Wednesday, 8 January 2014

That second article I promised

I'll get back to food soon, definitely. But this close to Christmas, it hurts even to think of it so I'm avoiding the topic, and pretending that it can be ignored indefinitely. So bear with me for a few days until I've finished sweating out all that turkey and the chocolate coins have all been finished, and I will get back to the topic in hand.

In my previous, slightly apologetic post, I mentioned my dislike for New Years Resolutions and promised two articles that had prompted me to post, both of which were much more inspiring than a change in date.

The second can be found here, and was linked by a friend of mine on Facebook. It's a long read, and is deliberately confrontational at times, but I think that's awfully fun. If I agreed with everything that I saw on the internet, I would probably read it marginally less often, after all, and probably get more stuff done - which is what the article is talking about.

Not that the internet, specifically, stops me from doing things, but it certainly doesn't help. The central idea is summed up in a quote that I probably made up, but I'm sure I heard somewhere: many people talk about being something, but so few people talk about doing something. When I watch things like X Factor (not that I do, obviously, but I do read a number of Facebook posts that reconfirm that it's a Bad Thing), you hear people talking about how they want to be a singer. But you don't become a singer by thinking about being a singer, you become that by singing. A lot. You don't become anything without doing that thing. A lot.

This resonated with me because I'm so guilty of it. I have decided over the last couple of years that I have wanted to be:

  • a writer
  • a sailing skipper
  • a full time musician
  • a marketing person
  • a live music promoter
  • a cooking instructor
  • a football coach
  • a project manager
  • a website designer
  • a business man
  • a journalist
  • an academic
But the important fact is that I haven't done any of those things, I've wanted to be those things. The idea of being a writer is a lovely one, but do you know how many words I have written since this blog was last published in September 2012? 

Not zero, but it might as well have been. I am not a writer because I do not write.

Time to change that? I think so. After all, this post is 445 words long, which is more than my output for the whole of 2013, so that's a start.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Has it really been that long?

Well, yes. Since September 2012 to be precise.

Which is a bit embarrassing really. What is more embarrassing is that I'm writing this on the 2nd January, because that makes it look a bit like a New Years Resolution. Which it isn't. Categorically. No sirree. And now I have found a link to back up my aversion to them.

The real reason is that, sometimes, the internet can be a real delight. Most of the time it's frankly bullshit - lots of cats and selfies, as far as I can make out - but at other times the technology of social media allows you to see something that, while it might not change your life in the way that it intends to, makes you think: "Yes, that's rather good, actually."

I've seen two of these posts in recent months. The first, sadly, I can't find, but its central message has stayed with me, which is telling in itself. It referred to the writer's friend who used to send him postcards from holiday, which didn't have any writing on them. Apart from the address of course, it's not magic, and this is a physical postcard we're talking about. The writer used to get annoyed with his friend who didn't bother to compose any words for him, until the realisation hit that it really didn't matter. It didn't matter because the important thing was the sending of the postcard, not what was written on it. The message of the blank postcard is "I am thinking about you, and you are important enough to me for thoughts of you to provoke action to let you know that I am thinking about you".

There's always a problem in getting in contact with old friends, a feeling that you've got nothing to say. But you know what? When you call one of those people-about-whom-you-have-a-nagging-feeling-you-should-talk-to, you don't need to have anything to say. Because the minute they pick up your call, or read your postcard, they are delighted to hear from you, and that energy will be enough to carry you through any awkwardness there might be. (This entire hypothesis does rely on the idea that you are in fact not an arsehole, and that you haven't alienated people entirely. If that's the case, write a letter that says "I'm sorry", send it to them and expect nothing in return.)

I've actually applied this in recent weeks. I've called people who I haven't spoken to for years, and send people texts telling them I'm thinking about them - not because I'm conducting some kind of self improvement experiment, but because I have been thinking about them, and I felt moved to let them know. And it's been brilliant. I have laughed, caught up on news, commiserated, been recommended music and films, and made plans.

That's got to be worth a text, hasn't it? So go on, tell one person today that you're thinking about them.

And the other post that motivated me to write? Well, I'll tell you all about that in the next installment, which hopefully won't take quite so long.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

More "real world" than "real food"

Every now and then, the system breaks down. This blog is supposed to be about real food, but sometimes the real world takes over - and I suppose that's the point really. If I had all the time in the world to be a 21st-century hunter-gatherer, I don't even think I would be.

While I admire people like Mark Boyle (see link above), and I appreciate the ideals that he's espousing, it's a way of life that is clearly not for everyone. He represents the extreme, at one end of the spectrum, just as heavily processed food and the industry that creates it represents the opposite end. The reality is that most of us live somewhere in the middle, and this blog is about trying to tip the balance in favour of the Mark Boyles of this world rather than ripping up the food industry, capitalism and all that jazz. The extremes are vitally important, as they allow us to benchmark the moderate, the middle-of-the-road, but neither pole should necessarily be taken as a single, exclusive approach.

