29 Oct 2009

Time to Take Time! (Part 2)

The idea of the snatched sandwich lunch at the office desk, popular in British workplaces, will always baffle me in terms of those office workers (not talking about higher management here!) jeopardising their entitlement to a legally-deserved quality time break that they should dedicate to their lunch and to general well-being!

Instead those employees give me the impression of feeling guilty or shifty about their break, having what looks like a working lunch improvised against the distractions of the office, while at the same time multi-tasking over the internet, juggling between different web pages, the work-related ones and the social network/ news/ shopping ones…

How can you be performant and productive the whole day, every day, without taking a proper break away from your desk, is beyond me. In my fifteen years spent in office environments, I have always made a point of leaving my desk, whether to go to the canteen, out for a walk, run some errands, even drive somewhere and stay in the car just to take stock and enjoy some peace and quiet.

Remember, a few generations ago, some workers - maybe your own ancestors – would have raised their voices and gone on strike to help better the human condition and obtain more rights in the workplace. One of these rights was a lunch break and if you are not taking it, then maybe one day employers will become convinced that employees don’t need them after all… Now I hope you are not reading this while on your snatched lunch break at work. What did I say earlier?

28 Oct 2009

Time to Take Time! (Part 1)

As an introduction to this post, I would be tempted to quote the first sentence of my user profile: ‘In this fast-paced, deadline-chasing modern world, it is far too easy to lose touch with the little pleasures of life...’ Unfortunately everything the modern world has to offer seems to lean towards the fickleness of speed: fast fashion, fast food, fast cars, fast results, life in the fast lane, the fast and the furious… For the appreciation of life’s little pleasures cannot be achieved at speed, and the latter may only generate frustration at some level.

The little pleasures of life are epitomised by a slower approach, in tune with the seasons, the environment, the emotions. As seen earlier on (in The Reckoning), one of the little pleasures of life may be to appreciate fruit and veg that are in season, for example the oh-so-brief British asparagus season that is worth the wait! The beauty of seasonal produce is that they reward you for your wait with their quality and taste at their very best.

Right time also goes hand in hand with right place. In France, the gourmet hastes not. Part of their pleasure in purchasing pastries from the pâtisserie lies in their selection, a sweet dilemma for the indecisive faced with so many temptations. Shall we plump for 2 chocolate religieuses, 1 millefeuille and 1 gland, or how about 1 tartelette paysanne, 1 pêche melba, 1 coffee éclair and 1 meringue? Or maybe just 2 barquettes aux marrons, 1 tête de nègre and 1 opéra?

The taste experience is enhanced by the prelude of the pâtisserie ‘ceremony’, as once the selection has been finalised, the anticipation of cake-eating is prolonged further while we watch the shop assistant skilfully arranging the pastries in a box, or on a cardboard tray with branded pâtisserie paper folded over in a precise - almost origami-like – style, and tied together with a ribbon. If you indicate that the pastries are actually a present, then wrapping paper sublimates the experience. Adding mystery and drama to the contents through packaging is a time-consuming art that is lost on the Starbucks or Prêt-à-Mangers of the fast world.

On departing from the pâtisserie you then travel all the way back home with your unopened package, prolonging the anticipation further with patience and self-discipline. No, you just don’t rip those wrappings in the street and scoff your pastries like some would a burger or croissant! You have to respect your gâteaux!

This is just one of life’s little pleasures: it is not just about treating yourself, but taking time to savour the treat, having your cake and (a little later) eating it! This time-consumed little pleasure is in direct opposition to the next section of this essay: the snatched office lunch. (to be continued)

25 Oct 2009

A Textile Heritage (Part 2)

Maybe we took it for granted back then, but most of the clothing, upholstery, table, bed and bathroom linen which were available for purchase from the independent high street specialists down to the Parisian chain stores and the modern hypermarkets, were made in France.

I grew up in the firm patriotic belief that ‘homegrown’ was best, as it was all we knew and satisfied our requirements: cheap in price, abundant in quantity, reliable in quality and design, trusted in know-how and expertise. It also kept the economy going and fed mouths.

