My Batter is Thick

Finger Food

Ginger in the Sauce

Food For Thought: The Power of Stout

Murphy's v Guinness
Photo courtesy of Philly Beer Ambassador.

After five weeks of waiting, the moment has come. Under the cover of darkness, we lift out the barrel from its cavernous location. The deep-brown liquid lurches behind the air-locked, frosted pane of the vessel. How will it be? There is a mild nervousness to this moment. Did we get it right? Please say we got it right. None of us will say it for fear of somehow jinxing ourselves, but there’s a good feeling about this batch.

Beer. Well, specifically, a porter. A deep, hearty, near-sweet dark-brown liquid, and the lifeblood of many a nation. Porter, and its burlier brother stout, remain an enduring link between London and Ireland, and locally distinctive varieties are celebrated in both places. If London was the birthplace of this tenebrous ale [1], however, Ireland became its home – and it remains serious business to this day [2]. It’s no coincidence the Irish Rover set out to New York with seven million barrels of it.

In Mallow, Co. Cork, where I spent much of my childhood, the drinking of stout was a serious business. No self-respecting Corkman would be caught dead with his hand wrapped around a glass of Guinness. It had to be Murphy’s. You could try and order a Beamish, but let’s just say that you wouldn’t start making friends fast. You could read a person’s allegiances by their choice of the dark stuff. There is no guessing where those of the family-run Murphy’s lay, built on the site of a holy well [3]. It was a catholic drink in both senses of the word: a universal drink for the workers and the rebels, who were, for the most part, Catholics. Had he not lived in Dublin, the heartland of Guinness, I would swear blind that Flann O’Brien had written The Workman’s Friend for a pint of Murphy’s. The poem, featured in At Swim Two Birds, explores the comfort of the velvet brew in the face of all kinds of quotidian miseries with the refrain “a pint of plain is your only man” [4]:

When food is scarce and your larder bare
And no rashers grease your pan,
When hunger grows as your meals are rare –
A pint of plain is your only man.

The link here isn’t coincidental: the poem could well be a microcosm of Ireland’s modern history. Since the eighteenth century, the fortune of the Irish people has run hand-in-hand with that of its brewing industry:

When things go wrong and will not come right,
Though you do the best you can,
When life looks black as the hour of night –
A pint of plain is your only man.

And go wrong they did, for a while.

Throughout the long struggle for Irish independence, stout, and the breweries that made it, played a strategic role on both sides. At least four pubs tied to the Murphy’s brewery were fire-bombed and destroyed through UK government action in 1920 [5] – with a number of British Auxiliary Officers leading charges on public houses, looting drink in the process [6]. British military officers joined in the looting at Murphy’s [7] during this period of incredible British state-sanctioned violence that came to be known as the Burning of Cork. (In the years that followed, Lady Carin Beamish, descendant of the Beamish dyntasty, had married Hermann Goering and joined the Nazi party, rendering the shade of that particular stout somewhat darker.)

Two decades later, after Ireland had gained de facto independence, stout proved to be vital to de Valera in thwarting Churchill’s efforts to punish the young country for its stance of neutrality during the Second World War – a stance that Churchill saw as a betrayal of the terms set out in the Anglo-Irish Treaty [8]. Ireland’s lack of ships and dependence upon British trade was a cause of great concern for the Irish government. De Valera reflected on the situation mournfully: “No country had ever been more effectively blockaded because of the activities of belligerents and our lack of ships, most of which had been sunk, which virtually cut all links with our normal sources of supply” [9]. In a letter from the Secretary of the Department of External Affairs to de Valera in August 1940, it was noted that a German blockade would “draw attention to the vital importance of trade with Britain to our national economy” [10]. Churchill was not unaware of this, and throughout 1941 attempted “to deliver a death blow” to the Irish economy by completely cutting off its supply of agricultural feed and fertilisers [11] (integral to de Valera’s agrarian dream of an Ireland filled with “cosy homesteads”[12]), as well as petrol and coal.

The misery of the squeeze of Churchill’s measures can be felt in the letters of John Betjeman, writing from Dublin during his time as a press attaché: “All pubs are the same. Guinness Good. Sherry good. No wine. No coal. No petrol. No gas. No electric. No paraffin.” [13] The key to de Valera’s success, Dr Evans claims, lies here. Ireland may not have had much, but it did have Guinness. Despite reservations about a group that was perceived as an “Anglo brewing dynasty … viewed with suspicion by officials …who worried that the company’s sympathies lay with England” [14], de Valera knew the drink was a crucial ingredient in the maintaining of the spirits of troops over the Northern border [15]: “…by 1942, with tens of thousands of thirsty American and British troops in Northern Ireland requiring alcohol to sustain morale, Ireland halted Guinness exports. It only revived them in return for tractors and agricultural chemicals from Britain.” [16][17].

For all the historical and political significance and differences between Ireland’s major stout-brewing dynasties, little difference remains between them today. Both Beamish and Murphy’s are now run by Heineken International. Murphy’s was taken over in 1983, and the Beamish and Crawford Brewery closed in 2009. In a strange twist of historical irony, Beamish is now brewed at the former Murphy’s plant alongside its historic rival.

Despite concerted drives by Heineken to market both stouts internationally, neither has managed to make major inroads on the Guinness global market share. Last year alone, Heineken sealed a £20 million sponsorship deal that would make Murphy’s the exclusive drink of the Rugby World Cup. The story was spun in the Daily Mail and subsequent churn articles as a “ban” inflicted by Heineken on Guinness “despite [its] being favourite with rugby fans”. Despite the claims to the contrary, Heineken is reported to have lost out from the deal. Given the prominent brand imagery throughout some of these pieces, one can but wonder where the ‘news’ of this otherwise anodyne deal might have come from.

The battle of the big brands over revenues brings to mind the words of Sandor Katz in The Art of Fermentation: “Industrial brews have captured ever-growing market shares, but with economic repercussions…mass-producers of food concentrate wealth, erase cultural difference, render vital cultural knowledge and skills obsolete, breed dependency, and decontextualize our food” [18]. Given the declining domestic market for stout [19], one can only hope that these mighty historical markers don’t get left in Heineken’s store cupboard of owned assets to decline and gather dust.

But there is hope, as, thankfully, there’s far more to Irish stout than the trinity of Guinness, Murphy’s, and Beamish. As Ireland’s traditional pubs (and the brewers they were tied to) started to fall into decline, people in Ireland started to do something about it. Lamenting their stakes living in “a land rich in [a] culture of drinking but totally dominated by large global drinks companies”, Liam LaHart and Oliver Hughes opened Ireland’s first independent “brew pub” [20]. The group, Porterhouse, specialises in the production of stout (a “plain”, nonetheless, like that mentioned in the Flann O’Brien), and has won multiple gold medals in the Brewing Industry International Awards over the years [21].

Though the prevalence of stout may appear to be on the wane in Ireland, craft beer is booming. In 2013, the production of beer by Irish microbreweries grew by 32% in volume 49,000hl, only to expand by a further 35% in 2014 to 71,000hl [22]. Hopefully with the support of organisations such as Beoir – Ireland’s answer to CAMRA, founded in 2010 – we will continue to see these endeavours blossom and flourish.

(Our brew did turn out well incidentally, though I finished this article with a bottle of McGargles Uncle Jim’s stout,)

[1] Oliver, G. (2012). The Oxford Companion to Beer. New York: Oxford University Press, p.494.

[2], (2016). Beer a fifth of all beverage exports. [online] Available at: [Accessed 4 Jan. 2016].

[3], (2016). James Jeremiah Murphy. [online] Available at: [Accessed 7 Dec. 2015].

[4]  O’Brien, F. At Swim-Two-Birds.

[5]  Oliver, G. (2012). The Oxford Companion to Beer.

[6], (2016). Full text of “Who burnt Cork City? a tale of arson, loot, and murder; the evidence of over seventy witnesses”. [online] Available at: [Accessed 7 Jan. 2016].

[7]  Ibid.

[8] Gibbons, F. (2000). How verse saved poet laureate from the IRA. [online] The Guardian. Available at: [Accessed 2 Jan. 2016].

[9]  Widely attributed to De Valera’s Christmas 1940 broadcast to the United States, although I was unable to find a copy of the recording itself. I could, however, find one reference to the speech in Forde, F. (1981). The long watch. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan.

[10], F. (1940). Cover letter and Memorandum by Walshe from Joseph P. Walshe – 19 August 1940 – Documents on IRISH FOREIGN POLICY. [online] Available at: [Accessed 9 Jan. 2016].

[11]  Evans, B. (2014). Guinness Saved Ireland. [online] drbryceevans. Available at: [Accessed 7 Jan. 2016].

[12] de Valera, É. (17 March 1943). “That Ireland which we dreamed of.”. In: R. Aldous, ed., Great Irish Speeches, 2nd ed (2009).

[13] Betjeman, J. and Lycett Green, C. (1994). John Betjeman letters. London: Methuen, p.314.

[14]  Evans, B. (2015). Food and Drink at the 1939 World’s Fair: National Rivalry and Irish Aspiration. In: N. Teughels and P. Scholliers, ed., A Taste of Progress: Food at International and World Exhibitions in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, 1st ed. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., p.233.

[15] Evans, B. (2014) Ireland during the Second World War: Farewell to Plato’s Cave Manchester University Press, pp. 25-26, p.179..

[16] Evans, B. (2014). Guinness Saved Ireland. [online] drbryceevans. Available at: [Accessed 7 Jan. 2016].

[17]  Evans, B. (2015). Food and Drink at the 1939 World’s Fair: National Rivalry and Irish Aspiration. In: N. Teughels and P. Scholliers, ed., A Taste of Progress: Food at International and World Exhibitions in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, 1st ed. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd, p.233.

[18]  Katz, S. and Pollan, M. (2012) . The Art of Fermentation. Chelsea Green Publishing Co, p.256.

[19] Notte, J. (2016). Guinness can’t afford to alienate loyalists as beer sales fall. [online] MarketWatch. Available at: [Accessed 12 Jan. 2016].

[20], (2016). Porterhouse – About. [online] Available at: [Accessed 6 Jan. 2016].

[21], (2016). Porterhouse. [online] Available at: [Accessed 6 Jan. 2016].

[22], A. (2016). Ireland’s craft beer industry | ACCA Global. [online] Available at: [Accessed 10 Jan. 2016].

Food For Thought: The Great British Roast

A typical British roast dinner. Flickr photo courtesy of Francisco Antunes via a Creative Commons BY-SA licence 2.0.
A typical British roast dinner. Flickr photo courtesy of Francisco Antunes via a Creative Commons BY-SA licence 2.0.

The roast has become a fundamental cornerstone of British culture, but, as with all traditions, it can become tired and neglected through repeated exposure. Happily, in most parts of the country, gone are the days of over-boiled, soggy vegetables, dry centrepieces and lumpy instant gravy – but that doesn’t mean that we wouldn’t all benefit from rethinking what we put on our plate from time to time. For meat eaters, this could mean thinking about locally distinctive, seasonal meats and cuts, moving away from the limited selection presented by supermarkets, and supporting local producers and artisans in the process. It could also mean moving away from meat entirely for at least one weekend a month, and considering the other options are available – such as my delicious vegan haggis. Such a move would certainly fit more accurately in line with the eating habits of the vast majority of British people over the centuries.

The eating of meat at a roast dinner is presented as a tradition of great historical precedence. In fact, however, prior to the Industrial Revolution, the eating of meat was neither financially nor nutritionally viable for great swathes of the British population.  At the turn of the eighteenth century for instance, the price of a single chicken would have equated to around one tenth of a cottager’s weekly income [1], rendering the possibility of buying one for the Sunday table all but impossible for just under a quarter of the population [2]. Labouring people and out servants fared slightly better, but only just, and modern research supports contemporary statistician Gregory King’s suggestion that these two classes of people, who constituted over half of the population, had to spend more than they earned [3] (just how they managed remains a mystery). Further to the problem of the price of meat was its distribution: even if a family could afford meat, this did not necessarily mean that they would all have the opportunity to eat it. It certainly wasn’t the most efficient way for most families to get their nutrients [4]. Though working class men and women both commonly worked long hours, [some] men would eat meat daily, while women and children would have to make do without, eating meat perhaps once a week [5]. In some parts of the country they would subsist predominantly on bread and water [6]. As Meredith and Oxley recount: “Women in particular came to rely on the new drug-foods of Empire: tea, sugar, treacle… Although largely empty in calories, these were stimulants, and to an extent appetite suppressants.” [7]

The picture does not necessarily improve that much in the century that follows, the first half of which Professor Burnett describes as “the hungry half century, the period when the diet of the majority of town dwellers was at best stodgy and monotonous, at worst horrendously deficient in quantity and nutriment”[8]. Again, meat was seldom seen, with the Rural Queries (answers to a survey by the Poor Law Commissioners) reporting that meat was eaten in little over half of parishes – and even then only occasionally [9]. As Collins observes: “For the masses, the rising wages in the early to mid-fifties were to a large extent cancelled out by higher meat and bread prices” [10]. In his book The Labouring Classes in Early Industrial England, 1750-1850, John Rule does a fine job of depicting the realities of daily life for Britain’s working classes and takes pains to examine and expose the misuse of patchy statistics that have frequently been employed to gloss over these difficulties. As Rule points out, even when people could afford to buy meat, it was often bought by the pound from unscrupulous shopkeepers and marketeers, renowned for mis-selling produce and landing poor customers in debt [11]. To give a real idea of the quality available, Rule affirms that “food unfit for sale in Liverpool was not unknown to reappear the next day in Manchester”[12].

