Friday, 26 June 2015

Dear Tesco 2

Dear Tesco,

I don't know why I'm bothering to write to you again but here goes.

Firstly, I am not a customer of yours. I gave up on you long since. I just pop in occasionally to buy Fever Tree tonic (shame you only stock the low calorie option.)

Yesterday I had to run in to get a wedding card. And as I was there I couldn't resist having a pooch. I was half thinking of getting some veg. I normally buy my veg from a "chemical free" grower (organic but just not registered) so I know what's in season at all times of the year. However, when I looked at the seasonal selection I couldn't believe my eyes.

A selection of French beans, mange tout, sprouting broccoli and baby corn from a range of countries including Egypt, India, Peru and Zimbabwe. There were more but I just can't remember.

Several things ran through my mind. Firstly, well they are providing a living for growers, pickers, packers and transporters in the relevant countries. That they (Tesco) can transport them half way around the globe, sell them relatively competitively and make a profit shows how little these people probably get for them.

But also these are not EU countries so they are not governed by EU legislation with respect to pesticide, insecticide, artificial fertiliser application. There is precious little residue testing at port of entry, here anyway as I discovered a few years ago. I wanted to get this information on fruit we were using in the bakery I managed and just came up time and time again against brick walls until finally, someone admitted to me they just don't have the financing.

So instead of giving Irish growers (governed by EU legislation) a living, we import vegetables that can very easily be grown here at this time of the year. In the depths of winter I can understand importing it. Why anyone would want to eat it is beyond me but that is their choice and modern consumerism.

I am lucky I have the choice to buy my fruit and vegetables grown locally. Lucky too that I can buy "organic" cheaper than most supermarkets and green grocers. But I wonder does the average customer care? When I pointed it out to the Tesco employee, he told me he had never noticed before but he would pass it on.

Then as I walked away, he said "for all the good it will do."

Tesco, you are losing market share hand over fist to the German discounters. They stock loads more Irish products including fruit and vegetables. Maybe you should take a walk down their aisles?

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

My J1

I have been thinking about my J1 experience over 30 years ago a lot in the last 24 hours. The tragic events in Berkeley really got me. But when I read that article in the New York Times I was just furious. I expect shoddy journalism from the British red tops. Ironically, for once the Daily Mail wrote a very considered piece.

I flew out to California on a J1 in June 1982. I was lucky I had a job before I left in the Los Angeles Arboretum. I was studying for a degree in agriculture in UCD, specialising in landscape horticulture. Normally students on this course did their year out after their second year and in Ireland. I managed to convince the dean to allow me to do mine after my first year, in California. He had obvious misgivings. The flora was hugely different from here for one not to mention the climate.

I was lucky that my mother's brother, my uncle Frank lived near Newport Beach and I was able to base myself there for a few days to get my bearings. Uncle Frank was a urologist and had a very impressive house in Corona del Mar. I remember lounging in the hot tub in his garden looking out over the twinkling lights of Newport Beach whilst sipping wine. A far cry from Ireland and from the accommodation I would ultimately acquire. My uncle convinced my poor dad that I would need a car and not only a car, a new car and dad succumbed. I was bought a brand new Mitsubishi Colt. I had barely passed my driving test in Costa Mesa before this. My lovely uncle Frank had taken on the task of teaching me to drive.

So armed with said car I moved up the coast to Pasadena and to my first apartment. I began my job in Los Angeles Arboretum as an intern. I worked here for three months and then somehow managed to acquire another job in the San Diego Zoo. I packed up my little Colt and headed off to work in the zoo for three months. When I say the zoo. I was actually in the landscape department for the zoo. I still got to have loads of contact with the animals. I really loved San Diego and to this day I can still taste the blue cheese salad dressing in The Spot pizza restaurant in La Jolla.

