Tuesday, March 04, 2014

How to taste your olive oil

Only one in 12 bottles of olive oil submitted to Fortnum & Mason makes it onto its prestigious shelves. I guest judged at a tasting session to find out how they pick a winner.
How to taste your olive oil
cryptEvery February Fortnum & Mason invites olive oil producers from all over the world to submit their new season’s oil to a blind tasting, where a panel of foodies – including Fortnum & Mason buyers, shopfloor staff, importers, journalists and customers – spend a week scrutinising them for bitterness, fruitiness and pepperiness: the holy trinity, when it comes to olive oil.
Like wines, olive oils reflect the terroirs in which they are grown, the type of olive, and how they are picked and processed; no two bottles taste the same. Indeed, we were told to expect everything from lemony flavours to lychee, banana skin, chocolate, grass and even tones of farmyard before beginning the tasting session, which took place in Fortnum & Mason’s wine crypt (pictured here).
oilThere were six of us trying just under 20 olive oils that morning (in total, around 150 will be judged over the week) and it involved drinking (and swallowing) oil, noting down the taste, and giving a mark out of six. I had to warm every sample pot in my hands first, to bring it up to body temperature and thus release the aromas, and you’re supposed to sluuuuurp the oil like you would when wine tasting. But I choked the last time I tried that, so a delicate inhalation and a roll about the tongue had to suffice.
No two oils tasted the same… some were nutty, others leafy, spicy, woody, pungent, floral, or even metallic. My favourite sample – the second one we tried – was spookily reminiscent of pea shoots in both aroma and flavour. Light, delicate and feminine, it immediately created an image of springtime picnics in my mind, with bright green salads and lashings of lemonade. Amazing how a drizzle of olive oil, something usually reserved for decoration or a finishing touch, can have such a powerful effect.
bunBy the close of play my trachea felt like a well-greased piston, and I had to chow down a Chelsea bun to soak it all up – goodness knows how the Fortnum & Mason buyers manage two olive oil tasting sessions a day (which amounts to drinking 1½ litres of olive oil in one week!). Although I’m sure they’ll have wonderful skin, elastic arteries, better memory, lower blood pressure and 97 other benefits because of it.
Like I say, only 20 bottles of olive oil will make it on to the prestigious Fortnum & Mason shelves next year, and I feel flattered to have played some small part in the selection, especially when the store sells around 8,000 bottles a year. Here’s hoping my pea shoot olive oil makes the final 20!

