Archives for March 2011

The history of royal wedding menus

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Gerard Baker Gerard Baker | 11:06 UK time, Wednesday, 30 March 2011

So we now know who’s making the royal wedding cake, but we’re still guessing about the rest of Kate and Will’s wedding menu. Royal wedding feasts, as you would imagine, have always been pretty grand affairs – reaching the peak of their extravagance as extensions of the great dining halls of the early middle ages. Animals would have been raised especially for the event – with a feast foreman keeping an eye on stocks so that the food never ran out. In addition to the hundreds of guests, the workers would have had access to food in lieu of wages, a tradition that held out until the middle of the 17th Century.

Wedding feasts are famously shows of wealth and power. Highly ornamented foods such as gilded peacocks and hog’s heads were common on medieval tables, but perhaps the most imposing feature of any modern wedding is the cake. Now taken to be a representation of the bride – virginal and white – the cake in this form is a recent invention. It is a composite of several traditions that date back to when a bride cake or pie was made – again, putting the woman at the centre of the occasion. Oddly, in the southern USA, a darker, stronger tasting grooms’ cake is often made to sate the men’s appetites.

Wedding cake


The tradition of the giant royal cake was in full swing when Victoria married Prince Albert in 1840 – one of their SEVERAL cakes weighed in at over 300lb, while that of the Duke of York and Elizabeth Bowes Lyon in 1923 was almost nine feet high. Although the opulence of these cakes is impressive, our own Queen used her cake to reach out to the commonwealth – using ingredients sent from all over the world. She sent pieces of it all over the UK – linking her subjects to her in a rather special way. Pieces of several royal cakes can still be found in various royal collections, including a piece of Victoria’s 300lb monster!

Royal wedding feasts tend to give a nod to history, often naming dishes after family. It will be interesting to see if the young couple break from this tradition in their attempts to modernise. While the present Queen Mother started her wedding feast with consommé à la Windsor, the Queen herself ended her meal with a layered ice cream bomb ‘Princess Elizabeth’.

What I think is certain about William and Kate’s wedding menus is that they will feature food grown or produced by the various Royal estates – their own version of seasonal and ‘local’. Even though the timing is out for most of the Royal gardens to be at their productive peak, British lamb is at its best in the spring, so perhaps they will plum for that as a main course? Charles and Diana did when, in 1981, they chose a lamb mousseline as a stuffing for chicken breasts. As they also had a rich starter of fish quenelles with lobster sauce, they were probably glad of strawberries and cream for dessert.

Did you celebrate the wedding of Charles and Diana, or indeed the Queen’s wedding? If so, do you remember what you ate?

Gerard Baker is a food historian and a contributor to the Hairy Bikers programmes.


From Miss Swansea to MasterChef

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Alice Taylor Alice Taylor | 14:14 UK time, Friday, 25 March 2011

Appearing on MasterChef was such an honour. I still pinch myself as I find it hard to believe that I was chosen out of so many applicants. Naturally, there was no shortage of Tweeters dismissing my acceptance onto the show as being based purely on my looks and not on my cooking ability. But the majority of comments were undeniably supportive, which is really quite something, reflecting the enormous amount of effort we all put into the show.

As we got through the rounds, exhaustion began to take its toll, though I always had the overwhelming temptation to get stuck into a cookbook and do more research ready for each new challenge. Every day we were asked to create and develop new menus. At times my brain was awash with a variety of ideas and flavour combinations.

There was always that desperation to do something very different or outrageous to secure a place in the next round, but you never know how early on in the contest to unveil your most precious ideas. I treated every day as potentially my last, so I tried to pull complex techniques out of the bag whenever I had the chance - in case that chance was my last. When I decided to do my 'whisky balls' in the circus challenge, part of me wondered if it was too early on to be demonstrating this type of molecular gastronomy, but it ended up paying off as mine and Annie's dishes were voted as the best that day. 

I was disappointed to leave the contest when I did. I thought I stood a good chance at winning, especially after having such a strong round the previous week. I now hope to pursue a career in TV and with food. I enjoyed filming so much and feel blessed to have worked with and met such amazing chefs along the way. The contestant who surprised me the most was James. For a guy who's a little rough around the edges, he is technically one of the most competent cooks I've met and possesses a huge amount of food knowledge. With regards to flair, it goes without saying that Tim has this natural ability to draw you into his dishes. He has an artistic personality and he was also an absolute pleasure to be around. The contestant who I find the most intriguing is Tom. His is love of offal and his knowledge of how to treat ingredients is phenomenal; he's a very skilled cook indeed.

