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RONNIE EUNSON: the sheep farmer

In articles on October 1, 2012 at 2:45 pm

Ronnie runs Uradale Farm on Shetland and agreed to an interview to appear in Fork Magazine. While we were planning to get up to Uradale during a visit to the islands, it never quite happened and so I ended up interviewing Ronnie on the phone when I got back to Bristol. He was a very easy person to chat to and clearly very passionate about his business. The photo was sent over by Ronnie.

“Well, yesterday was very nice, but today is damp again,” Ronnie sighs in an accent owing as much to Scandinavia as Scotland. “The wind is supposed to go southerly which should make things a bit milder. We’ve just finished the sheering but now we have to reseed a number of fields where the crops have failed. It’s only barley as that’s all that’ll grow this late on. We’ll cut it green and use it to bulk up the silage.” Uradale Farm covers 750 hectares of heather moorland near Scalloway, the ancient capital of Shetland. It’s been a strange year for farming on the islands. The weather hasn’t co-operated and when you only have a hundred growing days, every one counts. The farm is home to 700 Shetland ewes and 30 Shetland cows. Alongside feeding and tending the livestock, Ronnie takes care of the farm and is chairman of the local mart and abattoir, which is run as a co-op for the local community. “Nowadays my sons help, but the days are still long and hard.”

Uradale didn’t land in Ronnie’s lap. It was only through a combination of hard work and determination that he got his land. “Farms don’t come up for sale very often in Shetland,” he tells me, “I studied in Edinburgh and came home during the oil boom. I took construction jobs and saved my pennies to buy crofts and bits and pieces of land. I ended up being a conventional producer for the area, selling livestock to be raised in Aberdeenshire. The only other source of income was farming subsidies.” But as time went by, making a living got harder. In 2000, Shetland lambs were virtually unsellable and things hit a real low. After having worked so hard, for so long, the only option Ronnie had was either to give it all up or change drastically.

Uradale went organic in stages from 2000 to 2006, starting with a separate unit on the western edge of the farm where the sheep could be converted as quickly as possible. “The organic system was designed for a longer growing season so compliance wasn’t easy,” Ronnie tells me, “we have far fewer choices and relying on clover for all your nitrogen puts you at the mercy of the weather. The markets don’t care if it goes wrong.” Ten years ago, no-one wanted ‘inferior’ Native Shetland meat but by focussing on its benefits, Ronnie changed the markets’ minds. “We’ve been involved in extensive scientific research to show how much better for you our product is, with much higher levels of healthy fats than conventional red meats. We supply Lidgates of London with lambs and beef every September now. More recently, we’ve been spinning our own Native Shetland organic wool. It’s the only one of its kind on the market. I’ve been invited to address the Food Writers’ Guild and our lamb has won two gold medals at Smithfield.” It was growing up around his father’s butchery business in Lerwick that gave Ronnie the insight he needed to change. “Seeing things from the point of view of the end product – the meat – and the consumer gave me a different perspective.”.

When I ask Ronnie if he regrets having to go organic, there is no hesitation. “My focus is on sustainable agriculture that’s embedded in its own ecosystem. It sounds lofty, but I feel I’m doing something worthwhile rather than just chasing after daft subsidies.” The bureaucracy involved in running an organic farm in the EU is prestigious, but Ronnie demonstrates remarkable patience given the frustrations. “The detail of the regulation here is sufficiently inappropriate to make me want to change certain aspects of it,” he explains, “up here, things can be a bit different. The rationale of having a farming system that doesn’t rely on artificial inputs is a good one but it should work in the Arctic Circle if needs be, not just in kinder climates. Only flexibility will make things really sustainable.” A case in point, the once-flourishing Shetland dairy industry has been reduced to just three farms. “They’ve done their bit and followed principles of ‘good farming’, but they’re clinging on by their fingernails. All it takes is for Tesco to import cheaper milk from mainland Scotland and their feet are cut from under them. We live in a very centralised country and Edinburgh is just as far away as London is in terms of understanding our problems. Islands mould people into different beings. If you get the chance to go to Fair Isle you’ll see what I mean. It’s a really unique community out there and much more on the wild side of things.”

I ask Ronnie if he could imagine living anywhere other than Shetland and there is a long pause. “Oh that’s difficult,” he chuckles, “maybe Norway if I could get used to the trees? You get a bit stifled with all the regulations and inspections here. Over there, they seem to have a healthier balance between control and encouraging people to do good things.” Finally, I ask Ronnie what he would change if he had a magic wand. His answer is both humbling and sums up the attitude behind his success. “Oh, I never believed in magic wands. I try not to think in terms of lucky finds or treasure troves because what you do and achieve is down to your own efforts. Simply wishing things could change means you’re not accepting reality. If you can’t cope with reality, you’re in the wrong game.”

