And Now For Something Completely Different – are you an aspiring smallholder?

One of the nice things about writing a blog is that people email you out of the blue from time to time to say nice things about it. Often they want to sell you something, of course, but isn’t that the Internet all over? Anyway, today I got a message from Eve White, who works in programme development at the BBC; as well as being ever so nice about the blog, she wondered if I knew anyone who might be able to help them out finding a family to participate in a programme they’re making.

Now, this isn’t really the kind of blog where I’d normally post this sort of request, but I just have sneaky suspicion that this might suit some of my lovely readers here down to the ground – so, if you’re considering taking on a smallholding or wanting to take bigger steps towards a self sufficient lifestyle, listen up, this may be for you!

Copied below is Eve’s email to me and her contact details. Please contact her directly, if you’re interested in participating, as she won’t be checking comments here!


My name is Eve and I work in the programme development team in BBC Bristol. We’re looking at a new daytime programme idea featuring Paul Martin (antiques expert who presents the BBC1 show ‘Flog It!’ – but also happens to be a smallholder) whereby families thinking of leaving behind the urban life for a new one in the countryside try their hand at smallholding challenges at Paul’s home.

It might be that you and your family have always dreamt of giving everything up to move to your own piece of land in the countryside, or that you’ve climbed the career ladder for long enough and want the chance to become self-sufficient, or that being a smallholder has always been pushed aside in the face of the reality of your day-to-day lives.

We are looking to film what’s known as a taster tape – a short preview film to give a flavour of how the programme might look and feel – with Paul and a family who are considering this change of lifestyle in around two weeks time. This isn’t for broadcast, but will help show our commissioners the potential for a brand new series for BBC1. This will involve a bit of filming with you to find out more about why you’d like to leave the rat race and move to the country, and some hands-on practical smallholding challenges at Paul’s farm in the south west.

We’re looking to film in about two weeks time on the 21st September, so you’d need to be available then.

If you think you and your family might be up for the challenge, or have somebody in mind who you would recommend, please get in touch via my email address eve.white@bbc.co.uk and I will respond as promptly as possible.


So, if that sounds like you, and you fancy the experience of TV without the stress of actually ending up on the box, why not drop Eve a line?

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The Eurovision Drinking Game – 2015 Edition

Hi! You’ve arrived at the archived 2015 Edition of the Countryskillsblog.com Eurovision Drinking Game. For the fully updated 2016 Edition, click here!

Well, folks, it’s that time of year again! The 60th Eurovision Song Contest will take place in Vienna, Austria, this coming Saturday May the 23rd. Where has the time gone?

This game is becoming a bit of a fixture on the blog, and slowly but surely is gathering a loyal following! Last year the Dutch broadcaster Pow.ned even recommended it to their viewers as part of their Eurovision coverage. How about that then?

Flags!Like so many good and worthwhile ideas, these rules started life at a university party, well over a decade ago. They have been carefully curated and updated over the years, and play-tested by a number of kind ‘volunteers’, some of whom even recalled enough the next morning to provide helpful feedback and suggestions! So, without further ado, I present to you – The Countryskillsblog.com Eurovision Drinking Game, 2015 Edition.

How to play –

This is a forfeit game. A variety of features of songs and the performances have been selected, and their appearance triggers a drinking forfeit. This is usually (but not always!) ‘take a swig’.

Shot glassesIt’s a really good idea to divide up the countries and songs between your players. You might do this by ballot, draw straws before each song, or adopt some other creative or arcane method of your choice. Smaller parties may chose not to allocate a player to every songs. All of the players playing for every song is likely to result in unpleasant consequences, and cannot be recommended!

The Competition –

Begin any song that you are playing with a fully-charged glass.

Certain features of the song and performance trigger a forfeit. These features can appear more than once in a performance (and sadly, often do!) and ‘score’ each time they appear – so the now legendary ‘Bucks Fizz’ skirt removal would represent a single costume change, because it happened in one go, but a song that repeatedly swaps languages or makes major-to-minor-and-back-again key transitions triggers a forfeit on each switch.

Take a drink for each instance of the following:

The song –

  • OrchestraChange of language
  • Change of key (take an extra swig if the key change is so egregiously telegraphed you can see it coming for miles)
  • Change of tempo
  • Wordless lyrics (da dum da, mana mana mana, lalalala)

The performer, costume and performance –

  • Folk DancersPerformer(s) not of nationality represented
  • Folk costume
  • Folk instrument
  • Folk dance
  • Weapons (with an extra-big swig if they’re ‘folk’ weapons – axes, pitchforks, flaming torches etc)
  • Uniforms – military & civil (including costume references to same – epaulettes, insignia, military-looking hats and suchlike)
  • Dubious uniformsOffice wear, three-piece-suits
  • Flags, banners, national symbols
  • Pyrotechnics, smoke, fog
  • Costume change
  • Bare feet, bare torsos
  • Underwear as outerwear
  • Spandex, lurex, sequins
  • Leather, rubber, PVC, bondage wear
  • LEDs or other lighting incorporated into costumes
  • Feather BoaFur, feathers, wings
  • Trapeze or wire-work
  • Magic, circus themes
  • ‘Booby Prize’ – if the performer does not appear to be human (note this rule applies whether or not the performer is human underneath!) – down the remains of your drink!

