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Bottled water is impure too

May 26, 2010

bottled waterThis might be a tad controversial, but when I read this headline in the papers I felt a small frisson of delight.

I have countless friends and colleagues who moan when they ‘run out of water’ and have to traipse down the shops to buy more. My response? You can’t ‘run out’ of water – taps are full of the stuff!

Okay so some areas are better than others, but I have never drank tap water and coughed up chlorine or some other chemical as a result. And the cloudy white water you sometimes get? Air bubbles, caused by changes in water pressure. Not harmless at all and they disappear after a few minutes.

The recent findings are based on American brands, which no doubt will cause patriotic Brits to roll their eyes and titter at those Yanks and their lack of quality control. But if California can find 38 chemicals including bacteria, fertilizer, plastic-making chemicals and a radioactive element in 10 leading brands, no doubt we’re gulping down something similar.

Especially when the plastic-making chemicals come from – you’ve guessed it – plastic.

So not only is it far cheaper – 1,900 times cheaper according to Jane Houlihan, an environmental engineer who co-authored the study – but it could also be safer to drink tap water from a good old-fashioned glass. We should count ourselves bloody lucky our water is clean enough to drink in the first place. I don’t know if this will make hypochondriacs better or worse, but I certainly feel more satisfied.

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Real Food Festival and the country’s best brownies

May 10, 2010

beetroot humousI’ve attended some very good festivals – food and non-food related – at the Earls Court exhibition centre this year. But after waking up early-ish Saturday morning and battling weekend closures on the Northern line, the thought of negotiating my way around stands at the Real Food Festival wasn’t all that appealing.

Then I stepped through the door. There in front of me were rows of home-made breads and cakes, organic meats and veg, chutneys and pickles – all from small producers trying to get their name on the map. The atmosphere was friendly and colloquial; the two or three representatives at each stand were founders, PR and production line all rolled into one.

 gower cottage brownies My first stop was Kate Jenkins, founder of Gower Cottage Brownies. The beauty of the Real Food Festival is that producers like Kate, who started her own business a few years ago, can take a relatively inexpensive stand for a couple of days to spread the word about her product. And word spread pretty quickly. The festival wasn’t lacking in brownies – I sampled a dozen or so throughout the day. But the rich, gooey deliciousness of Gower Cottage Brownies put them in a different league.

Kate has received more press attention than most. A quick look on the website reveals a long list of admirers from local, regional and national publications, and her brownies sell in restaurants and retail outlets across the country. But despite her success, Kate doesn’t have endless resources. “I can’t spend my budget on an expensive stand and take five days out of production to set it all up,” she says. “The Real Food Festival is much better for smaller producers – we get subsidised stands and support from the people who run it. For me it’s about meeting people, getting them to try the brownies and telling them about our gift service. We rely on word of mouth above expensive PR campaigns.”

This set the scene for the rest of my afternoon. These independent companies, run by a handful of people, had made it through their first year because of a quality product. Quite a few had made it into independent delis, with some climbing the ranks to Harrods and Selfridges, scratchbut none had big brand names with national advertising campaigns to fall back on. So it was the food itself that impressed. Veggie burgers, humous and other dips made with a range of fresh ingredients; bars and cakes made solely from cacao (chocolate minus the additives and sat fats); and innovations like Scratch: an East-London based company that prepare ‘meal kits’ filled with all the fresh ingredients you need to cook a dish.

“It’s hard work but great fun,” says Chineze, one of Scratch’s four staff. “We’re just trying to spread the word so people know what we’re about.” And judging by the appreciative mmm-ing and ahhh-ing from visitors, everything’s going according to plan.

Some more pictures from the Real Food Festival:

Heston Blumenthal takes over the world (well, Bray)

April 28, 2010

A local pubThere’s no escaping Heston Blumenthal. Television programmes, magazines, news broadcasts – you name it, his marble-shaped head features on it.

Admittedly he’s had an impressive year. The centrepiece of his culinary wizardry – the Fat Duck in Bray – quickly shot back into repute after a food-poisoning blip, retaining three stars in this year’s Michelin Guide. And it has just taken third place at the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards behind Noma and El Bulli.

Now Blumenthal’s buying his third establishment in the Berkshire village of Bray: the Crown pub. He already owns one pub – the Hinds Head along the road – which has a more conventional menu. But at around £17 for a main, it’s not exactly local fare.

“We’ve kept the bar at the Hinds Head but the place has become a bit of a culinary destination, so that the Crown has become the local,” Blumenthal said in an interview. “I might do a steak bar, but good meat is so expensive, I don’t know if the prices would be right.”

Now I know the fine people of Bray are likely to have a slightly bigger bank balance than your average punter. But you have to feel for them. Heston has already transformed one pub into a culinary Mecca, and although he wants the Crown to stay a ‘local pub’, what are the chances of that happening once the Blumenthal name is above the door?

Anyone hankering after a cheap pint of lager and a tuna baguette may well have to look elsewhere. Well, Slough is just next door…

Real Food Festival, Earls Court London

April 27, 2010

Real Food FestivalThe Real Food Festival is coming back to London for its third year next month. From 7-10 May, Earls Court will be packed full of small independent producers who have been hand-picked by a committee to showcase their product.

The main aim of the festival is, as always, to provide subsidised stands for smaller producers who wouldn’t necessarily be able to afford a platform at such high-profile events.

Alongside the tastings, demonstrations and expert advice, there’s opportunity to discover a whole array of food products you wouldn’t otherwise come across. And buying from the Real Food Market pretty much guarantees fresh food at a lower price.