This interview is an extract from issue 25 of Fork magazine. Fork is a bi-monthly magazine beautifully designed and filled with interviews with interesting people, reviews of the best places to eat and travel to, plus a few recipes for good measure.
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SKIP WHALEY: the journeyman.

In articles on July 22, 2012 at 10:50 am

Skip is my friend John’s dad. I know John from my time living in Tokyo back around the turn of the millennium. I was looking for someone to interview as part of a series for Fork magazine, where this interview was first published in issue #24. Skip lives in South California so this interview was carried out, after quite a few tech fails, over Skype.

Skip Whaley

The Great Food Revival. We hear about it all the time with the next up-and-coming chef reinvigorating another traditional skill. I’ve become more and more curious about who they’re learning these skills from, so over the next year, I’ve decided to find out. I’ll meet six people, food veterans, if you will, who have worked in their chosen trade for my whole life or longer. 1975 is the line drawn in the sand and an idea takes shape.

I found my first, Skip Whaley, through an old friend John who I haven’t seen in over a decade due to the tyrannies of geography. “My dad worked as a meatcutter all his life,” John told me, clearly excited about seeing his dad in print, “he must have started way before 1975.” Skip lives in deepest Southern California, but after much concerned checking of timezones and some technological hiccups, we settle down for a chat.

“It was 1961 when I started out in the meat business as a clean-up boy. I was 15,” Skip has a honeyed Californian accent that makes me feel self-consciously British, “I moved on to Country Boy Market a couple of years after and learnt to break beef. Dad and granddad both sold poultry across Southern California. They knew a lot of people and got me an ‘in’ at Stater Brothers in October ’66.”

Stater’s is a family-run, Southern Californian grocery store that started trading in 1935 and is still going strong. Skip worked there until retiring 9 years ago.

“I drove 45 miles each way in my old Renault,” Skip chuckles, “gas was only 18¢ a gallon so the round trip cost me 86¢. Driving that far would cut deep into your pocket these days. We still live miles from anywhere – it’s two miles of dirt track just to get to our mailbox. I had experience but still, I had to start as a union apprentice and couldn’t cut anything without a trained journeyman present. Stater’s and a store called Michael’s were the only places with a meat counter and they still have the slogan ‘It’s the meat that made us famous’ up over the counter today. Get the first cut wrong and you have to re-cut every piece, so we went to school once a week to learn the trade and how to make the most profit out of every cut. Every one of us had the skills to start up his own business.” I ask Skip if he was ever tempted to go it alone. He pauses. “Well, sure I was. There was a time back in the 80s when we had the idea of a restaurant with a meat counter – choose your cut and we’ll cook it for you. It’s been done successfully since but the truth was, the hours would have been long, the pay would have been too little and the risks would have been high. Looking back, I chose well.”

Over the years, Skip worked his way up to backroom journeyman, taking on the responsibilities of the manager when he was away. “The stores changed drastically over the years,” he tells me, “when I first started, we put sawdust down at the beginning of the week and picked it up at the end of the week. We raked particles out of it daily, so I guess it was semi clean!” he laughs. “In the 70’s, sawdust became concrete and wooden blocks were replaced with fibreglass. Now you spray everything down after every job, maybe five, six times a day. The job’s changed too.” Skip describes a process of consolidation with the small, highly-skilled onsite teams gradually replaced with general clerks and skilled workers concentrated into large off-site warehouses. “Put a skilled breakman out in the warehouse and replace him with a clerk and things get hectic. It’s tough! In my later years, I did the early shifts from 5am till 2pm. I was in before it got busy, did all my cuts and cleaned down my area before lunch. Then I could make sure everyone got home on time. We worked as a team and Stater’s runs a tight ship.”

Skip has a self-effacing manner and I wonder if he considers himself an expert. “Yeah, I probably do, but I’m still learning. If you’re neat and tidy and work well together, it all falls into place.” He pauses, “You know, the most gratifying thing is training someone with a great work ethic who makes it to backroom man. I’ve learnt a trick or two from some of those young guys but it’s good to impress them every once in a while.” He laughs, “‘Oh look!’ they think, ‘this old guy can do something in 45 minutes that takes me 90!'”

