Tuesday, 31 March 2009

The Plight of the Honeybee

Remember the summers of our childhood when the air was heavy with the smell of flowers? Remember the birds singing and bees buzzing? Have you noticed anything missing these last few years? When is the last time you heard that lazy buzzing noise? And when is the last time you saw a honeybee?

If you are like most people, you rarely hear the sound of bees anymore. This spring, I’ve seen only one honeybee so far. By this time I really should have seen way more than that. This alarming trend started in 2006 and has been getting steadily worse every year. Now the population of honeybees worldwide is dwindling so rapidly there are fears it could be the start of a worldwide environmental crisis.

Most states in the US have been badly affected by Colony Collapse Disorder – where beehives go from healthy and active to dead and gone seemingly overnight. All over the northern hemisphere, bees are dying off in their thousands. From the US to the United Kingdom and on into Europe, the crisis deepens every year. Beekeepers are struggling to stay in business as they watch their hives empty and the price of honey goes up and up.

Colony Collapse Disorder occurs when worker bees from a beehive or bee colony just up and die or simply disappear. No one knows exactly why this happens although there are a number of possible reasons. Honeybees are affected by bacterial diseases and also by parasites including the small hive beetle and Tropilaelaps mites. Attempts have been made to control the bacterial diseases with antibiotics, but this is not always successful. In the case of mites, prevention is much better than cure as colony collapse occurs very quickly if bees are infected. These things are definitely contributing to the dwindling population of honeybees.

Other possible problems include the spread of genetically altered crops. The long term effects of these controversial crops – regarded as “genetically modified” by their detractors and “genetically enhanced” by those who approve of them – are still not known. The genetic modifications made to these plants could well be affecting the bee population. Certainly plants from some modified seeds do not contain as much pollen or nectar, which is a staple part of bees’ diets. Climate change may also be playing a role in the diminishing bee population, as may the disappearance of so much countryside caused by the building of new homes and roads in greenbelt areas. Research also suggests that the radiation generated by cell phones and cell phone broadcasting masts could be affecting the bees’ navigation systems, preventing them from finding their way back to their hives.

Now you may think a dwindling bee population is not that big a thing to be worried about. So the poor old bees are having a really rough time of it, as are the beekeepers and firms that market honey. But is that really such a big deal?

Definitely. Eighty percent of the fruit and vegetables that we eat rely on bees for pollination. Therefore, a reduction in the bee population means a reduction in the amount of food that can get to market. Even the animals we eat as food rely on plants for their food – plants that are pollinated by bees. Without them, the entire food chain could potentially break into separate links – and that could spell disaster for us all. Alfred Einstein is reputed to have said “If bees disappear, mankind will follow shortly after.”

Furthermore, bees also ensure the continued proliferation of various types of flowers which are relied upon by insects and butterflies for food. As much as we dismiss many insects as annoyances, they are a vital part of the food chain and of the world’s delicate environmental balance. We could also start to lose many species of birds if the insects they rely upon for food disappear. The disappearance of honeybees could have long reaching affects all the way through the food chain, from bottom to top. It’s a very frightening thing to contemplate.

Economically the consequences could be disastrous as well. In the United Kingdom alone the pollination of crops is valued at over 200 million pounds a year. Imagine what the figure would be for a country the size of the United States. Economic losses of that scale would be catastrophic. Governments the world over are investing money into research to help save honeybees, and large companies involved in honey production and marketing are investing substantial sums into bee health research. However, more needs to be done.

Thankfully there are things we as individuals can do to help to save the honeybees. One of the best things you can do is to plant a garden. Even if you only have a small space, grow some pots of flowers. I’m told honeybees are particularly keen on mint, flowering herbs, daisy shaped flowers (including asters and sunflowers) and also tall plants like foxgloves and hollyhocks. Trees are also a good source of pollen for bees, so if you have room, it’s worth planting some of those as well. Keep pavement to a minimum in your garden, and don’t even think about cutting down any existing trees. Encourage your local city council to grow flowers in any public open spaces and protest against any plans that might involve getting rid of large amounts of open green space. Write to local and national politician to highlight the plight of bees and encourage them to support research into honeybee disease prevention and cure. Last but not least, buy honey that is local to you, or at the very least made in the same country. Honey is shipped all over the world and imported honey can be absolutely delicious – but if local bees eat even small amounts of honey from discarded bottles and jars they can pick up germs they are not used to from them and die. If you must buy imported honey, be sure to dispose of the containers carefully, and if you are recycling them, wash them thoroughly in hot, soapy water before doing so.

