If you like piña coladas, gettin’ caught in the rain…

Grandmas cocktail cabinet

Grandma's beloved cocktail cabinet

When the English weather gets me down, I head to the 1950s cocktail cabinet we inherited from J’s grandmother. The front pulls open and the top flips up to reveal mirrors, a light fixture and a contraption holding plastic cocktail sticks. If we were more technically savvy we’d make it play Barry White tunes, but for now it opens only to reveal our motley booze collection. This includes a few things we bought, and lots of things left here by friends who moved overseas. Our house was the last resort for items they hadn’t yet disposed of, and, lucky for us, the local charity shop doesn’t take donations of half-drunk Barbados rum.

Poor woman's piña colada

The poor-woman's piña colada I managed to whip up from things I found in the cupboard

Rum is the perfect elixir to turn a blustery English day into a carnival! Or at least a tipsy approximation of one. A few weeks ago, the ‘coldest summer since 1993’ pushed me to breaking point. I remembered seeing a box of coconut-pineapple juice in the back of our cupboard – another kind gift left by friends who moved back to the States … over two years ago, as I discovered upon reading the sell-by date. I persuaded myself to pour it away. Fortunately there was a (slightly less old) carton of similar juice in the fridge, which I whirred up with the Barbados rum, coconut cream and crushed ice.

The result was enough to take the edge off my doldrums, but I still felt the many miles between me and a sunny Caribbean beach. So when I walked past Café Tarifa last Saturday, I couldn’t resist the reggae music drifting from inside. I headed in for a Jamaican ginger beer (and some olives, which have nothing to do with the Caribbean, but they were good). I soaked up the vibe for a while but couldn’t linger long, because I was due at a harvest festival at the Barrack’s Lane Community Garden. I was supposed to drop off some jars of damson (sour plum) jam, which my better-half has been whipping up by the vat-full using fruit from our heavily-laden trees. I can’t think of anything less exotic and Caribbean than homemade English plum jam … Yet, to my surprise, when I showed up at the festival there were two Jamaicans giving a cooking class.

I shouldn’t have been so surprised. While Mexican food may be hard to come by here (see previous post, desperately seeking salsa), it’s easy to forget how Britain’s colonial past is reflected in its culinary landscape. During the 1950s tens of thousands of people from the West Indies came to live and work in Britain, and many of them are still here. London’s Notting Hill Carnival is a testament to this, as are Caribbean eateries like east Oxford’s Hi-Lo Jamaican Eating House, which has been a fixture for the past 30 years.

Home-grown chillies

Home-grown chillies

Cooking Caribbean-ish

I decided to stick around to see what I could learn about Jamaican cooking. The two chefs were using local, seasonal vegetables grown by Sandy Lane Farm, and a Caribbean leafy green called callaloo, which is grown locally by OxGrow community garden. Suitably inspired, I returned home to plan my own Caribbean-themed feast.

Admittedly, my knowledge of the region’s cuisine is limited: I’ve never actually been to Jamaica, and have only had a few holidays on other Caribbean islands (but I’ve seen loads of movies about islands, which is pretty much the same thing, right?). Despite this, I managed to make a tasty meal that hinted at something remotely Caribbean-ish. It was a pilaf of coconut rice and black-eyed-peas, and Colombo de Giromon, which I think is a fancy name for ‘vegetable curry’: in this case, a mix of squash, sweet potato and greens in a spicy coconut sauce. I adapted these from recipes found in my trusty old copy of Sundays at Moosewood, using produce from our weekly vegetable bag, some chillies grown in our greenhouse, and fresh coriander seeds I “grew” (i.e., accidentally let the cilantro go to seed).

Well-loved Sundays at Moosewood cookbook

My well-loved Sundays at Moosewood cookbook

Chopped veg and Colombo spice mix

I chopped all the veg beforehand, then mashed garlic, cayenne, turmeric, coriander and mustard seeds and water with primal passion in my mortal and pestle

The pilaf recipe is here, but I changed it somewhat: I didn’t use tempeh (because I didn’t have any, but I do recommend it — a soybean product, nice as a meat subtitute); I used white rice instead of brown; and I added shredded carrot to the onion and garlic. The other dish can be found here on another blog. I didn’t use butternut squash, but a mystery squash (which I traded some plum jam for at the harvest fest). I also used a sweet potato, no peppers, and added kale at the end of the cooking time.

