,000 souls swarms in each day during tourist season, many being disgorged from gigantic cruise liners the size of small cities.

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Each of these extraordinary behemoths holds between 2,000 and 3,000 passengers and roughly the same number again of staff. Thankfully for everyone’s sanity after five or six years of madness however, a maximum of three are now allowed to dock per day, although no such limits have been imposed on smaller ships in the 1,000 or so passenger range.

Which all makes the Old Town, a Unesco World Heritage site known as the ‘Pearl of the Adriatic’, a bit of a crush to say the least – or between the hours of 10am and 6pm anyway. And we went there at the end of September so I’d hate to think what it was like in the peak months of July and August, especially now that Game of Thrones worshippers have added themselves to the throng.

Doubling as King’s Landing in Westeros, the capital of the Seven Kingdoms, in the HBO epic fantasy series, the city has as a result become a mecca for avid fans who can even take a three hour walking tour to treat themselves to a unique modern take on traditional gems.

It’s all a far cry from the quiet backwater that I first visited in the mid-1980s when Croatia was still part of the post-war socialist state of Yugoslavia and Josip Broz Tito reigned supreme. Then it was all about women in long black dresses and headscarves selling oranges outside their homes and taking produce to market by donkey. How times have changed.

But the scrum that Dubrovnik can unfortunately become doesn’t ever seem to put people off – and in many ways you can see why. Surrounded by two spectacular if exposed kilometres of stone battlements that everyone walks around for the bargain basement price of 100 Croatian kuna (about £9.65), this exquisite city jutting into an azure Adriatic Sea with its terracotta-roofed Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque churches, monasteries and palaces, truly is picture postcard fare.

Food and drink

And its seafood is equally magnificent. With everything from sea bass and gilt-head sea bream to squid and octopus on the menu, it’s all about fresh ingredients cooked simply and served with tasty side orders of salad, rice or French fries. Other traditional delicacies also worth trying include cevapcici, which is a kind of highly seasoned rissole, and chicken or lamb slow-cooked under a metal lid called a peka that is covered with hot embers.

Equally as ubiquitous, meanwhile, are the excellent pizzas, pasta dishes and ice cream in myriad flavours of a quality rarely experienced outside of Italy – a line-up that may at first glance seem rather odd. But given the proximity of its Mediterranean neighbour to northern Croatia and the powerful commercial relationship engaged in particularly during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries between the key maritime trading centres of Dubrovnik and Venice – which incidentally apparently tried to invade the former a huge 70 times – it’s possibly not quite as strange as it seems.

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Also not to be missed though are Croatian wines – and the reds in particular. Although a bit of an unknown quantity in the UK for many, the industry is, along with olive-growing and citrus fruit production, a traditional and well-established one. It’s just that the vast majority of its outcomes are drunk at home and the country’s export market is tiny, which means that the average European simply isn’t particularly familiar with its delights – or the tongue-twisting names assigned to its grape varietals and brands.

Because it must be said that words belonging to the Slavic Serbo-Croatian language, which is spoken in a mutually understandable way all over the Baltics, do seem to include an unreasonable number of consonants – a case in point being the white wine grape “Trbljan bijeli” or a red wine version “Grenas crni”. Which is all a bit daunting initially.

As is the apparent shamelessness of rotund, middle-aged, Croatian men wearing tiny, weeny little Speedos at the beach in our holiday retreat of Zaton, about eight kilometres out of Dubrovnik itself. But over time, I can only say that I truly got to admire the lack of body consciousness displayed by both Croatian genders – a state of being so far removed from the average set of constraining British inhibitions as to be deeply impressive.

Because when push comes to shove, the fairy tale exotica of Dubrovnik and Croatia really are best enjoyed if you simply take them as you find them.

Britishness, leisure, tourism

What does “Britishness” really mean?

Eight months or so after returning to the UK following my two-year-long South African adventure, I decided to give myself a birthday treat and go back to blogging.

I’ve missed it. There’s something about putting your thoughts down on paper that makes you look at the world through slightly different, more observational, and perhaps rather more emblematic eyes. And, as I’m now back to being a freelance journalist full-time, I do find it eminently satisfying to write about the things that fascinate and amuse me rather than the things that pay the bills.

So what better topic to light upon than that of life in the UK in all its mundanity, its drollery and its singularity? Having been born and brought up in these Hallowed Isles, I am, of course, far from being the dispassionate observer of society, culture and everyday experiences that I was in South Africa. How could I be when I’m imbued with it all to the core?

