Mamushka by Olia Hercules

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 Earlier this year I published my review of Mamushka, a new book about Ukrainian food by Olia Hercules on the Spy books pages. Since then the book has garnered much praise and some nominations for food writing prizes, deservedly so, and I couldn’t bear to not celebrate such a wonderful piece of food writing on my site. So, here it is and if you haven’t already bought your copy, what are you waiting for? 

I don’t know about you but I get tired of endless *new* cookbooks which claim to be a fresh take on Italian/French/Spanish/Deep South food and by dint of a only few ingredient substitutions, are championed as culinary ground breakers. I am also tired of the self aggrandising proclamations by new kids on the block about their burgers/hotdogs/dim sum/bone broth/permutations of fried chicken and pulled meat when they have clearly carried out little research into the history and gastro-geography of their chosen foods.  Food as fashion is a pretty unpalatable concept when half the world seems to lack basic nourishment and some of the difficulties faced by the homeland of Olia Hercules throws this whole issue into even starker relief. Her book, Mamushka is refreshing because she writes about her food culture in an authentic, personal and respectful manner and as I read it, her stories remind me of memories from my own past.

When I was around twelve, my grandparents street in East Anglia gained a new Ukraine neighbour. He sometimes wept when he spoke of his homeland. He’d spend many hours in his gabled shed filled with swallow roosts where he dried the pungent tobacco that grew poorly in our unsuitable climate, eyes wet and fingers stained a deep russet from the leaves that hung in clusters from the rafters. These rustled each time the shed door slid open on its runners, adding to the cacaphony as swallows screeched in and out. My neighbour had escaped after being warned that he was being ‘watched’ (He never explained to me exactly what the implications were but I had an imagination) and he suffered great fear and hardship as he made his way towards the west. I think he knew he would never see his parents, grandparents and extended family again. He would have been so pleased to see the food of his youth so warmly commanded to the page, food he tried to cook for himself but having been well looked after by Ukrainian matriarchs, he struggled to replicate it and struggled even more in the retelling.

Olia Hercules is Ukrainian and was born in Kakhovka, just two hours drive from the Crimean border although her book celebrates the rich cultural diversity of her family with its Siberian, Moldovan, Jewish, Uzbekistani and Ossetian roots. There is ( in her words) a “messy geopolitical mosaic” which at times caused her family to have to negotiate food shortages and conflict but above all, her book and writing bears a richness that transcends those geopolitical boundaries. Mamushka celebrates foodstuffs and recipes that come from lands that may or may not have always been politically friendly with her mother country. This, to me, is emblematic of the generosity and welcome that infuses her cooking.

Olia Hercules by Kris Kirkham
Olia Hercules by Kris Kirkham

The south of the Ukraine is only two hours away from the Turkish border which totally trashes many peoples ideas of her homeland which, as she states, centre upon permutations of cold/bleak/vast/grey. We read of giant succulent tomatoes with pink, sugary juices, of picking great hanks of sorrel, the bosky ceps from Belarus, sour cream like silk and drinks made from the berries of buckthorn. There are endless days of sun where thirst is slaked by a syrup made from strawberries and rhubarb and their hunger appeased by jam made from watermelon skins. These watermelons are farmed in her home region, Kherson, and grow to humongous size, aided by the heat of the Ukrainian summer. Funnily enough, when I read Alison Uttley’s incredibly British accounts of her own childhood cuisine, forged as it was from the fields, woods and hedgerows of the Derbyshire countryside and from centuries of local farming lore, I am reminded of Olia because the cordials and syrups in Mamushka are very similar.

Some of Olia’s recipes reflect her countries proximity to Russia and the gastronomic exchange that exists between the two, even when other relationships are strained. There are familiar dishes, popular in Russia, such as borsch and a handful of salads which are also made from beetroot but they all have their own Ukrainian spin- they are definitely different from their Russian cousins. One version of beetroot soup brines the root vegetable first and the salad made from beets also includes prunes. There’s a more substantial wintery borsch with a depth charge from a stock made from oxtail or beef short rib and, to keep it truly authentic, one should also make it with salo (cured pork belly) and minced garlic.

Armenian pickles.
Armenian pickles.

The Ukrainian cook really gets the importance of sour as a way of cutting the soft fattiness of meats and broths and a reminder that life contains moments that aren’t always sweet- a kind of riff on the ‘bitter tears’ of Jewish Passover although this may be my take and not theirs. There’s a sorrel broth that has melting rich duck at its heart, adds in beet leaves for earthiness and is finished with the sorrel left au natural, uncooked to keep its verdant brightness both in flavour and appearance. There’s fermented tomatoes, used green, and served fizzy (because this is another important and underused oral sensation), with winter casseroles. I have already made the chilli and garlic cucumbers which use those stubbly and prickly cucumbers as opposed to our slender, less tactile versions. Made with all the good things- sugar, cider vinegar, chile, garlic, salt- they are perfect on their own and I can’t get enough of them although I’d also serve them with Suffolk black bacon or a fatty coil of lamb breast. Finally, Olia includes a recipe for proper fermented sour gherkins which I’ve bookmarked to make when my new crop is ready on the allotment. They are perfumed with horseradish leaves and use sour cherry leaves to keep them crunchy and fresh. I also have a sour cherry tree which embraces my allotment shed with reddish brown striated branches, so I am ready to go.

The garlic bread is magnificent. Pillowy or like a ‘pampushka’ as the Ukrainians refer to a gorgeously plump and sumptuously fleshed woman, it uses 20g of wet or regular garlic to produce an almost brioche level of unctuousness. Slightly less lush in size but no slouch in the taste stakes. Moldovan breads are flavoured with cheese (feta) and sorrel to produce a summery bread with an edge. These have a fizzy, sour backbone from the kefir dough which has bicarb, white wine vinegar and sugar bolstering it.

Unlike Olia’s family I don’t have goats but I do have goats cheese and her potato cakes have this added (unusually). I also chucked in some grated courgette alongside her carrot and onion and they worked beautifully. Served with blackberry sauce, these are Ukrainian trad and now become Anglo-Irish-Spanish-Huguenot trad in our house.

