Practising the Mediterranean diet

Those who follow me on Twitter will have been unable to miss that I recently went to Bologna, and that I had a really good time!


Although the city is remarkable – the entire mediaeval city is intact, and you can walk around all day without seeing a modern building – for me it is always about the food, and the food in Bologna is truly special. I didn’t eat a bite of food that was disappointing, or even ordinary, from the time I got off the plane to the time I got back on it (whereupon, naturally, it became deeply disappointing), and I can’t remember the last time I said that about time away from home. I wasn’t eating anywhere fancy or expensive either, or following any restaurant guide. I was just stopping at streetside cafes, trattorias and bars. I think you could go into any establishment that isn’t actually a kebab shop (although, who knows, I didn’t test the one kebab shop I saw!) and get good food, freshly made and served with pride.


DSC_0457There were a few things that struck me about Bolognese food culture. Apart from a few teenagers eating crisps, I saw no one grazing on ready-made food in the streets. In fact I saw no processed food whatsoever. Even in the One Stop minisupermarket, there was a big section for fresh meat, cured meat and cheese, another for loads of fresh fruit and veg, and a small stand for bottled sauces, etc., with none of the processed junk that dominates UK supermarket and convenience store shelves whatsoever. Even on 2 days’ acquaintance with the city, it was really easy to buy fresh fish, meat and cheese, and there were glorious fruit and veg stalls everywhere I went.

_DSC0013Another thing that struck me was that, even though Italians eat pastries and cake for breakfast, I saw very few overweight people. The people with weight problems tended to reveal themselves as American when they spoke, probably the same ones who were picking at muesli and low-fat yoghurt over breakfast in the hotel and making lunch rendez-vous at MacDonald’s. (The MacDonald’s strikes a very incongruous note in the city centre, and seems mostly patronised by foreign tourists. There is also no Costa or Starbucks, and no litter, which may not be a coincidence.)

We are always being told how healthy the Mediterranean diet is, but the Mediterranean diet we are presented with bears little resemblance to the one you see in reality in the region. It’s all bottled pasta sauces, cous cous ready meals, no red meat or cured meat, olive oil not butter, and guilt over dairy fat (I ate loads of butter, cream and cheese in Bologna). Guilt is the dominant feature of our food culture, in fact.

What I saw was cured meat and cheese with every main meal, and fresh food cooked from scratch in every eating establishment. Even the bar snacks were usually a board of cured meat, cheese and preserved vegetables, with proper bread. There was no smog of overheated vegetable oil from deep fryers around the restaurants either, which so typifies UK eating establishments, and no chips anywhere. And there were those fabulous fruit and veg stalls – the population must be eating vast amounts of fresh produce judging from its availability.

DSC_0480More than anything else, food and its traditions are taken seriously, as is enjoying food. If Italians are going to have a coffee, they sit down at a cafe and enjoy it, they don’t grab it from Starbucks and slurp it scalding from a paper cup in the street. If lunch is only a sandwich, it will be freshly made with proper bread and plentiful filling, and eaten sitting down, not made in a factory, packed in plastic and bolted down between meetings or behind the wheel.

This I think is the key, and missing, part of the ‘Mediterranean diet’ – taking good, local, fresh ingredients, granting food importance, and taking time over its cooking and eating. Ditch the obsession with whether this or that food is healthy or virtuous, ditch the guilt, focus on the provenance, the taste, the quality, the ‘story’ of food.


It is really difficult to do in this country. If I had veg stalls like the Bolognese ones available, I wouldn’t bother to grow my own, but in this country, with a few exceptions, growing your own is the only way to get good produce. Good meat is easier to buy, but good fish is elusive, and finding cured meat and cheese by a named producer with a transparent process of manufacture without a sky high price tag is extremely difficult. Good food shouldn’t be only for the wealthy.

