October 20, 2009 § Leave a comment
I finally made it to our local cinema to see “Julie & Julia” along with my son George, aged 13. This was the first day of his half-term holidays and I am pleased that he chose to indulge me and see a film about cookery rather the latest Transformers movie or whatever.
This turned out to be a private screening just for us as we were the only people in the cinema at this Monday afternoon matinée. Well, it has been out for a while and I imagine most good cooks would be busy preparing the evening meal..
We both had a really enjoyable afternoon – George, who is interested in cooking and even more so in eating, pronounced it “good” – high praise from him! In my case, this was preaching to the converted – after all I am trying to become a blogger myself, and the book which is central to the film plotline “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” has long been a favourite on my kitchen shelf.
Until recently, the three authors of this book, listed in alphabetical order as Simone Beck, Louisette Bertholle and Julia Child, had no more significance to me than as practically anonymous writers of a technical manual, albeit a useful and readable one. I began to have an inkling that Julia Child must have a reputation as a celebrity cook in her native United States when chatting to my good friend Matthew who now lives in San Francisco. He dropped her name into conversation as being a well-known cook and given that his signature dish is baked beans with cheese, I concluded that she really must be a household name over there.
I imagine that many British people watching this film must have been rather bemused by the larger than life figure who is Julia Child. By all accounts, Meryl Streep’s portrayal of her is uncannily accurate but this aspect of the film is lost on us Brits. It doesn’t matter as the film stills works on many levels.
Following the life-story of Julia and her husband Paul through Paris in the 1950s and discovering the genesis of the book was like a marvellous fairy story. I was left with a deep admiration for her as a person, for her generosity of spirit and determination. The cookery book has now taken on an extra dimension for me and I can now sense the character of the women who wrote it beneath the specifics of the recipes.
I very much liked the way the stories of Julia Child and blogger Julie Powell were intertwined. I’ve always liked novels constructed in this way – The French Lieutenant’s Woman for instance (and by coincidence Meryl Streep took the leading role in the film adaptation of the novel). For me, the story of the very much lesser character Julie merely served to show Julia Child’s achievements over a lifetime in sharp relief.
I disliked the Julie Powell character right from the start. Whether this is a fair reflection on Julie or whether it results from actress Amy Adams’ portrayal of her I can’t say. I began to have misgivings about her when early on in the film it is revealed that at the age of 30 she had never eaten let alone cooked an egg before. Hmmm maybe this woman is a fraud or a faddy eater or maybe even both…and when the potentially agonising moment comes as Julie learns Julia’s reaction to her blog and tearfully tells her husband “She hates me!” I found myself cheering inwardly. I’m not entirely sure this is the reaction director Nora Ephron intended.
A word on the two supporting actors, the husbands of each of the two women. Stanley Tucci’s portrayal of patient, charming and debonair Paul Child was delightful whereas Eric Powell played by Chris Messina came across as a graceless slob.
I did feel the warm flush of familiarity as I watched Julie cook the recipes for boeuf bourgignon, boned duck and of course lobster Thermidor. Watching her struggle with a live lobster much as I had done myself a month before (see my August 2009 posts Lobster Saga I and II) I was left thinking -Blimey I wish I’d had Julie Powell’s idea before she did.
Finally, I was amused by the unconscious irony of screening a Flora advert before this film which has the goodness of butter as one of its central metaphors.
An enjoyable afternoon and a film I’d recommend for teenage boys in touch with their feminine side (hope that’s OK George!).
Here’s a link to the film website:
And here’s an extract fromJulie Powell’s blog. I have to say her prose, riddled with expletives, is not a patch on Julia’s lively and well considered writing:
October 19, 2009 § 2 Comments
Did I really hear this news story correctly? What I think I just heard on Radio 4’s Today Programme was that the head of a Doncaster primary school had sent back a birthday cake that pupil Olivia Morris had brought in to share with her classmates because it didn’t comply with healthy eating rules.
I later checked out the story which seems to have been broken by South Yorkshire’s own “The Star” and the headmistress is indeed quoted as saying that the birthday cake contradicted healthy eating rules and might cause allergic reactions. Oh dear. And to make matters worse it was a home-made cake baked by Olivia’s greatgrandmother. It defies belief and it’s rude to the point of churlishness into the bargain. And Yorkshire folk grumble about having a reputation for being miserable gits….
