Veg Box Wars : Episode 2


And the winner is….

Drumroll…

nutella glass

Nutella

Well, they say you never know at the start of a journey, where it will end, and so my blog about my search for a new veg box became more about packaging than veg. This is how come Nutella, a product whose first two ingredients are, not the cocoa and hazelnut their adverts would seek to imply, but good ol’ fat n sugar, is the winner of the veg box challenge, for its simple, desirable, USEFUL, reusable packaging.

My search started because at the start of the year Riverford, who have been my veg box supplier du choix for the last ten years, suddenly reduced the quantity of veg in the boxes. Unlike Quality Street, who when they do this, at least have the grace to change the box so we supposedly don’t notice, Riverford didn’t, so we were faced with a ‘Large’ veg box, which was a large box with a quite small quantity of veg at the bottom. Ouch!

So I have now conducted my research, in my local area, and can tell you that in terms of quality of veg, and range of produce, Abel and Cole were the winners. You can choose never to have things you find horrible : a disadvantage maybe, as it doesn’t encourage you to push your boundaries, vegetatively speaking, but also, they supply a whole load of storecupboard stuff that will help if you are aiming to starve the supermarkets (of Evil) from as much as possible of your weekly food budget.

“Hang on, though, Abel & Cole?”, I hear you ask, “weren’t they taken over by some corporate food manufacturing giant, based in Hell?”

“Ok, well, it’s Hull actually, but apart from that, yes”

I don’t write them off for this : most of their produce is British, ( but they may quietly airfreight, unlike Riverford, who won’t) they have good links with local farms, they have a good variety of produce, they deliver at 7.30 am.

I also tried Farmaround, whose veg arrived at the bottom of a huge sack, no milk and sometimes no eggs available, and once, of the two orders I made, they sent me no veg bag with no explanation, charged me for it, and offered me a credit for future orders as a refund. No, no, and again, no.

The Organic Delivery Company : two different colours of potato do not count as two different types of vegetable, even in a large box of veg. You’re Fired!

FarmDirect were the most seasonal, and are also local to me : they have a weekend shop in Islington, and their depot is in Tottenham . They have Tim’s yogurt, rather than Rachel’s or Yeo’s, which makes a nice change! You could say I am just moaning for the sake of it, but one of the veg weeks I had four different kinds of green leafy veg : chard, kale, perpetual spinach/leaf beet, and cabbage : the triumph of seasonality over sanity!

There is also, apparently, a new one called CyclingVeg, who deliver everything by bike, but I didn’t try them because they don’t do any extras like milk, (presumably because of the refrigeration costs) and by that time I was quite bored.

boxes

And not to put too fine a point on it, my house was full of boxes! Yes returnable, but only when you get their box next week. The worst offender in terms of packaging was Abel & Cole, who are unsurprisingly using their corporate resources to spray out boxes and bits of random cardboard like there’s no tomorrow, as well as too much printed guff, so although they won the quality and range categories, they lost out to….

the ultimate winner : as all of them provided some very nice veg

(Drumroll)

 

FarmDirect, the provider of the indestructible black crate you see at the bottom of the pile. The environmental impact of designing, producing, printing and recycling all these boxes and catalogues, and newsletters, is ultimately, a bit of an insult to the principle of sustainability that these companies are trading on.

Farm Direct : local, sustainable, high quality. One box. All I need now is a recipe that uses cabbage and Nutella.

The Vegans Have Landed


Recently, I went to a permaculture association camping weekend, attended by many of the vegan persuasion, and catered entirely with plant based foods : this community is keen to show that a righteous life is one where no being has to suffer to feed another. While I understand where they are coming from, I found it interesting but wasn’t in the end convinced away from my meat and dairy eating ways.

Now, I have some experience of being vegan : it was a long time ago, in a house share in Norwich, where everyone else was vegan, and indeed, quite often freegan, back in the day when bakeries and supermarkets didn’t even think of locking their bins. It was fun :  there’s nothing so boring as having unlimited availability and funds to cook with : the challenge of culinary creativity lies in making something good with whatever you’ve got, rather than having to get all the right ingredients. Its why I make pesto with easy to grow rocket and cheap sunflower seeds, rather than hothoused Basil and imported pine nuts. It’s why I like foraging and growing my own : supermarkets, with their infinite reach have taken the fun out of exotic ingredients from far flung places, so that local ingredients, especially ones that are free, are paradoxically the rarest and most valued.

Even now I still make the occasional vegan meal : Quorn Chili, pastas all’arabbiata, Chi Vruoccoli, and con Ceci, Pesto doesn’t really need cheese: salads with grains and hoummous.