Sensibly there are glut recipes: a plum, raisin and rum conserve; a gooseberry and strawberry jam; a cornel cherry jam and those jars of pickles. There are loads of meaty, ricey things to eat them with and Azerbaijani rice and fruity lamb makes a virtue of the crispy underside of the rice. It is served on top of the meat. Their Caucasus chicken is served with walnuts and prunes and the liver of the chicken is added to buckwheat and crispy shallots to make a kasha based meal.

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There might have been a credit crunch in Soviet Ukraine during the early 80’s but Olia’s family didn’t stint on puddings and cakes either. Choose from crumbly Ukrainian biscotti dimpled with pecans or walnuts; a towering Napolean cake made from layers of crumbly pastry and creme patissiere; curly wasp nest buns which are a little like the American monkeybread and a pretty honey cake with a creme fraiche rim balanced with the sweetness of honey comb. There’s also an intriguing loaf shaped cheesecake.

To be honest, Mamushka’s melding of the sweet, the savoury and the sour means that the western convention of courses following each other as day is chased by the night seems very old fashioned. Olia is not prescriptive and this book is a tempting suggestion as to what you might eat and when, interspersed with lovely family stories and explanations of customs. I look forward to more.

Olia can also be found on twitter -@oliasgastronomy.

The rise and fall of the iceberg lettuce

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“Lettuce,” said CD Warner, “is like conversation. It must be fresh and crisp, and so sparkling that you scarcely notice the bitter in it,” which definitely sums up the Iceberg lettuce. However, this once highly popular salad green has seen a dramatic fall in sales over the last couple of decades whilst bagged-leaf varieties and other salad crops such as rocket and watercress have rapidly risen in popularity. What has happened?

Criticised for its apparent lack of nutritional value, the Iceberg is loathed by Mimi Sheraton, the much-respected food writer and restaurant reviewer. Iceberg is regularly declared as dead by other pillars of the food world, has been called the ‘polyester of lettuces’ by my personal hero, John Waters, (who has shown feet of clay here) and became the subject of a good-hearted spat between Alice Waters and Marion Cunningham. This resulted in air-freighted boxes of French lettuces being delivered to Cunningham after she expressed her liking for the Iceberg. Alice Waters has never been known for her timidity when it comes to opinions on food and she believes Iceberg to be plebeian. God love her, but Alice is wrong on this count.

The former New York Times food critic Craig Clairborne detested it with a passion, something the writer Nora Ephron felt moved to comment upon in her book of essays, I Feel Bad About My Neck. In it, she offers us an evolution of lettuce as it happened in NYC culinary circles, kicking off with endive, arugula and radicchio, followed by frisée and what she refers to as the ‘Three M’s’- mesclun, mâche and microgreens. Poor old Iceberg is out in the cold but, as Ephron says, you can’t really discuss the history of lettuce in the last forty years without mentioning the seminal hatred Clairborne nursed in his heart for this jolly little salad green.

So what if Iceberg contains 95-6% water, says David Still, a plant science professor at California State Polytechnic University at Pomona. A mouthful of water flavoured with fruit juice is close to 100% water, but nobody would advise we stop drinking that on the same basis, would they? What if it contains a fairly low level of nutrients compared to the Holy Kale: just how many food items do you eat a day purely for their exalted goodness? (Deliciously Ella, don’t answer this question- I know what you’ll probably say.) Iceberg does contain vitamin A, potassium and some trace amounts of fibre and protein, and, more importantly, sometimes you want bruising culinary power and at other times you crave subtlety and gentleness. Not all foods have to be kick-ass and the definition of goodness should encompass far more than what something does for us, nutritionally speaking.

 

According to George Ball, chief executive officer of W. Atlee Burpee & Co, the Iceberg was the most celebrated of lettuces, once upon a time. His company developed the variety we know today, over a hundred years ago in 1894, from an altogether looser headed lettuce called Batavia. This new ‘tennis ball lettuce’ was once highly prized by President Thomas Jefferson and from the Roaring Twenties onwards, iceberg was seen in every stylish kitchen, becoming a staple in salads served up at Manhattans Stork Club, El Morocco and The Colony. Boasting a gossip columnist under every table, these supper clubs attracted the theatre crowd and an entourage of post show celebrities. Time faded black and white photographs show glamorous starlets and men with fat cigars sitting at a table loaded with platters of club sandwiches, kept crisp by celadon layers of Iceberg. This was the lettuce to the stars in a manner of speaking, served in platters of food designed to soak up the splits of champagne that graced each table and kept temperamental throats and egos lubricated. Ethel Merman, Maurice Chevalier, Errol Flynn and Marilyn Monroe all chowed down on platters of iced shrimp served with Iceberg wedge salad which shattered into icy shards as they bit into it, the buttermilk and ranch dressing served on the side in little pressed glass and silver jugs.

Iceberg might be mostly water but it is not watery. Its thing is crunch, something fans refer to continually although they are undoubtedly waning in number as tastes broaden and the store shelves groan with choice. From the sixties onwards, as foreign travel became desirable and affordable, people wanted to recreate the meals they had sampled abroad and the trend started moving towards other lettuces: the romaine of Caesar salads, the peppery rockets and prickly frisées with their can can frills of pink, purple and cream. It became harder to find Iceberg and even the humble burger saw the Iceberg crunch replaced with baby leafed exotica in all the colours of the rainbow. Cue a waitress in a restaurant recently who told me worriedly that “our BLT’s do contain iceberg” and seemed surprised when I reassured her that, no this was fine and I was not about to fly into a rage fuelled by an absence of whatever exotically-tinted hedgerow clipping is in fashion this month.

Originally this lettuce was a fabulous answer to the frailty of many leafy varieties which curled up and grow slimy at the first hint of cold, freezing, drying or rough-housing in the chain of supply- their life, post picking, can very short. This rendered them hard to transport and so they remained a local resource, hence their increasing popularity and desirability as we began to travel to those markets and see what the locals had easy access to. Iceberg was remarkably tough and was originally transported all over the USA via boxcars meaning that Americans could eat salad lettuce all year round- and in the colder, more northerly states, that was a big deal. Its transport, in refrigerated containers, didn’t give the lettuce its name though: an old Burpees catalogue uses it before refrigerated transport came into vogue.

