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3 posts from April 2011

14 April 2011

Gefiltefest, the London Jewish food festival

image from www.silverbrowonfood.com
image from www.silverbrowonfood.com

I've banged on about it before, but I'm rather excited to say that Gefiltefest is not far away at all.

It has taken on an impressive life of its own and I think organiser Michael Leventhal is going to need a large scotch on the evening of May 22nd.

The programme has not yet been finalised, but is nonetheless shaping up nicely.  The most encouraging element is that this isn't just a riff on salt beef and bagels and the limited extent that most people assume is 'Jewish food', rather it is set to be an intelligent mix of cultural and religious sessions, whilst addressing the glorious topic of food.  Agonising over what is Jewish food is quite normal in the US, it's nice to see it is now becoming more mainstream in the UK as well.

As a final hook with which to reel you in, Gefiltefest is being held at Ivy House, home of the London Jewish Cultural Centre.  It has got stunning gardens and assuming it's a lovely day, you'll be able to take advantage of some great open space.

Please also note that you can get a discount on tickets if you buy now.

The ticket prices are as follows.  You can purchase them on the LJCC site

£25 on the day.
£22 if you book before 20 May

12's & under:
£2/session (morning and afternoon)

£15 on the day
£12 before 20 May

Finally, if anyone is making a special trip up to North London and wants to take advantage of some of the local culinary kosher delights in addition to the delicious food you'll get at Gefiltefest, I'd be happy to point you in the right direction.  Let me know if a little guide would be of interest.

13 April 2011

Modernist Cuisine: a sceptic recants, sort of

image from www.silverbrowonfood.com I've changed my tune: I think that Nathan Myhrvold's Modernist Cuisine is worth buying.

Before you start shouting at me for being a turncoat and drinking the kool-aid, I need to explain one crucial thing: I've held the book and I've read several recipes from it.  That was enough for me.

I was very fortunate to be invited to drinks earlier this week with Nathan Myhrvold and some other illustrious individuals.  As I think is only fair, whilst I quaffed his champagne and sipped on Gibsons he took no prisoners in reminding me of my scepticism and criticism.

I blushed coquettishly and felt a tad uncomfortable, but by the time I met the man I'd had a chance to really study the book and I was mightily impressed.  Clearly immense work has gone into it as the reams of reviews of noted.  I can't say I'm certain that it is a seminal cookbook, that it will stand alongside Escoffier as a game-changer.  But I'm not sure that with the internet and so many cookbooks, anyone will ever again rise to those heady heights.

However, I do think keen amateurs and professionals can learn a lot from it and it will become an important reference guide from which techniques and ideas will trickle down into more general use.  Yes, there is a lot in there that too many of us is gobbledygook - there was something about centrifuges being required to make an egg sandwich - but the stripping down of so many techniques and then reconstituting them into recipes is useful and educational. 

The biggest problem the book has is its scarcity.  First it means those that want it are hanging around waiting.  It also means that those that want to look at it can't.  Very few people will spend several hundred pounds on a cookbook, or several cookbooks - it is afterall 6 books in one box - at the drop of the hat.  I think though that quite a few might have a similar experience as me: guffaw at the puff, but be convinced once they've had a chance to study it.

Supply is limited it seems because it has sold better than expected, but also the Japanese tsunami has played its part, Myhrvold had sourced the paper from a mill in the North East of the country.  They're no longer answering the phone.  So he's had to shift suppliers to China.

I know that some of the UK's main cookbook outlets are having significant problems getting a copy.  I also know they're a bit worried who will buy it.  My view is that given the price and scope it will remain a niche publication appealing to chefs, adventurous home cooks and cookbook fanatics.

If you don't read English and you want a copy help is at hand in the guise of Taschen.  The artbook publishers are set to release the foreign language editions of the book, the first time they have moved into food (although I understand other titles are on the way.)  French, German and Spanish language editions are due by Christmas.  I have to say, I wouldn't fancy being the proof reader on that.

Finally, a note to the wise, if you are planning on buying it and you're in the UK, there is a way to save yourself a bit of money.  Amazon.co.uk have it on their site at £375.25, down a bit from the retail price of £395.  However, Amazon.com have it on their site for $461.62 (compared to the retail price of $625) or £283.63 at current exchange rates.  They will ship to the UK.  The cheapest shipping option is $13.98 or £8.60 in real money.  So by buying from the US site the total cost will be £292.23 and ta da that's a saving of £80.  

Now, it should be noted that neither site has it in stock, which is an issue.  But, if you buy now you lock in the current price, or things might even improve, as Amazon's lowest price guarantee means that if the price drops (unlikely) then you'll get an even better deal.

And just to make you feel a bit better about buying it, at £292 for six books, that equates to £48.67 per book.  Or, 12 pence per page (there are 2,438 pages).  Which isn't such a shoddy price when you compare to it to Jamie's 30 Minute Meals, currently #1 on Amazon's Food & Drinks Bestseller list.  At its full list price of £26 and with 288 pages, it comes in at 9p per page. (OK I know, a bit spurious, but I'm trying to help you justify it.)