Winnie the Pooh may have believed that the only reason for being a bee was to make honey, but bees play a much more important role in our world than that. Without them, catastrophic environmental and economic changes would occur, and even a reduction in their numbers presents a real threat. So whether you like honey or not, it’s time we all recognized the plight of the honeybees and worked together to ensure their continued survival. It’s a matter of life and death – and not just for the bees.

Sunday, 29 March 2009

Nobody's Perfect

I consider myself to be a pretty good cook. Most of the recipes I invent are successful, and people often compliment me on the food I serve. But every once in a while, I hit a rough patch. This time, it has lasted three days.

It started on Friday. I bake nearly all my own bread now. It saves money and my family absolutely loves it. Plus the house smells of fresh bread which is a bonus because it means people don’t notice if the house is messy. Fresh bread = domestic goddess - whether you are one or not. Because I am not superwoman, I use a bread machine to work this domestic magic, but the results are usually absolutely fantastic. Unfortunately, Friday afternoon they really weren’t. It didn’t help that I forgot to make bread until late in the afternoon and decided to use a rapid bake setting as we were going out in the evening. My second mistake was deciding to try using country grain flour for the first time. Why I didn’t just stick to one of my tried and true recipes I do not know. Usually when bread comes out of my bread maker, it is beautifully risen and golden brown. Not this loaf. You can see from the picture above, the results were not very good at all. The worst part was, not only did the loaf look bad, but despite the fact I had used the same weight of ingredients as normal, it was so heavy it felt like I had used lead to bake it. As soon as it cooled down, it went straight out on to the bird table. To be fair, the birds did enjoy it. I’m glad, because I sure would not have wanted to eat it!

I didn’t have to cook Saturday as we went out to dinner which actually was probably a good thing! Today, the 21st Century In-Laws came for Sunday lunch. I baked a cake which turned out beautifully for tea, but we actually ended up having it for dessert for lunch - because the crumble I baked for dessert came out of the oven inedible. Now, if there is one thing I can make, it is crumble. (If you are reading this in North America, crumble is like Apple Crisp; we make it with all kinds of fruit in England.) I must have made several hundred crumbles in my lifetime - from rhubarb to apple, using fresh or frozen fruit, all of them delicious. I used the same crumble topping recipe I always use and everything. But because my fan oven was full of the main course, I used the smaller, conventional oven at the top to make the crumble. I will NEVER do that again. I remember I baked a cake in the top oven once and it didn’t turn out well either, but clearly I forgot that this morning! The crumble came out of the oven with a doughy top, but it was so soft I could not even pass it off as a cobbler. It’s a good thing my in-laws are really nice people because they could have really teased me over this one. I mean, let’s face it, crumble is pretty basic! But everyone was lovely about it and raved about the cake, which I really appreciated because despite the brave face I put on it, I was extremely embarrassed! I mean, I write recipes and articles on food for heaven’s sake - you’d think I could manage a crumble!

Hopefully my rough patch has come to an end. (Seriously, all this bad things come in threes stuff is not what I want to hear right now!) I’ve baked another loaf of bread which turned out beautifully, and I have to say the main course at lunch was really delicious. I’m looking forward to salvaging my rather damaged reputation in the coming week. But if you are having a rough patch with cooking right now, please don’t get discouraged. It really does happen to everybody!

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

A Very Tasteful Mothering Sunday

Sunday was Mothering Sunday in England, and I was treated to a lovely lunch at The Boathouse at The Beetle and Wedge. It was a gorgeous day and we really enjoyed eating our lunch at this gem of a place on the edge of the Thames.

So many people picture the Thames the way it is often portrayed in films - dark, Dickensian and filthy. But the Thames we know is nothing like that. Sure, up in town where there is a lot of traffic on the river it is far from clean but when the sun shines on it it sparkles with a beautiful life of its own. It is interspersed by the bridges that link the North and South of the iconic city that is London. From the industrial and utilitarian Vauxhall Bridge, to the pink and blue painted Victorian fancy of the Albert Bridge, to Tower Bridge in all its' glory, each one of the many bridges that crosses this historic river has a personality all its own. But here in the Berkshire countryside, the Thames has an almost otherworldly beauty. Lined on both sides with trees, their lacy arms dripping into the water, and also by some most beautiful hills and countryside in England, the banks of the river are home to some amazing houses, pubs and restaurants. The bit of the Thames that runs through Moulsford (where The Boathouse is located) is stunningly beautiful. Perfect for "messing about in boats", the river twists and turns for miles and is home to hundreds of ducks, geese and swans.

Our in-laws discovered The Boathouse quite by accident one day years ago when driving through the Berkshire countryside. They were very impressed, so when we moved down here in 2007, we sought it out. Since then, we have had a number of delicious meals here.

The building itself really is an old boathouse. The upstairs part of the dining room has huge windows and looks out on to the river in all its glory; the downstairs affords a slightly more restricted view of the river, dominated as it is by a huge charcoal grill on which many of the dishes are cooked before your eyes.