It is believed that the Romans introduced lettuce to Great Britain, a variant of a plant that grew weed like around the Mediterranean basin and its dried juices were used as a sleep aid by the Elizabethans, then later refined into lactucarium from wild lettuce plants and used throughout World War Two in hospitals as a sedative. The first supplies of Iceberg arrived in Britain during the middle of the 1970’s but it was not until 1984 that our growers overcame environmental challenges to successful cultivation. Marks and Spencer started stocking it in the early eighties, those ‘Prawn Cocktail Years’ of the eponymous book by Simon Hopkinson and Lyndsey Bareham which re-popularised it for the kids of the baby boomers but by 2011, The Telegraph reported its decline with sales falling by 35%.

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Talking to Colin Randal, vegetable product manager at Thompson & Morgan (T&M), a large Suffolk based seed and plant merchant, it is clear that Iceberg retains popularity among a core of devotees but, as he says, “Little Gem and ‘midi romaine’ cos are still top of the pile in the lettuce world and Little Gem consistently remains the most popular lettuce variety with gardeners.” Although T&M offer a ‘Crispy Lettuce Mix’ which contains 5 lettuce varieties, many of their customers prefer the oriental mixes of pak choi, mustard, mizuna with added rocket and Greek cress which, like many salad leaf mixes, can take as little as 25 days from sowing to picking. Speed and small leaves rule: it is harder to grow Icebergs on a balcony or small garden. The other advantage to growing your own lettuce is the avoidance of unnecessary waste: according to Love Food, Hate Waste the impact on the environment of throwing away lettuce is 100 times greater than the pack it comes in.

T&M customers still appreciate the crunchy hearts of Iceberg shredded in salads he says, and the variety ‘Lakeland’ and its older relative ‘Webbs Wonderful’ are still popular among gardeners growing from seed but, as he points out, “the choices of icebergs do not change very much. The RHS Iceberg trial in 2014 at Wisley consisted of just 22 varieties and 4 of these ( Lakeland , Challenge, Robinson and Sioux) were in the 1993 and 2001 previous assessment trials.” T&M has an exclusive on ‘Sweet Success’ an Iceberg x Romaine Cos, and ‘Elyburg’ and Iceberg x Gem cos. He adds; “both combine the sweetness and crunch of an iceberg with the dark leaf colour and texture of a Romaine. Neither resemble the Iceberg visually and time will tell if supermarkets introduce these to their shelves.”

Although it might not actually possess “beneficial influences on morals, temperance, and chastity” as claimed by John Evelyn in his 1699 Acetaria: A Discourse of Sallets, there is much to commend Iceberg, fridge cold and freshly picked, although any seed company that can overcome the problem of a large and hard to use core might have something pretty good on their hands: I have to balance my guilt over throwing out so large a core with my lack of desire to actually do anything with it other than feed it to the local wildfowl who adore it. Although plenty of commentators have accused the Iceberg of being all about shelf life or appearance over taste, that is as true of other lettuce varieties, many of which lack its textural appeal.

Classic BLT with layers of Iceberg
Classic BLT with layers of Iceberg

With a slightly bitter lactic edge and a cool, clean and delicate taste, Iceberg has much to commend it alongside its ability to act as sturdy carrier for some pretty strongly flavoured ingredients such as blue cheese, anchovies and vinegars. When I asked for fans to come forward, there were quite a few among well known food writers and cooks who offered up some great suggestions for using it, both classic and left-field. As Helen Graves, creator of the Peckham Jerk Marinade and the popular Food Stories site said: ” “Yep, like it for a wedge salad or a burger. All about the crunch, innit.” Miss South of the NorthSouthFood website demurred, responding, “I have a great hatred of it. Too wet and too crunchy. But I am a bit of a salad dodger if honest… I am very fond of those soft round butter head lettuce instead. Less aggressively lettucey to me,” and I do get where she is coming from. For me any tendency towards letttucey aggression stems from its larger leaves which are greedy for plate space, providing shelter it would seem for a small child when left unshredded, akin to those Victorian photographs of infants standing underneath tropical vegetation. Helen countered with “yeah there are far better, but I think it has a place. Prawn cocktail, burgers, wedge salad…”

And therein the rub. I detest a burger served with fancy leaves which droop limply when a hot burger patty is dolloped on top: they prove useless at keeping those layers separate- the meat, cheese, pickles, tomato slice/ lettuce and bacon- that make up the classic hot/cold/hot/cold burger build. It has to be the cold tooth crackle of an iceberg leaf for me. And Diana Henry responding to my twitter enquiry agreed, saying “at least it has crunch! And I do quite like it in a burger – the cold crunch against the hot meat.” And if you like American mustard on your burger then its slight bitterness has an affinity with iceberg as does the cold sweetness of seafood which offers another natural pairing.

Jack Monroe is definite in her praise and offers up her usual offbeat take on culinary application, especially for those leftover leaves that tend to sulk unused at the bottom of the salad tray. “I love it. Great snack, wrap, and can bulk out a pesto when it starts to turn…I also love it roasted in a wedge with blue cheese and Caesar dressing and smashed up bacon…” Jack’s Lazarus Pesto recipe seems the best candidate for the iceberg variation and I agree that a bit of char along those leaf edges adds both smokiness and further texture that doesn’t overpower.

It was Diana Henry’s twitter feed which originally prodded me into remembering the essay on the Iceberg by James Villas and its recent fall from grace. After a visit to Lockhart London when it first opened, Henry raved over its deeply southern culinary aesthetic, courtesy of Mississippi born and bred chef, Brad McDonald. There’s a wedge salad with iceberg bacon, chopped egg & buttermilk ranch dressing on the Lockharts menu, as Betty Crocker as it gets which is kind of the point- and a point that not all British patrons of his restaurant have grasped. Recipes such as this are infused with a strong element of nostalgia and they are also about simple ingredients that do not have to cost a lot. Buttermilk dressing has a similar lactic rime and the crunch of the lettuce, served in a large hand-sized wedge, offsets that dairy creaminess perfectly: it gives the iceberg full permission to brag about its sturdy texture. A riff off the classic BLT if you like, this would not work at all with any other lettuce. Comfort food must go forth and comfort and the bitter green of a classic mesclun salad with its brittle and chien French chic would not provide this. However there are other European substitutes- replace the bacon with chorizo, chunks of ferrous morcilla or the Catalonian fuet to really amp up the robustness of a wedge salad.

