Archive for January, 2009

the BBC and DEC


protest outside broadcasting house


Blimey, auntie’s in trouble again. Looking at the Mail’s homepage just now the story falls well below the fold, with Ross’s return much higher up.  I’m sure I’m saying nothing new when I say that this story has done far more than a 10sec trail on BBC One would have done.  What’s interesting is how all the other broadcasters, Five, 4, and ITV all shifted their positions as soon as the story went large, none of those small ships want to get sucked down with the BBC on this issue.

When I was BBC homepage Picture Editor I we did a DEC appeal for Darfur. Even then I remember their were lots of hoops to jump through to get sign off.  I wanted to use this striking image taken by Karel Prinsloo/AP, and was overruled by someone ‘high up’.  I was told “we don’t do fly-covered children”. I’d only been in the job less than six months so capitulated. I can’t remember what we used in the end, and Wayback Machine is v slow this evening, but I seem to recall a dusky shot of a refugee camp or something.


So do different rules apply to the Middle East than to Africa? The BBC has now painted itself into yet another corner, the other broadcasters have done a 180 for either the right (genuinely care) or the wrong (saw an chance to stuff up the beeb) reasons, but it’s hard to see where the beeb will go with this now.  I bet they hold to their guns and try to ride it out, either that or hastily commission a panorama special. Personally, I think it should have broadcast the appeal, however to do so now would put humble pie as the plat du jour in the BBC canteen. We’ll see….

…And yet as stated at the top of the post, the desire is media coverage, and that DEC have had in spades. So much so that for the first time I’ve made a donation to DEC, not to have a pop at the beeb, but because I think it’s a genuine crisis, with a large portion of the blame laid at Israel’s door. I hope that it goes to genuine people that need it. Incidentally DEC have a lovely page up about the BBC still.

Pig Business, the movie.

On Monday a friend from Consumers International and I went to a private screening of Tracy Worcester’s film Pig Business at the cinema underneath Channel 4.

The film, part of the Big British Food Fight season, looks at the environmental and animal welfare implications of factory farming. Needless to say it concludes that such practices are a bad thing. It “aims to inform people about the true cost of cheap meat and its impact on every level of the food supply chain. [It aims to] stop factory farming and promote widespread sustainable farming practices that are independent, small scale, compassionate to animals and the environment”. So far, so good.  But I’ve a couple of comments about the night as well as the content of the film that I’d like to share with you.

The Dramatis personæ.

Former model, actress (Timelash) and environmental campaigner Tracy Ward is also the Marchioness of Worcester, and can apparently use the name of the town as her surname. Her husband Harry Somerset is heir to his father’s 52,000-acre estate worth £135m, nice. Zak Goldsmith was also present; making a couple of good point after the film was shown (he eschewed the microphone much to the chagrin of the cameraman trying to record the speakers). Finally vegetarian and PETA member Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders said a few words (don’t eat meat was her opening line?!) and directed applause at Tracy. Rosie Boycott was there, and a nice chap from Compassion in world farming, and finally some people from the marketing agency who went on about Facebook and stuff.

Perhaps it’s true what they say, that every debate in America is tainted by race, and that every debate in Britain is tainted by class, but one would imagine that these people aren’t exactly short of a few bob. So when the PR girl sent round ‘please donate’ forms I duly passed them on (to Leslie Ash who was sitting next to me). Politics comes in to play here, and though Zak and Tracy along with myself are all members of the Soil Association, personally I find taking what someone with 52,000 acres in the offing and a wealthy family background sticks in the craw somewhat. I would suspect this is the case for most people; their responses will naturally be ‘it’s alright for you’. This isn’t to say that they shouldn’t say it, or make films, or have causes and believe in things and try to change things, it’s just that I feel it, how shall I put this, it taints their argument.  She says she wants to protect ‘rural life’ but I’m always slightly dubious of rich, Tory, land-owning aristocracy who want protect rural life, who’s life are they protecting really? Yet I’m mindful that perhaps this is the way the messy world works nowadays, where pro hunting, referendum seeking, good food loving eco-conservatives like Zak and Tracy have views that overlap with more urban regenerating liberal/labour minded folk like myself like a Venn diagram drawn by a three year old. 