Our table was downstairs on Sunday and we watched as the chef cooked a myriad of dishes over the flames. Beautiful pieces of lemon sole, sumptuous tiger prawns, juicy steaks and sides of lamb were all cooked in front of us. My husband had the sole and pronounced it delicious; my son was equally enthusiastic about his steak. I had roast salmon on a bed of spinach which was cooked in the kitchens upstairs and tasted just divine.

My son's favourite thing about The Boathouse is the appetizer (or starter as it is called here in England) that they make with duck breast. It is served in hoisin sauce and shredded over a gingered risotto cake. My son says it is one of his favourite dishes anywhere in the world - and from such a very well travelled lad that is praise indeed. Although I do not eat duck, the taste he gave me of the risotto was very impressive indeed. I would never have thought of flavouring something Italian with ginger, but the results speak for themselves.

I think my favourite thing about The Boathouse (aside from the location) is the desserts. So far, I have always had their sticky toffee pudding. It is different than traditional sticky toffee pudding in that it is served in slices and also in that it is served with whipped cream and a toffee sauce that is almost butterscotchy. I adore it. I have been lucky to always find it on the menu as their desserts do change regularly. They usually offer a choice of at least eight desserts - everything from traditional pies and tarts, to interesting takes on the more old school puddings, like my sticky toffee pudding. On Sunday my husband had a steamed treacle pudding that reminded him of the ones his Great Auntie Connie used to make. Crême brulée and mango cheesecake were also on offer. But if the choice is too overwhelming you can always have a delicious tray of cheese and biscuits!

Afterwards we wandered down the banks of the Thames for a little bit, taking in the lovely weather and gorgeous scenery. It really is a wonderful restaurant in a gorgeous setting.

It always seems slightly odd to me having Mother’s Day in March as coming from North America I was used to celebrating this day in May. When my Mom was alive, I used to send her cards on both occasions and flowers on the day in May. The reason we celebrate Mothering Sunday in March in England is based on two historic traditions. One was that a day in March was the only day young people in service were given as holiday to go and visit their mothers. As they walked through the fields on their way home, they would gather flowers from the hedgerows to present to their mothers when they arrived. There was also the old tradition of returning, on the middle Sunday in Lent (almost always in March) to one’s Mother Church - either the church attended as a child or the main cathedral in the area where you lived.

For some odd reason, the British media and even some ordinary folk here often make fun of the idea of Mother’s Day being in May in North America and also of its more secular origins. Of course, people in North America - all of us immigrants at one time or another, would have had difficulty returning to their “mother church” without a long and dangerous journey across the seas, so that tradition was pretty much dispensed with, making the choice of another day - in much finer weather later in the year - a lot more sensible. I don’t think it matters when you celebrate the day to be honest, but it is very nice to have a special day just to say thank you to your mum (or mom!) and treat her to something nice - or to remember her if she is no longer with you.

Here in England, more and more people are referring to Mothers’ special day as Mother’s Day instead of Mothering Sunday, partly as our society becomes more secular and also as we are influenced more and more by the wider world. Whatever we call it or however we celebrate, how wonderful to have a day where we can thank those who mean so much to us and treat them to something special in return for everything they have done for us. Here’s to mothers the world over - those that are here and those who have gone - and to those of us who are mothers now for everything we are and everything we do.

“Being a mother is the hardest job on earth. Women everywhere must declare it so.” Oprah Winfrey

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Dinner at Westminster

It was everything I dreamed it would be. The Houses of Parliament are beautiful, inside and out. We had a wonderful tour with a gentleman who was a real character. Nearing retirement, he delighted in regaling us with tales of the goings on at Westminster, past and present. He knew so much about the building it was quite amazing and the stories he told gave us an insight into the real day to day life there.

Westminster Hall is the only part of the building to survive from the original palace, completed in 1099. Standing under the immense ceiling, held up by beams of English oak, you feel almost overwhelmed by the history. In this hall, King Henry VII presided over feasts, King Charles I, William Wallace and Guy Fawkes learned of their horrible fates and King George V, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and Winston Churchill lay in state. As you go on up the massive stairway and on through from here you walk through halls lined with statues, where suffragettes chained themselves as they attempted to obtain the vote for women. Then you come upon the most amazing lobbies outside the House of Commons and the House of Lords, ornately decorated with beautiful ceilings and wall decorations. The House of Commons is smaller than I expected, but walking past the Speaker’s Chair and standing by the dispatch boxes is an experience I will not soon forget. The House of Lords is almost overwhelming in its beauty, the walls lined with oak and the 22 carat gold encrusted throne at the back of the room. It is just awesome, in the original sense of the word!

