Something to beef about

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Image courtesy of Gualberto107 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I once ate a stone cold ‘roast’ dinner rather than complain in a restaurant. I have that terribly British affliction of too much politeness. It stops many of us making a fuss or asking questions unless something is really, really bad.

I’ve had to get over it recently, and become that demanding and slightly annoying customer. A recent volunteer role with the Soil Association involved discovering more about children’s food in restaurants. I was so shocked at some of the responses to my questions that since then I’ve made it my business to overcome my reserve and find out more about the food on offer.

Unless you are in a restaurant that makes a real selling point about their food sourcing, then the most uncomfortable question to ask is ‘Where does your meat come from?’. I’ve tried this in half a dozen smart eateries over the past month or so and it was awkward.

Either the waiting staff had no idea about the provenance of the meat, or they did, and sheepishly replied with a far flung location such as South America or Thailand.

It is evidently cheaper to raise and slaughter animals in Thailand, then fly the meat across the globe than it is to produce it here. Urm, does that reassure you about production methods and animal welfare abroad?

Many of us try to buy British when we shop for the Sunday roast or weekday Bolognese. A YouGov poll revealed that nearly 60% of UK consumers prefer to buy UK-sourced meat than imported meat. However, in some ready-meals and high street restaurants we are not given the choice. The meat is cheap, possibly mechanically reclaimed, unlikely to be free-range and from the other side of the planet. It’s this sort of situation that gave us horse meat lasagnes.

We’re too good at avoiding thinking about where our meat comes from. When you are out for a nice meal, it’s hard to be the difficult, fussy customer and we don’t like thinking about dead animals.  It should be the legal responsibility of businesses that we are trusting to feed us to make sourcing information easily available – then we can vote with our mouths.

This worked for eggs. Back in 2004 the European Commission made it obligatory to label eggs as coming from ‘caged hens’ which led to the growth of the free-range market and eventually the banning of battery chickens.

Every time we eat the cheapest imported meat we are messing up – we are failing to support our British farmers, neglecting animal welfare and risking filling our bodies with the nastiest form of protein.

A meal out should be a treat – not an exercise in interrogation of the waiting staff or blindly swallowing poor quality food. At the moment, the average high street caterer is relying on our ignorance. Until things change, I’m a restaurant vegetarian. I won’t give my money to supporting an unpleasant, cost-cutting industry.

First published in the EDP and EADT

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Somewhere near you, a banana is in trouble.

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Somewhere, in a fruit bowl near you, a banana is in trouble. Eric the Bananaman is busy, so it’s down to you and only you to save the day. Yellow capes at the ready, pants on the outside; you are the Banana Hero.

The banana is one of the most wasted food items. That perfect moment between too green and brown and squidgy can be hard to achieve. It’s a big shame to waste them, especially as they come all the way from the Caribbean or South America. This staple fruit comes with quite a carbon footprint when compared to locally grown apples or pears.

So how can you save that past its best ‘nana from the bin? Read on…

  • If you have the luxury of time, then you can’t beat a banana loaf and you certainly can’t beat Mary Berry’s. This is a lovely recipe for kids to help with (mine do enjoy squishing the bananas by hand so extra clean paws are a must!) and they will love the results too. It uses two bananas, if you only have one then try this choc chip version.
  • If you have not a spare minute, so busy you might cry, haven’t even had a shower this morning, then this is your option. Simply peel and slice the banana, put in a little bag (one per banana) and freeze. Then when you want to make a quick sugar-free smoothie another less crazy day, your banana chunks will be ready. Try this healthy banana and strawberry smoothie (it works well without flaxseed and using cow’s milk too). Simply chuck the frozen banana chunks into the blender instead of the fresh ones. It will go super creamy and chill your smoothie to perfection.
  • For another frozen banana idea, it has to be the incredibly virtuous dairy and sugar-free banana ice-cream. All you need to do is food process the frozen bananas until smooth and creamy. This blog will talk you through it, as well as giving ideas for other flavours to add. The children will hoover it up and think it’s a naughty treat, although you could legitimately have it for breakfast.
  • If the banana has gone so far that it is beyond human consumption (this is often the case with the forgotten one in the bottom of a rucksack) then you can still save it from being wasted. Wildlife visiting your garden or balcony will be glad of the energy. Read here about creating an autumn feast for butterflies before they hibernate. Or, for a winter option, simply peel it and put it on the lawn. Blackbirds do enjoy a nice ripe banana.

Now, however busy you are, there is no excuse to chuck a banana in the bin. I’ll put my yellow cape away… until next time.