Roll the tape

Anyway, the great and the good aside let’s look at what was on the screen. I thought Bobby Kennedy Jr came across really well. But by going solely after Smithfield (who yesterday rushed out a press release) and spending a large amount of time in Poland and the USA, Tracy had little room left for UK focused implications. I would have liked to see these fleshed out a bit more. Because although the pollution of the Polish countryside is a terrible thing, I think that given the current situation that particular concern is going to come quite far down most people’s list.  Ditto the fact that EU taxpayers funded bail out for a water pipe to the tune of thousands of pounds because Smithfield had allegedly polluted a local water supply. I can’t remember the exact figure but it was pocket change compared to what we’ve just given the banks and everyone else in this downturn.

What’s moreI thought the film lacked bite, a killer punch, a money shot.  Four years and we got this?! I think a lot of the most arresting imagery came from Compassion in World Farming, and even when Tracy found direct evidence of the culling of weak piglets and discarding them illegally in the lagoon, she failed to put this to the Smithfield spokesperson she had access to, preferring to narrate a standard press release reply of ‘we aim for the highest standards of welfare…etc”.  I found myself thinking ‘well of course they’d say that”.  I really wanted her to go mustang, where was the fire, the anger? Tracy you should have had that guy by the plums!

Some other points that I felt detracted. Her kids. Tracy takes her teenage daughter (Lady Isabella Elsa Somerset) shopping for ham and it’s all a bit embarrassing.  Like the bit in Nigella show last year’s where her son Bruno is rolling along the pavement on his skateboard in full protective gear outside their million pound Georgian London town house to show how ‘normal’ they are.  The camerawork was a bit hit and miss in places, a few out of focus shots of interviewees lessened the impact and the editing was a little odd, but then this was a 77min version, and due to be cut down for release to 55min.

In conclusion, I felt detached not from the message, so much as from the narration. I felt, how can I put this? Itchy for this to work, but came away a little short changed to be honest. There’s a shot in the first 5mins of a farmer dropping a breezeblock on a pig’s head to kill it. Cruel yes, but it was never referred to again in the film. I’d have also like to have seen more UK focus, more on record interviews and a greater look at some solutions.  According to Compassion in World Farming the UK’s record of pig welfare is higher than the rest of Europe, but still not perfect.

Maybe it’s the genre that’s the issue, but like an action movie you know exactly how it’s going to pan out.  Big business bad, EU is wasteful, poor people taken advantage off, corporate greed, we know all this, what we want is why? Maybe it’s time to reboot the ‘issue led doc’?

Finally, though I’ve perhaps come across as a little critical above, I do know that making anything is hard work, especially when going up against multi-nationals and their law firms on your own, so Tracy should be commended on that. The film’s has its faults, but it is worth watching, which you can do on More4 at 10pm on the 3rd February and tell me what you think.  

Pork cuts application goes live

wooo!  You can now use our super fancy video guide to a pig thingy

As well as find out more about the project here

Here’s the online trailer for the season

And here’s an extended version (on MSN for some reason) featuring Geoff Capes who’s knocking on a bit.

Extended Online Cut | The Great British Food Fight
Extended Online Cut | The Great British Food Fight

Oh and finally some graphics chap got the Union flag/Jack the wrong way round which has now been fixed apparently

New for 2009 – 4Food pigs out

As the Big British Food Map drew to a close in late November, I started to think about what to do next.  Channel 4 was planning another January food season called The Great British Food Fight that followed on from the successes of last year’s one, the highlight for me being Hugh and Jamie’s shows about intensive chicken production.