October 18, 2009 § Leave a comment
“A line of cheap speed and a shot of Pernod, usually taken as a pick-me-up after a rough night” is how Urbandictionary.com defines an Algerian breakfast. Hmmm I’m not even quite sure what speed is let alone how to procure it cheaply in Altrincham. I had in mind something rather more civilised.
Algeria is a former French colony (think Zinadine Zidane, Albert Camus and the French Foreign Legion) becoming independent in 1962. The French left behind, amongst other things, the legacy of their bread so a crusty baguette was the first item to be chosen. I still baulk at tackling a loaf of French bread at home so this was purchased fresh from the boulangerie. With the baguette, unsalted butter and a jar of home-made jam – the one I chose was an amber coloured plum jam made by friend Nadia who is into preserving big-time at the moment. Nadia takes the trouble to crack open the plum stones and add the almondy kernels to the jam which is something you’ll never find in the shop-bought stuff.
To drink, café au lait in bowls, plus glasses of deep purple pomegranate juice (I’m not sure whether the juice is authentic but I wanted to bring some eastern exoticism onto the breakfast table on this chilly October morning).
The pièce de resistance was a plateful of Makrout el Assel freshly deep fried, a kind of Algerian almond doughnut, the whole plateful doused in warm honey.
All of us spent the next couple of hours bouncing off the walls on a sugar, white bread and caffeine-induced high. Who needs cheap speed and Pernod with a breakfast like this!
I found the Makrout recipe on http://www.la-cuisine-marocaine.com French language website – yes I realise this means Moroccan but the given derivation was most definitely Algerian. Here’s the recipe translated as best I could.
Recipe for Makrout el Assel
500g medium semolina
125g melted smen (clarified butter)
10cl warm water
250g ground almonds
150g caster sugar
Oil for deep-frying
Place the semolina and salt in a bowl. Mix. Add the melted clarified butter and rub with the palms of your hands to mix well and incorporate the fat into the semolina. The mixture should be sandy in texture.
Add the warm water plus a little orange flower water gradually to the mixture and bring it together to form a dough without over-working. Once you have a supple dough, leave it to rest in the fridge.
Mix together the ground almonds and sugar and add a little orange flower water to form a paste. The mixture should not be too moist.
To form the Makrout, take a good-sized piece of dough, roll it out and hollow out a groove in the middle without going right through. Form with your hands a fat rope shaped piece of the almond filling and place it into the groove. Bring up the edges to seal in the filling and roll the whole thing, flattening it a little until it is 3-4cm thick. Cut the flattened roll into lozenges and place them on a plate until you are ready to fry them. Expect to repeat this exercise 3-4 times to use up the dough and filling.
Take a paintbrush, dip it into lightly beaten egg white and brush over the cut surfaces of the individual lozenges to seal in the almond filling before frying.
Fry in hot oil, preferably in a deep-fat frier with a basket, until golden brown. Drain on absorbent paper and serve with warm honey.
Note on semolina. I have semolina in my cupboard (for baking middle-eastern type cakes not for making the milk pudding of school-dinner induced nightmares) but have never been entirely sure what it is. Trusty Harold McGee in “On Food & Cooking” explains that semolina is “milled durum endosperm with a characteristically coarse particle size (0.15-0.5mm across) thanks to the hard nature of durum endosperm (finer grinding causes excessive damage to starch granules). So now you know.
October 12, 2009 § 3 Comments
I’ve always wanted to visit Albania. Aged 14, I wrote to the Foreign Office requesting information on how to travel to Albania and received back a helpful advice pack detailing how to travel to all the then Communist Eastern bloc countries (with difficulty). They probably put me on a watch list back then and maybe that’s the reason why I never made it into the Civil Service despite passing those horrible exams whilst at University… I digress. I finally made a small excursion to Albania on Sunday morning in the form of the next breakfast of the world, (according to my son George’s flag poster) which, in alphabetical order, is that of Albania.
