Saturday, 29 April 2017

Dietary matters - cisis in the food industry!

According to wikipedia, hummus is a "Levantine dip or spread made from cooked, mashed chickpeas or other beans, blended with tahini, olive oil, lemon juice, salt and garlic. (Tahini, by the way, is made from roasted and ground sesame seeds. This takes me back to my macrobiotic vegetarian days, back in the 1970s, when tahini paste was always in my store cupboard. The smell of roasted sesame seeds still takes me back there. There goes another Proustian moment!) The name "Hummus" comes from the Arabic word for "chickpeas", logically enough, and the complete name of the prepared spread in Arabic is ḥummuṣ bi ṭaḥīna which means "chickpeas with tahini".

So, why am I rabbiting on about hummus. Well, it seems that, along with all the other dreadful things going on in our modern world, there is a hummus crisis. Tesco, Sainsbury's, M & S and other places have had empty spaces on the shelves where hummus is usually found. Shock! Horror! (It must have been fairly short-lived because our local Co-op and Tesco don't appear to be suffering shortages.)  

Anyway, it turns out that most of the hummus sold in this country is produced by a company called Bakkavor, an Icelandic company, not one that you might expect to produce hummus at all. Iceland is hardly middle-Eastern! But hummus and other dips are their speciality and they decided to recall a batch of hummus after customers complained about a metallic taste. They think this originated in some chickpeas imported from Canada. Hmmm! Suspect, inferior Canadian chickpeas, eh?

The company hastened to assure everyone that this was a taste issue not a food safety matter. So that's all right then! And now everything is back to normal on the hummus front.

Statistics from a few years ago show the UK as the "hummus capital" of Europe. 41% of us have hummus in the fridge, almost twice as much as any other country. This is another example of our adaptability, at least in culinary matters; we adopt and adapt foreign cuisine!

I can personally vouch for the fact that hummus has been a fairly recent addition to Spanish supermarket shelves. When we went off on our first major Spanish adventure in 2008 I looked unsuccessfully for hummus. I described it to shopkeepers and to Spanish friends. All of them scratched their heads in a bemused fashion. Chickpeas are a staple in much of Spanish cuisine but they had never heard of such a use for them.

And then, last year or the year before, hummus appeared on the shelves in Mercadona, our next-door-neighbour supermarket in Vigo. Labelled NUEVO (new for non-Spanish speakers), it came with suggestions for how to incorporate it into meals.

Now they just need proper blackcurrant jam. Blueberry jam just does not have thee same tang!

Friday, 28 April 2017

Trying to ignore the news!

Mixed messages about EU membership. On the one hand, there are those who say that if Scotland were to separate from the UK then they would have to reapply for EU membership, a process which could be lengthy. On the other hand, I am now hearing suggestions that if Ireland were to become a united country once more, then the it would be easy for Northern Ireland to become part of the EU through the Southern Irish membership already in existence. How confusing the whole thing is becoming!

Meanwhile campaigning for the election goes ahead here, rather stutteringly. Jeremy Corbyn won't always stick to the Labour Party script and Theresa May is accused of speaking only to halls filled with known Conservative supporters, giving a false media impression going down very well indeed. In some parts of the country opposition parties are co-operating to ensure an anti-May candidate has a better chance of being elected while in other places no such thing is even considered feasible. A little more confusion.

Even the weather is confused; days begin fine and sunny and rapidly decline into grey and gloomy. This is probably a metaphor for those of us who wake up optimistic and then hear the morning news and sink back into depression.

And so I escape into not thinking about it all. I took a friend put to lunch yesterday. We have decided that we are establishing a new tradition of treating each other to lunch on our respective birthday. And we managed to have lunch and sit and chat about old times, planned holidays, ridiculous names people give their children, books we have read and concerts we intend to go to.

 A good couple of hours without once mentioning elections or crazy politicians' endeavours to make the world a more dangerous place.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Staying on trend!

Sales of electronic books are falling and sales of "real" books are rising. This is what I read in an article this morning. Figures published by the Publishing Association show that sales of consumer ebooks have dropped by 17%, while sales of physical books are up 8%. Consumer spending on books was up £89m across the board last year, compared with 2015.

One of the reasons given is that the kindle, once the trendy, must-have, go-to electronic gadget has become old hat, clunky and ugly when placed alongside new and elegant smartphones. It has failed to keep up with the times and demand that we all need a new one every year because model 3.8, or whatever terminology you want to use, has just been released, brighter and better than all previous models.

Who knew that kindles had to be on-trend? Perhaps they should have apps which tell you how well you are reading, how many new words you have absorbed in your current reading session, what your level of culture is on some artificially devised scale according to whether you read "Madame Bovary" or "Fifty Shades of Grey".