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

A week off processed foods

After days of eating a lot of chocolate and crisps, I decided to start afresh and eliminate all processed foods from my diet for a week. 
A week off processed foods
Being a food journalist has its downfalls… each article is usually accompanied by samples of what you’re writing about, so a week focusing on British crisp producersthe best chocolate gifts, and how to make your own Easter egg left me feeling large and sluggish. In an attempt to get my vitality back, I decided not to eat any processed foods for five days. This is how I got on.
What exactly is ‘processed food’? Initially I took it to mean junk food: sweets, cakes, meat slices, party food, takeaways and ready meals. But on further investigation, I discovered that any food which has been altered from its natural state counts as being processed. That includes milk, and obviously all dairy products made from milk, plus bread (even the healthier types), canned vegetables, dried fruit, and basically everything on the supermarket shelves.
azminaSo was this to be a grow-it-yourself vegan diet? I’ve tried that before, and it made me utterly miserable. Time to consult award-winning dietitian Azmina Govindji (pictured left) who, I hoped, would suggest a more lenient processed food diet for me to follow. “Loosely speaking, processed food is almost everything!” she told me. “I mean, it’s not as though the milk we drink comes directly from the cow.”
“But in terms of health and nutrition, when we say ‘processed foods’ we mean things like cakes and biscuits, takeaways, ready meals… things that are high in salt, sugar and trans fats. I wouldn’t suggest avoiding wholemeal flour, and therefore wholemeal bread, even though it's been processed, and things like frozen fish and canned vegetables are all perfectly safe and positively good for you. After all, processes like pasteurisation are there for health and hygiene purposes – and I wouldn’t recommend raw milk to anyone.”
Following Azmina’s advice, I decided to set these boundaries for my challenge: food that has had anything added, or taken away, for flavour/storage purposes is not allowed. But if it has been treated for health, hygiene, or shape-shifting purposes (for example, grinding grain to make flour), then that’s just fine.
Porridge – the type where the oats are only steamed and rolled, not cut. It’s never been my breakfast of choice (I prefer the grab-and-go culture of picking up a pastry on the way to work) and at first I found it tedious, especially when the darn bowl overflows and you have to mop up the microwave. I avoided sugar (which is usually refined) and had honey with it instead – the only natural food in the world which never goes off. Seeing as it was such a cold week, my morning porridge was quite a tonic, and it kept me fuller for far longer than a Pret pain au raisin would have done.
teaAs for a caffeinated beverage, I didn’t allow myself normal teabags because they’re a manufactured product (right?), and according to The Association for Traditional Studies, teabag tea contains ‘sweepings off the factory floors [where more expensive tea is made].’ Goodness knows whether that’s true or not, but I played it safe and used loose-leaf teas and a tea ball infuser from Silver Lantern (one of our top five favourite British tea producers) instead.
breadBy Wednesday I really missed toast. But I’ve always had issues with supermarket loaves (just look at the lengthy ingredients list), and there isn’t a decent bakery near me, so I wheeled out my breadmaker instead. This is the model I've got, and it makes the most fantastic wholemeal loaf. I added pumpkin seeds to mine (there's a little seed dispenser tray which drops them into the kneading dough automatically), and it was made from nearly 100% stoneground wholemeal flour, plus the usual bread basics such as malt extract and raw cane sugar (see picture, bottom left). Homemade bread, even if it is done in a breadmaker, tastes like a different product to that which comes wrapped in cellophane and, loaf for loaf, it costs at least half the price.  
breadI also made some rye bread and even a banana loaf – although strictly speaking, the latter wasn't allowed, seeing as it was made primarily from white flour, which has had the bran and germ layers of the whole wheatberry removed to make it last longer. But my family devoured most of it before I could get a taste anyway.   
Lunch was tricky. I’d usually hit Whitecross Street Market and fill up on falafel wraps or savoury crepes, but not one stall holder could promise me that their food was free from processed ingredients. Understandable, really… even a little pinch of white sugar has to go through ‘affination’, carbonation, ion-exchange, boiling, cooling, seeding with sugar crystals, centrifugal spinning, and drying to get to the state we know and love.
The only way to guarantee a processed-free lunch was to make it myself. It was salad every day – leaves, tomatoes, nuts (cracked from their shells), egg, good-quality cheese, roasted vegetables – and even then a couple of colleagues queried my eating of cheese. It doesn’t exist naturally like milk does, so did I cheat by eating it?
I was learning that it’s an expensive business avoiding processed foods. Fruit and veg is dearer than junk food, and I ate much more of it than I usually would, simply to fill the gap left by not snacking on things like malt loaf and other processed favourites. Had I not followed these cheap ways to your five a daytips, I’d have been nearly £10 down in the space of five days.
riceMy plans for butternut squash risotto were scuppered when I remembered that, strictly speaking, only wild rice (pictured left) was allowed (white rice is hulled, shelled, milled, polished and sometimes coated in glucose to increase luster), and I certainly couldn’t use wine in my cooking. So the week's dinners included roasted vegetables stuffed with ancient grains like spelt, a proper butcher’s steak with greens and homemade chips (was I wrong to allow cooking oil?), and omelette with salad.
It was actually quite easy to create free-from-processed-ingredients dishes, but it did mean spending longer over the stove, what with quick-fix packets such as flavoured couscous and tinned tomatoes (which come with added citric acid) out of the question. I did allow salt, but only the unrefined, straight-from-the-sea kind – literally salt water, which is then dried out by the sun. 
Boy did I miss my little bottle of Friday night Prosecco, and puddings too. I rarely have the time to bake cakes during the week, and so would usually treat myself to a Waitrose tart every now and then… but I was startled when I checked, for the first time, the ingredients on the back of my favourite French pear slice – 41 in total, when you only need about 10 to make your own.
Of all the food challenges I’ve struggled through for lovefood, this was certainly the easiest. As long as you’re willing to make your own packed lunch, devote more time to midweek cooking, and increase your spending on food, then a processed-free diet is pretty straightforward. But of course, eating out is near-impossible – I tried to dine at a restaurant, but the head chef, like the food market stallholders, couldn’t guarantee a processed-free meal at her restaurant.
malt loafAnd I did miss my processed staples, like malt loaf, Marmite, those quick and easy couscous packets, and posh supermarket tarts.
Dietitian Azmina said that, had I stuck to the diet for the longer term, I’d have noticed some huge changes: "Your energy levels would probably increase, the B vitamins from whole grains would help with your nervous energy, and there’d likely be an improvement in the appearance of your skin and hair. Plus your digestion would definitely improve mainly because of all the fibre, and you'd be having more nutrient-dense foods."
But what about if you do it just for a week? "Well, I’d certainly expect you to lose weight [I did – about 3 pounds], and perhaps you’d feel better in yourself. We’ve found that those people who make a change in their diet start to make healthier lifestyle choices soon after, simply because they're more conscious of their actions. The mind is a powerful thing!"