The best bit of this recipe was making the Colombo seasoning: I love mashing up fragrant spices with a mortar and pestle. It’s so … primal. Even better was the fact that the recipe called for rum, so having raided the cocktail cabinet and poured a bit in the pot of simmering veg, I took a bit for myself. Surely that’s how it’s done in the Caribbean.

Later this week I’m planning to stop off at the East Oxford Community Centre to taste the Afro-Caribbean lunches made by people from ACKHI (African & African Caribbean Kultural Heritage Initiative), and may also dip into their Afro-Caribbean cake-baking class on Friday.

Caribbean-ish meal

Coconut black-eyed peas and rice, and Colombo de Giromon (curried vegetables)

Meanwhile, I’ve finished off the coconut black-eyed beans and rice, and at the same time Mother Nature has responded to my desperate plea for a taste of the tropics: she sent winds as high as 80 miles per hour to batter Britain. These were the remnants of Hurricane Katia, which swept across the Atlantic last week. After all, nothing says ‘tropical paradise’ like a hurricane.


I fell in love with my husband because he made me mac & cheese

I left a very nice life in Austin, Texas – friends, sun, big blue sky, soothing music drifting out of every cafe, bar and taco joint. I sold most of my things and relocated to Belgium.

Boxes of mac and cheese

This image is from a collection by a man named Ian Golder, who collects boxes of mac and cheese, the food of the Gods! Click the image to indulge, and don't miss his Mac FAQs

There was the exciting prospect of living in Europe, and the romantic idea of moving to be with the Englishman I’d met at a bus stop in New Zealand just over a year before.

A few months after moving, I landed a job and was settling in well. That’s when I got a hankering for my number one comfort food: macaroni and cheese.

I’m not talking about the fancy Kraft Deluxe or Velveeta Shells and Cheese kind, which cost a few dollars and contain a can of so-called ‘cheese sauce’. My comfort came from the food of my university days: in a little box, with a white packet of shockingly orange powder. I would boil the tiny little macaronis, then mix in the powder with twice the butter the instructions called for, and milk or, if I was feeling saucy, a bit of sour cream. I’d eat it with a side of tomatoes from a can (I don’t know why – something about the acid-y red tomatoes and orange-y mac and cheese just seemed right).

I could get a box of mac and cheese in Brussels somewhere, but it was expensive, and part of the beauty of my favorite comfort food was that it cost less than a dollar a box. Thrift has a flavour all its own.

Stirring the white sauce

Here's my man, makin' me mac and cheese

I wallowed in mac-and-cheese nostalgia for a few days, sharing my woes with my Englishman, who was very patient. His memorable meals from university were of the pot noodle variety – a bit like ramen noodles, which were even cheaper than a box of mac and cheese and probably packed with just as much sodium-filled goodness, but with the added health benefits of MSG. (His other fond food memory from uni was Greasy Joe’s grease burgers. I surmised that these were cooked up by an entrepreneurial heart surgeon, just biding his time before the class of 1988 needed their first bypass operations.)

My man said, “Why don’t we just make mac and cheese?” I guffawed, gave him a ‘yeah right’, and an ‘as if!’. “You can’t just MAKE mac and cheese with ordinary household ingredients. There’s a magic to what’s in that little box. You shouldn’t tinker with magic!”

Of course, I knew it was possible to make macaroni and cheese from scratch. (Unlike pancakes which, when we started university, my good friend D and I were certain could only be made with Bisquick baking mix. Fortunately, we both learned a lot at university.). But I think I was kind of enjoying my melancholy a bit and romanticizing the things I’d left behind in the States, including mac and cheese. So I was resistant.

Spilling is optional

Here's my man spilling white sauce on the stove

This was when I discovered some of my man’s most wonderful qualities: his mix of practicality and possibility, combined with endless creativity. He can look in a dumpster (in the UK, known as a skip) and see the makings of a nice shelving unit in which to store our cookbooks (when I came home last week from a day in London, he was hammering this very thing together, which now sits snugly next to our fridge). And he can look at a bag of pasta and some milk and cheese and envision my ultimate comfort food. He explained that, at university, the mother of one of his friends insisted on teaching them to make a white sauce, which she claimed would be a most useful culinary tool for the boys as they made their way through life. She didn’t mention that it could also be the way to a girl’s heart.

