Saturday 3 December 2022

Advent 2022 - Fast Tracking #7

 Today's Challenge: Fast from... all imported foods.

When I sat down to think about both what was off limits and what was permitted under the heading of today's challenge it was quite a sobering exercise. In the UK, we are very dependent on imported food, something of which we've become increasingly aware, both in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic and more recently, with the war in Ukraine. It's not that we don't produce any food here - the UK's 'green and pleasant land' still has much to offer for food production but a lot of the things we take for granted in our supermarkets and on our plates comes from abroad with all the attendant air-miles that go with that.

Once you exclude all imported foods, particularly in December, you are left with what does look, at first sight, like very plain fare. For starters, almost all the flavouring agents we take for granted in our cooking these days are gone, including even the bog-standard basics of table salt and pepper, for goodness' sake! 

Fortunately, at least as far as salt is concerned, help is at hand, in the form of UK produced flaky salt - Maldon Salt from Essex or Halen Môn from Anglesey. This is much more expensive than the free-running, imported salt you get in an ordinary salt cellar but it's lovely stuff with which to cook and season food.  Not, if I am honest, quite as good as my favourite sel gris de Guérande, the coarse, French salt from Brittany whose grey, slightly clumpy crystals, rich in sea-derived minerals, resemble granulated sugar and which I use for preference in my cooking. Never mind that however - I bought a tub of flaky Maldon salt and felt considerable relief that today, and any other day marked with this challenge, would not have to be salt-free.

Moving away from basic flavourings, as I said in my introductory post, many other basic foodstuffs are off limits today - a lot of fruit and vegetables, most beans and pulses, all rice, most oils (apart from rapeseed oil), cane sugar, chocolate, many cheeses, some meat and quite a lot of fish, and worst of all, coffee and tea! Yikes!

To say I felt dismay on realising this last ban, would be something of an understatement! No tea?! Forget salt and pepper, never mind foregoing basic fruit such as bananas or oranges, or air-freighted salads and tender vegetables from Kenya or the US, going without tea was going to be privation on a whole new scale! 

And then I remembered something. During WW2 when the UK's tea supply was under threat from the U-boat attacks on shipping convoys, Winston Churchill was so concerned about the threat to the national beverage that was (and still is) so universally depended upon in this country, that, in addition to buying up all the global tea supply he could, he commissioned plans to be drawn up for establishing tea plantations in Britain and it turns out that certain areas of the UK have a climate that is not dissimilar to that of Darjeeling where so much tea is grown. These plans were only shelved because the tea bush, Camellia sinensis, takes a good six years to reach harvestable maturity. 

Half a century down the line however, the baton was picked up by some enterprising horticulturalists and down in Tregothnan, in south-west Cornwall, I discover, a viable and thriving tea plantation exists today. Hallelujah! Having discovered this life-saving fact, I hastened to visit their website. Much of the tea they produce for sale is mixed with imported Indian tea to make a balanced and affordable, if still expensive, blend. My heart sank again - a blend of homegrown and imported tea was no good to me for this project. And then scrolling a bit further down, I spied the Holy Grail - a small, elegant tin of single estate, pure English tea! Eye-wateringly expensive but pure, home-produced, unimported English tea! Reader, I bought some! 

Moving on, but equipped with salt and my all-important tea, today's meals looked like this:

black Tregothnan tea
apple juice pressed from apples grown in the garden
a Golden Delicious apple from the garden, cold-stored in the garage since picking in late September 
oatcakes (made as per Day #3 but with all UK-produced ingredients - see below) with local Oxfordshire honeycomb

I had to make another batch of oatcakes as I suddenly realised that the batch in the tin contained soft brown sugar which is cane sugar and therefore imported. They also contained imported rather than British salt. Fortunately these are easy to rustle up quite quickly and the new batch is made with British caster sugar and Maldon sea salt. The tins are now carefully labelled as the contents look identical - you can taste the brown sugar in the originals and I do prefer that but this is nit-picking!

Interestingly, all British sugar, made from sugar beet, grown mostly in East Anglia, seems to produce only white sugar of various types - granulated, caster and icing sugars but nothing brown - no demerara sugar or my favourite soft brown muscovadoes. I guess this has something to do with a difference in the refinement process between sugar beet and sugar cane but I am not sure exactly what.


I was out at lunchtime today and had to break my no-imported-food fast, I'm afraid.

black Tregothnan tea
toasted English wholemeal muffin (made from Lancashire-grown wheat, British butter, salt, yeast and milk) with homemade rose-hip jelly made from locally foraged rose-hips, crab-apples from the garden and British sugar

potato and turnip pie* made with British potato, turnips, carrots and onion, herbs from the garden and pastry made from British flour, butter and salt
steamed Cornish collard greens

Yes, that speckling you can see in the pic is black pepper - I added it on auto-pilot without thinking! By the time I realised what I'd done, the pie was in the oven!

bramble fool made with frozen, foraged Oxfordshire blackberries, British cream and sugar and homemade Greek-style yoghurt made from British milk (recipe comes The Hedgerow Cookbook by Ginny Knox and Caro Wilson)
shortbread made from British flour, butter, sugar and Maldon sea-salt

*This pie is a version of an old family recipe my mother used to make in the winter when I was a child. She used to add a small quantity of beef to the filling but it was known as 'potato and turnip pie' in honour of the main ingredients. It's very similar to Lord Woolton pie - the pie, made of home-grown vegetables that was popularised during the rationing and shortages of WW2. I rather like it in its vegetarian guise, despite its plainness, but there was grumbling in the ranks about the lack of meat so I gave in and cooked some locally produced pork sausages to go with it for the meat-hankerers.

Turnips are not as easy to get hold of as they were decades ago. I had to go to several supermarkets to get the two I needed for today's pie. A crisp, white English turnip, its skin flushed with a tinge of green and purple and, if you're lucky a sheaf of leaves to cook as turnip-tops still attached at the top of the root, is a thing of joy in the winter kitchen. The Italians, who handle greens with consummate artistry, have always prized 'cime di rapa' probably more than the roots from which they grew. Nowadays, even the turnips that are available have all been routinely shorn of their dark green top-knots which is a shame.

Some of the bantams have decided to start laying again, despite the cold, dank weather and dwindling light and a small bantam egg was perfect for using to glaze the pastry. Thank you very much, Minette!

For what looked as though it might have been a day of rather plain fare, this has not been a bad menu, I feel!

E x

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