But now we get to the But : vegan food should be animal free and proud of it : no apologies should be made for  the ‘lack’ of protein, flavour or anything else, and above all, no vegan food or ingredient should be a version or substitute of an animal one. So: as a vegan I learnt to make shoyu seeds as a delicious sprinkle to add to salads, and grain based dishes, to add protein, healthy fats, texture and flavour to dishes which won’t be getting any cheese on top.

Vegan cheese  and meat exist : these are made in Switzerland :

New customers special

but I am confused that the way these highly ethical foods are presented is like sausages and pate : highly processed and packaged and resembling artificially rendered meat, which is surely the worst food the world of meat can offer, rather than the best. What is it that vegans seem to be missing in their diet? Processed paste?

We were proudly offered Soya Dream instead of custard, and ate beans and greens and beetroot as Chili and Curry with sticky brown unsalted rice.  Honestly, there’s just no need : nowadays you can get brown Basmati, which is nutritionally whole, but doesn’t stick together, and you can make curries with squash, coconut and nuts that are so delicious and fragrant no-one will care there’s no animal in it even if they notice. This is how you win people over, vegans : by giving them a Vegan Horse of food so delicious they can’t claim that giving up meat is a loss. Not death by beans.

Of course meat eaters are annoying as well : in the west we have become so used to our habits of wasteful abundance, that most of the food produced is thrown away before we even buy it.

People who love the anonymous pink, red or white slab and balk at eating anything that looks like an animal that was once alive : trotters, tongue, wings, tail and most internal organs, and anything with a face. In my veg box trials, I have been interested to note the variety of different meat on offer : my favourite so far has been Farm Direct, for offering whole wild rabbit, for a mere £5.50 a pop. It arrived de-skinned and without a head ( thank heavens, because although I believe that you should kill what you eat, and waste nothing, I am fairly near the beginning of this process, and generally go out of my way not to kill anything at all if I can possibly avoid it) for that £5.50, I made Rabbit goujons, rabbit stew, rabbit stock for risotto and gravy, and my cats ate the meat that went into the stock. I was going to eat the internal organs that were still there, but in the end, only managed the liver ( you have to take these things slowly) and the heart, lungs and kidney went into the stock.

The rabbit had lived a free life in Essex, eating greens and living a natural life until it was shot, which for my money, is worth so much more than even organic free range chicken, at more than twice the price. This is the food that our ancestors would have eaten : huge amounts of roots and greens, with a few seasonal morsels of meat and cheese every now and then. Very little processing, no food miles, humane and tasty. Given a choice between this and a tofu burger, made from imported processed soya, I feel that consciously chosen meat is the better choice.

Veg Box Wars Episode 1


How many different kinds of leafy green veg have you got in your fridge right now? If the answer is more than two, I am willing to bet that rather than picking them out individually from the farmers market or (not so super) supermarket, you have had them more or less forced on you as part of a regular veg box delivery. If so, then you are one of a growing minority of us in the UK, that are turning away from the food goliaths for sustenance, and turning to the giant killers : mostly small scale,frequently cooperative, often social enterprises, emphasising organic, seasonal, tasty, quality produce straight from the farmers.

green-leafy-vegetables

As am I, and in my fridge today I have :Chard, Kale, Pak Choi, Chicory, Romanesco Cauli, and Savoy Cabbage : which more or less means that I am forced, on a daily basis, to chomp my way through more green stuff than I ever did,way back before I signed up to a veg box. Now, this is interesting ( I promise!) for at least two reasons : firstly because, have you noticed that whenever anyone recommends that you eat healthily, green leafy veg is always the top of the list, and secondly, if you have ever looked at a nutritional analysis of where to find all the vitamins and minerals that you need, green leafy veg has got half the alphabet ( A, C, E, B, K) and thirdly ( a bonus!) they are low in calories, and high in fibre so who cares if you wade through kilos of the stuff?

Having been a Riverford customer for almost ten years, I am currently conducting a review of the local market of North London / Stoke Newington Borders. I have available a plethora of providers :

Abel & Cole

Riverford

Farmaround

Farmdirect

Growing Communities

Organic Delivery Company

CyclingVeg

and this may not be all : so far I have tried Farmaround, Farm Direct & Abel & Cole, as well as Riverford. I have two local schemes, Growing Communities and Organiclea, both of which run Saturday morning markets, and veg box schemes for pick up, but don’t deliver. As the main advantage of the veg box for me is not having to lug round kilos of veg, this is a deal breaker, so I am not including these two in my survey : especially as not delivering allows them to sidestep the carbon footprint issue that comes along with bringing the veg.