Detailed information sources on Albanian food and specific recipes are scarce. A good starting point was www.tourism-in-albania.com which helpfully explained “You have the option of starting your day with a continental breakfast that most Albanian hotels serve. However, if you are adventurous, you may try the traditional Albanian breakfast of pilaf, which is flavoured rice or paça – a soup made using animals’ innards.” Whilst trawling through internet search responses I found various Albanian travel blogs and was amused to read Gareth Morgan’s account of breakfast in the Albanian city of Shkodra – 2 espressos and 14 cigarettes.
Next stop was Lesley Chamberlain’s excellent book “The Food and Cooking of Eastern Europe” published by Penguin in 1989. The book is both comprehensive in scope covering cuisines from East Germany and Poland in the north to Albania in the south and the then USSR in the east. The recipes are clearly written and easy to follow and are interspersed with just the right amount of scholarly information and journalistic travel writing.
I quote the following extract both by way of background and to illustrate Ms Chamberlain’s poetic and informative style. “Today, with a population of 3 million, Albania declares itself self-sufficient in food. Realistically, this means some belt-tightening towards the end of winter and into mid-spring, for the cuisine is wholly dependent on the seasons rather than imports, but it remains primarily an agricultural country. I happened to visit Albania in September, which was, at the opposite end of the scale, the high season of locally harvested food. Peppers, tomatoes and aubergines abounded, with goat’s milk brine cheese, eggs, pasta, rice, dried beans and unadulterated bread. There was yoghurt, a wonderful green olive oil, some passable red meat and chicken, good fish – we ate grey mullet from the sea and carp from Lake Shkodra – and to highlight the Turkish legacy wonderful sweet Oriental pastries and lokum (Turkish delight) followed at the table and in the streets with fat bunches of green grapes and slices of refreshing watermelon.”
I decided to begin our breakfast with an Albanian soup recipe from Ms Chamberlain’s book. She writes in her soup chapter “Before the arrival of coffee in Central Europe, the first cup of soup was drunk at breakfast and the habit continued well into the nineteenth century…Magyar peasants first thought of coffee as ‘black soup’.”
Ms Chamberlain wrote back in 1989 that “it is difficult to find Albanian recipes, for there is no book on Albanian food in English.” Times have changed and I managed to track down “The Best of Albanian Cooking” by Klementina and R. John Hysa published in the US by Hippocrene in 1998. Mr and Mrs Hysa, whose scary black and white photos adorn the inside cover of the book (he a dead ringer for Frankenstein’s monster and she for Cruella de Ville) are an emigré couple now living in Canada. R.John Hysa writes in the introduction to book “All visitors we happened to host have really enjoyed the delicious Albanian dishes my wife served them. They couldn’t resist asking her to write down some of te
Albanian breakfast soup recipe
“A less elaborate garlic soup is made in Albania by frying half a dozen cloves of garlic in a tablespoon of olive oil, sprinkling on a teaspoon of paprika and a few cups of water. When the soup boils, add a few handfuls of vermicelli, season with salt to taste and garnish with parsley.”
In fact I substituted some home made beef stock for the water – after all, paça or paçe (see above) appears to mean a meat broth – and also substituted a handful of spaghetti snapped into bite-size lengths for the vermicelli. The end result was basic in flavour but good.
Here is the finished soup along with kabuni, a sweet rice pilaf:
Ms Chamberlain writes “It is difficult to find Albanian recipes, for there is no book on Albanian food in English”. This has since been put right as I succeeded in tracking down a copy of “The Best of Albanian Cooking” by Klementina and R. John Hysa published in the US in 1998 by Hippocrene. The authors are an emigré couple now living in Canada and their rather scary black and white photographs adorn the inside back cover, he a dead-ringer for Frankenstein’s monster and she for Cruella de Ville. Mr Hysa writes in the introduction to the book “All visitors that we happened to host have really enjoyed the delicious Albanian dishes my wife served them. They couldn’t resist asking her to write down some of the recipes for them or urging her to open a restaurant that couldn’t but be a ‘smashing success’..”