You can probably tell that I am not in the least bothered by the trendiness or otherwise of electronic gadgets. My iPhone is rather old, inherited in fact from our daughter when she updated to a newer model. My kindle does look a bit clumsy compared to Phil's more modern, mores slim-line, backlit version - he had to replace his original one for some mechanical reason - but it does the job.

And that's the thing: a kindle is a device for carrying lots of reading matter around with you without being weighed down by masses of books. And on the whole I do prefer to read a proper book. All of the arguments in favour of proper books - being able to flick back easily to re-read something, being able to skim through a few pages to see if you like it, the physical pleasure of holding a book in your hands, being able, if you ignore my father's horror of such desecration, to underline "good" bits and annotate your copy - all hold good for me. And I still go on buying books, despite the absolute lack of space on the bookshelves. But my kindle comes put when I go away on holiday. It's great, old-fashioned and clunky and ugly as some people might see it.

Reading on in the article about ebooks and proper books I came across this:

 "Once upon a time, people bought books because they liked reading. Now they buy books because they like books. “All these people are really thinking about how the books are – not just what’s in them, but what they’re like as objects,” says Jennifer Cownie, who runs the beautiful Bookifer website and the Cownifer Instagram, which match books to decorative papers, and who bought a Kindle but hated it.
(Catherine) Summerhayes (a literary agent for some company or other) thinks that “people have books in their house as pieces of art”. One of her authors’ forthcoming works features cover art by someone who designs album covers for Elbow. “Everyone wants sexy-looking books,” she says. She distinguishes these from “coffee-table books”, which is what we had before #bookstagram. This helps to explain the reinvigoration of independent bookshops, which offer a more styled, or curated, experience."

So some of the people buying books are doing so for the wrong reasons. No doubt they have tastefully arranged shelves with just the right amount of just the right books on them. We, by contrast, have some very tatty old books, shelves full to bursting in most rooms of the house, and piles of books waiting for a home! So it goes!

Here's another little oddity. Sometimes you read about villages in deepest Spain or France up for sale. Usually they have been pretty much abandoned and can be bought for a song, with the idea that you can do the properties up and make a going tourist concern out of the place. This time, it's a village in Yorkshire:

 "An entire English village has been bought one year after it went on the market for £20m. Albanwise Ltd, a Norfolk-based real estate and farming investment firm, said on Wednesday it had purchased West Heslerton Estate near Scarborough in North Yorkshire.

The sprawling and quintessentially British hamlet includes a 21-bedroom mansion, 43 houses, a pub and more than 2,000 acres of farmland. “Albanwise Ltd is due to become the new owner of West Heslerton Estate and looks forward to incorporating this within our North Yorkshire Estate,” said a spokesman, who said it was bought for an “undisclosed fee”. It is believed to be in the region of £20m.

The village has been owned by the Dawnay family for 150 years and the last owner, Eve Dawnay, who inherited the estate in 1964, died five years ago at the age of 84. Dawnay moved out of West Heslerton Hall, the village’s centrepiece, 30 years ago, and did not live there again.

The hall includes Dawnay’s purpose-built four-bedroom home, the village petrol station and more than 100 acres of woodland.

Her management of West Heslerton has meant very little has changed among the rented cottages for half a century for the village’s estimated 375 residents. Cundalls, the estate agents who handled the sale, put the current rental and subsidy income at about £388,000 per year."

Not quite the same sort of purchase as a village in deepest France or Spain. I have to confess that when I saw the headline I thought it said £20, not £20 million!

Imagine, in the 21st century, a family owning a whole village. Not just land around it but the village itself and all the houses.

A family member said: “We all loved it and it would be very hard to find a village with more loyal and lovely people living in it. There is a real sense of community which is hard to find these days.”

Her daughter Bridget, who still lives in the village and has been the shepherd on the estate, also said: “It will be strange to return and not be able to just wander around like I always have; that it will belong to somebody else. “But times have changed, especially when it comes to farming, and it will be lovely to see new life breathed into the estate.”

Everything has to keep up to date!

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Fame and money!

Even the seemingly good ones do it: Barack Obama is going to speak at a healthcare conference organised by a Wall Street firm. He is going to be paid $400,000 (£312,000). That's rather a lot of money. That's four years' pay at $100,000 per annum or eight years at $50,000. Call it ten to fifteen years on a more modest salary. And that's his fee for a few hours working on his speech and then an afternoon or evening of his time. Not a bad hourly rate. It is to be hoped that he donates some of it to a worthy cause, maybe something connected to healthcare!

Here's another story about money. A piano was donated to a school, a community college in Shropshire. They arranged for a piano tuner to come and give it the once-over. He discovered 633 full sovereigns and 280 half sovereigns dating between 1847 and 1915 hidden away beneath the keys. Some of the packaging suggests that the treasure was hidden somewhere between 1926 and 1946. Good quality examples of first world war-era gold sovereigns can fetch £375 each. So that little hoard is rather valuable.