So, given that little meat was for the most part eaten only infrequently by so much of the British public, where did this hunger for increased meat consumption come from? Well, the answer lies with the Victorians and their taste for rude health and scientific research, as well as changes to agricultural practice. Just as the mineral water of Britain’s spa towns was widely touted for its curative properties, so it was claimed that the consumption of meat  particularly in a cold climate  was important for bodily health, with one famous dietitian in 1871 claiming that it should be eaten three times a day [13]. The association of meat with good health and prosperity led to greater demand for it among these classes, despite any real increase in wages or spending power amongst them [14]. By August 1878, meat consumption was becoming more commonplace, with Richard Jefferies remarking that “at all events, it is certain that butcher’s meat may now be seen in cottages where it never used to be thought of” [15]. In the coming decades, improvements in transport and the continued development of compound feeds brought greater efficiency to livestock farming, which, coupled with the technological advancements of the twentieth century, soon turned into abundance, transforming the hope for better health and prosperity of the working classes into a goldmine, often at the expense of animal welfare. It seems that over time, our relationship with animals raised for meat has changed from one largely of proximity, veneration, and sacrifice, to one of detachment, exploitation, and destruction. It is worth noting that this runs parallel with the Acts of Enclosure and an increased perception of land in purely economic terms – as opposed to conceiving of it as a space in which we can both live and delight.

It is astonishing to think that a country blighted by mortality and morbidity arising from inadequate nutrition for centuries is today fighting an obesity crisis, with roughly 6% of deaths attributable to obesity in the UK today [16] – a figure in no small part linked to increased meat consumption and related risks. The association of meat with prosperity and health has persisted in recent history, reinforced by post-war marketing campaigns that have led to the creation of culinary phenomena such as the English Breakfast and the Ploughman’s Lunch in efforts to shift produce that was no longer rationed [17][18], though these tactics have changed more recently to fit with the agendas of multinational ultra-processed food companies. Though tradition is important and to be celebrated, it is also important that we adapt and innovate according to our individual needs and those of our society. Sometimes it is worth examining the PR myths that lie at the heart of some of our most-beloved institutions, and questioning their true origins.


[1] Laflin, J., ‘The Suffolk Laflins/Laughlins – Their Life & Times’,, 2013, p.41,

[2],. N.p., 2015. Web. 20 Oct. 2015.

[3] Hill, Christopher. The Century Of Revolution, 1603-1714 (Routledge. 2012), p.206. 

[4] Meredith, David, and Deborah Oxley. ‘Nutrition And Health: 1700-1870’. The Cambridge Economic History Of Britain, ed. Roderick Floud, Jane Humphries and Paul Johnson, 1st ed, (Cambridge University Press, 2011), p.134.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Burnett, John. Plenty And Want (London: Routledge, 1989). Print.

[9] Meredith, David, and Deborah Oxley, p.133.

[10] Collins, E. J. T., ‘Rural and Agricultural Change’. The Agrarian History of England and Wales, Volume 7, Part 1, ed. Joan ThirskEdward John T. Collins (Cambridge University Press, 1967), p.110.

[11] Rule, J. ‘The Experience of the Working Class Customer’. The Labouring Classes in Early Industrial England, 1750-1850 (Routledge, 2014), p.63.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Collins, p.110.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Jefferies, R., ‘The Labourer and His Hire’, The Live Stock Journal and Fancier’s Gazette of 30 August 1878, reproduced at

[16], N.p., 2015. Accessed Oct 20 2015.

[17] O’Connor, Kaori, The English Breakfast (London: Kegan Paul), 2006..

[18] Fast Forward catalogue, London, ICA (1985), p.1978.

Food For Thought: Newe-Fangled Meates

A collection of exotic mushrooms. Photo via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0 licence, courtesy of m. shattock.
A collection of exotic mushrooms. Photo via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0 licence, courtesy of Mary Shattock.

“Therefore I give my simple advice unto those that love such strange and newe-fangled meates, to beware licking honey among thornes, least the sweetness of the one do not countervaile the sharpnes and prickling of the other.”

John Gerard, The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes, 1597

There are few people out there who will share my enthusiasm for the gathering grey skies that have come to define the last couple of weeks. As balmy summer days picking canalside raspberries give way to the familiar damp of insolent British drizzle, my mounting excitement has been difficult to hem in. Pulling on my wellington boots, I know that the arrival of rain after a warm summer can only mean one thing: mushrooms.

I am what Lorna Bunyard once referred to as “a confirmed toadstool eater”[1], always keeping half an eye out for these mysterious fruits of the earth. It is no wonder that Mrs Bunyard’s chapter on mushrooms should follow a chapter entitled Strange Meats, however, as this is, historically, how they have been perceived by the British. John Gerard, perhaps our most revered botanist, was certainly not a fan, affirming that they “do hunger after the earthie excrescences”[2] –  an association he makes more than once – whilst noting their habit of popping up on the “rotting bodies of trees” in “dankish”, “shadowie”[3] places. Gerard dismisses fungi as “unproffitable” and “nothing worth”[4], repeatedly warning the reader that they are “full of poison” and “deadly”[5].

Of course now we know that this isn’t actually the case. Of the 3,000 or so species of fungi that can be found in the British Isles [6], only around twenty are gravely poisonous (though many more are too tough or bitter to make for desirable eating) [7].  Though these poisonous species sometimes resemble and mimic the habits of edible ones – making careful examination an important rite of any foray – this does not quite explain why the British are so sceptical about fungi. It was not until the war years that the British public “came to realize that not only the mushroom, but other fungi also … were edible, nutritious and palatable”[8], and certainly not until this century that we started in earnest to explore varieties other than Agaricus bisporus for their culinary possibilities.

British cultural aversion to these new-fangled meates [9] is evinced by Gerard’s description of the treatment of puffballs. Where in other countries they were renowned for their culinary value, in sixteenth century Britain, “the people where they grow [were] constrained to dig them up and cast them abroad like Molehills”[10], or “set [them] on fire” to “kill and smother Bees” [11]. This strange violence towards fungi is something that I see regularly on my walks, where some poor, unsuspecting fungus pops its head up, only to be raked over or kicked to pieces by a passing tyrant. More often than not, these species are edible, and leave me feeling as though I’ve been deprived of a free, succulent morsel.

By comparison, many early creation stories, from South Africa to the Philippines [12][13], feature mushrooms as a metaphor for the beginning of the world. Other world cultures have long enjoyed the bounty that the fungi have to offer, with mushroom foraging forming an integral part of economic and social activity in many societies. In mainland Europe their importance can be seen throughout history, from Lorenzo de’ Medici’s verses dedicated to cheerful women gathering mushrooms in verdant meadows [14], to the earliest attempts by the French to cultivate them in 1707 [15].

Even our most cherished, forward-thinking writers are subject to this prejudice – with Shakespeare’s Prospero deriding the “green sour ringlets” of “midnight mushrumps” that the fairies make, alluding to the erroneous folklore that livestock will not graze where poisonous mushrooms lie [16]. Only thirty years later in France, Molière named perhaps his most famous protagonist after the delectable, subterranean truffle, or Tartuffe. For all his pastoral sensitivity, even Keats fails to see virtue in the mycological kingdom, describing its denizens as “night-swollen” [17] and “cold” [18] two centuries later.

Fortunately, by the time Victoria had ascended the throne, someone had come to defend the virtues of these hidden riches in the form of Rev. Dr. Charles David Badham. Badham learned of the value of edible fungi whilst practising medicine in France and Italy, and, having noted the nutritive, culinary and economic benefits that they could offer – particularly to the most disenfranchised in society [19] – published A Treatise on the Esculent Funguses of England in 1847. The volume is informative and witty, and even if some of the information contained in it has been improved upon since, will still prove an interesting read to the amateur mycologist. In the volume, Badham notes how strange it is that we are so fearful of fungi when we regularly eat of a genus renowned for its poison, Solanaceae [20].

Badham definitively won my affection when bemoaning the fierce neglect of one of my favourite mushrooms, the cep, once affectionately known in this country as the Penny Bun: “the sweet, nutty-flavoured Boletus, in vain calling himself edulis where there was none to believe him” [21]. When I was little, there were few things I would look forward to more than when my uncle would turn up with jars of gold: porcini mushrooms preserved in rosemary-infused olive oil. Even today, there are few foods that are able to match the delight that they bring about in me.

Luckily, the fate of fungi is slowly changing in the UK. The determined efforts of a few intrepid people, from Victorians and twentieth century Bohemians, to the UK’s rich and diverse immigrant populations of which I am a part, finally seem to be paying off. Only this year did Dr Paul Thomas harvest the first cultivated truffle in Leicestershire [22]. Hopefully our interest in these delicacies will encourage us to afford greater protections to the hedgerows and woodland in which they thrive, and will inspire us all to go in search of the more common place treats growing closer to home.

[1] Bunyard, Edward A, and Lorna Bunyard, The Epicure’s Companion (London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1937), p.120.

[2] Gerard, John et al, The Herball, Or, Generall Historie Of Plantes (London: John Norton, 1597), p.1384.

[3] Ibid., 1386.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., p.1385.

[6] Phillips, Roger, and Lyndsay Shearer, Mushrooms And Other Fungi Of Great Britain And Europe (London: Pan Books, 1981), p.6.

[7] Mabey, Richard, Food For Free (London: Collins, 2007), p.182.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Gerard, John et al., The Herball, Or, Generall Historie Of Plantes (London: John Norton, 1597).

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., p.1387.

[12] Kirby, Jimmy. ‘Creation Stories: Uniting Humanity To Educe A Holistic Understanding Of The African Worldview’, 31 St Annual National Council For Black Studies Conference (New York: Cornell University, 2007. 9). Aug 16 2015.

[13] Demetrio, Francisco, Creation Myths Among The Early Filipinos, Asian Folklore Series (Tokyo), XXVII, 1968, p.56.

[14] Lorenzo de’ Medici, Selve, in Opere, edited by Tiziano Zanato (Torino: Einaudi, 1992), p.457.

[15] Tournefort, Joseph, Observations sur la naissance et sur la culture des champignons. Memoires de mathematique et de physique de l’Academie royale des sciences (Academie royale des sciences, 1707).

[16] Shakespeare, William, and Cedric Thomas Watts, The Tempest (Ware: Wordsworth Editions Limited), 2004. 5.1: 36­39.

[17] Keats, John and John Barnard, Selected Poems: Keats (London: Penguin Classics, 2007), p.42.

[18] Ibid., p.91.

[19] Badham, David, A Treatise On The Esculent Funguses Of England (London: Lovell Reeve), 1863, p.viii.

[20] Ibid., p.39.

[21] Ibid., p.150.

[22] ‘First UK-farmed truffle harvested’, ­ BBC News, Aug 18 2015.

Food For Thought: The Poverty of Knowledge

A butcher's window
The renaissance of offal and other cuts is welcome, but all too often it serves merely as a conversation piece for Generation Niche.

There are two places remaining in Wandsworth’s ever-changing landscape that formed an integral part of my early epicurean lessico famigliare [1]: Hennessy’s butchers and Tooting Market. The rest have fallen away in time, succumbing to the slow but continuous gentrification of the area, and the death of many of its small traders and traditional industries. The sickly-sweet smell of yeast from the Ram Brewery no longer fills the air on certain days of the week – as it did for almost half a millennium –  and the sounds of its majestic shire horses fell silent almost a decade ago. The historic site has since been purchased by a Chinese development company, and, like many other places in London, is set to be turned into “an exciting new residential and retail quarter” [2]. Because we need more of those.

My paternal grandparents immigrated to London in the 1950s, arriving in Wandsworth from Malta and the Amalfi Coast. Both had experienced the ravishes of extreme poverty during the War, and came to London in hope of starting a better life. To the neighbours’ dismay, my grandmother kept chickens and rabbits in the garden to help feed her burgeoning family, bringing with her a tradition of cucina povera that her younger brother would later champion all over the world.

Though my early childhood was always filled with exciting tastes and smells, these were all grounded in what Edward Bunyard once referred to as “a temperate enjoyment of the good things in life” [3]. Each meal was a veneration of its season, and each feast echoed the craftsmanship of generations before. I would watch with fascination as my great-aunt Genoeffa prepared graffe, fried doughnut-like Napoletan pastries, or as her youngest sister, Adriana, would make melanzane al cioccolato. It was never easy explaining to school friends just how well aubergines and chocolate go to together.

From these women, I gained a sense of the seasons, and started, as Richard Mabey describes it,  “develop[ing] the knack of opportunism, of seizing the moment, the whim, the ingredient in season, the carpe diem of cooking” [4].  There were never shopping lists, we simply bought what looked best. Costs were inherently cut by buying what was in season, and speaking to traders meant that a deal could usually be worked out.

These excursions taught me one of the fundamental principles outlined in Mrs Beeton’s book All About Cooking long before I would ever read it: namely, that:

Good marketing is as important as good cooking, for however efficient and painstaking a cook may be, she can have little success if the ingredients she has to work with are poor.


Marketing, as my grandmother knew it, was an active verb, an interaction in which she was complicit – not a thing to which a person is unscrupulously subjected. She knew that the cornerstone of a good meal was quality and simplicity.