Flicking through the book I came across “Spitroasted Lamb Entrails”, “Stuffed Beef Spleen”, copious references to frying in margarine and a Trahana soup whose principal ingredients are water, breadcrumbs and toast. This is not a straightforward cuisine to sell to the uninitiated and I wanted to shout to R.John Hysa “Don’t do it! Don’t open that restaurant – your guests were just being polite!” Nevertheless, the book is clearly set out and gives a real flavour of authentic Albanian cooking, though the recipes are a little sketchy. After a little searching within, I found a sweet rice pilaf, kabuni (see above). The use of meat stock in a sweet rice dish is unusual and the clove and cinnamon flavouring typically Albanian. I decided to complete the breakfast with some fruit – a pear compote with an Italian influenced lemon zest flavouring,also a filo pastry pie (byrek or burek- a similar word to the Turkish pie börek) and some thick natural yoghurt for which Albania, like Bulgaria is well known. Of all the dishes, the filo pastry pie with a feta and parsley filling was the most accessible and is probably the one I would cook again. Here’s the pie, fresh out of the oven:
All in all, an unusual breakfast which provided a geographical and historical insight into this enigmatic Balkan country.
The 3 recipes from “The Best of Albanian Cooking” are reproduced below in all their sketchy glory.
Kabuni – Sweet Rice and Raisin Pilaf
1 cup rice
1/4 cup butter
1 cup sugar
1 and 1/2 cups mutton or lamb bouillon
1/4 cup raisins
Ground cinnamon and ground cloves
Sauteé rice slightly in butter mixed with a teaspoon sugar. Add boiling bouillon and raisins. Simmer 10 minutes, mix with sugar and bake in moderate oven (350 degrees F) for 20 minutes. Remove from oven, sprinkle with cinnamon and cloves. Serve hot. 4 servings.
Jennifer’s notes: I used basmati rice which I soaked in cold water for 20 minutes before draining in a sieve and frying according to the recipe. I increased the bouillon quantity to two cups which are the usual proportions for a pilau or pilaf. I used a mixture of home-made chicken and beef bouillon rather than lamb as that was I happened to have in the fridge. I added the spices to the buttery rice before adding the stock rather than at the end of cooking and I also reduced the sugar quantity by about 1/4. I covered my pan with a lid before baking in the oven.
Byrek me gjizë – cottage cheese pie
1 and 1/2 cups salted cottage cheese
4 tablespoons chopped parsley
6 tablespoons melted butter or margarine
1 and 1/2 packets pastry leaves (phyllo dough)
Mix well cottage cheese, eggs, parsley and a bit salt, and use this mixture as filling for the pie. Use melted butter/margarine to brush the baking pan and to sprinkle pastry leaves. Prepare and bake the pie as in the recipe spinach pie (Brush the baking pan with some of the melted butter/margarine, and start laying pastry leaves, allowing the edges to get out of the baking pan for about one inch: lay two leaves, sprinkle or brush with butter/margarine, then lay two other leaves, and so on, until half of the leaves are laid. Spread the filling mixture over the laid pastry leaves. Finish laying the other half of pastry leaves, turn the edges of the bottom leaves over the pie, sprinkle with melted butter/margarine and bake in a moderate oven at 350 degrees F for about 45 minutes or until a golden brown crust is obtained.) 4 servings.
Jennifer’s notes: I used a single pack of Cypressa filo pastry and a single pack of crumbled feta cheese combined with half the quantity of other ingredients for the filling. I baked the pie in a deepish rectangular metal tin which it didn’t fill: the halved pastry sheets formed a rustic square shape which looked quite attractive. This pie was also good cold and survived well for a picnic.
Komposto dardhe – pears compote
2 pounds pears
3 tablespoons lemon juice
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon grated lemon rind
1/4 cup liqueur wine
Put peeled sliced pears with the cores removed into 2 cups cold water and lemon juice for 20 minutes. Simmer pear peels for 10 minutes in 4 cups water in another utensil, filter the liquid, add sugar and return the syrup to the sliced pears. Chill and stir in wine. Season with cloves.
Jennifer’s notes: I added sugar to the water and boiled this to make a syrup rather than adding sugar afterwards. Best to cool the syrup a little before pouring over pears as it made their edges turn soggy. Does it mean a teaspoon rather than a tablespoon of lemon rind? The lemon flavouring really lifts the pears and Marcella Hazan uses it in her Italian fruit salad or macedoine recipe – that Balkan influence again!
