Food geekery (what I talk about when I talk about food writing)

You’ve got your copy of Fire & Knives.

You’ve turned it over in your hands. Admired the neat hand(man)bag size. Fondled the paper. Scanned through quickly. Wondered where to start. Felt a curious warm feeling. Loved the retro design and adverts. Touched the paper (again). Mulled over the contents, undecided whether to read from front to back, dip in randomly, pick the most enticing item first, or save it until last. You’ve held it close to your face; breathed in the wonderful print and paper aroma. Given thanks that the editor and publisher (one Mr T Hayward) had the idea in the first place AND upgraded the paper beyond the bounds of known gsm ratings (did I mention the paper already) to bring you the ultimate in new geeky food writing.

Touch it, smell it, read it.....
Touch it, smell it, read it.....


Well, its only going to last a certain time. You can devour it voraciously. You can eke it out article by article. You can re-read. But there’s only so long 108 pages can last. And its not the 3 months until the next issue is due.

So what are you going to do in the meantime? You could watch the F-Word. Or various Jamie or Hugh identikit TV programs. Flip through Olive or BBC Good Food or……you could read recipe books and blogs. But I know you’ll feel bereft. Because you’ve found something slightly offbeat, quirky, interesting. You might not have loved every article but they were all good. That’s not to say that other glossier publications, books and TV shows don’t have a place. It’s simply that sometimes you want real far out there food geekery.

Fear not. There are more quirky publications than you might imagine. Here’s some thoughts on things to try whilst you wait for the next issue of Fire & Knives. And a little tale of how one thing leads to another.

It’s all Elizabeth David’s fault….

Ah good old ED...

The first vaguely food geeky thing I read was Elizabeth David’s An Omelette and a Glass of Wine. OKAY. I know. Cue eye-rolling all round. Well hang on there. Its not like I’m talking last week. And I know its tedious and a well worn path to cite ED as an inspiration blah blah blah. I didn’t learn to cook from ED; I didn’t learn to love food from ED; I had already learnt plenty of that elsewhere. What I did find was writing that made you wish you’d been there too and writing that added that extra geeky layer of information about food, its history, its provenance. Why did X do this, why was Z traditional and so on. And at the back of the book a reference to a journal dedicated to food studies and food history….

…….Petits Propos Culinaires (PPC)

PPC - most quirky....
PPC - most quirky....

So of course I subscribed, I wanted to know everything there was to know about food. Back then, and I’m only talking the late 80s, there was no blogging, no twitter, no internet community, no easy way to find other people obsessed with food. So I subscribed and I read, avidly, and I still do. PPC is a curious mix of learned border-line academic articles and good stuff written by mates (not my mates, the publishers mates), and a few things you wonder what they are doing in there. And then you realise the same people are also involved in two other off the wall food things….

….firstly….Prospect Books….

A selection from Prospect Books....
A selection from Prospect Books....

Prospect Books was (and is) the publisher of PPC. But they also publish delightfully quirky and sometimes completely nutty books. Over the years I’ve found treatises on trifle and on marmalade, facsimiles of Hannah Glasse, whole books devoted to the Mallorcan dish pa amb oli (bread and oil), or Afghan food and much more besides. Prospect books was started by the Alan Davidson with his wife. It’s now run by Tom Jaine and it’s as wonderfully quirky as ever.

and then…. the Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery…..

this is about as fascinatingly quirky and geeky as it comes in the food world. Again inaugurated by Davidson with the likes of ED, Anne Willan and Nicholas Kurti being in there from the beginning, it set out to provide a place for those interested in food to discuss it in a relatively academic way. This is way way way before degrees in Gastronomic Arts started to appear. It was a curious meeting of all those who loved food and had a deep interest in it whatever their background. It wasn’t an academic conference in the sense that anyone could go (the same is true today), you pay your money you get to turn up. Along the way I’ve heard the likes of Margaret Visser, Claudia Roden, Raymond Blanc, Paul Levy, Heston Blumenthal and many others. The food has always been fantastic, how could it not have been. Its sad that H&S regs stopped the ‘bring and share’ lunch but with the likes of Fergus Henderson, Bompas & Parr and Raymond Blanc cooking up a feast this year why would you want to miss out. In my experience its pretty hard to get to present a paper unless you are in the know, but if you are after an uber eclectic experience then this is the place to find it. The papers that are presented are collected and published the following year. They are a mine of information but are not for the faint hearted.

So as I’ve delved deeper and wider into the world of food geekery I’ve come across other things worth reading too. I’ve harboured a desire to really understand and explore all aspects of food and meaning and that’s meant I’ll read everything and anything once and also means I’ve devoted more of my free time than I can count to reading about so many aspects of food. Its lead me to quite academic places, ending up with deciding to do an MA (nearly there on that with just my dissertation to complete very soon). But its been great fun. Here’s some of the other things I’ve found:

Best Food Writing:

Awaiting the 2009 edition
Awaiting the 2009 edition

Going to the Oxford Symposium and reading PPC lead me to a lot of the other things on this list, but I spotted this annually published collection on a holiday to the States and I’ve been buying it ever since. Its been another way I’ve found out about good writers and publications. Its been published since 2000 and you can still get all the back copies if you trawl around on Amazon. You’ll find some of the other people I mention here rubbing shoulders with a range of writers from primarily, but not exclusively the US. Its like reading the great writing from lots of magazines and newspapers and tends to send you out on a flurry of subscribing to RSS feeds, adding too many things to your Amazon list and the like. And I believe that the 2009 edition includes an article by the aforementioned Mr T Hayward – I am awaiting delivery of my copy any day now – hey it just arrived whilst I was loading this post :)

Simple Cooking:

Homespun charm...
Homespun charm...

