Food Guides Recipes Buy The Guides Feed Back Food News 100 Best Search Bridgestone Food Guides Bridgestone Guides - details about food lovers and 100 best books

17 December 2007

Surviving Christmas

The symptoms are hypertension and, most likely, affluenza.

The condition is known as Christmas Dinner.

You know the Christmas dinner. It’s the meal when the CEO is expected to miraculously morph into the CHEF without anyone noticing, having already bought all the appropriate gifts for everyone at the appropriately enormous expense and wrapped them in the appropriately deluxe gift wrap.

It’s the meal for which Delia Smith once famously – and terrifyingly – gave an hour-by-hour countdown as to exactly what you should be doing for The Last 36 Hours coming up to the meal.
36 hours! What is it about Christmas Dinner that brings out the inner fascist in food writers? Do this, now. You should have done that a long time ago. Don’t do that. Oh dear, isn’t it a bit late to be doing that now?
Mrs Smith’s preposterous mortification ritual deserves only to be satirised, but sadly no one dares. We are too busy worrying whether or not we have done the right thing at the right time to pour appropriate scorn on the idea of someone telling us what to do in the kitchen for 36 hours.

And it’s spreading. I was recently sent a shiny copy of “Renault Living” and there, on page 34, amidst all the vroomy new models for ’08, are two pages bravely entitled “The Christmas Cooking Countdown”.

According to this piece of eminent advice, I am already in deep doodoo, because I did not remember, in the week beginning November 19th “that the freezer is your friend”. Darn! How could I have forgotten that, especially in the week beginning November 19th! If only John Gormley had organized a “Remember the Freezer is your Friend Day“ on the week beginning November 19th, then I would have remembered, and all would be well.

Still, I can always play catch up. “Renault Living” advises that I get out of bed at 7.30 am on Christmas morning to switch the oven on to 180c/Gas Mark 4. 7.30am. Christmas morning? Hmmm…

At least in the 'States they know what to do when someone rolls out advice in this fashion, as these mickey-taking gems spoofing Martha Stewart’s schoolmarmey style show:

December 2: Have Mormon Tabernacle Choir record outgoing Christmas message for answering machine.

December 4: Repaint Sistine Chapel ceiling in ecru, with mocha trim.

December 13: Collect Dentures. They make excellent pastry cutters, particularly for decorative pie crusts.

December 17: Child proof the Christmas tree with garland of razor wire.

December 20: Dip sheep and cows in egg whites and roll in confectioner's sugar to add a festive sparkle to the pasture.

December 25: Bear son. Swaddle. Lay in colour co-ordinated manger scented with homemade potpourri.

You know the Christmas Dinner. It’s the meal that is supposed to be Perfect. Capital P. Painted by Norman Rockwell, script by Richard Curtis. Sickly sweet? That’ll do nicely.

The reality, of course, is less Rockwell & Curtis, and more Horrid Henry:

Henry waited. And waited. And waited.

“When’s lunch?” asked Polly

When’s lunch?” asked Paul.

When’s lunch?” asked Peter.

“As soon as the turkey is cooked”, said Dad. He peeked into the oven. He poked the turkey. Then he went pale.

“It’s hardly cooked,” he whispered.

“Check the temperature,” said Granny.

Dad checked.

“Oops,” said Dad.

“Never mind, we can start with the sprouts,” said Mum cheerfully.

“That’s not the right way to do sprouts,” said Granny. “You’re peeling too many of the leaves off.”

Is it any wonder that Francesca Simon’s superb Horrid Henry stories are the favourites of every 8-year-old you know? Kids love the unvarnished truth, and “Horrid Henry’s Christmas Lunch” is nothing but the truth. Disaster, writ large, coming soon to a house you know.
So, for the sake of our health, and to avoid that hypertension, what on earth can be done to banish the tension from the Christmas Dinner? Is there any sort of level-headed advice that will help us to survive the ordeal?