Chicken Cobb Salad by stu_spivack/ flickr: CC -ShareAlike 2.0 Generic
Cobb Salad by stu_spivack/ flickr: CC -ShareAlike 2.0 Generic

The Americans really do know how to handle this lettuce. The Cobb Salad was invented by Robert Cobb, owner of Hollywood’s Brown Derby back in 1937. More of a weighty main course, this plateful of poached chicken breast, avocado, bacon, and tomatoes is set against a backdrop of hearty Iceberg leaves. The Brown Derby created its own old fashioned French dressing to accompany this and when you see the ingredients, it becomes clear that iceberg makes the pefect transportation system for such sharp flavours. The classic Salad Louie, a crab and shrimp confection on a bed of Iceberg, spring onions, dressed with hard boiled egg, served with Louie dressing and lemon wedges is another salad that cannot be bettered by the substitution of a bitter green. There’s the sweet iciness of the shrimp and lettuce, both perfect hot weather ingredients and the leaves are not harmed by the need to keep seafood chilled on sweltering days. Unlike a lot of other foods, its flavour is not lost by chilling, it is just different…clever, huh?

It’s not all bygone ideas either. Rick Bayless, Latina cusine supremo tells us that in Mexico cooks are taking to stirring the lettuce shredded into posole soups and serving it as ensalata compliment to spicy foods, its milkiness acting as salve to overheated mouths. Funnily enough he once complained that Mexican food in the sixties became about “melted cheese on everything, salsa that has no heat, Iceberg lettuce on everything” to appeal to white people although he has clearly had a rethink on Iceberg. Grace Young has also popularised a recipe for it, stir fried with soy, garlic and black pepper which turns the leaves glossy and scented in a manner we are less accustomed to. The Chinese are a nation of people less accustomed to eating their vegetables completely raw, as Young says, and seem to adore the lettuce cooked, either braised or stir fried or used as a wrapper and they are also experts in texture, showing westerners a thing or two about embracing qualities other than what an ingredient simply tastes like.

Brown Derby Old Fashioned French Dressing

The cup of water is optional depending upon the degree of oiliness preferred in the dressing.

1 cup water / 1 cup red wine vinegar / 1 tsp sugar / juice 1/2 lemon / 2 and 1/2 tbs salt / 1 tbs. ground black pepper / 1 tbs. Worcestershire sauce / 1 tsp. English mustard/ 1 bead garlic, chopped / 1 cup olive oil / 2 cups salad oil

Blend together all ingredients except for the oils then add the olive and salad oils and mix well again. Chill. Shake before serving. This dressing keeps well in the refrigerator. Can be made and stored in a 2 quart jar, a Mason one for extra kitschy authenticity.

From the Brown Derby Cook Book by Robert H. Cobb

Image of lettuces by Rasbak 2007

For those of you who are totally in love with lettuce, how about buying some lettuce-ware?

The stone curlew: a local conservation success story

Stone Curlew image by Steve Round courtesy of the RSPB
Stone Curlew image by Steve Round

(Image of the Stone Curlew courtesy of the RSPB/ Steve Round)

 Earlier this year, the RSPB held an awards and information evening which celebrated 30 years of joint conservation work by Breckland farmers and other organisations. This has helped increase the stone curlew population by conserving the very specific environments required for successful breeding. Attended by Environment Secretary Liz Truss MP – whose constituency includes a large part of the stone curlew’s range – guests enjoyed talks by a variety of experts in conservation alongside the presentation of a lifetime achievement award to local farmer Chris Knight. In this feature, we look at the history of this unique habitat which provides a home to so many species and examine the impact that changes in conservation and farming practices have wrought upon local stone curlew numbers.
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The post war years saw the reselling of the countryside back to the baby boomers as a kind of neutered pastoral theme park – a place we go ‘to’ and are consequentially distanced from. Add in the fact that, as Rupert Masefield of the RSPB told me, “There is no wilderness left in Britain- it is all known” and we can see, in part (because I am over simplifying a complex set of circumstances), why we are now in the process of redressing the damage and imbalance this distancing and commodification caused.

The fact that Britain has been mapped and plotted along its entire length and breadth doesn’t rule out us enjoying a sense of wilderness and wildness and the Brecklands provides this in spade loads, being a part of East Anglia largely unknown even to many those of us who live nearby or within it. W.G Sebald talked of a haunted landscape and Breckland is this to a certain extent- these ‘broken lands’ which are the sum total of nature, nurture and ownership and deeply specific in their topography, wildlife and micro-climate. It is this specificity that attracts species like the stone curlew and also applies to those farmers and conservationists who live and work in the Brecklands and are heafed to its every contour. We all should be haunted by the riches that we so very nearly lost and which remain vulnerable for a myriad of reasons. We cannot be complacent about recent gains.

The Brecklands was once the centre of flint production in Neolithic times and over the centuries became known for its inhospitable sandy terrain which choked and dammed local rivers and streams, partially due to the wholesale destruction by rabbits which were once farmed here and lived in giant warrens, dug out of the friable earth. Referred to as travelling sands, the Brecks were England’s Sahara and were described beautifully by Roger Deakin in his book, Waterlog, and it is this sandy ground which proves so seductive for the stone curlew which arrives here from North Africa to breed each year:

‘The Little Ouse is a wadi running through the Breckland desert. It comes as a surprise to find a river of such beauty in this arid, sandy place, like coming over a barren ridge and seeing the lush palm groves of the Draa Valley of Marrakesh. In the neolithic days when the whole area was a populous centre of industrial flint-mining, the river must have been a busy place.

After the forest was created in the twenties to provide timber for war and a nation keen to build, the topography changed somewhat to coniferous lowland forests that became bedded down in decades of acidic needle mulch surrounded by what was left of the acres of grass, gorse and sand sedged heathlands. Protected miniature ecosystems sprung up among the dark evergreens, the Scots and Corsican pine, Douglas firs and European larches and formed the pine lines that are characteristic of this region and led to over 25% of the British woodlark and 10% of the breeding nightjar population making the forest their home. Deliberately uncultivated land margins are conserved by the Brecks farmers today, home to goldcrests and siskins, lapwings, crossbills, turtle dove, firecrests and woodcock which all live and feed here alongside the ever present muntjac and roe deer.