This is about as home spun as it comes. Its charming and informative. John Thorne knows his stuff and is always keen to investigate the whys and wherefores of recipes, try out knew things and share what he found. Its almost blog like in the way its written, except he’s been doing this since before any of us had the internet, first in print and now in a choice of print of PDF download. Although many of the dishes are American, John eats his way round the world from his home in Massachusetts. To help you catch up there are a number of books of John’s collected writing though for me they don’t have quite the charm of receiving an email saying the next issue is ready to download and then reading from cover to cover (well actually there aren’t any covers but you know what I mean).

The Art of Eating:

Always insightful...

Another US production, this time from Edward Behr who is based in Vermont. It ranges from in depth articles on produce to restaurant and book reviews. Its primarily North American and European based in terms of cuisines but the articles and reviews are insightful, thorough and its on very nice paper.

Jeffrey Steingarten:

Torn from Vogue
Torn from Vogue

Steingarten has been the food writer at Vogue since 1989 and before his first collection of pieces (The Man who ate Everything) was published in 1997, I used to buy US Vogue just to read him, tearing the pages out to keep and throwing away the rest. He is detailed, obsessive and humorous by turns, bent on finding ways to make wonderful food at home. It’s always amazed me that Vogue was prepared to have his writing sit alongside the fashion and fluff. This is a man who blocks up the vents on his oven in an attempt to get it to proper pizza oven temperature and who talks in graphic detail about the killing of a pig in his quest to make the perfect boudin. Always interesting, always quirky. The man is brilliant. I just wish US Vogue didn’t cost about £5 a month to buy.


Nearly every copy ever...
Nearly every copy ever...

Ok we are getting quite hardcore geeky with this one. Published by the University of California Press this is starting to get fairly academic in style. Mind you its got a good line in glossy paper and provocative covers. It’s a range of social science type articles but I’d mostly say its social science ‘lite’. You don’t have to be a fully paid up anthropologist, sociologist or cultural studies person to be able to get where it’s coming from but it’s not light and fluffy either. The articles aren’t academic papers but I suspect stem from academic research. It covers a lot of ground from offbeat food related art works, old cookery books to traditional foods, issues of food supply and technology and more.

Oxford Companion to Food:

Magnum opus....
Magnum opus....

This is Alan Davidson’s magnum opus. It’s a great reference work on so many aspects of food, wonderful for dipping in and out of when you think, “I just wonder where/what/how…”. Its great but there are gaps and that’s part of the appeal, its not as all encompassing as you might like but for me that spurs the imagination to go and find out more from other resources. Of course if you don’t have all of AD’s books on fish then you should get them too, they are fascinating studies by a man who’s day job was as a diplomat and then spent his spare time being passionate about food and becoming esteemed in his own right, finally winning the Erasmus prize in 2003 for his contribution to the birth of Food Studies.

Surrounded by groaning bookcases....
Surrounded by groaning bookcases....

There’s so much I’ve missed off. I could go on and on and on. My bookcases are stuffed full of books about food and I reckon that less than a ¼ are what most people would think of as recipe books. The rest are a combination of reference books, books about a specific ingredient, or region, or country, there’s food history, food science, food culture, out and out academia, pictures and humour. Old books, new books, books for reading cover to cover, books for dipping in and out of. Biographies, magazines, journals, facsimiles, originals, unread and well thumbed. All in all I’m surrounded by in excess of 800 food related books and counting.

So that’s what I’m talking about when I talk about food writing. Go on release you inner geek and try something new this Christmas.

A chocolate super hero


Ka-boom. Wowzer. Bam. Pow. OMG.

Wonderful. Amazing. My taste buds and brain are in overload.

I’m at Paul A Young. I’m tasting chocolate. Beautiful chocolate. I’m riding on taste sensation after taste sensation. I thought I knew chocolate but I didn’t know all of this. It’s a whole new set of experiences. How to convey it all to you?

Its passion, its craftsmanship, its huge knowledge. It’s wanting to save the world from bad chocolate and show everyone the way of good chocolate. Its superhero time. Okay so as far as I know Paul doesn’t zoom about wearing a cape and mask, or his pants over his trousers, but like Desperate Dan has his cow pie, Paul has his sea salted caramel. Like Batman he has his underground cave and his estimable sidekick. Like, erm, well lets just get on with it shall we. But be certain, very certain, he’s going to try to save as many as he can from the evil of things masquerading as chocolate that are merely confectionary.

Paul takes us on a journey through chocolate. We start by tasting different chocolate bases and bars as a route the greater understanding of the bean, the terroir, the blending and the nuances of the taste and aroma. We go from raw cacao beans, through malty milk chocolate via milk chocolate some would shun as dark to a range of every increasing cocoa content choices (11 different samples in all). We end at 100% Valrhona Manjari pate. Mind blowing. Delicious, fruity, intense. Mind blowing. Oh I already said that. There’s lots of opinion in the room about which is the best moment and everybody finds out something new about their chocolate tastes. We are educated and excited about really good chocolate. We are slightly frightened by the prices of some bars but we know there’s probably no turning back, in a short time our palates have experienced the wonders to truly beautiful chocolate from some of the worlds finest makers (Amedei, Cluizel, Valhrona). And really we could stop there and go home happy. But we don’t. Oh no there is more to come.

