Describing veg

The supermarkets of this land seem to be under the impression that we will not purchase their vegetables unless they have been given some serious adjectival pimping.  I have talked before of the abomination that is ‘baby’ leaves – showing a woeful lack of botanical understanding in the nation’s grocers – and so will merely re-iterate that these leaves are merely young or small and try and leave it at that.

Waitrose is particularly keen to make its fresh herbs seems exciting.  My mint is described as ‘cool cool’ (so cool they described it twice, apparently) and my curly leaf parsley (or ‘parsley’ as we used to call it) is described as ‘versatile, vigorous and vibrant’ – something more appropriate in a date (and I’m not talking deglet noor) than a little garnish.  I would use some rather different descriptors for herbs, with basil being identified as their titular monarch with a taste for huntin’ and shootin’ and fishin’ while sage would be identified as ‘not very happy, in fact in a rage’.  However, this may say more about my childhood viewing of a stop-motion animation series called The Herbs than it does about my suitability as a costermonger’s marketing assistant.  Talking of The Herbs, it did introduce some really rather obscure leaves to my youthful mind: herbs which I have never encountered since, e.g. Good King Henry and Miss Jessop,  and are even a challenge to find using the full power of internet search, e.g. pashana bedi.

However, we are not here to discuss Waitrose’ need to paint their herbs with adjectival rouge.  My lunch today included some frozen peas: a store cupboard staple that is also a boon in the case of bruise or sprain.  These were not just any old frozen peas, oh no, they were described as ‘garden peas’.  I strongly suspect that this was not the case and that they had, in fact, come from a farm.  I’m pretty sure that ‘garden pea’ is not a Linnaean classification and so presume it must be to contrast it with a ‘forest pea’, ‘deep sea pea’ or GD Pea (probably not to avoid confusion with the ‘sweet pea’ which is grown for its decorative and often scented flora, but is rarely frozen).

This contrasts with the treatment of rocket: the cruciform vegetable rather than the means of accessing Earth orbit.  This is, almost invariably, described as ‘wild’.  My imagination is strangely torn between Rowan Atkinson in a gorilla suit and the idea of machete-wielding workers gathering the rocket from its bosky lair.  As with the peas, I’d be surprised if it had not started its journey to plastic-packed display on some sort of farm.  Is there perhaps a tame rocket that we never see?  Or was it too trusting around humans and has been hunted to extinction like the dodo?

A recent packet of mixed chillies – which I’ll admit are technically fruit, but it would take a braver man than I to place them in a fruit salad – merely carries the legend ‘pizzas, soups and noodles’.  I assume this is an uncredited serving suggestion – or perhaps Lynne Truss’ next great work on grammar?  Fascinatingly, a mere 100g of these chillies (roughly eight) would provide 1% of my daily energy needs – so I need only consume 800 for all my calorific requirements to be met (though I would rather overshoot my optimal protein intake).  A strong argument there for a balanced diet!

Of course, it was these same supermarkets that revealed the tomato as a vine fruit – though I’ve yet to find any tomato wine (presumably it would be red?).  I find my plums are now described as ‘tree-ripened’.  The world has reached a pretty pass when allowing nature to take its course has to be remarked upon as a selling point for fruit.

As so often, research via the medium of Wikipedia slightly weakens my case and does suggest some very vague logic around the naming of the peas and rocket.  Apparently, there exists something called the ‘field pea’ – but this is only available dried and I can never recall seeing it for sale.  I feel it would be unexpected indeed should some shopper purchase ‘frozen peas’ and then be disappointed that these were not field peas.  Similarly, there are two types of rocket: one from genus Diplotaxis and one from Eruca.  Sadly, both – especially when ‘babies’ – are sold as rocket.  I think in both cases, the grocers are garnishing the name for marketing rather than purely taxonomic purposes: peas need to appear friendly and harmless (no doubt to overcome their otherwise terrifying aspect) while rocket must carry an aura of danger and excitement (like the 15:17 to Cleethorpes – if you should doubt me, just ask the ISIRTA team).