‘Fair Dinkum’ bonus 60th Anniversary Australian rule set –

In this auspicious 60th Eurovision year, we wish our friends from Down Under a warm G’day and welcome. Australia grants the Eurovision Song Contest similar cult status to back here in Blighty – as an international Gay Pride event and an excuse for a darn good piss-up. This year, our Australian friends have been invited to join in the fun as special guests! So for one year only (unless they win, of course, and get to come back next year) here are some ‘Fair Dinkum’ bonus rules to help get you absolutely roaring.

Australian ClicheAh, that beautiful Land Down Under, where blokes wrestle crocs or kangaroos while wearing hats with corks hanging off them. Gorgeous bronzed sheilas surfing on Bondi beach. Koalas, kookaburras, gum trees. Waltzing Matildas. Very large red rocks in the outback. Vegemite, tinnies, and prawns on the barbie. And all while upside down!

  • For any reference to an Australian cliché or stereotype by Graham Norton (or your national broadcast commentator), everyone takes a swig.
  • ‘Booby Prize’ – In the event that an Australian stereotype is referenced on the Eurovision stage (or Green Room), everyone downs the rest of their drink.

The half-time performance (or the ‘Riverdance’ slot) –

The host country puts on a performance on during the ‘voting gap’. Everyone plays for this segment, using the same forfeit list as for the songs.

For your convenience, I have made a ‘cut-out-and-keep’ forfeit card. Aren’t I thoughtful? Click for the full-size version, print it out and hand out copies at your party, or save to your mobile devices and share the Eurovision love!

Cut out and keep forfeit card

Graphics for the cut-out-and-keep forfeit card are use under Creative Commons licenses, see links for details: Flags by Anka Pandrea, Glasses by Nora Raaum.

Bottles and bottles

Voting –

The voting round should be considered advanced play, and may be unsuitable for novice players or those with a delicate constitution. These rules are intentionally kept simple. They need to be, by this time in the evening!

  • Before each set of results are announced, everyone guesses where the 12 points are going. If anyone gets this right, those who got it wrong take a swig.
  • ‘Booby Prize’ – Everyone downs their drink if the presenter gets the country they’re speaking to wrong, calls the national representative by the wrong name, or gets their pronunciation corrected by the national representative.

 

Well, that’s all, folks! Have fun at your Eurovision parties, and if you do decide to try these rules, please do comment here or tweet me @CountrySkills, where it’s quite likely some Eurovision live twittering may take place!

And remember, please drink responsibly (*ahem!*), and definitely don’t drink and drive, attempt DIY, deep fat frying, change important passwords or operate heavy machinery. Finally, your hangover is your problem, not mine, so don’t come crying to me in the morning!

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Reviewed – “Back to Basics – Your Essential Guide to Make Do and Mend”

I was really excited to be asked to review this brand new ebook, ‘Back to Basics – Your Essential Guide to Make Do and Mend’ edited by the lovely Jen Gale. Jen has been somewhat in the forefront of the eco, thrifty, make-do-and-mend trend in the blogosphere and social media over the last few years. During that time, she has accumulated a mountain of practical experience (do take a look at her website, http://www.makedoandmend-able.co.uk, if you haven’t already) and connected with individuals with a wide variety of practical skills, many of whom contribute chapters to this ebook.

[Full disclosure: ‘Back to Basics – your essential guide to Make Do and Mend’ came to me free of charge as a review copy. Screenshots are used with permission. Any links provided are for interest and convenience, I don’t profit from them in any way. Jen is a twitter friend, and while I obviously wish her well with her project I have tried very hard to be fair and impartial in giving my opinions here.]

What’s in this book? Well, all kinds of things. Don’t know how to fix a puncture on your bike, or wire a plug? The instructions are here for you, alongside more ‘crafty’ tutorials on sewing skills – biased towards mending and altering – basic introductions for knitting and crochet, helpful hints on caring for your clothes and fabrics so they last you longer, tips on painting and re-upholstering furniture to refresh tired pieces without needing to buy new, and lots of other things besides.

Contents Page

Darning SkillsThis is intended to be an entry-level guide, and because it covers such a broad range of topics, some of the chapters will already be familiar territory to practical minded readers – that said, I did pick up a few extra little tips even in areas where I consider myself to be reasonably proficient (Tom Van Deijnen’s tutorial on darning knitwear is particularly good, as is Lauren Guthrie’s really comprehensive general overview and introduction to using and caring for your sewing machine).

Re-making GarmentsAlongside these, there are a few chapters that cover what I would regard as more advanced-skill level making do and mending – Franki Campbell explains how to break down a garment and make a new sewing pattern from it so that it can be recreated (and possibly modified in the process), something which scares me enough – I’m a muddling-along standard home sewer who can make curtains, blinds, and the odd garment for myself; I can imagine it being rather baffling to the novice sewer.

Crochet flowersThere are little projects included with some of the chapters, too, and these can be a weakness of the book. Some are excellent, like this little crochet flower broach. On the other hand, the knitted dish cloth ‘project’ (no more than a sample square of garter stitch, which you are expected to source brand new cotton yarn for) was a bit less inspiring.

I think this is probably an inevitable consequence of a book put together in this way, from a variety of contributors. The focus, skill level, and quality of these chapters does vary, and on occasion it can make the whole feel a bit ‘bitty’ and unfocused. But that said there is some really excellent material here, and if you find even a handful of the chapters useful it may well turn out to be a good purchase for you.

Cover ShotWho is the ideal reader for this book? It might make an good gift for a teenager heading off to university or to their own home for the first time – a really modern housekeeping guide for the 21st Century young adult. Older readers, looking to (re)discover crafty, thrifty DIY skills may also find a lot to like here. It’s a very beautifully put-together ebook, and a lot of hard work has obviously gone into the design and photography.