Paul, and his business partner James, tell us about a new brand from America they are stocking (currently they are the only UK stockist). Tcho has a Silicon Valley high tech start up approach to top quality chocolate. It’s a blend of science, art and craftsmanship. They have analysed chocolate’s components and characteristic flavours and built bars to accentuate some of these. Their commitment to sourcing fairly purchased beans is admirable. Paul and James are animated and enthusiastic about the products. We sample each of the “Chocolatey”, “Fruity”, “Nutty” and “Citrus” bars and admire their rather lovely packaging. I’m somewhat underwhelmed. The chocolate is good but it doesn’t seem startling, the key characteristic comes through well in each but I think my head, heart and stomach are still with the Valrhona Manjari hit. As part of our end of evening goodie bags we each get a bar of Tcho. Mine turns out to be the “Citrus’ bar, which I good because I’ve just established a love affair with Madagascan citrusy chocolate. When I try it over the next few days I like it much more and can see why Paul is excited about the product. I guess on the night it was overwhelmed by the preceding wonderful sensory overload.

And still we aren’t finished. Its time to bring on the truffle type things. Paul doesn’t make chocolate from raw cocoa beans he takes some of the worlds finest chocolate and then blends some of his own bars and also crafts beautiful looking truffles and filled chocolates.

Now a confession. When I was a kid I recall I loved the filled chocolate selections at Christmas. Roses. Quality Street. After Eight. I’d fight anyone for the last caramel barrel. But as time has marched on I’ve become a bit a chocolate purist. I like my chocolate dark and in bars, fillings and truffles are mostly not my thing. You can’t beat a good bar of chocolate; the joy of the snap as you break off a few squares, the taste of simply the chocolate. Unadulterated pleasure. When people buy me filled chocolates, even good ones I mostly pass them on to my husband. I make exceptions for delicately flavoured bars but that’s about it. Give me a bar any day and others can fight over the filled chocolates.

So could Mr Young convince me otherwise? His chocolates are award winning. The sea salted caramel is renowned as a thing of beauty, a multi award winning one at that and his marmite truffle is reputed to be an amazing umami-lovers nirvana. So we proceed to the chocolates as opposed to the chocolate.

First the sea salted caramel. It’s domed, its very glossy. I think food porn may have been in someone’s mind when they designed it. I pop it in my mouth. It explodes in, well a sea salty caramel type way. Its sweet, very sweet. Its good. If you like caramel then this is likely to be the best you’ll ever eat. But for someone who left behind the sweet side of chocolate at age 12 there is no turning back. Its good but I’ll generously leave it to others to oooo and aaaaa over.

So to the marmite truffle. Now I’ve never knowingly eaten marmite before. Ever. No really, never ever. Its brown, its gloopy, its smells bleugh. But I’m being offered a marmite truffle in a very upmarket chocolate shop, now is not the time to do an eight-year old style tantrum. In it goes. Oh and actually it’s rather nice. Chocolatey and erm well sort of rich and savoury all at once. I’m not sure you’d know it was marmite if you hadn’t been told. This of course, any real marmite lover will inform you is the true genius of marmite, its adaptability, its umami-ness, its ability to not taste of itself. Anyway I’d eat this one again, I might even shove someone out of the way to get one. But I’d still prefer a big bar of Madagascan chocolate.

Finally on the chocolates front we have the port and Stilton truffle. This is a seasonal special for the autumn and Christmas. Paul’s quite keen on doing specials as it gives him chance to play with new flavours and push the boundaries of the regular collection. He’s not a man who wants to stick with the known and the easy. Last year he did a Stilton only version but it dried out to much so the addition of port is partly to capture that classic English combination and partly to try to make the chocolate work better. Its pretty good though the port seems to lead a little too much.

Finally we nip down to the underground den and see where the chocolates are crafted. The marble slabs, the raw cocoa butter, bag loads of Valrhona, handmade moulds. It’s tiny and brightly light. I don’t spy a batmobile but I do think I catch a glimpse of the cape and face mask, or maybe the theobromine has got to me and I’m hallucinating.

A big thank you to Paul, James and Kate for inviting me to experience the chocolates (for free) with a group of other food bloggers.

Paul A Young regularly does tutored tastings at his Camden Passage store (price £45/head).

The Young Ones (Students can cook)

Book Review: The Ultimate Student Cookbook

Back in the mid 1980s we had Maggie bent on breaking the unions, the birth of the Apple Mac and The Young Ones on TV. In their different ways all three have had a hand in where we are today, and where we are today when it comes to being a student is a very long way from 1984 (the year, not the Orwell novel).

Although the food in The Young Ones might have been a little bit exaggerated its highly probable that it’s much closer to what students were eating in the 80’s than the things students cook up now, or so it would seem from my review of The Ultimate Student Cookbook.

I have to confess here that I managed to get through college without haven’t to cook much at all. I had the good fortune to go somewhere that had a great kitchen and we could live-in for the whole three years. We were pampered. It was kind of like a Holiday Inn but with better food. You could have cooked breakfast every day if you wanted and boy was it good cooked breakfast. Huge salads for lunch or hearty stews and curries and then proper evening meals and that’s before the special events where it was rumoured the salmon and crayfish had perhaps not been acquired through the usual university purchasing channels. And this was not Oxbridge. I shudder to think how many calories we consumed, we were well fed though we learnt very little about cooking on a budget, that came later, after we left when it dawned on us how very lucky we’d been.