October 7, 2009 § Leave a comment
Watched the final programme in “Jamie’s American Road Trip” last night. He kicked off in Los Angeles for the first programme in the series on 1 September and concluded 6 weeks later on a Navajo reservation in Arizona. There’s a whole host of food programmes on the television at the moment – too many to contemplate watching all of them – I’d rather be cooking than slumped on the sofa! But I picked this series to watch because I’ve developed a healthy respect for American cooking since picking up David Rosengarten’s fantastic book “It’s All American Food”. Previously, I’d assumed American food was all peanut butter and jelly, McDonald’s and Taco Bell. How wrong can you be. I’d gone in search of a recipe for “Real Southern Cornbread” to serve with a Tex Mex chilli for a party – David Rosengarten came up with recipes that worked brilliantly for both in this comprehensive book. It has no photos but the recipes are detailed and they work and the seductive text draws you in and before you know it you’ve journeyed across America from Southern Breakfast Biscuits with Sausage Cream Gravy to Malasadas (Portuguese-Hawaiian Doughnuts) taking in Pho (Vietnamese Beef Soup with Herbs) and Extra-Crispy Potato Latkes along the way.
There is a similar ambition behind Jamie’s American Road Trip I think – an attempt to debunk the myth that American food means junk fund, and to show the diversity of American food brought about by a melding of different immigrant cuisines with that of the indigenous peoples.
The series succeeded up to a point but was a slightly odd mix of travelogue, anthropological study and cookery demo – think Alan Whicker meets meets Desmond Morris meets Fanny Craddock. I must say I found some of the faux inpromptu meetings a little improbable – Jamie receives a supposed off-the cuff invitation to a Mexican family party in Los Angeles (programme 1/6). “That’s Family..!” chunters Jamie for all the world like an extra from East Enders.
And that underground restaurant evening he threw in his New York apartment (programme 3/6). We were led to believe that these were just a few random punters who’d found Jamie’s word-of-mouth invite on the internet. But the crowd who turned up were a group of sleek, self-satisfied incredibly beautiful and well-groomed group of New Yorkers – straight out of central casting I don’t doubt.
Also the closing credits each week listed the cast of thousands supporting Jamie on this apparently solo trip. In particular, there were several food stylists – what on earth is a food stylist and how have I managed without one for so long? So, the picture of a lone traveller in a car was a fiction, but I enjoyed the series anyway. Jamie’s heart is in the right place and his tastebuds are sound.
But if you are really interested in buying a book that gives an insight into American Food, don’t buy Jamie’s glossy coffee table but get hold of a copy of David Rosengarten’s instead.
October 5, 2009 § Leave a comment
Our friends Emma and Andrew organise a trip to Clonter Opera each October for an ever-increasing group of friends and neighbours. Clonter is the Cheshire equivalent of Glyndebourne and strikes a harmonious balance between serious music-making and jolly social occasion. Clonter specialises in giving young singers fresh out of conservatoire a leg-up in establishing their careers. For example, we heard New Zealand bass baritone Jonathan Lemalu at Clonter a few years ago and he’s now made quite a name for himself as an up-and-coming artist.
Enough of music and onto the serious business of the food. What the Clonter audience usually does is arrive at 6.30 and unpack hampers onto the tables provided in the barn seating area for drinks, canapés and first course. The performance then starts at 7.30 with a 70 minute long supper interval, just long enough for main course and pudding. We’re old hands now and know there is never time or appetite for cheese or coffee so we cut the stress and don’t bother with these now.
We were a group of 19 this year and Emma asked me if I might do some platefuls of nibbles to hand round which would serve both as canapé and as first course without the need to be formally seated. Nice idea but allowing 5 items per person and rounding up, this would necessitate making 100 canapés which is a tall order for a busy Saturday afternoon. I set myself the additional challenge of theming the canapés with the opera which was Rigoletto.