Other highlights include:

  • Expert advice on how to buy fresh, healthy ingredients that won’t blow the budget
  • Raymond Blanc at the chef theatre, and other top chefs including Oliver Rowe, Masterchef winner Thomasina Miers, and Ashley Palmer-Watts, head chef at the three-Michelin-starred Fat Duck
  • Chocolate Unwrapped, featuring some of the UK’s best chocolatiers
  • Cookery workshops and children’s activities
  • Friendly Livestock including Laverstoke Park’s very own water buffalo

Tickets cost £9.50 in advance (click here to order yours) and £15 on the door. And a dedicated Trade Day on Monday 10 May gives buyers from all sectors of the food and drinks industry the chance to scout out some of the finest ingredients in the UK. This year all trade visitors get free entry. So make the most of it!

Go to the Real Food Festival website to find out more

Cheap and easy: Chili Quorn Carne

April 20, 2010

 chiliWe had a few friends over to our new flat at the weekend, and by far the easiest (and cheapest) way of feeding 7 people is chili. A huge vat of it in fact, with white rice, tortilla chips and sour cream.

We have a vegetarian in our midst, so I adapted the recipe to include Quorn mince instead of meat. You might turn your nose up, but Quorn is an excellent substitute in a chili. I’d go so far as to say that, as a meat eater, I actually prefer it – the flavours in the spices and veg become far more pronounced without all that meat.

The only thing you have to accommodate for is that, without fat from the meat to add moisture, the dish can become dry. The recipe below includes an extra tin of tomatoes to make up for this, though we didn’t get the whole tin in there because our pan was overflowing. About ¾ of it will do. Feel free to add more veg – courgettes, sweetcorn, fresh chilis – at will.

Serves 7/8

Ingredients

  • 2 x 300g frozen Quorn mince
  • 2 onions, peeled and chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 2 green peppers, diced
  • 3x400g chopped tomatoes
  • 2x400g kidney beans, drained  (NB most supermarkets offer kidney beans in a basic range – they’re cheap and a couple of split beans won’t make any difference in a chili)
  • 2 tbsp chili powder
  • 2 tsp cumin powder
  • 2 tbsp tomato puree
  • 25ml flour
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Directions

Heat oil in saucepan

Fry onions until golden, add garlic and green pepper frying for a further 6 minutes

Stir in the chilli powder, cumin powder, tomato puree, flour and salt and mix well

Add the frozen Quorn, cook until the Quorn seems unfrozen

Add the tinned tomatoes and drained kidney beans, then simmer for 15-20 minutes

Food Junction at Kings Cross: “Why aren’t we eating our cats?”

April 15, 2010

Food JunctionsIf you’ve got some time spare over the May bank holiday, I’d definitely recommend a visit to Food Junctions – a food festival at Camley Street Natural Park just behind Kings Cross St Pancras.

The event takes place on 24th and 25th April with the main line-up on 1st and 2nd May. Highlights include “Brockwell Bake with the Real Bread Campaign” on the May bank holiday at 11/11.30, with expert demonstrations and the chance to bake your own pizza. And there’s a wine tasting event from 6.30-8.00pm on 1st May – you have to pre-book  and there’s a £5 donation, but it’ll be worth it to taste a selection of Bordeaux, Italian and sparkling wines.

There’s more variety on offer here than your average foody event. Not only can you chow down on cakes, jams, honey, bread, fruit and – if you really have to – cheeses, but there are also films, live entertainment and discussions on the culture and philosophy behind food. Want to know what the Romans ate, or why we’re not eating our cats? Or maybe you’d like to discuss sustainable farming and food waste – it’s all here.

The focus on growing food in the city (Grow Your Own Garden Box, 12-4pm on 24th April to plant and take home your own ‘window garden’) as well as cooking and eating, gives Food Junctions that little something extra.

But with everything happening outdoors, let’s just pray for sunshine.

Click here for the full menu of events at Food Junction

Click here for a brief taste of what’s to come (listen out for UCL’s Mark Carnall explaining why we don’t eat our cats)

Step by Step: Sainsbury’s cookalong on Twitter

April 13, 2010

Sainsbury'sSainsbury’s cookalong was recently applauded by Retail Week editor Tim Danaher as one of the better applications by a major retailer on Twitter. The idea follows on from Sainsbury’s promotional campaign, featuring Jamie Oliver encouraging the great British public to cook with him.

I agree with Danaher – this is a good example of a customer-facing application. Sainsbury’s tweets the ingredients you’ll need to buy earlier in the day, then at 6pm they give step-by-step instructions for that day’s recipe. With roughly 5,200 followers, even if they aren’t all following live, I imagine several must refer back to past recipes when they fancy a simple meal.

Because it’s not just the whole instantaneous Twitter thing that works here. With only 140 characters, each step has to be stripped back to basics. It’s far easier to follow a recipe if you take in each new instruction before rushing on to the next. Posting them up on Twitter at around five-minute intervals is a great way to build up confidence in people who rarely cook at home.

There are some hiccups of course. The smoked haddock and apple puff seemed to miss out most of the ingredients listed, and quantities weren’t a strong point either. But the latest dish – a light pasta dish with fresh crisp vegetables, ginger and crème fraîche – was simple and easy, with Sainsbury’s pointing out in-store offers for certain ingredients.

In case you missed it, here it is again courtesy of Sainsbury’s cookalong:

Ingredients

  • 250ml low-fat crème fraîche
  • 1 tbsp chopped flat leaf parsley
  • Ground pepper
  • 25g butter
  • 2cm piece grated root ginger
  • 125g sliced mushrooms
  • 200g asparagus tips
  • 300g fusilli

Directions

Cook the pasta in a large pan of boiling salted water for 10-12 minutes

Meanwhile melt the butter in a large pan and fry the ginger, mushrooms & asparagus for 5mins until cooked through

Add the crème fraîche and parsley and season well

Drain the pasta, mix with sauce and serve immediately