Farmers’ markets and first world problems

Feeling overwhelmed at a farmer’s market truly is a first world problem, rather like the milk frother on your coffee machine breaking, or your heated car seats giving you a sweaty bum. It’s easy to see these markets as the preserve of the wealthy; just for those who don’t have to think about whether the courgettes would have been cheaper elsewhere.

Bear with me though, because there is much more to a farmer’s market than occasionally overpriced produce. For a start, it doesn’t have to be a more expensive way of sourcing your groceries. Yes, there is often artisan sourdough bread priced at £7 a loaf, but there are also fresh fruit and veggies available for less than average prices.

Even better, whilst haggling in the supermarket would get you ushered to the door, at a farmers’ market it is permissible to ask for a better price if you buy more, or to cheekily enquire whether a lemon or bunch of herbs can be thrown in for free. Also, if you visit towards the end of the market you can get some great deals – store holders don’t want to take it all home with them. It’s a useful tip to take cash for easy transactions and to avoid spending more than you planned.

Compared to your supermarket, the farmers market is also fabulously eco-friendly. All produce should be seasonal and locally produced, so you won’t be tempted by blueberries from Chile. Buying seasonally should also help keep your grocery bills down and ensure that your food is super fresh because it won’t have travelled across the globe.

There will often be much less packaging too, and you can further increase your green credentials by taking your own bags.

Meeting the producers will also rekindle your connection to your food. Instead of shoving it in the trolley like an automaton, we are more likely to ask questions about provenance, recipe ideas or just have a good old fashioned chat. The traceable nature of most products means you are far less likely to end up with horse in your lasagne.

Farmers’ markets are both a playground and a school for children. They will love the colour, noise and array of produce (especially when tasters are offered) and will learn masses about their food too.

A few years back, chef Jamie Oliver reported that many children can’t identify even basic vegetables. Kids that visit farmers’ markets will get a head start in their food education. Not only that, but they can order and pay for you (working on their confidence, social skills and mathematics). After such an input, they are far more likely to eat the item you have bought.

Realistically, the farmers’ market is unlikely to replace the dreaded supermarket trip, but it can certainly complement your normal shop. It is an outing rather than just a chore and something the whole family can be involved in. But what to do with the artichoke you just bought? That’s definitely another first world problem.

First published in the EDP and EADT

It’s not fair! But we can change that…

Life isn’t fair. We all work that out by the time we are six or seven years old. Some people get all the luck and accolades; others work hard and never get rewarded. Whether you believe in science, religion or fate as your guiding principle, sometimes it is just the way the dice rolls or the cookie crumbles that determines certain details of our lives. No wonder many of us end up a little cynical.

Expecting life to be unfair, however, lets us fall into the steely grip of a capitalist mind-set. We forget to care about people and instead allow markets to rule. If that means that a tea farmer in Malawi is paid only a tiny fraction of the price his tea sells at back in the UK, then that’s just the way it goes. If that means he can’t afford education or medical care for his children, we may feel it is sad, but not our problem or something we can fix.

However, the Fairtrade Foundation doesn’t agree. They believe (and have twenty years of experience and many case studies to back them up) that giving a producer a reasonable and guaranteed price for their product is the right thing to do. This needs to be regardless of the many vagaries of the world market – its fluctuations can throw a community reliant on one export item into financial despair.

The Fairtrade Foundation has shown that a fair price leads to genuine improvements in quality of life for families and better long term opportunities for their children.

The cost increase on Fairtrade items for us is small change, often just a penny or so, and most of us could manage to pay a tiny bit more for a handful of items in our shopping trolley. Despite this, the Fairtrade Foundation reports that just 1.2% of cocoa and less than 10% of tea globally is traded on Fairtrade terms.

The next couple of weeks is Fairtrade Fortnight, running from 23rd February to 8th March and it’s a good opportunity to discover Fairtrade products. Look out for bananas, sugar, cocoa, tea, coffee, chocolate and cotton labelled with the Fairtrade logo. Often, they are of higher quality because they are at the premium end of the market and it is reassuring to know that the profit is not all going into the pockets of a supermarket fat cat.

And while we are thinking about what is fair… what about the power that supermarkets wield over our nation’s farmers too? The immense squeeze placed on the price of milk is the latest evidence of this. It’s a while since I was six years old, but I have the strong urge to stamp my foot and shout at the top of my voice, “It’s not fair!” Anyone going to join me?

First published in the EDP and EADT

I feed my children chemicals

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I feed my children chemicals. I do it every single day. They enjoy them and it doesn’t seem to cause them any harm. As a matter of fact, there is not a child, or adult, out there who doesn’t tuck in to a tasty bowlful of chemicals several times a day.

