Archive for April, 2009

The BBFM makes the AOP shortlist

Channel 4 at the AOP awards

Wooo! I’m very pleased to say that the Big British Food Map has made the shortlist of the Association of Online Publishers 2009 Awards. It’s in the commercial partnership category.  As you may be aware Ford sponsored the project, lending me at brand new Ford Focus econetic which I only dented once (this tree came out of nowhere type thing).

I’m up against:

Accenture ‘Need to Know’ – News International
AutoTrader Vehicle Check – Trader Media Group
Big British Food Map – Channel 4 (woooo!)
Guardian and Nissan Qashqai – Guardian News & Media
Guardian and Renault – Guardian News & Media
Guardian and Robert Mondavi – Guardian News & Media
Jack Daniels & – IPC Media
Mirror Cashback in partnership with V A C Media – Trinity Mirror
New Scientist ‘Visions of the Future’ in association with Microsoft – RBI

Hmm, strong showing from the Guardian there, that might be tough to beat. Incidentally Sunday just gone was the day I started the Big British Food Map, in fact this time last year I was getting clamped.

Anyway, Fingers crossed for AOP glory and good luck to the other Channel 4 projects and products in the other categories.

The judgement of Melton Mowbray

Last Tuesday the saw me bound for Melton Mowbray and the first ever British Pie Awards. The region makes a good claim to be the epicenter of pie making in the UK, being home to the now PGI protected Melton Mowbray Pork pie. Indeed so keen are the fathers of the town to promote its food heritage that the town bills itself as the rural capital of food, a strap line I think it actually deserves.

The competition was held in the parish church of St Mary’s, the spring sunshine streamed in through the stained glass windows and caught the bunting brilliantly; you couldn’t have asked for a more vivid portrait of the heart of England. Before things kicked off the Rector of the church, Peter Hooper, blessed the pies. And then with a loud clap from the Melton Mowbray Pork Pie Assoc. Chairman Matthew O’Callaghan the judges were off. Doing the tasting were Sheila Dillon, Phil Vickery, Tamasin Day-Lewis, Xanthe Clay, Sophie Conran, Louis Massarella, Simon Majumdar and a host of retired and serving butchers and bakers who brought some local colour and experience to the proceedings.

The 38 judges armed with knives, folks and spoons were all set to work there way through the 511 entries from all corners of the UK, with over 300 of them being judged hot. The logistics of getting the right pie and it’s accompanying paperwork to the right judge all in a consistent flow down in no small part to the skill of the organizers and the students from the local catering college who were press ganged in to help.

From my interviewing of the judges the problem of soggy bottoms were hampering most results. I saw rather too much raw or undercooked pastry for my liking and entries for next year would be wise to ensure a firm base of any pie they submit. There were also a lot of pie that had boil over (not always a bad thing in my opinion – see video above), and I even saw one or two pies that were submitted with burnt bottoms and in one case a burnt top.

The day wore on and by 5pm we had a winners list. Matthew called the assembled judges and competitors to order and we all took a pew in the church and listened to Rachel Green read a short ‘ode to the pie’. Then Sheila Dillon took to the pulpit to announce the winner.

You can see the winners list here, and it makes interesting reading. You’ll notice that pies available in the supermarkets did rather well, including the champion of champions produced for Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference range by Walker’s Charnwood Bakery. A closer look reveals it isn’t so much wins for Sainsbury’s or Tesco but Samworth Brothers who own Walker’s Charnwood, Ginster’s and Dickinson and Morris. So for pork pies at least it seems that the supermarkets (which are only resellers remember) are indeed sourcing well-made tasty products for their premium lines. Scotland too did well, taking gold in a number of catagories, including best football pie by MacDougall and Hastie for the tiny club of  Clachnacuddin FC in Inverness; a true case of giant slaying worthy of an FA Cup 4th round.

Afterwards we all decanted to the pub, where I had a chat with the winning master pie maker Ian who’s worked at Walker’s Charnwood for over 20 years. In a town like Melton Mowbray there’s a fair amount of rivalry around pies and I voiced the opinion that the very worst the region can do now would be to descend into infighting and local spats about who’s in best. Just as there’s no one definitive champagne, there is no one definitive pork pie. Yes Ian’s won this year, and all credit to him as he made a really good pie by all accounts, but each of the producers both large and small have their subtle differences. It’s all down to taste and preference and they can all work together to take the pride and heritage out to a wider audience.

Britain has few food successes that make it into permanently the national consciousness, let alone beyond our borders. The modern pie – like the sausage – is a product for the masses and as such is produced to a set unit price. It has been debased and reduced to a poor imitation of it’s former pre-industrial glory. But when made well, a pie is a thing of beauty and is one of the few foods popular through out the British Isles. I really do hope these awards grow and that the event becomes something like the Great British Bear festival, a celebration of the joy of pies.