Food, like everything else, has moved on in leaps and bounds since the 80s with a proliferation of ingredients and a widening experience of world cuisines. And it’s the same for students, their expectations are higher but they’ve still got to cook on a budget (at least I assume they have, I don’t know many actual real live students).

The Ultimate Student Cookbook

So to The Ultimate Student Cookbook, which is a gathering together of the best recipes of The Beyond Baked Beans books and website that Fiona Beckett has developed over the last six years with additional insights from real students who really cook. And they do really cook, like really rather frighteningly well. In fact on my first flick through the book I thought ‘uh-oh these people might actually be off putting for the average student cook’. After all one of them has done a 3 month stint at Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck experimental kitchen (Sig), one has honed his skills at Ballymaloe AND has his own catering company (James) and the third grew up travelling round Europe and thus sampled rather a lot of good food (Guy).


I’m a bit in awe of them.

And I’m probably just about old enough to be their mother, and I count myself as a pretty good cook, what’s an inexperienced 18 year old going to think? I sort of wanted there to be a cooking ‘rags to riches’ story, someone who’d learnt about good food and how to cook from The Beyond Baked Beans books but that was not to be.

Along with the students awesome level of food experience there was a bit too much of an English counties middle class feel running through the lists of kitchen kit and essential ingredients which was quite off putting, in fact almost irritating. It felt a bit like: “don’t bother reading this unless your parents kitchen was hand built by Smallbone, about as large a football pitch, stuffed full of must have gadgets and probably located south of Watford Gap….”. Didn’t they know that in plenty of places fresh coriander is still hard to come by, nam pla would be expected to be a violent video game and a real coffee maker a fanciful dream.

But I persevered and once I got into the core of the book this sense began to dissipate. Yes the three students clearly know their stuff, as of course does Fiona, but when you get to the recipes their voices start to work well together; a kind of conversation between some of your mates and the coolest mum on the block. The students come across as happy to eat fish-fingers gussied up 4 different ways, student classics such as Bolognese and Chilli, or frankly much more adventurous stuff and they are hugely genuinely enthusiastic about food in all its many guises, including I suspect the odd kebab van special when needs must. Fiona is like the best of guides, there when you need her to be firm and always quietly in the background letting things progress at their own pace the rest of the time.

Look: cheese on toast AND cheese toastie!
Look: cheese on toast AND cheese toastie!

After much to-ing and fro-ing through the book I decided it was time to try some recipes; I had to keep diverting my husband from the idea of the fish-fingers, that being his student staple. I think he’s disappointed that none of the four ways is a 2009 take on a fish-finger sandwich, no doubt he’ll be perfecting one and logging onto Beyond Baked Beans to tell the student populace all about it. Instead I chose to do the pan-fried toastie for a solo lunch one day and the umami salmon for a dinner later the same week. The pan-fried toastie because I love toasties but don’t make them often at home and I think this technique might be the answer, the umami salmon because it sounds a bit off the wall and it contains just about every single one of my husband’s favourite condiments all mixed together.

Looks pretty studenty to me....
Looks pretty studenty to me....

First up the toastie. I freewheel this a bit because I don’t fancy onion in it and I don’t have any cheddar to hand so I adapt Guy’s additional suggestion of blue cheese and bacon to blue cheese and salami. It’s really easy to make and quick and very tasty and probably simple to do for two with a big enough pan. Back in the day I used to do toastie making duty at the college shop – we had a proper grill and lovely metal cages to hold the toasties together, the bread would toast just right and the filling be just gooey enough without being too gloopy. I don’t think those funny little toastie makers that seal the bread together do anything like the same thing and its too easy to burn your mouth on the lava hot cheese. The pan-fry technique gives as good as result as those uni toasties I remember in. Some things never change – you can’t beat a good toastie. This recipe is a big win.

Umami in the making
Umami in the making

Next it the salmon – I’m a bit suspicious of the curious list of ingredients but Sig’s treatise on umami is fascinating and, having by this time, met Sig very briefly to do a cheese swap (via the curious power that is Twitter and the meeting point of the UKFBA food bloggers stall in Covent Garden), I feel I really need to give the recipe a go. So I knock up a batch of the umami mix, slather it on some salmon fillets and shove them in the oven as the recipe instructs, serving it with boiled new potatoes and spinach. The umami mix packs a reasonable punch although I think I may have added a little too much lemon juice and one of the ingredients dominates. The umami cuts through the oiliness of the salmon and the plain vegetables balance the whole meal nicely. It gets scored 7/10 and is deemed a good addition to the regular repertoire though we both think the umami needs a little adjusting, less mustard more of the other ingredients.

The rest of the book contains a good mixture of recipes from the basic to the more fancy and groups them as quick/easy for 1 &2, cheap/tasty for 3 & 4, flash/show off and dessert things, with some cocktails chucked in for good measure. They are a sophisticated lot these students cocktails I ask you! Each recipe is also clearly badged for vegetarian friendly, price, prep time and cooking time, these are one of the really useful features because being at the top right of the page you can quickly flick through for ideas that match your budget and time frame. There are clear pictures of pretty much every recipe so you can see what the finished dish should look like (they do look pretty real rather than glossy magazine styling) and throughout there are useful sections on basic techniques such as stir frying, making cheese sauces as well as how to make your food look good and whether measurements matter.