As we are only too aware, the demise of textile, not just across France but elsewhere in Europe and North America, has been – to say the least – spectacular, with established textile dynasties going bust and making way for the cheap imports and the tat! When once upon a time, my hometown boasted dozens of production mills providing employment to thousands of workers, today is a different story with only one textile mill, Bochard, still in activity, with less than a dozen employees…

If the industry is clutching at straws in Picardie and other declining northern French regions, it is still nonetheless trying to maintain a reputation for quality and tradition by producing table, bed and bath linen that may not necessarily compete in price with the cheap imports from the Middle & Far East, but which surpasses them on the overlooked parameter of quality. A parameter that the supply-chain guys employed by big retail organisations will sadly overlook as they nurture their bottom line and ROIs...

Below is the photographic testimony of this ruthless end of an era, with La Cotonnière de St-Quentin during demolition in 2008 (© Ministère de la Culture/ Région Picardie - Inventaire général/ Ville de St-Quentin).

I, the humble customer with a discerning taste that ‘traces its origins back to my own origins’, will carry on purchasing those items, out of love and principle, and because they represent a textile heritage that is linked to my own history.

24 Oct 2009

A Textile Heritage (Part 1)

My love for quality linen traces its origins back to my own origins… Intrigued? Find out why I am prepared to go the extra mile and pay the price...

As intimated on An Old Faithful Kitchen Companion blog post, I was born and raised in North East Picardie, France, an outpost of the textile industry - and more precisely in the town of St-Quentin, 'le Manchester de la France'. Many of my ancestors, on my paternal side of the family, were involved as weavers in (mainly) cottage industries throughout the villages. My great grandfather, Louis, worked in textile from the age of 6 until retirement, with a 4-year hiatus to fight the war in the trenches, hardly a much-deserved holiday break…

On my maternal side of the family, upon their arrival from Corsica in 1949, mémé and my grandad, Armand, also worked in textile, in town. Although the industry had been declining as a whole since the 1950s, it remained the main employer in the region, drawing in a skilled labour pool, providing a livelihood and contributing to the economic prosperity of my hometown. Bedlinen, elaborate curtain guipures and garment production requiring a multitude of skills were the main activities, centred around cotton and synthetics. Below is a late 19th century lithography of Société David, Troullier & Adhémar, a cotton mill (© Ministère de la Culture/ Région Picardie - Inventaire général/ Ville de St-Quentin).

Most mills traced their origins back to the mid-19th century, with the close-border geography lending itself to international ties, from Britain to the Netherlands, from Argentina to Germany. Names spoke for themselves: William Cliff, Vandendriessche, La Cotonnière, Daltroff, Touron, amongst so many others… Below is a letterhead (1900-14) for Société Albert Sidoux & Cie (© Ministère de la Culture/ Région Picardie - Inventaire général/ Ville de St-Quentin).

Factory shops were a shop-window of sorts, offering a sample collection of what had been produced in-situ. As a child growing up in the 1970s, I would visit them with my mum and I would be dressed - on a tight budget - on dégriffé off-the-peg couture (i.e. genuine designer garments sold cheaply in the factory shop where they had been made, with their designer labels cut out for legal reasons). I remember a much-loved purple folksy skirt and bolero ensemble produced under licence for Sonia Rykiel, which my mum had bought me for a few Francs. (to be continued)

23 Oct 2009

Creamed Spinach

Serves 2-4
Preparation: 10 mins
Cooking: 8 mins

This is the perfect main-course accompaniment to meats, white fish or poached eggs, with minimum fuss and maximum flavour, one of your 5-a-days and iron-rich (ask Popeye!). It can be reheated, or even finished off under the grill for that slightly gratined bite. Béchamel is the basis to this sauce.
  • 300g of spinach, washed
  • 30 g of salted butter
  • 2 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely chopped
  • 3 tablespoons of self-raising flour (or plain flour)
  • Pint of semi-skimmed milk
  • Salt and pepper to taste
Add the spinach to a pan of simmering water, place the lid on the pan and leave to simmer for 4 minutes. Drain immediately, making sure you extract as much water as possible. Keep the spinach aside.

Prepare the Béchamel, starting with the butter that you melt onto a very low setting. Once the butter is almost melted, add the finely chopped garlic and stir quickly for no more than 10 seconds. Add the flour to the pan in one swoop, and whisk altogether, making sure the flour is coated in butter and you obtain a solid yet sticky consistency. I personally prefer using self-raising flour as it gives the Béchamel a more ‘airy’ texture than plain flour would.

Add half the milk to the pan and turn the cooker setting up slightly. Keep whisking the sauce to prevent it from sticking and forming lumps. A couple of minutes later, as the sauce thickens and starts bubbling up, add the remaining milk and carry on whisking until the preparation bubbles up yet again.

