The Beast from the East….Blizzards require bread but beware processed foods!

With days of official meteorological advance warning the bad weather was expected so the rush was on to buy up bread stocks…bread-buying made a headline news item! Always a good idea to have a reasonable larder of long-life foods to draw upon in an emergency and the freezer is critical to sensible everyday shopping as well as for pizzas and ice cream; frozen vegetables offer high levels of nutrients as they are “processed” very quickly in factories very close to the production. Now I write this as earlier in the month a French scientific report claimed that “processed foods cause cancer”, with “frozen food” cited amongst the offenders. Anyone reading this might have noted that this blanket claim offered no explanation as to the scientists’ definition of “processed food”.

Surely many healthy foods are “processed” by the very fact that they have gone through various chemical processes to alter their original state? Natural organic yoghurt must head the “good list” but it’s the product of a chemical process so it can be labelled a processed food!

I’ve just watched a BBC report claiming to be from a dietician; she advised consumers to check the label and avoid the loaf if there were ingredients listed that they couldn’t pronounce. So is that the way to search out “processed food”?

Basic bread should simply contain flour, yeast, salt and water; but what about fats and emulsifiers? If consumers are not baking their own bread they will be susceptible to the vagaries of their supermarket. Perhaps the wisest advice is to work towards a wide range of foods and critically to teach children from a young age to eat a wide variety of foodstuffs; a learning process which is as critical as all the “first steps” everyone wants to record for posterity.  It worries me to see these Groupon offers for “cake bashing” birthday photographic sessions to mark the child’s first birthday; is cake for bashing? What looks like fun for an adult looking for easy pleasure must surely create confusion for babies?

Perhaps a practical cooking session learning the realities of food and producing a loaf would make more sense once the child possesses sufficient logic?

The debates about healthy eating and the growing obesity problem requires a full-frontal approach from the start; understanding what food is, the importance of eating a wide variety and how it’s produced is the framework which needs to be established; scientists researching and publishing vague reports surely serves no one?

The blizzards may keep many indoors; they will need to delve into their food stores including canned and frozen foods; people need to learn basic food science and cooking skills to be able to make a balanced meal; it’s not impossible but the knowledge and skills need to be taught to the young. Cookery lessons sound old-fashioned when part of a school curriculum but why does healthy eating and having the skills to knock up a reasonable meal on a budget not deserve a place alongside being able to perform mathematical equations?


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When Nutella Riots spread across France…

Are the French really so desperate for cheap food?

From my first recollections of food and cooking, I was aware that the food we had at home wasn’t like that of my school friends; we were a bit different; I grew up knowing that a salad arrived at the table hidden in a deep wooden bowl and dressed in vinaigrette; it wasn’t until staying with a class mate one half term when at boarding school that I discovered the meaning of “salad” created in a British kitchen.

In general terms the theory went that anything culinary could be guaranteed if it was French…and this notion of superiority was reinforced on a daily basis by my mother.

I grew up absolutely fascinated by cooking, wanting to be able to produce meals and dishes and baking…I pored over recipe leaflets and the limited cookbooks available at home. The start of formal cookery lessons at my convent school signalled for me the opening of the drawbridge, although I was always helping my mother in the kitchen and could bake a cake independently; cookery with Mrs Harrison was always the highlight of my week from September 1974.  Through her I believe I learnt to think more independently about food; once she had demonstrated the principle demanded by her syllabus we could choose how to use that skill. An example was mastering both Bechamel white sauce and pastry and then being encouraged by her to create a vegetarian savoury tart, at some point having already expressed my interest in what was then a somewhat alternative dietary lifestyle, associated with hippies. However, despite her severe manner and apparent preference for a rather conservative selection of dishes to demonstrate, she never once tried to discourage my off-beat thoughts and desires in the kitchen.  This was some distance away from the attitudes at home.  Of course I learnt to prepare many classic dishes by sight and could take over a meal prep as long as I knew to do it the way my mother wanted.  I also throughly enjoyed meal planning, having been completely fascinated by food values and “balanced meals” via Mrs Harrison’s classes in that scary first year of senior school. In the Sixth form we were treated to cookery again; a compulsory plan which had been put into place to prevent convent girls leaving school unable to feed themselves healthily…the cookery room had by then been relocated to much larger premises, with its fittings carefully designed by Mrs H.  After years teaching in a rickety attic space perched above the convent laundry her time had finally come; I recall her looking far more relaxed, although she was just as strict, which didn’t bother me at all; as far as I was concerned cooking was a serious business.