The couple who donated the piano to the school seem not be claiming the hoard as theirs. Efforts have been made to trace whoever might have owned it at the time the coins were hidden. So far to no avail. The coins might be acquired by a museum, in which case the piano tuner, the discoverer of the treasure, and the school, the official owner of the piano, will be eligible for a reward. Now, that is a much better money story!

As a rule money seems to go to those who already have plenty. Nobody has offered me huge amounts of money to go and address them on some subject close to my heart. But then I am not famous.

If you are famous, people sometimes name their children after you. I read today that Syrian families are naming their children Putin as a mark of gratitude for the Russian president's support of Assad. As a Russian, Vladimir Putin will be used to such goings on. Apparently early Soviet families named their children Vladilen , for Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, or Rem, for revolyutsiya mirovaya – world revolution.

 And Kosovan Albanians showed their gratitude to Britain for their part in the NATO attack on their Serb adversaries by naming their sons Tonibler!

I do not know whether to laugh or cry!

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Modern problems!

I've been reading Hadley Freeman's question column again. Along with her praise for Serena Williams for winning the Australian Open while pregnant, she slipped in a little fact about inequality: "That’s not even mentioning the fact that Williams, shockingly, makes about a fifth annually of what Roger Federer gets in sponsorship deals, a disparity that reeks of both racism and sexism."

She was also asked about which trainers she recommends that we should buy. I am amazed that some people feel the need to ask questions like that. Maybe it's just a ploy to get their name in the newspaper. Hadley neatly avoids giving any brand of trainer a boost but talks instead about a shoe designer who feels that some of his creativity is taken away from him because nowadays everyone (by which he means all ladies) wear trainers or sneakers.

Back in the 1950s there was apparently great variety in the type of footwear ladies wore in the summer time and he misses it. That was probably because the only kinds of sports footwear available (part from football boots and hockey boots) were black or white canvas pumps. The white one had to be kept clean with a special whitener that came in a tube with a sponge on the end. But really: creativity problems in the footwear department? Such are twenty-first century problems!

Here's another one: behind the Tate Modern in London is a block of luxury flats, Neo Bankside Towers. These rich-people flats have glass- enclosed balconies or maybe just a big expanse of glass where a wall might have been. If you go up to the top floor viewing terrace of the Tate Modern you get a lovely view of London, a panorama including the done of Sat Paul's. But you also get a lovely view into the lives of the rich folk who live next door. They ate complaining and five residents have gone so far as to bring a legal challenge demanding that the viewing platform be closed down. Maybe they should invest in net curtains.

More serious twenty-first century problems relate to feeding people. It seems there has been a serious increase in the number of people using foodbanks. And there is concern about children from poor families not getting enough to eat in the school holidays. Children who receive free school meals miss out on this provision in the holidays and return to school undernourished and unprepared to take up learning again.

Somehow it puts all the other problems into perspective!

Monday, 24 April 2017

Making choices!

There seem to be two things in particular being said about Emmanuel Macron and his having taken the lead (by a whisker) in the first round of the French presidential elections.

One opinion concentrates on the fact that his party has only existed for a year and that he has never held elected office. Is it possible that a 39 year old who has never been elected into government could become president? Well, a 70 year old who had never held elected office managed to get himself elected president of the USA! Enough said!

And then there are those who take it as read that everyone in France who didn't vote for Marine Le Pen or Emmanuel Macron in the first round will automatically switch their allegiance to Emmanuel Macron in that time-honoured way the French have of keeping the Front National in its place. But this time I am not so sure. Strange things have been happening in politics in the last year or so. Nothing can be taken for granted until the last vote is counted in two weeks' time.

Who knows what deals might be done behind closed doors over the coming two weeks?

Coincidentally we have been watching a French series, "Les Hommes de l'Ombre", the title translated to "Spin" in English, all about the French political scene and the spin-doctoring that goes on, the manipulation of image and the wheeling and dealing that can undo all the careful spinning. And so, as regards who will be the next President of France,we shall just have to wait and see.

Decsribed by journalist John Crace as "zen-like", Jeremy Corbyn appears to refuse to be spun, trying hard during a TV interview to evade questions about whether he would actually press the button to fire a nuclear weapon or be prepared to send a drone to bomb a specific place where hypothetically the leader of ISIS was known to be hiding. His non-committal answers had the Labour Party in a spin explaining exactly what the party's position is on such matters and, of course, had other parties declaring that he would be chaotic as prime minister.

Here's a link to an article about the lack of idealism in the modern political world. Among other things it tells us that "Theresa May is an important example – she appears to blow with each political wind, with political expediency as her main signpost." I have no more to say about her!