Writing the introduction to his now (sadly) out-of-print classic, The Epicure’s Companion, food critic and horticultural enthusiast Edward Bunyard wrote: “The most depressing sign of these days is the placid acceptance of the second-rate”. [6] For Bunyard, this was not a question of money or class, but a question of knowledge. According to Bunyard, the middle-class were the worst culprits, “in general fall[ing] between the two stools of snobbery and ignorance”. [7] This notion was backed up by his wife Lorna, who remarked that “to the average middle-class Englishwoman, food is of the nature of sin, and in her system of domestic economy the crime and punishment are swallowed together”. [8]

Sadly, it seems, little has changed in this regard. Walking into Hennessy’s recently to see what was on offer, I listened as a sprightly young mother in front of me asked the butcher for eight pigs’ cheeks. The butcher laughed. Eight. Think about it.

To my grandmother’s generation, such a request would be unimaginable. Not because it is a large quantity of meat  – but because those eight cheeks, for them, would be inextricable from the four animals that would have to be slaughtered in order to provide those cheeks. Animals to which many families would have tended over the course of an entire year.

What we do not get a sense of when we buy a packet of bacon from the supermarket is the fact that one of these intelligent, companionable animals can feed a whole family for months, and that the meat from a single animal is of the order of magnitude that a busy butcher might deal with in a week.

While I am glad that “what was in the War impolitely named offal” [9] (and related cuts) seems to have undergone a renaissance under the careful guidance of chefs such as Fergus Henderson at St John, it is a great pity that, for many, this revived interest seems to have less to do with a better understanding of what we eat, and more to do with reaching for an off-the-rail conversation piece for Generation Niche.

We live in a time of food poverty: poverty of resources, poverty of time, and poverty of knowledge. On their own, each is dangerous; coupled with others, they can be deadly. The most pernicious of these types of poverty is almost certainly poverty of knowledge. Poverty of knowledge has led to the emergence of a particular kind of cook, a cook who can produce beautiful food by following very elaborate recipes to a T, but who, unguided, or faced with unanticipated situations, is filled with fear and anxiety.

My grandparents’ generation, and those who came before them, performed acts of alchemy with the little they had. They made simple, robust, nourishing food from the best of the resources available to them. These small, quotidian victories required bravery, ingenuity, and team work. As Bunyard put it, “If we are to escape the deadening influence of machine-made things we must hold on at all costs to our freedom of choice where it still remains to us”. [10] We must hold on to convenience where it is truly convenient, but not where it entraps us. Another way is possible.

[1] Ginzburg, Natalia, Lessico Famigliare, Torino, Einaudi, 1963. Print.

[2],. ‘The Ram Quarter’. N.p., 2015. Web. July 3 2015.

[3] Bunyard, Edward, and Lorna Bunyard. The Epicure’s Companion. London: Dent, 1937. Print, p.vii.

[4] Mabey, Richard. The Full English Cassoulet. London: Chatto & Windus, 2008. Print, p.11.

[5] Beeton, I., Mrs. Beeton’s All About Cookery. London: Ward Lock and Co., 1923. Print, p.59.

[6] Bunyard, Edward, and Lorna Bunyard. The Epicure’s Companion. London: Dent, 1937. Print,­vii,

[7] Ibid., p.viii.

[8] Bunyard, Lorna, and Edward Bunyard. The Epicure’s Companion. London: Dent, 1937, p.15. Print.

[9] Ibid., p.116.

[10] Ibid, pp.lxvii,

Anything Could Happen Here

Photo by Lorette C. Luzajic, taken from
Photo by Lorette C. Luzajic, taken from

“Grandma, it’s as fresh as new paint,” whispers Trudy. She edges her big, pliable body into the uncomfortable chair. Trudy’s flesh smells of synthetic strawberries, is soft as spreading butter. The room in the Bellevue Retirement Home is too small; there is only enough space for a chair, for Trudy, for a bed and for Grandma Violet.

“Grandma Violet,” Trudy continues, a smile stretches across her flour-white, moon-like face, “I started my new job today.”

Trudy’s feet ache from standing eight hours at the All Day Breakfast Grill of the OK Restaurant, at the Take Time Services situated on Junction 56, on the M7 heading North. She wore her new blue shoes, as navy as the sea.

“I’ve got to look smart,” Trudy insisted to her best friend Carol, gripping a bag bulging with new clothes. But, Carol wasn’t listening. She was thinking about Marvin, her twelve-year-old son, who had been caught on porn Internet sites at school.

“Grandma Violet,” insists Trudy, “I’m working as a Catering Assistant. We have to wear a uniform and I’ve got a badge with my name on it, but they spelt Desborough wrong.”

Trudy blushes slightly. She recalls Richard, the middle-aged manager, pinning plastic onto her broad chest, winking and calling her,

“A big girl.”

Richard likes “his girls big,” yet is married to a woman as light as a feather, as nervous as a kite. Trudy has always been large, steady.

Last night Trudy slept on Carol’s sofa. After sunset, she multiplied and subtracted, structured her existence. She likes the feel of numbers, she can smell them as she counts, taste their shape. In the dark, she weighs figures on the scales of her tongue.

She has been here since Violet went into the Home. Four months ago, Trudy met the woman from the Council. She explained to Trudy in a very loud voice,

“You have to leave dear, we’re transferring this accommodation; your Grandma has been relocated.”

And she insisted on this word, relocated, like it was something understood, essential. Trudy stared at the woman’s earrings, large hoops strung with dozens of tiny wooden beads, which quivered and swayed as she spoke.

Trudy had been living with Grandma since she was twelve, since Mum left with Dave, an evangelical Christian, to spread the word of the Lord. Trudy’s bedroom had a poster of a kitten on one wall with the slogan God Loves You and Iron Maiden opposite. There was a yellow bedspread, and a tiny china dog that Mum had bought in Bangor.

When Grandma went into the Home, Carol and Marvin helped a tearful Trudy pack. Carol chucked the posters and the china dog, but Trudy held onto the bedspread.

Carol said,

“You can sleep on my sofa.”

Marvin laid the yellow bedspread on the sofa cushions.

Carol’s sofa feels hard against Trudy’s gentle flesh; she winds herself into the yellow bedspread. Trudy likes the endlessness of her body, is comforted by the yielding rolls of flesh; they are a trophy to her existence. Layers of overlapping skin, delicate and white like snowdrifts.

Marvin says goodnight and wonders how it would feel to venture between Trudy’s thighs, to seek out the opening like the explorer of a pyramid, to discover a jewel or a curse.

In the Home, Trudy explains to Grandma Violet,

“I caught a staff bus to work at four this morning.”

In the empty pre-dawn gloom, the mini-bus headed for the motorway services. The bus drove past Trudy’s old school and the vacant shopping precinct. It travelled through the new estates, past gravel drives, ponies and hot tubs and out onto the virgin territory: the motorway. Moving along the blankness of the tarmac, Trudy was as happy as a lamb, anything could happen here.

In the Home, Trudy reaches for a packet of crisps. There are seventy-six crisps inside each packet; that’s the average variation calculated by Trudy. Except for packets of cheese and onion crisps, which, she approximates, average on seventy-three. It’s inexplicable; but Trudy need not to know why, the important thing is the calculating; the numbers are as pretty as pink.

“You’re a dreamer,” Grandma Violet said. In the afternoons before the relocation, they would eat custard creams; dip the pale biscuits into milky tea. Trudy’s mug was pink with hundreds of tiny dots, sometimes she and Violet tried to count them.

“I reckon about five hundred,” guessed Violet.

“Not sure,” said Trudy. “You have to take a sample area and times it by the whole surface area.”

Trudy learned this in Maths at school, but no one ever realised she understood. She loves the shape of numbers, especially square roots, what the teacher called the numerical element. Maths are beautiful in Trudy’s mind, they contain a kind of truth, as ivory and pure as her skin.

“I met the forecourt manager,” Trudy tells her Grandma, wiping crisp crumbs from her lap. “He took me around. It’s really posh grandma, spanking new.”

At four-thirty, Richard shows Trudy the Take Time Services. The building smells of stale fat and cleaning products. Almost empty, in the half-light, it glowed like a forgotten spaceship. A figment of a planning god’s imagination, the Services were nowhere, belonged to no one, were unburdened by history. The only relic left for future generations was congealed fat in plastic pipes.

“Take Time Services are like villages,” Richard explains to Trudy in the darkness, “there are shops, garages, the forecourt, hotels, the Game Zone and, of course, catering outlets. We’ll be trying you out at the All Day Breakfast Grill of the OK Restaurant.”

Richard introduces Trudy to Bob, the PSCO, the Police Community Support Officer.

“I met Bob who does “front-life staff security and fights against gang crime.” Trudy recites to Grandma Violet. “He had a uniform and a hat.”

Bob is an ex-SAS man, now in private security.  He tells Trudy that the real challenge,

“Is dealing with the anonymous nature of the Services, as criminals like anonymity.”

Trudy smiles and counts the buttons on his jacket; there are seven, including cuffs.

“Hundreds of people come through here everyday,” Richard explains. “Eighty million people a year visit Take Time Services across the UK.  Some get petrol, most eat and shop. Some gamble, a few sleep. Nobody stays.”

Richard imagines the mass of hands and feet that have walked on the fake marble floor. Faces recorded on CCTV cameras. Skin on metal.  Sometimes, he dreams of a deluge of dismembered toes and fingers, lost in the Service Area, stranded inside the perimeter roads, unable to find their way home. He awakes, terrified, by his tiny wife, so light she barely seems to be there.

At five thirty, Trudy is introduced to Colin, the chef. He explains about preparing the All Day Breakfasts. He shows her the piles of frozen bacon, sausages, tins of beans, hash browns, mushrooms, eggs, tomatoes and loaves of bread.

“It’s all about timing and keeping things hot,” Colin says. Trudy nods. She likes time.

 “Grandma Violet,” Trudy declares, crunching on a salty crisp, “I cooked one hundred and twenty-seven eggs this morning.”

Trudy counted them, golden globes of yellow; precious secrets surrounded by a sea of white. Standing by the heat of the griddle, she watched the chef Colin, felt her face flush red. She saw him flip eggs with a metal spatula, his large hands bright beneath the hot counter glow. Colin has spiky hair.

“The chef looks like a pop star,” Trudy tells Grandma. Trudy has decided she will fall in love with Colin; they will marry and have two sturdy little boys. Trudy does not want a girl, she would be afraid that a princess would break. Colin’s hair frames a pale face, brown eyes and a sudden smile. He has a wife and a little girl,

“Called Madison,” he tells Trudy, as he fries the eggs.

Yet, Colin’s family do not feature in Trudy’s plan, they float at the edges fuzzy, unreal; faces blurred out of the picture.

“You need a man,” Trudy’s friend Carol tells her. Carol is much older than Trudy, they met at college doing ‘Basic Skills’ training: Reading, Writing, and Maths. Nobody can imagine that Trudy can understand. She can barely read and write. Trudy is a virgin,

“White as snow,” says Carol, screaming with laughter after alcopops. But Trudy knows how sex is done. Marvin has shown her the porn videos that Carol’s brother Phil sells on eBay.

“I served two hundred and thirteen truck driver’s breakfasts,” Trudy says cramming more crisps into her mouth. She has almost finished the Salt and Vinegar packet. She sticks her little finger into the corner to reach the last few salty crumbs: sixty-seven crisps, an average number.

At seven o’clock the flow of customers at the All Day Breakfast Grill increases. Trudy watches Colin working fast until nine. She slumbers back and forth, brings Colin sausages, eggs, mushrooms and bread. She drops a packet of bacon, fumbles with the lock of the fridge. Colin does not imagine that she will stay.

“The morning is the busiest time of day,” Colin explains. “Then, we have a break until lunchtime. All sorts of people eat All Day Breakfast’s: lorry drivers, sales people, retired couples on holiday.”

Trudy looks at her Grandma in the Home. She is hungry. There are chocolate bars in her new handbag. She bought the bag from a cheap shop where Carol says,

“Everything costs nothing.”

Trudy thinks about calculating these quantities: everything, nothing.

“They give it away,” Carol says.

Colin cooks the breakfasts, Trudy watches.

“Today you observe, tomorrow you’ll be frying,” says Richard, at nine thirty, winking. Colin sighs when he sees Richard flirting with the new girl; he doesn’t like the manager.

“It’s all swings and roundabouts,” Colin’s dad told him too many times, dying just before retirement. Colin has worked in the Service station for several years, is looking to get a job as a chef in a pub. He has a dream, but it seems to be melting. His wife says he should be on the television.

“You’ve got to believe in yourself,” she tells Colin.

At ten thirty, Colin and Trudy have a break, drink a coffee.

“I had a cappuccino with two sugars,” Trudy tells Grandma in the stuffy room in the Home. “Colin had his black with no sugar.”

Trudy sips her hot, sweet drink, slips off her new shoes, which are giving her blisters, hopes that her feet don’t smell.

“Wear extra deodorant,” Carol warned her, “You don’t want to sweat like a pig.” Before leaving the house that morning, Trudy enveloped every square inch of her skin in strawberry body spray.

“The last bit of the day was the lunches. Well, I mean, breakfast as lunch. All day breakfast,” Trudy explains to Grandma.

At eleven thirty it started to get busy again. Trudy and Colin worked until two.

“You get some regulars,” Colin tells Trudy. “But mostly it’s all new faces. You know, anonymous.”

Trudy still doesn’t know what this means, maybe it’s like enormous, which means very big. She likes all these different, large faces; she counts them as they arrive. She calculates that twenty-seven of the men who order a Full Cracker Jack Breakfast with chips are wearing dark-coloured fleece jackets.

