Sunday, September 30, 2007

Been such a long, long time...

...since I had a minute to blog, it really has. Which reminds me of one of my favourite songs:

But back to reality, whoever has time for that.

Tracking backwards, I was so so so so very lucky to join in a collective event to belatedly celebrate Nancy's birthday on Saturday afternoon: she had the great wisdom to suggest that those of us who wished could come to the Barbican and watch a play in her esteemed company, and the play she chose was, honestly, one of the best I've seen. The company was the inescapably and reliably brilliant Theatre Complicite, and their new production, A Disappearing Number, featuring the wonderful Saskia Reeves, was intricate and funny and incredibly moving. It is odd, isn't it, that when you see something moving, you can't actually move for a while, and so in a way we enjoyed sitting stunned in our seats long after the last hurrah.

We eventually did get up and wandered outside for fortifying cups of tea in the rain, watching the London rats race by with their rucksacks and flapping maps, and then went for a very nice meal at Fish Central (pour moi, grilled squid, brill and sticky toffee pudding).

Friday I went back to my old (work) stomping grounds and was whisked away by one of the head hunters in a taxi and a train and a car all the way to darkest Henley where I met the lovely Belinda, who runs Stirring Stuff. We had an informal demonstration by two members of her Big Boys' Cookery Club, who prepared a substantial and delicious meal of veal kidneys with peas, broad beans, roasted shallots and fried bread (it sounds nicer in French but I don't recall all the words) and talked Slow Food until bedtime, the distant sounds of one of the resident teens and her thousand friends somewhere above our heads, and returned to London in the morning.

Thursday I reached farther back into the past and met up for a drink and catch-up in a pub near Victoria Station with Graham, another former Spencerian; Wednesday I had a most delicious supper with Tina, a return visit to The Fish Hook in Turnham Green for some spicy fish soup and a bowl of mussels in cream.

Tuesday was a poetry reading - a big one - at Oxfam Marylebone, a quarterly event organised and hosted by expat Canadian poet Todd Swift. It was an impressive lineup (though missing one - most unfortunately, David Morley couldn't make it) and the readings moved at a cracking pace, so was not as wearing as the length of the list might have suggested. We heard Fleur Adcock, Chris Beckett, Julia Bird, Giles Goodland, Chris McCabe & Mario Petrucci, a good and invigorating mix for a rainy night.

Before the reading, Tammy and I enjoyed a terrific late in the day dim sum from what we think is (another) chain restaurant, Ping Pong. Everything was good. Very good.

And before that, I flew back from Parma. Only last Monday.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Plastic world

I got a monster killer migraine yesterday afternoon, which went some way to explaining why fate didn't want me travelling this weekend.

Before it hit, I did a bit of reading on the subject of plastic, which I wandered into through a story on the banning of plastic shopping bags. It made a nice change from the latest grim news for English farmers who are already struggling with the latest round of foot and mouth.

But it's not a much more uplifting story, although the banning of plastic bags - something not unknown in Canada - is a good thing. Spending, as I have been lately, quite a bit of time Thameside in London, I've often noticed them floating in the water. The Thames is a tidal river, draining into the English Channel, so as my recent reading has been telling me, those plastic bags will ultimately end up as plastic fragments perhaps even flowing past my house on the Gorge in Victoria.

The interesting - if tiny - preview of a longer film called Synthetic Sea, produced by the Long Beach CA Algalita Marine Research Foundation, explains that plastic, as we should all know by now, is non biodegradable: which means that although it breaks down in time, it doesn't disappear, it simply disassembles under sunlight - a process called photodegradation - into tiny plastic fragments which then wash around in the ocean, for centuries. Algalita believes that every piece of plastic ever created still exists.

In the the centre of the Pacific, Algalita took a random sample of sea water which showed there were six times as many plastic particles as there was plankton in the water. This means, of course, that plastic is competing with plankton as a food source for filter-feeding sea life (at the bottom of the food chain). The plastic becomes embedded in cell tissue of lower life forms like salps and is then ingested by larger sea life - on and on up to the fish on our dinner plate: I wonder if there is any way to find out how much plastic ends up in a salmon steak?