I have decided to give up the modeling after the Miss Great Britain final. I will also forfeit my Miss Swansea title as of next month as I am getting married to my fiancé Christopher, father of my little boy Charlie. Chris is himself a grocer, owner of the largest independent chain of supermarkets in Wales.

John and Gregg have been great to work with. They were a couple of tough cookies though. You didn't get away with anything if you slipped up. You would pay the price. No exceptions...

Alice Taylor is a contestant on BBC One's MasterChef.

Are British food producers now good enough to rival the French?

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Raymond Blanc Raymond Blanc | 16:51 UK time, Monday, 21 March 2011

I’ve been encouraged to think about this question by the research and filming I did for my new BBC Two programme Raymond Blanc’s Kitchen Secrets. As you’ll see from the show, British food producers are changing the food landscape (and their own, usually small parts of the actual landscape) with their ever-improving artisan products.

Of course there’s a vast difference in scale. France is many times larger than the whole of the UK, and it consequently has many more climate zones. True, we have part of the North Atlantic in common, but I’m afraid my native France trumps our access to the North Sea, with its Mediterranean coastline. And, of course, when it comes to agriculture, it’s not only the climate zone that matters, but also the microclimate – and France has hundreds of times the microclimates of Great Britain.

Selection of UK cheeses


Still, British farmers and producers have the guts, gumption and will to succeed. And there is one area where they might just have overtaken France – cheese. Britain has had a renaissance in cheese-making, and the wonderfully named British Cheese Board claims that we now produce 700 named varieties of cheese, as opposed to the 246 French cheeses Charles de Gaulle is supposed to have complained about.

Even so, it is probable that we import as much as half of our food, whereas France is the world’s second largest exporter of food. I think this might be because we in Britain have lost our former craft and skills in many areas, whereas France (French gastronomy has just been added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list) has managed to retain most of her crucial agricultural and foods-related skills.

Tomatoes on the vine


Apart from citrus fruit, bananas and the like, why should we be importing any fruit or veg at all? With gardening skills and attention to microclimate, we can grow tomatoes, most herbs and salads, and even vines. Last September the BBC ran a story claiming that two-thirds of the apples consumed in Britain were imported. This is madness! Britain is capable of growing the finest, crispest, juiciest, most fragrant apples on the planet. Yet only one-third of the apples we eat are homegrown.

Why are apple and pear orchards being destroyed? Sometimes the development value of the land exceeds the value of the orchards. But most often the reason for their destruction is the difficulty of making a profit on their crops. This in turn has led the worst aspect – the loss of skills and craft.

You can always replant an orchard, but you can’t replace a generation’s local knowledge of soils, microclimates, pests and what varieties flourish best where; or their pruning skills, experience concerning pollination; or knowing when to perform triage and when to pick.

Raymond Blanc with charcuterie producer James Swift at Trealy farm

Raymond Blanc with charcuterie producer James Swift at Trealy farm

So let us celebrate our food heroes – those we filmed and talked to in Raymond Blanc’s Kitchen Secrets, such as Stuart Allen, the Scottish lobster fisherman, and fruit farmers such as Euan, Jack and Gillian Cameron of Pittormie Fruit Farm in Dairsie. There’s the superb charcuterie producer, James Swift in Wales; and Laverstoke Park Farm in Hampshire; and Charlie Beldam and Lawrence Millet-Satow, who make fantastic, cold-pressed culinary rapeseed oil in the Cotswolds. 

So over to you... is cheddar better than brie? Can you name other food producers that are flying the flag for good-quality artisan food?

Raymond Blanc is presenter of BBC Two series Raymond Blanc’s Kitchen Secrets.

Are you a fan of frozen food?

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Simon Parkes Simon Parkes | 10:57 UK time, Monday, 21 March 2011

I readily admit that apart from the obligatory bag of frozen peas (oh and a very occasional Arctic roll!), I don't buy frozen food. I'll freeze leftover Bolognese sauce and rinsed-out ice cream tubs filled with chicken stock - and that's about it. But clearly a lot of people think otherwise as it’s an industry worth around £7.5 billion a year that accounts for 8% of all the food we buy in the UK, which is why we decided to look at frozen food for this week's edition of The Food Programme.

Frozen greens


In these straitened economic times, frozen food is a sector that’s growing as consumers recognise two things. Firstly, it offers value for money. And secondly, it helps reduce waste (there’s nothing to trim off and throw away and you only take out of the freezer the amount you need). And it seems to be growing at both ends. As the recession kicked in the frozen food chain Iceland reported double-digit sales growth, while the supermarket seeing the greatest growth in the freezer aisles today is Waitrose. 