Dinner was in the Members’ Dining Room, and it was absolutely delicious. I have heard Members of Parliament complain about the food served here but they must be jesting because what we ate was absolutely delicious. Red mullet on a bed of couscous with leeks was the appetizer, followed by a main course of corn fed chicken on risotto with snow peas. Both were absolutely delicious, even the risotto was perfectly al dente, which when you are serving 160 people is no mean feat. Dessert was a light and dark chocolate cake that was absolutely wicked, the light chocolate a perfect foil to the dark, and all of it just sweet enough. It was light and delicious, something not many chocolate desserts can boast. Coffee was served afterwards with tiny handmade chocolates and sweets.

As we walked out of the Palace of Westminster through the courtyard after the dinner had finished, we looked up to see Big Ben from an angle I have never enjoyed before. We were looking at it from inside as opposed to outside. The iconic clock was gorgeous from this angle and as it bonged eleven o’clock I felt so grateful for the opportunity to spend time in such an amazing place.

We wandered back to the hotel and topped it all off with a champagne cocktail. It was an absolutely wonderful evening.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Credit Crunch Aromatherapy

I think most people would agree that the smell of freshly baked bread is probably one of the nicest smells on earth. It’s inviting, warming and comforting all in the same moment. There is nothing like walking through the door of your home and experiencing that wonderful smell. But in today’s busy world, that is a pretty rare occurrence.

Baking bread has slipped, along with things like knitting and needlepoint, into the realm of those things most people rarely do. Baking bread takes time and patience; waiting while the bread rises, not just once, but often twice. Then you have to hang around while it bakes. Who on earth has time to do that these days?

Actually, pretty much everyone does – with a bit of help. You see, although there is nothing like a loaf of bread made “the old fashioned way”, if time prevents you from doing this, you really should invest in a bread machine.

The bread machines of today are a far cry from the ones first marketed in Japan in 1986 that came to North America about a year later. Although they do still have their distinctive shape, loaves made in bread machines taste better and have a better texture than the ones machines used to make years ago. Although the cycles on the bread machines can be fairly long, the amount of labour involved in making bread in a machine is minimal. It only takes about five minutes to measure the ingredients and put them in the machine. Once you have got them in there, shut the lid and turned the machine on, it takes care of itself for the rest of the bread making cycle, requiring absolutely no input from you. Today’s machines also offer more options in terms of what they will do. My new bread machine even automatically releases any fruit or nuts I might want to add to my bread so I no longer have to listen out for the “raisin beep”, to know when it is time to add anything extra. Once the bread is baked, the only effort required is to remove it from the machine to cool. From making dough and baking quick breads to whipping up something that borders on artisanal, today’s bread machines are a domestic boon.

You can make many different types of bread at home. Years ago, you could only get two types of bread flour in the supermarket – white or brown. Now most supermarkets carry a much larger selection – from malty granary flour to crunchy seeded flours. You can even buy organic and speciality flours from small producers without having to travel miles and miles. My local supermarket specialises in several special flours from small producers, my favourite of which is a Stoneground Rye flour that makes the most amazing loaves.

The other wonderful thing about making your own bread is the money it saves. Often when I run into the supermarket for ”just a loaf of bread”, I come out with so much more than that. I’m tempted by the special offers and come out with things I don’t really need, having spent four or five times what I intended to. Not only that, but the cost of making your own bread is far cheaper than buying it. For about half the price of buying one loaf already baked, you can buy a bag of flour that will make two to three loaves.

I decided to try an experiment a few weeks ago to see just how much money I could save if I did not buy any loaves of bread and made all my bread in the machine instead. I normally buy about four loaves of bread per week, two white and two whole grain and I might also buy a fifth loaf of something a little bit special, either a fruit loaf or an artisanal loaf like a French stick or ciabatta bread. During the two week experiment, I baked all my own bread in the bread machine – every single loaf.

I was able to fit in baking the bread either in the early evening, or in some cases I would use a “rapid bake” cycle that allowed me to make my bread during the day. I really did not find it an onerous process, and estimate that making my own bread took me the sum total of about a half an hour’s work each week. So I was not time poor and I was definitely finding myself saving the pennies.

In fact, the results were quite shocking. After a two week period, I calculated that by making my own bread I was saving in excess of £5 (that is about $7) per week. When I multiplied that by 52 weeks, I realised that baking my own bread regularly would save me the equivalent of about 350 US dollars a year. That is some serious dough. (You’ll have to forgive me the pun, I just couldn’t resist.)

