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food – Writer-insighter

The Furmity Tent

I don’t know when people started hating food. I had a fantastic dinner yesterday, a fairly ordinary spag bol sauce albeit using venison mince and – gasp!! – a veggie stock-cube along with Worcestershire sauce, with furmity. I liked it so much that I said so on Facebook.

One person said they didn’t ever want to see such a thing again. Another told me to fuck off. The first one I blocked, not least because I don’t want anyone posting Our Brave Boys knee-jerk seasonal adulation on their time-line anywhere near mine. The second I know as a farmer and I know what she meant. Which is ok. Mostly.

What isn’t is people thinking that anything doesn’t come out of a packet is suspect. There is a distinct meme running through what passes for contemporary life that the only good food comes from a factory. At the same time that the number of TV programmes about food increases, so does the number of ready-meals and cook-at-home pizzas sold. Tabloids scream that if people used all the spices Jamie Oliver does it would cost a whole week’s JSA. Which if you used all of all of the herbs in his kitchen it undoubtedly would, but nobody would ever need to go and buy them all in one go anyway. The fact that every packet of processed food, the kind that directly leads to coronary heart disease, Type II diabetes and ADHD has a list of ingredients far more disturbing than a pinch of oregano and half a nutmeg, grated, is irrelevant. Since when did nutmeg buy any advertising space?

What was really surprising was the horror about furmity. As you remember from school, when you had to read Thomas Hardy and snore through The Mayor of Casterbridge, or watch it on TV one Sunday afternoon to be polite to your girlfriend’s parents before they went out for the evening and you could maybe listen to that new Santana album again but shut up until they’ve gone or they’ll hear you, furmity was what got Michael Henchard into trouble. It also made a success of him for the next twenty years, which isn’t bad going for some raisins. Admittedly, I’m biased. A friend once lived in Thomas Hardy’s sister’s schoolhouse and his was our country in our twenties. We read every single book. Not so much because they were great books, I think, but because they were about our land. A half-mythical place. The place we were from.  But anyway.

Separate the egg yolks, you say, Ezekiel? I suppose I could do meringues with the whites. 'Tis pity to waste they.
“Separate the egg yolks, you say, Ezekiel? I suppose I could do meringues with the whites. ‘Tis a mortal pity to waste they,” said Henchard.

 

 

 

My Furmity Recipe

  1. Put some cracked wheat (bulgar) in a pan of water overnight. I have two measurements, “some” and “many.” This is “some.” Maybe two handfuls. 200g if you want to be picky about it. Don’t be.
  2. Next day, drain the water off. Find some cinnamon in the back of the cupboard. And some raisins. Oh and there might be some allspice there as well.
  3. Those walnuts you tried to pickle in port might be an idea too.
  4. Or pine nuts.
  5. Some of that ginger cordial because frankly I can’t see what else you’re going to do with it. Or why you bought it, to be honest.
  6. Why DID you, anyway?
  7. It’s like that knock-off Microplane grater you got in Paris, isn’t it? Except that at least you’re going to use that in (8).
  8. Microplane half a nutmeg into the mixture.
  9. Oh the mixture of all of it. What did you think you were going to do with it?
  10. Add some almond milk. You could make it but it would be far more sensible to use some soya almond milk stuff.
  11. Enough to cover it, obviously. Have you never cooked anything before?
  12. Some of that ginger puree. About two-thirds of the nearest spoon in the drawer, which happens to be a soup spoon. Well, wash it then.
  13. Add some brown sugar. Not the granulated stuff. You can’t do anything except apple sandwiches with that. About 50 grammes.
  14. Two egg yolks. Separating them out using the two half shells looks really cheffy. I’m not convinced they actually add much to the experience though.
  15. Heat it. Don’t let it boil. Just get it hot enough to burn your tongue on.
  16. Eat it.

 

Henchard added rum to his and sold his wife, prompting two decades of abstinence in a nicely moral plot. The taste is amazing, layer on layer of complexity and warmth. The ginger isn’t part of any traditional recipe, or rather the Waitrose one I cribbed from, but I was trying to go for tastes that might be found in a country kitchen of Henchard’s time. Or if they might possibly not have had ginger root, at least they would have known about it.