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Breckland pine lines

The Brecklands have become the largest lowland forest in the UK, spanning nearly 1,000 kilometres of sandy flinty soil and they are home to 28% of the UK’s rarest species whilst comprising just 0.4% of the UK’s total landmass. The Forestry Commission and Ministry of Defence are both actively involved in the conservation of their habitats including allowing older stands of timber to remain unfelled and felling other trees in such a way as to develop a complex mosaic of trees and ages . The result? The original serried lines of firs are being superseded by a pattern of sweeping curves and a more naturalistic landscape of mixed broad leaf and evergreen plantings.

The land itself is remarkable bearing the ghostly marks and rubble of the Ice Age as it pushed back from the eastern region.It also bears the scars from the many German bombing incursions during the Second World War:  the region was home to airforce and USAF bases and attracted the wrath of the German war effort as a result. There are the curious ice bubbled pingos (Ice Age ponds) which are home to rare water beetles, the spirograph like etchings from permafrost and curious water filled bomb craters near Lakenheath. Inland sand dunes, lakes and meres are fed by underground springs and the five rivers that wend their way across the Brecks. Year round ground frosts and mists render the land climatically distinct and some of the pudges can remain ice edged far into late spring. The ground is a tapestry of lichens and reindeer moss, sedges, bouncy sedums and plants with evocative names-the fingered speedwell, purging flax, purple milk vetch, military orchid and rabbit grazed Breckland thyme. Many of the plants here come straight from the Steppes of Russia and grow nowhere else in England whilst twenty-five species of invertebrates found in the Brecks are currently listed as being in danger of extinction in Britain and over 40% of the Brecks is protected at a national or international level for its wildlife or geological interest.

One of the great misconceptions of our time is that nature will naturally balance itself if it is left alone, a misconception that ignores the fact that we cannot go back. The naturalisation of non indigenous species means that nature, if left to itself, would revert very swiftly to the dominance of a few species at the expense of others. As many of the farmers we spoke to said, “nature cannot be left to itself anymore but that doesn’t mean we cannot do it in a way that connects us to our environment and respects the festival of nature that the Brecks are.” Take the control of rabbits and use of the Brecks by grazing livestock. A combination of low soil fertility and disturbance of the soil by rabbit digging helps keep out the more vigorous and demanding plants that would otherwise crowd out the drought tolerant local plantlife. Rabbit action maintains an open and friable soil structure- aiding drainage- which benefits the moss, lichens and many Alpine type plants. Grazing ensures the vegetation is kept short and open, reduces the potential for dominance by perennial grasses and keeps tree seedlings in check, a kind of double action effect if you like.

Breckland terrain up close.
Breckland terrain up close.

Bev Nichols from Natural England spoke of the importance of farmers to wildlife conservation, particularly with regard to the stone curlew whose regeneration we were celebrating. Supported by EU legislation, Breckland farmers have provided 110 fallow plots for the birds to breed and nest in alongside cultivated margins, the latter resulting in an equivalent land mass of 520km. The cultivated margins also surround the characteristic pine lines which were at risk of disappearing entirely over the next five decades. These pine lines are rows of mixed pines left in fields and alongside cultivated land and quickly offer shelter and habitat for many of the Brecks species of plant and wildlife.

People in this region are in the top percentile for choosing nature conservation as one of their top criteria and they vote for those who place great importance upon it says Andrew Holland, the Brecks Farm Conservation Advisor: “they vote for nature and want to protect it” and he dreams of a future for the region where “every farm is involved and initiatives are farmer led. Farmers listen to other farmers and they are inspired by them. There’s a lot of proud farmers doing a lot of work…the public don’t see what they do free of charge [curlew protection] and they are proud of it and want it to work.”

He added “Long-term farmland conservation initiatives like this one show that farmers and landowners value and recognise themselves as custodians of wildlife and are keen to play and active role in conservation.

“Wildlife isn’t confined to nature reserves and neither can our efforts to protect it be. If we’re going to succeed in reversing long term species declines and loss of biodiversity, working together with farmers, landowners, and shooting estates, as well as conservation partners, on the scale of the whole landscape is key.”

The statistics on their work with conservation organisations to protect stone curlews speak for themselves. Since 1985, farmers, landowners, gamekeepers and conservationists have worked together to reverse the decline of the stone curlew in the Brecks. Fewer nests have been accidentally destroyed, allowing more chicks to fledge. Now, 30 years on, this pioneering landscape-scale conservation partnership has succeeded in nearly trebling the number of pairs of stone-curlews breeding in the area, with nearly 250 pairs recording breeding in the Brecks in 2012- around 70 per cent of them in arable farmland.  Looking to the future of stone curlews in the UK, an EU LIFE+ funded project lead by the RSPB is helping to increase safe nesting places for stone-curlews to pave the way for a more sustainable population. Working with Natural England and landowners, the project is also helping to develop better measures for landowners to help stone-curlews through the new Countryside Stewardship scheme which is funded via EU schemes.

We asked several farmers attending the event what they would like the general public to know about them and the resounding vote was regarding their environmental conservation and land stewardship, something they felt we knew nothing about:

“What do we wish the public knew about us? That we don’t rip out hedgerows and grub out trees. That we care about the land and look after it for generations to come.”

“Every farmer thinks their patch is special and we take a long term view of it. I know every inch of my land as did my father and as will do my own children”

“People hear the word ‘subsidy’ and they think you are sitting at home gathering in money. That’s not the case”

“We have a vested interest in conservation and we are interested in every aspect of it. We care about pollen and nectar mixes in the wildseed we sow. We care about plants that other folks would walk over blindly and not notice.”

“Farmers have always done bits and pieces of conservation work themselves over the years and now we have a coordinated approach. We have a will and we know there’s a way.”

In addition to this, local gamekeepers were also keen to be identified as conservators of nature and sought to distance themselves from rogue behaviour that has been rightly prosecuted when it involves the destruction of birds of prey. They appealed to the RSPB and similar organisations to “please recognise gamekeepers as as helpful force. we’ve been demonised unfairly and it is important to recognise what we and shooting estates do to conserve wildlife.”