I ask Skip if he ever got sick of all that meat but he answers ruefully, “I’m not supposed to have red meat any more but I just love a BBQ. At Thanksgiving, I cook a 20lb turkey if the kids are about. I recommended allmy sons to follow in my footsteps but they got smart on me and went to college,” the pride in his voice is palpable. “Sometimes, I walk up to the counter at Stater’s and say ‘You know, I used to be a meatcutter,'” I can hear Skip’s eyes twinkle all the way from Southern California as he anticipates his punchline, “and they sigh, ‘Yeah Skip, we know'”

We say goodbye and I’m left with the impression of a kind and humorous man who firmly believes in a right and a wrong way of doing things. It strikes me that it takes a vast amount of dedication to devote a lifetime to a trade and I realise I’ll be meeting a group of people with that very special something in common.

This interview is an extract from issue 24 of Fork magazine. Fork is a bi-monthly magazine beautifully designed and filled with interviews with interesting people, reviews of the best places to eat and travel to, plus a few recipes for good measure.

BECCA ROSE: mayonnaise queen

In articles on July 6, 2012 at 1:54 pm

This article for Fork Magazine came about during the very first Full Moon Feast – our bring-your-own-and-share full moon supper that we hold every month in a different location in Bristol. Becca was so generous on the day, made us a lovely meal that we ate in some unexpected sunshine in her garden. The original article was called ‘amayonnaising’ which was Becca’s idea and we took a stack of photos that didn’t make it into the magazine. We talked about so much more than mayonnaise and she’s another most wanted to reinterview and dig a little deeper.

becca rose chopping

I don’t notice the jam jar on the table at first, such is the hustle and bustle of our monthly bring-a-dish, welcome-one-and-all supper. Imagine my delight when I realise what it contains.

Home. Made. Mayonnaise!

O mayonnaise! I could go into raptures about you! Floppily languid stuff, sliding off my spoon with the suaveness of a confidence trickster I don’t mind being conned by. Oily dictator in my fridge, imposing yourself with impunity on every culinary choice I make, turning yesterday’s pizza or lasagne into the perfect breakfast (yes, really) and making even iceberg lettuce edible.

I open the jar and spoon some of the happy wonderful creamy contents onto my plate. It’s a perfect 3.5 on the mayonnaise scale, the loose slippery yellow stuff being a 1 and Helman’s Mr Whippy weirdness at a queasy 10. One taste, and I lurch to my feet. “Who made this?!” I demand, brandishing my oversize silver spoon and swooning from the jar’s slight garlic whiff. A shuffle follows the silence and Becca Rose, renowned for the best tortilla española in Bristol and puppeteer extraordinaire, steps forward, chin defiantly aloft. “I did,” she says, “what of it?”

“Teach me!” I proclaim, fervour burning in my eyes.

So, just a few days later, I find myself in Becca Rose’s sunny kitchen, notebook at the ready. Verduras a la plancha are already prepared while shrimp and squid wait to make acquaintance with some hot oil and garlic. One of those famous tortillas taunts us from under a square of kitchen paper.

“I first learnt to make mayonnaise 10 years ago from a French chef named Bruno,” Becca tells me as she assembles the ingredients. “I use this,” she pats a blender that would do Wallace and Grommit proud. “You can make it with just a fork, but I prefer it a bit firmer.” She cracks an egg into the basin. “Don’t think you can double the ingredients and make twice as much,” she tells me, “it doesn’t work. If you want more, you just have to make it twice.” Next comes a clove of garlic, crushed, a teaspoon of Dijon mustard and a tablespoon of Sherry vinegar. “A friend’s mother in Valladolid made the most amazing mayonnaise – and she made it with pure olive oil! Usually, if you make mayonnaise with just olive oil, it tastes horrible. But with Sherry vinegar, it’s a thing of beauty.”

There’s something arcane about mayonnaise making. As everyone who has ever tried it knows, sometimes, despite getting the ingredients right, getting the process perfect, even clutching your lucky rabbit’s foot won’t make it right. Sometimes the damn stuff just won’t emulsify.

“It happened to me once,” Becca’s face is haunted, “I knew it was coming. I was in Toulouse and I offered to make mayonnaise and then before I knew it, there were five people watching me!” With some cause then, Becca’s hand trembles as she flicks the switch. I gird my loins and pour the oil. As more and more oil goes in, we peer inside, waiting. Then, about a quarter of the bottle in, it happens! The consistency isn’t quite right yet, it’s too slithery, but there is no denying that we have emulsification. I realise I haven’t been breathing. I add yet more oil. The oil content of mayonnaise is prestigious – for a jar of mayonnaise, you need about a jar of oil. Many people lose their nerve and scarper off to buy a ready made jar instead, but it’s a Pyrrhic victory – there’s just as much oil in shop bought mayo. And, of course, it’s shop bought.

We taste and adjust, adding a little more of everything until neither egg, oil, vinegar nor mustard predominate. Each flavour is subsumed into the totalitarian state of amayonnaisingness.

