Baking challenge: a platter of treats, perfect for Wimbledon and a British summer

This post is part of my personal challenge to bake my way through all the challenges of the Great British Bake Off. The challenge below is the showstopper challenge for week eight (the final) of series two: petit fours.

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You would be forgiven for not having even noticed that the Wimbledon Championships had started, what with everything else hogging the headlines at the moment. In any other year, Djokovic crashing out in the third round would be the upset of the summer and Andy Murray would probably have had a nervous breakdown from the pressure, given that this is possibly the first Championship game he’s gone into as a favourite. The scrutiny, however, is off him this year. He could probably play his next match naked and it would barely get a mention.

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Around a year ago I made a strawberry meringue pie for a Mens’ Final viewing party; this year, I’m suggesting a very British platterful of petit fours to see out the final matches. I made the petit fours as part of my very, painfully slow progress through my Great British Bake-Off challenge. The brief for the finale of series two was to make petit fours – meringue, pastry, and cake – twelve of each, with the theme of the Great British Summer. Only I kind of messed up because I didn’t check my notes and thought one of the petit fours was biscuits, rather than pastry, but frankly I was so pleased with the outcome that I’m not going to quibble.

083The British summer usually means three things: rain, blustery wind, and the bitter taste of disappointment in your mouth as you huddle in the sweaters you haven’t yet packed away for another year. Or! It can mean watching the Wimbledon Finals, drinking Pimms and eating strawberries, strolling down to the park and lying on the grass, visiting gaudy seaside towns and the ubiquitous 99 Flake ice cream. Those days are, in their rarity, all the more precious.

For the biscuit petit fours, I was inspired to make mini 99 Flakes, those soft-serve ice creams crowned with a Cadbury’s Flake chocolate bar. For the cone I used a pliable tuile recipe, draping them around pastry cone mounds when just baked and holding them in place until they hardened in a cone shape. This is work for those with robust hands. I find tuiles a somewhat difficult biscuit to master: I have never managed to make them truly thin and shatteringly crisp, and they tend to brown a little too quickly in my somewhat unreliable oven (everything goes a bit too dark around the edges in there). Still, once they were shaped and cream piped in through a star nozzle, and decorated with a sliver of chocolate to resemble the Flake, they tasted just great: buttery, tender-crisp biscuit, soft pillowy cream, bite of dark and bitter chocolate.

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Unbaked meringues

Strawberry and cream, cream and meringue: so classic as to be unoriginal, perhaps even dull, but there’s nothing half-hearted about people’s response this combination. I piped out nests of meringue and filled them with dollops of cream and slices of strawberry in the shape of butterfly’s wings; to give them that something extra, and emphasise their Britishness (or perhaps simply Englishness?), I filled the centres with a wibbly, electric jelly of Pimms and lemonade. I actually used the special strawberry and mint Pimms rather than the classic version. By adding the jelly, the meringue and cream also hearkened to the classic British child’s birthday party favourite of jelly with ice cream. (Fun fact: I was not allowed to eat jelly as a child and now, as an adult, don’t enjoy it very much, and certainly what enjoyment I have pales in comparison to that of my British friends, for whom jelly and cream is the taste of childhood).

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Raw ingredients for Pimms jelly

But my absolute favourite part of the petit four platter was the cake – in the conception, the baking, and the eating thereof. I very much wanted to use my cake pop pan – partly to justify the fact that I even own such a thing – and immediately two things came to mind: one was Wimbledon and tennis balls, the other the classic British summer flavour of tangy rhubarb combined with soft, cool, vanilla-flecked custard. To capture both, I baked a custard-flavoured sponge in the cake pop tin, released the perfect little spheres, let them cool, and then doused them in a white chocolate ganache flavoured with rhubarb extract. I had dribbled a mixture of yellow and green food colouring into the ganache to capture the yellow of the tennis balls – you will need quite a bit to identifiably colour the ganache and it didn’t really come together for me until I added the green food colouring, drop by careful drop, swirling through carefully each time. I drew in the white seams with a white chocolate icing pen, bought commercially, which was about ten thousand times easier than trying to melt white chocolate and make a little paper icing cone. With the icing pen, I had a lot of control over the end product. I mean, I know the icing lines are squiggly, but it would have been so much worse with a DYI product.