At one thirty, Richard asks Trudy to come into his office before she catches the staff bus home.

“I just want to evaluate your first day,” he says, winking. Trudy smiles.

“I like big girls,” he says. Trudy looks at his eyes, his middle-aged spread and remembers Colin, their two sturdy little boys, their wedding plans, the princess girl that they will never have. Trudy closes her eyes and numbers floods her mind. This occasionally happens to Trudy. The figures integrate, reduce and map. Shapes dance in algebraic extrapolations, permutations and perform calculus of variations. Trudy opens her mouth and the numbers fall, like snowflakes, on her neat little tongue. They taste lemony, bitter and slightly sweet. Richard watches the fat girl standing, eyes closed, mouth open. He moves away, embarrassed now. Trudy opens her eyes, smiling, slightly exhausted.

“Well, we’ll ring you if we need extra staff,” says Richard brusquely. Trudy leaves the Take Time Services. Her heart is beating fast. She gets the staff bus back to town and walks straight to the Home to visit Grandma Violet, stopping on the way to buy chocolate and crisps.

Trudy glances at her Grandma, lying in the bed, staring at the wall.

“I’ll be off now, Grandma,” she says. She’s eaten the last bar of chocolate and finished all the crisps.

“She can’t see or hear anything since the stroke,” the nurse explains at the Home. “But they say people can feel your presence.” Trudy strokes her Grandma’s hand, says goodbye. She wonders if Grandma will come to her and Colin’s wedding; she thinks about relocation, movement, and home.

That evening lying on Carol’s sofa, Trudy cannot see the sky. The milky yellow light from the street lamps muffles the extraordinary astral truth, the beauty of the stars.

Food For Thought: The Right to an Allotment

Photo courtesy of Gordon Joly. Creative Commons CC-BY-SA 2.0 licence via Flickr.
Photo courtesy of Gordon Joly. Creative Commons CC-BY-SA 2.0 licence via Flickr.

After four years of waiting, I am now number 321 in a queue of 690 waiting for an allotment in my local borough. The wait may seem long, but, as the situation currently stands – with some waiting lists extending for over a decade – it seems that I am lucky to be on a waiting list at all. Like most Londoners, I have to live with very little outside space, making the most of a single window sill and any vertical area that I have in order to produce a few small crops, interspersed with calendula and cornflowers that bring me great joy throughout the rest of the year.

Whilst there is a statutory duty for outer London boroughs to provide a “sufficient quantity”[1] of allotment plots to the people living in them, what this quantity is proportional to the number of residents in the area is unclear. And it is precisely this lack of clarity, “built up through a century of agitation”[2] in the fight for our right to allotments, that is now leading to their wanton destruction in the name of short­-term profit. The law, described by Colin Ward as “both vague and voluminous” and “in urgent need of revision”, is exploited by those in power, who perceive these hard­-won rights as burdensome and standing in the way of profit. If we replace the “safety­ first” culture of the 1960s, for that of “profit­ first” in the 2010s, it seems that John Betjeman put it rather succinctly: “We slice off old buildings, fell healthy trees, replace hedges with concrete posts and chain ­link fencing, all in the name of ‘[profit]­ first’, which is another phrase for ‘hurry past’.”[3]

This means that – as has been the case at Farm Terrace in Watford – a number of historically and ecologically important sites, boasting rich soils (a rare resource, particularly in London) and deep community roots (arguably equally rare), are levelled, and the living fabric of its society erased, all in the name of yet more anonymous business parks. As William Cobbett wrote, “greediness is never at a loss for excuses for the hard­heartedness that is always ready to practice”[4]. Cobbett, a farmer­-cum­-journalist, famously championed the importance of giving people – particularly the poorest in society – access to land to cultivate their own food, quick to recognise the lesson that we have been so slow to learn, namely, that “from a very small piece of ground a large part of the food of a considerable family may be raised” and that “the very act of raising it will be the best possible foundation of education … it will teach them a great number of useful things … [and will] make them start in life with all possible advantages, and give them the best chance of leading happy lives”[5]. These lessons could not be more important at a time when deaths directly related to the consumption of ultra­processed foods are on the increase globally, currently totalling around 18
million each year [6].

All too often our rights are relinquished or damaged in the name of a wider public interest with links to the lining of private pockets. In the post­war period, this was embodied by the destruction of rare natural habitats championed in the name of food or motorway production – now it is the destruction of our allotments in the name of the housing crisis. Often, the seizing of these common goods is done in the name of a false moral dilemma against which the protection of certain liberties seems selfish. No decent person would want to deny others food or housing, after all. However, in the case of our allotments, it is important that we recognize that the provision of space for communities to cultivate their own food and the construction of new housing stock are not mutually exclusive. Ironically, the councils that seem to be addressing these issues most pro-actively are perhaps those under the greatest pressure from issues arising from high population density and extreme poverty like Hackney and Islington, ranked among the most deprived both in London and nationally[7].

The message from Hackney’s housing assocation could not be more clearly welcoming: “If you live on an estate and you want to grow some food or even get together with some neighbours and start a community garden, Hackney Homes wants to help you.” And this is not just local political spiel. Almost every estate I have walked through seems to boast its own community orchard or adjacent community garden or allotment scheme. Of course some of these schemes could benefit from educational outreach – one community orchard I walked through recently had been denuded of fruit the year previously before the harvest had begun by over-zealous locals – but it is more than a step in the right direction. As Roger Deakin wrote when describing the hard­-won smallholdings of the people of the Forest of Dean, the solution to much of our urban malaise could be found in “this small­scale people’s landscape created by a combination of hard work, mutual support, and the stubborn, often courageous assertion of the rights of the foresters and commoners to shelter and share in the land”[8].

[1] London Assembly Environment Committee,. A Lot To Lose: London’s Disappearing Allotments. London: Greater London Authority, 2006. Web. 1 June 2015.

[2] Ward, Colin. “The Hidden History Of Housing”. History & Policy. N.p., 2004. Web. 1 June 2015.

[3] Betjeman, John. First And Last Loves. Arrow Books, 1960. Print, p.12.

[4] Cobbett, William. Cottage Economy. London: W. Cobbett, 1828. Print, p.9.

[5] Ibid., p.11.

[6] Moodie, Rob et al., Profits and pandemics: prevention of harmful effects of tobacco, alcohol, and ultra­processed food and drink industries, The Lancet , Volume 381 , Issue 9867, pp. 670 ­-679.

[7],. ‘End Child Poverty’. N.p., 2015. Web. 1 June 2015.

Food For Thought: The Meaning of Foraging

Photo courtesy of foam, via Flickr/Creative Commons CC-BY-SA 2.0.
Photo of foraging courtesy of foam, via Flickr/Creative Commons CC-BY-SA licence.

No, I should love the city less
Even than this, my thankless lore;
But I desire the wilderness
Or weeded landslips of the shore.

The Alchemist in the City, Gerard Manley Hopkins [1]

It is the end of May, and my kitchen is alive with bubbling decoctions of blossoms as the hawthorn starts to fade and elderflower sprays take its place. The pale blush of oak apples teases in the distance; the inedible galls a cheerful reminder of the bounty to come in the months ahead. The season of abundance is upon us, and, it seems, many kitchens across the country are keen to make the most of the nation’s new­found love for wild food.

My first forays happened in childhood, inadvertently trampling blankets of alium ursinum on walks with my aunt, and being astounded by the pungent smell of garlic that rose up from the woodland floor. I felt as though I had discovered a great secret, and wanted to learn how I might cultivate it for myself. Then I started to learn about the habits of plants, their seasons, their stories, and how to read the land – town or country – by the types of plants that choose to grow there. The outdoors became a movable feast in the truest sense; a series of little treasures to be enjoyed within reach of whence they sprang, or stowed with squirrel­-like jealousy – dried or in jars – for the months ahead.

Never could I have imagined then that these gustatory ephemera would one day be touted as luxury items. When in season, wild garlic can reach more than £30/kg, and its addition to recipes seems to have become a convenient way for restaurants to notch up the price of otherwise unimaginative dishes. Sad bunches of the stuff, ravaged from ancient riverbanks, are sold for high prices at London’s well­-to­-do farmers’ markets, and bought well past their peak by the curious and unsuspecting.

Worse still is how ground elder – a delicious plant first introduced by the Romans, now commonly targeted as an invasive garden weed – becomes a means to inflate the price of the humble grilled pork chop to levels better associated with truffles or game. It seems, that through some clever trick of marketing, we have managed to miss the point of foraged food entirely; namely, as Thoreau put it, that “the value of these wild fruits is not in the mere possession or eating of them, but in the sight and enjoyment of them”[2]. It is in the very essence of what Richard Mabey first celebrated as “Food for Free” over forty years ago.


“What are all the oranges imported into England to the hips and haws in her hedges?”

Wild Fruits, Henry David Thoreau [3]

We may not need foraging for sustenance, but there is a vital need for it in terms of regaining a knowledge of, and intimacy with, what is wild and freely available in our towns and countryside, to reach at what Roger Deakin once called “the pleasure, all too rare now in England, of eating food in its natural place” [4]. It is not that the opportunity to do so doesn’t exist, nor that it requires particularly specialist knowledge in most cases. The number of times I have watched people walk past public trees laden with common, delicious fruit – from rosy red apples, to succulent pears and honey dew plums – only to seek out what is expensive, uniform and out of season, are, unfortunately, innumerable. Iain Sinclair articulated the effects of this divorce from nature well in his description of the life of the poet John Clare:

“Suddenly this village, all the common ground, is divided up into an eccentric jigsaw of little parcels. He can no longer walk, he fears to walk in the fields for the farmers turning him off… Suddenly he doesn’t understand his own landscape, which is also his language.”


We too have become like Clare: fearful of the ramifications of straying beyond the barriers of what has been set out to us, and robbed of our common ground. But there is hope: across the country there are groups of volunteers working tirelessly at preserving Britain’s forgotten orchards in both the city and the countryside. There are councils with gardeners who invest time and thought in municipal plantings, and others whose neglect has allowed nature to flourish in the corners where they have turned a blind eye. In London, there are countless community gardens and voluntary groups turning wasteland into ambulatory cornucopias for the benefit of all. From Butterfield Green Community Orchard in Hackney, to Glengall Wharf Garden in Peckham, there are people working tirelessly to ensure that we might taste “the pleasure which it yields to him who truly plucks it”[6], but it requires us first to be curious, and second to be brave, to truly reap the benefits of that first­named fruit.

[1] Manley Hopkins, Gerard, Poems and Prose of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ed. W.H. Gardner, London, Penguin Books, 1953.

[2] Thoreau, Henry David, and Bradley P Dean. Wild Fruits. New York: W.W. Norton, 2000, p.4.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Deakin, Roger, Wildwood : A Journey Through Trees, London: Hamish Hamilton, 2007, p.134.

[5] Sinclair, Iain. Blake’s London. London: Swedenborg Society, 2011, pp..25­-26.

[6] Thoreau, Henry David, and Bradley P Dean. Wild Fruits. New York: W.W. Norton, 2000, p.5.

Food For Thought: Hazlitt, Malthus and the Tragedy of Food Banks

William Hazlitt, right, issued a scathing critique of the ideas of Thomas Malthus, left.
William Hazlitt, right, issued a scathing critique of the ideas of Thomas Malthus, left.

Whatever the outcome of this year’s general election, the most notable legacy of the last coalition government will be the critically under-discussed revival of the nation’s food banks. Despite promises from the Con-Dem government of economic recovery, of increased levels of employment, and an improvement in wages, there was still an 163 per cent increase in the number of people needing to use food banks between 2012/13 and 2013/14, bringing the total up to 913,138 – more than one person in every hundred in the UK – roughly a third of whom were children. [1] The disparity is particularly remarkable considering that it occurs at a time when 4.2 million tonnes of avoidable food waste – the equivalent of roughly six meals per household per week – is being created in the UK every year. [2]

Recent reforms to the UK welfare system, said to be designed “to help claimants and their families to become more independent” [3] cheerfully disguise the language of a much older agenda. Making his case for the abolition of the Poor Laws in 1807, Thomas Robert Malthus called for a system that would “throw off the rising generation from that miserable and helpless dependence upon the government and the rich” [4]. In his Essay on the Principle of Population, Malthus proposes that population growth naturally exceeds our ability to produce food, and that unchecked population growth (it is suggested, among the poor), is reset and brought down to subsistence levels by “misery, and vice”. [5]

As a resolution to this problem, Malthus proposes that the poor man should be warned against marriage or fornication lest such relations produce children that he could not support independently. If he fails to heed this warning, he should be left “to the punishment of want”. [6] The permission that the rich give themselves to moralise and legislate against the whims of the poor whilst ignoring similar behaviour within their own ranks is a cruelty that was not lost upon essayist William Hazlitt:

“When Mr Malthus asserts, that the poor man and his family have been doomed to starve by the laws of nature, which are the laws of God, he means by the laws of God and nature, the physical and necessary inability of the earth to supply food for more than a certain number of human beings; but if he means that the wants of the poor arise from the impossibility of procuring food for them, while the rich roll in abundance, or, we will say, maintain their dogs and horses, &c. out of their ostentatious superfluities, he asserts that he knows not to be true.”


The Department of Work and Pensions may claim that it wants to end a “something for nothing culture” [8], but as Hazlitt countered in 1807, such arguments miss the point: namely, that punishing the poor does not address the causes of poverty within society:

“Mr. Malthus wishes to confound the necessary limits of the produce of the Earth with the arbitrary and artificial distribution of that produce according to the institutions of that society, or the caprice of individuals.”