A quick search of Amazon reveals that there are a few other books you could choose from if you or your loved one(s) are off to college in the next few weeks and rather curiously they nearly all have ‘ultimate’ in the title! So which might be the ultimate of all these ulitimates? We’ll I’ve only had the chance to take a peek at one of the others (and to be fair in far less detail) it covers plenty of the same ground and although the title suggests it might be a carb-fest I’m sure there’s more to it than pasta and pancakes….the cartoon strip style layout is a bit odd and more likely to appeal to parents or grandparents than actual students. All the books seem to be pretty much the same price.

If you can’t reorganise your college place so as to get away with not having to cook for a further three years then I suggest you take three real students and one friends mum into the kitchen with you rather than a someone styled as a celebrity chef….because these Students Can Cook.

I really did start off by not liking the book but was won over which just goes to show that first impressions might count but often turn out to be misleading – so remember that during Fresher’s Week.

You can see other reviews here:

Purely Food Blog

Thanks to:

Absolute Press for providing me with a review copy of the book.
My husband Ian for his insights into his student cooking days (frighteningly like The Young Ones, it seemed).
Matt Inwood, Absolute Press’s Art Director for answering my many questions about how the student contributors were selected.
Sig and James for impromptu discussions on the making of the book generally and the umami salmon in particular.

Boxed in

About a month ago I was contacted by the PR firm for Abel & Cole asking if I’d like to try one of their veg boxes for free, well in exchange for doing a review of it on my blog, after all nothing is truly free; although I figured they’d have a hard time trying to enforce the contract if I just scoffed the food then did nothing.

Legal matters aside there was, of course, the issue of whether to accept a freebie and whether you can write an objective review of something you didn’t pay for. In actual fact can you write an objective review, full stop, whether you paid for something or got it free? As anyone who has spent more than five minutes reading up on social science concepts well knows, along with there being no such thing as a free lunch, there is no such thing as an objective (re)view. The best we can hope for is that people openly state their position and try to balance both sides of any debate.     

So in the spirit of this here is my position:

I’m female, white, middleclass, over 35, married, management job blah blah blah. In fact how come I’ve not been buying Abel & Cole every week since they started I must be in their core demographic? Well that’s because although I’m keen on organic and local and stuff like that I also like shopping (some might say rather too much), so the idea of a box with my weekly food shop in just turning up on the doorstep has never quite worked as a concept for me. I’ve toyed with the idea a lot on and off, looked stuff up on the web, found different schemes, been tempted by recent money off ‘junk-mail’ offers from both A&C and Riverford but never taken the plunge.

But now I was being offered the chance to try it for free! So of course I said yes.         

Now before we continue lets just be clear here that Abel & Cole have approached quite a number of bloggers with the same offer and many have said yes. It’s fuelled an existing debate about freebies and ‘bloggers as reviewers’ that I’m not going to expand on here (suffice to say mud was thrown along with the term ‘blaggers’). I think that as long as people are clear that something was free, that it fits with what they normally blog about and that they try their best to be objective then readers can judge for themselves – and I’m sure the readers do. Its also means that there been plenty said already so I’d suggest you go and look at the other reviews as well – I’ve listed some at the end.  

Because remember:  




What then was my experience of the box scheme. I guess it can be summed up in one word: 



AMBIVALENCE. Yes that’s right ambivalence.



Look at the size of that lettuce!
Why? Well let’s go through and score the whole thing on some measures (not out of ten but as YES or NO or INDIFFERENT):    


I didn’t use the online system but just took the standard box. I’ve looked at the online system since and it looks ok but no better or worse than similar offerings. So no real advantage here but some sites are far worse.    



Delivery options = NO

A big fat NO in fact. They tell you what day they deliver to your area and it could be at anytime of day. Where I live it’s a Thursday but pity the people who are on a Monday. I’m not at all keen on the goods turning up when it suits their schedule. On this occasion they turned up before I went out for the day but I wasn’t pleased to find a whole box of veg on the doorstep at 7am when I was about to leave for a meeting that I then had to divert my attention to and deal with (the veg not the meeting). I’m also not that thrilled with the idea of it sitting on the doorstep all day – the only place they can put it being in the recycling bins! So this doesn’t work for me. I’ve used Ocado quite a bit (I’ll come onto whether its for comparable things) and you select your day and time down to an hour. The price varies accordingly but in this case you get what you pay for. With A&C its 99p for it to turn up when it suits them and for Ocado it can be as much as £6 to have it turn up when suits you. I guess it depends on how much you value the ability to say when you want it delivered. For me this is one of the biggest losing points.    



Quantity = YES

It looked like you got a lot of stuff in the box and for 2 people (it was a medium box) it was certainly plenty for a week.






Hmmm its a bit of a squeeze in here


Variety = NO         

The medium box is billed as for 2-3 people and although there was lots of quantity there was less in the name of variety which would mean you might get bored before the week was out or you could end up wasting stuff or you’d still need to go and buy more stuff e.g. there was lettuce and spring onions but no other salad stuff. You can of course substitute things or add extras.


Sorry call me pernickety I but expect 100% accuracy when the contents are only listed on the site 2 weeks in advance of delivery. I was so looking forward to little gem lettuce but that’s not what I got. Irritating. With Ocado (and others) you can at least decline the substitution.