Friday, January 24, 2014

How Sooty made me eat my veg

Faddy diets, cutting down on butter, drinking `diet' everything... bleurgh. For me, there has only ever been one key to keeping healthy: eat in moderation. And I learnt that from a yellow bear.

Sooty and me

I'm an 80s baby, educated by Sooty the bear, Sweep the dog, and Soo the panda. Three furry friends, who I still can’t help but love; even today, I’ll happily watch the Sooty Show with my younger sister.  
Scoff you may, but alongside Matthew Corbett’s genius puppetry work, the best thing about Sooty was how much he taught me... to mind my Ps and Qs, to be considerate of others, and, most important for my life now, to eat in moderation.
I can remember sitting on the floor with a banana sandwich watching the ‘Health Food’ episode of The Sooty Show. I recall singing the song, and realising that eating too many sweeties would give me holes in my teeth. Quite a coup, for a six-year-old.
During the 20 minute show, Soo goes on a health food craze. She won’t let Sooty and Sweep eat their pocket money sweets; she confiscates takeaway pizzas; and chucks all the red meat away, replacing everything in the fridge with bran! Watch the drama unfold below.What follows is a scrappy tiff and terrible bran flapjacks, all leading to the wonderful conclusion that both the boys and Soo are wrong: they can eat both good and bad foods! Everything in moderation, as the song goes…

Here’s the first verse of what Soo and Matthew sing together (spin forward to 16:50 in the video above to hear the song). 
It used to be said that you are what you eat,You could be sourer than lemons, or sweeter than sweet,That’s what they used to say!But now all they say is you mustn’t eat that,Stop taking sugar, avoid getting fat,That’s what they say now!Here’s my advice which I give on the quiet,Try and manage a balanced diet,It’s a situation called……eat in moderation!
Genius. I wonder what Dr Atkins would have to say to that? Surely there’s no need for low fat this and no added sugar that, when the alternative is so simple that even a mute yellow bear can get it? Make Sooty and friends part of the national curriculum, and I reckon childhood obesity would drop.
So what telly are the kids of today brought up on? The BBC’s I Can Cook is far healthier than Sooty… instead of welcoming both burgers and bran, presenter Katy Ashworth focuses wholly on ‘good’ food, and how to disguise vegetables; think carrot and courgette muffins, or seafood ‘bites’. Songs are still in fashion, too – the one about washing your hands before cooking is pretty catchy.
Adverts have been targeted too. Over in America, where 30% of the population is now considered obese, Disney announced in 2012 that it was banning junk food ads aimed at kids on its television networks. Starting in 2015, food makers will have to comply with Disney’s new nutrition policy, limiting calories, sugar, and salt content. Michelle Obama has publically congratulated the plan, although given that Disney makes over £650 million a year from junk food adverts directed at children under 12 years, there’s a chance that they may lose a lot of money.