Unfortunately, over a century later, it seems that we not become much better at protecting the vulnerable from the caprices of such institutions and individuals. The collective riches of Britain’s wealthiest people has doubled in the last ten years [10], and yet the deficit (yes, that old chestnut) continues to be fought through cuts to the welfare state. Almost a decade after the financial crisis, with so little justice brought upon the shoulders of those responsible, it is hard not to hear the clamour of Hazlitt’s questions ringing in one’s ears:

“Have not the government and the rich had their way in every thing? Have they not gratified their ambition, their pride, their obstinacy, their ruinous extravagance? Have they not squandered the resources of the country as they pleased?”


The World Bank estimates that we will need to “produce at least 50% more food to feed 9 billion people by 2050” and that climate change “could cut crop yields by 25%”. [12] This will be particularly challenging if we do not diversify our food sources: currently 75 per cent of our food is derived from 12 plant and 5 animal species [13], leaving us vulnerable not only to environmental changes, but increasingly, the will of the corporations who control and patent these varieties. The greatest challenge, however, may be ensuring that our hunger for profit does not go unchecked by human heart.

[1] ‘The Trussell Trust – Foodbank Figures Top 900,000’. N.p., 2015. Web. 18 Apr. 2015.

[2] ‘Household Food And Drink Waste In The UK 2012 | WRAP UK’. N.p., 2015. Web. 18 Apr. 2015.

[3], ‘Government Policy On Universal Credit: An Introduction – Welfare Reform – Policies – GOV.UK’. N.p., 2013. Web. 18 Apr. 2015.

[4] Hazlitt, W., Political Essays. London: Printed for W. Hone, 1819. Print, pp.424-430.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid. Hazlitt did not approve of the Poor Laws, but believed them better than nothing at all: “I think the poor laws bad things; and that it would be well, if they could be got rid of, consistently with humanity and justice.”

[8], ‘Benefit Sanctions – Ending The ‘Something For Nothing’ Culture – Press Releases – GOV.UK’. N.p., 2013. Web. 18 Apr. 2015.

[9] Hazlitt, Political Essays.

[10], ‘Benefit Sanctions – Ending The ‘Something For Nothing’ Culture – Press Releases – GOV.UK’. N.p., 2013. Web. 4 May 2015.

[11] Hazlitt.

[12], ‘Food Security’, N.p., 2015, Web. 18 Apr. 2015

[13], ‘What Is Agrobiodiversity?’. N.p., 2015. Web. 4 May 2015.

Food For Thought: What Montaigne Can Teach Us About Ultraprocessed Foods

Michel de Montaigne
In Des Cannibales, Montaigne contrasted wild and cultivated food. Creative Commons-licensed image via Flickr/Skara kommun.


The wisdom of Michel de Montaigne extends to most spheres of human life, not excepting agriculture and matters of the palate. In his 1580 essay Des Cannibales (Of Cannibals), in which he lambasts Europe’s hypocrisy in its perception and treatment of the people of the New World (in particular the Tupinambá people), Montaigne also draws some striking comparisons between cultivated and wild food. These comparisons not only strike a chord with the forager within me (who delights in the taste of what is to be found growing in the most unlikely of places), but also to the grower, who notes the difference in flavour when food is cultivated with a little care.

According to Montaigne, it should not be wild fruit that we call “sauvage” (carrying the implication of “savage”), but “[those] fruit which we have artificially perverted and misled from the common order”[1]. He affirms that “living”, “vigorous”, “natural” fruit has been “bastardized …by merely adapting them to our corrupt tastes”[2]. This last thought has particular resonance when we consider it in light of the mass­-produced and ultra­processed food that has come to dominate so much of people’s diets around the world today. In high-­income countries, ultra­processed foods can make up more than 60 per cent of total energy intake [3]. This would not be a problem if these foods provided people with adequate nutrition, but according to recent studies, ultra­processed foods are currently responsible for more than 18 million deaths each year through non-communicable diseases such as high blood pressure, high body­mass index, high fasting blood glucose and high­ total cholesterol [4]. More troubling still is that these multinational companies, that have become so adept at manipulating the fats, sugar content and textures of foods, market these products aggressively to the poorest societies, where they will make most of their profit in the next five years [5]. Just as the eating of meat has become a marker of prosperity in many societies, so the giants of the processed food industry have come to embody the capitalist dream across the world.

As the child of an immigrant family brought up on the concept of cucina povera (or “poor person’s cooking”), I find the rise of such trends troubling. I was lucky enough to have gained a good knowledge of how to cook satisfying, healthy food for myself cheaply; to feel and smell the produce on sale to ascertain its quality; to pay attention to the seasons, and how they affect not only prices, but also flavours. But for many people, this isn’t the case. As a society, we are increasingly time-­poor, resource­-poor, and knowledge­-poor – factors which all fall in favour of so-
called “convenience” options (a term better used to describe latrines).

Baudelaire once declared that “tout ce qui est beau et noble est le résultat de la raison et du calcul” (“All that is beautiful and noble is the result of reason and calculation”)[6]. For Baudelaire, Nature and the natural world represented the grotesque and the unruly; a source of disgust, ultimately to be tamed and sculpted by the intellect, a view mirrored in many agricultural and scientific practices, made manifest in the market by our increased detachment from our food sources, and our conditioning towards uniform, boneless, skinless food products. We may have become better at farming and cultivation, but we remain wasteful, hungry, and lacking in nutrition – indicators that do not represent the kind of “progress” these industries promise. On the contrary, reason and calculation have created a multi­billion­-pound ultra­processed food and drinks industry that exploits the fear and ignorance created by this void with products that ultimately destroy our health. All the while, the industry distorts and obscures evidence by corrupting research through sponsorship that renders studies four­ to­ eight times more likely to favour the financial interests of the sponsoring company [7]. Even the tobacco industry didn’t manage to get away with that in the long ­term.

According to Moodie et al., “the ten largest food companies control more than half of all food sales” in the USA, while internationally, “this proportion is about 15% and is rising rapidly”[8]. It is a damning indictment of our hubris that over 400 years on, Montaigne’s words on Nature still ring true:

We have so overloaded the richness and beauty of her products by our own ingenuity that we have smothered her entirely. Yet wherever her pure light does shine, she wondrously shames our vain and frivolous enterprises. [9]

And shine on she does. Quietly, the old wisdom of leaving fields fallow and growing crops in polycultures to maintain the structure of our soils is being proven to be integral to maintaining and encouraging biodiversity and improving and protecting soil fertility for future generations. In many parts of the world, Artifice is working hand­ in­ hand with Nature to create vertical growing space and enclosed, sustainable desert farms [10] in hitherto barren regions of the world. Though the challenges are significant, the solutions are numerous, provided that we are able to rein in our tendency towards greed, and see beyond our unrealistic desire for exponential profit growth. But this will require effort. As Baudelaire put it: “Le mal se fait sans effort, naturellement, par fatalité; le bien est toujours le produit d’un art.”  (“Evil produces itself without effort, naturally, by fatality; goodness is always the product of an art.”) [11]

[1] “Ceux que nous avons alterez par nostre artifice, et destournez de l’ordre commun.” Montaigne, Michel, Des Cannibales, Essais, 1580.

[2] Montaigne, M., On the Cannibals, Essays, Trans. M.A. Screech, Penguin, UK, 2004.

[3] Moodie, Rob et al., Profits and pandemics: prevention of harmful effects of tobacco, alcohol, and ultra­processed food and drink industries, The Lancet , Volume 381, Issue 9867, pp. 670 ­-679.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Baudelaire, Charles, Éloge du Maquillage, Le Peintre de la Vie Moderne, 1863.

[7] Moodie.

[8] Ibid.

[9] “Nous avons tant rechargé la beauté et richesse de ses ouvrages par noz inventions, que nous l’avons du tout estouffée. Si est­ce que par tout où sa pureté reluit, elle fait une merveilleuse honte à noz vaines et frivoles entreprinses.” Des Cannibales.

[10] Asef­,. “Association Santé Environnement France ­ Mai 2013: ­ 87% Des Enfants Ne Savent Pas Ce Qu’est Une Betterave!”, Association Santé Environnement France. April 19 2015.

[11] Baudelaire, Charles, L’idéal artificiel, Les Petits Poèmes en Prose, 1869.

The Herrera-Harfuch Art Collection

'El Baño Familiar', Daniel Lezama
‘El Baño Familiar’, Daniel Lezama

Every time I visit the Herrera-Harfuch art collection, every time I’ve gone up – because there is an ascent, never as dangerous as the descent, even though, often, during the climb one is filled with a glass or two of wine or some other intoxicant, a couple of tequilas or whiskies on winter nights – every time I am under the impression that I have seen only a small fragment of the collection’s great body of work. A slice of an enormous landscape wisely folded into the furrows of the collection’s archives. These wines and spirits consumed before going up accompany the greatest delicacies of Polish cuisine found in Mexico. Everyone knows what their favourite dish is – perhaps a few juicy slices of duck in a sweet-and-sour sauce, fish cooked just right to retain its tenderness and not lose the vigour of the sea, or minced meat wrapped in cabbage leaves drenched in the most delicious red sauce that is orange, really, due to the way the mix of tomatoes and paprika gel during the process of cooking. This is served on white dishes with colourful puréed roots that are so much a part of survival in northern Europe. But back to Mexico City, the Condesa neighbourhood to be exact, where you can eat on the terrace almost year-round. The caloric impact of the delicacies served by Gabriel Herrera take on other dimensions, and I’m not speaking only of the shapes of the diners’ bodies, but of what happens to the perceptions and the minds of those of us who dine here.

The first time (and I don’t know why each time seems to be the first) I passed through a tiny alley next to the restaurant kitchen and went up under the light of the stairs’ bare bulb, a light that undresses the eye in preparation for what lies behind the apartment door. I had moved only a few metres, but found myself as if in another world – the home where the collection lives.

The door opens and one puts one foot after the other into a territory whose first effect is the sensation of having flown a thousand miles away from the Condesa. Simultaneously, one realizes that what has taken place is that one has landed in the very entrails of the neighbourhood. In a place where one can see the pictorial interior of the artists that inhabit the span between the second half of the 20th and into the 21st century. And also the visual touch and flow of a man and of Consuelo, his wife, who have lovingly put together the ripest fruit of these artists. Collecting, let us not forget, is a term that originates from the harvest and also from the time before humans harvested; it is a term derived from the foraging for food in forests, near rivers, in lakes and seas. In what the world was then, in the bounty of the earth.

Behind the door there are works on every centimetre of wall, provided there is space enough for the eye to see. There is art in every nook and cranny, pieces in every corner – to surmise, there are pictures and objects everywhere.

'Hunicoenio Rodeado de Halcones', Gilverto Aceves Navarro
‘Hunicoenio Rodeado de Halcones’, Gilverto Aceves Navarro

Basically, the collection brings together artists born after 1950, with the exception of Gilberto Aceves Navarro, Pedro Friedeberg, Jose Luis Cuevas, Brian Nissen and Arturo Rivera. Each of these older painters can be seen as an important tributary of a great river that will be discovered in decades to come. These four artists had already started to produce work and gain recognition while the younger generation was being formed under their influence.

Gabriel Herrera says that his interest in art first came from impressions he had at a young age. His mother learned to appreciate painting in her hometown of Tecoh in Yucatan, where she grew up, “humbly, surrounded by orchards, Mayan culture and the Popol Vuh. I remember seeing art as a child,” recounts Herrera, “I don’t remember my level of interest, but I liked it and sensed that I was facing something exceedingly important.” Years later, on a visit to the Met in New York City with his mother, he realized she really knew the paintings, and even identified them: author, subject, everything. “‘Look!’ it appeared she said from one narrow hall to another, ‘that one there is a Brueghel. Brueghel – The Elder. The painting is called The Harvest’”.

That’s how the first seed was planted. Years go by, during which Gabriel Herrera creates the Specia restaurant. In 1995, the collection is born. This collection is now eighteen years old and already has 700 original works and approximately 100 prints and etchings. The collection owes much to the exchange between the collector and the artists without which, Herrera says, it would have been virtually impossible to grow at this rate. Eighteen years are few for the consolidation of such a significant gathering of work. And, as we know is the case in the nascent stage of these endeavours, the exchange that occurs between collector and artist can go far beyond the material sphere, even if the barter happens through it: a canvas, pigments, oil, objects, things that get put together and mixed inside the kitchen of each particular artist.

“I think there are two ways of collecting: the kind that’s done for the love of art, and the sad kind that’s done for financial or social investment. Many of today’s collections are formed by wealthy people who hire dealers and curators who predict what will be important in the future. The last thing these people have in mind is consistency in the quality of the objects gathered. They buy signatures and acquire artists that will help them gain social status regardless of whether the work excites or transmits something. What matters is that it is fashionable. That cold indifference is felt and makes the collection something soulless, without historical reason and without poetry.

'Mar de Nuestras Vidas', Gabriel Macotela
‘Mar de Nuestras Vidas’, Gabriel Macotela

“It is a fact that collecting art is a reflection of the desire to possess beauty. What is more enriching for the soul than beauty? That’s why I wonder what collectors of empty boxes and balloons must feel,” Herrera says.