In this new season there’s another collection of programmes looking at food and food related issues.  Gok Wan is fronting a documentary on childhood obesity, he readily admits he was rather a chubby boy, as well as suffering bullying at school. He’s also an excellent empathiser and good foil to tackle this important issue so that should be good.  Incidentally Gok added his favourite food places to the BBFM, including his family’s chip shop in Leicester, where I stopped in for a portion  – yum. There’s also Heston making his debut on Channel 4 with Big Chef Saves Little Chef.

But the key show in this new series for me is ‘Jamie Saves our Bacon’.  Jamie picks up where he and Hugh left off with chickens last year, namely looking at intensive rearing and why it’s not that good for either the pig, or your palate. The Guardian had a piece on the subject this week tooHowever, once you’ve given people the facts and stoked people up to make a change, you’ve got to actually follow through and offer help and advice. This is where I come in.

There’s more to pork than…

According to this 2007 PDF from British Sausage Week, sausage is the number one ‘in home meal’. What’s more only 15.4% are eaten for breakfast compared to 39.5% for dinner and 15.4% for tea (linguistical North/South divide there?). What’s more Saturday is the favourite day for eating sausage.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I love a good banger, a well-made pork sausage is a thing of beauty.  I’ve hunted down a few interesting specimens in the past, the Manchester Sausage, Edwards of Conway, Art of meat to name but a few.  Good bacon too, is a joy, Emmett’s of Peasanhall in Suffolk’s special Christmas bacon cured with spices and ginger tasted amazing.  The pork pie is another subject dear to my heart, and I’m proud to say I was there when the Melton Mowbray Pork Pie achieved EU protected status. 

All these products, when made properly with good meat from well cared for pigs are fantastic, the trouble is two fold. Firstly, these products can often be made from poor quality meat and disguised with flavourings; Secondly, there’s so much more to pork than sausage!

However a fair few of us are still slightly confused about which bit of the pig is good for what purpose and where on the animal it comes from.  And so to address this, channel 4 are building a video based pig cuts application. Now Google pork cuts and you’ll get dozens of drawings with bits of the pig described by dotted lines like the States of America. The thing is they often bear no resemblance to the hunk of pork flesh in front of you; the bodies of pigs do not come apart on neatly perforated lines like stamps. So by having the cuts overlaid on a video of the animal we hope you’ll get a clearer understanding of its shape and exaclty where the cut comes from.


But that’s not all…

Knowing where the meat is from on any diagram is one thing, but you still need to see it for real to make proper sense. That’s why in early December, (with my cameras still hot from finishing the BBFM) I travelled up to North Yorkshire to meat Tim Wilson of the Ginger Pig. The first days filming had to be cancelled due to the terrible snow, in which I spun the hire car off the road and into a drift, luckily there was no damage and we managed to dig it out. The next day it’d melted and Tim’s farm and butchery room were just about accessible with a front wheel drive Ford Fiesta.


The village of Levisham could be described as a one-horse town, in fact I did see one horse, a Shetland pony (I think) sheltering next to the wall of the church. Anyway, all this countryside, isolation and space is great for pigs. Tim’s pigs are mainly Tamworth, (hence the name Ginger Pig) bred with some Large White or Yorkshire. They also have Old Spots, Berkshires, and others.  Now, The Tamworth is a fairly hardy breed, indeed, most pigs are pretty hardy. A pig insulates against the cold not with fur – though the Tamworth has large stiff bristles – but with fat (more on fat later).  And so for three hours I filmed Tim slowly and methodically taking apart the animal, trimming off cuts, sawing through bone, portioning, and describing cooking methods and uses.  And even I learnt things about the anatomy of a pig as well as uses, for instance the hock, which is often smoked, can be slow roasted. As Tim says “we’re all familiar with lamb shanks, well this is just a pig shank”. So there you have it, proper video guides to butchering a pig letting you see exactly which bit is from where and how to prepare it.