But there are many ways to skin a cat, as the rather gruesome proverb goes. So my aim is to portray life here, for good or bad, through the prism of my own experiences for anyone who may be interested.

And what better place to start such a venture than with the vexed idea of “Britishness” and what it actually means. It’s an issue that people appear to have been wrestling with since the identity crisis brought on by the collapse of that doubled-edge sword, “the Great British Empire”, and the upheaval provoked by the Second World War – and with no satisfactory outcome to date.

Sure, lots of tired, old clichés still abound regarding our collective stiff-upper lip, our notions of fair play and our propensity to drink lots of tea. But that would scarcely seem enough to sum up a nation.

So it struck me as interesting when a friend of mine who’s into astrology informed me there’s a certain branch of the discipline that relates to countries. While astrology may not be everyone’s cup of tea, bear with me as the insights afforded are quite interesting – whether you hold any store by the influence of heavenly bodies or not.

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Apparently how it works is that, when drawing up a star chart, you plump for an historic date that could be seen as the birth of the nation. A common one for us Brits apparently is the coronation of William I in Westminster Abbey in London at noon on 25 December, 1066, following the Norman invasion.

Collective nature

This would mean that the UK has a Capricorn sun sign, with an Aries ascendant, the sun sign being the essence of who you are and the ascendant being how you present to other people.

Aries, so it’s said, is ruled by Mars, the planet of action, which means that people – or countries, for that matter – influenced by this sign tend to have a rather pioneering nature. They are also natural leaders, but can, on the downside, be aggressive, competitive and warlike. And they strive to be first in everything, sometimes to the point of ignoring the rights and feelings of others.

Sound familiar? Certainly notions of Empire would fit very nicely into many of the categories above, I’d have said, as would various ground-breaking events such as our creation of the first Parliament as well as sparking off the Industrial Revolution.

Capricorn-bonatti

The Capricorn side, meanwhile, is characterised by hard-working, practical, ambitious people (or countries) who are dedicated to achieving their goals and let nothing stand in their way. Responsible and methodical, they are often skilled administrators, hang onto established traditions and prefer slow, piecemeal reform to outright revolution.

So that’s where things like our cool British reserve and detachment would appear to come from as would the general focus on duty, and our apparently interminable love of Monarchy.

But my friend also believes that, given the liberal, eccentric and creative elements of our collective nature, the UK must likewise have a healthy dose of Aquarius thrown in there too – which I must confess is the bit that I’ve always tuned into most.

Along with just how feminine the energy of our country feels. I’d never noticed it before, but after going to Japan about 20 years ago for a dear friend’s wedding who is sadly no longer with us, it struck me just how immensely masculine that country was by way of contrast.

It wasn’t just the overt male domination going on all around or the seemingly diminuitive nature of the women, giggling behind their hands. It was just that the country felt so utterly and palpably male – I’d never experienced anything quite like it, and despite having an amazing time there, was really quite relieved to get back to our gentler, reassuringly female shores.

British birthdays

So anyway, just to tarry on the theme of Britishness a while longer, I had, due to the tender ministrations of my Beloved, a most appropriately British of birthdays.

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After indulging in that childhood classic of fishfinger sandwich, complete with very adult tartare sauce, at the Old English Gentleman pub in the charming, old market town of Saffron Walden in north Essex where we live, the next step was to take ourselves off to the historic city of Cambridge for a lovely roam around.

After working up a suitable appetite with our wanderings, we then treated ourselves to the traditional British fare on offer at The Cambridge Chop House opposite King’s College in the heart of town.

For those who aren’t familiar with chop houses, they, like coffee houses, alehouses and boarding houses, are essentially great British institutions of hundreds of years standing.

Originally, male-only establishments, they actually date back to the start of modern commercial trading in the country during the sixteenth and seventeenth century. Businessmen would gather there to hatch deals over hearty plates of traditionally cooked meat such as the chops after which they’re named, all washed down with a fine selection of local ales.

Even in the face of the new-fangled European cuisine sweeping across from the continent at the apex of their popularity in the 19th century, the chop houses, it seems, still managed to cling to their resolutely British mores.

So in keeping with the spirit of the occasion and despite not being a huge red-meat fan, I opted for herb-encrusted lamb chops while my Beloved went for a 10oz Tail on Rib Eye steak – whatever that means. And excellent they were too – traditional British food at its best.

Our final and ultimate indulgence then was an evening watching Shakespeare’s Macbeth in pergola-bedecked gardens near King’s. So all in all, a more British birthday couldn’t have been had if we’d tried.

So good day UK – it’s great to be back.