It all comes down to what you regard as value for money, doesn't it?

And finally, just because I enjoyed it so much and I couldn't find anywhere else to shoe-horn it in to this post, I heartily recommend reading John Lanchester's review of the book in the New Yorker.

12 April 2011

MEPs shy away from honest labelling of meat & obscure the issues.

When it comes to food regulation the EU has a bad reputation.  These may not be entirely accurate recollections but I'm sure I've seen mutterings about the bend of bananas, the tinge of tomatoes or the provenance of pasties.

It can seem so silly and petty.  Most often it seems fundamentally wrong-headed.  And so it has come to pass yet again, this time some Members of the European Parliament have decided to focus on slaughter by the halal and shechitah methods.

The regulation on food information for the consumer is supposed to be about allowing consumers to make healthier choices when they buy food.  Struan Stevenson, a Scottish Tory MEP and some colleagues have decided to stretch the meaning of healthy as far as possible and are trying to re-direct the regulation to incorporate some spurious animal welfare ideas. In particular, he has singled out the slaughtering methods of the Jewish and Muslim religions for special labelling treatment.  You can read his amendment here (Word doc, pg 138, amendment 354) but for those who don't want to scroll I'll quote:

"This product comes from an animal slaughtered by the Halal method"


"This product comes from an animal slaughtered by the Shechita method"

In other words they want a sticker across your pack of mince saying

"Don't buy this meat.  It was SLAUGHTERED by RELIGIOUS nutjobs"

To be clear, Mr Stevenson is not asking for other meat to be labelled according to its slaughtering method.  So for example if you happened to buy meat that was killed at this abattoir Mr Stevenson does not think it necessary that your food is labelled

"Don't buy this meat.  We have it on camera that they are psychopaths that kill the animals and we all know that psychos torture animals before they turn their attention to humans.  Steer well clear!!!!"

He's just focusing on those darned Jews and Muslims.

I shouldn't just pick on Mr Stevenson, despite what a tempting target he makes.  Dan Jørgensen, Christel Schaldemose and Sirpa Pietikäinen want your meat to say

"Meat from slaughter without stunning"

But my favourite is from the brilliantly named Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy who wants to target

"Meat and meat products derived from animals that have not been stunned prior to slaughter, i.e. have been ritually slaughtered"

Hmm, that reminds me of that scene in Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom where the guy's heart gets ripped out whilst he's alive

Before we get too carried away with all this blood lust, let's just remind ourselves that this legislation is supposed to be about ensuring that consumers make healthier choices. 

Mr Stevenson has made no attempt to argue that his amendments benefit the health of the consumer, for the obvious reason that he never could.  Whatever one's moral issue with shechita or halal, you'd be hard pushed to argue that meat killed by this method is less healthy than meat killed by secular methods.

So why do Mr Stevenson and his colleagues think it's so important that consumers know and what could the consequences of such knowledge possibly be.  With Indiana Jones in mind, it's hard not to think that possibly, just possibly, people might be put off a teency bit by the big bad label.

The average consumer will be innocently trying to buy a leg of lamb when they see a label telling them the following facts:

Fact: Their meat was slaughtered. 

"No way, my meat was slaughtered?!  I don't want meat that has undergone anything like slaughter.  No siree.  Never in my life have I eaten meat that was slaughtered. I'm not starting now."

Fact: It was slaughtered for religious reasons.

"Those bastards, look what they've done.  What was it Marx said about all religious nuts smoking opium.  He was right, otherwise no-one would slaughter meat."

Which leaves our consumer wandering off in a haze looking for some meat that clearly hasn't been slaughtered and clearly hasn't been slaughtered to sate some fanatics' blood lust.

Oh pish you say, Silverbrow you're exaggerating.  Am I?  If I am, then why aren't Mr Stevenson et al calling for labelling of all meat.  Why not propose

"Meat from slaughter but the stunning didn't quite work so to all intents and purposes this animal wasn't actually stunned"


"Chicken that was too short to get fully electrocuted in the water bath.  But don't worry, we had already sliced off its beak to stop it fighting with its bathing companions"


"Meat from a pig that wasn't fully knocked out when we gassed it"


"Meat from an animal that required multiple bolts to the head because the gun was a bit defective or perhaps the bloke using it was just a bit shakier today than he was yesterday."

If the MEPs really cared about informing consumers then they'd go the whole way with labelling.  They wouldn't stop at halal or shechitah.  They shouldn't stop there because as they know full well, there is nothing wrong with them.  They cause no more pain to the animal being slaughtered and in many cases, especially when compared to the vast majority of slaughtering in the UK, much greater care is taken of these animals.

So MEPs, why can't you rise to the challenge?  The kosher and halal communities already label their food.  They're past masters at it.  Why don't you either accept that your amendments have nothing to do with this legislation.  Or, if you insist on the worst kind of policy creep, then go the whole hog and allow the consumer to be truly informed.  Admittedly it won't impact their ability to make healthy choices but it might open their eyes to the cruelty of so much secular slaughter.  The consumer can think twice about buying the bacon from the gassed pig or steak from the floundering, wounded cow.