Monday, December 02, 2013

How to make a fuss-free Battenberg cake

How to make a traditional Battenberg cake without investing in a special tin. And there’s very little washing up either!
How to make a fuss-free Battenberg cake
Indulging a sudden urge for Battenberg cake one weekend, I took to my collection of baking books to find the very best recipe. But to my dismay, most of them involved a fancy Battenberg tin (separated into four sections by alloy barriers) at a cost of around £15; a purchase I wasn’t willing to make, or trek into town for.

So, still desperate for Battenberg, I decided to try and make my cake using a single, square tin instead. Surely, with a decent ruler and a sharp knife, I could create the same checkerboard effect? Thankfully, the method worked. Here’s how I did it, in case you fancy making your own fuss-free Battenberg one day.

If you’re making Battenberg my way, you’ll end up with two cakes instead of one – by no means a bad thing, especially because the sponges freeze well. First, you’ll need to make both an almond cake batter (the yellow stripes), and a pink batter (the pink stripes). For the former, I creamed together: 175g of butter with the same amount of golden caster sugar; 140g self-raising flour; 60g ground almonds; ½ teaspoon of baking powder to give it extra lift; three eggs; and a dash of almond extract. Plop it all into an 18cm square tin lined with baking parchment, and bake for around 30 minutes at 180C/160C fan/gas 4.cake

While you’re waiting, prepare the pink batter. It’s exactly the same as your almond cake, but minus the almond extract and plus plenty of pink food colouring – I must have used half a little bottle of Dr Oetker ‘Hot Pink’ food colouring. You can add a drop of vanilla extract, too. By the time you’ve finished your pink batter, the first cake will probably be done. Let it rest in its tin for five minutes or so, before transferring to a wire rack to cool. You can fill the same tin with your pink batter straight away, and return it to the oven for 30 minutes.

Now you’ll have two 18cm squares of cake – one yellow-ish, one pink. They should be roughly the same size, but don’t worry if one’s gone a bit wobbly. Take a ruler and trim the cakes to make them the same size, making sure to eat the offcuts. Next, you’ll need to cut each cake into four lengthwise strips, giving you eight altogether – the components of two individual Battenberg cakes.
The width of each cake strip should be the same as its height. First measure the height of your Battenberg cake before cutting it (with a sharp knife) into same-size strips. So, if your cake is 3cm high, cut it into four 3cm-wide strips.

Select two yellow strips of cake and two pink strips, then roll your sleeves up – we’re ready to assemble.cake
Apricot jam is your glue. You’ll need about half a jar of the stuff; heat it in a saucepan or the microwave so it thins out a bit. Sandwich one yellow cake strip together with one pink strip, using the jam as adhesive (you can apply it either with a teaspoon or a pastry brush). Slather the top of this layer in jam, then top it with another two cake strips, making sure you create a checkerboard effect.

Next, cover the whole cake in jam (aside from the front face) – it’s the only way the marzipan will stick to the sponge.
You’ll need a whole 500g pack of marzipan for one Battenberg cake. I like using golden marzipan, although you may prefer to use the white variety. Roll it out on a dusting of icing sugar until it looks big enough to cover your cake – it should be about 1cm thick, and certainly not thin enough to see through.cake

When you're ready, and using your rolling pin for help, lift up the marzipan sheet and lay it over the cake, so it covers it entirely. Use your hands to smooth the marzipan around the cake. Cut away the extra marzipan using a very sharp knife – you could use any leftovers for other baking projects (marzipan can be stored in the fridge).cake

Finish your Battenberg cake with a little dusting of icing sugar, and eat! You can either make another Battenberg cake from the four remaining cake strips immediately (recommended if you've a large party of hungry friends to feed), or put them in the freezer for a rainy day. 