 Take 10 chefs

So you’ve taken the plunge and are thinking about trying something different, but would still like some recipe guidance. Well the second part of my idea is best described though the following analogy. You know how in medieval times traitors where executed and then their dismembered parts were sent to other cities around the land as a warning. Well I’m doing something similar (but nicer) with the Channel 4 pig.  It’s working title was ‘Hung, Drawn and Slaughtered’, but we dropped that as it’s a bit full on. But the concept is the same.  So Tim’s Tamworth pig, which has had a good life rummaging around on his farm, had been chopped into 10 prime cuts and this month I’m taking those cuts to chefs around the country to literally see what they can make of them.  Here’s the list:

The chefs, the restaurants, the cuts. 

Anthony Demetre       Arbutus                        Blade

Benjamin Tish            Salt Yard                      Tenderloin

Vivek Singh                 Cinnamon Kitchen    Chump

Chris Wicks                 Bells Diner                  Belly

Hywel Jones               Lucknam Park            Head

Sue Ellis                        Belle House                Leg/ham

Paul Askew                  Hope Street Hotel     Loin

David Colcombe         Opus                             Hand/Spring

Kenneth Poon            Orchid                          Spare Ribs/Belly

James Makenzie       Pipe and Glass           Hocks/Trotters

 I’ve tried to get a broad range of locations (only three in London), styles and cuisines to contribute. We’ve got tapas, Indian, Thai, modern European, British. Hopefully this will go some way to showing the versatility of pork and how it can work with a great many flavours and seasonings.

Meet the Meat

In the USA they have an ad campaign for pork called ‘the other white meat’.  The phrase ‘White meat’ in America has become synonymous with low fat, (red meat meanwhile means full fat and is tantamount to suicide for your colon it seems). US pork producers no doubt want a bit of that sector that normally always went for chicken (even though most intensively farmed chicken has large amounts of fat). 

The key thing that chefs and butchers and farmers have stressed to me time and time again is that, no matter what the animal, fat is flavour. As Perry the butcher at the Ginger Pig in Marylebone says, “cook with fat on, even if you don’t eat it”.  The word ‘marbling’ along with the concept behind it is now well understood by most foodies when talking about beef. Well the same goes with pork, Tim’s rib eye steaks have a lacework of fat running through them that melts when cooked. But the supermarkets tell the farmers that the consumer doesn’t want fat – wrong. Like everything a little of Jack Sprat’s wife’s attitude is a good thing. The key is the good flavourful fat; from my experience on well reared animals it’s rich, firm and almost ivory in colour rather than bright white, flaccid and watery as it can be on poorer quality animals.

I hope this has at least made you think about trying something different with some proper pork, the best thing you can do is go out and buy it from a good butcher or direct form the farm itself. Visiting places like Chris and Bev Brown farm in Kent is a whole (free) day out, you might even get to feed the pigs and I’m sure the kids would love it much more than being dragged round a supermarket.

My wish is to see is pork take its rightful place as a respected meat, not chicken substitute. Let’s start enjoying it, smoking it, brining it, rolling it, stuffing it, putting interesting flavours with it, maybe hanging it a little to bring on the flavour. In shortlet’s  give it some of the reverence that we normally afford to beef. Because I genuinely believe it can be that good.

The application, cuts videos and other related Great British Food Fight season content will be live on from around the 12th January.

Next: A potted history of pigs….



The end of the Big British Food Map

Hullo, eyedropper returns! Rested, fresh faced and with some new exciting projects in the offing, there’s plenty to look forward to in 2009, but before I tell you about any of those let’s tarry a while and pick over the still warm carcass of 2008.

Me on the Road!

Me on a single track A road in Northern Scotland

The Big British Food Map

My year was dominated by the big British Food Map project I undertook Channel 4. A seven-month road trip around the whole of Britain that saw me guided to the most interesting food in each region by you, the Great British public (and though my time as narrator and designated driver is over you can still add places). Naturally it would be an understatement to say that it was the trip of a lifetime, and to my knowledge no one has really done a food census of this magnitude before. UKTV Food Heroes comes close, but that’s just centered on producers and farmers. I on the other hand visited everything, including Michelin starred restaurants, fish and chip shops, micro breweries, vineyards, jelly makers, molecular gastronomists, cafes, delis, pubs, farms and lochs.  I wrote a conclusion article for Channel 4 and you can read that here [I’ve seen things…], and watch the videos here.