DSC_0479It’s vital though, to our health and quality of life, to change our food culture. Growing our own veg, cooking from scratch and seeking out and supporting producers, sellers and cookers of proper food (and shunning the junk) is what will encourage the birth of an Italian-type food culture in this country. After all, as much as we’d like to, we can’t all move to Bologna!.




Not business as usual

This is not a business as usual post, but then these are not business as usual times. I don’t like to get involved in politics. I prefer to write about positive energy, people who do things to make the world better and not give the idiots the attention they don’t deserve. I wrote about this recently at Politics attracts sociopaths, self-interested, self-important, power-hungry egotists. It’s a profoundly unpleasant environment. However, there are also hard-working MPs motivated only by public service. And there are a few principled, heroic MPs, who stand up for what is right against all odds and interests, like Jeremy Corbyn, Caroline Lucas, Mhairi Black – and of course Jo Cox.

There are times, though, when politics becomes the most important thing, because it has the power to fuck up all of our lives, and those of the coming generations too. Like in the 1930s, when the German populace enthusiastically elected to power the Nazi Party on a platform of ‘make Germany great again’, and blame of an ethnic minority and immigrants for economic woes that they had nothing to do with creating. Sound familiar? Freakishly familiar, down to the Daily Mail running cartoons the same as those it ran in the 1930s of immigrants as rats, with Jews changed to Muslims. Like the Jews then, Muslim people are having a truly crap time of it. Between oppressive governments, war, extremists in their own ranks and endemic poverty reinforced by Western business, they have no safe refuge it seems.

In the 1930s, everyone got on with their lives, while feeling uneasy about what was unfolding in Germany. Maybe they couldn’t have stopped it anyway, maybe if there had been an overwhelming outcry across Europe by everyone who wanted freedom and tolerance, it might have been different, who can tell? For some time I have been getting the feeling that we are living in one of those periods, a fork in the road, where we still have options. Future generations might look back at us and wonder why we allowed the far right to take control, destroy our planet, wipe out half of Earth’s species, take our liberty and enslave us to corporations – or they might look back at it as a brief and embarrassing period when idiots like Trump, Farage and Johnson were momentarily taken seriously.

A few years ago UKIP were a joke – nasty, racist, corrupt buffoons who couldn’t organize a piss-up in a brewery. Yet next week we are voting on whether to leave the EU, and there’s a real chance we could leave. How did we end up dancing to the tune of a party with one MP? What is happening to our democracy when a community elects someone to represent their desire for a liberal, inclusive society, and she is shot dead outside a library by a far right nutter? When football fans – always a good marker of the basest instinct of society – are throwing missiles and abuse at refugee children in the street in France? How have we allowed the media and sections of the elite to groom the most easily-led section of society to act out their fear and prejudice? Who exactly is pulling the strings behind all this and why?

I want my country back, not from the EU, but from the far right. I want a country where people are not afraid of becoming victims of violence because of their race, religion or ideology, where everyone with talent has an opportunity to use it, where the planet is treated in such as a way that it will sustain future generations and diverse other species, where people without much money can live a dignified life with decent housing, healthcare, education and food on the table. Not the world my grandparents lived in, where poor kids like them went hungry and without medical care, in fear of the workhouse, while having to doff their cap to the local aristocracy, where they were sent off to die in a war that none of them had any hand in creating. This is the world the right want back; they are looking with admiring eyes at Indian society, with no expensive social provision, with billionaires, and kids scavenging landfill sites for a bowl of rice a day. When they talk about ‘our’ country, ask them who they are including in ‘we’. It is not you or me. And they will not hesitate to stoop to stirring up hate against a minority to achieve it, taking people’s eyes away from what they are up to, even if it means bloodshed on the streets, something which Farage is on record as saying he would welcome.

I want my country back, and everyone who wants this country to be a liberal and tolerant place should probably start taking action to achieve it, because the far right have been very busy indeed, and what we are seeing are the results of their handiwork. The death of Jo Cox must not in the end be for nothing.