Monday, March 25, 2013

Top five food trends for 2013 Britain

Know the source and treat it well

Brits care about where their meat and fish comes from, and how it was treated before it arrives on the plate. At least, more of us do now than we did a couple of years ago, thanks to TV programmes such as Hugh’s FishFight (primarily concerned with sustainable fishing) and Chicken Out!, another Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall show, which highlighted how commercial breeds of broiler chicken are reared for their meat in just 39 days, compared to slow-growing breeds that live for at least 75 days.
My website, lovefood.com, has covered the subject many times, with Editor Andrew Webb (author of Food Britannia) arguing that ‘the future for meat eating is responsible, ethical and traceable’. He writes that as a nation we should buy British free-range meat, use our local butcher instead of the supermarket, eat less beef and try pork or lamb instead, and not eat meat every day. Campaigns such as Meat Free Monday (which is fronted by Paul McCartney and family, and encourages people not to eat meat at least once a week) support his arguments.
Plus the recent horsemeat scandal has made us worry even more about the content of our meat products. Butchers across the country have seen their trade rise by 15-20% ever since the story broke, and there’s also been an increase in the sales of ‘ethical’ meat products such as ‘rosé veal’ – that is, meat from calves raised to RSPCA standards, allowing them to roam outside, live for longer, and eat a healthier diet.
It’s not that people aren’t eating meat anymore… it’s just that there’s more respect for the ‘real thing’, and London restaurants such as Hawksmoor will always be busy. They’re proud to use only Yorkshire beef, and have a video on their website introducing customers to the breed of cow that they use. The more obvious a restaurant is about where its meat comes from, the better it will do.


Perhaps linked to the concerns around meat is a rise in the number of British ‘flexitarians’. The phrase was first coined in the mid-90s, although the media have only started to use it regularly in the last six months or so. A flexitarian is a ‘flexible vegetarian’ – that is, someone who eats mostly vegetarian meals, but makes time for a bit of decent meat or fish when they feel the urge. They’re also referred to as ‘veggie-vores’, or ‘vegetarians with benefits’.
Food trend analysts are predicting a "50% increase" in vegetarianism in 2013, and a similarly startling rise in the number of flexitarians. The rise in meat prices and an increasingly compelling moral and environmental argument is partly to blame for the increase.
Charles Banks, director of food trends agency The Food People, said earlier this year: “There has been a seismic shift in attitudes towards celebrating vegetables and opting to eat less meat. We expect meat-free eating and flexitarianism to soon be a mega trend.” Support from celeb flexitarians, such as chef and author SimonHopkinson, will no doubt encourage it, and restaurants in London are beginning to expand their vegetarian options. Even The Smithfield Tavern, which is opposite the most famous meat market in London, made the decision to go veggie earlier this year, following the success of a meat-free menu at its sister pub in Soho.   
Just a note: I don’t wish to exaggerate the extent of vegetarianism in Britain; after all, estimates suggest that only 2-5% of the population consider themselves to be totally vegetarian. But it is a noticeable trend, and I expect that figure to rise over the next couple of years.

International ‘tapas’

Not tapas as in Spanish food; but tapas meaning ‘bitty’ food; food for sharing; ‘order two or three small plates’ food. It’s a trend which challenges the starter>main>dessert set-up, and it is not specific to any cuisine.
Polpo, a hugely popular restaurant in London’s Soho, is a Venetian ‘bàcaro’ – a humble restaurant serving simple food and good, young wines. Instead of ordering a big bowl of pasta and maybe a salad to start, you pick and choose from a wide variety of cicchetti (Venetian snack food), pizzete, meatballs, fish, and vegetables. Each diner should order between two and four small plates, and the idea is to share them all as a table. Italian chain Zizzi has copies the idea, and now offers diners the option to choose three of five ‘cichetti’ dishes instead of a big main.
Dishoom is another great example. It’s an Indian restaurant (but calls itself an ‘original Bombay café’) in London’s Covent Garden, and instead of the usual curry + rice + naan combo, you choose two, three of four things from a menu of ‘small plates’, ‘grills’, ‘vegetable business’, ‘salad plates’, ‘roomali rolls’ and more. As with Polpo, the idea is to dine on a variety of tastes, colours, aromas and textures, rather than eating a larger quantity of the same thing.
You don’t even have to eat a full meal at such establishments. Dishoom encourages patrons to ‘pop in for a chai tea’ if they want, and it’s no longer frowned upon to spend less than £10 at a restaurant, especially in London. Indeed, a recent study of 2,000 British adults found that 40% of people don’t eat three meals a day, preferring to ‘graze’ all day instead. Plus BBC Radio 4’s The Food Programme recently investigated ‘The Death of Three Square Meals’, reporting that hectic lifestyles and working shifts both play big parts in the decline of meal times, which compliments the kind of food offered at places like Polpo. 
Another strain to this ‘snacking’ trend is the rise of street food. Food retailers have highlighted quality ‘food on the go’ as the main area of growth in their sector, and there are now international food markets within walking distance of almost every office block in London (eg Whitecross Street Market in London’s Old Street). Falafel wraps, burritos, Mediterranean salads and French ‘raclette’ stalls almost always feature. 