Is this going to be an alarmist, toxin phobic column? Will it make you feel nervous about the accumulating poisons in your body? No way. In fact, I’d like us to embrace chemicals. Steady on there, all you organic living types, I’m not suggesting that we all swig bleach with dinner. Instead, we need to work out what chemicals actually are.

Firstly, there is no such thing as ‘chemical free’ (whatever your shampoo or eco-cleaner says on the label). Practically everything contains molecules that are made through chemical reactions.

Many of these chemicals are natural and healthy parts of our diet.  For example, tomatoes and avocados are high in salicylates (also used in household cleaners). Items such as cheese, wine and most fruit and veg will contain nitrogen based amines, which are also used in drugs such as antihistamines or sedatives.

Lots of foods in the grocery section will contain levels of pesticides – no not those sprayed on by farmers. Instead, many plants have evolved to create their own natural pesticides to enable them to survive.

The furore over all chemicals distracts us from distinguishing from ‘good’ and ‘bad’ properties. Separating these into ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ doesn’t help either. Would you prefer the extract of organically grown belladonna or a dose of manufactured sodium hydrogen carbonate? I’d choose the latter (baking soda) rather than the natural, but deadly, plant.

The internet, packed full of information, doesn’t assist us in working out what is healthy for us or the environment. ‘Good’ and ‘bad’ science can be found alongside each other, with far more space dedicated to scaremongering. Just type ‘chemicals in food’ into a search engine to see what I mean – there is little balance.

The take-up of studying chemistry at school and further education isn’t quite as low as physics, but it could be better. As a result, a significant proportion of the population, particularly girls, lacks the basic knowledge to unpick manufacturers’ claims.

Our lack of science savvy also means we can turn a blind eye to actions which are not acceptable. Here’s an example. Have you ever put batteries in the black bin? Batteries (however tiny) contain harmful mercury, cadmium or lead which leach into the soil surrounding landfill sites. Even many people who carefully recycle their glass and paper fail to take batteries to the many in-store drop-off points (for example at supermarkets) for recycling.

We can’t escape chemicals, so we need to make the effort to understand more about them. Trusting manufacturers to tell us the whole truth will not suffice. Chemicals can kill and chemicals can harm the environment, but let’s not forget, they also make your body function, your foods grow, and they make you fall in love. 

Meaty matters

ImageLadies and Gentleman, please step away from the tongs and novelty aprons, the barbeque season is now officially closed. We’ve had a fabulous BBQ summer, but it has been virtually impossible to accept a social invite without encountering chargrilled sausages and cremated burgers.

Now is a great time to reduce your meat intake before rich winter foods are on the menu. Thanks to the McCartneys, the trendy way to do this is with Meat Free Mondays.

A meat free day is nothing new. Historically, it was often followed for religious reasons, such as a Friday fast, or because of rationing in times of shortages. Today, the aims are different; to improve human health and the environment.

So how would going veggie for one day a week help you and the planet? UN’s top climate scientist Rajendra Pachauri explains that, “People should consider eating less meat as a way of combating global warming.” Indeed, UN figures suggest that meat production puts more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than transport.

As is so often the case, what is good for the environment is often beneficial for us too. Many of the world’s leading health organisations now encourage a reduction in the amount of meat people consume. It could help you avoid cancer, heart disease or a stroke. According to a study carried out by Oxford University, if we ate red meat no more than three times a week it would save the NHS £1.2 billion each year.

Meat Free Mondays have other benefits too. You are likely to reduce your weekly food bill, lose weight and escape a food rut with the discovery of yummy new recipes.

However, I wonder if Meat Free Mondays aren’t a bit like smoking heavily most of the week but saying ‘its ok I never light up on a Tuesday’? Surely if it is so important we should commit to quit our carnivorous habit 24/7?

Not in my book. I was a vegetarian for many years, but now I’m not. This is largely for moral reasons (although my Mum’s Sunday Roast lured me back too!). It is because I am a passionate advocate for British farmers and want to support the best of them by spending my money on ethically produced meat. I also know that livestock is important to our countryside and can even help maintain habitats for rare wildlife – a landscape without sheep and cows would be an empty place indeed.

Meat Free Mondays is a similar concept to the wildly popular 5:2 diet (two days of fasting, five of eating normally). Having a set time when you eat more mindfully can impact your habits across the whole week, without the normal fatigue and failure that sets in with more radical regimes. How many wannabe vegetarians have lapsed on week two, when the smell of a bacon butty cuts through the fog of a hangover and becomes absolutely essential?

In my family, we’ll be embracing several meat free days a week. But even better, what about Seasonal Sundays – a day where everything you eat is seasonal and locally sourced? So long as no one suggests Cake Free Wednesdays, I’ll be there.

First published in the EDP and EADT on 20th September 2013