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Finally, to capture the look of the grass surface which tennis at Wimbledon is played on, I doused a handful of dessicated coconut in green food colouring until it was as green as the lawn and rested the tennis ball cakes on a bed of this.

I will not lie: this platter was quite time-consuming to make and is the kind of thing you might only do if you are hosting a Wimbledon-themed party, but the end results elicited gasps of admiration from my friends and, most importantly, all were delicious as well as super cute.

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TV and fried food: stuffed courgette flowers and Nigella Lawson’s Tuscan fries

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It was not too long ago, although it seems a political lifetime away, that my boyfriend and I settled in front of the TV to watch the ITV EU referendum debate, accompanied by platefuls of crispy, deep-fried goodness. There has been plenty to keep anyone glued to the television lately: Brexit and Trump for the politically inclined; Euro 2016 for the sport-inclined (it’s football or something); and the final episodes of the latest series of Game of Thrones. I’m going to  admit that of this list I paid keenest attention to the EU membership referendum debates. Now that the referendum has passed, those politically inclined can continue watching Trump, the dissolution of the Labour shadow cabinet, and post-Brexit negotiations. Those disappointed by England’s defeat in the Euros could always switch their support over to Iceland, who are in their first major international tournament, or my own team, the Red Devils (not Manchester United…this totally confused my boyfriend when I first told him “I only really support the Red Devils”.) Or, you know, tennis, since Wimbledon began, although you could have missed the news, drowned out as it has been by politics, which has been in a state of what you might call ‘flux’. And if you watch Game of Thrones, well, I know less about that than I do about football.

Whatever takes your fancy, you may wish to eat while watching. There is something that feels so decadent eating off a tray on the sofa as an adult, especially when things are eaten with fingers, even more so when you have allowed yourself not the low-fat hummus and crudites but the good stuff, the actually fried stuff: onion rings, calamari, whitebait, aubergine tempura, fried chicken, Scotch eggs, even the humble crisp, all have benefitted by being submerged in hot oil until their water has evaporated and they have returned from this slightly dangerous baptism crisp-skinned and tinged with gold. While there is nothing wrong with a torn-open bag of Doritos’ finest (Cool Ranch if you know I’m coming over, please), if you want to up your game a bit, or perhaps combine a love of deep-fried food with seasonal eating, may I recommend the fried and battered courgette flower?

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Courgette blossoms, tenderly cossetted, before filling, dredging and frying

All right, so that possibly sounds like the most pretentious sentence ever written, but I bought some of these flowers, prevalent in spring and summer during courgette/zucchini growing time, stuffed it with cheese (and anchovy – I would characterise this as optional), battered it and fried it, as per Tessa Kiros’ recipe in her elegant Falling Cloudberries (her writing is lyrical, at times a little purple, but hugely evocative of mood, place, memory). The flower itself had a delicate, slightly milky freshness, the petal both tender and yet robust enough to chew; the batter crunched under my teeth; the mozzarella oozed in long and delectable melted strands. There is nothing exclusive about this kind of textural and taste pleasure. The only problem will, of course, be getting hold of the flowers themselves. In London, this may be, at most, a hassle rather than impossible: Wild Country Organics sells them at various farmers’ markets and Borough Market, as well as online. You can buy courgette flowers online via Farm Direct, Natoora and other specialist food sellers. They are not the absolute cheapest things to buy – they are seasonal and delicate so must be harvested and transported with care. For the recipe below you will need about two, maybe three, total, flowers per person, depending what you are serving them with, so if you want to try this but are also cost-conscious, this is the perfect dish to serve up for just you, or perhaps you and your partner or a close friend. The mozzarella and batter makes the tender blooms surprisingly filling. They are scattered with a final flutter of battered and fried sage leaves.

Tuscan fries, oil blotted
Tuscan fries, oil blotted

Nigella Lawson‘s Tuscan fries, from her book and show Nigellissima, which focused on Italian food Anglicised, or perhaps Nigella-ified, is perhaps, if not quite the opposite of the fried courgette flowers, an easy introduction to deep-frying; deep-frying for the cautious. The method is unorthodox: you fry chunks of potato, starting in cold oil, adding aromatics such as unpeeled garlic and herbs at the end. I used sage, because sage was called for in the battered courgette blossom recipe and I wanted to use up the packet: the fried herbs are perfectly crisp and dry at the end, crunchy and paper-thin and shattering delectably against the tongue. I actually much preferred these naked leaves to their battered cousins. Rosemary would also be very good here.