Living off the land

Obviously this has become more of  challenge since the move and my current lack of a garden – I particularly resent having to buy herbs at high cost from the fringes of the Mediterranean which once grew like particularly invasive weeds in South Cambs.  As a result, I have had to extend my definition to take in local(ish) produce or at least stuff from these islands.  In this way, I can (mostly) fool myself that I am reducing food miles and supporting the local economy and farmers (though I’m never entirely convinced that either would support me back were our positions reversed).

Sourcing local (or even UK) food can be quite the challenge, as most of my food shopping had to use supermarkets (for want of anything better anywhere nearby).  Weirdly, it is vastly easier to find fruit and vegetables from Cambridgeshire in Southampton than it was in Cambridge – though correspondingly harder to find anything from Hampshire.  If anything is to act as the “poster child” for the failure of our soi-disant market economy I feel this should be it – clearly it does not cost enough to pointlessly move stuff around the country (or, indeed, world).  There is this idea in time management (a much duller topic than its name suggests with not a wormhole or vortex in sight) that you should “touch” anything only once – be it a piece of paper or an email.  Perhaps the same principle should be applied to the humble carrot or cabbage – if nothing else it should cut down on traffic.

The other issue with sourcing local produce is the fact that we seem to have broken the climate, leading to seriously unexpected seasonality of well-known staples and significant reductions in supply.  It has become almost impossible to source UK-sourced strong flour for my bread making – or find bread made by others using it either.  However, on my travels around this land I think wheat’s loss may be rice’s gain.  With most of England already resembling a patchwork of paddy-fields, I think it may be time for farmers to take the hint and move into rice cultivation.  I look forward to locally-made sake which will make for a delicious warming treat on a cold, wet summer’s day (which we can now enjoy at any time of the year!).  Talking of rice, I should give an honourable mention to Rice Up, a wholefood shop in Southampton which does regularly provide local veg (and sometimes even fruit – though not at this time of year for obvious reasons).  What it will have on offer is unpredictable, but has always been good and surprisingly reasonably priced: little, if any, more expensive than the supermarkets (and often cheaper, though I do tend use Waitrose as my metric)Its only significant downside is that it is a little too serious about the wholefood thing – so no local eggs or dairy-based goodies.

Last Saturday, I found the need to eat between theatrical experiences – and finding myself on the western-side of London with limited time sought out a new venue for dinner.  Through the miracle of the smart-phone and the fact that I was strolling from High Street Ken (where I now have to go to source my pearled spelt given its absence from the shelves of Southampton) to Notting Hall Gate at the time, I selected Shed for my evening’s nourishment.  Actually, it boasted one obvious advantage over its peers – it started serving dinner at 18:00 rather than 18:30 and was so much more useful to the theatre patron with no desire for speed-eating based indigestion.

The food and ambience at Shed are jolly good, their amuse bouche were particularly excellent.  The place is linked (via its owners) to a farm near Pulborough in West Sussex and much of the food is sourced from there as was the very decent white wine I had to accompany my dinner.  However, the most unexpected locally sourced item on the menu I had after my dessert: my closing cuppa used tea grown in Cornwall!  I would never have imagined that such a thing was possible, though perhaps I should have done given that British gardeners have been cultivating other members of the camellia family for quite a while now (tea being C. sinensis – admit it, you’ve missed my Linnaean fixation).  It was a very decent cup of tea, and the folks at Tregothnan are to be congratulated (actually, looking at their website I quite fancy a visit to deliver my congratulations in person): perhaps my idea for British rice is not so outré after all (according to the song, they laughed at Christopher Columbus, probably more than at this blog.  Perhaps its time for me to seek out a new continent).  It may be time to switch the suppliers of my tea at home from Assam to Cornwall.

Stand Up, Stand Up for Cheeses

I have rather a penchant for the fruits of the cheese maker’s art.  Such a huge variety of tastes and textures, even without leaving these shores – and even more once you cross la Manche.  Cheese seems to be one area in which the Old World remains immeasurably superior to the new – where, at least across the herring pond, all cheese seems to be called Jack.  Then again, lest I start to feel too superior to our one-time colonies, as a wee lad I did believe that ‘processed’ was a variety of cheese.