Seasonal/Local = NO

I have to give it this because you should not be able to suggest the box is seasonal when it contains APPLES. They are not in season in the UK so must have been shipped half way round the world. Now of course in winter this could lead to a box full of turnip week in week out but considering this was late June there must have been something more local and seasonal than apples from the Southern hemisphere. I don’t think that something that is so good in the UK when its in season should be put in the box out of season. Things we can’t grow here might be a different matter but things we can and in fact we are good at should be optional extras for those who want them not standard items. Imagine what I’d have to say if they sent me asparagus in February…..

Labelling = NO

There is no indication on the produce or the receipt where the items have come from (except I’m hoping the Jersey Royals came from Jersey). In the supermarket it either states the country or in the case of much UK produce the county and even the farmer it’s from. The farm shop can and does do the same. Come on A&C this isn’t good enough. On the website it supposed to show what is local (for which I read UK generally rather than local to me specifically as I understand much of the stuff is from the South West) but it should also be clear on the receipt, and be more specific.


The apples were woolly and tasteless, as you’d expect for something shipped from somewhere random in the Southern hemisphere at the end of their season. The beetroot were mixed – some giant and woody, some good. The broad beans were very fresh but big and rather floury. The chard was giant but tasty and fresh. The green cabbage was huge but good, sweet and fresh. The lettuce was fine but wilted quickly and was therefore too large, lots got wasted. The Jersey Royals were fine but quite large so end of very first crop and average taste wise. Melon, ripe and smelled lovely but taste was bit watery. Nectarines were rock hard on arrival then suddenly ripened and started to go off; tasted good at their peak. Spring onions were fine. I got the impression the standard box is the place for A&C to use up gluts that are near end of shelf life. There is no option to rummage like you might in a shop (and I include supermarkets here) or market for the best items or the cheapest or whatever floats your boat and budget.


I compared the prices on Ocado for the closet choice I could get to the box contents. I thought I’d give them a chance and I also imagined that competition wise Ocado might be a closer match than Lidl. The standard box at standard price was cheaper than Ocado (I’m ignoring delivery here just looking at produce) by several pounds, which is good but at least what I would have expected. But if you start to substitute in the box – or if you’d built it yourself then Ocado would be a few pence cheaper. Not so good.


Its clearly better produce than some options but the lack of choice for the standard offering (or the prices if you pick freely) mean that overall its probably marginally worse than something like Ocado and definitely less value than the farm shop or some of the supermarkets.

At the end of the day it depends on a balance of convenience and price. If you don’t have easy access to transport then a delivery service is great and is certainly a way to buy non-food basics even if you can get to local shops easily. But as soon as you have a choice of local shops, good farm shops or even a decent supermarket and you can get to them easily then the convenience starts to lose out over the ability to pick the items you want, see what you are getting, and at what price, and not suddenly wonder what to do with a giant lettuce that’s fading fast.

So for me my initial reluctance to sign up myself has mainly been born out – I just want to see what I’m getting before I buy my fruit and veg. But that’s me and so I can’t quite see where A&C might fit in to how I shop for food. But remember readers this is just my opinion it might work for you.

For the record I normally shop at the following places (in no particular order):

Ocado for boring basics such as cat food and kitchen roll and a few other regular things that are sufficiently uniform it doesn’t matter like butter or yoghurt or pasta. But if they substitute it almost always goes back.
Waitrose (two branches in London) for slightly less basics plus veg and meat when I can’t get to the farm shops I like. Plus wine and beer.
Several farm shops in Essex and Suffolk where I stock up on my favourite produce when I’m nearby for meat, deli products and veg.
And the occasional foray to specialist shops and markets such as Borough and Neals Yard.

Here’s some other reviews:

Food Urchin – veg box
Purely Food – veg box

Freestyle Cookery – veg box

Kavey Eats – veg/chicken, lamb/beef



Hollowlegs – veg box
Essex Eating – veg box, chicken
Oliver Thring – veg box
Gastrogeek – various items
Gourmet Chick – veg box

And I’m happy to add other A&C reviews if people let me know they have done one.

You can find Able & Cole here.





A walk on the wild side

“Here, turn right here, this has got to be it”.


We swerve round the corner and bounce along the driveway. “Nice pond, but where’s the big house?” There’s plenty of rolling parkland and a cluster of outbuildings but no grand house to be seen.

There’s also a tall affable looking chap wearing wellies and a big chunky jumper so we slow up and roll down the window. “Here for the food foraging?” he says, “follow the track round between these buildings and you’ll see a group of parked cars and over to the right people on the lawn, that’s were you need to be.” So we drive on as instructed and sure enough there’s about 15 cars and a bunch of people standing about having coffee. I get out and amble over and my husband drives off to a day of peace and quiet.

At last, I’m at Food Safari’s first foraging event at Henham Park in the depths of rural Suffolk.

I get a coffee and Polly (half of the duo that makes up Food Safari) passes me some still warm flapjack (yum! this is a good way to start) then introduces me to the rest of the group – none of whom I’ve met before but some of whom I’ve been chatting to via twitter (yes that’s you @Farctum and @EssexGourmet). Once everyone is here Tim (the tall affable chap in wellies, he’s the other half of Food Safari) tells us the format of the day. We’re going to be foraging for wild foods here on the estate and then also down by the river Blyth (also on estate land) then we’ll be off to The Anchor at Walberswick for a lunch show-casing some of the wild foods.