Well, start with this:

“We toyed with the idea of ringing a dainty silver bell to announce the start of our feast. In the end, we chose to keep our traditional method. We've also decided against a formal seating arrangement. When the smoke alarm sounds, please gather around the table and sit where you like.”
That’s right. Christmas should mean fun, not stress. The meal is about enjoyment, not endurance. If the meal has a tendency to bring out your inner fascist, then introduce that inner fascist to a glass of mulled wine quickly and tell him to calm down and stop missing the point.

The food is meant to be delicious, and not a demonstration. Be lazy, and buy as much of it ready-prepared as you can. Ireland is full of talented food creators who make sublime cakes, puddings, chutneys, relishes, sweet things and much else, so why on earth should you do what they can do much better?

Above all, don’t think that the Christmas meal has to be Perfect. It has to be about sharing food and breaking bread, not breaking your ass worrying whether everything is picture-postcard-perfect, all the way from the smoked salmon through to the bird and on to the pud.

Above all, ask yourself why the leftovers of the Christmas meal always taste better later that night, or the next day, when you trawl a roast spud through some bread sauce, or throw some strips of smoked salmon into a blue cheese dressing to have with pasta. The answer, I think, is because then you are simply enjoying the food for what it is, rather than for what it represents in some unattainable ideal of Christmas perfection.

And never forget that young people loathe brussels sprouts.

04 December 2007

Bad Habits

You read it, and want to weep.

“Ireland’s meteoric rise in economic strength is one to be applauded but given these stated behaviours one would have to wonder if it is at the expense of its workers, whereby commuting time, deadlines and other pressures are creating unhealthy and unsustainable food habits in its working community”.

And just what are the “stated behaviours” that Irish people confessed to Amarach Consulting as it carried out its second Food Futures Survey? In what ways are we nurturing “unhealthy and unsustainable” food habits in our working community?

Well, like all dedicated people, we start early: one in four adults in Ireland regularly skip breakfast.

Then, to prove our determination, we go on as we began: one in five adults often skip lunch.

And, at the close of day, we demonstrate admirable consistency: for dinner, 13% of the 1,000 people surveyed enjoy a resplendent fast food meal. You want fries with that?

But sure, if the other four out of five are having breakfast, isn’t that grand? Well, no: one out of every two of us who are buying our breakfast away from home are having a breakfast roll.
The Irish Breakfast Roll. The Full Catastrophe. A heart attack in a bap.

And for lunch, those who do manage to get some time are turning increasingly to the fine food on offer in supermarkets and convenience stores, where our spend has almost doubled since the first Food Futures Survey in 2005. What are we scooping up? White bread ham sandwich with coleslaw for him, brown bread sandwich with chicken and coleslaw for her. We are also spending more on food in petrol station shops. Forget meat and two veg: think Maxol.

“As uncovered in our last report there has been a food revolution in Ireland and the patterns borne from these food revolts seem more embedded in the Irish market on this occasion”, Amarach say.

A revolution? I can remember when revolutions promised to make things better. Surely what we are witnessing is more of a coup d’etat? A culinary coup d’etat, a violent revolt against the established order. A brave new world, of eating badly.

Actually, the conclusions of the Amarch report aren’t as bad as it might first seem. They suggest that we are consuming much more food out of the home, which is no surprise. And they assert that we are offloading our desires for healthy food onto the catering profession because we are confused about what is healthy and don’t have enough time to think about it, both conclusions that are surely meat and drink to ARAMARK./Campbell Catering who commissioned the reports, and who already feed 250,000 people in Ireland each day.

So, is the nation once more off to hell in a handcart because Daddy doesn’t come home from the office for a three-course lunch each day the way Grandad did? Or, are we just becoming more like other industrialized nations in our habits, but simply making many mistakes along the road to eating out, creating bad habits where we could be creating good habits?