Moving on to other things, last week Serena Williams told the world that she is expecting a baby. Cue a whole lot of discussion about how amazing it is that she continued to play tennis (and win) while pregnant. Further discussion went on about the advisability of doing all sorts of things while pregnant. Some people are tired and ill while pregnant but for most women pregnancy is not a disease. I would imagine that Serena Williams is pretty fit and probably can continue doing what she usually does. I remember a PE teacher I worked with demonstrating all kinds of very energetic gymnastics exercises while pregnant. And don't forget all the less famous women who carry on cleaning floors, working machines in factories, carrying shopping and frequently carrying a toddler around on their hip for large parts of the day, all while pregnant!

And finally, here is a little something that amused me from an article on inventions that were not really needed:

"The US technology industry has a long history of over-engineering complex answers to problems that others can deal with fairly easily. During the space race, Nasa had to work out how to deal with the fact that ballpoint pens relied on gravity to work by dragging the ink down the tube and on to the page. Fisher, a pen company, developed the space pen, which used pressurised air in a sealed cartridge to force the ink out of the front instead. It could not only work in space, it would write upside down on earth, or even underwater, at temperatures from -35C (-31F) to 120C (248F).

 The Russians used a pencil."

Keep things simple and expect the unexpected!

Sunday, 23 April 2017

How to feed the world!

Apparently Weetabix is owned by a Chinese company, Bright Foods. Oh, no! My mistake; Bright Foods has recently sold Weetabix to a US company, Post Holdings. Bright Foods thought that they could sell lots of Weetabix in China but the Chinese have been unimpressed.

The Australians add Vegemite (Antipodean Marmite) to Weetabix, which sounds like a disgusting thing to do, but it seems that they invented Weetabix about a century ago, so I suppose they are entitled to do such things with it. However the UK buys 71% of all the Weetbix there is.

Weetabix was the go-to breakfast of my childhood, served with hot milk on cold winter mornings, allowed to go soggy and porridgy in that case, but eaten while still crisp if served with cold milk. And I know a fair few children who were practically weaned on Weetabix.

Today's post looks as though it is going to be about food. Not at all inappropriate as I was baking a birthday cake at nine o'clock this morning and went on to feed the family and celebrate our daughter's birthday. In fact the birthday is tomorrow but today was a good day to get everyone together.

As I chopped and stirred and did other culinary stuff in the kitchen, I listened to The Food Programme on Radio Four. Today they were concentrating on the humble potato, which is in reality more complicated and far less humble than we ever imagined. I learned all sorts of strange facts:
  •  The people of Peru used to dry potatoes and store them to see them through lean times. The Spaniards, the Conquistadores, were not impressed and only tried eating them because they had nothing else to eat. 
  •  When the potato was introduced to Europe the Church preached against it. There is no mention of the potato in the Bible and therefore it must be an abomination, not one of God's creations at all, and therefore should not be eaten. (I am sure the people who rail against the consumption of carbohydrates would agree with that. I was not aware that there was a list of acceptable food in the Bible. The fatted calf was killed when the Prodigal Son came home. Wine gets a mention, as do loaves and fishes. But are carrots and cabbage referred to positively? What about sweetcorn? I doubt very much whether coffee is written about in the Bible. 
  •  There are lots of varieties of potatoes. In the Andes they grew all of these varieties but only a very limited number were introduced to Europe. And so when the potato blight came along in the mid nineteenth century it was able to wipe out the crop as there was insufficient variety to provide resistance. At that time the population of Ireland stood at around 8 million. Masses of the rural poor relied on the potato for their staple diet. An acre of fertilized potato field could yield up to 12 tons of potatoes, enough to feed a family of six for a year with leftovers going to the family's animals. And so when the potatoes failed, masses of people died of starvation and masses emigrated. The population of Ireland, around 5 million now, I think, has never recovered. Amazing! 
  •  Getting back to that filed that could produce up to 12 tons of potatoes, potato enthusiasts tell us that if we switched our attention to potatoes instead of grain crops, we could solve the problem of how to feed the world's growing population. 
  •  There is even an International Potato Centre. Based in Lima, Peru (appropriately enough) it is a research facility that "seeks to reduce poverty and achieve food security on a sustained basis in developing countries through scientific research and related activities on potato, sweet potato, other root and tuber crops, and on the improved management of natural resources in the Andes and other mountain areas. It was established in 1971 by decree of the Peruvian government." 
  •  As well as giving me all this fascinating insight into the potato, a "vegetable which is rich in protein, carbohydrates, minerals, and vitamins such as riboflavin, niacin and Vitamin C", the programme suggested new and amazing ways of cooking it! Potatoes and lemon! How does that grab you? 

It's astounding what you can learn from the radio!