Season to taste and add the drained spinach, stirring with a wooden spoon and making sure the spinach is evenly distributed. Serve immediately. Alternatively, finish off under the grill.

19 Oct 2009

My Organic Garden (Part 2)

For those other rose bushes, I opted for an organic alternative provided by an online supplier: a horticultural soft soap contact insecticide solution which is diluted in water then sprayed onto the affected areas, and repeated until results are noticed. The solution acts as a gooey deterrent. On another occasion, I even ordered a box of live ladybirds from Scarletts which I released inside the bush itself, as per instructions. The operation was a tad volatile - shall we say - as I had difficulty in securing the opened box within the bush and also coercing the ladybirds to remain on the bush rather than fly away to greener pastures!

My Heavenly-scented Rosa canina for the front garden...

Another method I have used, more drastic and with a varying level of success was to trim down the affected bush, removing the contaminated branches, plunging them in a bucket of diluted household cleaner solution (the chemical interference, I concede) to kill off the aphids before disposing safely to avoid cross-contamination. All things considered, the chives’ preventative influence remains by far the easiest, less stressful and less messy option.

Garden pests do not only refer to weeds or bugs, but also to animal pets… I am not a cat owner but on a few occasions my garden has turned into a cat social club, with the felines using areas of freshly dug-up soil as a toilet. Meanwhile I had read a magazine review praising a totally safe and chemical-free method which thankfully would get rid of the nuisance. The product is called ‘Silent Roar’, and is made up of round pellets coated in lion dung. This may not sound like your average deterrent, but it does the trick, albeit not instantly.

You are required to clean the soiled area first, then, wearing the gloves provided, sprinkle the pellets, and let them work the charm! Repeat the operation until the area is no longer soiled. Those pesky cats will realise soon enough (although this may take 2-3 weeks!) that a much bigger cat has made the patch his territory, and they will end up deserting it.

Finally, my gallery of organic ideas wouldn’t be complete without a few fertilizing tips that won't cost the earth. Having read and heard from different sources that infused/ percolated, loose tea and ground coffee make good plant fertilisers, I sprinkle them at the foot of my garden and indoor plants alike. Banana skins are a good fortifier and source of potassium for rose bushes: just leave at the foot. Crushed eggshell will provide calcium to your indoor cacti.

... and my amazing Callistemon in my South-facing back garden!

I believe that gardening should be fun. I also believe that it should be chemical-free. We interfere with nature enough as it is so, while we are playing god with our little vegetal cosmos, why not let nature do its course and work its wonders, with a gentle help of common sense and earth-friendly methods? It is easier than we think.

My Organic Garden (Part 1)

Weeds are the vegetal pests of the garden and can wreak havoc with lawns, flower borders and vegetable patches relentlessly. However I disagree with the use of pesticides and weed killers. Those may provide a quick turnaround solution, but they are not without consequence as they leave a trail of death behind them, killing not just weeds, but also garden bugs (good or bad!), gastropods, worms, and harming other life forms. Regular use of chemicals will impoverish the soil, destroying precious nutrients. If you are using pesticides, weed killers and – come to think of it – fertilizers, while cultivating edible plants, you will also incur the risk of consuming quantities of the chemicals as these will travel down the food chain.

For as long as I have owned my property (over ten years), I have never used chemicals, bar once when I was given (against my will!) an anti-greenfly/ whitefly spray to treat my single rose bush in the front garden! Having said that, I used the spray on no more than a couple of occasions, as I didn’t want it to interfere with my principles.

However my proudest achievements have been to eradicate disease without resorting to chemical aid, and allow plants to grow and strengthen at their own rhythm rather than force them to balloon up with fertilizing wonders… I also decided from the start that my lawn would be a country lawn, with the accepted interference of dandelion if need be (dandelions might sometimes be humanely removed, by pulling them off the ground, not a mean feat in itself!). Earlier on in the garden’s life I even sowed the odd splash of prairie lawn seeds and every now and again I still enjoy the sighting of cardamine coming into its own.

It may sound obvious but research carefully the soil and location requirements for each new plant you purchase. Sadly I never realised for years that hydrangeas do not thrive in sunny positions. By the time I had found out it was too late. But I learnt from my mistake and made sure that the next hydrangea I purchased would be placed in a shady position. In the space of 3 years, it has thrived enormously, with nothing more than the right location, a good watering in the summer and a good haircut in the autumn once its blooms have withered beyond recognition.