I will evaluate them on value for money, quality of produce, customer service ( i.e getting the order right), food interest, packaging and extras such as dairy, meat etc. and at the end, I will be able to let you know which is the ultimate provider.

 

 

Wreck it Ralph!


One of my favourite films of last year ( I laughed! I cried!) I read Wreck it Ralph as a lesson in family dynamics :  an explanation for children of why so many weddings, funerals and celebrations end in fights, that isn’t just alcohol.

The film is set in a video game arcade, in which all the characters from the games have self determining lives outside the confines of their games : the premise of Ralph’s game is that he climbs up a building breaking it, while Fix-it Felix, the player’s avatar, follows after him repairing the damage with a magic hammer, and avoids destruction by birds or falling debris. If ‘you’ win, the people in the block run to the top and throw a party for Felix, and give him a medal, and they throw Ralph off the building, where he goes to live in his dump of broken bricks.

The ‘arc’ of Ralph in the film is that he has to leave his game/family in search of the acceptance /medal that his role in the game excludes him from. In freudian terms, this is the necessary trajectory of the child growing up : the point at which the complexity of your needs outweighs the comforts of home is the point where you leave to find your own rewards, and create a new family structure that meets the emotional needs of the adult you become through that process.

The happy ending for Ralph is achieved  through his development of a parental relationship with a child character from a racing game, and the help he gives her in her own search for acceptance in her peer group, which mirrors his own desire for social acceptance from the somewhat two dimensional inhabitants of the flats his job is to destroy. When Vanelope Von Schweetz ultimately wins the race, and her game ( for which read ‘life’) becomes a constitutional democracy with herself as president, it is a metaphor for successful parenting : he proudly watches her win her races from his own altered reality, which now includes decent housing for all, and the inclusion of refugees from outdated games. At the end of the film, he has successfully managed to pull his family/ game out of their fixed view of him as ‘bad’, through becoming a father, and obviously, therefore adult. His last words : “Turns out I don’t need a medal to make me feel good, ‘cos if that little kid likes me, how bad can I be?” is a touching reminder to parents of how much our own little ones mean to us. I did say I cried!

But that is, of course, Hollywood : and it hardly needs saying that the enduring success of an industry based on our desire for redemption, would hardly be so enduring, were the happy endings as reliable in real life as on-screen. Family life is the best thing we have so far evolved to get children safely through to continuing the species themselves, by which time, we need it to be as unbearable as possible to give us the motivation to get the hell out.

Ralph returns to his game/family, and is able to make changes there so that it meets his needs : they happily accept his changes as part of the joy of  having him in their lives. I am sure families like this exist, but perhaps, to reference Tolstoy’s view of happy families, the spectacle of a group of people lovingly nurturing each other through all of lives changes, without struggle or resistance, is so common and mundane that there is no need for it to appear  in dramatic form.

In real life, brothers Felix and Ralph, would have learnt in childhood to understand themselves and the world through their opposing roles : sometimes it seems like nature just loves the drama of matching a ‘fixit’ shy intellectual child with a ‘wreck it’ boisterous sports nut for a sibling, just for the hell of it. The answer is of course, nurture, not by the parents, but in the child’s evolution of its self, is the counterpoint of the ‘not-self’, which in the best case scenario, of a nurturing family, is helped by siblings, but in the worst case of a stressed, neglectful or abusive family becomes set in such unbreakable stone that conflict is the inevitable result of any attempt at progression by any family member.

If the sports nut grows up, and decides to become a university professor, in a nurturing family, the intellectual sibling should welcome the closeness of new areas of shared interest. Lack of nurturing in childhood is a threat to survival, and as such, activates the amygdala, the part of the brain that deals with emergency responses, and children who are brought up with this, will need to work very hard indeed to allow their cerebral cortex, which deals with reason, to override their emergency responses. Children whose ideas of themselves and their siblings have evolved in brains bathed in stress hormones are unable to develop into adults, and change these ideas without a huge amount of work and commitment from their analytical brain. Any suggested change in those ideas will be experienced as threatening to their sense of themselves, and will be fought straight from the amygdala : “Stop trying to be clever, you’re the pretty one, it’s not fair” was something I saw my own mother throw at her sister, when both were in their fifties.

Mostly, like Wreck it Ralph, people sensibly go off in search of a medal in a different game, and keep exposure to siblings stuck in childhood to a minimum : Weddings, Christmas, Ancestors day, Thanksgiving…..