“Back to Basics” is available in ebook (PDF) format only, priced at £8. You can find out more, and download it here.

Read more from the Country Skills blog >>

 

 

Salmon with Leeks and Cream, from ‘Two Fat Ladies Full Throttle’ – Cooking the books, week 13

It was with great sadness that I heard of the death of the indomitable Clarissa Dickson Wright last month. She, and her Two Fat Ladies co-star Jennifer Paterson, who died in 1999, were in many ways quite the best sort of eccentric British women. They just don’t make them like that any more!

Two Fat Ladies - coverIt seemed right to choose a recipe from the Two Fat Ladies cookbook on my shelf – an Oxfam bookshop find a couple of years ago. The dust-jacket notes describe Clarissa and Jennifer ‘visiting the far corners of the British Isles in their continuing mission to rescue us from food fads and philistinism’ and really, wasn’t that always the point of the Two Fat Ladies?

The recipe I chose, as titled in the book, is ‘Salmon Cutlets with Leeks and Cream’ – and this immediately caused me a problem which would have Jennifer and Clarissa either spinning in their graves, or, I hope, chuckling gently to themselves.

Salmon cutletsThe humble salmon cutlet – or salmon steak portion – sliced straight across the fish with the backbone in the centre, and which I remember being a regular feature of the special-occasion dinner table while I was growing up has, it would appear, gone so far out of fashion that it’s no longer available from supermarket fish counters. Here in the Midlands, supermarket fish counters are they’re more or less our only fresh fish option.

The fishmonger shrugged apologetically as she explained that unless they had a whole salmon to sell off, it just wasn’t a cut they sold these days. Apparently fish with bones in isn’t the done thing any more.

And so, with profound apologies to Jennifer (for it is her recipe), salmon fillets it had to be. To serve two, you will need –

  • Slice & fry leeks Two salmon portions. Cutlets / steaks if you can get them, fillets if, like me, you can’t.
  • Two mid-sized leeks
  • 150ml double cream
  • Unsalted butter
  • ~100g of cooked prawns (mine were frozen, and defrosted before use)
  • A lemon
  • Salt and pepper

Preheat your oven to 190C. Slice the leeks reasonably thinly and fry until softened with a large knob of butter.

Whip creamWhile the leeks are cooking, whip your cream until it reaches ‘dolloping’ consistency. This is remarkably hard work to do by hand, especially if like me you’re carrying an old wrist injury, so I suggest you don’t follow my example and instead use an electric whisk if you have access to one!

Spoon the remaining leeks overLightly butter or oil two pieces of aluminium foil, large enough to enclose each salmon portion generously. Start with about half the softened leeks in the centre, lay the salmon portion on top of these, and then spoon the rest of the leeks over.

Ready for the ovenFinally add a generous dollop of whipped double cream and half the prawns to each portion. Squeeze over about a teaspoon of lemon juice and season with salt and pepper. Now carefully fold up your foil parcels, place these in an oven proof dish, and put in the pre-heated oven for about 25 minutes.

Fresh from the ovenOnce they’re cooked, unwrap your little packages, and serve with your choice of accompaniments (I made some boulangère potatoes, which were a good match). Squeeze over a dash more lemon juice, if you like.

This is a really nice dish – probably a bit swish for a weekday supper but actually, apart from the cream whipping palaver, pretty quick and straightforward. It feels a little bit like food from another era – and in some respects, of course, it’s just that – but the flavours are fresh, distinct, and complement each other nicely. I wasn’t initially convinced by the idea of the prawns, but they do add a sweetness and a different texture to the dish.

And serve!

**
Two Fat Ladies Full Throttle, by Jennifer Paterson and Clarissa Dickson Wright.
Ebury Press, 1998.
ISBN 978-0-091-865-016
Hard cover, 192 pages, single-colour printing with full colour plates. RRP £17.99.

[Full disclosure: This is my book, which I bought second-hand from a charity bookshop. I have received no payment or sponsorship for this post, nor have I accepted a review copy. I do not have an amazon affiliate account and do not profit from any links provided.]

This book accompanied the third (and penultimate) series of Two Fat Ladies. The recipes are contributed equally by Jennifer and Clarissa and seem to leap off the page in their original voices, which is lovely. Yes, these are recipes full of sugar, butter and cream, offal, game and red meat. Really, what did you expect?

Two Fat Ladies - inner pageA lot of the recipes are highly seasonal or call for rather unusual ingredients (seafood and game feature strongly) and you may struggle to find all the bits and pieces on a trip to an average provincial supermarket! This is no bad thing in my opinion – too many recipe books these days seem to be compiled with one eye on the contents of the shelves of the local Tesco (I can’t help but think Jennifer in particular would have been appalled by how far the hegemony of the supermarkets has progressed in the last decade and a half).

The book, in both its content and presentation, couldn’t be more of a contrast to Jamie Oliver’s ‘Naked Chef’ reviewed here a few weeks back – it’s a bit startling to realise that the Two Fat Ladies and The Naked Chef overlapped on UK television in 1999 (and indeed shared a production company, Optomen Television) – they feel so much like food culture from different eras. The publication date, 1998, is just a year before Jamie’s first blockbuster book offering hit our shelves.