Waxing evangelical about fermenting

I’ve been waxing evangelical about fermenting vegetables lately. To be honest I’m feeling a bit slow for taking this long to discover it. I first read about it in Alys Fowler’s great book Abundance a good couple of years ago. I think it’s just the word ‘fermenting’, one step removed from ‘rotting’, that was offputting to my supermarket-reared self. It’s a word that needs to be reclaimed in its fully positive sense.

Fermenting is indeed harnessing the forces of decay in order to instead preserve food – grape juice into wine, to quote a thoroughly socially acceptable fermentation. Or milk into cheese or yoghurt. A soft cheese, particularly the stinky kind, and yoghurt are teeming with bacteria and or moulds, and we’re fine with that. Less so vegetables fermented in their own juices. Interestingly, while every human society on the planet uses fermentation, it is highly culture-specific, and we find other cultures’ fermentations disgusting (rotted shark anyone?), and our own delicious (mm, blue vinney!).

In the UK we don’t have a tradition of fermenting our veg, like sauerkraut. We pickle in vinegar instead. Fermentation is similar, except that it is the action of Lactobacillus bacteria on the juice from the veggies (or a brine) that makes the acid environment that protects the food against bad bacteria. Fermented veg taste quite like vinegar-pickled veg too – crunchy and acidic, with the original taste of the veg intact – but lighter and saltier. I’m not a big fan of vinegar pickles, but I very much like lacto pickles. You can cook with them or eat them raw. So far I’ve taken a forkfull out to go on the side of my meals. They’re good on salads, but also great with curries.

DSC_0381[1]New radish ferment and month-old and mostly scoffed carrot, celery and onion ferment.

It’s as easy as can be to make them. As an example, take 100g each of onion, carrot and celery. Shred them finely or grate them (I use the grater attachment on the food processor). Turn them into a big bowl. Sprinkle over 2% by weight salt, that is 6g, or a teaspoon. Massage it in, and keep massaging for a few minutes until the salt draws the juice out – when you pick up a handful and squeeze it and juice runs out, that’s enough. Pack it into the fermenting jar and ram it down until the veg is submerged under the liquid. If you can’t submerge it, add some salty water, using cooled boiled water from the kettle (chlorine in tapwater can inhibit the bacteria). The two things that are critical to success and not mould are the salt and keeping the veg submerged so that they don’t contact oxygen. Then leave it to stand at room temperature for a month or so.

If you put a regular lid on the jar you need to release the pressure every day, as the carbon dioxide that bubbles out can build up quite a pressure. You can just cover it with a cloth, but then it’s extra important to keep the veg submerged at all times because oxygen and mould spores can get in. I bought special fermenting tops for the jars for a few pounds online, which release the pressure, and after a couple of days the air space at the top will be all carbon dioxide, just like when you make wine.

You can start tasting it after a week, and the pickle will gradually get more acidic. As it does so, the balance of bacteria changes to more acid-loving species, particularly Lactibacillus plantarum which, if you buy probiotic supplements from the health food shop, is what you are buying, only they are way cheaper this way! After a month, or when the pickle has reached an acidity you like, transfer it to the fridge, which stops the fermentation, and it will keep for ages.

Classical veg to use are cabbage, radish, onion and carrot. All root veg work well and the possibilities for experimentation with different veg and spices are endless. Korean kimchi is much the same process, but with lots of spices. It’s a way of transforming some of our most humble veg into something really tasty, and if you have a bumper crop of something, it’s a great, quick and easy way to preserve it, that doesn’t use energy to cook or freeze. Also, the health benefits of live-culture food are too many to list.

DSC_0380[1]Mooli make great ferments.

That’s pretty much all there is to fermenting veg – it’s pretty much idiot proof. There has been no recorded case of anyone, anywhere, poisoning themselves through this process. I’m probably the last person in England to discover this, but if you’ve not yet tried fermenting your own, give it a bash.