The best thing was we used the entirety of every loaf, not one slice was thrown out. Store bought bread does not have as long a shelf life as many other products and due to this, and the fact that we all like different kinds of loaves, I would often find myself throwing away more ends of leftover store bought loaves than I would like as well. By baking as and when I needed it, I was saved from the tyranny of “use by” dates and pretty well eliminated any bread waste in our house. I also became a lot more confident in terms of the loaves I baked, and by the end of the second week, my family were enjoying a larger variety of breads made with some very interesting flours, including spelt and even a gluten free version. And before you start to worry about our waistlines, we were not eating any more bread than we had been before, as we were consuming the same number of slices as we did when we were eating store bought bread.

Baking your own bread can also be healthier than buying it. Store bought bread is notorious for containing more salt than it needs to. You do need salt in a loaf for it to raise properly, but you do not need the amount that mass produced bread contains. Most home baking recipes for bread do not contain that much salt, and I make a practice of using less than is called for anyway. In fact, not one of the loaves I bake contains more than a quarter of a teaspoon of salt, which is about a quarter of the amount most store bought breads contain.

Buying a bread machine could very well change your life. For a relatively small investment (certainly much less than you will save over the course of a year), you can have hot, fresh and healthy bread on your table and save yourself money in the bargain. I even found it help me to avoid wasting food as not only did I never have to throw away stale bread but I also found recipes for bread that allowed me to use up other leftovers, from apple juice (in a yummy apple cinnamon bread) to cheese (in a cheddar and ale loaf that was utterly delicious).

Although we are all watching our pennies in the credit crunch, a bread machine is a very wise investment. Buy the best you can afford and enjoy the fruits of your labours, safe in the knowledge that you are saving yourself money, avoiding waste and even being healthier in the bargain. You will also be treating treating your taste buds and enjoying some serious aromatherapy!

Friday, 13 March 2009

The Occasional Vegetarian

I was one of those weird kids who really liked vegetables. Well, except Brussel spouts and lima beans, whose bitterness and squishy texture respectively really put me off. But I loved every other vegetable I tasted– even the ones most kids find strange like asparagus and zucchini. One of my favourite dinners in the summer was a plate of steamed asparagus with a couple poached eggs on top – delicious!

My husband was not that keen on vegetables when I met him, but it did not take him long to be converted to the pleasures of this delicious food group. It was no surprise that our son turned out to be a vegetable lover too. In fact, he loves them so much he actually converted my husband and I – confirmed Brussel sprouts haters – to the pleasures of this much maligned vegetable. I think I’m the only Mom in history to have stood in a supermarket with a child begging me to buy Brussel Sprouts. (Yes, it’s true and yes, I know how lucky I am!) The only vegetable my son will not eat now is eggplant, and for a sixteen year old, that is amazing.

When folks come to dinner in our house they often comment on the sheer quantity of vegetables I serve. Even if the main course is meat, there will be loads of vegetables on the side – and not just potatoes either. I usually serve at least three other vegetables and lots of them. Why? It’s because we almost always have seconds of vegetables. Frankly, my son could eat an entire saucepan of broccoli all by himself, although I hasten to add he never has.

What’s my secret? Well, I buy the freshest vegetables I can – or use frozen – and I cook them lightly. While I rarely salt my vegetables, I don’t hesitate to season them or drizzle them with a little butter or olive oil. The other thing I do is treat vegetables as far more than an accompaniment.

At least three nights a week in our house, our main meal is composed entirely of vegetables. Whether it is saffron scented paella, a rich vegetable stew or a ratatouille pasta dish, we have absolutely no need for meat on those evenings. Having said that, it took me a long time to work up my courage to cook vegetarian meals. I don’t know why as I have always cooked a wide variety of foods from many different countries. Somehow I just envisaged vegetarian cooking as being full of nut roasts (not my favourite thing) and lentils (again, not a favourite). I was wrong.

It started about ten years ago when we moved house and met a new friend who was vegetarian. We went to her house for dinner and enjoyed an absolute feast – four courses of food that were entirely vegetarian – and every one of them delicious. I wanted to invite her back to our house for dinner but did not know where to start, so I bought a copy of Linda McCartney’s vegetarian cookbook “Linda’s Kitchen”. This book was a treasure trove of delicious recipes. From her wonderful paella to her delicious chili non carne, I was hooked. Not only did I invite our friend for dinner (on numerous occasions!), I started to cook from Linda’s Kitchen quite a lot just for us.

So why not just become vegetarians? Well, the problem is we really, really like meat. I’d miss roast chicken and bacon particularly. Also, provided meat is humanely raised – I only ever buy free range meat – my ethics do not preclude me eating it. I do feel very strongly that meat must be raised ethically though. I have no patience for battery eggs, or chickens that have been raised without ever seeing the light of day. I like my meat to taste the way it does when the animals have been able to graze and roam around a farm. I know that the very act of killing animals for food is cruel, but at least free-range animals have had a nice life up till that point.