I then moved to my next post, the American equivalent of The National Trust, a house and garden run and managed by them called Filoli. I packed up the Colt and drove the thousands of kilometers alone to where they had arranged for me to stay. A place called Woodside, just south of San Francisco and Silicon Valley where I was put up free of charge by a lovely family called Schillings, members of the Trust who were willing to accommodate an intern in return for a bit of gardening and pool cleaning (lounging). The Schillings were a German American family who had made their fortune selling spice. They were the Schwarz of the Americas. My life there consisted of being called for a G&T before dinner in the dining room where Tracey, Mrs Schilling served the best home cooked and grown food. August, Mr Schilling used walk me around the garden telling me stories and talking about his life. They even put up two of my friends who came out looking for work. I think they missed their family who had by this stage all grown up and left home. They loved the company we provided. I kept in touch with them for years after but sadly Tracey died and I lost contact afterwards.

My point in writing this is that although I was probably a pioneer (very few students went as far as California in those days), I learned so much. I became independent. I learned how to drive, how to manage on a budget, paying rent, telephone, management fees. I learned how to navigate, driving the length of California alone. I learned the importance of time keeping and being reliable. The Americans were sticklers for time. And I learned to be a decent, responsible human. I left every apartment as clean if not cleaner than I got it. I payed my bills. I worked my hours. But, I partied. I lay on the beach on my days off. I ate great food. I got fat. I lost my virginity.

I came home eventually having prolonged my J1 into just over a year and (against my better judgement) I finished my degree and I graduated and began my career in England.

The J1 students who died were just starting out. They didn't even get to finish their experience. They will never get to live their life and write a post like this. Thousands, hundreds of thousands of students have gone out to America on a J1 and had the time and experience of their life. A few bad apples have given the vast majority of the rest a bad name.

Rest in Peace those who died.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Oxtail (Coda di Manzo alla Vaccinara)

Oxtail to me summons up memories of Knorr packet soups of the same name and makes me shudder inwardly.

But recently I have been seeing them in my butcher's display (Flood's of Oldcastle, Co. Meath) and just decided to have a go.

He sells them vacuum packed like this and there is more than enough for two in one tail and for €4 you can't go wrong.

I don't know what prompted me to open up my copy of The Silver Spoon as I rarely bother with cookbooks. I prefer to Google recipes and patch together my version of a few options. I just can't follow a recipe. I don't know why.

Anyway I followed the recipe in The Silver Spoon, sort of.  The recipes are very vague so you need to interpret. With all my recipes the quantities are not exact. Use what you want, more or less. It's a peasant dish so you add what you have.

1 oxtail
2 onions
2 cloves of garlic
1 carton of passata (250ml)
200ml white wine
1 carrot
half a celery
a cinnamon stick
5 cloves
A few bay leaves
A few sprigs of fresh thyme
Salt and pepper

Put on a large pan of salted water to boil. Add the oxtail and one onion and carrot sliced and a bay leaf and some fresh thyme sprigs. Bring to the boil and simmer for an hour. After an hour remove the tail with a slotted spoon.

In a frying pan fry the other onion and garlic until the garlic is burnt. Remove it but save the carmelised onion and transfer it to a casserole. Add the oxtail and brown it evenly all over. Transer it to the casserole. Remove the onion and carrot from the stock pot and toss it on the pan to carmelise. Add this to the casserole.

With the stock, set it back on a medium heat with the lid off and reduce it. This will make a lovely beef stock. Boil until it's reduced by half and cool.

To the casserole add a bay leaf, 200ml white wine and boil until the wine is almost gone. Add in the passata, some of the stock (adding more as necessary) and cover and simmer for 2 hours. Turn off and leave overnight to sit.

Next day add the celery, cloves and cinnamon stick and simmer for a further two hours.

The longer you cook it the better. The meat begins to fall off the bones. You will be left with a lot of sauce but the Italians ever resourceful don't waste this but serve it with rigatoni the next day (rigatoni al sugo di coda).

It's difficult to portray in words how amazing this dish is but I'll try. It's better than the best you have ever eaten. It's just amazingly good.

I served it with a red wine risotto using the beef stock produced above and lots of red wine, red onions, garlic, salt and pepper.

If you can come up with a better tastier dish using cheaper ingredients, let me know......