Frozen food does desperately need to move upmarket if it’s going to muscle in on the lucrative chilled sector goods that most of us seemingly prefer to buy, and which deliver far better returns for the retailers.   

To me, it’s true that the range of chilled dishes seem infinitely more appealing than what’s on offer down the frozen food aisle. Apart from ice creams and sorbets, freezers seem to be filled with a vast array of retro foods such as vol-au-vents, gateaux and sausage rolls – all firmly rooted in the diet of 40 years ago. The progress that’s been made elsewhere in terms of food provenance (whether something is organic, free-range, fair-trade or local) hasn’t translated onto frozen food packaging. Frozen food manufacturers, or perhaps buyers, seem stuck in a time-warp.

Of course, it wasn’t always like that. Back in 1917, the scientist and explorer Clarence Birdseye observed the Inuit of Labrador freezing fresh fish in seconds as it hit the sub-zero temperatures out of the ice-holes. He famously went on to develop the technique of blast freezing, done so quickly so as not to destroy the cell structure of food. In the years after World War Two, we were in the thrall of this white-hot, but oh-so-cold miracle technology that allowed us to eat frozen items at the peak of their freshness at any time of year. Incidentally the house I grew up in had, like I suspect many others, a huge freezer cabinet at the back of the garage.

While other countries see no stigma in buying frozen foods (the French buy far more than we do), here in the UK, frozen has lost its lustre and become boring. What would you like to be able to buy in the frozen food aisles? How do you think that section of the supermarket should be re-invigorated to make it make more exciting and relevant? And, more importantly, how do we persuade people that frozen ingredients are just as wholesome as fresh? After all, just look at that bag of frozen peas in your freezer, frozen within hours of being picked…

Simon Parkes is a presenter of The Food Programme

What's wrong with cheap food?

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Stefan Gates Stefan Gates | 12:51 UK time, Friday, 18 March 2011

I have a suspicion of mantras and a hatred of unquestioned assumptions. So once again, I’ve decided to put my head in the stocks so you can throw rotten fruit at me, and this time I’d like to take issue with the idea that cheap food = bad food. I know that people use the concept of ‘cheap’ to mean different things. But let’s stick to the basics: right now UK food prices are rising faster than most of Europe. How important is the cost of food?

Baked beans on a plate.

Cheapness harms farmers (underpaid), small shopkeepers (undercut by big shopkeepers) and animals (kept in grim conditions), amongst other issues. I broadly agree (though I know that there are some pretty rich farmers out there), but we need to look at the other side too.

What’s good about cheap food? Well, if you’re poor, a lot. DEFRA’s 2009 Family Food report (made when prices were dropping, unlike now) shows that the lowest-income families spent over one-sixth of their entire household expenditure on food. Cheap food is crucial to their standards of living, and expensive food can cause real hardship by shifting the family’s available cash from clothing, housing and heating. The overall proportion that the poorest spent on food was actually marginally lower than in 2008, despite an overall food price increase of 5% in the cost of food.

This could mean several things (the data can only tell you so much so we must make some assumptions). One, that the poorest households are making better use of ingredients and shifting to more cost-efficient nutritional sources such as fresh vegetables, legumes and cheaper cuts of meat. Or two, that they are simply buying less food. Or three (and I find this more likely), that they are buying less nutritious, cheaper foods made from poorer-quality ingredients than they were before, or simply shifting to high-starch ingredients. The reason I suspect this is the case is that purchases of fruit are tied closely to income: the poorest 10% buy the least fruit, and purchases of vegetables also increase with income. Fresh fruit and veg is likely to make you healthier, but if a bag of apples is too expensive and a two-hour lamb stew sound like a lot of gas bill, those economy pies are going to look a damn sight more attractive.

Three million people in the UK are considered to be malnourished or at risk of malnourishment. These people tend to be the elderly, the isolated and the poor. There are many reasons why people are malnourished, but again, it’s hard to see high food prices causing them anything but misery.

I’d love to think that people simply shift their eating to wonderful, healthy, frugal food such as bean stews and pumpkin soups, but I suspect these are currently the domain of people with the knowledge and aptitude to cook. When I was a student I was broke and I simply couldn’t afford much more than value baked beans, economy long-life bread, and economy pickle. Yuk.