Finding paradise in a forest garden

Last weekend I went on the forest garden course with Martin Crawford at the Agroforestry Research Trust in Dartington, Devon. I arrived a little stressed following a busy week of work, some poor sleep and a tricky journey down (bizarre route chosen by the sat nav – can sat navs go senile? Mine’s making some strange decisions lately). Martin welcomed us all with tea and biscuits. Introducing ourselves, I met a lady from the south of France who had driven there despite the French strikers blocading the ferry ports and cutting off the petrol supply. She had no idea if she could get fuel to travel home. I stopped moaning about my strenuous 3 hour drive! There were also people from Belgium, Croatia and various parts of the UK, and all of them lovely, several of them to become friends over the weekend.

After an hour’s introductory talk, we went up to the garden. Now I’ve been there before on a tour, and it has an effect on me that I spend much of my life seeking. After a couple of minutes, the outside world faded and the universe consisted of greenery and birdsong. My blood pressure went down, and I relaxed and became present in that moment. It’s bliss. I could put up a tent and stay there – particularly since I’d hardly have to venture out for food because almost everything you can see is edible.DSC_0364[1]

You need a real change of mindset, and probably several visits, to appreciate what you are seeing in the forest garden. There are some weeds – creeping buttercup and couch, even bindweed – the plants jostle with each other, mint fighting with lemon balm, and there are fruit bushes untrained and unpruned. It’s easy to assume that it’s a neglectful, inexact, easy kind of gardening, especially when Martin explains how little maintenance time it needs (6 hours weeding per month for 2 acres – I spend more than that on just my veg patch!). A clue to its real nature comes from hearing Martin talk, reeling off Latin names and plant properties and cultivation details without a second’s thought. A second clue comes from a visit to his 17 acre nursery. There, hundreds of plants are being propagated, fed by self-watering systems from a reservoir run by solar-powered pumps. The person who set all that up is a very exacting engineer. Martin runs all of this, along with the forest garden and a 4 acre nut orchard, plus teaching and writing books, with just one member of staff and some volunteer help. You put all of this together and what you have is someone with vast knowledge and experience, who scarcely ever wastes a moment of his time doing something pointless or doomed to failure, and who never looks rushed.

DSC_0365[1]There is so much more going on in the forest garden than meets the eye. It is designed for efficiency of energy input from the word go. It is also a beautifully balanced ecosystem. I was not bitten by an insect over the 3 days I was there, because there are so many bats and other predators. The fruit is not netted from the birds. The whole place is alive with bees and other pollinators. The plants glow with health. And there is delicious stuff to eat everywhere you look. My idea of heaven would look a lot like Martin’s forest garden, although it may be more tropical, with chocolate trees! (Martin has this covered with the subtropical forest garden he is building in a greenhouse.)

The main forest garden is over 20 years old, with full-grown trees and 10 metre high bamboo, but even more interesting was the visit to the new, small forest garden, about the same size as my own. I was reassured to find that it looks very much like mine, with weed-proof membrane, bark mulch and fruit trees, with perennial plants beginning to be planted and annual veg being grown in temporary beds before the trees establish and shade them out.

I came home with renewed inspiration and much more knowledge to create my own forest garden. I shall return to Dartington though, whenever I can, because we only just scratched the surface of Martin’s knowledge of plants, because there’s only so much you can learn about it from books, and because going there is thoroughly good for the soul.

(These last two pictures are of my own forest garden, still in its early days)DSC_0383[1]DSC_0385[1]

The call of the wild

Wild fermentation that is

Fermentation has been calling me for some time and I’ve finally given in to it! I first read about fermenting veg to make sauerkraut or kimchi in Alys Fowler’s book Abundance. At that time it went right over my head. I have pickled, frozen, canned, chutneyed and dried veg, but it had never occurred to me to ferment them. It seemed a bit extreme!