If Jamie was the first in the vanguard of the young, cool, celebrity chefs, then Jennifer and Clarissa were undoubtedly part of the culture of old-school cooks. As a reminder, then, that it serves us to look backwards to our own traditional food culture, as well as outward to that of other countries, these recipes deserve a place in all of our collections.

‘Cooking the Books’ is my self-imposed blog challenge for 2014 – I’ll be trying to cook a new recipe from one of my (rather extensive!) collection of cookbooks once a week, write it up and review it. Wish me luck!

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Overheard In The Salon – “You can get bacon from a butchers??”

Hair Salon NeopI had my hair cut last week.  This is only worthy of mention because it’s at best a bi-annual event for me.  Sitting there in your tinfoil bonnet, of course, there’s nothing to do except listen to the other customers and staff, or flick through weeks-old celebrity gossip magazines.  I chose the former.  Here’s the highlight of what I overheard, between two of the hairdressers during their tea break –

“So, they’ve said about processed food, you’re only supposed to eat one rasher of bacon a day”
“What? Bacon’s not processed food?”
“Yeah it is.  The bacon in the pack in your fridge, that’s processed food.  But if you get it from a butcher’s, it’s not.”
“You can get bacon from a butchers??”

Donner KebabIn the news that morning, the reports of a big impressive prospective mortality study involving analysis of participants’ consumption of processed meats.  It’s an odd category, that they’ve chosen – to include all cured and salted products, sausages, donner kebabs, but not all burgers.  Confusing enough that my hairdressers had a fairly poor grasp of the parameters, anyway.   Better perhaps if they’d restricted themselves to cured & smoked products, or gone wider and included all meat products that don’t arrive on the plate as recognisable pieces of whole muscle protein, without intervention beyond cooking.  For me, there are too many variables.

Cured meats contain salt in quite large quantities – of course they do, they’re salt-cured!  So does a bag of salt & vinegar crisps.  They will often contain nitrites – but then so does celery.  Mince-based processed meat products are generally higher in fat – they’re made from fattier cuts, and extra is often added as a bulking agent – but it’s perfectly possible to make a sausage from just minced pork shoulder, a bit of rusk or breadcrumb and some herbs and seasoning.  And it’s also perfectly possible to eat a very fatty, salty, meat-based meal that isn’t ‘processed’ in the slightest.

As with all giant lifestyle studies, the confounding factors are going to be enormous, too.  Do people who eat more processed meat eat less fresh fruit and vegetables, statistically speaking? Probably.  Are they heavier or lighter smokers or drinkers than the comparison population?  Attempts will have been made to correct for all of this, of course, but these are pretty blunt statistical instruments.

Mortality studies are always a problem for me.  I hate to break it to you, but your risk of mortality, my risk of mortality, the lifetime risk of mortality for everyone (and everything) currently alive on this planet, is 100%.  So you start looking at timeframe-mortality risks.  1 year.  5 year.  20 year.  The main risk factor for timeframe mortality?  Age, obviously – if you’re 80 going into a 20 year mortality study, things aren’t looking so good for you coming out the other side.  Then genetics – the intrinsic, inherited factors in your biology over which you have no control.  Then, I suppose, occupation and activities – if you’re a commercial deep diver, an alaskan crab fisherman, or like to race motorbikes or fly small aircraft, then these are going to have some effect.  A very very *very* long way down the list is what you had for breakfast!

Processed meat selectionMy hairdressers are right, though, about supermarket franken-bacon.  Give me proper dry-cured smoke-smoked bacon or ham any day, rather than the nasties that come in supermarket packs, injected as they are with a brine already including a ‘natural’ liquid smoke extract (no, really) among many other exciting additives.  Say no to that nasty leakage of milky phosphate water, and get some decent stuff from your local butcher (surprising an idea as that might seem to some!).  Say no to reconstituted ‘ham’ all gristle and mis-matched re-formed fat and muscle fibres.

If you needed any more reasons to want to avoid processed ‘junk’ foods, after the ongoing horsemeat-adulteration saga, look no further than this absolutely horrifying NYT article on The Extraordinary Science of Junk Food.

Of course we should all be trying to eat a balanced diet, mostly of fresh, local, good quality ingredients.  We should probably all, in the affluent West (and increasingly affluent East) be eating less meat, if we want to feed the world and pass the planet on to future generations in any kind of state at all.  But there are so many better reasons for that than trying to extend our survival.  Do it for the sake of good food, good flavour, and do it for the health of our environment.

Bacon for breakfast

So relax, enjoy your good quality butchers’ or home-cured bacons, hams, salt beef and bangers, and kick the supermarket junk.  Choose fresh, choose seasonal, choose local, and choose foods grown and reared, prepared and cooked with care, instead of being manufactured in anonymous processing plants at the end of a convoluted international commodity supply chain, down to a price selected by supermarket accountants.  I don’t see that you can go very far wrong!

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Horsing Around – the horse meat burger scandal

Well, I’ve had a very restful almost-month off from blogging (hah!) but holidays can’t last forever, and it’s time to get back in the saddle…  An apposite metaphor, as it happens, as the foodie world has been up in arms this week about the horse meat burger scandal, affecting economy ‘beef’ burgers for sale in several British and Irish supermarkets.

'Cheval de Qualite'Let me start by saying, I don’t share many of my compatriots’ ‘shock-horror’ reactions at the idea of eating horse.  I’ve eaten horse meat in the past, and as it happens, it’s really rather good!  Horse meat is a perfectly normal part of the diet of many of our continental neighbours, and, when raised considerately, transported thoughtfully, slaughtered humanely, and inspected and prepared carefully, really presents no greater ethical problem than eating any other animal.