Not only does it threaten our food sources, plastic is also killing wildlife. Sea birds like albatross will eat larger plastic items like bottle caps and disposable lighters that fill and block their digestive system and kill them through starvation; others confuse tan coloured plastic fragments with krill or may eat nurdles - the pellets used by manufacturers to ship plastic for manufacture - thinking they are fish eggs. The problem here is that birds regurgitate their food for their young, many of whom die through malnutrition and the poisoning from the toxins that plastics carry. Whales and other sea animals are often found to have massive quantities of plastic - including balloons - in their digestive systems, and may also sustain injury or die when becoming trapped or tangled in discarded plastic.

So banning plastic bags is a good first step, but it's not the end of the story. Plastic is lurking in all parts of our lives. I found a 2004 article in Science magazine that adds a caution about where else it's hiding:
Many "biodegradable" plastics are composites with materials such as starch that biodegrade, leaving behind numerous, nondegradable, plastic fragments. Some cleaning agents also contain abrasive plastic fragments.
Like Algalita, the researchers found lots and lots of plastic fragments of all sizes; they found theirs in estuarine and subtidal sediments around Plymouth, and to check whether it was really something that all kinds of animal life would ingest, they kept "amphipods (detritivores), lugworms (deposit feeders), and barnacles (filter feeders) in aquaria with small quantities of microscopic plastics. All three species ingested plastics within a few days." They couldn't say what the long term effects of eating plastics might be on these or larger animals, but they do warn that "There is the potential for plastics to adsorb, release, and transport chemicals."

A few statistics that are circulating on the web:
  • The world uses over 1.2 trillion plastic bags a year. That averages about 300 bags for each adult on the planet. That comes out to over one million bags being used per minute.
  • On average we use each plastic bag for approximately 12 minutes before disposing. It then lasts in the environment for decades.
  • Not all litter is deliberate. 47% of wind borne litter escaping from landfills is plastic. Much of this is plastic bags. In the marine environment plastic bag litter is lethal, killing at least 100,000 birds, whales, seals and turtles every year. After an animal is killed by plastic bags, its body decomposes and the plastic is released back into the environment where it can kill again.
  • In June 2006 United Nations Environmental Program report estimated that there are an average of 46,000 pieces of plastic debris floating on or near the surface of every square mile of ocean.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Still Cheeselessly in Parma

If you're a believer in signs, when you read my tale you will perhaps understand why I gave up my attempts to get to Cheese this morning.

First, the friend who was going to come with me had pulled out before I left London. Next, I found out on Thursday that the plans to visit a winery Friday morning with another classmate had changed - the rental car wasn't rented after all and there was no way for me to get there without leaving on Thursday and staying an extra night -- somewhere. I was busy to-ing and fro-ing with packages to the post office and various other errands and just couldn't manage it, so decided to go on Saturday. Then arose the possibility of getting a ride with someone else to Bra on Saturday morning, but that fell through on Friday. So I went to the train station Friday night and bought a ticket for a train leaving at 5.53 this morning, which would have got me to Bra at around 10.

Got up 4.30, walked to the train station and arrived I guess at about 5.51 - with just enough time to reach the platform and watch my train pull out, in the full knowledge that the next train wouldn't get me there until an hour after the start time of the talk I most wanted to hear.

I took all this to mean the cosmos was indicating my presence was not required at Cheese this year, so I turned around and walked back home, since it was still too early for the buses to be running. Well at least I got my exercise. And was spared a three-stage, four hour train trip each way. The way things were going, chances are excellent that I would have missed one of those connections and ended up late anyway.

I don't know how many of you out there have tried to plan trips using Trenitalia's rather good website, but it does have one major flaw, which is that it doesn't tell you the ultimate destination of the train you will be catching/connecting with or the platform you'll need, which means you have to figure that out on the fly by checking the departure list posted on the platform, and then find the platform listed, and hope it hasn't changed. A lot to manage in a strange station with sometimes only three or four minutes between trains.

Think I'll go out and buy myself some... cheese.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Pausing in Parma

So I'm back in Parma, bracing myself for an earrrrrly train tomorrow. I'm going to Bra, which is not so very far but an absolute pig to get to by train. Four hours or so. Oh well. The destination will, I hope, be worth the pain of getting there: Cheese, glorious cheese.