You've probably guessed by now that this is all a preamble to saying that I failed the 30-day food challenge. I did spend the whole of last week on a boat in the Adriatic, where (though my Serbo-Croat wasn't good enough to check) the majority of my food came out of the sea close by, but then I came back to the UK with a bump. I've been doing some contracting work, you see, and by dint of my location in Suffolk, that has involved long days travelling in to and out of London, which has left precisely zero time for shopping and cooking - so much for the freedom of being self employed!

Last night, having got home late and sat in front of my computer trying to figure out my expenses, I succumbed to that most "real world" of meals - processed food from the freezer. With a few frozen sausages, some oven chips and a squirt of ketchup, my hunger was sated. You'll forgive me if I don't post a picture.

So, even those of us who try sometimes fail. But the point is that we try. We strive to do the best we can, but sometimes the need to put food on the table for the family by going out and earning the money to pay for it overrides the ability to ensure the quality of that food.

"Do or do not, there is no try", said Master Yoda, but he was wrong. Always try, accept it when you don't succeed, but never give up trying.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

You're eating what now?

Toad in the hole. Try explaining that one to a foreigner. My Norwegian brother-in-law was suitably confused, not helped by the fact that we all resolutely refused to explain the term. I went to the great length of consulting the etymological wiseman, The Word Detective (a site which, on its own, justifies the existence of the internet) to see if he had ever had to explain this curious phrase, but even he seems perplexed.

Here I offer my own definition:
 "toad in the hole", noun. 1. A traditional English dish of sausages cooked in batter. 2. Utter loveliness, with a slight tendency to place consumers in a food coma. 3. Utter repulsiveness, crap served up by misanthropic dinner ladies at schools across the land.

All three definitions hold water, showing once again the importance of what Mikhail Bakhtin referred to as "cultural specificity" - the idea that the meaning of a word is a function not only of the object (in the case of a noun) that it refers to, but also of the cultural background and experiences of the one experiencing (uttering, hearing or reading) that word. In the same way, the term "cheesy", when applied to music, to me means "unutterably bad, shallow, worthy of contempt and apt for immediate disposal", whereas to Mrs Jay it means "glossy, fun, undemanding entertainment, apt for dancing".

Both definitions are true, based on our own opinions. (Bakhtin should not always be trusted - according to legend, much of his writing was lost because of a shortage of cigarette papers in WWII Russia. He smoked it all.)

Back to the toads though. I concocted this little delight with some of my Baylham House sausages, and I must say, it was delightful, although after eating only two of the "toads", I did need to have a little nap.

Isn't she lovely?
However nice it was, it did set me to thinking about school dinners. I went to the sort of school where we were men enough at the age of 11 not to have to run home to Mummy every night, which meant that not only did I have to endure the school canteen (or "refectory", more properly) at lunchtime, but  all the time. Three meals a day of the sort of thing that Ronald McDonald or the Colonel would reject as both too processed and too - well, crap, really.

We boys weren't bothered by that though. Indeed, not only did we eat three meals a day there, but we also found ways to play the system so that we could have 4. It was a simple ruse really, which relied on the kindliness of those who served the slop out: at lunchtime we would push in to the front of the queue in one "ref", gobble down whatever delights were being served there, and hot foot it round to the other end of the hall where a separate serving was taking place. There, with a well-placed compliment, and a sad smile that we hadn't seen our parents in a fortnight, we could cajole the kitchen staff to serve us "poor boarders" another helping.

However bad it may have tasted, it certainly didn't do us any harm though. Vast amounts of fat,  sugar and salt must have been consumed, and our teenaged bodies, by and large, did not balloon out of control. That's probably because we were outdoors most of the time, running around and playing sport - contrary to popular myths about boarding schools, such was the way we passed our time in the absence of television and internet.

It also taught me one of the most important life lessons a boy can learn: always be on good terms with those who cook and serve your food.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

What to do with the old trout?

The trout that was nearly out of date, that is. Smoked trout, all the way from Orford. I was going to opine that it couldn't possibly have been sourced locally, and that I was breaking my own rules due to the fact that it was only processed locally. But then I looked at the website, and it seems that sea trout are quite common off Orford. Who knew? None of you, I'll wager, but you do now, which should make you all feel better about yourselves.

About an hour after I cooked up this little lot, a message came through from my previous post suggesting smoked trout on a bed of braised chard with a poached duck egg. Well, my dear Charlotte, it seems I beat you to it, though I steamed the chard and boiled the eggs. So maybe I didn't. Maybe I should have waited an hour and I would have been overjoyed with the results. In the event, I didn't wait, and was merely delighted.

Delighted, that is, because it was frankly quite random, but it seems to have worked. Smoked trout is one of those things I don't have very often, because Local (National) Supermarket doesn't often stock it. Which just goes to show how I should look a bit harder for my dinner, and Suffolk will prevail. (That's not something you get to say often - "Suffolk will prevail" - unless you're referring to an inter-county competition for the worst rail line in to London.)