In less than 30 minutes he’d whipped up a beautiful dish of pasta and cheese, topped with bread crumbs baked to a golden brown. I was enchanted. It was nothing like the mac and cheese I loved from the States. For one, it wasn’t fluorescent orange. But it was very tasty. And though I was deep in my melancholy over the things I’d left behind, this dish was really good and supremely comforting.

Baked mac and cheese

Baked mac and cheese (with kale and cauliflower)

Eight years have passed and homemade mac and cheese is now a staple in our weekly menu, usually embellished with a seasonal vegetable from our veg bag. In honour of my man and the love that was forged from semolina and a basic white sauce, I’d like to share with you our recipe for Leeky Mac & Cheese.

The Coffee Chronicles: Bangkok

My interest in writing about food started with what I call the Coffee Chronicles: journal entries written at coffee houses and after coffee experiences in various cities and Coffeecountries. These stories were rarely about the coffee itself – they were about the atmosphere or circumstances, about the experience of drinking a coffee in a particular place or time. So here’s a first sip.

Coffee by the bag

First I should say – controversially — that I don’t always like the taste of coffee or the caffeine kick. Sometimes I love it, if it’s been well made (for example, the flat white I’ve just been served here at the Missing Bean in Oxford) and if I’m in the mood … or eating cake. Other times the caffeine makes me jittery or the taste just doesn’t do the trick, and I order herbal tea instead (shock! horror! for the true coffee devotees out there). For me, the pleasure comes from coffee’s association with distinctive moments, like right now, in a noisy cafe in Oxford, at a wobbly table, the Rolling Stones on the speakers, cups and saucers clinking around me. I associate the bitter taste, the milky top, with flashes of clarity while writing, watching people, listening.

Chao Phraya River, Bangkok

The Chao Phraya River, Bangkok

These associations don’t always involve coffee houses, though. I remember standing in line at a coffee kiosk next to a jetty where we waited for the ferry in Bangkok. Around me was a dusty, bustling place, with people coming and going and many waiting for the next ferry to take them down the Chao Phraya River. It cost pennies to ride the ferry, so there were people from all walks of life – middle-class business people, working-class men wearing cement-dusted boots, old men with tattered clothes carrying massive bundles on their backs. As I got nearer the front of the queue to order coffee, I noticed the menu was in Thai. Fortunately, two women in front of me offered help reading it. They pointed out which coffees on the menu were grown and roasted there in Thailand – in the northern hill areas, often by indigenous hill tribes – and what the different concoctions were: espresso, with steamed or frothed milk, filter coffee, etc. They explained that that particular coffee kiosk was part of a Thai chain – Black Canyon – inspired by Starbuck’s but totally Thai owned and operated.

I got my coffee in plenty of time to catch the next ferry. It was fine, but not memorable: not unlike a coffee I could have had in any city in the USA or Europe, and served in a disposable paper cup with a plastic lid. I have to admit to a prejudice against disposable cups. This is in part because of the environmental implications of another piece of rubbish being sent to landfill, all to indulge my fancy for coffee. Equally though, I enjoy the sensory satisfaction of coffee in ceramic or glass – the feel of the warm cup, especially while seated and relaxing, noticing my surroundings. As a result, I tend to avoid coffee to-go unless I bring my own thermal cup, and even that is a rarity (and it never tastes as good). My next taste of coffee, though, was to challenge what I thought I knew about drinking on the go, as it wasn’t served in a cup at all.