I got here on Wednesday afternoon: left London where the generally fine weather I'd been grateful for for most of my stay so far had turned cold and grey with spitting rain. I sprinted down the street and got onto the airport bus with about three minutes to spare, made it to lovely Stansted in good time, and then killed it in various queues. The check-in queue was enlivened by a frequent occurrence at Stansted, namely the embarrassed departure of a pair of English holidaymakers who thought they were in the queue for Palma, Majorca. The endlessly unhelpful airport staff of course know all about the confusion - the word Palma is totally indistinguishable from Parma in the English accent over a loudspeaker - but make no concession to the weakness of travellers when making flight announcements. What fun!

My heart sank when I saw the number of Italian teenagers boarding the flight. We used to have to share buses to Colorno with this species on occasion, and in quantity they are among the loudest, most obnoxious and charmless creatures that walk this earth. But other than bolting out of their seats only seconds after a rather bouncy landing (and after a stern voice-of-god reprimand they hastily sat down again) they were surprisingly, gratifyingly well behaved.

Our welcome gift at the micro-airport was at the luggage carousel. The light started flashing, the beep sounded, and through the rubber curtain emerged... the guy who'd waved us into the passport control. He waved and smiled and then disappeared out the other curtain. I do love the way life can be so weirdly casual here.

All else in Parma is calm and quiet.

I have made lightning strikes on some of my favourite eateries - so happy everything is open again! Lunched at Sorelle Picchi and supped at La Croce di Malta (gorgeous torte of melanzane followed by a layered thing with potato and anchovy - interesting but a bit of a waste of a perfectly good anchovy I thought)

The meals have given me occasion to think about the matter of service in restaurants though. I'm thinking is it better to have friendly but inept service, which is more or less the case if you are recognised here, or snotty but correct service. Though usually the snotty service is also bad. So I'm settling for friendly. But it grieves me to see good restaurants losing points with new diners through simple ineptitude.

That having been said, I must praise once again my favourite chef in town, Davide di Dio, whose well deserved holiday seems to have given him some new verve; and I was pleased in the interests of his continued health and sanity to see he had more helpers on board at Ristorante Mosaiko. I hope they can keep up with him. I had a starter of Baccala on a wedge of what looked like a crouton

but turned out to be artichoke, drizzled with balsamico, yum: and I can honestly say I now see the point of Baccala. Then on to a primo piatto of prawns wrapped in crunchy blankets - Involtino di Gamberi Croccanti

with a puree of fennel and lemon cream. Perfect. And then Rombo in crosto di patate alla zucca:

some beautiful turbot, perfectly cooked in a potato crust, docked on a few perfect roast potatoes in a thick orange sea of pumpkin soup. Since it was a night for overindulgence, and as I hadn't had tiramisu since arriving in Italy, I thought I might as well. Very very nice. I went home well fed and looking forward to my next, and probably final, visit in November.

Tonight will be a quiet night of packing and resting.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

London tasties

A couple of good chows before I left London this week. First, tapas at the Salt Yard, where some very tasty grilled bread with alioli was followed by some other things: padron peppers, stuffed courgette flowers stuffed with ewe's milk cheese, lamb on roast parsnips,tiny squid...

and then a pair of more than interesting desserts: a fresh plum jelly with sherry cream on top and warm madeleines on the side; and grilled peach slices topped with lavender ice cream, much nicer than chewing on a pot-pourri but with an oddly powerful similarity.

Then on Tuesday, a light lunch at Carluccio's - for me, some mushroom soup with pancetta

and an appreciative browse of the stuff in the window:

Monday, September 17, 2007

Look both ways

Time is slipping by without my being able to keep up. I'll finish off Oxford when I can, but meanwhile here is what happened last week.

Monday night was a long awaited magazine launch reading at Foyle's:

Seam is an excellent vehicle and the list of readers, though frightening in its length, was smoothly handled by its super-poet-editor Anne Berkeley, and we reached the break seamlessly, ha ha. Here's the reading list (I can't say I checked this against actual attendance but I know a lot of these people did read: Sue Rose distinguished herself, of course, and Mike Barlow was my surprise hit of the evening. I was glad as well for a chance to meet Todd Swift who has been on the edge of my acquaintance for several years, with more and more people known in common. Anyway, the other readers were: Gill Andrews, Pat Borthwick, Ken Champion, John Clegg, Chrissie Gittins, Allison McVety, Caroline Natzler, Julian Stannard, Kearan Williams.