So that's smoked trout (local) with duck eggs (local), chard (local), cucumber (local) olives (unlikely to be local unless my barren olive trees in the garden ever decide to get their arses in gear, assuming they have arses) and honey mustard dressing (distinctly unlocal, as it came from Lidl). Not bad, eh?

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Think local? Time to act!

It's amazing what you can learn from reading the local paper. For instance, this week I learned that a small bush caught fire on a slip road on the A14, and that the fire brigade took about 15 minutes to put it out. I also learned that the local Young Farmers Association had a camping weekend in which they managed to avoid setting fire to anything, unlike last year. They were a credit to their parents, apparently. Now that is news gathering at its finest. It's a wonder that they don't have Piers Morgan beating a path to their door.

More usefully, I found out about an organisation called Transition Ipswich, and the People's Community Garden not far from here. Now, Ipswich is not exactly a hot bed of radical activity, so it's something of a relief to me to learn that there are people actively working on issues like climate change in the area, and I went down to their open day to see what was going on. Very impressive it is too - lots of people working together to come up with practical schemes to help local people change the way they live, and interestingly for me, there's a good focus on food.

Don't get me wrong, I don't agree with everything they say. They seem to have a sort of pre-apocalyptic paranoia which, while they will almost certainly be proven correct in the fullness of time, makes them look like those American survivalists who cache weapons and baked beans to defend themselves against the day when the government decides to give them free healthcare. Damned commies.

Anyway, they have a really interesting challenge on the go this month. The idea is that we should try and eat only food produced in a 30 mile radius for the 30 days of September, and that sounded too interesting to ignore. You can cheat a bit, giving yourself 3 wild cards - chocolate, for instance, or tea - that can't be produced locally. I have decided to give it a go, with a further caveat that I'll use up ingredients that I already have in the larder, as throwing stuff away seems to defeat the object of the exercise somewhat.

I have started well, going out to a couple of the farm shops I mentioned in a post last year to get my ingredients for the week. It's a bit of a change for me - I normally plan a menu and buy specifically for that, whereas shopping like this I have little idea of what will be available until I get to the shop, so I have to make it up a bit more.

The other place I discovered is Baylham House Farm, a great rare breeds farm a couple of miles outside town, which, in addition to 1/2 kilo of sausages (£3.50, and worth every penny), provided a morning's entertainment for Master Jay. It does transpire that he is afraid of chickens, which I reckon can't hurt you, but not of goats, animals which are solely driven by food and which will bite, kick and butt you for a small handful of oats. There's obviously a little way to go before I can leave any major survival decisions to him.

So, using up some potatoes I had in the cupboard, and some beans from my friend's allotment, I had a little slap up lunch which you can see below. The sausages were great - lean and peppery, and chunky enough to make me feel that three of them might have been a bit much....

Tonight I have a pie with potatoes and cabbage - total food miles around about 8, by my reckoning.

And I will leave you with a question: what the devil do I do with some chard, smoked trout, and duck eggs?

Monday, 20 August 2012

It's been a while....

...and there's nothing more to be said about that really. I've been busy working, allowing the office to get in the way of fun things. Like Real Food. And Family. But I have, of course, been cooking. I mean, I couldn't survive from January through to August without it really - I just haven't been writing about it.

Now, it's a new phase in the Jay house. Mrs Jay is Free of the Horrific Commute, and now works locally. Master Jay is no longer a baby, and is now a recently pox-ridden toddler with his own opinions about everything, including food. Myself, I'm no longer working, which should leave me more time to get on with some good cooking, and for other things that have been taking too much of a back seat. Like sailing the old boat I restored during the winter, playing music (and you can see for yourself how long it is since I did that), and writing blogs.

Being out of work (through no choice of my own, though to be honest, I should have chosen it a while ago) has given me considerable time to think about what's next and what's important to me, and going back to this blog feels like coming home again. Real Food. What could be more important than that? The basic act of feeding oneself in a way that stimulates the palate, the eyes and the soul. The creation from disparate, and often inedible, ingredients of a dish that makes the heart sing. And doing all this for a family - that's what life is all about.It's hardly the Dickens version (see below), but food and family have long been held dear by mankind.
(As an aside, I've recently read the excellent, if slightly verbose, Island by Aldous Huxley. Amid many other nuggets of wisdom, the people on the eponymous island have a food ritual whereby they chew the first mouthful of a meal slowly and thoughtfully - appreciating the flavours, the textures, the sheer gift of Real Food. Try it when you next sit down for dinner. Chew for at least a minute, and concentrate on what is in your mouth - note that this should never be attempted with fast food - and I guarantee that you'll notice something new, even if you've had that meal a hundred times.)

That's enough philosophising for now - I'll get back to the food in the next post, I promise. You'll just have to bear with my moment of introspection.