Old wives’ tales and personal observations have also enabled me to nurture my plants and help them thrive in as much of a natural environment as possible. My mum had mentioned to me a few times that chives planted at the foot of a rose bush would help keep aphids away. Incidentally a wild rosa canina started to grow amongst the chive patch in my herb garden. Over the years, I've had the pleasure to notice that the rose bush was never once affected by pests, although rose bushes in other parts of the garden had been under attack (to be continued).

14 Oct 2009

T is for Tea

After dedicating a post to one of my staple food ingredients (sea salt), I thought I would take the liberty to explore with you another of my 'capsule wardrobe' ingredients, one which – should you knock on my front door unannounced – you will be assured is stored in my kitchen cupboard, no matter the day of week or time of month!

I may intermittently run out of essentials like bread, fruit juice or chocolate (who’s the culprit?!), but I’ll always be safe in the knowledge that my extensive collection of teas and herbal teas will last me for months. These are probably not everyone’s cup of tea (so to speak) but as far as hot drinks are concerned I like to keep my tea options open.

First I should perhaps clarify the fact that I am not a fan of ‘everyday’ English tea, the one that is spurn out in tea bags from the big brands off the supermarket, and needs to be drowned in milk and sugar to make it remotely palatable… I won’t give names but I’m sure you'll have an idea. Having said that, the irony is that I do store it in large quantities, due to the fact that my partner is an avid ‘everyday’ tea drinker…

However my personal selection of teas is eclectic and includes loose and bagged varieties, mainstream brands and the more connoisseur products. Just to give you an idea of what I have in store right this moment:

  • Mainstream: Twinings Earl Grey; Tick Tock rooibos tea (with redbush, a caffeine-free alternative); supermarket own brand peppermint tea (admittedly a very poor alternative to the freshly-picked, freshly-crushed garden mint ingredient!); Twinings Digestif Tea (a mix of peppermint and fennel to aid digestion)
  • Connoisseur: Earl Grey (from Stokes, a renowned tea and coffee house in Lincoln); ‘Mona Lisa Smile’ (a romantic blend of loose green tea and dried rose buds, purchased from Geels in Amsterdam).

Undoubtedly my moods and the availability from shops I visit influence my choices. In the last 12 months, the following were also part of my collection:
  • Mainstream: Loose jasmine tea (supermarket own brand); Clipper’s white tea with raspberry-flavour; fruit infusions from Tetley
  • Connoisseur: Brewhaha rose tea (a potent black tea, delightfully flavoured); a tiny tin of framboise tea from Geels (which I consumed in extreme moderation!); Farrer’s Lakeland Special Tea (a holiday present); bergamot tea from Imperial Teas of Lincoln (a specialist tea and coffee house on Steep Hill)…
If it is claimed that variety is the spice of life, the saying definitely applies to my approach to tea concoctions and infusions! Why stick with the one when you could enjoy more! And you needn’t feel guilty about those little pleasures, a little goes a long way, and they will therefore be cheaper than chocolate! Now on to some serious business: let’s put the kettle on…

12 Oct 2009

Hot Shots!

Hot beverages needn't be restricted to coffee, tea, or that late-night mug of cocoa. There are various other ways to quench your thirst, or simply treat yourself. Here I will share with you my most unusual hot drink sensations, in no preferential order:

Hot Spiced Apple Juice:

The first time I had it was at the Manchester Craft & Design Centre’s café about 10 years ago. It was a crisp autumn afternoon and I’d met up with a friend. A quick glance at the menu convinced us to try the drink, served in tall latte glasses, and it couldn’t be easier to recreate at home. It was refreshing yet warming at the same time.

For 2 people: pour half a carton of good quality apple juice into a saucepan, add a teaspoon of ground cinnamon and gently warm up on the stove (do not boil). For added effect, omit the ground cinnamon, gently warm up the apple juice on its own, then pour into individual tall glasses and add a cinnamon quill per glass. Leave to infuse. Enjoy!

Masala Chai with Cardamom Seeds:

A Pakistani friend of mine, Mrs Anwar, gave me the recipe for this deliciously sweet milky tea years ago at her dinner party. I was surprised at how sweet and aromatic the tea was, the combination of milk and cardamom seeds lending it a caramel-like flavour and colour, while taking any of the tea bitterness away.