Of course, we sit in the sunshine. Of course, the tapas are amazing. Of course, it is one of those days when you leave, hugs akimbo, all effusive with thanks and all aflush with wonderful memories. Of course it is. With mayonnaise that perfect, what could possibly go wrong?

Becca Rose’s Amazing Mayonnaise

  • Add one whole egg, white and all, to the basin
  • Add a perfect clove of garlic, crushed
  • Add one teaspoon of Dijon mustard
  • Add a generous tablespoon of Sherry vinegar
  • Breath deeply, be brave, commence blending
  • While blending the ingredients, pour in a steady stream of sunflower oil
  • Suppliment the sunflower oil with olive oil if desired
  • Cross fingers until emulsification happens
  • Continue blending and adding oil until the mayonnaise is thick enough to cling to the sides of the basin
  • Add more vinegar, garlic or mustard until desired taste is achieved

Though heaven knows how they make it last that long, it is said that fresh mayonnaise will keep in the fridge for up to one week.

This interview is an extract from issue 23 of Fork magazine. Fork is a bi-monthly magazine beautifully designed and filled with interviews with interesting people, reviews of the best places to eat and travel to, plus a few recipes for good measure.

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NAJIBA MRAKADEH: daughter of Damascus

In articles on July 6, 2012 at 10:06 am

I met Najiba in a meditation class. She is tiny, smily and very friendly. She came over to my house and we cooked together. The interview was published in issue #22 of Fork Magazine. While her English isn’t perfect, she is one of the most expressive people I have interviewed and put all sorts of technicolour pictures in my head. Given that all we hear these days about Syria is horror, I felt priveleged to see another side to it.

Najiba and me

When Najiba Mrakadeh talks, she effortlessly conjures up colours, smells, and sounds, and she talks with her hands and the expressions on her face as she does with her words, “I lived my first eighteen years in an old house in the old city of Damascus. Imagine a small door, just big enough for one person to fit through, and then a long corridor,” she smiles and her eyes sparkle, “and then, at the end of the corridor, you see heaven. Lemon trees, jasmine, Seville oranges and a fountain in a high stone basin.” Syria is one of those places we hear about all the time, but most of us know very little. “We serve the oranges as a delicacy. You cut them into quarters, roll them and sew them on a thread, then you boil them in a very thick syrup. When you pull the thread off, they roll into spirals. My friends still bring me them when they come from Syria to visit.”

She chops up an enormous pile of onions with her own sharp knife she has brought with her. I gallantly try to help but by the time I have chopped one onion, she has finished three. “The house is a classy hotel now, well half of it. They knocked down the other half to widen the road … they wouldn’t get away with it these days.” The onions go into a hot pan with plenty of olive oil, “We need to cook these until they caramelise.” We’re making mujaddara, a dish of lentils and bulghur and cumin, and of course, the caramelised onions. She sits and sorts through the dark red lentils, picking out the black lentils and bits of grit. “We would spend hours doing this when we were children, sitting in the courtyard and chatting. Mujaddara is a winter dish because it has lentils and it’s something we would eat on a Friday. I’m Greek Orthodox Christian and my father was a priest. We didn’t eat meat on Fridays and there is a whole vegetarian cuisine based around Lent.”

The lentils go into a heavy pan where they simmer in time to the sizzle of the onion. We’re also making fatouche a vibrantly coloured salad with deep fried flatbread pieces on top. “When I was young, the baker’s boy would come and deliver the bread every morning and then anything that was left over was left out to dry and then you make fatouche with it. The salad is a summer food. Of course it’s different now – you can get everything all year round and people make things to freeze. In those days, we had an enormous pantry in the house and all summer, we prepared for the winter. We would get big drums of olive oil. We dry tomatoes and apricot on the roof and make a concentrated paste. You can’t get anything like that here! Or there’s makdous, small aubergines, boiled and stuffed with walnuts and garlic and then pressed and dried for storage for the winter. In summertime, it’s all about the fresh vegetables that grow in the valley around Damascus. We’d make labaneh too, a yoghourt so concentrated you can roll it into balls and preserve it in oil. In the winter it’s bulghur, rice and lentils. In different parts of the country, they just used to eat what was available – in the north, just mutton, yoghourt and aubergine with bulghur and in other parts, they eat camel.”

Once the lentils are done, the bulghur goes in and we chop tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuce for the fatouche. Syrian food, like the Syrian Arabic dialect, forms a continuum with Lebanon on its southern border, there is much that is familiar here from Lebanese cuisine and Najiba tells us that the Lebanese are famous for making successful restaurants, but the food is only half the story. “My favourite is tabbouleh. It’s the most colourful food you can imagine and when I think of it, I think of friends,” her smile is warm. “We chop big piles of parsley and chat and laugh. It’s like when we make stuffed vineleaves, you spend hours making them the day before you eat them with the whole family or your friends.”