Although my plan had only been a vague one with no date attached, I ditched the meat in the summer of 1979, and thus began to really learn how to cook for myself, free to experiment with various pulses and vegetables because I no longer lived at home under my mother’s distinctive culinary demands.   The following year I was back in France after not seeing my French aunt since age 14; politely informing her of my meat-free life she promptly began the “omelette and white sauce challenge” and was both amused and irritated when I turned down a salad of pis-au lit dressed with bacon lardons and its fat…she told me it wasn’t meat! Add on another 4 years and I was back again; it was Round Two of the omelette and white sauce-dressed dishes; mid-way through the ten-day stay I knew I seriously could not face another egg and requested just the veg plain….perhaps that was the final straw for her?  By now my mother had come to accept more meat-free meals , understanding that I was able to serve up some tasty dishes which even impressed my father.  Clearly puzzled by my rejection of the eggs, my aunt asked me what I cooked….her look of bemusement when I described a vegetarian “Bourguignon” of potatoes, carrots and mushrooms was underlined by a brisk “never heard of it!”

When, many years later, at the start of a new century I ventured back into France, it was clear that the notion of meat-free meals was certainly a generation behind Britain; despite the gorgeous variety of vegetables heaped up on colourful market stalls, eating out was impossible unless it was a pizza restaurant, or a brasserie with omelette on the menu.

What I did notice was how French citizens were just as gripped by supermarket shopping as the British, the aisles stuffed with pre-packaged meals, plastic pots of highly-sweetened yoghurt and fromage frais, hundreds of garish cakes and greasy pastries balanced by ready-grated carrots and tinned Brussel sprouts. The day we discovered the latter delivered us an enormous unstoppable laughter; the joys of these highly-nutritious “boules” must surely be limited to their being freshly-cooked and existing free from the confines of a metallic container?

From then on nothing ever surprised me including one long journey down the entire length of France with nothing to eat because not one of the motorway services we stopped at had any meat-free sandwiches on sale; it was clear the factory must have had a glut of jambon because nothing appeared ham-free either! I had always self-catered for journeys but had been reassured it wouldn’t be necessary as we’d get a meal en-route…as they say “live and learn!”

Now things have improved in the land which is part of my heritage, but anyone with glorious images of French folk cooking from scratch every day really are existing in fantasy-land! French supermarkets are the life-blood for most cooks and consumers; of course there are still the massive cheese and meat counters, and fresh fruit, vegetables and piles of lettuce, but their fridges and freezers carry as wide a range of chilled and frozen ready-made meals as any other country, their boulangerie section heaves with pastries, ready-made pies and tarts and industrial plastic-wrapped bread. In fact receipts will itemise all foods and any bread items sold wrapped in bags will show up labelled “industrial”….ideal as a base for the palm-fat sweetness of Nutella!

So what about Nutella? Why the riots?

Quite simply, a famous supermarket chain decided to offer a substantial discount on large jars of the famous spread; the hungry crowds were not polite with each other and fought to grab their share. The gendarmes were called in to restore order…thus was created the main French news headline for that day. Was it all a PR stunt? Or were the “Nutella riots” a cover-up to distract the world from something more sinister?

I hope Nutella wasn’t misused to smother bad news; my gut feeling accepts this madness as real…perhaps the supermarket should have insisted that each purchaser also grab a tin of choux de Brussel at the same time, an offer akin to a “meal deal”?




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Howling winds to close the doors of the year…fresh pages await the recording of new days

Some time ago I labelled myself  “a librarian of memories” because it became so very clear that I cannot exist without the framework of memories which surrounds my very being. Being an avid diarist and recorder of life’s moments, I can root around in my bureau and dig out notebooks to recall days and dates and what I achieved or what was going on at home and further afield.  This often includes the weather and major political or world events…noted for their affect on perhaps local as well as the broader environment, and  because these have so often affected my mood and relationship with life at that moment. Disasters and cruel massacres make me sad and depressed; I can’t laugh when I know someone is suffering some terrible loss of a loved one; idiotic items like the football or cricket results broadcast on the radio after such news always seems so tasteless…Sometimes life gets too hectic and my diary is very scant on detail…good perhaps that I’ve managed to break the addiction to jot so many tiny details down.  However, when it comes to suffering gloomy weather during the festive season, I can read hand-written notes to reassure myself that there’ve been many Christmas and New Year’s celebrations in cold, wet and grey days with nights of howling winds beating against the windows.