Frying the chips in cold oil, Nigella assures us, does not leave them greasy or soggy. I think mine browned a little too much – I should have turned the heat down a little – and they were slightly limp in the middle (they could have been cut a smidge finer, and I think I used the wrong variety of potato – see my notes below), but indeed they were no greasier or oilier than chips cooked in the more traditional two-part method. While you definitely, certainly, should not ever ever ever leave boiling oil unattended in the kitchen, you can certainly potter around the kitchen and prepare other parts of the meal when cooking the chips using this method, keeping the occasional close eye on them. I did let the oil used for frying cool and then strained and saved it for possible further use.

I wouldn’t advocate this meal for every night (masses of oil + TV means your hips, stomach, waistline and bum won’t lie) but, with a cool glass of prosecco, it’s the perfect, slightly classy-but-still-fried accompaniment to the political TV/sporting event/brutally bloody Middle Ages themed TV show your heart could desire watching.

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Friday Food Things, part VI: I get peachy keen about Lucky Peach, and swallow the stone

128While I was in New York earlier this month, I visited three outposts of David Chang’s Momofuku empire. The Ssam Bar and Noodle Bar offered up some out-of-this-world spectacular food, the find of food I’m still thinking of. (I also visited the Milk Bar, if you’re wondering about the third outlet). I would love to go again and would recommend them heartily to anyone (apart from vegetarians – no real non-meat/fish options are available. It seems kind of out of step with current sensibilities but hasn’t affected their success). Anyway, considering I fell pretty hard for the slurpy, spicy, punchy food offered at Momofuku, I also picked up two copies of Lucky Peach, the food journal David Chang founded: the Pho Issue and the Versus Issue.

Unlike other food magazines, it’s quarterly rather than monthly and is decidedly a journal of food writing rather than a small recipe compendium smattered with writing, reviews and other features. Clearly comparing Lucky Peach to Olive, Delicious or BBC Good Food would be to compare some quite different beasts. While the latter serves an audience of keen home cooks, Lucky Peach is aimed at true food hobbyists, the kind of people who some might say are unhealthily obsessed with eating. And it is true that for anyone whose interest or passion is food there is a real danger of fetishisation, whether of chefs, produce, or fancy and expensive equipment. Fortunately Lucky Peach‘s editors prick an inclination to pretentious with amusing and perhaps even bold send-ups of the food reviewing genre: in the Pho issue, for example, a writer reviews packets of instant pho and freely admits to them becoming samey and boring and feeling ‘full of noodles’ at the end of the challenge.

Beautiful photography in the Pho Issue
Beautiful photography in the Pho Issue

The writing is also bloody good. I became surprisingly into the history of pho, even though it was hard work initially considering I’ve like, never eaten it and stuff. But once I let go and got immersed into the writing I learned so many interesting things about not just pho but Vietnam itself: the country’s fraught relationship to America; its transition from imperial outpost to Communist state to capitalist transition; the people who fled and how they built their lives; how all this history has come together in a bowl of beefy noodle soup. Despite living in South East Asia for the better part of my life I’ve never visited Vietnam (nor Cambodia nor Laos for that matter) and Lucky Peach really captured a lot of dimensions and complexity about the country, a particular feat when you consider the whole thing was ostensibly about soup.

148Again, I started off by finding the Versus issue somewhat hard going (the rivalry between San Francisco and New York as food capitals is pretty much alien and irrelevant to me as a rivalry between Marseilles and Avignon would be: I mean, I’d be happy to visit either!), but again a really great selection of energetic writers and compelling interviews drew me in despite my initial scepticism. Lucas Peterson’s article on disordered eating was frankly one of the most affecting pieces I’ve ever read about food, as someone who has suffered from bad cycles of binge eating, self hatred and extreme dietary deprivation (not as an adult, but as an overweight teen). I ached for the loneliness that came through in his eating; by contrast to his patterns of indulge as a teenager, his writing is calm and self-reflective without dipping into self-pity or pathology.