The experience of exchanging is different from the experience of buying. “I never set out to be a collector. One day I realized that I already had many paintings and other works of art. Museums and exhibits started to request pieces, and I understood something important had happened through my friendship with these artists. These relationships have developed naturally. Much of what I’ve collected is related to the endless conversations I’ve had with the artists.

“Artists are different kinds of beings than you and I; they’re in constant turmoil, their soul on tenterhooks. Gabriel Macotela and Gustavo Monroy are both artists with whom I’ve developed strong bonds of friendship. They are an essential part of the collection. Gustavo Monroy is a painter who works with unpleasant themes and is one of the greatest artists I know. It was with him that I understood that people don’t like to be confronted with difficult works because, in most cases, it confronts them with themselves, and that is not easy – especially if you don’t know who you really are. I don’t like collecting landscapes and still lifes; I think art should make you shudder, make you think and analyse the reason for existence. Jorge Alzaga (now deceased) for example, was one of the painters who, although perhaps not a great artist, was an extraordinary human being who taught me to look at art with watchful eyes.”

In the apartment that the collection and its meticulous records and files inhabit, there is a flavour – the inevitable result of the confusion between sight and taste under these circumstances – which is elusive, hard to grasp. I explain it to myself by inventing a story: Someone extraordinarily careful from the aforementioned generation had the good fortune of living in the same nice, spacious apartment since the Eighties and stayed there. He stayed there without collecting dust, or old shoes, or dead files filled with decades of phone bills and extinct bank accounts. Neither did he gather burnt pans, nor synthetic clothing turned to shreds that hurt the skin. No, this person even bottled the light coming through the window during those years: particularly dense but not devoid of beauty. And he collected the images and forms born of that light. He meticulously recorded the history and provenance of each piece, simplifying art historians’ lives. A silence envelops the visitor. A silence that is not reverential but contemplative, inquisitive. Perhaps the gaze of Gabriel himself. The love of having gathered the voices. Forgive me, synaesthesia wins: the gathering of flavours that are images that are voices that make up the collection.

Over the years, stories have come to hang from the paintings that hang on the walls. Captions or narrative records that adhere to the image and enrich the texture of the object, as if adding another layer of depth, of sense, of significance.

Gabriel recounts, “One afternoon I visited Gabriel Macotela, who was painting a boat onto a beautiful fabric for a collector from Valle de Bravo. I told him I’d like to have something similar. He told me he’d paint me an entire fleet. I had a frame of 1.98m by 1.98m made. I had the finest linen I could find stretched over it. It didn’t enter his study so he worked on it in a warehouse I have next to the apartment. He painted it there. It’s called Sea of Our Lives. I documented the creative process photographically and now the painting hangs in front of Consuelo’s desk. It’s one of the dearest pieces in our collection.”

These works seem to have a life of their own. The paintings develop close relationships and converse among each other. We are talking here about a crude reality, a group of artists who look at the exterior and interior world without any prohibitions and without trying to please anyone. For example, the large paintings by Daniel Lezama don’t correspond to any official version of the nation’s history. They correspond with his story, his own. His visions hit you hard and are not easy to digest. Herrera appreciates raw truth.

The four children of the Herrera-Harfuch marriage grew up among the collection and the challenges it faced. Herrera recounts a beautiful story of how one of his daughters offered to leave college when she found out he couldn’t raise the money to keep an incredible painting of Daniel Lezama’s, The Prodigal Mother. She suggested he use her tuition money to pay for it. The father didn’t accept his daughter’s sacrifice. The painting went to a European collection.

A man and a woman unite, create a family, and find a way to provide for that family. Art enters the construction through a natural opening. The collection grows with dedication and a special spice that visits the Specia restaurant. There’s something easy about its growth, similar to the way plants grow with water and sunlight. What matters most in life is the life lived – the collection of precious moments that occur and in which we shift from one group of people to another in the passing of time and generations. There are cases in which images adhere to families – images produced by primitive tools, animal hair attached to pieces of wood and securely fastened with string or wire, which allow pigments to glide over fabric. Or images created with the help of chisels, rasps, sandpaper… Images that will survive us all and which the collector lovingly rescues from the studios of those who need to register the liquid flow of the visual.

Translation by Sylvia Blackmore

The Wrong Way to Eat an Artichoke

Photo by Seth Anderson (copied from Flickr)
Photo by Seth Anderson (copied from Flickr)

I am a notoriously picky eater. It’s been a family joke for years. I eat like a kid. My favourite meal? French fries or tater tots. If I hadn’t gotten married my dinners would still be a rotation of spaghetti, burritos, and Kraft macaroni and cheese. I also have a slew of food-related compulsive behaviours. Like all compulsions it’s hard to know what came first, was I always compulsive about food or did something cause me to become so?

I don’t believe in blaming my psychological issues on my parents or my upbringing. Sometimes I blame genetics, sure. Even then, what’s the point in using crappy genes as a crutch? Still, if in the battle of nature versus nurture, my upbringing did have something to do with my compulsive eating habits, well, I can think of a few instances to point at in support of such a hypothesis.

My father was particularly uptight about meals. If I didn’t finish my food I had to stay at the table until I had. Usually this meant I sat at the table until bed time. And more often than not I passed this time by seeing how long I could hold my fingers in candle flames, sometimes because my sister dared me, sometimes just for something to do.

When, inevitably, the remains of my dinner stayed untouched, I would be sent to bed only to wake up to my dinner being placed before me at breakfast. There’s no more horrifying breakfast than a bowl of tomato soup. I haven’t eaten tomato soup since it stopped being forced on me, and I have no plans to ever do so again.

Other foods of particular disgust: my former stepmother’s macaroni and cheese, which was ruined by its breadcrumb topping; all seafood, but especially salmon, which once made me ralph all over the table during a dinner party my dad threw for his co-workers; 99.9% of vegetables. To this day the only vegetables I’ll eat are potatoes and carrots, the same ones I was willing to eat as a child. It’s been pointed out that in general I don’t like green foods.

Which brings us to the artichoke. Artichokes are vegetables, but they are also cardoons, thistle-like plants of the Asteraceae family. The same plant family as sunflowers. As a kid it seemed like my family was always eating artichokes, a practice from which I abstained. Seriously, who wants to eat a thistle? Not that I was aware of its thistle-hood as a kid.

As a parent myself now, I totally understand the impulse to force feed a child. Sitting at the dinner table for an hour (fifty minutes longer than it takes me to clear my own plate), is akin to being stranded on a desert island. Carving into your own skin with a stick begins to sound like decent entertainment. So naturally it’s not exactly rare to consider how you might go about forcing a child to eat a little quicker. However, I have yet to reach such a snapping point. My father, on the other hand, reached his snapping point regularly.

The most memorable of these instances came when he decided to make me eat an artichoke. I declined, as I was wont to do. I declined when he said I had to eat it. I declined when he pulled a leaf from an artichoke and reached across the table to shove it into my lips. Maybe “no means no” wasn’t a thing yet, because my mouth was about to get raped by an artichoke.

My dad walked around the table and tried again to push the artichoke leaf into my mouth, and again I kept my mouth shut tight. Then I got up from the table and tried to leave the dining room. My dad caught me by the arm and I dramatically flailed to the ground, shouting that I wasn’t going to eat the artichoke.

I suppose I was lucky my dad was not as large a man as he is now, because his next move was to straddle me, put the artichoke leaf on a fork and force it through my lips and my teeth. I don’t remember what the artichoke tasted like, but I can still have some sense memory of the feeling of it against my teeth, the texture of it. I laid there thrashing my head back and forth like a shark hooked by a fisherman, thinking I’d never seen someone eat a whole leaf before, as the custom seemed to be to grate the base of the leaf against one’s teeth.

As I continued to struggle, my dad finally gave up, the sport apparently having gone out of the thing. I likely retreated to my room where, for a change, I probably wished I had a picture of my dad secreted behind my dartboard rather than one of my stepmother. Needless to say, I still haven’t had a consensual meal of artichokes.

I have a good memory, but not good enough to remember if my childhood issues with food were simply pickiness or compulsiveness. And I don’t believe these experiences are why I can only eat my meals one item at a time, or why it makes me uncomfortable if the various items on a plate make contact with one another. Every event in our lives combine to make us who we are and maybe pickiness, compulsiveness, and nurture (if you can call it that) are just segments of a whole picture. Either way, I’ll keep eating my carrots before my dinner rather than after, because I’m a grown up now. I swear.

For the Love of Leftovers

This blog series has been about my discovery of UK culture, but this particular article is inspired by a recent trip home to the States – a trip that showed me I have lived in London long enough to view aspects of American culture, once normal and unobserved, in an entirely new light.

How could you waste any of this?

It happened at a restaurant. My sister Caylie was three-fourths victorious over her platter of pasta but just couldn’t finish. Soon, our over-efficient waitress would surely hover behind her, grabbing what could be tomorrow’s lunch and throwing it atop the mound of other people’s half-eaten dinners. I began to mourn for the thickening dab of garlic cream sauce and the whorls of fettuccine, and it wasn’t even my meal.

Sure enough, the waitress snuck up on us like a ninja and began to clear the plates, the greasy cutlery, an empty breadbasket. She hovered behind Caylie, and I closed my eyes so I didn’t have to watch it go. We (OK, my grandpa) had paid for the food, and I wanted to keep our leftovers. For all that was happening I might as well have emptied my grandpa’s wallet into the waitress’ hands and told her to shove that in the bin too. That’s how horrible I felt.

But then I caught a question amidst the restaurant racket, words that had become greyed out in my memory because I hadn’t heard them for so long:

“You want a to-go box for that?”

Wait, what? Where am I?

“Sure,” Caylie said. She lifted our plate away, but I didn’t care anymore that I wouldn’t be the one to eat those still perfectly edible leftovers tomorrow. I studied my surroundings: my grandpa scrutinising the bill, my dad telling a “dad-joke” to the not-impressed Caylie—and I was sure now I wasn’t dreaming. I’d gotten on the plane, sat in a cage for eight hours, gotten off the plane, and here I was with my family, happily full of pasta in the land of to-go boxes. When I saw the box—complete with cardboard flaps—floating over to the table that had asked for it, the niggling memory of my leaving a local pub in England with my risotto wrapped in a squarelet of aluminium foil, the bartender’s glare stabbing at my back, faded slightly.

Although I’m sure some restaurants in Britain offer to-go boxes, here is my logic for those who don’t. I may start a campaign.

  1. You’ve already paid for the food, so why not take it with you? (Buffets are the exception.)
  2. Without the to-go box, you may well overeat because you don’t want to waste food you’ve paid for.
  3. To-go boxes actually allow you to get two meals out of the two meals’ worth of food you’ve been served (America is not the only country that serves oversized portions). The £15 you’ve spent on dinner could also cover tomorrow’s lunch.
  4. Every year in the UK, 18 million tonnes of edible food end up in landfill. It’s worse in the States: 34 million tonnes in 2010—due to the larger population, or just over-buying? Just imagine, this figure might have been even higher, if not for to-go boxes.

Maybe this rant comes to me so easily because I grew up getting excited about leftovers. My gap year team couldn’t understand that I’d rather eat the previous night’s roast chicken for breakfast (protein, lasts you till lunch) instead of Rice Krispies (puffed air, lasts you until you arrive at the office). Some food even tastes better the second time around. When you’ve got to choose between a sandwich or yesterday’s spicy sausage and mushroom lasagne for lunch, it’s really a no-brainer.

Until 9 Sep: Afternoon Tea & Cocktails Inspired by The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Aslan apple and almond slice, Fluffy Lucy lemon tart, Peter and the Professor peach tiramisu, white raspberry witches hat, Brownie wardrobe to Narnia… If you were mesmerised by C. S. Lewis’ story of four siblings entering a strange wardrobe and into the magical and frosty landscape of Narnia, you will be delighted to know that the book has inspired an afternoon tea menu at the Park Terrace Restaurant of the Royal Garden Hotel in London, for both adults and children. It costs £22 per person, or £32-36.50 with a glass of Canard-Duchêne champagne. You can see the full menu here. A special children’s menu is also available.

You can complement the pastries and cakes with a selection of Narnian cocktails (from £6.50) such as “Snow Storm”, made from indulgent double cream, orgeat syrup and zingy citrus fruits, and “White Witch”, a mixture of lime, blueberries, sugar cane, blue curacao and vodka.

For special occasions (or not), you can even order a Narnia birthday cake with Aslan, a pastel-hued hat and the famous wardrobe on top (£30–£96 depending on size and choice of sponge or fruit).

The Royal Garden Hotel is the official hotel partner for the new production of C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe directed by Rupert Goold in Kensington Gardens this summer.

Until 9 September 2012. Weekends and School Holidays from 2:00–5:30pm only.
Call 020 7937 8000 or email [email protected] to book.
Royal Garden Hotel is at 2–24 Kensington High Street, London W8 4PT.

Reading Donna Tartt’s The Secret History with The Novel Diner Supperclub

It was the enigmatic murmur of a “Bacchanal Brew” on the menu that first intrigued me. A three-course meal based on Donna Tartt’s hugely successful 1992 debut, The Secret History, a Greek tragedy set in an elite liberal arts college in Vermont, New England, apparently fashioned on Bennington College, also in Vermont, which Tartt and her contemporary Bret Easton Ellis (American Psycho) attended.