When I ask her if Syria has changed, she looks up from the lemons she is squeezing with the help of the handle of a knife and nods vigorously. “You know about this,” she says to me, “you have lived abroad. When you leave somewhere, you put it under a glass jar and it doesn’t change for you. But if you stay, it changes and you don’t even notice it. If you want to go back to the old ways, you have to find it elsewhere, like in some parts of the USA there are Syrian communities that have kept all the old ways.” Najiba understands about being an outsider. Even though she was Syrian, her mother grew up in Haiti and came to Syria to marry her father. “Like me, she went abroad for love. When I was young I didn’t understand how much of an interesting woman she was. I just wanted to fit in and for her to be like the other mothers. But she read French and she was interested in politics, she didn’t know that you weren’t supposed to look a man in the eye or touch people without thinking about it.” She laughs out loud, “‘Mum!’ I used to say, ‘why can’t you understand that we don’t do that here!’ And now my daughter says the same to me here. Now I know that being an outsider is a quality, a blessing. It means you really see things with your eyes and you can appreciate them more. You understand that, no?” I agree. It’s only through living away from this country for so long that I can really appreciate what a wonderful place it is.She looks wistful, “I can imagine going back there. One day. I do miss it but when I go back, I’m a beloved guest. It’s been 21 years! I’m not a part of it anymore.” She shrugs.
When I ask her if she usually cooks Syrian or British food, she tells us she cooks British food but in a Syrian way. “We don’t have broccoli in Syria, but I cook it the way we would there – a bit of oil, a bit of garlic, a lot of cumin and a little water.” She stirs the lentils and adds in the bulghur and a hefty dose of cumin and turns the heat down low. She then arranges the maqali, deep fried thin sliced aubergine and blanched cauliflower florets into a bowl and begins to assemble the salad. “These are turnip pickles,” she says, pointing out the violently pink slivers in another dish, “the colour comes from beetroot.” She checks the onion, it is dark brown and string like. Once the bulghur is cooked and the water all absorbed, she spoons it with the lentils onto a flat plate amidst clouds of steam and arranges the fried onions over the top. “If my mother was here,” she chuckles, “she would be shocked. ‘Where is the meat?!’ she would say. This is poor person’s food. As soon as you get money in Syria, you get meat and always give the best to guests. Even if there isn’t enough for yourself.”

Talk of not enough seems academic as the table is laden with beautifully coloured food and the kitchen filled with smells of cumin, onion and freshly squeezed lemons. We tuck in, spooning great mounds of it onto our plates. “I teach Arabic now,” she says, helping herself to a little more salad and some pickles, “but when I came here, it wasn’t the language that was so difficult to learn. It was the culture! We’re so used to the way we do things and we all use these codes, you know? In Syria, we eat brains and tongue and liver and hearts and some people say ‘Oh, how could you!’, but then I think you make the blood of a pig into a sausage ‘Oh, how could you!’. You see?” I realise as I listen to Najiba how much in my life has gone now. How much of the things I used to take for granted aren’t anywhere to be found any more and that more is lost in time than can ever be lost in distance. But she’s right. We adjust and we change. I smile and I shrug, Najiba style, and I help myself to another big spoonful of steaming lentils.

This interview is an extract from issue 20 of Fork magazine. Fork is a bi-monthly magazine beautifully designed and filled with interviews with interesting people, reviews of the best places to eat and travel to, plus a few recipes for good measure.

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PAUL KINGSNORTH: the activist

In articles, verbatim on June 8, 2012 at 10:05 am

My partner Chris was working on a theatre project up in Ulverston, Cumbria. I tagged along for the week because I had just gone freelance and I’d never been that far north before. Paul was one of the people that the theatre company spoke to to help develop their project. They had been inspired by his books and work on Dark Mountain. We met him in the pub, he was there with his dog and it was karaoke night. He came to the scratch of the performance too a couple of days later with his children. I wrote this piece for Fork magazine so it’s foodie again but I think Paul is top of my list to interview again. The image came from Paul.

Paul Kingsnorth wrote Real England: The Battle Against the Bland in 2009 examining the changing face of England in the context of growing globalisation. He was also instrumental in setting up The Dark Mountain Project, a global network of writers, thinkers, artists and craftspeople. I caught up with him about food, beer and the new normal.

How have things changed since Real England?