The opera is set in Mantua and was given its first performance in Venice. There is plenty of drama in Verdi’s dark tale of debauchery and deception but it is light on frivolous drinking and feasting scenes. The dreadful climax of the opera comes when court jester Rigoletto realises that the body in the sack he is about to hurl into the river is not that of the evil Duke of Mantua, but that of his beloved only daughter Gilda.
A few minutes mulling over the opera plotline and I came up with the idea for Northern Italian finger-food featuring miniature filo pastry sacks. Is this in poor taste and taking theming a little too far? Yes probably but I’m afraid that is how my mind works…..
Anyway without dwelling overmuch on my foibles, the chosen canapé menu was:
Stuffed olives. Waitrose do some gorgeous large Kalkidis (sic) olives stuffed with fruit compôte – not entirely authentically Italian but nevertheless very good. Surely these should be spelt Halkidikis or at the very least Kalkidikis? Looks like a syllable has gone missing. Maybe I’ll write to Waitrose to point this out.
Twists of parma ham artfully spiralled around rustic breadsticks – both elements picked up at favourite local shop Goose Green Delicatessen
Bruschetta with Gorgonzola dolce, walnuts and slices of fresh pear (painstakingly dipped in lemon juice to stop them going brown)
Mozzarella, tomato and basil bites – individual buffalo mozzarella bocconcini balls threaded onto a cocktail stick with a mixture of red and yellow cherry tomatoes and a single perfect folded basil leaf
All the above were pretty straightforward to put together – essentially an assembly job with deli ingredients. The pièce de résistance was to be the Mantuan miniature filo pastry sacks – Mantuan because of the chosen filling of roast butternut squash, sage and parmesan. I visited Mantua on a tour of Northern Italy a few years ago now. Its most famous dish is Tortelli di Zucca – ravioli filled with pumpkin, served with a simple sauce of sage-flavoured butter. I took inspiration from this dish for my sacks. Butternut squash is a pretty good substitute for the local Mantuan pumpkin having the necessary sweetness and depth of flavour once it’s been given the roasting treatment. I cut the squash into chunks and tossed them in a tablespoon or so of olive oil into which I’d thrown a few snipped purple sage leaves from the garden and some sliced garlic cloves, then baked them in the oven for about an hour. My baked squash became intensely savoury before being incorporated into the filling for the filo pastry sacks.
Here is the beautiful orange squash ready to go into the oven:
And here are the finished canapés ready for serving on our Clonter picnic table. All disappeared in a fraction of the time they took to prepare.
Almost forgot to mention that the performance of Rigoletto was a triumph – fantastic singing and inspired casting. One of the best performances I’ve seen in ages.
The recipe of my own devising for the Mantuan filo pastry sacks follows. These would have been best served warm but were in fact still pretty good at room temperature having been transported from kitchen to Clonter.
Recipe for Mantuan filo pastry parcels
Makes 20 parcels
1 medium butternut squash, peeled, deseeded and cut into 1 inch chunks
8-10 sage leaves, roughly chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
2 tablespoons light olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 egg yolk
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
2 oz finely grated parmesan or grana padano
270g pack filo pastry sheets
2 oz melted butter, maybe more if required
Make the filling. Peel, deseed and chop the squash into chunks. In a large bowl, toss the chunks with the oil, sage and a little salt and pepper and tip the whole lot onto a shallow baking tray lined with baking paper to avoid the squash sticking. Bake at 200 degrees C until the squash is cooked through and is become deliciously slightly charred and toasty round the edges. Don’t take it too far – you are looking to intensify the squash flavour, not burn it.
Let the baked squash cool a little then tip it into a roomy bowl and go in with a crinkle-cut chip cutter to reduce the squash to a chunky not too smooth purée. Add the cheese, nutmeg, and egg yolk, mix, then taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. If you are concerned about eating raw egg yolk, do the tasting bit before mixing in the egg yolk.
Now form the parcels. Melt the butter in a small pan and allow to cool a little. From memory, the pastry packet contains 10 large sheets folded pastry. Begin by cutting these 10 sheets neatly in half to make 20. Put aside and cover 10 of these half sheets and work with the other 10. Filo pastry is very thin and dries out quickly so you need to keep covered what you are not using in the next few minutes. Cut your ten half sheets in half again to make 20 smallish squares.