After a bracing glass of wine, a bit of light mingling, and a chance to purchase copies of the magazine, we were treated to a second half reading by Sheenagh Pugh,

who demonstrated her position as an advocate for accessibility in poetry without sacrificing intelligence and interest. I particularly liked her 'webcam' poems. (Perhaps webcam poems will be the dream poems of the future?)

Afterwards some of us repaired to a Greek restaurant in Bloomsbury. What can I say: the half timbered interior was probably a pretty clear clue, but we were not in authentic Greek cuisine territory. I was curious to eat "Greek" restaurant food after my Crete experience, and it was about as unremarkable as I remembered, though filling. Anyway I needed to shoot off early to get myself tucked into bed for another day at London Food Link in the morning.

Which I did. And was there until Thursday when I finished up and went to meet Nancy to see Atonement, a well-made, grim but topical number I hadn't been exactly looking forward to but thought I ought to see, as it's much discussed. But I'm not a big fan of Ian McEwan, see. This film certainly demonstrated what I don't like about his creative vision: it seems to be a matter of making each of his characters suffer as much as possible; there is no mercy and no forgiveness in his world. As I remembered afterwards, Alex's mother once said to me that she only really wanted to see happy films anymore. I'm there too. Anyway Nancy and I took ourselves to Ottolenghi for some A-1 takeaway (the peppery gingery greenbeans, spinach and snow peas were particularly good). I've been following his interesting New Vegetarian column in the Guardian but was happy to see he serves some exquisite beef as well.

So that was kind of it for the week. Then I zipped off to Sussex for the weekend. The weather was beautiful: classic autumnal Englishness, clear and crisp. We went to a place called the Boathouse for lunch on Saturday, which was really hopping, with a big anniversary party on the other side of the room. But we had a sunny table overlooking the stream

which was a nice setting with pleasant staff (even in the depths of Sussex it's the New Britain: 1 each English, Polish, Latvian and Slovakian waiter and a Chinese maitre'd). Food not so good though: I encountered an ammonia-pong skate wing. By its soppy texture I'd say it was previously frozen, if not just plain overcooked, which might explain why the kitchen didn't notice the problem. According to your sources, the ammonia develops either as an effect of poor handling when caught, or it is a symptom of a less-than-fresh piece of fish. Whatever the reason, it's inedible at this point, so we sent it back and I had a bit more beef which was ok, and then after a little sit down on the wall by the water

went in search of the sellers of some local free range eggs,

but they were apparently out, leaving a few chickens and a couple of dogs in charge. The church next door was cold and quiet

and after a look round and a cock-a-doodle farewell from the very fine rooster,

we left.

Friday, September 14, 2007

More Oxford

(**This post was lurking in my unposted half-finished back-(b)log and pertains to two previous posts from September 2007: apologies if it reaches and confuses current subscribers!)

We went round the mulberry tree on Sunday.

I don't believe I'd ever eaten a mulberry, let alone picked one off a tree. I was surprised. They seemed very fragile, perishable nuggets, difficult to get hold of at the perfect moment of ripeness. Once ripe, these ones at least seemed to be already mouldy. Past their harvest date or inherently flawed? Further research clearly indicated..

The Sunday morning sessions were really interesting. I started with the panel on Foie Gras, poppies and cacao.

The Foie Gras Fracas: Sumptuary Law as Animal Welfare? presented by Cathy K. Kaufman, discussed the ethics of foie gras (duck) production as practised in New York state. Her starting premise was that "killing animals for food is morally acceptable provided that animals not suffer unnecessarily in their rearing or slaughtering".

The argument she presented was more or less the same as I'd heard from a former chef. She observed that migratory birds have an inbuilt behaviour to store fats for the journey, and to do this practice a form of gluttony that is compatible with being fed the volume of grain that producers provide them; and that the force-feeding of birds, gavage, has been practiced for millenia: it appears on Egyptian tomb-paintings reckoned to date back to 2500 BCE. She also observed that tube-feeding is not a world away from the regurgitation/throat feeding practiced by parent birds on their young (i.e. although we would not want a tube down our throats, it's not so different from having your mom's beak pushed down there). The birds Kaufman was writing about were visited by veterinarians who found them generally less stressed and in better living conditions than factory-farmed fowl, as I guess you'd expect when they are raised in smaller numbers. Jeffrey Steingarten has a good piece on the same theme.