Fermentation, meaning harnessing microbes to transform food in a way that preserves its food value rather than rotting it, covers a multitude of practices that are almost as old as human civilisation. Brewing, winemaking, yoghurt, cheese and bread-making are all fermentations. Even chocolate, tea and coffee are produced by fermentation. It seems to produce complex flavours that we humans value highly.

I have made yoghurt quite often, and I dabbled with making sourdough bread a couple of years back, just beginning to make some progress before finding out that my husband is gluten-intolerant and abandoning the project. I have never made beer, but I have brewed some decent blackberry wine (for ‘decent’ read ‘have more than a glass and forget who you are and where you live!’). Fermenting veg by just chopping it up, mixing with salt and letting the bugs in the air do their work though – scary!

I had heard that Lactobacillus products are extremely good for you, but it was reading Michael Pollan’s Cooked that really brought it home, as he lays out exactly how the miraculous Lactobacillus bugs transform food and how important they are to digestive health, and as a result mental health and overall health and immunity. Then I stumbled across Kombucha, made by Avalon Kombucha, at Langport market. A probiotic drink full of Lactobacillus, it was delicious, although it’s too early to judge the effects on health and digestion.

Finally, I was at Bristol Food Connections at a talk with Matthew Pennington from Ethicurean restaurant. He made an onion, carrot and celery ferment there on the stage, in 5 minutes, and described how, after a month, it tastes like ‘unami tomato’. That decided it. The time had come to join the heaving ranks of veg fermentors! I ordered some air-locked jars, and a book by fermenting guru Sandor Katz. Progress reports will follow, and photos on Twitter.

The effect of wild yeasts and Lactobacillus on wheat in breadmaking is really startling. We humans are way too clever for our own good, and never to leave well alone. Having perfected the art of breakmaking, we carried on developing it, and developed the nutrition right out of it. From a time when the bulk of the population lived on bread, 2 lb of it per day, and were quite healthy, a substantial proportion now can’t eat it, and the rest feel guilty about eating it and think they should avoid it.

The wheat grains themselves have been bred to the point where they are largely starch, the ‘germ’, the bit with all the nutrition in, which inconveniently doesn’t keep well, reduced as much as possible. Then the commercial mills are designed to strip out the bran and the germ as the first step, leaving just the white endosperm, the starchy bit. If they produce wholemeal flour, it’s by adding bran back in later, and whether they add the germ back in is unclear, since it goes rancid quickly and is commercially inconvenient. This is why, if you buy flour to make your own bread, it’s important to go for an organic, stone-ground one, preferably a local, authentically produced one, and fresh, since proper flour doesn’t keep long.

Then there is modern commercial yeast, added in huge quantities to achieve a quick rise in the industrial process, and voila! Lots of cheap, white, fluffy bread devoid of nutrition that makes your blood sugar soar!

There is a reason why bread used to take so long to rise. In a sourdough process, the yeast and Lactobacillus bacteria carve out a perfect environment for themselves, with each living off the waste products of the other and excluding harmful microbes. The process breaks down the starches, releases enzymes and modifies the gluten in a way that makes it much easier to digest, doesn’t trash your blood sugar and is far more nutritious.

Somewhere in all the industrial meddling is the combination of factors that has produced spiralling levels of gluten intolerance and coeliac disease. It’s difficult to go back to a less industrialised wheat – the ‘medieval’ ones you can buy are a little too primitive and have very little gluten, although they taste great. What is needed is a middle ground, wheat from 100 years ago, which isn’t available. However, it is not difficult to buy proper stone-ground flour. Here in Dorset we have Stoates at Shaftesbury producing just that.

And you can develop sourdough skills. (Beware the label ‘sourdough’ in supermarkets, it’s often not what it should be.) That’s where I’m at. This time I’m cheating. I ordered a mature starter, ready to go, rather than trying to develop my own from scratch, and my efforts were quite successful – details will follow in another blog.