Sadly there is no getting away from the fact that free range meat is more expensive than intensively farmed stuff, and this, aside from our love of vegetables, is part of what has led us to eating at least three meat free meals a week. Actually, I really prefer the terminology “meat free” to “vegetarian”. I feel a bit of a cheat saying vegetarian when it is not a question of ethics and a life choice for me, which being a vegetarian definitely is for many people.

While I may not be a proper vegetarian, I do seek out vegetarian restaurants wherever we go and I love how this sector of catering has expanded and developed over the last few years. Café Paradiso in Cork, Ireland is a huge favourite of mine, although it is hundreds of miles away from where I live. My son says he had the best meal of his life there, meat free or otherwise. If that isn’t a testament to its greatness, I don’t know what is. Of course there is the iconic Cranks in London, Candle 79 and the Candle Café in New York and The Chicago Diner in (you guessed it!) Chicago. And when we eat in mainstream restaurants, I always want to know what the vegetarian – oops sorry - “meat free” option is.

I was pleased to read that eating meat free a few times a week is not just good for my pocketbook, it is also good for my health and the environment. Eating less meat can mean that you consume less saturated fat, which is a big health benefit. Many doctors argue that you reduce your risk of some pretty nasty diseases by consuming only moderate quantities of lean meat. Furthermore, meat production accounts for nearly one-fifth of all greenhouse gasses. The UN reported that if everyone had even one meat free day a week, the benefits to the environment would be huge. Meat production requires resources, from water to fossil fuels, and can pollute rivers and lakes.

Being “Occasional Vegetarians” really works as a lifestyle for my family and I. Although it is a choice based primarily around taste and not for reasons of ethics or health, I do feel good about how our choice impacts on the environment and how it helps to reduce our carbon footprint. It’s also a delicious way to eat more healthily. I heartily recommend embracing the “Occasionally Vegetarian” lifestyle – it’s a change you won’t ever regret.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

The Importance of Cake

I have some wonderful memories, and if I am honest, a lot of them involve cake. Let’s face it; cakes play a role in many of the pivotal events in our lives. From the cake at our Christening or naming ceremony, to our birthday cakes, to the cake that is served at our wedding, they are a part of most celebrations. Having said all that, cakes are also something that can be very every day – making the ordinary memorable, a creative expression that brings pleasure to all concerned. A slice of simple loaf cake with a cup of tea after a hard day brings new meaning to the words “comfort food” – and a slice of coffee cake with a cup of the matching beverage is a decadent treat that makes any ordinary morning decidedly special.

The first cake I really remember properly was a train cake my Mom made for my third birthday in Canada. There was a decoration that wrapped round the cake, with cute pictures of trains on it and candles and decorations on top of the cake that echoed that. I vividly remember looking at it sitting on the table in front of me with its three candles lit. I was so tiny my chin was virtually at table height, so my three year old eye line was just at cake level, and the cake filled my whole field of vision. The multicoloured train carriages fascinated me. The next cake I remember was one with a set of plastic Cinderella decorations on top of it. In the froth of the icing were nestled an elaborate horse drawn coach, a beautiful Cinderella wearing pretend glass slippers, a few mice and even a handsome Prince. I loved that cake too – in fact I played with the decorations for months afterwards. From there we moved on to store bought cakes, decorated with beautiful icing roses. Remember those icing roses that decorated most of the cakes in the seventies? They looked so beautiful and delicious, and all the kids always wanted one. This led to quite a lot of arguments at the table, despite the fact that the roses really did not taste very good at all, and were often so hard that they posed a real danger to the teeth!

Another cake that brings back memories for me is the Almond Cake that was made by The Knotty Pine Restaurant in Cambridge, Ontario. Composed of thin layers and iced with a creamy almond icing, this was my favourite cake for years. I remember it was often served at my paternal grandfather’s birthday parties. It’s teeth aching sweetness was a perfect foil to the flaked almonds that were scattered over the top. Apparently I was not the only one who loved this cake, as some years after the Knotty Pine closed, a local paper managed to find their chef who thankfully was willing to part with the recipe. Not surprisingly, the recipe reveals a cake that requires a great deal of effort and a huge number of ingredients. I have yet to actually make it, but I often take the clipping out of my recipe file and stare at it wistfully!