Steep one English breakfast tea bag (or Assam or black tea) per person into a saucepan of whole milk and water (a ratio of roughly two thirds milk for one third water). Add a good tablespoon of cardamom seeds per 2 drinkers, and bring to the boil. Allow the concoction to boil for a good couple of minutes before straining directly into mugs with a tea strainer. Sweeten to taste with Demerara sugar.

Fresh Mint Tea (Verse Muntthee):

The best mint tea I have ever tasted was last June in the heart of Amsterdam, at the Café de Jaren. The one and only ingredient (bar the hot water) couldn’t be simpler, I agree, but its quality, freshness, concentrated flavours and the overall presentation made it perfect. The clear glass tea cup held a handful of bushy mint twigs (not the paltry one or two that might have been expected) whose flavour gradually developed as I gently pressed my teaspoon against their leaves. The tea was incredibly tasty and crisp and was a pleasure for the senses. The commercially-available dry-powdered peppermint bags will definitely taste bland and vulgar after such an experience!

The mint from my herb garden!

I have tried to recreate the flavour at home with my organic home-grown mint, unfortunately the aphids and other garden pests which I found drowned in my cuppa were a bit of a turn-off, despite the twigs having been washed… Also it appears that my mint is just not as aromatic as the one from the café.

Café de Jaren, Nieuwe Doelenstraat 20, 1012 CP Amsterdam.

Hot Chocolate:

Travelling back in time again, a good decade ago to be precise, I experienced not just hot chocolate from the high street, but Café Thorntons’ hot chocolate, according to a method which they have since unfortunately streamlined. Back in the day, indulgence was the secret ingredient for this particular drink (I think it used to be called Continental Hot Chocolate, but don’t take my word for it!)

The hot chocolate was made pretty much like it is today, except that at the end of the process the café assistant would take a thimble-size chocolate cup out of the fridge, fill it up with double cream and then drop it gently into the hot chocolate, for that final oomph! And like today, the drink was accompanied by one of Thorntons' individual chocolate creations, boosting the total chocolate intake to chocolate heaven levels! I used to enjoy this as part of a weekly lunchtime treat, and would float on a chocolate high for the rest of the afternoon! Bring it (back) on, Mr Thornton!

8 Oct 2009

Retro Food Photography – You Talkin’ to Me?

Not long ago I would have flicked through my mum’s 1970s and 80s cookbooks in horror… Now I try to be more philosophical about their lack of visual appeal and see them as part of photographic heritage in their own right. They certainly embodied an era of bad taste, but seemed to meet most of the readership’s expectations at the time.

Back in the 70s colour photography as an art was still in its infancy. Colours were saturated and lighting was harsh and unforgiving. It was a pretty despondent affair with oodles of tricky shiny dark surfaces and the uninspiring colours of the day, chocolate brown, olive green, orange and oatmeal. Add to this an urban interpretation of what country living may look like, with strong emphasis on the rustic and tavern-like: think mock panelling, copper pans hanging from ceilings in a flurry of dried bouquets and macramé, and straw hats scattered around the kitchen table…

Tableware included stoneware and amber-coloured glasses. Shiny cold cuts, pâtés, multicoloured salads and blancmanges were all vying for attention, surrounded by props made up of dead game, pewter pitchers, candles, and dusty-looking corn, oats and lunaria annua arrangements, set against a draped background. You half-expected to see a beheaded pig flying through the set at any moment or Robin Hood stepping in just as the photo was taken, wearing his moonboots and a handlebar moustache.

Some cookbooks were wisely trying to keep away from the rustic trend by staying conservatively modern and ‘un-dated’ which, despite not having aged so well has nonetheless stood the test of time in better shape than our rustic mockery, although the saturated colour and lack of photographic detail then again didn’t give the displays much justice.

Like every era, the 1980s were supposed to eradicate the design mistakes of the previous decade and reconcile us with taste, but although we might have been pleased with the endeavours back then, our critical eye is now less convinced. The rules were fairly straightforward though: use any colour as long as it was white, black or red (music album sleeves are a good indicator of the trend!) Black ash was a material favourite, and the clean lines never hid the fact that the furniture looked cheap, functional and grown-up (in a masculine kind of way).

Whereas at the other end of the spectrum, cottage nostalgia was captured in soft focus with chintz, Liberty and Laura Ashley prints aplenty, and country cookbooks embraced the trend! Flowers had left fields and gardens to invade upholstery and crockery without restraint!