Yesterday evening, I was in old London town (or at least a modern take there on) and as is becoming traditional, spent some quality time in the work of the Gilbert Scott family. In this case, George’s splendid St Pancras Hotel as opposed to his grandson’s Bankside power station on my last visit.  In the rather fine restaurant there, I was able to enjoy a little of the wonderfully named Childwickbury goat’s cheese – from a small village just outside St Albans.  However, I don’t fancy my chances of finding even such a relatively local cheese in any nearby supermarket.

Whilst the grocery barons are keen that we should be able to sample some goods, however far out of season they may be here on the outskirts of Europe – for others, they seem rather less keen to offer choice.  Strawberries they will ship from the furthest flung reaches of this planet, but gooseberries not so much – I presume this reflects the rather limited international appeal of the gooseberry (though it is indigenous from here to the Himalayas, so many cultures should have had the opportunity to sample its deliciousness).  Perhaps, like another favourite of mine – rhubarb – it is considered too tart by a world locked in the saccharine embrace of enamel’s enemy, sugar.

Sadly, cheese is another area where the range on offer in most supermarkets does rather disappoint.  Beyond a dozen or so staples, the choices are quickly exhausted – though I have noticed that most do offer cheddar from a a growing number of ex-colonies, which I think they may have mistaken for offering a broad range of cheeses.  Cheddar is also pretty much the only cheese offered in a range of strengths – from the utterly tasteless to, what I believe our cousins from down-under would call, biting.  True biting cheese would obviate the need for the mousetrap, the lure itself would be sufficient unto the entire task, but I suspect only exists in the imagination of the more outré geneticist (and, as it transpires, yours truly).  Talk of which reminds me of the hot dog, the only dog which feeds the hand that bites it – but I digress.

Today, I strayed from my usual supermarket of choice and used a branch of Mr Sainsbury’s emporium to acquire some victuals.  Whilst searching the store for various products, I passed the cheese department – which was rather curiously segregated.  I first notice a section tagged as ‘healthier cheeses’ – but failed to find the complementary ‘unhealthy cheeses’ or ‘less healthy cheeses’ counter.  Instead, the remaining cheeses were divided between ‘sliced and grated cheese’ and ‘recipe cheeses’.  I presume that the process of slicing or grating must render cheese less wholesome in some way – it certainly renders it less whole.  As to what a ‘recipe cheese’ might be, I’m sorry I haven’t a clue (quick plug there for Radio 4’s finest).  Mr Collins (my semantic arbiter) offers three meanings for ‘recipe’ – two of which could be boiled down to the idea of a method and the third of which is a medical prescription.  Whilst, I love the idea of cheese on prescription, it often makes me feel better, I really can’t see it happening given current belt-tightening in the NHS.  I wonder if perhaps ‘recipe cheese’ is an analogue of ‘cooking sherry’ or ‘cooking chocolate’ – foodstuffs you would not want to consume in their own right, but which are fine for putting into a cooked dish.  If so, this seems to be setting very low expectations for the quality of a good third of their cheese department.  (It does get worse: whilst researching this ‘article’ using their website, I found that this same supermarket under the heading of British Regional Cheeses offers up that most well-known of varieties, ‘Red Cheese’).

Generally, I do not buy my cheese from a supermarket – preferring instead to purchase it from my local butcher.  They don’t have a bad range for a village butcher – and despite being mostly vegetarian (though, I do classify fish and anything lacking a backbone as a vegetable), I feel it is very important to support my local butcher.  I suspect I am, by a long way, their most valuable vegetarian customer – especially as I also buy all of my eggs and honey there (I have nothing against animal exploitation, per se) and my oil (of the eating as opposed to the lubricatory variety), in whose production, so far as I know, no animals are harmed – though, as previously mentioned some are deprived of their perches.

So, brie good to yourself!  Discover gouda have more fun! (some Dutch pronunciation may be required).   Y fenni opportunity presents itself, try something new from the world of cheese – and not just cheddar from a new country!   You won’t raclette it!