Nostalgic baking

Cupcakes are officially out of fashion – we’ve had enough outrageously sweet frosting to last a life time. But Brits still need something sweet to lift us out of the misery of economic decline and bad weather, and this year it comes in the form of comfort puddings… we’re turning the clock back and baking ‘what granny used to make’, in order to feel safe and warm. Think jam roly polys, Victoria sponges, treacle tarts, apple pies and suet puddings.
The hugely popular TV series The Great British Bake Off (set for a fourth series) is key to the trend, giving BBC viewers the impression that nothing is more fun, or more cool, than baking British cakes. Young celeb chefs such as Edd Kimber (who won the first series of Bake Off) and LorrainePascale (a former model who first hit our screens with her Baking Made Easy series) have given baking a ‘cool’ image, and it’s no longer considered a female-only pastime.
The BBC show Food and Drink, which was recently re-launched, devoted a whole half-hour episode to ‘nostalgic classics’, and in a recent Radio Times interview, celeb chef Heston Blumenthal called on the British people to use more memories in food… ‘Food rituals and experiences can bring a community back together through nostalgia and excitement,’ he said. And he even includes a ‘Like a Kid in a Sweet Shop’ dish (a striped paper bag full of superior confectionery) on the tasting menu at his three-Michelin-starred restaurant The Fat Duck.


Britain is in love with everything Scandinavian. Nordic Noir crime dramas such as The Killing, Borgen and The Bridge proved massively popular, and many Brits envy the politics, values and fashions of Scandinavia too. An interest in all things Scandi has helped fuel the Scandinavian food market, especially in London, and the cuisine has a very ‘cool’ reputation over here… especially when it’s championed by young, funky writers such as Signe Johansen, Norwegian author of the Scandilicious blog and baking book.
It’s near impossible to get a table at Scandi Kitchen, a café near Great Portland Street which sells things like fresh cinnamon buns, smorgasbords and meatballs. There’s also a little ‘supermarket’ at the back of the café, selling imported Scandi groceries.
North Road Restaurant near Farringdon is also proving popular – The Telegraph restaurant critic recently gave it 4.5/5, and I had one of the best meals of my life there. I think it’s how fresh, innovative and healthy Scandi cuisine is that appeals to us Brits… especially Londoners, who are always on the lookout for a new type of food to try.
Food takes up almost half of the annual Scandinavia Show at Earl’s Court now (I’ve been twice in a row), and the only thing we Brits are yet to take to is that really strong liquorice. We’ll get there one day though!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Roast potatoes, yorkshire puds, Brussels sprouts, bread sauce...there's nothing so English as Christmas dinner. And with over 700 types of cheese made in this country, there's no reason why your end-of-dinner cheeseboard shouldn't follow suit...

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Try Rye Challenge

It's midday at the office, you're starving, and a few flimsy salad leaves just ain't gonna cut it...

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

When it comes to baking, I’m your gal. But hand me a filleting knife, or a meat cleaver, and I’ll probably use it to cube butter. I’ve never learnt how to do anything cheffy, like butterflying a mackerel or making a hollandaise, and for one that claims to love her food, that’s just not on. So I decided to do something about it...

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Booze 'n buttercream

Ladies. If you had to pick just the one treat, would you go for a cocktail or a cupcake? Tricky decision, and one we're just not prepared to make...

Read my latest Good Food Channel blog post here 

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Confessions of a chocolate snob

I blame La Maison du Chocolat for my newfound chocolate snobbery. Before I went on one of their chocolate tasting sessions, I'd happily scoff a bag of supermarket chocolate coins without even noticing the 20+ ingredients on the label. Ah yes, those were the days…