Surprisingly the article on Tokyo by David Chang himself was a weak spot and suffered from one of Lucky Peach’s greatest downfalls, its manufactured bad-assery. I mentioned to my boyfriend when we were eating at the Ssam Bar that David Chang is considered this majorly rebellious, bad-ass, bad-boy, rule-book-tearing chef. “Why’s that?” said the boyfriend, not unreasonably. “On you know, he swears and has tattoos,” I said, and we both laughed because neither are exactly the acts of a wild child dismissive of taboo.

136So there’s a lot of swearing in Lucky Peach and Chang’s Tokyo article is one ‘fuck’ after another (of Italy: “For fuck’s sake, can you eat anything besides fucking pasta?” I don’t disagree with the sentiment as such, but it doesn’t actually require the swearing to make its point; it’s there like a Christmas decoration in July, superfluous but the owner likes it, which is fine when it comes to home decor and less fine when it comes to literature and especially the confines of print media). Like we get it, you don’t believe in the norm of being polite to your reader or mindful of their potential delicacy. But swearing isn’t really that original or shocking and frankly is too often used as a crutch in Lucky Peach, a shorthand to show how edgy and alternative the writers and editors are, the expletive delivered in lieu of any real nuance or insight. It’s fundamentally laziness that occasionally mars and, more rarely, threatens to entirely derail an article, which doesn’t do justice to the magazine’s typical depth and grasp of complexity.

All in all, if you see food as more than just fuel and are interested in it as a mechanism and medium for biography, history, geography and even anthropology, I’d recommend having a bite of Lucky Peach (this is the kind of lazy and derivative metaphor which falls into the same category as the swearing I complained about above, but it was surprisingly hard to resist! Sorry guys). It’s definitely one for those whose interest goes beyond cooking as a craft and is not too sensitive to swearing, who has the tolerance to get through some slightly dense articles, the patience to forgive the ones trying too hard to shock (and failing), and can survive long thematic issues on seemingly narrow topics. But perseverance wins the day: if you can make it through, you will discover some truly excellent food writing and experience some real insight into issues you might not have thought about or considered interesting without prompting.

Baking challenge: Sachertorte is painless

This post is part of my personal challenge to bake my way through all the challenges of the Great British Bake Off. The challenge below is the technical challenge for week eight (the final) of series two: sachertorte.

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I bake quite rarely these days. I still enjoy it, but diet plans, the intense busy-ness of new horizons (they take a lot of work…), holidays and the quiet but now, I think, definitive, shrivelling to death of my book club, where I brought the odd treat, having peopled my baking schedule with significant pauses. At the same time, though, I’m rediscovering a new enjoyment for cooking, inspired by A Girl and Her Greens (it’s the perfect book to get stuck into in the spring and summer, when harvests become bountiful), Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (an inspiration to eating locally and living as lightly as possible, even if the UK’s food supply system is markedly less toxic than that of the US), and vegetable delivery boxes, so it doesn’t feel so much like a loss as a shift away from a certain kind of eating.

For quite a long time, well past the time I knew the Sachertorte’s origin story in an Austrian hotel backwards, I mentally pronounced this classic chocolate cake’s name in the French style: Zache-tohrte. In fact, it’s closer to Zacker-torte, as I discovered when a friend casually mentioned this Viennesse dessert as a particular favourite.

Vienniese patisserie is so renowned for its beauty and intricacy, the heart of a coffeehouse culture that’s taken extremely seriously, that I’d always thought of a sachertorte as a very complex cake. Without casting my eyes over any recipes (oh, not I!), I had somehow gotten it into my head that sachertorte was a complicated, multi-layer fiddle, involving the slicing of sponges and requiring significant technical expertise to produce the glassy, shiny chocolate icing that tops the cake. The night before one of the last book club meetings held (an extremely well-attended meeting, ironically!), I was feeling mutinous at the prospect.

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Well, some recipes doubtless are very complicated, but luckily, Mary Berry’s was not one of them. A single layer of fine-grained sponge of ground almonds and flour is brushed with warmed apricot glaze, after which nothing more complicated than a classic ganache is pooled over it, resulting in a singularly sticky, smooth confection with a hint of welcome sharpness from the apricot jam, which cuts through the richness of the glaze. The cake itself requires nothing more complicated than the separate beating of egg yolks and whites, not too much of a hardship with even the cheapest of electric whisks.