It’s really easy to cook and like a lot of recipes that people say “I haven’t got time to do all that,” it actually takes about five minutes. Most of the ‘time’ is overnight while it’s soaking up water and you’re not doing anything to do with cooking then. I didn’t think I’d like that sweet-and-meat thing that seems to have been so popular in medieval cookery. It still is if you go to Moro or eat duck pancakes with plum sauce. But still quite hard to see why it should irritate people so much. Apart from the fact it’s not Pot Noodle.

SAY delicious!
                                                  SAY delicious!
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Cheat’s Bacon

I was told this recipe recently. Apparently (the word you use when you don’t want to keep saying ‘I was told’) it can be smoked or not smoked, as you wish, but you get sort-of bacon and you know what’s in it. Belly pork used to be really cheap. I think it depends if a TV show has used it recently.

So, bish, bash, bosh, me old china muckers, gertcha, or something.

 

Cheat’s Bacon

1kg pork belly

1kg salt

200g brown sugar

A plastic bucket

Take half the salt and put it in the bottom of the bucket. Rub the sugar into the pork. Put the pork on the salt. Pour the rest of the salt over the pork. Leave it for 24 hours. Then take it out, wash it in water and it is ready for use.

You can smoke it or slice it up and use it as bacon exactly as it is. Apparently.

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Getting like a ghost town

"Then Sammy said if your Majesty hadn't spoken I'd have thought it was the horse! Top hole, what, Mary? Oh I say, I didn't mean, er.."
“Then Sammy said if your Majesty hadn’t spoken I’d have thought it was the horse! Top hole, what, Mary? Oh I say, I didn’t mean, er..”

According to the BBC the number of High Street shops is falling. Again. Which is odd, because a few years ago the very earnest brand spanking new Prime Minister, David Cameron, thought he’d solved all of that by getting the rising media star Mary Portas to go and write a report on how to save if not the universe, then at least the heart of places like Trowbridge and Ipswich.

As someone who grew up in Trowbridge could have told you, what’s wrong with Trowbridge is easy to see. People don’t live in the centre, so at 5:30 its dead. The police force has been cut and what police there are drive around in cars, so after 5:30 you’re pretty much on your own. Not that the police there were ever much good in the first place. When I lived in the town there was a spate of garden gnome thefts. Miraculously almost all of the gnomes were found by the police but only because they were lined up on the police station wall one morning. And the pubs were crap. The Lamb wasn’t, because it had the Village Pump music gigs on Mondays (yes, as in the Village Pump folk festival, which wasn’t quite as big in those days, being mostly in the old stables out the back of the Lamb) and the Rose & Crown wasn’t, because it was walking distance from school and the landlord, back in those dear dead days, didn’t mind anyone drinking in there so long as they at least pretended to be a grown-up. Everybody knew about it. Nobody threw up or got stabbed or any other nonsense.

And there’s nowhere to park. Actually, there was a huge big carpark where the cattle and sheep market used to be, which was easier to use once the council got rid of the rusted brown metal pens that people sometimes drove into and wished they hadn’t. Something which can stand up to three or four tons of bullocks pushing against it for a hundred years didn’t have too many problems with a Ford Anglia. But the town got full, the carpark was replaced with a multi-storey and that got full as well and the shops that survived got bigger as the small shops shut their doors.

The supermarkets shut them. Something the Portas Report somehow didn’t feel it should mention. Bizzarely for a business report, it spent a lot of time saying what Mary Portas wanted, as if that was in some way relevant. Big squiggly signature. Big intro. Loads and loads of I think, I believe, I say. My challenge. My struggle.

My camp, Mary could almost have written if she’d been male, because when she wasn’t gurning on TV as a retail consultant looking straight to camera like Anne Robinson after an experimental trip to the hairdresser she was spending most of her time telling everyone who would listen how she’d just come out and still got on with her husband uber super-woman stylee, although presumably not on him.

Read it here, if you like. It’s crap.