Yes, I’ve heard the cries of protest, that horses are sensitive, inquisitive, sociable animals.  So, I’m sorry to tell you, are cattle, sheep, and yes, even pigs and chickens.

Still reading? Good.

Why then the upset about the adulteration of economy ‘beefburgers’ with horse meat?  If it’s perfectly sound, healthy meat, why the howls of protest?  Surely we should be encouraging the incorporation of a cheap, healthy protein source into low-cost products?

Well, as always, it’s a bit more complicated than that!

First, there are the cultural considerations, of course.  We don’t ‘traditionally’ eat horse in Britain & Ireland. The ancient Celts may even have worshipped them. Whatever the root of it, for most Britons horses are pets and working animals, not food animals – much closer to the way we perceive dogs than the way we consider cattle, and we have a strong, reflex, cultural taboo against eating them. Of course, that doesn’t make their meat unsound, or unsafe, we just prefer not to eat them, in much the way that some people prefer not to eat shellfish. We need to take a deep breath and realise that this view is pure cultural preference, nothing more.

Tethered HorsesSecondly, it’s fair to concede that there are some reasonable concerns about the welfare of horses in the European food chain.  Often kept tethered or hobbled during life, they can then be transported by road over long distances under less than ideal conditions – overcrowded, and without food and water – before being slaughtered in a process more adapted to cattle, which may fail fully to take into consideration their particular needs as highly-adapted ‘flight’ animals.

There are, of course, equivalently serious concerns with many of our food animals – the over-bred over-producing black and white dairy cow who in many cases can no longer meet or control her own metabolic state and requirements, resulting in chronic stress and ill-health; industrially-reared pigs kept in denuded, overcrowded environments, on mesh floors, with a legacy of aggression, lameness and respiratory diseases; and who could forget the iconic battery hen, whose fate may or may not be  improved these days by the introduction of ‘enriched’ small group cages.  The bottom line is that we treat many of the animals whose lives are lived to feed us less than entirely well.  While the welfare of horses before and during slaughter can sometimes leave a lot to be desired, we need to accept that they are hardly a special case.

Thirdly, and most relevantly here, really, is the question of adulteration.  The horse meat was not declared as an ingredient in the burgers concerned (neither was pork, which was also detected as a contaminant in many of the beef burgers examined in the FSAI findings).  It’s quite plausible that the immediate manufacturers of the burgers (the Irish plant squishing them into burger shapes and packing them into a variety of wrappers) had no idea it was there, since it’s likely that the majority of the ingredients received at their premises would have been less than entirely recognisable.  I gather that the leading theory is that the horse protein entered the production process as ‘filler’ – mechanically recovered meat from carcasses which bears an awfully close resemblance to the ‘pink slime’ of recent North American food-panic.  ‘Economy’ grade burgers are permitted to contain just under 50% recognisable carcasse meat – the sort that can be removed from the bones with knives during processing – ‘fillers’, ‘extenders’, rusk and so on make up the other half.

The filler in these burgers may very well have been imported from a third country (so could the rest of the beef, for that matter, and the burgers will still have been labelled ‘Made in Ireland’, which is its very own joke on the question of provenance!).  If it was, then we can hope that the horse meat came through the official slaughter and inspection processes and had been duly found to be fit for human consumption.  Let’s give the manufacturers of the filler the benefit of the doubt and assume someone accidentally ‘slipped’ and a horse carcass made it onto the ‘beef’ MRM line.  Of course, one might have to wonder how many horse carcasses were ‘slipping’ into the beef filler line to give an estimated 29% total composition of horse meat in a burger required to be very nearly 50% ‘real’ beef.  Mmm.  Incidentally, the ‘real’ beef percentage is permitted to includes fat and sinew ‘naturally associated’ with the lean muscle tissue.  I’m going to bet the people doing the carcass trimming aren’t getting paid to leave any of that behind!

Boucherie ChevalineThe food safety concerns only really start to stack up if we consider that the horse meat may not have come in via a licensed slaughter and inspection process.  We do in fact have a small number of licensed horse slaughterhouses in the UK and Ireland – their meat is exported, for the most part.  [Interesting to note, is that it may not be incorporated into pet food intended for sale in the UK – which is required only to include meat and meat by-products from animals passed fit for human consumption, and which are traditionally consumed in the country of sale.]

For some years now, all horses in the EU have been required to have horse ‘passports’.  These identify the individual horse, usually by a combination of described markings and hair-coat characteristics (though sometimes via microchip), and contain a variety of important details about the horse and its health status, including vaccinations.

There is a page in the passport which contains a declaration that the horse is not intended for human consumption.  Some horse owners immediately endorse this declaration for their animals, presumably on emotional grounds, but some, more pragmatically, wait until the issue becomes relevant.  The relevance is one of veterinary care, and administration of medicines in particular.

A number of the veterinary medicines in common use in horses – especially in the UK – are specifically prohibited from use in animals intended for human consumption, because of their potential to cause significant ill-health in humans should they enter the food chain.  The cannot be administered to horses unless they have been declared to be barred from the food chain.  Some are carcinogens – substances that may cause cancers – some can cause blood dyscrasias – abnormalities of blood cell production which can be irreversible and sometimes fatal.  Potentially nasty stuff.  There is undoubtedly an argument for these medicines being withdrawn from use in horses full-stop, however this needs to be balanced against their genuine value and utility in maintaining the health, welfare, and working lives of scores of horses whose entry into the human food chain was never in question.