Later on, there was my wedding cake, a four-tier extravaganza decorated with fresh roses. I saw it in a bridal magazine and was delighted to find that the company that created it were located in London, England where I lived by then. I was able to have the exact cake I had seen in print. I remember I wanted four tiers because we needed two to serve our wedding guests and two to save. It is traditional in England to save the top tier of your wedding cake for your first child's Christening but as I envisaged having two children it seemed only fair to have two extra tiers. In the event, only one of the tiers got used – and the same bakery stripped off the icing and re-iced it, decorating it with a cute blue teddy bear. Much to my amazement it did taste really lovely, although by that time it was almost two years old. The cake that tasted even better than that though was one made and decorated by my cousin to serve at a party to celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary. She made it as a gift to us and frankly, I was not the only one who preferred it to our wedding cake!

But some of the nicest cakes can be cakes that are not made for any occasion in particular. They are the loaf cakes we serve in the afternoon with a cup of tea, or the layer cake we make up one afternoon for no reason in particular. In fact, it is often the simplest of cakes that bring the most pleasure. A plain Madeira cake is one of the most delicious recipes I know, and an easily made walnut cake is a real joy to taste. Squares of carrot cake with cream cheese icing are a cure for almost any ailment of the soul and the iconic “Busy Day Cake” with it’s broiled coconut topping has been the saviour of many a harassed housewife needing a quick dessert.

Cake makes an ordinary day extraordinary. One of my favourite traditions is the “birthday cake for breakfast” tradition following on from any birthday celebration and guaranteed to salve any post-birthday let down. Imagine my chagrin when, after my first birthday in England I discovered that this tradition had not yet caught on there. The morning after my birthday, my husband to be looked on open mouthed as I cut a slice of cake. He could not understand the logic of eating cake for breakfast. As far as he, and most of the population of England was concerned, cake was for tea time. Being always on a diet, tea time was a dietary luxury I could not really afford, so I braved his disapproval and enjoyed my breakfast. Even twenty years later, my husband will only watch my son and I eat birthday cake for breakfast, shuddering slightly as he does so, and still will not partake of it himself. At least he now does concede that the calorie saving of eliminating a meal to enjoy the cake – while not nutritionally sound – is unarguably true.

Actually, the British have many different traditions when it comes to cake. Up until recently cake was rarely served as a dessert – in fact when I served a home-made cake at a dinner party some years ago I got some very funny looks. One guest even took pains to tell me that it was “not the done thing”. Ouch. Thankfully in recent years, some of the more progressive celebrity chefs have encouraged the serving of cake – or even cupcakes – as desserts at dinner parties, much to my intense relief and joy.

I have also made it a personal mission during my years in Merry Old England to convert the population to the serving of ice cream with cake. You see, the British are partial to pouring cream over their slices of cake – a practice which makes me shudder in a way not dissimilar to my husband’s shudders when I eat cake for breakfast. Why pour something over a beautiful cake that will make it soggy? Yuk. Still, the idea of cake served a la mode is something that puzzles many Brits. The first few times I served ice cream instead of cream I was met with confusion and disappointment. However, on tasting the delicious creaminess of the frozen dessert alongside the cake my guests were quickly reassured, and it has become not only a tradition in our house, but indeed an oft requested one.

One of my favourite varieties of cake to make is cupcakes. These mini mouthfuls of gorgeousness are so easy to make and decorating them is such fun. You see, I’ve never got the hang of elaborate cake decorations, and cupcakes allow me to be really creative without the pressure of decorating a whole cake. Although my cakes are famous amongst family and friends, I have never been known for my decorating skills and to this day if someone request a birthday cake made by me they will find it creamily iced and decorated with sweets or candies. I don’t do writing or paste decorations – I know my limits! Having said that, I will never forget the faces of the children (and adults) for whom I have made these cakes – being confronted with that many sweeties pressed into the icing of a cake is never a disappointment!

But finally, and above all, cakes are for me an antidote to the stresses of modern living. Although like all great things, it is necessary to enjoy them in moderation, cakes are a big part of my life. Cake baking is therapy, one that has brought me huge comfort during some very difficult times. The pleasure a homemade cake brings to other people is so rewarding, it makes you feel like all is well with the world, even when it isn’t. Cake baking is also great fun, and something to enjoy during times of celebration as well. Then of course, there is the very best bit – the eating. How an alchemy of eggs, butter, flour and a few other ingredients can create something that gives such pleasure will always be a mystery to me. But it is a mystery I am very happy to continue to try to solve!

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

The Ethics of Eating in the 21st Century

This might be a bit of a personal question, but do you buy free range or organic meat? Your answer is more important than you might think. I know it all seems like a bit much to be asked this sort of question during a time of economic meltdown. Not only that, but it seems like every week there is a new scandal around some sort of food, particularly meat. I mean, aside from luxury meats, like foie gras and veal, there really is no reason to be concerned about animal welfare is there? It can’t be that bad.

Wrong. While we were busy focusing on veal calves, ducks and geese, many other animals destined for our plates continue to be raised using intensive farming methods that are quite shocking.