“My review has shown me…” Wow, well thanks Mary. I somehow had the idea that all that public money you got for doing it was to show ME, but that shows how little I know what things are about.

“An increasing number of shops are falling by the wayside as they fail to meet the expectations of today’s increasingly experienced time-poor, experience-rich consumer.”

Well I never. I won’t say that the wayside metaphor is probably the most stupid cliche I’ve seen if you’re writing about a High Street, because it just is anyway. But what does the rest of it even mean? What kind of experience are we talking about? Silk ropes on the bedstead? And why two ‘experience’s in the same sentence? How were people fifty years ago poorer in their experiences? Because they didn’t have a TV show, a packet of ginger hair dye and a producer? Apart from the fact it’s vacuous inane borderline-illiterate regurgitated irrelevant crap in the first place?

“We’ve seen the closure of brands.”

Have we Mary? How do you close a brand, exactly? “There’s a wealth of knowledge which describes them.” Is there? Is that what knowledge does? “Much of what we do know is stored in professional silos.” At least I’ve seen one of those. It’s over near Wickham Market, in the grounds of the old school that the big farm took over to store their machinery. About sixty feet tall and bright silver. I think they store grain in it or something like that. As well as old copies of the Portas Report, presumably. They probably need something for the rats to nest in.

Mary Portas spent her entire non-TV career making the High Street the way it is. That could be why her report spent its first few pages saying it wasn’t about blame and we are where we are and it wasn’t really anyone’s fault if the High Street was all big crappy shops selling all the same stuff, except maybe the small shops who couldn’t afford to be there, the losers, given she’d made quite a lot of money turning it into that.

So what was Mary’s solution? £100,000, to be given to six “Portas towns.” Each, obviously. Wouldn’t want to give the impression that this was in any way a token amount that wouldn’t change anything. Why, for that sort of money you could probably get what, six, maybe even ten extra carpark spaces, provided you didn’t have to buy any land to put them on and you could just move some curbstones and paint some lines. And stick a meter in, obviously. Oh and a big sign about it all.

“What really worries me is that the big supermarkets
don’t just sell food anymore, but all manner of things
that people used to buy on the high street.” Portas Review p11 col 2.

Excuse me. Just what exactly is this crap? Why is it of even the most passing interest to me, or the government, what worries Mary Portas? Did she just get someone to type up her diary or something? “All manner of things? And there’s a capital H on High and a capital S on Street, while I’m here.

But basically, so what? Who cares? Lord Sainsbury doesn’t. There isn’t a Lord Tesco yet and if they don’t reach a bit deeper there won’t be, either. Most of the people who go to the shops don’t, so long as they think someone else should pay for their convenience, whether that’s Tesco building a big car park or Apple using child labour tucked up out of sight in China.

It’s a gimmick. The answers are obvious and nobody cares. Or rather, they say they do but if it comes to the choice of piling factory food in the back of the car or walking to the shop every day then they don’t, at all. And we can all go on pretending that car insurance and parking and congestion and pollution and children with asthma and road deaths and local council rates and every single road having yellow lines on it and places like Ipswich where if the council had any sense, given what they’re offering they’d pay you to park there, not the other way around, all of that’s convenience shopping.

There you go, Mary. Maybe you’ll be back on TV soon, to tell us all how your report’s doing. We really care what you think about things. Almost as much as you did in the Portas Review.

Let’s see anyone bothered by that. Until then, there’s probably something on TV about it. Oddly, after that stellar performance it’s not by Mary Portas this season.

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Adder berries

IMG_1144

When I was a boy I lived in the countryside, but I didn’t really know anything much about it. It had changed. We were surrounded by fields but we didn’t know what happened there. My friend Andrew lived the other end of a footpath past a field, Star’s Field, named after the horse I just about remember there, but one day Star went and shortly after that the field went as well. There’s a little row of shop for the estate there now. Adder berries grew at one end of the path. That’s what we called them. Everyone did. Adders do eat they, we were told. They’re poisonous.