The heathland of the Brecks which is such a suitable home for the Stone Curlew
Cavenham heath, Breckland in September: home of the Stone Curlew

Farmers spoke passionately and eloquently about the specific measures they have taken to protect the stone curlew and the affection and regard they hold the bird in was apparent. One farmer, Chris Knights was to receive a lifetime achievement award from the RSPB and spoke of his lifelong passion for stone curlews which were once known locally and descriptively as the wailing heath chicken: “I would stand on the stone steps of my farmhouse as a child and hear them calling in the night.” His decades of experience provided the audience with a welter of anecdotes. He spoke of a bird that sometimes managed to raise two broods per season causing hm to erect a hide on his land to photograph this less then common occurrence and of his first set aside (which is used to provide the birds with a nesting ground) which happened accidentally after the wind damaged crops and he decided to not bother re-drilling it. He watched the chicks hatch, camouflaged among the flint and sand of the Brecks grow and develop adult plumage, their blue eyes and baby legs changing to yellow at six weeks rendering them even harder to spot.

The usually shy stone curlews grow bold in protecting their young from the livestock that sometimes share their nesting grounds- Chris has seen them usher sheep from the nest, actually pecking at their noses to get them away although they are generally shy, unsociable birds active at night, congregating only at breeding time when they roost. An odd looking bird, or, as one farmer said, “A bird not too far along from its dinosaur ancestors”, they do look prehistoric with their knobbly blueish knees and beady yellow eyes and exist symbiotically with the much maligned rabbit whose habits produce the disturbed ground they favour as nesting sites. The recent decline of the Breckland rabbit population (mentioned by farmers) is being monitored for any knock on effects on the curlew (as it did in the Mixymatosis outbreak of the fifties) from undergrazing which allows the vegetation to grow too tall for the stone curlew. Funnily enough later on in the Spring, when I mentioned the sudden and recent decline of the Brecklands rabbit population to Michaela Strachan during the press call for the BBC show Springwatch, she appeared incredulous to the point of not believing me at all.

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Breckland botany

Chris paid his own tribute to the RSPB who, he said “have the knack of getting good people who can talk and work with anybody, the farmers, tractor drivers, whatever” and Chris is one of these good people too. So dedicated to protecting the stone curlew is he that he paid the tractor drivers that worked for him all their lives to spot the nests and move them- £1 per nest.

And with regards to that nest spotting, it is hard, tedious and mentally exhausting work, especially as modern agri-farming techniques raise the farmer high above the ground literally and metaphorically, making nests harder to spot. Farming operations, such as the rolling of cereals, weed control cultivations and the use of irrigation equipment all pose particular challenges. Imagine a field that is pretty much the same colour as the bird and its nest and then imagine trying to cope with the vagaries of a bird which may or may not choose to breed and nest on the set aside land you have left uncultivated and sprayed to prevent it from becoming over vegetated. As farmers explained to us, get the timing wrong and the stone curlew may avoid it altogether because the ground has attracted other birds to it, putting them off or the vegetation has started to grow too long. When this happens, the bird may decide to nest on tilled and cultivated land meaning hours spent patrolling the fields looking out for nests. The nests are on the ground and the chicks lay prone with their brown baby feathers, flecked by silver grey striations. And your eyes apparently do not become habituated to them: they remain elusive, well camouflaged animals producing eggs and chicks that are pretty indistinguishable from their surroundings which means they may be destroyed by farm machinery.

The environment secretary Liz Truss MP whose constituency includes a large part of the stone curlew’s range in the Brecks also attended Friday’s event as the guest of one of her farming constituents. On the night she paid tribute to Chris Knight saying “Everything we do is based upon Chris’s experience. knowledge and love for wildlife” and she extended her praise to the many organisations involved and farmers in general speaking of her “pride in representing such a fantastic part of the country which is a great food producing region.” She added “It is good to see Natural England working in such a common sense way. We’ve seen huge progress in the way we manage land. Farmland is vital for the state of nature and we cannot have one without the other.”

“Farmers are the leading edge in technology and the way they [Breckland] farm makes me very glad to be their MP.”

Farmers and landowners in the Brecks who would like to find out more about what they can do for wildlife on their land can contact Andrew Holland for free advice on 01842 756714 07540 692905 or e-mail andrew.holland@rspb.org.uk

http://www.rspb.org.uk/forprofessionals/farming/advice/

Cavenham Heath, early evening in September where we heard the Stone Curlews call.
Cavenham Heath, early evening in September where we heard the Stone Curlews call.

 

 

This piece originally appeared on Bury Spy

A dab of heat

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Like a lot of people, I struggle to find an economical way of feeding large amounts of people with fish: it is rarely inexpensive and nor should it be bearing in mind the time and effort it takes fishermen and women to catch and land their bounty. I am a dab hand (sorry) at stretching a few fish into bright curries, mash topped pies and little round cakes hiding nuggets of melting cheese but for me, the ultimate luxury is a large white plate topped with a single perfect fish, prepared simply, served whole. And if you choose to serve sole or plaice, flounder, skate or brill (turbot, is sadly out of the question) to several diners then the pounds rack up: some of these are high end fish for high days and holidays and none are cheap as chips any more.

This is where the dab should take a bow. They are prolific breeders in the cold dark waters of the North Sea and around the UK in general and are capable of breeding within two years, when they are only fifteen centimetres long. A precocious ability to reproduce explains in part why dab are so numerous and they are also a reliable catch because they will apparently feed in both daylight and darkness, gliding silently onto sandy beaches, estuaries and anywhere where rock clusters and sandy bottomed gullies have attracted the sea creatures they, in turn, feed upon. Their price reflects this and when I visited a local fishmonger, Fish Burwell LTd in Newmarket, I bought a bag full of dabs at only £1,75 each for fish that weighed in just over a pound (usual for a sold dab). They were beautifully fresh- still in rigor- irridescent, splodged with marmalade coloured spots and I bought them as nature made them although they are a lot easier to fillet than roundfish if you wish to serve them in this manner.