But I’d like to flesh out that conclusion for you. First off and formost, the project showed me that this country is far more stunning, fun, beautiful and generally brilliant that we ever give it credit for. The UK has some magically places, they’re just tucked away. Secondly, the people I met let me into their businesses, their homes and their lives and I’m indebted to them as the project would have been nothing without them. I saw life at the very sharp end of many small businesses, where cash flow is tight and yet where innovation is high. Where what’s dreamed up over breakfast can be put into production in an afternoon. Their skills, their belief and commitment enrich this land to the better.  I’d also like to take this opportunity to thank Channel 4 for backing me and commissioning the project, and Ford for sponsoring it and lending me the eco-car.

For much of the time I was given free reign to go where I wished, seek out whoever I thought the most compelling and follow leads and stories as I see fit. That creative and editorial freedom was a real god send. In a sense the project was a new media equivalent of the old Picture Post photo assignments from the 30s, when editor Tom Hopkinson would say to photographers such as Bill Brandt ‘go off and photograph the North’, and they’d return months later with a bag of film and a story. So this is in effect a new media ‘content’ essay.

Another thing that made the project a success (as well as ingratiating me with my interviewees) was that I, for a short while at least, was living in their communities. There was no “I’ve got to be back in London by tonight”. Sometimes I spent hours with them, long after I’d got more than enough content. In this respect the project became much more than a job, it became a way of life. Often we’d share a beer, talk shop, I’d be invited to stay for something to eat, or asked to comment on some new recipe or invention. When you’re a small enterprise involved in any aspect of food production it’s often hard to find the time to stop and take stock. It’s also hard to find someone to talk about your business to.  Everyone I met was willing to talk to me, some were shy granted, but all were rightly proud of what they were doing. Many were flattered, not because I’d turned up, but more often that a member of the public, one of their customers, had recommended them.

Asking the public’s thoughts, tapping into the wisdom of crowds and getting out there and living it are what made this project exciting for me, and I hope for the users too. As I looked over the suggestions it was interesting to see what the people of each region defined as good.  Greater Manchester and bits of the North West for example had a high number of butchers and they obviously take meat seriously. Eating out in Scotland consisted of lots of restaurants contained in hotels, which was interesting. 

Its other key strength was the technology. When I filmed John Wallis in April when his crop was ready he said ‘That Jimmy Docherty was here last week” “when will that go out on telly?” I said. “They told me August.” “Really, well this’ll go out next week” I replied. John’s crop is Cornish Earlies, because of his location on the very tip of Cornwall his crop of spuds are the first up in the UK. Come August everyone else’s are well up and he’s lost his competitive advantage.

Often I’d interview and shoot a video on the Monday, edit in the evening, upload the video to Brightcove and pass the article to C4’s content partner Zone and the whole thing could be live by Wednesday.  Finally because it was just me and a small hand held Canon HD7 camera, the interview soon relaxed, there’s was no lights, no production crew, and it didn’t take up too much of their time. Terra e Terra in Brighton didn’t even know I was coming, yet after a chat I found myself downstairs in the kitchen filming the chef plate up.  Also with a small camera I was able to often get the subject to film me ‘having a go’.  I’ll admit to a certain Generation Game feeling when doing this, but thoroughly enjoyed everything from trying to make scotch eggs to icing cakes to feeding pigs. 

Be carful what you wish for.

Obviously it wasn’t all plain sailing; parts of the trip were difficult. I felt I gave Wales short shrift for example, but then getting content out was difficult.  Also at times it was hard work, three 500 words articles, 36 pictures, daily diary and accompanying image and one or two 3 minute videos a week for 30 weeks meant by the end the creative batteries were running low. From a practical point of few it’s worth remembering that there was just me on this project, no crew, no assistant, no help. I was responsible for organising everything, right down to where to stay, and let me tell you when you don’t know where you’re resting your head that evening it concentrates the mind somewhat. Thankfully I never had to sleep in a car however.