“They’re poisonous’ was applied to everything that didn’t come from a shop. It wasn’t meant to be ironic, notwithstanding that a lot of the food in shops isn’t great for you at all. If you want to argue about that, have a look at the incidence of obesity and Type Two diabetes, two things that’ll mess you up big style if you overdo the Sunny Delight and instant meals.

Poison

“They’re poisonous” was applied to all mushrooms in every field as soon as older people who knew that all funghi are edible but some only once had the kind of jobs that meant they couldn’t be with children in the fields to tell them that St George’s mushrooms, the huge puffballs, should be cooked instead of kicked and that while just the look of the Avenging Angel will suck you in almost mesmerically, shining so pure and white it’s almost luminous, so will you be within a few days if you eat it.

It’s Good For You

So the thing is done. Whatever industrial chemical (farmed salmon has up to 27 of them) is in the food, not including our old friends aspartame or cancer-promoting saccharine (look it up if you don’t believe me, I’m tired of saying the same thing over and again), so long as it’s got a plastic wrap on it it’s Good For You. If it hasn’t it’s Bad. Just like adder berries. I’ve never eaten one. I’m not actually going to try. At least until I find out what they really are and what they do. Just the way no-one bothers to when they read the list of ingredients in processed foods. They’re fine, even when the makers put a label on them saying they’ll mess you up. Processed food is Cheap. Convenient. Hygienic. Good For You. And that’s official. Even when something is so toxic it’s banned until Donald Rumsfeld pulls some strings to get it made ok.

Bad is Good. Black is White. Knowns are Unknowns, or at least, Unmentionds.

 

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Delicious spicy buns

Matron! Well if that doesn’t improve the SEO ratings I don’t know what will.

I haven’t eaten manufactured foods for a long time. I don’t buy ready-made pizza, pies, humous or pretty much anything already made. As a friend’s father used to say about shop-bought cake, it’s second-hand.

When you make things yourself you know what’s in it. You know what short-cuts you took, the flour you ran out of half-way through, the water you put in instead of milk, all those kind of everyday things that aren’t exactly cheating but mostly aren’t because you know about it. And I don’t want someone else’s compromises.

A lot of people are going to read this and say ‘that’s alright for you, but I haven’t got time.’ They were a bit short of time a hundred years ago too, with a child every other year and no electricity most places. I don’t have a television. That saves me a huge amount of time. I get my once a week fix of The Sweeney on my laptop.

No More Vodafone Day

But yesterday I had something to celebrate, getting out of a mobile phone  contract with Vodafone, who decided that although they’re investing £2.5 million per day in a 4G network that will stream even more useless X-Factor celebrity-based crap directly into people’s heads they can’t find the pennies to give me a phone that works if I don’t hold it out of my bedroom window, which is picturesque but arguably inconvenient. Stupidly, I celebrated by buying some Jamaican spicy buns. It made me realise why I don’t buy this stuff. It’s never what it says.

When I think of ‘spicy’ I think of cinnamon, anise, nutmeg, musk, a very non-Ipswich world of exotic tastes and mystery. I did warn you it wasn’t a very Ipswich imagining. And oddly, these spicy buns, with their statutory four bits of ‘mixed fruit’ per bun just weren’t like that at all. The herring in mustard sauce wasn’t much better either. It wasn’t the worst breakfast I ever had. That was hotly contested between a $4.95 All-You-Can-Eat somewhere in Illinois and  the La Plaza hotel in Brussels, which probably just sneaked the coveted award for feels-like-hangover-stomach-although-you-weren’t-drinking-last-night. I think it was the boiled mini-sausages that did it, back when I still ate stuff like that.

I looked-up the La Plaza on Trip Advisor to see what it’s like now. It was nearly ten years ago I was there, in a huge, wood-panelled room that seemed like a set from a 1940s noir movie. I wrote about a fictional house that might have been haunted in Not Your Heart Away, where Claire was convinced that she was being watched long after Tex Beneke sang:  “I know there’s something following me that I can’t see” in  A Little Man Who Wasn’t There.  That hotel was the only place I’ve chosen as an adult to sleep with the light on, in case the jackboots and the grey uniforms walked again.

 

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