Food & drink

Recipe culture

One of the paradoxes of modern life is that cookery books sell like, well, hotcakes, and yet nobody really cooks anymore. Cookery books are full of recipes, which make it easy for anybody to be a celebrity chef (yet 40% of Britons never use their celebrity cookbooks). Most people do not even follow recipes – they just cook what they’ve always cooked or, in a few cases, make up their own dishes.

The philosopher, Julian Baggini, has a fascinating take on the recipe phenomenon. He says that today we have recipes for everything, not just food: life, health, fitness, success, economic growth. So all kinds of books are full of recipes for what you have to do to become, usually, a better person, or a better society. People like recipes. They seem to suggest a quick way to where you want to go, and hopefully, you won’t have to work too hard to get there. But recipes don’t work.

Baggini says the problem with recipes is they are part of the problem they are being used to cure. In cultures that emphasise cooking, like Italy, people do not buy cookbooks, they draw on a long tradition of understanding food and knowing how to cook it. They understand basic principles, such as frying aromatics, adding solids like potato or meat, and then adding stock, herbs and spices to make a soup. There is no need to write a recipe when someone understands the concept of making soup.

Relying on recipes perpetuates food illiteracy. Aristotle called it phronesis, or practical wisdom, which is where we are able to use judgement and knowledge, rather than relying on a recipe or set of rules. Practical wisdom is happy to draw on the knowledge of others too. But practical wisdom is not popular in today’s society, as we prefer to use rules and incentives to make sure everything is done in the ‘correct’ way. As if there were a correct way.

This is particularly noticeable in recruitment. The company sets out its selection criteria and the applicant has to fulfill each one – or be passed over. It’s a recipe for the perfect employee. But it fails to consider that the things that make us different and unique – not one of the criteria – could be the very things that make us perfect for the role. It is a case of measuring only what can be measured, but misses out the intangibles that cannot be measured.

Strict rules are appropriate in some circumstances, like airports, operating tables, wars. But they don’t make sense in the kitchen (other than, don’t put your hand in the boiling water). Another problem with forcing people to comply with rules is it implies loss of trust. Strict road and parking rules, for example, only reinforce that people can’t be trusted in the way they drive and park.

To encourage the development of practical wisdom and good judgment, we need to loosen the rules and provide a simple template instead, similar to the soup example above. You don’t need to ask what solid food you need for the soup, or what herbs, or how much red wine to add. Over time, through tasting and testing, you will arrive at your own preferences for food combinations.

The same is true for education. By forcing students to meet certain standards (outcomes), and narrowing their broad abilities into test scores, we create a generation that has little intellectual flexibility. Yet that is what is needed to make good decisions.

He says there is no algorithm for what matters in life and we should ignore “all recipes that pretend otherwise”. We hope that What’s Next helps to break some of the rules and offers up pieces of practical wisdom to deal with the unknowns of modern life.

Ref: Prospect (UK), February 2014, The tyranny of recipes. J Baggini.
Search words: recipes, life, health, metaphor, formula, rules, box-ticking, prescription, discretion, organics, judgement, template, education, guidelines, health, algorithm, cookbooks, culture, chef, illiterate, phronesis, ‘sticks and carrots’, hiring.
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Even fine wines can be high tech

The idea that modern technology can be used to make fine wine, as well as cheap wine, may offend the oenophile. Surely it depends on the skill of the vintner and their understanding of terroir (climate and soil)? Yet the French, so famous for their wine, are becoming famous for inventing wine technologies.

For example, Pellenc has made a high arch-shaped tractor with huge wheels, which can straddle a row of vines and pick the grapes, trap the stems and leaves, and leave the vine looking quite undisturbed. With a tractor in each row, the winemaker can harvest 20 tonnes of grapes in a night, enough to make 18,000 bottles of wine (and retrench 40 workers). These machines can cost $US385,000 with all the extras.

Another invention by Pellenc uses optical sorting, and looks like a huge pinball machine. The grapes fall onto a vibrating metal plate, then pass under a halogen light where a camera takes a snapshot and compares each berry’s size, colour and shape with what the vintner wants. The rejects are shot down with a puff of air. These units can cost up to $US250,000.

One important link in making good wine is the closure of the bottle. While corks can let in too much air, screw caps can let it not enough. VinPerfect has invented a screw cap with an aluminium-coated plastic liner, which allows the winemaker to choose how much oxygen can enter. Vivelys, another firm, discovered that adding controlled amounts of oxygen before fermentation makes the wine less susceptible to premature oxidation later on.

Another potential problem is storage of the wine and one company, eProvenance, is installing sensors to track temperature and humidity inside each case of wine.

After spending all this money on technology, the last thing the winemaker wants is to be the victim of forgery. Prooftag, another French firm, makes a unique pattern of bubbles in plastic, with a serial number, which is destroyed when the wine is opened. You can check the pattern for each bottle number on the Prooftag website.

So next time you open a bottle, you might have to thank the machines as well as the winemaker.