Liquid candy

Street Market, Bankok

A street market in Bangkok -- always the best place to find incredible food and drink

It was a hot spring day in an upscale part of Bangkok, and in the shadow of an ultra-modern shopping center, with floor after floor of giant tinted glass windows, I spotted a Thai man next to a metal cart. I said hello in Thai (the only Thai I knew), and asked for a coffee, unaware if there was a choice of coffees, content just to take what I was given. The man poured boiled water from a dented tin kettle through a cloth coffee filter into a glass, then placed another glass beneath the filter and poured the same liquid through again. He did this multiple times, each time making the coffee darker and stronger. Next he filled a small, clear plastic bag with ice, poured in the coffee he’d just prepared, and added sweetened condensed and evaporated milk. He popped in a bendy straw, and sealed the bag around the straw with a rubber band. This kaafae yen (iced coffee) or kaafae tung (bag coffee) was, as I’ve heard it described by others, like liquid candy. (I’ve never made it myself, but if you’d like to try, here are two recipes: from the guardian.co.uk and MyRecipes.com.) I’ve since heard that a hot coffee can be ordered from a street vendor and is served in a glass, which you hold by the rim to avoid burning your fingers, and drink right there standing in the street (note to self: learn a bit of Thai, at least enough to order coffee in a glass).

Sweet Thai iced coffee is not to everyone’s taste, but I enjoy a really sweet coffee now and then, especially in Asia. Spicy food, hot sun and a sweet, strong coffee brings back memories of travels in Thailand, and also Malaysia, where breakfast was nasi lemak: coconut rice topped with fried egg, cucumber slices, dried anchovies and very hot sambal (chilli sauce), washed down with super-sweet, strong coffee.

That day in Bangkok, the street vendor’s cart happened to be next to one of the hundreds of Starbuck’s that now serve American-style coffee in Thailand. I sat on the steps of that ubiquitous coffee chain, sipping my sweet Thai iced coffee from a plastic bag, a local, home-grown coffee experience amidst an increasingly homogenized global coffee culture. However, I don’t want to get too precious about this: Starbuck’s is part of modern Thailand, and its cafes are filled with laptop-tapping young Thais and middle-class white-collar workers, who generally look like they’re quite enjoying themselves. So perhaps my search for ‘authentic’ experiences could lead me to over-romanticize traditional things a bit.

While the best way to experience a culture through its food and drink is never as clear or straightforward as I would like, that day I followed the only rule I know when it comes to eating well: relish the moment and the food on my plate (or in this case, in my bag).

Desperately seeking salsa

I’ve just made plans to meet a colleague for Mexican food at a fantastic place in London called Wahaca. While no big thing for those of you in the USA, there are precious few restaurants serving good Mexican food or even Tex-Mex here in the UK, and those that do are pricey.

We watched re-runs of Happy Days while eating tacos

Affordable Tex-Mex was so ubiquitous where I grew up (Ohio) that I never imagined I would miss it. As a child, tacos were a particular joy. Mom or dad would brown ground beef sprinkled with a packet of Old El Paso™ taco spice mix (a blend of things most people have in their cupboard, combined with some things I don’t recognize as actual food). We’d fill a few thick, hard, taco-shaped corn shells with the beef, then pile on spoonfuls of rainbow-coloured fillings: bright-orange shredded cheese, chopped red tomatoes, pale-green iceberg lettuce, chopped black olives from a can, and snowy-white sour cream. We ate while balancing our plates on our laps in front of the television, enjoying sensational dancing on ‘Solid Gold!‘ or reruns of Happy Days. Bliss.

You call that a tortilla?

My Mexican food education expanded considerably when I spent four months living with a family in Mérida, Mexico. I learned that those hard taco-like things we ate were sad substitutes for the real thing. I went walking early one morning and found steam pouring from the chimney of a tiny, low-ceilinged adobe building, from which short, round women with long braids – Mayan women – emerged carrying towel-wrapped bundles of warm tortillas. We ate the tortillas at our big mid-day meal, with simple roast chicken tinted with red anatto (a natural food coloring derived from the achiote tree), topped with lettuce and sliced onions in fresh lime juice and salt. After lunch, as the rest of us napped in hammocks, our hard-working cook, who was one of the Mayan women I’d seen that morning, fried the uneaten tortillas in oil for our dinner or a snack.

Years later I moved to Austin, Texas, and the variety of Mexican foodie delights are too abundant to list. A favorite was Saturday mornings at Magnolia with my pal V, for gingerbread pancakes (click for the recipe) and a T. Rex omelet (shredded smoked turkey, cheese, avocado and pico de gallo salsa), or El Sol y la Luna for chilaquiles (bits of corn tortilla fried, then simmered with salsa and mixed with scrambled eggs, topped with cheese). It was also a treat to drive into a dusty parking lot for a couple of breakfast tacos (favorites were potato and bean or cheese and egg) from one of the little trailers that set up shop in the mornings.

