Days 33 & 34 – Weekend 25/26 April 2020
“A hunter that is worth his salt does not catch game because he sets his traps, or because he knows the hunting routines of his prey, but because he himself has no routines. This is his advantage. He is not at all like the animals he is after, fixed by heavy routines and predictable quirks; he is free, fluid, unpredictable”
I have touched on a few of my routines for keeping sane during these insane times but so far have not discussed one of the most important: food. It is clear from reading Social Media and newspaper columnists, from watching various Live Streams and from the empty spaces in shops there is a resurgence in cooking. Seemingly, for example, home baking has taken off to such an extent that flour is one of the few foodstuffs that is almost impossible to find in Chiswick or indeed, any High Street. I have not read any analysis of this but I guess there are several reasons from the mundane to the more, do I say it? Spiritual. Clearly there is the element of boredom and time-filling, there is the practical issue of restaurants, cafes and pubs being closed and the fact that people are now ‘at home’ for breakfast, lunch and dinner (or supper if you are posh). I think there are other, more subtle, reasons. For families or shared lockdowns sitting down and eating together a focus is created for the day, the importance of which is heightened during times of tension. It generates an activity that emotionally bonds the group in a traditional sense when individual members of the modern household are shut in different rooms working separately on their own computers and so on. The act of eating together, usually in a specific way, has been one of the signs of a close community and, over the centuries, religions bound together their inherents through communal meals.. Sharing food is a core part of ritual occasions and celebration: christenings, naming ceremonies, weddings, funerals, bar mitzvahs, the communal breaking of fasts and on and on. Yet, in recent years in many societies the importance of the ritual around food preparation and sharing has been diminished. Many older commentators decry that the reduction in the number of families that eat together is part of what they see as a decline in western society. The same trend and consequently massive rise in fast food outlets is seen as a major contributor to the escalation of obesity in many countries. I see the focus on food during the lockdown then as both a practical response and something more deep-rooted, more fundamental to how we react collectively to a mutual threat. If this trend and other more community minded inclinations can be maintained, as least to an extent, after the crisis it may well be one of the many side-benefits that are emerging.
On a personal basis food has always been a core part of my psyche (as anyone who has seen my waste line could attest) and it has been an important part of my self-maintenance during the lockdown. By self-maintenance I mean in both a physical and a mental sense. I could write a whole piece on my attitude to routine – the solace found in a certain amount of regular activity and the dangers of too rigid an adherence to it. So, for example, my mornings do centre round a kind of tea ritual. I use tea leaves (not bags) and a proper tea pot, leave it to stand and so on and I am due a grumpy day if I don’t have a leisurely cuppa to start it off. Normally my routine in retirement would involve wandering out to a café or coffee shop at least once a day. So during the lock down even without my coffee break I have used a walk round my local shops as my daily exercise and tried to buy that day’s main ingredients for whatever I will be cooking. Cooking my main meal in the evenings has also become a focus for my day and delineates my ‘working’ daytime and my ‘leisure’ evening. I believe that separation provides a kind of structure and helps me mentally.
On the physical side it is proven that healthy eating with a proper balance of nutrients is beneficial to the immune system and I am aware that at my age, just short of what the UK Government has deemed ‘vulnerable’, any thing I can do to keep my immune system as strong as possible may both help prevent my succumbing to the virus and minimise the impact if I do. A while ago I mentioned to someone that my usual pre-viral breakfasts at The Ritz Café on King St involved tinned tomatoes. My friend poo-poohed the idea of tinned and said that fresh tomatoes would be healthier. I responded that, as counter intuitive as that seems, the reverse is true. Most tinned fruit and veg, and equally most frozen, is processed within hours of being picked. In addition, most tinned produce is actually cooked inside the tin, sealing in the nutrients. In contrast, ‘fresh’ produce, tomatoes are a prime example, is stored, often for weeks or months, sealed in warehouses and containers that frequently are fumigated to prevent ripening or mould or infestation. The upshot is that most of the time tinned and frozen vegetables have more nutrients than much of that which is sold as ‘fresh’ particularly in supermarkets and, even more specifically if that produce has been imported. Generally, though not exclusively, the further journey the more likely is the produce to have lost many of its nutrients. Check it out. It is easy to Google etc. I haven’t even mentioned the consideration of carbon footprint and other climate related aspects to this discussion. Now, the way to negate this problem and to ensure you are buying fruit and veg that is as fresh and as healthy as possible is to buy ‘seasonally’ and to check the source. Just to use an extreme example, Strawberries. If you buy a ‘fresh’ strawberry in mid-winter it may have come from Spain but is as likely to have come from the States or Mexico and the chances of it having many nutrients left are minimal. * I should just add that, obviously, if you grow your own in a garden or an allotment or even, in theory, buy from a farmers market then that’s best of all. Anyway, you get my point!