What’s the solution to all this? Loosening the grip that the supermarkets have on prices would be good, but I can’t see that happening any time soon. Teaching people to cook is essential, and that needs education, inspiration and encouragement. We need cooking in schools, although school cookery may have a shaky future. In the meantime we should buy our artisan breads and extra-matured cheeses and enjoy them. Just don’t sneer at the long-life value baked beans. What do you think?

Stefan Gates is a BBC presenter and food writer.

How to make 'maple syrup' from potatoes

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Gregg Wallace Gregg Wallace | 12:22 UK time, Wednesday, 16 March 2011

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Share your tips here for making unusual recipes with unlikely ingredients.

Gregg Wallace is a presenter of Great British Food Revival. Get recipes from tonight's show on potatoes and pork.

Why not eat insects?

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Stefan Gates Stefan Gates | 11:46 UK time, Friday, 11 March 2011

Would you eat ant larvae, deep-fried scorpions or grilled palm weevils? Most people turn their noses up at this kind of thing, some get an overwhelming sense of nausea, and one (usually very cool) BBC channel controller ran squealing across the room when I dropped a roasted giant water bug into his hands. This is a pretty normal reaction here in the UK, where our entomophagy is restricted to munching the regurgitation of bees (honey), cochineal bugs (pink-purple food colouring E120) and the involuntary munching of insect fragments in flour. But I think that insects have been given a bad press by I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here (few people eat them uncooked, for starters) and I’m going to try to change your mind about bug-munching. Here goes:

There are some surprisingly delicious bugs around. My favourites are dry-fried Burmese bamboo grubs, which have an extraordinary enlivening sweetness similar to Jerusalem artichokes. Next best are Mexican chappulines (grasshoppers roasted with chilli, salt and lime), which make a fantastic sour-spicy snack to eat with a cold beer. Fat-bottomed ants are available in the UK as a gimmicky snack, but they pack a fantastic pungent taste similar to smokey bacon.

Woman eating a fly

Save the planet?
Insects are tremendously efficient at converting vegetation such as leaves (much of which we can’t get any nutritional value from) into edible protein. The ratio of energy intake (usually in the form of grain) to protein output for beef is up to 54:1 compared to 4:1 an upwards for insects, and that grain is grown on land that could, theoretically, be used to grow more resource-efficient food for humans. As the world population heads towards nine billion by 2045, entomophagy could be a potential solution to some of the worlds food issues.

Much of the world already eats insects
Insects already have a long and noble history as foods in many places around the world. When you venture past the cosy borders of the UK you find that they are available in markets from Thailand to South Africa and across much of Central and South America. They command a high price in Mexico, where edible flies and ant eggs are highly prized.

They are healthy
Most insects contain little fat, lots of protein and oodles of iron and calcium.

You’ll eat them eventually - may as well start now
Insect protein is cheap to produce. Animal protein will become more expensive as it begins to better reflect the cost of production and the load it makes on the planet’s resources. Eventually we’ll see bug-burgers in the shops and you’ll buy them not because you prefer them, but because a bug-burger will cost £5, while a beef burger costs £25. Oh, and they are likely to become the food of choice for spacemen.

And the downsides? Well, some religions forbid the eating of some insects, with kosher rules being some of the most explicit (although Leviticus famously points out that locusts and grasshoppers are OK). In the UK, edible insects are calorie-neutral (it takes more energy to collect a bucket of bugs than you gain by eating them). In the future, though, we could farm them in the UK or offer poorer countries an income from exporting them.

So would you? Have you? And why shouldn’t we eat insects? 

P.S the title of this piece is taken from Vincent M Holt’s wonderful book of recipes and notes on insect-eating. Stefan Gates is a BBC presenter and food writer.

Great British Food Revival: The lost art of bread-making

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Michel Roux Michel Roux | 13:18 UK time, Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Although I grew up in England, throughout my childhood I spent many summers in France and returned to the country for my training as young chef. One of my fondest memories from my time there is the wonderful smell of freshly baked bread that would waft out from the local bakers as I passed. Traditional baking is still alive and well in France today, and all over Europe for that matter; and with baking being one of Britain’s oldest skills it makes me sad to think that one day this wonderful tradition may die out completely here. I feel passionately that we can’t allow this to happen. Baking in Britain must be revived and I hoped that, in some small way, taking part in tonight’s Great British Food Revival will make a difference. 

Michel Roux with bread.


Bread, in its purest form, is simple to make. It should only have four ingredients; flour, water, yeast and salt. It should have a wonderful crust and a beautiful texture which can’t be replicated in a factory-made loaf. In the main, supermarkets sell substandard loaves, almost unrecognisable as bread - pumped full of additives and preservatives. The reason they do this is simple - because that’s what consumers have come to expect.