 

Making & Living


I am currently tandem reading two books written in the late 1950’s that are giving me a very interesting perspective on the current ‘trend’ for 1970’s style self sufficiency :

‘The Fat of the Land’ by John Seymour (1960)

The Waste Makers’  by Vance Packard (1960)

books The first of which describes the authors learning process in self providing in Suffolk, and the second describes the drive to ever increasing consumption in the US. Both of them, although probably now disappeared from print, perhaps never to reappear, seem to have much to say to us now, nearly two generations on.

John Seymour does an amount of moaning about the extent to which the government was restricting people’s ability to self-provide : rules about home brewing and animal slaughter, which were discouraging people from continuing these ordinary traditional  ways of making their living.  My father grew up in Walthamstow in the 1930’s and 40’s, which was in most respects, given the age of most of the houses there, much like the Walthamstow of today. He lived at the bottom of the market, and remembered local pig farms, and that most people kept chickens or rabbits in their back gardens, as well as growing their own vegetables.

Chicken

By the time I grew up in the 70’s and 80’s, most older people still grew veg in their back garden, but most younger families had stopped, and most English people I talk to about growing food now are usually at least a generation away from someone with experience. This was when the supermarkets came : first in the town centre, then on the edge of town, then , when their need for car parking outgrew the towns, they were built on land that used to be farmed, in a plasticised vernacular of an American farmstead, the irony of which I am sure is lost on most users.

Tesco: supermarket chain plans new store
Tavistock’s new farm style out of town : Build it and They Will Come

It is always fun to look back on what seemed like progress to the people of the past : well do I remember  the excitement of that weekly shop in Tesco’s in Lowestoft, that must have arrived in about 1981! : we went along ‘en famille’, probably on a Friday like everyone else, and always had a post- supermarket feast of exotic items like baguette ( bread, in the shape of a stick!) and brie ( mouldy cheese! That you eat!) that were not available in the bakers, or the International Stores. When we first moved to our council house (the shame!), we had a chicken run next to the veg patch, and they would alternate year by year, so the soil could be picked free of pests and manured, and the chickens could find some of their own food, and provide us with eggs, and a useful place to recycle kitchen food scraps. But I think gradually, it all seemed like too much hassle, and it was easier and cleaner to just buy it all in.  Great Britain did become ‘Great’, after all, by kicking the peasants off the land, so they were hungry and available to work for low wages in the Victorian factories: the second phase being to create willing and dependent consumers with no idea where food comes from, let alone how to grow it. Londoners from further afield tend to be less alienated from the land : almost without exception : Cypriots, Italians, Somalis, Bengalis, Caribbeans, Africans, Irish, Polish and Romanians : all seem to have a clearer and more recent memory of raising food at home : London’s diversity has always been the key to its survival, and this untapped knowledge is yet another unrecognised benefit that its adopted sons and daughters can bring.

Vance Packard’s book laments the invention of the concept of ‘planned obsolescence’ : whereby household machines were built to break down or go out of fashion as quickly as possible, to keep the economy growing, and never mind the waste of resources involved. As an interesting aside, he briefly discusses the dire implications of American dependence on other nations for resources, and wonders if this might result in political interventions in future struggles, where supplies of raw materials are threatened. Is it going too far to say that every war since the end of the Cold War, has been to some extent about control of oil?

It doesn’t seem that much has changed since the time these books were written : advertising still works by removing our sense of well being in ourselves and offering to sell it back, except now its not just our clothes and machines that need replacing, but our bodies as well. Governments still hamper our freedom to use the land we live on to live, except now its by welcoming rich oligarchs to stockpile it for future profit, and by surrounding the lucky few in social housing with deserts of grass, cut short for dogs to crap on. Nowadays there are again urban back to the land dreamers, especially concentrated in places like Stoke Newington, where I now (almost) live, and they are teaching themselves to use the land to grow food, and dreaming of a dream of resilient living.

IMAG0903
Castle Climbing Centre Veg Garden

 

Mahonia Madness!


I have never been a fan of the Mahonia, perhaps because it is such a common ‘car park ‘plant, and perhaps because I struggle a little with yellow flowers in design terms : brash, harsh, hard to combine with other colours. Although there is a moment in midwinter, when these fragrant panicles are very beautiful Mahonia 'Winter Sun' - Mahonia x media - arbuste And probably have some benefits in supporting foraging insects. My middle school had these planted en masse in the dry shady areas around the buildings : I never noticed them flowering, but remember looking at their scruffy habit, and dirty looking berries, and wondering why someone had bothered.