Viva Mexico … pero No Viva Chi Chi’s

After the flood of incredible Mexican and Tex-Mex in Austin, came the drought: I moved to Belgium. Early on I spotted a Chi-Chi’s Mexican Restaurant in Brussels. It brought back memories of birthdays spent at the Chi-Chi’s in Toledo, where staff would plop a giant sombrero on your head and sing happy birthday, as you sweated over a candle stuck in a bowl of cinnamon-fried ice cream. While lame in the realm of culinary snobbery, the fried ice cream tasted awesome. Once I asked our waitress how it was made and was told the ice cream is rolled in cinnamon and crushed cornflakes, then quickly fried. I tried it at home but, as expected, the ice cream melted. Oh Chi-Chi’s … how DO you do it?

In a sad epilogue, Chi Chi’s stopped doing it soon after I moved to Brussels. They were blamed for a deadly outbreak of Hepatitis A, which apparently originated at their location in a mall in Pennsylvania.

Brussels terrace

The view from our terrace in Brussels, where we feasted on contraband Mexican goodies

Far from the Hep A catastrophe, things were looking up in Brussels: I got a hot tip from an expatriate Texan about a Mexican woman living in a suburb-of-a-suburb of Brussels, who sells Mexican food supplies out of her garage. We called this mysterious woman and were told to stop by her place that evening. Cookie-cutter houses lined the street, which was pin-drop quiet on that cool autumn evening. We skeptically rang the doorbell, worried that our request for Mexican food would be met with the same sort of incredulity and disdain I got every time I tried to speak French at a shop in Brussels. After what seemed an eternity, the garage door opened. Inside were metal shelves stacked with cans of black beans, massive bags of dried chilies, sacks of masa harina, cast-iron tortilla presses, bottles of tequila and jars of salsa. The woman was middle-aged, married to a German, and she missed Mexican food. We weren’t clear on the legality of this business venture, but didn’t care as we filled the back of our Toyota with the makings of many fine Mexican meals. With the complement of fresh avocados and other vegetables from Brussels’s biggest weekly market, the Marché du Midi, the drought was over.

Mole, mole, mole

We moved to England in 2005, where I managed to grow two huge tomatillo (husk tomato) plants: these produce small, green tomatoes in husks which are whisked up with chillies, cilantro (fresh coriander) and other ingredients to make salsa verde (green salsa). I’d actually given up on the tomatillos since we were (and still are) having such dreadfully wet, cool summers. And when I visited my forlorn vegetable patch in October that year I was shocked to see the tomatillos had survived and were ready to pick (the lesson seems to be that when I ignore the plants, they grow). For all the space the plants take up (they grew to about 3 feet wide and 4 feet tall), they made only one luscious, much-appreciated bowl of salsa verde, which we still remember fondly. (Here’s a recipe from Another Freaking Cooking Blog.)

Oaxaca, Mexico

The view from our friend's place in Oaxaca, Mexico

A few years later we visited friends living in Oaxaca, Mexico. They took us to the one and only market stall from which they would buy mole poblano, the rich sauce made of dozens of ingredients, most popularly chocolate, which is often served with chicken (or in the case of my vegan friend, black beans). I have a faint memory of eating chicken with mole poblano for the first time in Chiapas in 1991, when I was a student. I had been served a hot tea-like beverage with a shot of some sort of alcohol, and I was told to pour the shot into the tea. I did so, drank it, and don’t remember much about the evening or the mole after that. So it was years later that I really gained an appreciation for mole poblano.

We bought several kilos of black and red mole from my friend’s favorite stallholder in Oaxaca, brought it back to the UK and stored it in the freezer. For a year, each meal we made with it was a ritual of indulgence. We barely spoke during those meals, so busy were we devouring the oily, dark mole and chicken, scooping it up with freshly made tortillas, washed down with beer, and then licking our fingers of greasy goodness.