Every sunny winter’s day is one to embrace and exploit; Thursday was one such day with an afternoon sun burning into the sky, such brightness making the walk home from the shops really quite uncomfortable to unprotected eyes.  But “wow” to those red sunsets over the sea which hold such intensity, creating such a draw that one doesn’t want to walk away until the colour is drained away, gone forever.

So the year closes with that howling wind and driving rain hitting hard against the windows; the next sunny day to come along will help deliver reassuring signs that winter is not all bad, whilst the wet earth can relax to lay down precious water reserves. I don’t like saying good bye to the year but I know it must happen; I take comfort in a new diary offering fresh pages on which to write and jot and note the direction of each day. So tomorrow I will open the first page and open a new year with hope, hope for my own being and for all those I love and care about.  And my hopes will extend far beyond these rain-spattered window panes behind which I sit sheltered from the storm.

My “Big Hope” will be shared between environment and education and, most importantly, the rights of mothers to choose to bring up their children themselves, free from the economic necessity forcing them to leave their children in the care of paid strangers. On education my hope is for a less formal system in the UK, free from the politically-motivated and driven SATs Tests, with more attention to the original demands of the Education Act, for “an education appropriate to the child’s age, ability and aptitude”. On the environment I need to hang on to the hope that humankind will manage to convince politicians that they all care so much about our one planet that GDP and domestic labour issues will no longer be the only framework into which our daily breath is placed.  Each year reveals more of the environmental crisis into which humankind is falling and drowning; the plastic crisis must surely be the greatest after clean drinking water?  My post last month about the issue of glitter was, unfortunately, limited due to time constraints, but there is an essay to write to join all the plastic dots; news stories about plastic are still stuck on plastic bags and disposable cutlery!

I also know that no one really cares a whatsit what I think, but I have to hang on to hope, and shout when I can to help keep something for future generations…I’m suddenly reminded of my childhood when there was a fashion to streak to raise awareness of some issue or injustice.  Every few months a streaker would hit the headlines and we’d peer at the TV to try and get a glimpse of the rude bits!  Perhaps we need to bring back this form of protest when the weather gets better?

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Advent calendars at the ready…will this be the last December of scattering glitter?

One of the news items which caught my eye this month was the headline explaining how a chain of child-care nurseries has banned the use of glitter for the children’s art and craft activities.  The reasoning behind this action is the threat from plastic entering the food chain; glitter consists of tiny particles of plastic…anyone who has supervised a child around Christmas will know how glitter manages to leave the art or craft does get everywhere!

However, the issue is not simply the irritation to those tasked with washing the household linens and family clothing, the manner in which such tiny particles can quickly enter the human food chain is alarming.  Given how this lengthy chain carries plastic particles within the diet of the more substantial ocean creatures used as human food, surely there should be greater concern?

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Why are we in such a mess about childhood…and parenting?

This subject has been hanging around in my head for many years but recent events have exacerbated the “itch”…Clearly there’s a mix-up in education which confuses the uniqueness of childhood with the delivery of education…as if there is only one time when education will work or information plant itself into the human brain…Bizarre given all the courses adults are tackling on-line.

The recent “Me Too” campaign has helped release the experience of thousands of women and men who have suffered various forms of sexual harassment, intimidation and abuse. The historic “memory release”  revealing the behaviour of famous names such as the actor Kevin Spacey has created a storm within the framework….My response as a mother may differ to the outrage of others because I understand the concept of childhood running parallel to adults responsible for that child; my immediate response to the allegation made by the adult recalling his experience as a 14 year-old child actor was to question the whereabouts of the adult with duty of care during the adult party. How could a 26 year-old man be free to invite a 14 year old boy to an “adult” party, let alone create a situation where the child ended up was sitting on his bed?