The Novel Diner is part of a new trend emerging in London of dining experiences celebrating literature (also Literary Dinners, The Literary Supperclub). Founded by Claire Coutinho, who also helps run and host the live storytelling salon Tomax Talks, and Mina Holland, a arts and food writer for The Guardian, the first pop-up was first held in April around Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, then In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust. The big idea is to relive the novel by appealing to our appetites, picking out particular scenes in which food features and bringing those recipes to the social dining table. Claire and Mina recreate all these recipes themselves and do the cooking too—”We both grew up in food-loving households and have done quite a bit of travelling, so have diverse influences.”

Marcel Proust? – © The Novel Diner

Each gathering is held at a different restaurant or other venue around London, which best matches the ambience and mood in which the novel is set. There will be readings, live music, or other performances—whatever’s appropriate, depending on the book. Guests are also encouraged to dress up (or down) to reflect the novel, though it is by no means obligatory. I’d vaguely entertained the idea of turning up to dinner in a bleeding chiton, but was later relieved that I hadn’t, opting to follow Claire and Mina’s Twitter advice instead: “Any excuse for early 90s wear really will do.” Only a handful of people dressed for the theme—at least, overtly. The period in which The Secret History is set wasn’t all that long ago, and is less singular compared to Proust’s belle époque.

The Secret History revolves around five Classics students under the tutelage of professor extraordinaire Julian Morrow at Hampden College: Henry Winter, the leader—imposing, cold and expressionless; Francis Abernathy, an exotic red-haired “cross between a student prince and Jack the Ripper”; Charles and Camilla Macaulay, fraternal twins who have an unsettlingly close relationship; and Edmund “Bunny” Corcoran—“blond” and “sloppy”, with a “relentlessly cheery demeanour”. The dynamics of their relationship are tellingly described by how Richard defines Camilla, with disquieting undertones, as “the Queen who finished out the suit of dark Jacks, dark King, and Joker”. They are jarringly different from the rest of the student body—the hippies, the beatniks and preppies, the punks—who generally avoid them. They are not liked, but they are treated with fearful respect (a bit like the Cullens of the Twilight universe).

Their intellectual misadventures are narrated from the point of view of Richard Papen, a newcomer to the exclusive group. They are a motley crew, he observes, but whatever their differences, they share “a certain coolness, a cruel, mannered charm which was not modern in the least but had a strange cold breath of the ancient world”. Richard grew up in suburban Plano, a fictional silicon village in the American desert, of drive-ins, tract homes and gas stations—a repository of his past, which he regards as “disposable as a plastic cup”. He seeks beauty desperately, trusting that it will elevate him above this humdrum existence:

Does such a thing as ‘the fatal flaw,’ that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I used to think it didn’t. Now I think it does. And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.

To Richard, these students, who dress formally in white tennis sweaters, billowing great coats, dark suits and ties, and monogramed cuff links, are beautiful and mysterious; they are the opposite of everything that Richard has ever known in his life, and Richard wants to be them—seemingly rich, whip-intelligent, exquisitely mannered. What he doesn’t know, however, is how seriously they take their Greek studies, how literally. But even when he finds out about their attempts to recreate the ancient rites of the Bacchanal and that terrible thing they did when they succeeded, he is unwavering in his support of them, which earns him Henry’s gratitude and cements his place within the group. Richard even takes their side against Bunny’s when an irrevocable fall out ensues.

Caspar david Friedrich – “Rocky Ravine”, 1822.

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I arrived at Swan and Edgar, a book-themed pub in Marylebone. Having started on the book only that morning, I had spent the whole day immersed in it, in the slow cumulation of deceits, cover-ups, petty jealousies and revenge culminating in the hard-eyed elimination of one of their own. One step out of the shadows, one motion. A lone boy was taking a walk through the woods and slipped, propelled by gravity along the height of the majestic green and black ravine… It’s the kind of dark, whispery tale that oppresses you in its churning mystery. I only put the book down half an hour before I left my flat, so it was still with me when I arrived for dinner, and for a moment I was jarred by how normal and sunny everything was.

Luckily though, I did happen to sit next to an actual scholar of Greek and Latin literature. There must be plenty to live up to with a name like Scarlett, but whatever her eponymous literary heroines may be like (I know only of Scarlett O’ Hara), and whatever classics scholars are usually like, this Scarlett, at least, was not like any of the five young academics at Hampden College, by which I mean—and I say this with relief—that she had a warm disposition, knew how to crack a joke, and did not quote extensively from Plato.

Because it quickly becomes apparent that this group of frighteningly erudite students are dangerously isolated, utterly cut off from everything but their studies, subsisting on too much alcohol and sleeping pills. Their beloved and much idolised professor Julian Morrow is a brilliant eccentric who only accepts a handful of students in his class based on personal, rather than academic, reasons: “one must have read the right things, hold similar views.” As a condition for entering his class, Julian also demands that they drop all classes with other teachers so that he, exclusively, is responsible for their education. In such circumstances, what else do they—can they—know besides the ancient world? None of them read newspapers or magazines. Henry, as smart as he is (he knows seven or eight languages, ancient and modern; he can read hieroglyphics; he translates Paradise Lost from English to Latin for fun), is woefully unaware of what goes on in the real world. He had heard vaguely of Marilyn Monroe, but had no idea who she was or what she looked like. He had not known, until Richard told him, that men had walked on the moon.

Swan & Edgar’s bookish bar

Early guests arriving at Swan and Edgar crowded around the book bar and mingled, perched hands garnished with black and tans—an equal mixture of champagne and Guinness stout. These simple cocktails had come straight out of the novel: at Richard’s first dinner invitation with the group at Charles’ and Camilla’s flat.

Many guests had come that evening, drawn not so much to the book (some had never read it) but the food. In that sense, even if you’re not a “serious” reader, or a reader at all, and even if you’re not in the least bit excited about dressing up in the era of the evening’s celebrated novel, you could still enjoy yourself. Most of the time, we didn’t even talk about the book, or about literature, so it’s a very accessible experience for everyone. The venue itself was a draw for me—the secondhand books for walls, the Scrabble tiles paving the bathroom, the Eames-style chairs printed with newspapers and tables decorated with garlands of leaves and fresh, bulbous grapes—and the food surpassed my expectations, especially considering that Claire and Mina did all the cooking themselves and had about 25 mouths to feed over two seatings.

Claire & Mina’s roast lamb

For starters, we had morels—a kind of mushroom—cooked in red wine and coriander jus on sourdough, a sinister reference to the wild mushrooms that Henry considers using to “accidentally” poison Bunny.

With the rest ganging up against Bunny, Richard is able to become truly part of the group—instrumental, in fact. Julian even invites Richard to his office one day for a private lunch, which Richard feels to be an honour since Henry is usually the only one granted their professor’s sole audience. Claire and Mina’s main course, roasted lamb, was inspired by this lunch. It was a simple, comforting dish—the lamb supple and juicy, peppered with leeks, fennels, peas and small cuts of potatoes.

Marmalade cheesecake & bite-sized madeleines

When dessert came, it was a surprise: marmalade cheesecake­—light and spongy, topped on the side with two bite-sized madeleines. I couldn’t figure out where this came from, but Claire and Mina tell me the cheesecake is a reference to the twin’s fanaticism for marmalade cream cheese sandwiches, which they did a spin on.

Finally, drawing the evening to a close was the sweetly aromatic  “Bacchanal Brew”—orange slices soaked in a concoction of red wine, rosemary, hibiscus flowers and honey—inspired by the mind-blowing euphoria described by Henry when they finally succeeded in recreating a Bacchanal:

It was heart-shaking. Glorious. Torches, dizziness, singing. Wolves howling around us and a bull bellowing in the dark. The river ran white. It was like a film in fast motion, the moon waxing and waning, clouds rushing across the sky. Vines grew from the ground so fast they twined up the trees like snakes; seasons passing in the wink of an eye…

Lovis Corinth – “Bacchanalia”, 1896.

Drama Studio London graduate Mike Linsey

I could only match dish to page in the days that came after the supperclub, since I had originally rushed through the book so I wouldn’t turn up to dinner clueless. It was only afterward that I had time to read it closely, and with great satisfaction, relish the scenes and descriptions, remembering what Claire and Mina had served up. Perhaps in this way, it would have been illuminating to have a brief explanation of each course as it was being served, especially for guests who haven’t read the book, or have read it too long ago to remember. The readers did a great job of reading passages from the novel, setting the scene and the mood for us; however, on the whole, I would have liked the literary stamp on the evening to have been stronger. The novel could have framed the evening more fully, elevating the dining experience so that it’s not just eating good food accompanied by a reading, but rather, that they both be equal parts of the same whole. Then again, it’s only because I’m a bookworm, and it is an incredibly difficult balance to strike to satisfy everyone. I know a few people who are put off by the very notion of “literary supperclubs”, thinking (mistakenly, in my opinion) that it’s pretentious; and of course, the longer the readings, the less time guests will have to socialise and chitchat among themselves.

The verdict? I would recommend the Novel Diner without reservation. Claire and Mina have confirmed that the next pop-up will be based on  F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great GatsbyThe date and venue have yet to be decided but I’ve been told that it won’t be the usual sit-down dinner, which already sounds exciting. The novel is set in the Roaring Twenties and should give anyone more than enough inspiration as to what to wear; otherwise, just take a look at the trailer for Baz Luhrman’s new film adaptation.

Greek waitresses for the night,Rhiannon Roberton, with founders Mina Holland and Claire Coutinho.

Thank you to Claire and Mina for my complimentary spot. The experience cost £40, including a cocktail, a three-course meal, and the Bacchanal Brew. You should try to bring exact change to these things. The menu also included wine suggestions with each course, available by the carafe or glass, at extra cost. Follow the Novel Diner on Tumblr and Twitter.

Oxford graduate Claire Coutinho is an intellectual events organiser and helps run and host up and coming salon Tomax Talks. She previously spent three years with Merrill Lynch working in emerging markets. Her Goan background and passion for Keralan cuisine combined with years spent living in Brazil, Paris and the Middle East sparked a love affair with vibrant cuisines.
Mina Holland is a arts and food writer for publications including The Guardian and The Observer and will have a book published by Canongate in 2014, The Edible Atlas, which takes an inspiring approach to international cuisine. She studied for a year at UC Berkeley in the Bay Area, California’s foodie capital, and worked in Spain, both of which gave her a passion for bright, fresh flavours and seasonal produce.

Eating Blind at Dans Le Noir

Can eating the dark be more poetical than dining by candlelight?

Still arousing people’s curiosity today, Dans le noir (French for in the dark) is a truly unique dining and sensory experience. Food blogger,  Elsa Messi went to see if it could wow your senses more than a night-in reading Perfume.

Dining in the dark

This uniqueness lies within the concept, eating and drinking in total darkness and having a complete transfer of trust with your blind waiter. It established its first successful franchise in 2004 in Paris growing from strength to strength, leading it to develop internationally in London, Barcelona and a soon-to-open new setting in New York.

Upon entering the restaurant situated in Clerkenwell, you are greeted by the friendly bar staff who debrief you on what it is to expect of your evening. Their main policy to get the most out of the experience is to store your belongings in a designated locker and strictly have no cameras or mobile phones in your possession. If you do not choose to have a drink at the lit bar area beforehand, then the introduction of your ‘guide’ for the duration of your meal is the next step.

Ordering your meal is simple enough, you choose from 4 concise menus which include the blue menu for fish and seafood lovers, green menu for vegetarians, a red menu for carnivores and a white menu which is the chef’s surprise and can consist of a mixture of all three. They ask you if there is anything you cannot eat due to dietary requirements rather than what it is you would like to eat. The waiter advises all dining parties to follow him/her through to the heavily curtained, pitch black dining room in a single file, placing your hand on the shoulder of the person in front, resembling a training or trust exercise.

You are sat down at your table and how you get the attention of your ‘guide’ is by calling out their name if he/shedoes not happen to be at close proximities at any time. This experience is not for the faint hearted but you do seem to get well adapted fairly quickly to pouring your drinks, feeling where everything is located and the friendly voices surrounding you are somewhat a comfort, also your guide is with you every step of the way. Your sense of smell, touch, hearing and taste become sensitised. Although vulnerability and helplessness is a big part of this concept, you are left with a new found confidence as you get more and more used to your surroundings.

It is a culinary guessing game and some guides advocate to ditch the cutlery and eat with your hands. Unfortunately, the food is below average and does not match the quality of the concept and the great service. Although they want you to refamiliarise yourself with the familiar, it is very difficult to recognise what you are putting in your mouth, maybe with the exception of the desert.

When your meal is finished, you are escorted back to the lit bar area where the concotion of your meal is revealed. They claim that it is French cuisine but it is more a mixture of modern European where exotic meats are heavily focused on.

Yes, this is a revolutionary and unique experience. The concept is very well thought and it is a sort of role reversal between you and your blind guide where they are the ones in control whilst you are left with a wide feeling of vulnerability and you have no choice but to place your complete trust in their hands.

Costing at £41 for two courses or £49 for three per head excluding drinks. If it is the experience you are after then by all means give it a try as nothing like this has been done before in the UK. If, however, it is the food you want to focus on, it really is not worth the time or money as the food is disappointing and you could probably create a similar experience at home with food, guests and a blindfold. But Dans Le Noir does get an A for effort.

Elsa Messi

Craig Pay – Quarter Cherry Lips

“Quarter cherry lips,” the shopkeeper says. “Fifty-seven pence.”

Henry looks at the tall jar of sweets. Then he looks at the pile of sweets in the scales on the counter and finally he looks up to the shopkeeper. The shopkeeper stares back, leaning on the counter. He has slack grey jowls and thinning hair that needed cutting several weeks ago. His stomach rests on the counter, straining the buttons on his woollen cardigan. A hole has been worn away in the cardigan, just above his left breast, strands of wool fray at the edges.