This process is far removed from traditional baking which, in my opinion, should be considered an art form. Making ‘real’ bread is a labour of love; the loaf needs to be nurtured and respected. It may take time to create, and is more expensive than a factory-made loaf, but the end results are worth it. As the consumer, the power to make a difference is in our hands. If we were to put our feet down and stop buying factory-made bread, traditional baking would begin to thrive again and freshly made bread - filled with flavour and nutrients - would line the shelves once more.


Michel Roux Jr removing bread from a traditional baker's oven.

My dream is for more independently owned bakeries to open up around the country and for people to come together, as a nation, to say no to mass produced factory-made bread. But I think we’re probably still a way off from this yet.

I hope the programme will show viewers that bread can be easy to make and that it is versatile to cook with at home. At the very least, it should inspire people to support their local bakery.

If we sit back and do nothing to turn things around, young people in this country may never be privileged enough to share in the joy of real baking.

So, what do you think? Is bread-making a dying art? Or do you think consumers and traditional bakers can rise to the challenge of keeping the artisan loaf alive?

Michel Roux Jr can be seen on the Great British Food Revival on BBC Two on 9th March at 8pm. Try recipes from tonight’s show.

MasterChef: Cooking doesn't get more Scottish than this

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Peter Seville Peter Seville | 10:05 UK time, Wednesday, 2 March 2011

What would a caber-tossing, hammer-wielding Scotsman want to eat on a chilly September afternoon? Not a consideration I thought I would ever have. Well, that was before I entered the MasterChef kitchen...

Gregg Wallace and John Torode from MasterChef


For tonight’s MasterChef programme, I was summoned to King's Cross St Pancras railway station along with the other nine remaining contestants. We were instructed to bring warm clothes and, tantalisingly, our passports.  As we gathered in the concourse, we speculated as to the nature and destination of our first off-site task: could we be taking the Eurostar to the continent? As we were herded towards the platform, the realisation that we were heading north rather than south dawned – we were off to Scotland, Invercharron to be precise. 

The following morning saw us in wellies and whites, standing in a marquee in a huge muddy field, facing a magnificent display of the finest Scottish fare – whole salmon, venison, beef, langoustines and loads of veg.  The task? Each team of five contestants had to produce 60 portions of two different main courses and 80 portions of dessert.  The catch? We were feeding the competitors at the Invercharron Highland Games and by the look of them, they like their food. Purées, fondants and jus weren't going to pass muster.  We’re talking hearty fare, and lots of it.


Apple crumble


With Kennedy, the only Scot left in the competition, on our side, we felt we had the advantage, and we decided on venison with neeps and tatties (can you really get more Scottish than that?!) and a hearty fish pie. Pudding was a pear and blackberry crumble with custard.  We were confident that the prize of cooking with Tom Kitchin in Skibo Castle was ours for the taking. 

There were a couple of minor concerns, the first being that we were cooking in a field kitchen with limited equipment and for large numbers, something none of us had done before.  Another concern was that Tim, the Yank, didn’t know what the neeps and tatties in his dish actually are! But with Kennedy by his side all should have been well. 

Kennedy from MasterChef after cutting his finger.


Then, disaster - Kennedy sliced the top of his finger off with a potato peeler - and, as the loose flap of skin fluttered in the wind, so did our chances of winning the task. It quickly became apparent that there was nowhere near enough neeps and tatties to accompany the venison, and we had to persuade people to go for fish pie instead.  There was a glimmer of hope: the other side’s langoustine broth was really unpopular - perhaps not the ideal choice for the day’s customers.

Decision time and we heard the dreaded words that we lost and had to head back to the MasterChef kitchens for an elimination challenge. Now it became clear why we needed our passports, as we were sent on our way in double-quick time. Deflated and exhausted, I wasn’t sure what disappointed me the most - the fact that I faced elimination, or missing out on the chance to cook with a Michelin-starred chef.  When I heard the winning team reminiscing about their experiences in Skibo Castle with Tom Kitchin, I knew that I let a fantastic opportunity slip through my fingers.

When I was subsequently eliminated from the competition in the cook-off challenge, I left the MasterChef kitchen for the last time with a heavy heart, but hugely proud of what I had managed to achieve and full of anticipation for what the future holds.  My dream of my own country pub is now becoming a reality – I’ll see you there!

What Scottish dish would you have made in the competition faced with the Scottish fare of salmon, venison, langoustines and local vegetables? Take a look at all the recipes from the series.

Peter Seville was a contestant on BBC One’s MasterChef.


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