It’s often noted that the system of horse passports is a bit ‘soft’, with multiple issuing authorities – in particular, since there’s no central register of identification marks, there is actually relatively little to prevent an owner ‘mislaying’ a horse’s passport and procuring a clean replacement.

'Mangez du Cheval'Should – and I think this is unlikely – the horse meat in the burger have been slaughtered ‘irregularly’ in Ireland and not subjected to the normal pre-slaughter and post-mortem health inspections, and checking of documentation, then this would open the possibility of entry of unsound or pharmaceutically-contaminated meat into the human food chain.

Actually, it’s quite likely that the horse-meat burger scandal presented no risk to health – or, should I say, no additional risk to health compared to these economy ‘beef’ burgers if they’d been manufactured according to their specification.  The more processed your food, the greater the supermarket buyers’ downward pressure on costs, the more links in the chain, the more ingredients in the list, the more hands (quite literally) it has passed through on its way to you, the greater the chances both for accidental contamination, and of intentional adulteration in pursuit of a profit.

'Healthy Living'This is the crux, for me.  Highly processed, cheap meat products like these economy burgers are just plain nasty. They taste nasty. They’re nasty to your health. And they’re undoubtedly nasty for the poor animals that have been reared to a price point eventually to be minced up into them.

I make little apology for my view that we should not be selling and eating food like this.  Yes, I’m aware that there are people out there – elderly or disabled, living on benefits – for whom these highly processed economy meat products are the ‘best’ they can afford.  I’m afraid I don’t believe that we have a right to eat meat every meal, or every day.  In fact, we’d all – even those of us lucky enough to be able to afford it if we want to – be healthier if we chose not to, never mind the benefits to the environment and animal welfare which would result from fewer animals being raised with greater care.  If you can’t afford, or can’t source, a recognisable piece of an animal that has been raised with care and slaughtered with consideration, you should not be eating meat today.  Not all good meat is expensive, there’s a very long tradition, in the UK as everywhere else, in making great food from bargain cuts.  Yes, I appreciate that there’s a huge deficit in cooking skills, particularly among my generation, which means many wouldn’t know where to start if presented with a brisket, a shin of beef, or a breast of lamb – all quite marvellous, cheap, real healthy cuts of meat – but surely *this* is what we need to address, rather than filling the gap by selling people adulterated, industrially produced convenience-papp in brightly coloured cardboard cartons.  We should not be eating this.  No one should be eating this.  It’s just nasty.

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Cooking with James Martin – pea and watercress soup

Earlier this year, I was privileged to be invited to spend the day ‘Cooking with James Martin’ with a group of other foodies and bloggers.  We enjoyed some amazing dishes, and I did promise at the time to share the recipes with you.  Time has rather run away with me the last few months, but here, belatedly, is the first recipe – ‘Pea and Watercress Soup with Deep Fried Egg’. 

Pea and Watercress Soup, presentation

While we were very kindly provided with recipes after the event, I made notes at the time and my notes and recollections vary from the recipes we were given in various ways – that’s the art, I suppose!  The recipe I present here is closer to what I remember James cooking on the day, than to the ‘official’ recipe.  How much of the miss-match is due to errors and omissions on my part, and how much to revisions on his, I wouldn’t like to say!

This is a beautiful summer soup and an absolutely amazing colour.  James served it with a crispy-on-the-ouside, soft-on-the-inside deep fried soft boiled egg, which was an amazingly ‘cheffy’ touch, but I think the soup would stand up very well without it, if it seems a bit faffy for you.

To make this soup, you will require –

  • 1l of good quality vegetable stock (the nicer the better – but nice bouillon powder would probably do at a pinch)
  • 500g of frozen peas
  • 300g fresh watercress
  • 100g of flat leaf parsley
  • 1 shallot, chopped
  • 150ml of double cream (see later note)
  • Decent knob of butter
  • Small handfull of asparagus spears (optional)
  • Salt and pepper
  • Blender, either the stick-type hand blender or, for a smoother finish, a food processor blender jug would probably work better

James MartinBlanch the watercress and flat leaf parsley by immersing very briefly in boiling salted water, and then removing straight away.  Squeeze it out in a tea towel to remove as much water as possible and set aside

Now melt the butter in a saucepan (or wide chef’s pan, if you have one), add the shallot and fry gently until translucent.  My recipe mentions some garlic here, but I don’t recall any being used, you could add a minced clove of garlic if you like though!  Once the onion is translucent, add the stock to the pan, along with the peas and chopped asparagus, and simmer for 2 – 3 minutes, so that the peas are just soft but still bright vivid green.

Blended soupNow take the pan off the heat, add the blanched watercress and flat-leaf parsley (the recipe also says the cream – I don’t remember any cream but it could well be an oversight on my part!) and blend aggressively until it looks almost luminescent green.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Bread-crumbing egg for deep fryingJames soft boiled some eggs (5 minutes), and once cold, peeled and coated in breadcrumbs (flour, egg wash and then crumbs) before deep frying until golden brown.  The egg adds a lovely richness and texture balance to the final dish, but for me, thinking about this as a dish to cook at home, the deep frying was a flourish too far. I think floating a poached egg in the soup would achieve a very similar effect.