An unrelated comment by someone I’ve known for years revealed that I was regarded as “over-protective” towards my children…there’s also that offensive term “helicopter parent” which I suspect was created by childless teachers…As much as I want to acknowledge the good work of teachers I have witnessed so much inappropriate behaviour and language towards children to know that too many are ignorant and uneducated, both academically and in any intellectual understanding. Thus the notion that we as parents accept our duty of care and lay down boundaries is too often sneered at as “over-protective”

Perhaps times will change and “duty of care” will become more than a phrase bandied about but with little sign of implementation?  Child actor or not, no 14 year old should be free to be invited to an adult party by a 26 year old adult man or woman.

Childhood is a unique time framed by birth and those years when physical development brings about huge changes to a human from helpless baby to biological adult…individual children develop at different rates; some clearly appearing more mature than others, but all needing the protection of at least one adult…Sadly many politicians have swamped this time with manipulated facts about the ability to learn, removing any chance of a childhood not set within iron bars of formal education. That leads directly to re-think the big question “what is education” and what does it mean “to be educated”.

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Missing the Tomato Feast…

September is always a special month for me as my mind re-invigorates the memory of the arrival of my first-born; not a straightforward story but one which might be used to illustrate the importance of the trusting relationship between patient and doctor which is pivotal to long-term good health.

That sentence immediately leads into a discussion of the nature of the  ”patient” role and how pregnancy is not an illness, something I have spoken about at various times when childbirth and coping with motherhood were the main topic. It is something to write about here in the future.

So to explain the tomatoes of my title….

It always seemed that September brought a glut of fresh tomatoes as the long summer drew to a close and home-grown fruit ripened alongside the greengrocer’s varied offering.  As I student I had a productive vegetable patch in the back garden of the “garden flat” I rented; the hours spent tending the plot were balanced by hours researching and creating dishes from the freshly-picked vegetables.  Tomatoes did well in that city garden and thus my September breakfasts often consisted of toast covered with a glistening heap of gently- fried tomatoes.  I can recall the delicious delight of these specimens as their intense flavour created a chemical reaction of deep satisfaction.  Thus it is with such disappointment that I tackle the tomatoes on my plate now; they present themselves as perfect balls of tomato redness, but lack any flavour or hint that they are related to the garden-grown variety.  Checking the packaging they are being brought in from Holland; thus I wonder where and why the home-grown disappeared ?   The fancier types are also all imported from Holland, yet despite their green stalks and “vine” they offer very little in additional flavour; the only increase being one of cost to the consumer.

However, some simple additions can perform a small miracle on these bland balls; olive oil, dried oregano, plus salt and pepper will transform tasteless “juggling balls” into a dish worth enjoying on toast or with good bread; a chunk of goat’s cheese will take your “imported Daily Dutch*” to another level.

In the days of the student garden it was a quick process to chop an apronful of the annual glut of home-grown “love apples”,  placing them into a saucepan where a spoonful of oil was warming, adding the flavourings and gently frying to stewing point as the ripe tomatoes released their juice.  The salt, pepper and herbs could be enhanced with a half teaspoon of sugar to knock back any acidic over-tones….Thus the glut became a feast.

The alternative method is to bake them whilst the oven is on for some other dish; the tomatoes need to be cut into halves and placed into an oven-proof ceramic dish with olive oil, freshly ground black pepper, sea salt and oregano.  A layer of foil is required over the tomatoes but not placed too tightly and then they can go into the oven under the main dish.  Long, slow baking results in a soft but very moreish herby tomato which goes well with fish and serves as a wonderful topping for fresh bread…the baked oil will also be packed with flavour so ensure you have some bread to dip in.

I do miss the tomato glut with its potential for this gloriously simple feast; over the years here I have managed to grow a good handful of tomatoes but the garden is not ideal and the tomatoes outside were all hit with something nasty…I suspect those bland Dutch imports have been modified to be resistant to disease whilst producing in quantities suited to their industrial production method…they certainly exude no character except sterility!

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The news and other events…

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July 2017…one hundred years ago….

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June did not rid the world of May…

So the month shifted from May to June, but the surprise General Election did not clear the political slate, nor did it provide the Prime Minister with the strong mandate she desired to pull the UK through the Brexit process….May is still Prime Minister of the UK and many British citizens continue to ask why politics is so warped given the results and clear shifts in voting behaviour.