Henry says, “The jar says one hundred grams, fifty pence.”

The shopkeeper continues to stare.

Henry is a patient, easy-going kind of guy – or at least this is what he would like to think. He’s actually short-tempered and has an issue with authority figures, especially petty-minded Luddites like this one.

Henry looks down at Little Matty – and he sees the eyes of his furious ex-wife staring back. He rummages in his pockets, bringing out a twenty-pound note, and then a fifty-pence piece that’s shiny enough to be freshly minted.

Henry says, “This is all I have.”

“I don’t have any change,” the shopkeeper says.

“I just want fifty pence of the cherry lips.”

“I only sell quarters,” the shopkeeper says. “Quarter cherry lips, fifty seven pence.”

Henry is well-informed about the world – or at least he is when he has Google in front of him. “Isn’t that illegal? Or something?”

The shopkeeper says nothing.

“Look,” Henry says, “have you anything cheaper?”

Little Matty tugs at Henry’s arm. “Cherry lips,” she says. She’s not asking, she’s telling and she’s using The Voice.

Henry looks around the shop, at the shelves from floor to ceiling, the rows and rows of sweet jars. The shop is narrow, barely wide enough for two people to pass next to each other. He sees a jar that says 100g 45p and pulls it from the shelf. “How much for a quarter of these?”

“Quarter sherbet pips,” the shopkeeper says, “fifty-one pence.”

Little Matty isn’t happy. She refuses the bag of Haribo. They are standing outside the local SPAR just across the road from the narrow little sweetshop. It’s late autumn so it’s cold.

Henry says, “That’s all they had!”

Little Matty looks back towards the sweetshop. “They had cherry lips,” she says. “I wanted cherry lips. You said!”

Henry tries to take her hand but she refuses. They walk back to the car.

“You couldn’t even get this right! Could you?” Sometimes, Henry’s ex-wife still looks quite pretty, and at times like this he wonders whether he should have stayed and just put up with everything.

They are standing outside the front door to the house. Her house. Their house. The house he used to live in. That she still does. The house that is still on the market after nearly two years.

“Look what you’ve done!” she says.

Henry now realises that Little Matty is crying. His ex-wife places a hand on her shoulder and escorts her inside. Little Matty and his wife walk off along the hallway, leaving the front door open. Leaving him standing there.

Henry is always unsure about the protocol in this situation. Is he allowed inside? Should he call out to make sure? “Can I come in?” sounds slightly childish. He decides to step inside, closing the door behind him. He is about to remove his shoes, when he hesitates. Another protocol issue. Guests don’t have to remove shoes, they can make as much mess as they like. His ex-wife will smile and say “Don’t worry. It’s only dirt!” But he knows his ex-wife is actually very particular about keeping the carpets clean – so when he lived here he always used to remove his shoes at the front door. But this seems somehow too familiar now.

He decides to leave his shoes on. Walks through to the kitchen. The pack of Haribo is on the worktop.

His ex-wife is pouring a glass of lemonade for Matty.

Henry’s ex-wife glances down to his shoes. She doesn’t say anything, but he knows he’s made a mistake.

He turns.

“Going already?” his ex-wife says.

He hesitates again. “No,” he says. “I was just …”

His ex-wife offers little Matty a chocolate biscuit but she shakes her head. Matty takes the lemonade and leaves the room. Henry listens as she walks upstairs to her bedroom.

“I suppose,” his ex-wife says, “you want a cup of tea?”

“Well, sure,” he says.

She fills up the kettle.

“The kettle’s new,” he says.

His ex-wife takes a moment to shoot him a look that says “No small-talk please.” She turns on the kettle. Henry has to keep moving this way and that way to avoid his ex-wife as she goes to one cupboard for a mug and another for a teabag and then some sugar. As he steps around the kitchen his shoes click-clack on the floor.

“Just go into the lounge!” she says.

He goes into the lounge. His ex-father-in-law, Bill, is sitting in the corner armchair, wearing his demi-lunettes and reading the Telegraph. He nods to Henry.

Henry mumbles a hello back. He sits at one end of the sofa.

“No cherry lips,” Bill says.

“No,” Henry says. “That shopkeeper, he’s just – he’s so damned …”

Bill looks up from his paper. “Frank?”

Henry doesn’t know the name of the shopkeeper. “The sweetshop. The one in the village.”

“Yeah, Frank. Cooper’s boy.” Bill looks back down to his paper. “Odd lot.”

Henry’s ex-wife walks into the lounge. She has two mugs of tea, one for Henry and one for her father. She places the mugs on coasters on a low coffee table. “He didn’t get Matty any sweets,” she says.

Henry says, “That’s not entirely –”

“Now she’s upset.”

“He’s selling in ounces,” Henry says. “That’s illegal! Isn’t it?”

“Well it’s too late now,” Bill says. “I’ll take her up in the morning.”

“Honestly!” his ex-wife says. She walks out of the room.

After a moment’s silence, Bill folds up his paper and places it on the coffee table next to the mugs of tea.

“There’s some paperwork,” he says. “She wants me to go through it with you. If you’ve got time?”

Henry considers his schedule. His plans for sitting in his flat for the rest of this particular Saturday, wondering what to do with himself. “Sure,” he says.

Whilst they go through the paperwork, Bill says: “The Coopers always were a rum lot. Back then, they were the only sweetshop in the village. Not like now. With the supermarket.”

“It’s hardly a supermarket,” Henry says. But he wishes straight away that he hadn’t said anything, because Bill shakes his head and gives him with a pitying look.

“We all bought our toffees in there,” Bill continues, “on the way back from St Judes’ – St Judes being the local high school – “but we never went in our own. Always two or three of us at a time.”


“Cooper – Frank’s old man – nasty piece of work and short on his measures. You had to keep an eye on them scales, make sure he wasn’t holding it with his thumb. Then there was that kid that time.”

Henry waits for Bill to continue, but Bill just goes back to shuffling through the papers.

“So?” Henry says.

Bill looks up. “What?”

“The kid?”

Bill peers over his demi-lunettes and Henry wonders how he has missed this obviously vital component of village folklore.

“This kid,” Bill says, “I can’t remember his name, he got a hard time of it at school, they’d call it bullying now. He used to go in there on his own. One time, he never came out. You need to sign this one.” He passes Henry a piece of paper.

Henry signs the paper and hands it back.

Bill says, “Turned up a week later, all chopped up.”

“Chopped up?”

Bill nods. “Big kitchen knife. Found what was left of the poor little bugger down by the Old Gravel Pit Lodge. Scooped his eyes out. Laid his entrails next to him. Even pulled his teeth out.”

“So what?” Henry says. “Cooper did it?”

“In the back of his shop,” Bill says.

Henry makes a huffing noise.

“It’s not like now,” Bills says, “forensics and DNA.”

Then it all becomes clear to Henry. “A kid went missing in the village. And you lot thought it was the mean old guy in the sweetshop?”

Bill sighs. “You’re not paying attention. We saw him go in that day. We told the coppers, but they wouldn’t have it. Told us to bugger off.”

Henry nods. He uses his polite acceptance face. Bill scowls. They continue with the paperwork.

“She’s gone! Henry’s ex-wife is standing at the doorway to the lounge. Henry has finished a second cup of tea and some reluctantly donated biscuits. The paperwork is done and he was about to leave.

Henry’s ex-wife is holding Matty’s piggy bank: Winnie-the-Pooh and Piglet hugging. Henry recognises the piggy bank, he remembers that Winnie-the-Pooh has a slot in the top of his head.

“Empty!” she says.

Bill says, “She’s gone to Cooper’s!”

Henry tells them it will be fine and he heads for the door, patting down his trouser pockets for his car keys.

“It’s dark!” his ex-wife says.

They decide – well, Bill decides – that Henry’s ex-wife should stay at home in case Little Matty comes back. Bill and Henry head into the village in Henry’s car. Henry drives slowly, both of them scanning either side of the road for Matty’s little red raincoat.

They park in one of the free spaces outside the SPAR. Across from the SPAR, Henry can see that the sweetshop is now closed; the narrow shop window is dark.

“She should have a mobile,” Bill says, “in this day and age.”

Henry would like to agree, but the anti-authoritarian in him tells Bill, “No, she’s too young.”

Henry walks over the road to the sweetshop. In a glazed panel in the centre of the door hangs a sign with the opening times. The shop shut ten minutes ago. Henry peers through the glass. He can see the inside of the shop, the shelves and the rows of jars. Towards the back of the shop is another doorway, open.

There’s no sign of the shopkeeper, Frank.

Bill says, “I’ll start walking back. You stay here.”

Henry waits outside the shop in the cold. He watches Bill walk down the hill, turning the corner by the church. He looks back inside the shop –

A figure is standing at the back of the shop, in the doorway back there. Henry stares at the figure. The figure walks out of sight.

“Hey!” Henry taps on the door. “Hey!”

After a moment the figure appears again. The figure looks like Frank – the tatty cardigan. The figure stands there staring back at Henry.

“Hey! Just open up will you? I just wanted to ask …” Henry’s voice trails off. The figure is shaking its head. The figure picks up something from the counter and Henry sees a flash of light on metal. A knife! The figure steps away, out of sight again.

For a moment Henry stands outside the shop as his vivid imagination creates graphic scenes in his mind. Then he steps back. And kicks the door.

Henry has seen this sort of thing enough times on TV to know exactly what he’s doing. The kick has to land right next to the door handle, smashing the lock away from the frame. Henry discovers that this is actually a lot harder than it looks on TV. The door is still intact and his ankle now feels like it could be broken (it isn’t).

Henry tries the shoulder-barge technique. This actually seems rather less effective than kicking. He goes back to kicking at the door. The frame eventually begins to splinter. He swaps legs, but he finds out that he’s as right-footed as he is right-handed. So he goes back to the kicking-foot that he started with.

The door splinters and flies open.

He walks through to the doorway at the back of the shop to a storeroom. He finds another door at the back of the storeroom. This door opens to a lounge area with a further door – to a hallway, stairs leading up and then another door. He goes through this doorway and enters a dining room of sorts with a narrow table along one wall and two chairs. Another door. The whole building is like this, one room after another, one door after another. Another storeroom. Then the kitchen.

The kitchen is very dark. At the far side of the kitchen there is another door and a table. The top of the table is covered with an assortment of strange objects: dark fleshy red strands laid out in parallel lines, a set of teeth still in their gums (both lower and upper) and a pair of eyes. Frank is standing in the middle of the room and he is holding a knife.

Henry yells out, “Matty!” Then at Frank, “You bastard!”

Frank’s knife is very long, the kind of knife you would use to chop up large pieces of meat into smaller pieces of meat. And this is obviously what Frank has in mind because he lunges at Henry, lifting the knife up and bringing it down towards Henry’s head.

Henry once attended a Karate lesson. Karate is one of the few things in Henry’s life that he understands he knows nothing about – and, what’s more, that he understands he will never know anything about.

During his one and only lesson he was punched in the side of his head and temporarily lost the peripheral vision in his right eye. The sensei took Henry to the local hospital because the sensei said he was afraid that the injury could be a detached retina – which, it turned out, it wasn’t.

But perhaps Henry learned something in that single lesson because, as the knife arcs down towards his face, he lashes out with his left arm – and the knife is knocked from Frank’s hand to go clattering across the kitchen floor. Henry’s right hand, which seems to have clenched itself into a fist, slams into Frank’s face and the shopkeeper collapses to the floor, quite unconscious. Later, Henry will replay these last moments over and over again in his mind, wishing that there had been someone there to see them. But now he steps towards the table. Then he hesitates, terrified of what he knows he is about to find there.
That’s when he hears a thin little voice calling out. Little Matty’s voice wailing: “Mummy! Daddy!” from behind the door in the far wall.

Henry experiences a sense of relief that he will only ever feel again once in his life (perhaps twice). He slides back the bolt on the outside of the door and Matty flies out, hugging his waist and saying, “Daddy, daddy!” over and over again.

The kitchen lights flicker on, and Henry turns to see Bill and a policewoman standing at the doorway on the other side of the room. Henry glances at the table next to him: at the teeth, the eyeballs and the dark red fleshy strands – at what he now sees as pink and white marshmallow, foil-covered chocolate and strawberry shoelaces.

Henry and Bill and Matty head back towards the front of the shop, leaving the policewoman to look after Frank.

As they step out into the street, Henry hesitates and then he heads back into the shop. He searches the rows of jars until he finds the one he is after. He tucks the jar under his arm and goes back out to join Bill and Matty on the street. He unscrews the plastic lid and offers the jar to Matty. She reaches inside to take a handful of smiling cherry lips.

Craig Pay writes borderline literary/speculative fiction and has been published in a number of different magazines. He won the NAWG David Lodge trophy in 2011 and his short story “Incarnate” (featured in the Rocket Science Anthology) received a very positive review in the Guardian in April 2012. Craig is also the co-editor of Cutaway Magazine and runs the Manchester Speculative Fiction Writers’ Group. Craig is currently finishing a novel set in 19th-century China. Feel free to get in touch via FacebookTwitter or email.

How to Make a Black Hole

© Steven Appleby

Steven Appleby’s work has appeared in newspapers, on television, on Radio 4, on stage at the ICA and in over 20 books. The Coffee Table Book of Doom, published in September by Square Peg, makes an excellent Christmas present, and is available from all good bookstores and online.