Naturally there was a lot of driving involved, a fair few traffic jams, and getting clamped in Newlyn ment I contributed £80 to their local economy. I tried to keep to the A roads mainly, they’re prettier than the motorway and often you’d spot a sign saying ‘farm shop next left’ and you’d be off on another adventure. It was also at times quite solitary, you’d speak to people face to face but often about food, in the evening it was just yourself for company, that takes a bit of resilience. To counter act this I learnt to throw myself into situations and conversations. My conclusions? A good pub in the late afternoon is the best time to make new friends. In York for example I arrived on the Monday no knowing a soul. By the Friday night I’d made friends with the staff at the Transport museum and was dancing till 3am in a Chinese restaurant that had turned into a disco.

 New skills

 When I began the project I really was mad about the writing, enjoyed the photography, and wasn’t too keen on the video.  Over the course of the seven months those feelings completely changed around. From a writing point of few I’d emptied the tank in terms of creative ways to describe say, farm shops.  The conversation would go like this.  Me: ‘so tell me about the place’. Them: ‘Well it’s all from our farm…’ By the end you’d be praying for a hook, a way in, dying to hear something like ‘Well I used to be an erotic dancer but gave it all up to grow broccoli’.  Photographically it was good to be out shooting again, I shot over 11,000 images, some factual for the articles, some for my own enjoyment, other as reportage.  I’ve concluded that I’m still lousy at landscape photography, people are my thing.  The video work turned out to be the most fun however. In the beginning I imagined myself taking a sort of Nick Broomfield lite documentary approach. The video of John Wallis’ early Cornish potatoes or Jesse Paterson’s smokery barely featured me. By the end I’d added more video diary elements, come out from behind the camera and really began to enjoy the art of presenting and interviewing. Often I’d asked questions I knew the answers to, on behalf of the viewer, and my goal was to come across as enthusiastic amateur and encourage the interviewee to give us the tips, facts and guidance.  In the media today people are always bemoaning the lack of on the job training, well that’s what I was lucky enough to have, and because I was presenting, directing and editing each week I could see what worked and what didn’t.

 “I wish I had your job” was something I heard a lot on the trip.  In one instance I met a lawyer in Newcastle who was deeply unhappy in his job and longed to encourage his passion for food but just couldn’t make the leap. To him and everyone else I who wants to have a food adventure, I say do it.  Not wishing to belittle my talents, but all I really did was talk to people and more importantly listen. That all good journalists do, the only skills you need are a nosey nature and the ability to tell stories, plus a medium to tell them in. I genuinely believe that everyone I met would extend the same time and interest to any one who was interested. If you’re in a restaurant and want a chat with the chef, just ask. If you’re in a deli’s strike up a conversation with the person serving you. We’ve sort of forgotten about the art of shopkeeping in the age of the check-out girl.

Your turn

You don’t have to give up your life for seven months to have mini food adventures, you can pick an area like Suffolk or Somerset or Cumbria, find a restaurant with rooms, a good B&B or cottage and just have a nose round. My great hope for 2009 what with the sinking pound and rising Euro and airport travel hell is that we’ll finally wean ourselves off the love affair with the Continent-is-best idea, perhaps some of you will say au revoir to Provence and arrive derci to Tuscany and rediscover what’s in Britain.  Get in a car and drive for an hour or two and you can be somewhere totally different, have a little explore, and come back 48 hours later with a boot ladened with booty.  Anyone who tells you this country is a culinary hinterland is as ignorant as they are stupid. A quiet food revolution has happened in Britain in the past 10 years, I know because I’ve been lucky enough to have seen it. People are making interesting artisan food again, please, go out and find it.


More on the rest of 2008 and what’s in store for 2009 soon….




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These are my personal views and not those of Channel 4 or the BBC
January 2009
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