Many ask why we don’t have PR [Proportional Representation] as opposed to the “First-Past-The-Post” system which allows the candidate with the greatest number of votes to win the seat, even if they only achieve one solitary vote over their opponent.  This method means that, overall, the votes cast do not result in the allocation of parliamentary seats representing the wishes of the entire electorate; the total number of votes cast for the Green Party, for example, would provide greater numbers of Green MPs to influence the decisions taken in Parliament as well as working at a local level to deliver changing attitudes within their constituency. Although Green Party voting support has dropped since 2015, it was still the choice of well over half a million adults who bothered to vote. The bizarre reality is that the 292,316 votes cast for the Northern Ireland Democratic Unionist Party [DUP] gave them TEN seats in Parliament whilst those 525,435 Green voters are forced to make do with one solitary MP.

The situation with the DUP has historically been a useful example to illustrate the distorted allocation of parliamentary seats, to show how some voters’ choices, despite their numbers across the entire nation, are not being appreciated by the First-Past-The-Post system.  However, the current political scenario with Theresa May being free to draw upon the DUP to support her minority government, underlines how ridiculous and totally undemocratic this traditional counting method really is.  With their ten unearned Parliamentary seats the DUP can vote for all measures put forward by a minority government, and that is what they will do to earn their billion pound bribe.  There is a sense of despair across the nation but it’s clear that there are many who wish to re-energise the fight…Of course politics provides various fields of battle but for ordinary citizens the one which counts is the election process.  As I work through the decades gathering life experience I know I am repeating myself; education must include learning about the democratic process and why it is so very important to understand that there are very few corners of our lives not touched by politics.

Having studied English Social History at “O” level in the late 1970s I am grateful that the group into which I was placed at school was led by the very inspiring history teacher “Mr Lee” who cleverly revealed how present-day politics tied in with the fight for the franchise in the 19th Century; the Chartists,  Tolpuddle Martyrs and the Co-Operative Movement were meaningful details which have remained bubbling away on the hob which is my brain over the last 40 years.  Both “Distress and Discontent” and that slogan “We must educate our masters”  still ring through my head as many argue about Brexit, the reasons for that result last year and why so many of the potential electorate repeatedly fail to claim their vote…I suggest future history books will continue to be able to draw these connections regardless of the outcome, although perhaps in the long-term it will be so evident that future history students will understand why the battlefield was so-shaped in the 21st Century.

This month of June should receive more than a passing mention in future history books, not only for presenting the expected politics surrounding the General Election on the 8th, but also for the shocking news stories which delivered sudden, and very deadly blows to ordinary people living ordinary lives; citizens and tourists walking along London Bridge and enjoying Saturday night drinks with their friends, and those who went to bed in their tower block home never to see the new dawn.  Politically-controlled decisions were clearly at the heart of the spread of those deadly flames which closed the lives of 80 or more, trapped in a building where running costs were the biggest factor despite fire safety legislation and building regulations which should not have allowed such a tragedy to unfold in a modern capital city.  The frame which is politics touches everyone; for the poorest it would seem that this frame is often made of razor wire, whereas for the wealthy it can be as soft as the silken fabrics associated with Versailles.  A couple of days ago a, clearly wealthy, “friend” on social media posted some dubious research about people who complain…the gist of which was that anyone who complains is just a pain in the arse.  In recent years I’ve learnt the power of not posting a comment…although I am still tempted to point out that for whose lives were placed in Grenfell Tower a few more complaints being heard might have meant that a young mother and her baby would have survived for mother to watch her 6 month-old move from crawling to running in one of London’s beautiful green spaces…for that mother to enjoy her baby’s babbling to become speech and for that little girl to grow up to become who she was going to be, to reveal what she might have had to give to her community and the world.

My inspiring history teacher Mr Lee did not lecture us convent girls, but in his methodical and clear manner he helped teach us to think…He was clearly elderly in 1977 so I’m sure his retirement ended possibly decades ago, but I can still hear his voice and I’m sure he would have been able to lead any group of teenagers, and adults for that matter, to understand where politics and history met in London in June 2017.

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May ends…how will June greet May?

So there’s a riddle to close the month…

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