Source: 'Entertaining with Friends' by Janice Murfitt © 1984 Orbis Publishing Ltd.

Back in France, I have a book about table decoration which was written in the 80s. One of the table sculptures features high on the league table of décor faux-pas: take two thick pieces of polystyrene. One will be used flat, as a base, and its centre cut out to accommodate the second piece. Shape that second piece with a kitchen knife, roughly in the shape of a swan. Interlock the two pieces onto a tray, then smear them thickly in margarine and place 2 fresh truffle mushrooms where the eyes are supposed to be.

Display proudly on the buffet table, preferably between the aspic and the mortadella. I will include a scanned photograph when I get hold of the book, because indeed such a prop needs to be seen to be believed.

Meanwhile for more 1970s photo fun, why not check Comical Cookbooks or visit Flickr.

7 Oct 2009

An Unpalatable Truth (Part 2)

With the lawsuit frenzy sweeping the nation since the 1990s, customers have made sure they would become more vocal about their complaints, and some have pushed the envelope further by making sure they would complain about everything and anything crossing their minds in order to get that extra freebie, or a refund on a perfectly good meal or room! I wish I was exaggerating but personal experience as front-of-house taught me otherwise…

In parallel to this, consumers have been entrusted with more statutory rights over the last 15 years, and big branded chains have put in place refund policies as satisfaction guarantee back-ups, which have adversely undermined staff authority, blurred the barriers of acceptable customer behaviour, and in effect given more power to the public. It wasn’t long before the system was abused: customers would remove a light bulb or mess up the TV settings to claim their money back at the end of their hotel stay, in the same vein that a shopper would return an item of clothing to the store that they had worn but then decided they didn’t want anymore. A case of having your cake and eating it!

Blackpool's Coral Island

With customers of all ages, class and creeds ‘playing the game’ and ‘trying it on’, one has to bear in mind that the universal unspoken rule still prevails: you basically get what you give, and the staff give what they get (within their remit and within reason). To put it simply, the more pleasant a customer is, the better service they will get. If they are awkward and start pushing all your buttons, you will seethe inside, despite remaining professional, cool, calm and collected, but when they overstep the mark, you will have to use your judgement to either let your superior deal with the situation or get firm with them yourself and get the situation back under control. Customers are like kids, they test your limits, see how far they can push you and try to get more out of you.

This may not be the customers’ prerogative as they are out having a good time, but hospitality staff work tough hours and long shifts (12/ 14 hour-shifts are not uncommon for full timers) that completely wreak havoc with the normality of daily life and their own social lives. In addition, from entry-level jobs to middle management, the pay and incentives are dire – to say the least - and working conditions can be tough (constantly on your feet and hey presto dealing with the general public!).

Although there will be some exceptions, I have witnessed first hand that morale is low, and the industry (especially the bar and restaurant side of it) suffers from the old stigma that outsiders believe its work opportunities cater for the in-between-jobs stopgap market, students, second jobbers, and therefore not necessarily associated with a career in its own right.

I do not aim to discourage those of you who are thinking of joining hospitality or who have had a good experience of it as workforce. Some places will look after their staff better than others, much of the general ambience and working conditions being dictated by the quality of management and the company foundations. There will also be some invaluable perks that will make the job memorable: the friendly customers (they do exist!), the good tips, the staff camaraderie, a bit of glitz and glamour even.

At the end of the day, we all want to have a good time as customers and this should include the fact that we don’t abuse our statutory rights, or become arrogant and treat the bar, restaurant or hotel staff like servants from a bygone age. Respect might be an over-used word, but it has never been so relevant to the hospitality industry than now! Ladies and gentlemen, have a nice day.

5 Oct 2009

An Unpalatable Truth (Part 1)

Throughout our social lives and personal encounters with the hospitality industry, we will have tales of bad service: unmet expectations, curt waitressing, disappointing meals and sub-standard hotel stays. Bad experiences are part of the fabric of life, are not confined to the hospitality industry, and will stretch from the dentist’s chair to the supermarket check-out, from the bank manager’s desk to the insurance hotline, from the tai chi class to the hairdresser’s salon, from the garage pit to the aircraft aisle…

Generally you will expect the problem(s) to be remedied there and then by the floor staff or their superiors, and the chance is a happy resolution will ensue, or at least a compromise will be reached. Throughout the journey of this blog, I will no doubt impart with a tale or two of my personal challenging experiences as a customer, however for now, what I would like to focus on is not so much the service pitfalls and challenges from a consumer view point, but from the staff’s perspective, and what they are pit against. My findings are based upon my personal observations, my brief experience working front-of-house in the hotel chain sector, and insider knowledge from contacts who used to or still work, full-time, in the UK chain hospitality industry at large.