Most obviously, the economy fell apart. In retrospect, a lot of the problems I wrote about were caused by too much money in the wrong hands, like the building of huge shopping malls or pubs being closed down and turned into luxury housing. A lot of that has come to a standstill. Also, as a result of the potential breakup of the UK, there’s much more talk about what Englishness and locality mean. In some ways things are worse, but the model that allows all the destruction is visibly crumbling so new ways of doing things are emerging.

The tone of Dark Mountain is markedly more downbeat than Real England. Which side tends to win out? The optimist or the pessimist?

It depends what I talk about really! When we started out, Dark Mountain felt very controversial but all we were saying was ‘let’s stop debating about whether this is all actually happening or not, let’s be realistic’. Certainly, a lot of the things that felt extreme three years ago really don’t any more. There is an inevitable clash between the personal and the bigger picture, though, and I vary from day to day. You can be optimistic about the small scale, which is especially important if you have children, but then you look up to the horizon and you realise how big it all is. There’s this huge machine out there with nature going in one end and money coming out of the other. It’s impossible to believe it will change voluntarily however many organic eggs we buy. You need a balance though – wallowing in too much doom is bad for the soul.

What’s your opinion on the localism revolution?

There has been a huge revolution in terms of food, but we still live in an incredibly centralised country with no political leverage at local level. Buying and eating local is great, but until there’s power, it’s a cultural rather than a political revolution. I’d be very interested to see how widespread the changes are, how much they cut across the classes and how much of it’s surviving since the economy went bad. All sorts of people still buy chickens for a pound and I don’t think that’ll change until legislation does. It took legislation to stop people producing and buying battery eggs, didn’t it? Saving money and making money aren’t the only forces in society, but the race to the bottom is everywhere.

So do our personal efforts have any effect?

It depends on what you want to change. I recycle, I buy local, I do all of it, and it does make a difference. There’s more cruelty free food on the shelves, and I saw the effects of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Fish Fight in my local market. It can only be a good thing when people opt out of the worse aspects of the system even if personal action can never change the whole system. I guess at the end of the day, at least you know you’re not part of the problem. It’s a glacial change, but glaciers do change things.

So what should the consumer do?

It’s complex. People talk about ‘ethical’ all the time but as a word, it’s really not very useful as it means so many different things. There will always be a dilemma. If I go to my local market, I don’t know where the vegetables come from but I’m supporting local business. If I go to the supermarket, there’s often more organic and even local produce available, but it’s still a supermarket.

Are supermarkets always bad?

A touchstone for me personally is how damaging enormous companies are. The rise of the supermarket is tied in to big societal changes like car ownership and longer working hours so they aren’t about to disappear. The important thing is to prevent any more being built but even that’s difficult as a small town with just one out of town supermarket isn’t seen as facilitating competition. You need at least two of them. We need to work out how local shops can work alongside supermarkets. We need to protect and strengthen what’s being trampled. Who knows how long supermarkets will survive. If oil were to be become more expensive, it would be a very inefficient way to provide food to the masses.

So how would we feed the UK’s 62 million people?

With proper farming and changes in diet, I’ve seen figures that show it’s easily possible for the UK to feed itself. A small scale farm is more efficient in terms of inputs and outputs than large scale monoculture. It’s the economies of scale, treaties, subsidies and the WTO that have favoured big business and persecuted small business. It’ll only change when the system takes a real knock, which may not be far off at this rate. People suddenly understand that the system we have is a managed process rather than a natural evolution.

At least the beer industry seems to be doing OK, doesn’t it?

Oh, I can be in a very good mood about beer. It’s like the craft was lying dormant – just give it a chance and up it comes. 40 years ago when I was born, they were lamenting the death of British ale but now it really has changed. It’s the tax break that Gordon Brown gave small beer producers that led to the explosion, so even though pubs are still closing, it’s a real source of optimism and makes me wonder what else could happen locally with a little state support. However depressing it gets, there’s always good beer!

Real England, the Battle against the Bland is published by Portobello Books.

This interview is an extract from issue 23 of Fork magazine. Fork is a bi-monthly magazine beautifully designed and filled with interviews with interesting people, reviews of the best places to eat and travel to, plus a few recipes for good measure.

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PREMI BONOMALLY: a force of nature

In articles on June 7, 2012 at 12:19 pm

This is another Fork magazine article. I met Premi at her daughter’s house in Bristol – her daughter and I used to work together. The few hours I spent with Premi were great fun and we laughed a lot. For such an amazing woman, she was oddly camera shy and the pictures I got of her don’t really capture her.

Maybe you’ve heard of Mauritius from someone who spent their honeymoon there or from vague memories of the dodo at school. You might even be able to find the island somewhere in the middle of the Indian Ocean about 500 miles up and right of Madagascar. Personally, I don’t go much beyond a picture postcard white-sand beach, complete with palm tree.