Tim hands over to Jacky (aka WildFoodie) who’s our foraging expert today. She explains that we are on private land so sadly we can’t entertain any thoughts of popping back sometime to bag some more goodies; well I guess not unless we can get to be new best friends with Hektor who manages the estate, I imagine he’s probably got enough friends already though. Jacky also explains that the weather in Suffolk has been so dry recently that we probably aren’t going to find enough stuff in really good condition for us to take bagfuls home. We are going to have to be content to watch and learn, that’s the nature of foraging, it’s a real luck of the draw thing. Jacky had a scout about yesterday so she’s got lots of examples to show us and she’s been able to collect enough goodies for our meal later.

Then we move on to our first spot, I’m expecting we’re going to have to walk a good distance across the park perhaps into a wooded area, but no, there’s plenty to see only steps away from where we are. Take a look – what can you see that’s edible?

Hmmm looks like a bunch of weeds in a badly tended garden if you ask me…..but hold one we are going to find at least FOUR, yes that’s four, edible goodies in this patch.

Okay so clearly I’m in nappies on the foraging front compared to the likes of Jacky – I can’t see a thing I’d fancy eating. But with Jacky’s expert guidance we learn about ground ivy, cleavers (aka sticky willy – hmmm), nettles, ground elder, burdock and elderflower – blimey that’s six – and I don’t think Jacky was even trying hard….she tells use how to identify each of them through look, feel and even sound and also which bits to pick and even how to pick (clever scissor movement with your fingers for nettle tops). We taste as we go when things are okay to eat raw. Mostly everything we test has a fresh but quite bitter taste but there are differences between them.

Next its time to move on to the river. But before that a few of us think a comfort stop might be good so Polly takes us over to the stable block, which has been converted into a rather lovely looking B&B, and we get to use the facilities there. I also get a quick lesson in the intricacies and long running feuds of the Rous family and learn that the final version of the big grand house was knocked down (some say a fortuitous fire…) in 1953, so that’s why we couldn’t see it. There are plans afoot for a new house to be built.

Anyway down to the river – I would say bank but here the estuary is really wide and flat so it’s more like a gentle slope. The estuary systems in Suffolk and Norfolk are havens for all sorts of things and in particular marsh samphire

If you look really hard you can see the samphire at the front of this picture

I’ve had this before, bought from local farm shops and I love it. We are a little early in the season but we can see the samphire starting to sprout like some kind of mini primeval forest. We get to test the samphire and its wonderfully juicy with a salty tang –I’m looking forward to it being available in the farm shop soon and hoping we get some at lunch. We also find sea purslane which looks a bit like a succulent version of sage although it tastes nothing like sage. Again it’s juicy and salty.

Sea Purslane

And finally we head off to The Anchor pub at Walberswick with our appetites suitable whetted. But before we get to tuck into lunch we take a quick look at the pub’s allotment where Jacky tells us about poppy leaves (nice and sweet and almost pea like in flavour), hops shoots, dead nettles and chickweed (plus other assorted things you might just throw away but can actually eat!).

At last it really is time for food. We wander over to the beautifully refurbished stable block and are served with glasses of refreshing elderflower scented beer from Lowestoft whilst nibbling on fresh asparagus, tempura hop shoots and absolutely wonderful chickpea and samphire mini pancakes. These are so divine we are nearly knocking each other out of the way to get our hands on them; I’m definitely going to be trying to recreate them at home.



Mark then guides us into the stable block itself where a huge long table awaits us and a further three courses of food with matched beers. Mark is an absolute mine of information about the beers and clearly likes to surprise his guests with things such as a Gueuze he describes as having aromas of sweaty horse saddle and horse piss – great! Hektor and I try to tell him that we are not especially familiar with either of these but to no avail. Food wise every thing was delicious but dishes and flavours that particularly stood out were the chicken of the woods in the risotto, 

The chicken of the woods is the pinky/orange bits

a very meaty mushroom that might make some vegetarians shudder, the semi pickled carrots in the salad, the elderflower panacotta

and finally my favourite local cheese, Buxlow Wonmil. It makes a change to have lovely food paired with beers rather than wines and is something I might try myself. Of the beers I think my favourite was the Frambozen although the Gueuze was much nicer than Mark’s description would lead you to expect; its kind of nicely tangy and refreshing, a bit like liquid sourdough.   

Its time for everyone to head their separate ways, full of new knowledge, exceptional food and plenty of beers. I have a glass of Benedictine for the road (fortunately my husband is collecting me) and we waddle off clutching our information packs, happy foragers that we now are. 

You can find out more about Food Safari’s days out in Suffolk on their website, arrange gift vouchers for loved ones or simply book a treat for yourself. I’m hoping to try another one of their days soon.

To view the menu and other information about The Anchor at Walberswick click here. Go on treat yourself to some great food and beer.



I’ve been adopted!

By Karen, and she’s in Harve, Montana! Go on, go check the map like I had to.

Now lets get a few things straight here I don’t mean I’ve been orphaned all this time and finally found someone to adopt me at the fine old age of, well lets just leave my age out of this shall we….

I mean that as a relative ‘newbie’ to the world of food blogging I’m taking part in Kirsten’s (over at Dine and Dish) Adopt-a-Blogger initiative. I found Kirsten when I first started swirling round the foodie blogosphere and landed at Tinned Tomatoes where I spotted the ‘I’ve adopted’ badge. Now ‘Blogging for Dummies’ tells you to get to know your fellow bloggers and to take part in blogging events and the Adopt-a-Blogger seemed like the ticket. I get to have someone older and wiser (in blogging terms) to call upon for three months with my questions etc, probably get new traffic and the adoptor gets the joy of guiding someone through some of the maze of the blogsphere. Great.