Hospitality has enjoyed a boom in popularity over the last 15 years, boosted by the continental café culture model and compounded by binge drinking. Economic recession aside, people go out more often than they used to; when once upon a time they went to the restaurant to celebrate a special occasion, they now don’t need a justification to treat themselves. Besides high street eatery brands and pubs alike have attractive offers on to draw in the pundits, making the entertaining experience look more affordable and tempting!

Lincoln's Steep Hill area

In the process, hospitality has become a victim of its own success. Personal etiquette standards have slipped across the board, and this shift in attitude has been validated by the media and social observers.

Although complaining is the legitimate course of action when a service expectation has indeed failed to satisfy and/ or fallen below standard, customers and consumers are more confident and assertive than ever, and gone are the proverbial ‘British reserve’ and restraint. Some customers feel strongly that raising uncalled-for objections, playing out their discontent and generally acting in an obnoxious and foul-mouthed manner will somehow give them more clout and entitle them to that coveted freebie, a discount or a refund. (to be continued)

4 Oct 2009

An Old Faithful Kitchen Companion

Ninety per cent of my oven recipes involve an old faithful and versatile friend, and if I was allowed to take only one piece of kitchenware to cookery heaven, this would be the one!

First and as odd as it may seem, I have an emotional patriotic attachment to the piece: it was manufactured in the small French town of Fresnoy-le-Grand, a mere 10 miles down the road from where I was born and raised, in one of Picardie’s remaining bastions of manufacturing, an area traditionally associated with textile, metal work and foundries.

The item in question is a square Le Creuset stoneware baking dish which I purchased over 10 years ago. Its sturdiness makes it reassuringly foolproof; its timeless line gives it instant appeal, seamlessly gliding from oven shelf to table top without spoiling your table decoration efforts! Meanwhile its smooth, fluted-less design makes it a pleasure to serve from without bits of stubborn crust lodged in, and is therefore a pleasure to clean, unlike the old uncoated tin dishes and moulds.

My scrumptious Strawberry Summer Flan, baked in my Le Creuset dish!

To be honest, due to the fact that old tin dishes don’t age so well (with some leaving a funny metallic after-taste), and the difficulty to scrub them clean, such old-fashioned apparatus have no room in the modern kitchen. Yet bear in mind that it might not be easy to convince your mum or grandma to part with their old crinklies as those may be considered as some sort of family heirlooms!

In these days of global consumerism, Le Creuset stoneware may sadly be no longer manufactured in France, bar for the iconic cocottes (enamelled cast-iron casseroles). Regardless of this fact, by purchasing a Le Creuset item from the extensive product range, an item in keeping with your lifestyle and cooking aspirations, you will be taking home a secure investment that will defy whimsical fashion and the unkindness of time. I bet my bottom dollar that it will be passed down onto the next generation as the true timeless quality heirloom that it stands for. And in the meantime, enjoy it and happy cooking!

Do you have an old faithful kitchen companion? Please let me know!

3 Oct 2009

Petite Fantaisie Numéro 1

As my staple food ingredients, little unassuming marvels are hidden in my kitchen cupboards, and although one may be hard-pushed to taste the difference that they deliver on the palate once they are mingled with food, they give me pleasure to use. The first ingredient I am about to describe couldn’t be more mundane though, more trivial, more basic than this 4-letter little number: salt.

First let’s put this straight: my household is not a big consumer of salt, and to prove it, it took us 7 years to go through a pot of 500g of the condiment. Everyone knows (should know) that despite its seasoning and taste-enhancing properties, and the fact that it is an essential component of our diets, salt should be consumed in moderation.

Therefore why would I have two different variants of salt in the kitchen, and why would I even dedicate a whole entry to this ingredient if it really doesn’t play such a big part in my cuisine? Let me explain...

I have never been a fan of refined salt - also referred to as ‘table salt’, the most commonly available type in the UK: cheap, straight-forward, no-fuss salt-of-the-earth kind of salt. Besides, call it snobbery on my part, but the big plastic container it comes into is not visually savoury (excuse the pun!). I know that the universal popularity of the contents (salt!) doesn’t require to call in the big advertising guns from London for a rebranding exercise, and you can pour the salt into a nice little holder and hide the plastic carbuncle away!