Piping out words with icing was equally something I imagined to be enormously and undelightfully tricky. I think I mention this every time I refer to baking but lord, do I abhor a fiddle. However, with a small enough piping bag and confidence, it was surprisingly easy to spell out the traditional ‘Sacher’ atop the cake. The key is to take a deep breath and just let go, writing smoothly and without hesitation; it’s the pauses that will cause the writing to go funny and jerky. My attempt was a little off-centre but the cursive script was, if anything, more readable than my ordinary handwriting.

Simple, delicious, and lovely to look at, this is a cake worth breaking a diet plan for with a sliver or two. Its deep, rich flavour is very satisfying.

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Video: May 2016 Food Favourites

It’s late in the month – May is a memory – but I still wanted to share some of the great food, drink and cooking items which have crossed, or in some cases recrossed, my path in May. Once again featuring cookbooks (by Diana Henry and Thane Prince), my dish of the month (a really rather good Thai seafood salad), a spectacular restaurant, a new way to keep cut fruit and veg fresher, great breakfast items, a delicious snack and – of course – and new, excellent tea. I hope you all enjoy watching!

Friday Food Things, part V: the miracle of seasonality

I haven’t written in a bit because the past couple of weeks have involved the following: preparing to travel (including trying to finish off as much work as possible before leaving the office); travelling and enjoying myself enormously; recovering from travelling. My travels took me to New York, where I visited the Statue of Liberty, strolled around Central Park, and ate some amazing food. You can read the first instalment of my adventures in the Big Apple here.

IMG_2336Since back, I have absolutely devoured Barbara Kingsolver’s magnificently inspirational Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Kingsolver is primarily known as a novelist, with The Poisonwood Bible probably being her most immediately recognisable work (true to form, I haven’t read it, but I’ve read The Lacuna which, if nothing else, introduced me to the concept of the lacuna). (That sounds flippant. It was very good). Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, however, is something like a memoir, something like a work of journalism, something like a handbook for seasonal eating. It follows Kingsolver and her family as they move to her husband’s farm in Appalachia and agree to eat seasonally and locally for a year, as a family project. I’ve always been interested, in a token way, in locality and seasonality, and occasionally get so prickly about our general reliance on fossil fuels, a reliance embedded deep within the food supply system, that I wake up in the middle of the night and sit bolt upright, panicking. However, in recent years, what was once a passionate interest has seemed marginal when I have struggled to find time to cook at all on occasion. Even when you love food, the reality of cooking

Seasonal, local vegetables from Farm Direct (see below)
Seasonal, local vegetables from Farm Direct (see below)

when you’re home at 7pm, 8pm, ground down by a long journey deep underground in a rattling carriage, can be a prosaic and joyless chore at times. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle was like that moment when I drink my third cup of coffee: an awakening. Kingsolver lives on a farm, so it’s arguably easy for her to eat locally, seasonally. But the advice is generous and understanding about the impact even a few cumulative decisions can have on the whole fossil fuel-dependent global supply chain of food, how it can reduce our reliance on them, and how a few small changes can directly benefit farmers. Yes, the book is a little dated now, and it’s obviously focused on the US, which doesn’t map exactly with agriculture in Europe. In the EU, we simply don’t have the same issues with growth hormones in milk, concentrated animal feeding operations and patented genetically modified crops, partly due to EU regulations and partly due to consumer rejection. Interetsingly, disagreements about food standards are one of the issues holding up agreement on the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.

 

IMG_1162I can’t and won’t live without aubergine, but I am making an effort to eat seasonally and locally. In this I have been aided by two things. The first is April Bloomfield’s A Girl and her Greens, an ode to vegetables which bursts with creativity and ideas for beautiful, sometimes unusual, vegetables. Not all the recipes are 100% to my taste (like many professional chefs, she uses more butter than I am personally comfortable with!) but I feel genuinely excited when flicking through this book, inspired to cook new things in different ways. The quirky illustrations of dancing pigs and quizzical chickens are also a delight.