So, the upshot of this is that my diet and therefore my shopping has been, until the onset of this warmer weather, predominantly in-season root vegetables from UK or at least European sources. I am a massive fan of thick soups cooked in the slow cooker. I am not by any stretch of the imagination vegan (my morning tea ritual includes milk though I do use ‘oat milk’ for cereal etc.) nor even vegetarian (as my recent Blogs extolling a bacon sandwich or a sausage roll illustrate) but I do only eat meat occasionally as a treat. Some of the most innovative cooking at the moment is done by vegans/vegetarians such as the ‘Bosh’ guys. ** I am certainly not religious about this, I do for instance, eat avocado pears that have genuine issues about their impact and so on but I try to consider all these issues in my ‘purchase selection’ process. Now that the weather is warming up and spring is progressing new seasonal product is becoming available. I am not a natural salad eater but there are imaginative options accessible that can help me maintain some healthy routines…….. and just to prove it, here is yesterday’s dinner!
So, predominately local shop bought ingredients – really just mayonnaise, capers and condiments from a supermarket – let me start off with the squid, which was bought from The Covent Garden Fishmongers on Turnham Green Terrace. When buying fish these days there is always the sustainability issue but at least here you can ask where the fish comes from and hopefully trust it is from a genuinely supportable source. As the guy serving was on his own he could not spare the time to clean the squid but I soon found the method on You Tube and it is pretty straightforward. I marinated it for a couple of hours in lemon juice and a splash of olive oil with salt and pepper and a sprinkle of a smoky paprika. I cooked it on a very hot griddle pan for about three or four minutes turning over and pressing on to the griddle occasionally. The tossed salad was pretty straightforward though I did chuck in some artichoke in oil from Bailey And Sage. This shop is bloody expensive but great for treats and little extras, such as this, for livening things up. The potato salad was made using new season Jersey Royals first cooked with fresh mint then chucked in the mayonnaise mix which included Dijon mustard, capers and chopped celery and gherkins for texture and some bite. I find potato salad needs a fair amount of salt and black pepper for taste too. The other salad was a first attempt at a Celeriac recipe given to me from my friend Bea.
She has a proper food processor to produce long strands but I just used a box grater – the odd bit of finger adds to the texture I find – and I remembered her tip to make the sauce first and keep the peeled Celeriac in ‘acidulated’ water as they go yellow quickly. Bea gave me a choice for the mayonnaise sauce – either mustard or horseradish. Two or three times mayonnaise than the other options. As I put mustard in the Potato salad I went for horseradish and salt and white pepper. She also suggested lemon juice that I missed out because I had lemon juice on the squid and the gherkins and capers were quite acidic. It would normally need it as although the texture was excellent and it complimented the meal it was maybe a little bland so next time I will go for the mustard option and add the lemon. Needless to say, it was washed down with a glass of decent white wine (again bought from an independent store, The Wine Shop on the High Rd by Chiswick Lane). I have to say, with a certain smugness, that the meal was a success. Son George (currently back with me) was certainly complimentary and licked his plate, which though I don’t encourage is certainly satisfying for the chef.
However, I was only left with one problem. Searching through my Vinyl collection I struggled to come up with an artist, an album or even a track to connect with squids, salads or healthy eating generally. In the end, and I know it is stretching the connection a little bit, as my foody-music link I offer you……..
Well, Pretzels are a food item and the cover includes other salty snacks so I rest my case. Steely Dan’s ‘Pretzel Logic’ was released in 1974 while I was at college in Brighton and I think I bought it contemporaneously. I guess ‘Rikki Don’t Lose That Number’ was the song that really brought them to the UK’s attention big time though the 1976 single ‘Haitian Divorce’ was their biggest hit in this country. For me ‘Pretzel’ was the peak of the Walter Becker and Donald Fagan period of brilliance with the band and my memory of them kinda fades after that time. It was actually during my time in the US prior to Brighton when I remember hearing then first with ‘Reelin’ In the Years’ in a college pool-hall in Wilson, North Carolina but that’s a whole other story. Much later, like this year, my friends Paul and Gill came down from Liverpool to see ‘Nearly Dan’ at the Jazz Café. It was such a fun gig that I booked to see them again with some other mates. That is meant to be in a few weeks time so I guess that just ain’t gonna happen.
Your everlasting summer
You can see it fading fast
So you grab a piece of something
That you think is gonna last
You wouldn’t even know a diamond
If you held it in your hand
The things you think are precious
I can’t understand
From ‘Reelin’ In The Years
* That is apart from the fact the Californian Strawberries are grown in soil fumigated with methyl bromide, a toxic, ozone-depleting gas that kills everything down to 2.4 metres – weeds, fungi and insects. Once they are picked, chilled and packed the stacked pallet will be sealed in plastic into which a gas containing carbon dioxide and preservative will be pumped to prepare the ‘fresh’ product for shipping. Just saying ….
* BOSH! https://www.bosh.tv/