I meet Premi Bonomally who tells me more about the food culture of this island that has passed from the Portuguese to the Dutch, the French and then the British on its road to independence. “I left 40 years ago,” Premi tells me, “all there was for an Indian girl in Mauritius in those days was marriage. My mother took me out of school at 12 to learn to sew from a wealthy Muslim neighbour, but I worked for her secretly as a maid to pay for school instead – until I was 15!” Premi wears the brightest yellow, “This morning, a fisherman at the market said to me ‘I can see that colour is your personality … my wife only wears grey!’” Her laughter is infectious.

During our afternoon together, I learn as much about Premi as I do about Mauritian food – and she never fails to surprise. She was the first Mauritian woman in the RAF, a champion of sega, the Mauritian national dance and qualified in complimentary therapies from Ayurvedic massage to Aromatherapy.

So interesting is her story that I have to remind myself constantly to keep my focus. Don’t forget about the food!

“Mum’s the best cook in the world,” her daughter Melissa declares, baby on hip, “her dahl is fantastic – way better than that watery Indian stuff.” Anyone who knows Indian food will find plenty that’s familiar – samosas stuffed with peas, potato and spices (Premi pronounces it samoosa), chutneys (chatini), roti, pickles.

Quite quickly, though, this familiar ground gives way to Creole cooking, a territory reflecting the island’s unique heritage, blending Indian, Chinese, European and African elements. Food and language follow similar patterns. “I’m Indian and Mauritian. I grew up speaking Bhojpuri, the Chinese speak Cantonese or Hakka, the elite speak French or English, but everyone speaks Creole,” Premi explains, “Indians celebrate with biryani that can take a day or more to prepare, the Chinese make fried rice, but everyone eats rougaille.”

She points to a splendid mound of fish smothered in ruddy sauce that takes pride of place in the centre of the table, “it’s African originally, like sega. You sizzle the onions, garlic, ginger and fresh thyme in oil, then add the tomatoes. Whenever you use tomatoes,” she tells me, “you must add some Demerara sugar to balance the acidity. We make rougaille with deep-fried lamb, beef or fish.” She seasons it with lots of hot green bird’s eye chillies, chopped green spring onion leaves, parsley and coriander. “At home we use snook but this is haddock. When you fillet a fish,” Premi says, “you throw away all the goodness in the spine and the bones. I get my fish straight from the market in Plymouth,” she leans in conspiratorially, “last week, I got loads of cod heads – for free! Now the freezer is packed full of them, and I’m going to use them to make samoosas.”

“This is achard legume,” Premi tells me as we try the tasty salad of shredded cabbage, beans and carrots with spices and mustard, “it’s another poor man’s food. It’s only the very rich and the very poor who eat traditional food in Mauritius now – the tourists and the labourers. It’s like Europe now – everyone wants KFC.”

When Premi first arrived in the UK, Mauritius and Europe were worlds apart. She learnt British manners and customs from the ladies in the geriatric ward where she trained as a nurse. “In those days,” she says, “it was rich and poor side by side on the wards. We played scrabble, I did their hair and nails and gave them face massages. ‘Don’t laugh at me,’ I’d say to them, ‘teach me’. They taught me how use a knife and a fork, to speak well and to make a spotted dick.”

Most of the basic ingredients in Mauritian cooking – onions, garlic, ginger, tomatoes and fresh herbs – are widely available in the UK. “You can’t get the same fish here though,” she says, “but you can use cod or mackerel instead of grey mullet as long as you cook it with the bones. There are some things you can only get in London or Paris, like brèd mouroum, but that’s OK too,” her face becomes serious, “cooking is like anything – like nursing or therapies… or sega. The basic ingredients aren’t enough – you have to have passion or it just won’t work.”

I leave with the impression of an island – and a cuisine – where the elements often remain distinct, separate according to their origins, but where there always seems to be a place, somewhere in the middle, that’s uniquely Mauritian.

This interview is an extract from issue 19 of Fork magazine. Fork is a bi-monthly magazine beautifully designed and filled with interviews with interesting people, reviews of the best places to eat and travel to, plus a few recipes for good measure.

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NINA BENDUKIDZE & DZEMAL GUGUNAVA: the Georgian and her husband

In articles on June 7, 2012 at 11:18 am

I met Nina Bendukidze and her husband, Dzemal Gugunava through the leader of the Georgian choir I used to sing in. This is another interview that first appeared in Fork magazine as the first in a series called Off the Beaten Track under the name Walnuts, Wine & Song. There is a strong food slant to this one. In a way, I wish I could have asked Nina and Dzemal, especially, about so much more than I did. They were both remarkably generous and welcoming to me in their little house on the outskirts of Bristol. Perhaps I could go back.