If you suggested to a member of the gastronomically aristocratic nations of the world – Italians, Spaniards, Thai, Chinese, Japanese, French, Indian – that eating out frequently during the course of the week was something that would inevitably mean no more than a breakfast roll in a petrol station and a ham sandwich in a convenience store, then they would laugh at you.

The man from Mumbai would point to the elegance and sophistication of their extraordinary tiffin culture, where tens of millions of lunches are delivered into Indian cities at lunchtime every day, the shimmy metal containers packed with rice and dahl and pickles.

The man from San Sebastian would point to the brilliance of their pintxos, savoury snacks on thin slices of fresh bread which are prepared and served in every bar, and which are distinguished by their culinary brilliance.

The salary man from Hiroshima would tell you that on the way to work he grabbed a quick bowl of oden – a hotpot of different ingredients cooked in dashi stock – at a yatai, a portable vending stall set up on the pavement. Then he grabbed a bento box from a take-away bento shop for his lunch, packed with rice, pickles, fish and much more.

The man from Lyon, feeling the need for a toasted cheese sandwich, will have it created for him as a croque monsieur, the toastie as art.

What is important about these great culinary cultures is that they don’t make any compromises. Food in public places – whether it is a tachigui sobaya serving soba noodles in a Tokyo train station, or a pizzeria in Naples – is expected to be both delicious, and healthy, made freshly from fresh ingredients.

Our culinary culture, on the other hand, seems to be happy to demand high quality for special occasion eating – going to a good restaurant on a Saturday night – whilst being content to eat unimaginative and unhealthy food from Monday to Friday because we are too busy working.

We seem to think we can put our health on hold whilst we get on with serving the economy. Our food becomes nothing but fuel to keep us going, but the problem is that we are putting low-grade fuel into the only motor we are ever going to really need: our bodies. I mean, just how many hours ago was that sandwich you are buying actually prepared?

There are, however, positive signs that smart operators are taking up the slack, and are making smart money by filling the gap that so yawningly exists in the market for healthy, quickly served, daily food.

Anyone who works near to an Avoca Handweavers store, for instance, need make no compromise when it comes to lunch. If you are close to the URRU stores in Bandon or Mallow, then the sandwich selection is a food lover’s dream: my favourite is Ummera smoked chicken with gherkins on Arbutus artisan bread, with a bottle of Ballycross apple juice to go. From Sheridan’s to Aya, from Real Gourmet Burger to Sushi King, from Soup Dragon to Matthew’s Cheese Cellar, there is a band of dedicated food providers who already make the sort of healthy food we need to get through the day at our best.

And the issue isn’t just one for stressed employees. Employers, too, need to ask if they are collaborating with or assisting employees to make sure the latter are at their best during working hours.

Yet the question of food choices is a grey, unexplored area for us in Ireland. “Try to think of a politician whose prospects have been damaged by revelations about what he or she eats”, ask Peter Singer and Jim Mason in their book “The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter”. We don’t concern ourselves with what our politicians eat, though we should. Similarly, HR might be concerning themselves with the guy in IT who comes in with the smell of drink on his breath. But what about the guy who just ate a breakfast roll in the car on the way to the office, and who had a Coke with it. Is he, still in the midst of a saturated fat-and-sugar jag, ready to be trusted with something complicated?

But the brightest hope, perhaps, lies within that darkest zone: the Breakfast Roll. Simon Rudd, of Prue & Simon’s, an award-winning specialist pork company from County Offaly who produce splendidly fine rashers, sausages and other interesting artisan foods, is working with the Fresh chain of groovy supermarkets in Dublin to create a Prue & Simon Breakfast Roll, served with a special RAP sauce. “The Prue & Simon roll will have 2 dry-cured rashers, an 80% pork sausage and our own black and white puddings, with the rap sauce”, says Simon Rudd.

The plan is to introduce the Prue & Simon breakfast roll initially in the Smithfield branch of Fresh, before it makes its way to all the Dublin outlets. As a means of turning bad food habits into good food habits, this sees to be just the sort of food revolution we really need.