In Poppy: Potent yet Frail - Aylin Öney Tan gave the Turkish history of poppy production and the impact of foreign interference in local agricultures. She dated opium poppy cultivation back to Mesopotamia in 4000 BC. Her comments on the physical similarity between poppy seed heads and pomegranates were a revelation, as she showed a few illustrations that could be seen quite differently if you mentally swapped plants. She talked about the culinary uses of poppy seeds: in breads and baking, in both savoury and sweet dishes, and as a cooking oil, which contains no opiates. The oil is also used by artists and the paint industry because of its unique drying qualities. She pointed out that it's a plant used in its entirety by peasant farmers, including the use of poppy seed pulp (left over from oil pressing) as animal feed (now that would make for happy animals..?). Although poppy production resumed in 1974, after being banned due to international pressure, the legal hoops that villagers have to go through limit the numbers of those willing to cultivate it.

Cacao in Brazil or the History of a Crime by Marcia Zoladz was a bit of a tangled web, covering an example of market manipulation in the late eighties and early nineties. Basically it was the story of a group that was aiming to change the economic and political power balance in Brazil by buying up cacao plantations and then destroying them by infesting them with a fungus known as witches' broom (Crinipellis perniciosa). The infected plantations would then infect healthy ones and cripple the whole economy. Cacao was always an export crop, so there are question marks about its value in a healthy and self-sustaining economy. Brazil's complicated social history - where slavery was abolished but replaced by a kind of indentured labour system - was part of the problem, and the reason for the act, as well.

Sunday lunch was organic chicken: local, seasonal foods, very good and extremely beautiful.

A further postscript: The papers presented at the 2007 "Food and Morality" themed Oxford Symposium are now available from Prospect Books.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Saturday afternoon

Moving on from the already full morning, on Saturday afternoon I went to a talk by Rachel Laudan, on how food makes us moral agents - more or less virtuous. She presented two trays of foods representing opposing value systems: in one, we gain altitude on the moral scale through refinement, through mixing and perfecting through cooking and treating our foods. Proponents of the refined side of the equation believe that cooking separates humans from the animals and barbarians who eat raw, unrefined food. Examples include refined flours and sugars (sugar, she observed, is an immortal food: you can remain pure by eating foods that never perish -- might be said of a lot that we find on supermarket shelves these days) and wine.

On the other side, where we find wholemeal breads, water or milk, we gain moral value through the belief that foods are naturally good, and that cooking or refining them disguises their benefits. In this value system, cooking stimulates unnatural appetites and leads to sins like gluttony. So, I guess the bottom line would be that once again, you judge others according to what you're used to.

Then on to Steven Kramer, a philosopher-foodie, who invited us in How Clean Is Your Plate? to think about morality and change, the entrenchment of habit when it comes to our food choices. The talk's title referred to the admonishment by parents to clean your plate because children (always elsewhere) are starving. Quoting from Plato, Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser, his recommended starting point was actually a book about animal welfare by Peter Singer, a utilitarian philosopher, called The Way We Eat: Why our food choices matter. He spoke about our willed ignorance when it comes to food production, particularly the raising of animals for meat: we don't want to ask the questions about what's on our plate. But when we introduce ethical issues to our eating, are we creating a fear of food? He concluded with a discussion of the moral issues demonstrated in Babette’s Feast, with its opposition of dull but virtuous cuisine versus extravagant gourmet foods, and the less than simple value systems attached to each.

There was then a discussion of food and environmental challenges, in which student Brian Melican asked how one brings people round to actually make choices and change their eating patterns without imposing on them a kind of consumer dictatorship. He questioned the difference between marketing and propaganda and balancing food preferences - like, say, mangoes - against their wider issues, such as the environmental cost of transporting them to your table and the need for their producers to make a living. It was, he said, a 'different pocket' reality: when ultimately we pay for the real and hidden costs of cheap food under different names, there's a disconnect.