I spend the day with Nina who is from Tbilisi, the Georgian capital and lives in Bristol. Tbilisi is twinned with Bristol – a connection that Nina takes seriously. The Bristol Tbilisi Association brings Georgian culture to the good people of the West Country. We cook and eat spiced kidney-bean pastries (lobiani), garlic and walnut purée with spinach or beetroot (pxali) and two kinds of xach’ap’uri, Georgia’s national dish. This cheese pie is so intrinsic to the national diet that inflation in Georgia is calculated against its cost – the so-called xach’ap’uri index. Each region has its own version, just as it has its own language or dialect and traditional harmonies. We make a plain version from Imereti and an all-singing-and-dancing one from Ajaria on the Black Sea coast.

Nina and her artist husband, Dzemal, communicate in a mixture of Russian and Georgian, while me and Dzemal get by with sign language and smiling. Whatever the language, eyes sparkle whenever Georgia is mentioned. In her little red car on the way to buy ingredients, Nina tells me about the market near her home in Tbilisi; “We used to buy everything by smell,” she holds an imaginary tomato up to her nose and breathes in its scent, “but now, there’s a modern supermarket there instead.” Though the Georgian grapevine in the UK informs on where to buy the tastiest beets or the best walnuts, Georgian food is all about great fresh produce and so there are obvious compromises to be made here in the UK. Xach’ap’uri should be made with suluguni cheese but Nina makes hers with a mixture including Cheshire, mozzarella and Stilton. “Does it taste the same?” I ask her. “No,” she replies, “but it’s close.”

Cornmeal, tomatoes, aubergines, herbs, spices and walnuts – those are the main ingredients in Georgian food,” she says, back in her kitchen, sealing the cheese mixture inside neat little pastry parcels. I get the impression that she really means fine golden cornmeal ripened under Georgian skies, ruby-red, fist-sized tomatoes grown in Georgian soil, walnuts from a tree that’s served generations of the same family. “There’s a saying in Georgia,” she says, putting the first tray of xach’ap’uri into the oven, “every man should raise a son, build a house and plant a walnut tree.” Walnuts feature heavily in Georgian cooking – me and Dzemal mince walnuts for pxali in an old metal meat mincer which evidently does a better job than any modern electrical contraption.

“In Georgia,” Nina smiles and tests the pxali, adding another glug of vinegar, “we always cook for at least twenty … neighbours, friends, family … you invite everyone. And everyone helps out too. When we went back home to visit, we didn’t have to buy food or cook for the whole two weeks! The neighbours had let themselves in and loaded the fridge and kitchen table with more food than we could ever eat!” Next are the lobiani. “These just have to be round,” Nina says, “I made them square once, but they didn’t taste the same.” Vast quantities of xmeli suneli, Georgian mixed spice, go into the kidney bean filling. Nina shows me the different spices she uses – complex orange and mustard-yellow blends sent over from Georgia in hand-labelled jars.

Finally, we make the Ajarian cheese pastries (ajaruli xach’ap’uri)boat-shaped open-topped pastries with an egg cracked inside then returned to the oven. As she pleats the pastry she counts to 23, “There should always be 23 pleats – the same with xinkali,” Nina tells me, “Georgian dumplings.” But neither she nor Dzemal know why 23 is significant. They both shrug and laugh.

Before eating, in true Georgian style over good Georgian red, Nina proposes a toast. It’s no quick ‘cheers’ but rather a heartfelt speech that quite simply delights me. The food is magnificent – even though both Nina and Dzemal assure me that in Georgia it’s so much better. The undoubted highlight, even better than the powerfully earthy pxali, are the ajaruli xach’ap’uri. Dzemal shows me how to eat them by breaking off the prow and stern of the pastry boat and dipping them into the molten cheese and egg filling.

“In Batumi (seaside capital of Ajaria), they eat these for breakfast with Turkish-style coffee in copper pots heated, over hot sand. It’s so beautiful there,” Nina says with far-off eyes, “it’s paradise, you know?”

“Chto ‘paradise’?” Dzemal asks.

Rai,” she translates and Dzemal nods in sober agreement.

After dinner, as we drink coffee and listen to Georgian polyphonic music in Dzemal’s studio I realise that Georgian food means so much more than the total of its ingredients. It’s not just about what you eat, but how you eat it and with whom. It means family, tradition, ritual and identity all rolled into one and a vital social glue. Above all, it means home.

This interview is an extract from issue 18 of Fork magazine. Fork is a bi-monthly magazine beautifully designed and filled with interviews with interesting people, reviews of the best places to eat and travel to, plus a few recipes for good measure.

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