Ref: The Economist (UK) Technology Quarterly, 30 November 2013, Bacchus to the future
Search words: vineyards, California, harvest, tractor, Pellenc, fine wine, optical sorting, closures, cork, screw cap, TCA, premature oxidation, reverse osmosis, forgery, Prooftag, storage, sensors, terroir, satellite, water, chemical compounds, spectrometry, grape genome.
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The new temperance society

Against a backdrop of binge drinking, hospital admissions due to alcohol and heavy drinking among middle-aged women, the trend towards temperance seems counterintuitive. Yet the average British household consumed 1.1 litres of alcohol per week in 2011, compared to 1.5 litres per week in 2001. Young men 18-24 admitting to heavy drinking at least once a week fell from 37% to 22% in that time and four times as many people gave up booze for ‘dry January’.

Australians are also drinking less alcohol overall than at any time in the previous 15 years. Beer consumption is at its lowest level since 1945-46 and, while wine consumption increased in that time, it has now plateaued. Ready-to-drink beverages have become less popular too – and were always implicated in youth binge-drinking.

Now there are trendy new bars opening, which do not sell alcohol at all. These include the Redemption bar in London, Sobar in Nottingham and Brink in Liverpool. These bars do not enjoy the same margins that alcohol offers, but they find their clientele are better behaved and do not need bouncers. Owners can make up for lower margins by offering food, live music and comedy acts, and by attracting a steady trade during the week, rather than one that spikes at the weekend.

Even traditional pubs are becoming less boozy, and they can make just as much money from selling food. Sales of ‘adult’ sparkling soft drinks are going up. We wonder if this is a permanent trend, or simply a response to heavy-duty health messages and drink-driving laws or growing lack of disposable income to swallow.

Ref: The Economist (UK), 8 February 2014, Shaken not slurred. Anon.
Australian Bureau of Statistics, 4 April 2014, Aussies drinking less alcohol. Anon.
Search words: alcohol, liquor, hospitals, abstention, beverages, young, ‘dry January’, Alcohol Concern, dry bars, Liverpool, Nottingham, Brighton, Newcastle, DJ, Sobar, charity, food, sparkling drink.
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Upmarket al fresco

The picnic has come a long way. The British are no longer happy to eat cheese sandwiches and sausage rolls and Australians have come a long way since the meat pie. It seems nobody wants to eat indoors anymore, even when there’s a stiff breeze. Something about food in the open air brings on an appetite and, if Canary Wharf is anything to go by, they want Thai, salted pork buns and what might be called ‘smart nosh’.

Street dining used to be for the poor, although travellers to places like Thailand or Vietnam are usually urged to eat in street markets to find the authentic cuisine. But now most western cities specialise in putting on regular, high profile food events and entrepreneurs are setting up food stalls in the street, rather than paying expensive rents and rates. Others who have shops are trading down to street stalls.

During a recession, it is common for people to go into the food business. Perhaps it is because people will always eat, no matter what. But the authorities are also encouraging street stalls to liven up their dying High Streets and plazas and to bring in the local or tourist dollar.

Jumping on the street food bandwagon is the Marriot Hotel in Mayfair, which now offers a street-food inspired menu. It sounds cynical, but a trend is an opportunity to make money.

Ref: The Economist (UK), 8 March 2014, Sandwich spread. Anon.
Search words: Canary Wharf, food stalls, street dining, ‘smart nosh’, food event, recession, outdoor eating, authorities, rents, rates, The Marriot, Mayfair.
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The new butcher is a chef

There was a time when all the local butchers were closing down. According to the Meat Trades Journal, there were 22,000 butcher shops in the UK in the mid 1990s but only 7,100 were still in business by 2010. The supermarkets, with their cheap and plentiful meat, had taken their trade. The BSE crisis just put the knife in deeper.

Now things are changing, thanks to the trendy new butcher who is also a chef, who knows how to lay out his shop to appeal to time-pressed but appreciative shoppers. These shoppers buy their discounted goods in Aldi but buy the important food from specialist grocers, delis and butchers.

There is also a trend for people to buy less, but more often, which tends to favour smaller shops. So much for the dire prediction, by the New Economics Foundation, of “the death of small shops”. Many of them are rising from the dead.

The local butcher is not cheap, but thanks to a combination of beautiful interiors and displays and butchers who know how to cook, people are willing to pay the extra for quality. The new butcher specialises in rare breeds, such as Longhorn, and in lesser known cuts of meat, like the onglet (not omelette). He also shows you how to cook it, or prepares readymade meals you can take home to try.

Another idea is to be a butcher by day and a restaurant by night, borrowing from an old idea in 17th century London of ‘cookshops’. It is similar to having open kitchens in restaurants. People can choose the cut of meat they want and see it being cooked. Each of these ideas helps to boost the margins of the butcher and separate them further from their supermarket counterparts. It certainly puts a little meat on the bones and brings life back into the High Street.

Ref: Financial Times (UK), 5-6 April 2014, At the cutting edge. J Gapper.
Search words: butcher, High Street, Pyne’s of Somerset, Ruby & White, Sainsbury, New Economics Foundation, BSE, Aldi, London’s Borough Market, readymade, chefs, specialists, quality, aesthetics, cookshops, rare breeds, lesser known cuts, margins, meals.
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