This next bit is not pretty – in fact if you are of a sensitive disposition you might want to skip this paragraph entirely. But I hope you don’t, because it is something you really need to know. Here goes. Intensively farmed chickens spend their short lives in windowless sheds confined to a space about eight inches square. They can hardly move, and the bedding they are placed on often becomes so saturated with their own urine that the ammonia burns their legs. There are 850 million chickens destined for the plate produced in the United Kingdom a year and of these over ninety-five percent are intensively farmed. The statistics are even worse in North America. Turkeys have been intensively farmed for years, and spend much of their short lives in long windowless barns, crammed in so tightly that they barely have room to move. Pigs are also farmed intensively all over the world. In many cases, sows spend the majority of their lives in gestation crates which are only seven feet long and two feet wide, being bred intensively, one litter after the other until they are slaughtered two or three years later. Piglets, taken from their mothers at as little as ten days old, are often raised in crates until they are similarly slaughtered.

At this point, you might mistake me for a newly converted animal rights activist or at the very least, a vegetarian, but I am neither of these. However, I am becoming more and more concerned about where the meat I eat comes from and how it gets to my plate because the sad fact is, unless you are buying free range or organic meat, it’s almost certain that the meat you are eating has come from an animal that has not had a very nice life at all.

In the UK, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Jamie Oliver and others have attempted to highlight the plight of many of our farm animals and awareness is slowly growing. The refusal of some American chefs (including Wolfgang Puck) to serve veal and pork from animals reared in crates has helped raise public awareness in North America. But we still have a long way to go. Most of us buy intensively reared meat and poultry on a regular basis, especially in these days of economic woe. Many of us choose to turn a blind eye to how the meat we buy gets from the farm to the supermarket shelves, not necessarily out of ignorance, but out of what appears to be necessity. And the more demand we create for cheap meat, the more animals will have really horrible lives. I mean, it’s bad enough we kill them in the end, shouldn’t we make sure they at least have a nice life?

But what can we do? We are all on tight budgets, and frankly don’t we have enough to worry about? How can we make a difference if the organic and free-range choices on offer are simply too expensive for us?

The answer is an easy one, but it is one many people find hard to swallow. The last thing we need right now is someone telling us we have to choose the more expensive option. It’s just not practical when times are tight. Plus it’s hard for a generation raised to believe in the wisdom of 16 ounce steaks and endless buckets of chicken wings to embrace the idea that less is more – in difficult times, it is easy to believe that quantity equals abundance and abundance equals security. However the plain truth is most of us eat far too much meat anyway - more than we need, indeed more than is good for us. I put it to you that it is better to only eat meat three or four times a week, using your meat budget to buy humanely raised meat, than to eat meat every day and claim you cannot afford to buy the humanely raised stuff.

Before you panic, please be reassured. I regularly cook delicious and nutritious meat free meals without any need for meat or meat substitutes. I simply cook with vegetables, rice, pasta and beans and we just don’t miss the meat. I entertain a lot and my guests don’t miss the meat either. There are lots of recipes out there for delicious vegetarian meals. When we do eat meat, we really enjoy it, safe in the knowledge that it has been ethically produced. On average, my family eats four main meals containing meat a week, and three that don’t. We are happier and healthier for it and I stay within my budget.

If this argument has had no effect on you, let me appeal to your taste buds. Free-range meat really does taste better – not just a little bit better, but a lot better. In fact, once you taste free-range meat, the difference between it and the intensively reared stuff is glaringly obvious. Free range chicken is more tender and has more flavour because the chickens eat what chickens are supposed to eat, not pelletised food that contains goodness knows what. Pork from free-range pigs is leaner and more delicious as the pigs actually use their muscles instead of being cooped up, and as for free-range turkey – well it is utterly different from the almost flavourless intensively reared stuff. Seriously, try it and see.

Free range and organic meat is also better for you. For the most part the animals are fed a vegetarian diet, and live in cleaner conditions. Do you really want to eat an intensive raised chicken whose legs were burned by its own urine?

If consumers begin to demand ethically raised meat from supermarkets, the lives of animals and humans will be improved no end. The animals will live happier lives and we humans will be better off as well eating healthy amounts of meat that has been raised carefully without cruelty. If demand decreases for cheap meats, then hopefully farmers that are using intensive methods will be encouraged to change.

It’s a challenge, but as a society, we need to change our whole attitude towards meat in order to allow us to start using our power as consumers to end the cruel practices that exist in parts of the farming industry today. Intensive farming is affecting not just the animals, but also our own health and our environment. It’s time to encourage the industry to begin to move towards raising all the animals destined for our plates ethically and without cruelty by using our purchasing power to demand more free range, ethically produced meat. And the best way to do that is by buying it.