For each parcel, take 2 squares and lay them out on a pastry board. Brush each square scantily with melted butter and lay one one on top of the other at a 90 degree angle to create a rough star shape. Place a generous teaspoon of the squash filling in the centre and pick up and roughly twist the pastry together to create a sack or money-bag effect. Dab the formed parcel with some additional melted butter. Place the completed parcel onto a metal baking sheet. Continue until you have 10 parcels then gauge whether you need some more melted butter and repeat the process with the other half of your pastry.
Bake the parcels at 180 degrees C for 15-20 minutes until the pastry is golden brown and becoming crisp in parts. Cool on a rack.
October 4, 2009 § Leave a comment
I had half an hour to kill between meetings earlier this week and that was how I came to be browsing the food and cookery section in University bookshop Blackwells on Oxford Road. I was thinking of adding a glossy coffee table book on the food of Venice to my already too-large collection of cookery books but decided to choose instead Michael Pollan’s slim paperback “In Defence of Food” .
I am so pleased I did. I’d heard of the book before when listening to Radio 4’s Food Programme but wasn’t sure what to expect. What I got was a compelling and well written read on the subject of what we should eat now to be healthy and escape the problematic elements of the Western Diet.
Pollan condenses the answer to the question he poses at the very beginning of the book: Eat Food. Mostly plant based. Not too much. Sounds simple doesn’t it? And the point Pollan makes is that it is simple and that we should learn to go back to what we already know about food, trust our instincts and not be swayed by the over-simple one-track nutrition messages.
The low fat message is an example Pollan singles out for attention in the chapter he calls “The Melting of the Lipid Hypothesis”. He concludes that the 30 year public health effort focusing on a single dietary goal – the reduction of fat in our diet – may well have made our health worse. This is because the hypothesis on which the dietary advice was given – that dietary fat is responsible for chronic disease – is at best simplistic and at worst just plain wrong. I’ve always instinctively shied away from the advice that we should eat fewer eggs – after all what could be wrong with choosing a boiled egg (supposedly bad because of its cholesterol levels) for breakfast rather than a bowl of high sugar high salt cereal (but of course able to make the magic low fat claim). And I have never willingly eaten margarine because I think butter tastes better, naturally distrusting the health claims made by margarine manufacturers.
So it is gratifying to read Pollan dissecting the lipid hypothesis, delicately pointing up the scandalous irony that it is the trans fats in margarine, the so-called “healthy alternative” touted to us all these years that is the real villain. Pollan summarises this idea as follows” the principal contribution of thirty years of official nutritional advice has been to replace a possibly mildly unhealthy fat in our diets with a demonstrably lethal one”. Hear hear!
So what does he mean by Eat Food? Pollan distinguishes between real food and food -like substitutes and gives tips on how to distinguish between them. As a guide, he suggests that we should avoid eating food products with more than five ingredients on the label. To illustrate his point he lists in full every ingredient in a loaf of Sara Lee Soft & Smooth White Bread – all 37 on them! It reads like a rather scary kind of poetry.
What about his advice that diet should be mostly plant based? Pollan runs through the by now familiar evidence that a healthy diet should be plant based but is objective enough to admit that we don’t necessarily know all the reasons why that should be the case. The good news is that some meat in the diet is OK, especially if we choose meat and dairy product from grass fed animals. One of Pollan’s points is that everything is linked – yes, you are what you eat, but what you eat is also what it eats – so an egg from a free-range hen eating a mixed diet is a very different thing from a battery product.
Pollan delivers his advice in a light and funny manner. Who wouldn’t smile on being told “Don’t get your fuel from the same place your car does”? He recognises the irony of an American lecturing the world on how to eat better. He’s never high-handed and earnest, yet his book is nevertheless soundly researched and based on good science as far as I can tell. Blimey, he even manages to get the Daily Mail on his side as a review on the back cover indicates!
This is essentially an optimistic book as Pollan reminds us that the best choices for our health also happen to be the best choices for the planet. As he says “That these also happen to be the most delicious choices is very good news indeed”.
With that thought in mind, I’m going to enjoy a boiled egg and real bread soldiers for breakfast now!