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These dancing pig illustrations in A Girl and Her Green never failed to draw a smile

The second aid to seasonality is Farm Direct, a website my friend Mehrunnisa directed me to. It’s effectively a virtual marketplace where farmers can list their produce; the food you order is delivered straight to your door. I browse the website like some people browse Asos or Tiffany’s: I just want it all, and everything is precious. So many wonderful things are growing around this time of year and I piled my online basket high, and then reluctantly took stuff out, bitterly acknowledging the fact that we are a two-person household who can only eat so much. The fantastic thing about the produce offered is that there are plenty of things simply not available in supermarkets: think sorrel, baby purple turnips, red spring onions. I find the prices competitive, too, especially for the unusual and organic produce, and I like the fact that farmers are earning more than they would if I purchased their food through a supermarket. I can’t wait for my next crate of baby turnips, gooseberries and Tiptree strawberries to arrive this weekend.

IMG_1172So immersed in my new love of seasonal, more local, eating (fresher! Directly benefitting farmers in my locality! Reducing our reliance on fossil fuels!) was I that reading Adam Johns’ opinion column ‘What’s so great about reating seasonally?’, published in the ‘A Good Rant’ section of delicious magazine was something of a shock. Johns describes encouragement to eat seasonally (though he intertwines this with the issue of eating locally – admittedly the two are very intersected) as an “absurd foodie dictum” and characterised by “piety, hypocrisy, and chauvinism”, not to mention snobbery and “culinary xenophobia”. He bemoans being unable to find South African apples in his local supermarket. I found the article pretty judgemental, but most of it was just his opinion, and I’m excellent at living and letting live on those (I just don’t have the energy to get exercised about how other people feel most of the time). However, there were two parts in particular where I thought Johns’ arguments were specious. Firstly:

Shoes and clothes are still made in the UK, but how many of those who insist on ‘buying locally’ make a point of wearing these items? […] why is that permitted if it’s not okay to eat an imported tomato?

My counter-point to that argument is the simple issue that fresh food is perishable. When it is imported via air, huge amounts of fuel are used to bring over produce which is, largely, destined to have a relatively brief shelf life. Coupled with the knowledge that UK households throw out 7 million tonnes of food items a year, half of which could have been eaten, the implication is that a lot of food is being imported only to be thrown away. A huge amount of non-renewable fossil fuel has been used to transfer out of season green beans to our rubbish (or perhaps compost!) bins. When importing clothes and shoes, there is no real shelf life (beyond the vagaries of fashion) as these are not perishable items, therefore importing them is not so risible. They are also much more likely to be shipped by container, and not a refrigerated one, either.

The second argument that Johns makes is as follows:

There’s also a mean-mindedness to the seasonistas’ stance. Every time you turn your nose up at a green bean from Kenya or a bunch of asparagus from Peru, you deny farmers in such developing countries the chance of a better living.

Heirloom tomatoes, spring garlic and a hint of artichoke, from Farm Direct
Heirloom tomatoes, spring garlic and a hint of artichoke, from Farm Direct

It’s been well recorded that the market distoring impact of the Common Agricultural Policy has had the unwelcome effect of flooding developing countries’ markets with subsidised food grown in Europe, resulting in the decline of local food production; in addition, the CAP’s subsidies mean developing-world farmers cannot compete with their European counterparts on price. While the CAP has been reformed, these structural problems remain and arguably will continue to do so. The idea that farmers in the developing world are making a decent living due to our appetite for their vegetables is risible. A lot of the growing is done on large-scale monoculture plantations or farms owned by local or international corporations.

 

The restructuring of developing countries’ food markets to grow crops for the Western world’s table is also having a serious impact on the local environment and is in some cases compromising local peoples’ access to fresh, affordable food. At the same time, I recognise that food exports will be an important source of income for many people in the developing world and that whole countries’ economies rely on export of primary products. My point is that the whole issue is complex from a range of perspectives, including human, economic, and environmental, and Johns’ reductionist argument, painting those reluctant to buy foreign-grown vegetables as xenophobic Scrooges does a disservice to this difficult issue.

As I said I am unlikely to be able to live entirely without products from the world’s larder: in my fridge and on my counter I have bananas, aubergines, tinned Italian tomatoes and herbs and spices from around the world (and when it comes to fossil fuels…I did travel to New York recently!). But attempting to tread a little more lightly on the earth by reducing my reliance on foods imported by fossil fuel is driven not by xenophobia or pettiness but by an attempt to live more responsibly in my day to day actions. I don’t think this is a bad thing.