Saturday night's Ethical Dinner, prepared by chef Tim Kelsey in consultation with Caroline Conran and Anissa Helou, was based entirely on ingredients sourced within 25 miles of Oxford. The evening's entertainment was edible hat-making, led by Alicia Rios, to which end we gathered what was left on the tables after supper, and added it to the groaning board of ingredients.

Some stunning headgear emerged.

And meanwhile, it was the Last Night of the Proms, which was celebrated remotely and appropriately even in Oxford.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

A long wordy account of the first morning of the Food & Morality conference

On Saturday morning I hopped a bus to Oxford at the unearthly hour of 7am on my way to the Oxford Symposium on Food and Drink, whose theme this year was food and morality. It was a gorgeous morning and I walked towards the college, passing a sunny graveyard.

By 8.45 I had dropped bags in my room at St Catherine's college and was on my way to a vigourous survey of the ups and downs of right-thinking foodies in Berkeley California from the sixties to the present by the simply wonderful Ruth Reichl, in an opening address called What Should We Eat?

Speaking from her considerable experience in documenting food trends, she pointed out that we have been agonising over food ethics from the year dot, and that the underlying reasons have swung between efforts to control class, religion and the economy.

In the fifties and sixties, efforts to churn wartime industries into moneymaking economy meant that advertisers positioned cooking as symbolic of an unworthy, undesirable prison that modern women would be fools not to shed. We were encouraged to liberate cooking time for other aspects of life: time was more valuable than food in those days of plenty. Movement followed movement: food was politicised by such books as Diet for a Small Planet. Meat was out, boycotts were in.

By the mid nineties, industrialisation of our food had created all kinds of new jumping points for protest: chemical adulteration, genetic modification, contamination and disease; the end of food as we knew it. She mentioned a test by English volunteers who had tried to live as battery chickens for a week, and lasted 18 hours. There were starting to be a lot of questions about how our food animals were treated, and the demand for ethically raised meat has rocketed as a result.

For a while fish seemed like the answer, but fish are fighting a losing battle with the modern world: oceans are being drained of species by fishing technology, and the global hunger for sushi has had a huge impact, a food that is less about tradition and health than it is about the possibilities of refrigeration and air freight. Bluefin tuna was a despised fish 35 years ago, but its price has increased 10,000 times since then, and it is vanishing as a species.

And we have contamination of farmed fish, and contamination of sea and land and deforestation of wetlands resulting from increased fish and shellfish farming.

But what do we do? Technological advances mean it's unrealistic to expect farmers to go back to ploughing the fields by hand. For the first time in history, we have too much food AND starvation: "while half the world goes hungry, the other half is killing itself with calories." We have, she said, so many moral choices today it's a wonder any of us eat at all.

We are hearing a lot about growing our own food, cutting down our food miles and buying locally. But is that the correct moral stance? There have been studies that show it's a far from simple equation: the nature of mechanisation on the farms, the type of feed (it takes a lot of fossil fuel to produce grains like maize) and the slaughtering systems for meat (where are they, how are they powered, etc.) can all throw calculations off. So one New Zealand study found that 1 tonne of lamb raised in New Zealand and eaten in London was less fuel dependent than the same amount raised in Oxford and eaten in London.

She cited a recent review in Atlantic Monthly of Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma as formulating an attack on gourmets: the author's moral stance appeared to be that the only moral choice is vegan, "where the Christian and the gourmet part ways." Will the vegetarian diet be the only acceptable diet of the future?

Most of us, she concluded, would like to do the right thing.. if only we could figure out what that was.

Well. That was some beginning. We turned then to a swiftly-moving panel.

Chocolateer John Scharffenberger talked all too briefly about ethical sourcing of cacao beans. The all-too familiar gist was that farmers are getting the short end of the stick, being paid very badly while supporting with those poor wages whole communities. He proposed instituting higher quality varieties of healthier beans which would allow a fair living to the people who grew them.

Then Raymond Blanc stepped up to dash our illusions about the charmed life of the kobe beef cattle. He'd visited Japan and, eager to see their living environment, met many stone walls. Finally he set up a visit himself and found filthy calves, confined to small pens, and force fed grain until a final year of grass fattening. And a slaughterhouse where the cattle were killed and hung in the open air in front of their fellows, the blood running between the hooves of the waiting animals. In short, marketing mythology at work.