After Kirsten has matched us all up we get to meet online and start to chat, it’s kind of like a latter day version of pen pals. To take part we’ve promised to introduce each other to our respective worlds and at the end of three months to blog about what we’ve each learned. I’ve already been badgering Karen with lots of questions and tweaking my blog to incorporate some of her tips.

Anyway without further ado here is Karen (of Karen Cooks), as cross examined by me, in her own words:

GSD: Tell me a little bit about yourself, where you live and what you do when not food blogging?

K: I live in the U.S.  I lived in the Southern California and Arizona deserts for 42 years prior to moving to Havre, Montana last summer.  When I’m not food blogging, I’m cooking!  I like to garden and also do mosaics.

GSD: Why did you want to join ‘Adopt-a-blogger’ and what do you think being an adoptor will be like?

K: I thought I might have something to offer a new food blogger… there are so many things to figure out and hints and suggestions that one might not know about.

GSD:  How long have you been food blogging, what made you want to start and do you have any other blogs?

K: I started my food blog in August 2008.  I was reading another food blog and thought “I can do that!”  So, I did!

GSD:  Tell me about the Eagle webcam.

K:  I found the Eagle webcam during my many travels around the internet.  The webcam is in West Virginia and poised on a nest built by Bald Eagles.  Here we can get a glimpse of a three eaglets, now almost 2 months old and their daily routine. It’s been fascinating to watch them grow!  I think they are beautiful birds. 

GSD:  How would you describe your style of cooking and who do you normally cook for?

K:  Most of the time I cook just for me and my gardener, aka husband, although I love to cook for company.  I love to read cookbooks for inspiration on making my own dishes.  I guess my style of cooking would be ‘see it and make it with changes to suit our tastes’.

GSD: I can see some interesting items on your freezer list in the ‘Roasted Grape Tomato, Spinach and Asiago Pasta’ post, tell me about the regional dishes, specialities of ingredients you enjoy?

K: We are hunters and fishers, so we eat a lot of game.  Cooking wild game at times can be challenging as the meat may tend to be tough.  I’m always on the lookout for different wild game recipes.  

GSD: What are your Top 5 dishes/foods and what, if anything, makes you go ‘urgggh, no thanks’?

K: I’m definitely not a picky eater, but there are a few things that I’ll pass on.  One of them is menudo, a Mexican soup-type dish made with tripe and hominy.  I’ve tried tofu  several different ways, but just don’t care for it.  Other than that I guess I’ll pretty much eat anything!  LOL

GSD:  Who are your favourite cook book authors/cook books?

K: I really don’t have a favorite.  I love to read cookbooks but have stopped buying them.  There are just so many good recipes on the internet.

GSD:  What’s your couldn’t live without kitchen gadget? 

K:  This is a hard question.  After thinking about it, I couldn’t live without my silicone spatulas.  I use them for everything!  And of course my Kitchen Aid stand mixer!

So please go check out Karen’s blog yourself for lots of good stuff including the latest Montana snow (on 13 May!).




Err, hello, um, what’s all this #livelocal thing??? 

I’d seen a bit of twittering about this (hence the # tag – used in twitter to make searching easier) and wondered what it was so I headed over to Becca’s blog to find out more. Here I saw that Becca was about to spend the next 7 days (she’s started today I think) trying to only eat foods that had been grown with 100 mile radius of where she lives in Sydney, Australia.

Interesting challenge I thought and then also spotted that it was a wider initiative to get people to undertake projects and habit changes that were locally focused,such as cycling to work. 

Hmmm wonder if I can join in and what I could do. A few tweets later and I’m signed up at LiveLocal as the first UK participant (woo hoo I’m a global first – yes quite!). Then to thinking about a plan. I like Becca’s local eating idea and I already try to buy local food but its pretty easy to realise that you can do much more and that also you might have to make some sacrifices along the way.

I decide to investigate where a 100 mile radius allows me to source food from using this map tool and find that as well as a the whole of the South East and much of the Midlands, Calais and Boulogne are within 100 miles! I’m not quite sure that northern France can be called eating locally when I live in East London. So I think again, I want to do something that starts to shift my eating habits to local and decide on the following: 

  • my cupboards and freezer are stuffed full of things that have been lurking for sometime, so first part of the challenge is to start munching through these. I’ve already probably burnt a giant carbon footprint acquiring them so I really should get on with making use of them.
  • dried and frozen foods aren’t going to cut it for a whole week though are they so anything extra I need has to either come from my herb garden or be sourced from an area bounded by the Thames to the south, the east coast of England, a line up from the western edge of the M25 and a line cutting across from Norwich. I’m guessing this about the same area as 100 mile circle (or less) but seems to make more sense as to the direction I should look for food stuff.
  • I’m only to walk, cycle or take the Tube/bus to the shops but I can incorporate shopping into an existing car trip.
  • I’m going to think about everything I eat or drink and wonder about its provenance and whether I can change how I buy it. I know right now I’m not going to give up coffee so am I buying the most ethical I can and I am supporting a local roasters.


It seems easy on the face of it but I think it’s going to be quite hard, but I’m enjoying thinking about how to be more local in my choices. I’ll be blogging about how I’m getting on so come back to find out more. Wish me luck!