The Frederick Messer Estate, which is my short cut route to Seven Sisters Tube Station, is my prime foraging ground  :

http://thesofaortheroad.wordpress.com/2013/11/07/nutcase-alert/

and I noticed a few weeks ago, that the Mahonias, part of the rather lumpen planting around the car park and playground, are in full fruit : at a time of year when nothing else is. IMAG0932 It took me about 10 minutes to pick a couple of kilos : so much easier than blackberries, which have to be teased singly from high thorny branches, these can be picked like blackcurrants, just by pulling off a whole panicle at a time. The fruit was very ripe, though : and this did happen. IMAG0933 Two women stopped to talk to me about the fruit, saying they had no idea they were edible : raw, they are bitter and stony, but they do cook up into very nice jelly, and with any luck a rather cheeky Mahonia Merlot! I shared my intentions with them, and hope they will look a little more kindly on their planting as a result.

Mahonia Grape Jelly

  1. Wash the fruit, and pick out any pits of stick, leaf, or berry sized snails you may find. IMAG0936
  2. Weigh them, and add a roughly equal amount of sugar, and some water. I did a kilo at a time, and added about ½ a litre of water.
  3. Bring to the boil, keep stirring, and after about 10-15 minutes, start testing the set, by putting a little of the liquid onto a plate, and checking whether it wrinkles up when you push it. Standard jammaking practice.
  4. When you think it is ready, pour the jelly through a sieve into another pan, then into sterilised jars. IMAG0939

The flavour is not unlike blueberry : not as tart as blackcurrant, but still very agreeable, on a piece of home made sourdough! IMAG0945 Mahonia Merlot. 1.Tip the contents of your sieve which still contains plenty of fruit, plenty of sugar, back into the pan, fill with water, mix and add some ordinary breadmaking dried yeast.IMAG0943 2.Leave it over night to start fermenting, then sieve again and bottle. I have used two litre fizzy drinks bottles, and followed my method for ginger beer and elderflower champagne, which is to keep the bottles closed, and vent regularly. I think you have to keep the air out, for alcohol to be made, although maybe keeping the bottles closed just makes the wine fizzy as it develops alcohol. 3. I am intending to keep it in the bottles until the sugar is all used up, then taste it and maybe add more sugar or more water. I think that at a certain point, the alcohol will kill off the yeast, and the wine will be ready to bottle.IMAG0947   Whenever I present someone for the first time with alcohol I have made, they always express a fear of it being ‘the wrong kind of alcohol’ and that it could cause madness and even death. In fact ethanol alcohol (C2H6O) is quite different from methanol (CH3OH), as Wikipedia will tell you, ethanol is easily made by fermenting a solution of sugar and water ( or fruit!) : its part of nature’s way of recycling fruit : we’ve all seen drunk wasps in the orchard in September! Cheers!

The Opium of the Masses.


 

If you had asked me before yesterday whether I was more in favour of religion or capitalism, I probably would have chortled that capitalism IS the only truly global religion, and gone on to say that religion has advantages such as community building and spirituality, that are notably absent from capitalism.

Christian Stores1

But yesterday was Easter Sunday, when our glorious leaders have decreed that all big shops shall closeth, and those who wish to spend their easter weekend gardening, or laying a wooden floor in their son’s room because the moths have eaten the wool carpet, can go to small independent shops, but the retail park is an abomination on that day, and therefore closed.  Which annoyed me so much I was forced to conclude that apparently, I favour our right to express our capitalist beliefs at the time and location of our choosing, over and above the right of a tiny, but bossy, minority to make us stay at home, or go to the pub, or failing that, a church.

So, having forgotten the shopping anomaly of Easter Sunday /Passover ( I live in a Jewish Area, which explains apparently, why my local Asda didn’t sell crumpets shaped like Christmas Trees this year, as advertised on TV, but doesn’t explain why they didn’t sell crumpets in the shape of a Star of David ( a no-brainer, surely, in our age of religious tolerance? They could have done a pack of moons and stars, and created a real message of Midwinter peace) I drove to Wickes, only to find the barriers up. Strange, I thought, I’ll try B&Q : there was a car park, and tumbleweeds. Well Lidl was open, but, like I say, Tumbleweeds. Staples, Argos, CarpetRight, Poundland, Currys/PCWorld, Carphone Warehouse, Burger King, all were closed. I saw a man on foot stopped staring open mouthed at the closed retail sheds, as if he couldn’t understand what had happened. We haven’t seen scenes like this since the aftermath of the Tottenham Riots in 2011! I saw other poor souls driving in and then out, not sure what to make of it. I even went to Ikea, just to see. Yes, even the 24 hour Tesco’s on the North Circular.Was.Closed.

Next year, if they haven’t taken away this idiotic anomaly, I am going to use Easter Sunday to film the final scene of my (imaginary) Zombie Apocalypse film.