Henrietta Green, described as the mother of farmers markets in Britain, talked about the evolution of chicken from a food of luxury to something valueless; bizarre questioning by supermarkets and fast food chains to decide whether chickens can suffer; questions about whether a battery chicken has a right to life or anything else just to feed us cheaply. And that, as always, it's all about taste: a better reared chicken (free range and longer lived) tastes better.

And finally, Armando Manni talked about the decline of the polyphenols - the health-giving components of extra virgin olive oil - through poor bottling, transport and storage. I was thanking my lucky stars for my olive oil technology classes which meant I was, I gather, one of the few who understood every word he said.

Tim Lang talked about public policy and the role of the state as arbiter of food morality in a world where private morality can't address most of the issues - since they mainly have to do with industrialised food whose safety and availability has been decided for us by the state. We may think we have too many choices nowadays, but according to Lang, we can call it choice but it's really selection. The individual consumer cannot influence the food chain when it's in the hands of a few large food companies. We are all, he concluded, juggling with highly complex bundles of contradictions.

Well, didn't I take a wrong turn during the tea break. Look what found me...

And here you could buy quinces and jams.

And here I'll stop, for now.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

London, Bristol, Bath and Bedford upon Avon

On Sunday I went into town and snapped this from the National Gallery's front steps, on my way to the National Portrait Gallery. The BP Portrait Award show was on, always a winner for me, and I loved it. Then I had a last look at the Keith Arnatt show at Photographers' Gallery, as it closed that day, and lusted after the book, but left it there and decided to cut through Chinatown on my way to elsewhere.

I picked up a bite to eat at a Chinese bakery and got as far as Regent Street where I discovered an Incredible India festival was in full swing, with

drums, dancing,


and big crowds all the way from Piccadilly to Oxford Circus.

The rest of the weekend was spent in restful preparations for my trip to Bristol and Bath, the event being given an extra frisson by rumours of a tube strike set to start on Monday. Happily, transportation was normal when I set off, and I caught a bus to Bristol which was a pleasant enough way to spend a couple of hours, not much longer than the train trip and quite a bit cheaper.

Upon arrival, I asked about internet cafes, and was sent up a less than salubrious street nearby - a back-of-bus-station strip of pubs, sad-looking electronics shops and massage parlours. I did indeed find an internet cafe: a sad, shabby little room with a sandwich-board outside that promised lattes and cappuccinos; but while I cast my eyes dubiously over the grubby hardware on offer I asked the North African who descended a rough set of steps with a couple of chipped cups in his hands about wireless and he looked puzzled and shook his head. I thought I'd head into the smart part of town and see if I couldn't find something better.

And so I found my way to the waterfront, and got to Bordeaux Quay without incident: it was bright, clean, airy and welcoming with sparkling views of the river out its front wall of windows.

I had a tour of its kitchens and cooking school with the able and interesting development manager Amy Robinson, and a little chat with a very weary Barny Haughton, who was recovering from cooking demonstrations and organisational stress at the organic fair they'd had along the waterfront that weekend. Had some excellent Tuscan bread salad

and Provencal fish soup for lunch

and then on my way out, stopped at the deli counter to scooped up a stunning loaf of potato bread which I got to sample later that evening with some of BQ's wonderful jam (Blackberry & Peach). On I went to the Watershed, a lovely cinema complex with a spiffy cafe where you can get wireless access and a nice cuppa coffee.

Passed an old friend on my way to the train. Bart, hero of my spice cupboard, I never know you lived in Bristol!

Jumped then on a train and arrived in Bath where Carrie and I played an unlikely game of hide and seek in the microscopic train station before finally spotting one another, and headed off to supper with some of her students at Wagamama. On our way, she pointed out Demuth's, a vegetarian restaurant I'd heard about from someone else, which comes highly recommended.

Full of noodles and rice and good cheer

we carried on to the excellent Raven where there was a mixture of evening diners finishing up and a flock of poets settling in. A good crowd, I'd guess around 30 or so, with a fair number of open mics including some excellent poems from Carrie and her students. One of the readers, John Wheway, was particularly good - had published in the distant past and is getting a manuscript together, which I reckon will be a stunner. As will Carrie's when she gets hers out there.

In the morning, before returning to London, I got a tour of beautiful Bradford upon Avon...