On the fishmongers slab, you’ll notice it has beady dark eyes on the right side of its body and skin the colour of wet sand at Walton on the Naze. Take it home and rub your fingers over its uncooked flanks and you’ll feel a roughness like a kittens tongue, pushing against the pads of your fingertips. You can cook them with head and fins attached and they tolerate pan, grill, oven and flame happily, without breaking up- a result of that determined and pliable skin which makes great eating too. The flavour is rich – a result of their marine diet of prawns, molluscs, shellfish and small crustaceans- and the meat falls away from their cartilaginous skeleton with a light touch of the fork.

I’ve written before about how I think what we refer to as ‘trash fish’ will gain popularity as it becomes the marine equivalent of nose to tail eating and dabs are a prime example of an under rated commercial fish, often disposed of when caught as by-catch by trawlers although things are changing. The fishing industry has realised there is a need to create a market for dab and other by catch. In the past they’ve been regarded as little more than flotsam and jetsam, not worth landing and certainly not worth the fuel miles to port where they would no doubt have lingered behind unsold. However there is a long way to go as of yet, with skippers having to return to shore with their entire by-catch, regardless of whether it can be eaten or sold. This is a terrible waste of fish, time and fuel, especially when fishing crews report that some by-catch fish might well have survived a return to the sea. Ultimately, the inability to return under-sized fish to the seas can only harm future stocks. Even if the by-catch has perished, all is not lost as indigenous marine animals such as birds and other fish would eat the discarded fish or their carcasses would decompose on the ocean floor, releasing essential nutrients into the water and sea-bed.

The Sea Fisheries Protection Agency, DEFRA and the Marine Institute have all been working with people employed in the fishing industries to reduce the amount of undersized catches. The recommended strategies have included an increase in the size of the mesh in cod nets. From the first of January 2016, all whiting, haddock, prawns and hake will be subject to an extended ban on by-catch, as part of measures being phased in by the European Commission to tackle the problem of by catch which resulted from its previous quota system. However, this has its critics because Irish and British waters are heavily fished by fishing crews of boats registered to other mainland European countries. These can continue to catch the most lucrative fish whilst Irish and British vessels are moored in port because they have reached their quota of caught fish.

The Burwells fish team had this to say about the problem: “By catch is being reduced by a change in legislation allowing fishermen to land more product avoiding the need to throw by catch back into the sea. As a fishmongers we promote the use of less know fish on a daily basis.”

Asked about their own stock, they told me: “We stock fish such as Dabs, Hake, Gurnard on a regular basis along with a recipe for people to try it with. We believe that some of the lesser known varieties of fish hold a lot more flavour and are also lighter on the wallet too. We would like to see people eating more Hake, Gurnard, Red Fish, Whiting and Coley.” Certainly, whenever I visit, I enjoy that interaction, the chance to gain more knowledge about what I am buying, about what I ought to be eating more of and what could benefit from a ‘ piscine close season’ because stocks are getting a bit too low for comfort.

Much of what I do starts with something read in a book and my search for a nice little pan fish to take kindly to began with Katy Carr’s food adventures in Susan Coolidge’s What Katy Did Next:

“Soles and muffins she finally decided upon and, as an afterthought, gooseberry jam. ‘Muffins sounds so very good in Dickens you know, she explained to Mrs Ashe, “and I never saw a sole.’ The soles when they came proved to be nice little pan fish, not unlike what in New England are called scup. All the party took kindly to them but the muffins were a great disappointment, tough and tasteless, with a flavour about them of scorched flannel.”

After reading What Katy Did Next, I laboured under the illusion that New England scups were the same as sole which were similar to what we call dabs- I was wrong. Properly known as Limanda Limanda, the dab is a member of the Flounder family and similar in appearance to the sole and plaice, which of course Katy Carr had already noted. The dab fitted the bill for our hungry and on the side of large, family. I was keen to serve whole fish too, because it has always been important for children to understand what ‘real’ fish look like and to not only eat it neatly filleted and parcelled up with all the trickier parts- head, fins, tail, skin- removed and disposed of lest they be too, um, ‘fishy’. But how best to cook it?

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Keep it simple stupid is definitely the mantra here. I like the sound of the Fisherman’s Roll, made with the best of the catch and hence, little added bells and whistles are required, but it requires the dabs to be filleted and I wanted to serve them intact. If, however, you like the idea of this, then ask the fishmonger to fillet the dab and  then dredge them in seasoned flour, fry in olive oil and serve in a buttered soft bap with a squeeze of lemon and liberal shakes of good salt and black pepper. Nigella’s  soft white dinner rolls are a good match, otherwise look for pale flour covered baps sold in independent bakeries- the kind with a soft and spreading girth. In the USA, Parker House Rolls with their buttery glazed tops are delicious with fried fish or pair the sweet, fluffy Hawaiian rolls with the toothsome dab. Hawaiian rolls are yeast risen, enriched with milk, eggs and sugar and were introduced to Hawaii by Portuguese immigrants who flocked there to work in the sugar plantations in the mid nineteenth century. It is a short and logical step to pair the sweet rolls with the fried fish that Portuguese people so love and together they compliment rather than overload the palate. Spread the rolls with a good unsalted butter, add a slice of tomato (choose Jack Hawkins if they are well ripened) and season the fish well. For those of you without access to Hawaiian bread, use brioche rolls sold in store for burgers- the kind with toffee coloured glazed tops. (Aldi and Waitrose both sell good versions or ask your local indy baker if they make them.)

Fish Burwells LTD enjoy a dab or six and although most of their stock tends to be sold to older customers, there is a decent demand for them locally. The fish team recommend serving them tapas style, using a paillard technique to flatten the fillets out even more before spreading with smoked salmon pate, rolling, eggwashing and shallow frying each one. I’ve seen a more complicated version of this 18th century dish cooked by Chef Michel Roux Jnr from Le Gavroche, who stuffed a Dover sole with lobster before frying in a similar manner. The dish can also be made with trout which was one of the signature dishes of Chef Charles Elme Francatelli who was a pupil of Carême and maitre d’hotel and chief cook to the Queen. (From Francatelli’s Modern Cook, 1886 edition.)