It’s only a matter of opinion but I do prefer sea salt, probably by default, as my mum has always bought it. Funnily enough, this conscious choice takes the sea salt consumers to a different league, that of the connoisseur’s, because the stuff is more expensive and exclusive, and yet – let’s admit it – tastier, thanks to its iodine content. It also makes us look somewhat particular, because for most people salt is just salt. Actually it’s not, because it would be like saying that sugar is just sugar, or coffee is just coffee… And while you’re at it, try to tell Colette that water is just water…

One of the two salt varieties in my cupboard is Maldon Flaky Crystal Sea Salt, which is poetically translated into French as ‘fleur de sel’ (i.e. salt flower). The natural harvesting process means that the flakes are unadulterated in flavour and content (no anti-caking agents!), and they deliver a nice burst of saltiness without the bitter after-taste, and melt quickly on the food. I find that they enhance salads very well.

The other salt variety I favour was brought to me by my mum, directly from the health shop: Lanes Herb Salt, an aromatic sea salt and vegetable seasoning (celery, carrot, kelp and herbs), which I sprinkle on pretty much all savoury dishes, and in the cooking water of pasta for added flavour.

1 Oct 2009

The Reckoning

The excellent Future of Food (BBC2 series with George Alagiah, Aug 2009) was one of those rare food-for-thought programmes that delivered a punch. The documentary may have come as an epiphany to some of the viewers, but to me its alarming contents confirmed what had been bothering me over the last decade as a consumer living in a fast-food, fast-fashion, fast-trend society.

The programme raised a plethora of inter-linked burning issues set against a background of over-population and climate change: over-fishing, over-cultivation, soil erosion, depleted stocks, stretched resources, changing consumer habits, pollution, ethics… Add to this explosive mix the proposed solutions to some existing ecological problems, which in turn create other predicaments (ex: bio-fuel crops grown in India at the expense of their hungry farmers; the paradox of traditionally UK-grown beans being cultivated in Kenya then flown over to the UK; rich countries sending their fishing vessels to dredge fish stocks from poor African coastal countries)…

As much as possible I, as a consumer, have always supported local trade, suppliers and seasonal produce. Nature is clever and each season brings its own delights when seasonal fruit and veg are at their peak in terms of taste and ripeness. In the UK, the excitement of Spring is heralded with delicate offerings: asparagus, artichoke, peas, rhubarb. Summer brings an explosion of colour and vitamins: red fruit, lettuce, etc. Late Summer/ early Autumn is harvest time (not just for wheat, oats and barley!): think apples, pumpkins, plums, walnuts, sweetcorn. Winter brings us root vegetables that satisfy our appetite for a more stodgy calorie-warming diet.

Undoubtedly some fruit and veg need to be imported because they cannot grow in this climate: citrus fruit, apricots, coconuts, bananas, pineapples, etc. The crunch though, in my simplistic view, arises when a historically UK-grown produce (ex: the humble apple) is now flown off from the antipodes to guarantee round-the-year availability, because it is either out of season in the UK or purely for the supermarket’s bottom line (under the cover of healthy competition). Both the ecological and economic implications trouble me.

Collectively as consumers, we need to act more responsibly, and only by leading the way can we influence the supermarkets about our needs and wants, for the long-term viability of both the planet and our local farmers. Do we need to shun seasonality - a component of sustainability (let’s not forget) - in favour of a passing fancy cleverly flaunted off the shelves by supermarkets who have a knack for creating a need and a want?

Do we really fancy that punnet of raspberries in the midst of December with their heavy carbon footprint stamped all over our conscience (that is, if we do have a conscience)? Or what is the appeal of asparagus flown all the way from Peru, when the best asparagus you will ever taste is the home-grown variety – whose brief seasonal spell should be seen as the beauty of it.

UK producers face another dilemma. As documented in Future of Food, when some of the home-grown produce started being imported by supermarket chains conjunctively, this was done to complement local UK production (as a back-up). Now those imports are in direct competition with the local producers’ offering. And then irrevocably the imports will be cheaper than the local productions, yielding the supermarkets a fatter profit margin, and imports will be favoured. And that’s when that Golden Delicious from Argentina or New Zealand is starting to leave a bitter taste in your mouth!