Bring the soup up to temperature, without boiling, and serve in your prettiest bowls, placing the egg in the centre.  James added some crispy fried bacon bits, which add a nice crunch and salty-savoury note.  You could add a sprinkle of crispy breadcrumbs or small croutons to increase the crunch if you liked – particularly if you’re skipping the crunchy deep-fried egg.  The finished effect, it struck me at the time, is very much ‘ham, egg and peas’, but taken apart and put back together again all fresh and inside-out!  The final presentation flourish is celery cress & coriander cress, sprinkled over.  They don’t sell celery cress or coriander cress in my local co-op, and it’s the wrong time of year to sprout my own, so I suppose I’ll have to make do with a few reserved flat-leaf parsley leaves!

Really Important Note – You know that ghastly grey-green colour and slightly odd sulphurous odour that tinned peas have? This soup depends for it’s amazing colour and fresh flavour on absolute freshness and minimal cooking.  It will not re-heat!  Well, not without turning grey.  So don’t prepare it in advance and expect it to be any good re-heated for your dinner party.  You have been warned!

If thats got your appetite going, have a look at the collected James Martin recipe posts, here…

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Happy Birthday – and a new home for the blog!

Doesn’t time fly!  I can’t quite believe it was a year ago (well, near enough) that I sat down and wrote ‘Bringing Home the Bacon’, and the Country Skills blog was born.  And it just so happens that while we’re on the subject of milestones, this is also the blog’s 100th post!

Well, everyone likes a birthday celebration, don’t they, and what’s a birthday without presents and candles?

First Birthday Candle

So, there’s the candle, and now for the present – the Country Skills blog has a new home at https://countryskillsblog.com/ although old links via the wordpress.com domain will continue to work through the magic of redirects.

I’d like to thank all my lovely readers – both regular and occasional! – for taking the time to stop by my little blog in the last year, and particularly those who’ve paused to comment or ‘like’, and helped me feel I’m not talking to myself!  Some of you have really helped me out – I don’t think the Sourdough Saga would have come to such a successful conclusion without your advice and feedback – and for that I thank you all from the bottom of my heart.

Here’s to many more years happy blogging!  Please do let me know what you think, I’m always happy to hear suggestions!

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From the Bookshelf – foragers’ field guides

It felt like autumn was in the air this morning. Harvest is well under way (and didn’t I know it at gone bedtime last night, with the combine still beavering away under floodlights in the field next door!) and Keats’ ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ is just around the corner. Autumn is a gift to foragers (human and animal alike!) and at this time of year, whoever you are, and whether you live in the town or the country, there is a bounty of marvellous free food just waiting to be gathered up, and the traditional British hedgerow is definitely the place to be going looking for it!

There are the wild fruit nearly everyone knows, of course – most of us would recognise a bramble (wild blackberry), a crab apple or a rose hip. But there are rarer (or at least, less well recognised) autumn fruit that are just as worthy of attention. Can you confidently recognise elderberries and rowans? What about telling the difference between damsons, sloes and bullaces? Are wild raspberries or hops growing in your local hedges? Did you spot the distinctive spring showing of your local cob nut trees, and the blossom of the blackthorn, and manage to commit them to memory? If you’re relatively new to foraging, or even if you’ve been doing it all your life and think you know the offerings of your local hedgerows, verges, and field margins (and don’t dismiss roundabouts!) intimately, a good field guide is essential to getting the most out of your local foraging opportunities.

[Full disclosure: ‘The Hedgerow Handbook’ came to me free of charge as a review copy from Random House. I bought ‘River Cottage Handbook No.7 – Hedgerow’ with my own money, a couple of years ago.  I do not have an amazon affiliate account, any links provided are for interest and convenience, and I don’t profit from them in any way!]

The Hedgerow Handbook, by Adele Nozedar‘The Hedgerow Handbook’, by Adele Nozedar, (illustrations by Lizzie Harper).
Square Peg / Random House, 2012.
ISBN 978-0-224-08671-4. RRP £12.99.
See this book at amazon.co.uk

The first thing you notice is what a beautiful little book this is, graced inside and out with the loveliest hand-drawn botanical illustrations.  It’s a pretty little hardback, nicely printed on quality paper, and has great ‘object’ qualities, to be handled, flicked through, and admired – all of the things that make physical books so special compared to their digital cousins.

The illustrations are a huge strength of this particular guide – hand-illustrations are always better than photographs for identification, as they allow all the relevant details and characteristics of a plant – and different stages of its life cycle, such as buds and leaves, flowers and fruit – to be shown together, when this would be impractical in a single photo. Illustrations also tend to be clearer, and generalise the appearance of a species rather than showing a particular ‘individual’ growing in a particular place at a particular time.

Inside page viewArranged alphabetically, each hedgerow plant in the book is fully illustrated, the illustration accompanied by a useful description of its habit (and habitat). Culinary and traditional medicinal uses are then briefly discussed, along with curiosities and anecdotes, and folklore associated with the plant – after which Adele shares one or more recipes.

There are some really exciting and unusual recipes here that I can’t wait to try, at an appropriate opportunity – it’s not just the usual suspects like blackberry jam and elderflower champagne.  The idea of pickled ash keys is intriguing, and I’ll definitely be looking out for these when they’re young and tender again next spring. There are plants in this book that I would never have thought were edible – for instance, I’d somewhere along the line picked up the conviction that ox-eye daisies were poisonous, it turns out the buds can be pickled, and the young flowers deep fried in tempura batter.

As a gardener, I’m delighted to to discover that in addition to nettles, other pernicious weeds like cleavers and ground elder can also offer up, if not a square meal, then at least a free green vegetable dish!