How did the cat take the news?

You’re a hack at a provincial Scottish paper, then a daughter of your parish goes global and you snag the interview of the century with local lass turned instant megastar Susan Boyle. And you ask the question ‘You have a cat called Pebbles, er, how did she take the news?’ hahaha. Well done Richard Mooney, no wonder local journalism is on the skids.

Anyhow, now there’s rumours of Elaine Page dueting with Susan, which means it simply has to be ‘I know him so well’.

Save us from the oenophilic occult

Tesco and supermarket rivals go for wine tasting by moonlight

I nearly choked on my morning coffee when I read this story in today’s Guardian, surely this should be in Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science section? The accompanying box out says ‘With most wines showing best on fruit and flower days, drinkers face a tricky weekend’. As if our lives aren’t complicated and busy enough, that last thing we need is utter rubbish like this. Close the pubs! Cap the bottles! It’s a root day!

I then laughed out loud at Pierpaolo Petrassi from Tesco’s who said, “It may be a little step beyond what consumers can comprehend. We have so many other things to educate consumers about. So many remain confused about screw caps, for example.” What! Who on earth apart from toddlers and the elderly could get confused about a screw cap? As for M&S’ Jo Ahearne who said,  “Before the tasting, I was really unconvinced, but the difference between the [two] days was so obvious I was completely blown away.”  So what she’s saying is ‘the second day of wine tasting I was much better at it’.  And that’s due to the day of the week is it Jo? What’s next  Mystic Meg the Sommelier?

You’ll notice it’s mainly wine that is susceptible to these incomprehensible mystical and elemental forces beyond the ken of men; not many beers, or whiskies, or Coca Cola for that matter. Look, the organic market has tanked, and along with it some good environmental and common sense farming principles sadly. The very last thing we need right now is some mystic neo-pagan navel gazing. This sort of biodynamism just reinforces the snobby and elitist crap surrounding wine.  Putting manure on a field is common sense, burying a skull filled with it under a full moon is quite literally lunacy.  Whilst I’m sure that to everything there is a season, a time to plant etc, it is asking a bit much to extend that to a time to drink or eat the resulting product.

Media training for chefs, some top tips

Andrew Pern at The Star at Harome

An example of how to do it well, Andrew Pern at the Star in Harome

Tony Naylor’s column in this month’s Restaurant magazine debates the pros and cons of chefs letting TV cameras into their kitchens. [abridged as I can’t find it online: Great British Menu is worth doing] Now, as someone who has spent many an hour filming in hot, confined kitchens on behalf of Channel 4 I’ve a few points of my own to add, see below. Furthermore the magazine’s lead article charts the rise of a new batch of young talented chefs, and any chef starting out now would be wise to think about some media training alongside ‘sous-vide for beginners’.

It’s highly likely that your first experience of having a journalist with a camera in your kitchen will be someone like me, from a predominantly online background. Video on the web is cheaper and quicker, and though it may hit a smaller audience, it hits the right one. After all they’ve actively chosen to watch the clip unlike the 30 souls in an old people’s home watching Jenny Bond who you’ll never convert into customers. All the major ISPs and portals as well as broadcasters are commissioning more and more video; short clips under five minutes tightly focused on a particular dish work very well with an accompanying recipe. It’s a nice easy way to loose your cherry and see if it’s for you rather than committing yourself to something you may not like.

I use a Canon HV-30 with a Panasonic wide-angle lens and external hand held mic, so I can get good and close to the action and fill the frame which is what I want. The advantage of this over a full TV production crew is that I’m faster and take up less space in your underground lair. Telly, as anyone who’s ever worked in it will tell you, can take ages to film. Video on the web isn’t broadcast quality, but therein lies its charm.

So here are my tips for chefs both young and old when I come calling with my camera.

Tidy up before hand. It sounds obvious but you’d be amazed how disorganised even the best-run kitchens can look on camera. For God’s sake get rid of the clutter. I’ve found the best time to film is in the dead hours from 3 – 5pm, when the brigade has cleaned down after lunch service but not yet started dinner. Give everyone, especially the kitchen porter, a ciggy break as the mics can pick up the tinny sound of jet washed cutlery from 20 yards away. If possible kill the extractors and any particularly rattle-prone fridges and freezers while shooting, remembering of course to turn them on again after takes; the Human ear screens these low ambient sounds out, the microphone does not.