While mole is an indulgence, fresh tortillas are a staple. The heavy flour ‘wraps’ from the supermarket and thick yellow shells of my youth simply won’t do. Masa harina for making tortillas is six times the price in the UK compared to Ohio, so when we pack for a trip to the USA we leave a four-kilo space in our suitcases for masa. Occasionally, a sympathetic friend brings over a bag of it when they visit (thanks to T from Texas for our most recent bag). In one case, a friend from the UK was returning from Florida and got cold feet at the last minute: couriering a kilo of white powder from Miami was just a bit too unsettling.

We’re dangerously short of masa now, with no plans for a trip back to the USA to replenish. And we’ve scoured the many food shops selling all manner of corn products aimed at South Asians and Africans, but none works for making Mexican tortillas. It’s a shame, but then it makes those past meals so much sweeter, whether watching re-runs while crunching mass-produced Tex-Mex in Toledo, snacking on leftover deep-fried tortillas in Merida, or savouring our own version of burritos with ingredients from the garage-cum-Mexican-tienda outside Leuven, Belgium. Viva Mexico, wherever you may be.

Waterfront dining

Nothing says 'a day off ' like paging through a fun magazine in the bath

I took today off work, sort of. I started my computer and checked email, then browsed Facebook and the latest celebrity gossip (the nice kind, not the Grazia-esque or phone-tapping variety). This is how I assuage my life-long guilt of taking days off work – by pretending I’m working, as if being at a computer is tantamount to doing something useful.

After about an hour I snapped myself out of this and left my office. I tore the plastic wrapping off my just-bought copy of Red magazine and examined the ‘free-with-this-month’s-issue’ tube of rose-scented bath and shower gel. I went to the bathroom and ran a warm bath.

Before entering the bath, I visited the kitchen. I resisted the three Belgian chocolates left over from dinner with friends last night. Instead, I went for a sweet-salty combo: I poured a glass of orange squash (for Americans, this is like a cheap cordial, which you mix with water); and I grabbed one nearly-empty and one unopened bag of “mature cheddar and pickled onion flavour” Tyrrell’s potato chips (apparently now called ‘crisps’, in ‘proper’ British fashion, according to Tyrrell’s website and the many comments from Brits who don’t seem very happy about the way we Americans refer to fried potatoes).

Posh crisps (chips!) and cheap squash

As I undressed, I felt the giddy pleasure – but also slight ‘ick’ factor – of eating in my bathroom. It brought to mind an episode of Seinfeld, when Kramer realized he enjoyed being in the shower so much that he installed a food waste disposal in the drain and did all his cooking and dishwashing in the shower. (To my friends who came over for dinner last night, I assure you all the food was prepared in the kitchen. Though judging by the state of the kitchen I’m not sure that’s much consolation.)

I slipped into the bath, then realized I’d left the nearly-empty bag of chips on the other side of the room, while the unopened bag was close to hand. Just last night my husband spluttered when I opened the second box of Belgian chocolates because one chocolate still remained in the first box. It was as if he didn’t think I would finish the first box and move on to the second – these were BELGIAN chocolates. Clearly he’s deranged.

So as the warm bathwater soothed my muscles, I realized it would be counter-productive to hoist myself, drippingly, up and out of the bath to get the already-opened bag of crisps on the other side of the bathroom. I ripped open the new bag – which was filled with big, perfect, unbroken chips, rather than the shards and crumbs the other bag had to offer.

Holding the magazine at eye level without getting bathwater or cheddar-and-pickled-onion-fingerprints on the pages proved difficult, especially since I insisted on reading without breaking my chip-munching stride. Add to this the occasional effort to take a sip of squash while lying half-prone, and you start to get the picture. Eventually I found that eating a chip, cleaning my fingers by dipping them in the bathwater then drying them on a nearby towel enabled me to safely turn the pages of the magazine without undue damage.

The bath was hardly rose-scented by the end, what with all the mature-cheddar-and-pickled-onion I’d added, but maybe there was an idea there for an eclectic dinner: rose-water scented cheese-and-onion potato pasties?

When my delightful cheese-and-onion bath was done, I guiltily remembered the nearly-empty bag of crisps that I couldn’t reach. For the sake of my marriage, I poured the shards and crumbs into the now-half-eaten newer bag … as if none of this had ever happened.