Of course, knowing you can eat cleavers in theory is all very well – it’s essential I think that a sensible suggestion is also made as to what you might like to do with them, and this, along with the really wide range of species included, is a real strength of this book.  Recipe suggestions include preserves, cordials, and country wines, as well as savoury dishes and deserts, and make a really interesting and inspiring collection.

If I had to make any criticism at all of this little book, it would be that I’m not quite sure alphabetical order is the most obvious organisation for a field guide – arrangement by season or habit / habitat feel more natural. A note of possible confusion species, and how to avoid making these mistakes, is often a feature of guides like this, and is missing here – though the quality of the illustrations and annotations make going astray quite unlikely.  Finally, for me, the author’s enthusiasm for herbal medicine was sometimes a bit distracting – but I must confess to liking my medicine firmly evidence-based!

All in all this is a great practical little book that should be on your shelf if you enjoy a spot of hedgerow foraging – and you needn’t be in the country to find it useful!  Being such a pretty little book, I think it would also make a really lovely gift!

River Cottage Handbook No.7 - Hedgerow‘River Cottage Handbook No.7 – Hedgerow’, by John Wright.
Bloomsbury Publishing Ltd, 2010.
ISBN 978-1-4088-0185-7.  RRP £14.99.
See this book on amazon.co.uk

Another pretty little hardback without a slip-cover, this one is bright and full of photographs.  With the commentary on illustrations above in mind, this isn’t ideal – but considering that, they’re good photographs and ‘do the job’!

This book starts with a good comprehensive section on the generalities of foraging before moving on to identification of about 70 edible species.  After this, some of the potentially poisonous species are also identified – useful!  The back section of the book is set aside for recipes.

The front section of this book is especially useful, covering the legal aspects of taking plants and flowers from the wild in the UK, as well as a great tabular guide to the growing and harvesting seasons of the various species.  The set of edible species listed overlaps quite considerably, though not completely, with those in ‘The Hedgerow Handbook’ – as you would expect from two books covering the same ground.

Inside page viewFor each plant, one or more photographs are provided, along with a useful summary covering description, habitat, season and distribution.  Combined with the introductory section, this makes it a really useful practical field guide.

It’s reassuring – and really interesting, actually! – to be able to confidently identify the toxic hedgerow species, and the third section covers these – the hemlocks, nightshades, foxgloves and suchlike.

The recipes, when we finally get to them, are much sparser on the ground, and do contain some ‘usual suspects’ like elderflower cordial, but are generally of nice quality, and well fleshed-out and illustrated.

As a whole the book does sit very well among the others in the ‘River Cottage Handbook’ series (which I have to confess to having acquired, um, all of so far), and avoids duplication.  This does mean that other recipes for foraged foods turn up in other handbooks, particularly the Pam Corbin ‘Preserves’ book.  Mushrooms and costal foraging also have their own volumes, which are very similarly presented and also very competent, interesting little books.  I would definitely recommend this volume, but be aware it’s likely to act as a ‘gateway’ purchase to the rest of the series!

Both of these are cracking little books which I can thoroughly recommend to you. Whichever you choose (hell, get both, you know you want to!) I hope you find them really useful for your autumn foraging efforts, and for many years to come!

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From the Bookshelf – ‘Self-Sufficiency Home Brewing’ by John Parkes

While the internet is always a great source of inspiration and information, I wouldn’t be without my eclectic (and ever growing!) personal collection of reference books.  I’ll put my hand up here and admit to having a book ‘problem’.  I love books.  Having all the basic information on a subject in one place, and arranged logically, does make getting a good solid grounding and basic understanding of a subject a lot more accessible than the scattergun depth-first approach you tend to end up with when following links online.

[Full disclosure – I bought this book, myself, with my own money, a couple of years ago. I do not have an amazon affiliate account, any links provided are for interest and convenience, and I don’t profit from them in any way!]

Cover‘Self-sufficiency Home Brewing’, John Parkes.
New Holland Publishers (UK) Ltd, 2009.
ISBN 978 184773 460 0.  RRP £7.99.
See this book on amazon.co.uk

This was one of the first brewing books I bought, and I would thoroughly recommend it as a basic guide to taking up brewing at home.  It’s a beer book, though it does cover all the basics of sterilisation / sanitisation, equipment, and so forth which would be relevant to brewing other drinks such as ciders, wines and meads.  It’s a convenient paperback format at a really good price, too (with handy folded-back covers for stashing bits and bobs of paperwork in, no less!).  It’s clearly and concisely written, and pleasantly produced & illustrated.

The first part of the book introduces your ingredients – grains, hops, yeasts and of course water – and the different styles of beer you can make with them.  This may be of interest to you if you want to learn more about beers and brewing, even if you’re not planning to make any of your own.

Inside page viewLater sections cover equipment – without suggesting that the first-time home brewer needs to acquire the proverbial ‘moon-onna-stick’ – and techniques for brewing from kits, from extract, and more advanced traditional all-grain techniques.

Finally, there are a good variety of recipes for extract & grain brewing to give you inspiration for creating your very own.  John explains the science behind the brewing processes clearly and logically, which is great if, like me, you feel the need to understand the ‘why’ of a process as well as the ‘what’!

With all my clutterIn summary, this is a great, accessible little book to take you from no home brewing experience at all, well into experimenting with a range of recipes and styles, before you’ll need to buy anything else.  I would heartily recommend it to newbie home-brewers, or simply the beer-positve / beer-curious, it will really expand your understanding and appreciation of your favourite tipple!

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