Be yourself. You’d be amazed how many chefs, these lions of the range, become lambs when the camera turns over, much to the enjoyment of the rest of the brigade who enjoy seeing the boss squirm a little infront of the lens. Don’t try and act all Ramsay, just be yourself and speak in clear complete sentences. Most professionals from surgeons to chefs to street sweepers aren’t very good at telling people what they’re doing whilst they’re doing it. There’s nothing worse that someone saying ‘and now’ – long pause as the ingredient is added – ‘we add’ – much stirring – ‘the rice’. That’ll be really hard to edit down to what might is simple stage in the recipe. Do steps in complete motions and tell the camera what you’re doing as you’re doing it clearly and coherently.

Tongs and boards. Most chefs I’ve met cook with their hands, but most people at home don’t and pushing and prodding food with your paws looks odd and even unhygienic on camera. Use tongs to move items around the pan and a clean spoon for tasting each time, (but never speak with your mouthful!). Make sure you use the right coloured board for the right ingredient. You should be doing this anyway, but when your mind’s on a dozen other things both you and I might not pick it up and it only takes one call from ‘disgusted of Tonbridge Wells’ to derail things. Also make sure it’s your best one and not covered in knife marks and scratches. In fact use my visit as an excuse to tap up the owner for some new gear, nothing looks as bad on camera as a close up shot of a beautiful ingredient on a manky old chopping board.

Let there be light. Nine times out of ten kitchens are in the basement and often poorly lit by a single strip light. This’ll present a problem for the camera so consider removing the plastic housing for the duration of the shoot. Getting film lights, and indeed tripods and things into kitchens is difficult in my experience so if lighting is really bad consider demonstration the bulk of the recipe actions in a brighter part of the kitchen or even out in the restaurant. I’ve been in kitchens where the lights under the hood have blown, use this as an excuse to replace them. Beware of pass lamps though, they’re incredibly yellow and make everything look weird, dial them down a bit if possible.

It’s never done that before. It’s inevitable that your signature dish you’ve cooked a million times goes tits up in the presence of a camera. I’ve had sauce bottle tops come off spilling all over the dish, undercooked mullet en papillote and leaky pastry work. It happens, so make sure you’ve got an understudy waiting in the wings. Also if your dish has a slow cooked element like a pie filling or long braise, use the Blue Peter method and prepare one earlier, neither of us wants to sit around for eight hours while something casseroles.

Finally… Remember also that the whole thing wants to edit down to around five minutes, by the time I’ve said who I am and where I am, and you’ve said hello and told us what you’re going to make and ran through the raw ingredients, we’re two minutes in. It’s quick, clear, confident actions that I’m after, and talking on camera is something that everyone thinks is easy but is actually very hard.

I love filming real working chefs. It’s a chance to take viewers through the doors and behind the pass of real restaurants. When done right it can ensure that customers gain a better understanding of how a dish they might have been eating for years is made. When it goes wrong you and your establishment (and me) can look a bit crap. Take advice from me about what to say and what to do, but don’t be afraid to suggest things, this is your kitchen and you know it inside out. Once it’s published follow it up, put a link to the video on your own website (what do you mean you’ve not got one?!) and tell your friends to watch it. And finally, try to enjoy it and have fun. If you don’t, it’ll come across on camera, and the camera never lies.

RIP Clement Freud

Gladstone's Bookshop - Holt, Norfolk

There goes a man of many talents

Where are the Centaurs?!

Sadly Horse People with Alexandra Tolstoy, the BBC’s new equine exploratory extravaganza, doesn’t contain any mythical beasts, but more on that later.  What the first episode did contain however was footage of a horse being killed by the tribesmen in a remote region of Siberia. It subsiquently generated 106 complaints.  The horse was being killed for food by people without the luxury of a modern abattoir. What makes this debate interesting from last year’s F Word horse meat affair is that the shock seems to be over the method of dispatch rather than the eating of horse meat per se.  Personally I think the BBC was right to show it prefaced as it was with a warning, it’s real life. What’s more I think horse is fair game for the table; there’s plenty of them, the meat is edible and they’re not susceptible to diseases like foot and mouth.  Is in on a menu anywhere however? Probably not.

As for centaurs, a procrastinating google image search reveals imagery sufficiently weird to bend one’s mind.

can you spot the join?

Text book fantasy art including standard nude woman generic

Text book fantasy art including standard nude woman generic and spiky things

If you were a tiny centaur about to deliver the coup de grace to a normal sized snake youd at least be looking straight at it

If you were a tiny centaur about to deliver the coup de grace to a normal sized snake you'd at least be looking straight at it

So far, so fantasy, bring on the weird stuff I say…

The (really) odd couple

The (really) odd couple

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