Welcome to the first official post at ethical relish, where each week I aim to write about my explorations into food, ethical eating and shopping, food cultures, healthy (or less healthy) cravings, travel and more.

Sweet, juicy fruit in Essaouira, Morocco, 2011

I might share a bit about what’s in season and how I’ve cooked it (sometimes well … sometimes not so well). I may also talk about the daily pleasures and struggles of trying to eat ethically, locally and healthily in my adopted country (England), while satisfying cravings for comfort foods from home (the USA). And I’ll blog about my efforts to strike a balance between eating by my values … and giving myself a break.

I’ll pepper my posts with experiences from past meals at home and abroad, and if I’m reading a good book or have heard some news related to food or food issues, I might tell you a bit about it. This could be about the sensual delights of a certain cuisine, policy changes that affect where and how our food is produced, or something multinational food corporations are doing that ticks me off (let me count the ways…).

So I hope you’ll stop by each week for a tasty bit of conversation and even leave a comment when the spirit moves you. For starters, check out this morning’s food escapade: making French pain de campagne at 5am.

Oxford’s best fruit and coffee (and jeans)

Today I went in search of fruit. This is no small order these days, as most supermarket fruit tastes like cardboard, so I’ve sworn off it except for taking the occasional chance at Waitrose (the posh supermarket — bought some lovely cherries there recently).

We usually order fruit from our box scheme (this is sort of like a community supported agriculture or CSA farm in the USA), but forgot this week. So I headed for Oxford’s Covered Market. A brief chat with the only remaining greengrocer at the market revealed that the only British fruits available were apples and plums, with a few of the last punnets of British raspberries. I passed on the berries (at £1.95 for a small punnet, and because we’ve had some from our garden already). But I knew the plums must be really sweet as I’ve seen them squished on the ground all around the nature reserve where I live, suggesting they’re very much ready to eat. It seemed a bit daft buying a kilo of plums when they grow wild around my house, but then many are too high for me to reach without a ladder, and frankly I wasn’t in a foraging mood. I chose a few British apples as well, then decided to dash my locavore cred with some Spanish nectarines … they just looked so good.

Spanish nectarines: If only Spain was local to me...dreaming of a Spanish beach right now

Ripe English plums

I feel incredibly lucky to have the Covered Market nearby — not only do they stock British fruit and veg, but it’s an atmospheric place to shop, built in 1774, milling with locals and tourists, and nothing like the sterile environment of a supermarket. Though I know some supermarket chains sell good produce, fruit is one thing they rarely get right. Often this is because the fruit they stock has to be tough (and unripe) enough to make the journey (often from abroad) and still look good when it arrives — i.e. it’s built for travel rather than taste. So it’s one thing I insist on buying as local and seasonal as possible (or foraging for when possible).

While on my fruity excursion I picked up a copy of Raj Patel’s Stuffed and Starved: Markets, power and the hidden battle for the world’s food supply, which I can’t wait to devour. But must first finish Michael Pollan’s excellent Omnivore’s Dilemma: The search for a perfect meal in a fast-food world, which has riveted me for weeks, causing me to make my excuses for not wanting to watch a film with my husband and instead go to bed early to read. Great books can be hard on a marriage…

The Missing Bean, Turl Street, Oxford

Before heading home, my bike baskets stuffed with fruit and books (and, if I’m being honest, a new pair of jeans … not local or seasonal, but then jeans don’t really have a season, do they?), I stopped in for the best coffee in Oxford, at The Missing Bean. It was lunch time, but because I’ve committed to eating big, filling lunches and small dinners (a la Spain, Italy, France … more on that in another post), I decided to have something small to hold me over until I got home and could cook a proper meal.

I managed to get a table, which is rare at this busy place, and ordered my usual: a flat white (steamed milk from the bottom of a pitcher poured over a single shot of espresso …similar to a latte, but somehow tastily different). Though I hadn’t yet had lunch, I couldn’t resist a beautiful red sponge cake with white icing that winked at me from the cake case. It was red velvet cake (described by the barrista as a cross between chocolate and vanilla). As with all of their cakes, it was homemade and absolutely delicious. And as I hadn’t been to The Missing Bean in a while, I forgot how good the coffee is. Net result: I’ve decided there’s nothing wrong with having dessert and coffee before a big lunch.