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We prepared ours simply in two different ways. First off, the classic pan fry in brown butter after a dredge with seasoned flour, swiftly cooked and tipped onto a plate with little more than a lemon half, plenty of black pepper and Maldon salt. The light flour crust tightens around the flesh as it cooks and the pan juices become deliciously enriched with that nutty, crunchy flour residue. The juices can be sopped with white bread- and it must be white bread to give you that soft deep crumb which becomes deliciously sweet/ soggy when used to sandwich the fish. Secondly, we dusted the fish with powdered achiote (from Seasoned Pioneers if you are in the UK), added salt and a schmear of chipotle paste which can be either freshly made or in a jar from a deli, Waitrose or M&S. ( I use the Gran Luchito or Santa Maria brands in the UK.) The fish was then grilled until it developed a crisp, smoky carapace although you could just as easily pan fry it too. Remember to get the grill decently hot before sliding the fish under it on its protective bed of silver foil.

Achiote gives the fish a woody, earthy flavour very similar to the taste of the clay cooking vessels we ate from in Northern Mexico and the spice is geographically specific to Yucatan and Oaxacan cuisine, although our housekeeper had southern roots, meaning achiote became a regular feature of our northern cuisine. Also referred to as sázone, you can buy ready prepared packets of achiote without added MSG and it lends a vivid yellow-orange hue to foods. Sometimes it is sold as ground Saffron but you’ll know you’ve been had because of its inexpensive price tag. Combined with the schmear of chipotle (which is actually smoked and dried Jalopenos), the result is a deliciously rich and fruity smokiness which doesn’t overpower the dab and allows you to ramp up the accompaniments- maybe serve wrapped inside soft corn tortillas or piled inside fried taco shells with lime, avocado, fridge cool shredded salad and sliced jicama for a vegetal and much needed crunch?

 

 

 

Hidden tiger, crouching bluetits

Image of Bluetits fighting via Creative Commons
via Creative Commons

Don’t be fooled by their sweet exterior, a dumpling of blue-green and yellow bobbing from hedge to feeder to fence and then back again like tiny feathered globes. When blue tits arrive in your garden they arrive with a vengeance, all needle-slash of claw and lethal-weapon beaks and their fierce reputation has followed them across time and literature.

Blue tits [Latin name: Parus caeruleus] are not the star turn from a Hallmark card sent to us by Mother Nature. They might look as if they have just returned from a stint as cast extras in a Disney film, swirling around the head of a princess, tweeting words of love but in reality they are aggressive, furious balls of spitting ire and possessiveness. George Orwell knew this when he depicted the forensically precise beak work of this tiny creature as it gorges itself upon the feeders that householders hang up to attract it:

A blue-tit darts with a flash of wings, to feed
Where the coconut hangs on the pear tree over the well;
He digs at the meat like a tiny pickaxe tapping
With his needle-sharp beak as he clings to the swinging shell.

(Summer Like)

In the UK, blue tits start scouting for a nesting site in January and once they have chosen one, will defend it until they start nest-building in March and April.  The competition for a mate is fierce, their alpha male courting an avian Tarantella for human onlookers, their calls scolding and full of fury. Once paired, copulation happens to a soundtrack of high pitched notes, similar to the begging call a female blue tit may make when a male blue tit enters the nest with freshly killed food. She will time the laying of her eggs so that they hatch just as the caterpillars on which they feed their nestlings are hatching and the babies emerge looking uncannily like miniature versions of the actor Tommy Lee Jones: all cross, feathered brows set above dark and irate eyes.

The adults brook no competition during the breeding season although later in the year they often move and feed in protective flocks, looping from one place to another in short bursts of flight. I had to remove a garden mirror after it ended up smeared with blue tit blood as a lonely male bird set out to attack and drive off his [rival] reflection and battered his own head half to bits in the attempt. They possess sturdy, well defined head markings with a dark blue-black eyestripe and a skull cap of brighter blue, set against their white cheeks and forehead which, in the case of my star crossed lover, darkened with blood as he wheeled and slew into the glass of the mirror.

His aggression shouldn’t have been a surprise to me after reading, years ago, about European great tits who enter bat caves and peck hibernating bats to death: “The Great Titmouse will attack small and weakly birds, splitting their skulls with its powerful beak in order to get at their brains; and it has even been known to serve a bat in this manner” reported Howard Saunders back in 1899 but seeing such a tiny bird driven to death by its own desire to mate was disturbing, even knowing their capabilities.

Blue tit by Nick J Stone /Flickr
Blue tit by Nick J Stone /Flickr

DH Lawrence was no stranger to this titan of the ornithological world and in ‘Two Blue Birds’ their pugilistic nature serves as handy metaphor for the swirling resentment and occasional outbreak of aggressive rivalry between the protagonist and the two women who unhealthily compete for his attention. Mrs Gee and her secretary rival are both dressed in cobalt blue silk, overly obvious maybe although that “blest blue bird of happiness” as Mrs Gee first calls him is soon engaged in a battle royal with another, at their feet:

“And as she was being blest, appeared another blue bird–that is, another blue-tit–and began to wrestle with the first blue-tit. A couple of blue birds of happiness, having a fight over it! Well, I’m blest!

She was more or less out of sight of the human preoccupied pair. But ‘he’ was disturbed by the fighting blue birds, whose little feathers began to float loose.

“Get out!” he said to them mildly, waving a dark-yellow handkerchief at them. “Fight your little fight, and settle your private affairs elsewhere, my dear little gentlemen.”

…”Aren’t they extraordinarily vicious little beasts?” said he.

“Extraordinarily!” she re-echoed, stooping and picking up a little breast-feather. “Extraordinarily! See how the feathers fly!”

And she got the feather on the tip of her finger, and looked at it. Then she looked at the secretary, then she looked at him. She had a queer, were-wolf expression between her brows.”

Talking about blue tits and their reputation for aggression on twitter, I heard about a local bird ringer called Helen Bristol who has been subjected to the wrath of the tit family when going about her bird protection duties:

“We catch the birds in a fine mesh net ( mist net) and generally will check the nets every ½ hour and sooner if the weather is cold /hot/a bit blowy/drizzly,” Helen said. “At this time of year the tits go around in mixed flocks – most usually Blue Tits, Great Tits, Coal Tits, Long Tailed Tits and if you’re lucky Marsh Tits, although where I ring, the Bearded tits don’t join the gang. You can imagine this gang all feeding on or going towards feeders and the catch can be large, 25+ in one go.” 

Instantly you can see the potential for aggressive behaviour because of competition for food and the proximity of bird species in a smaller space, as Helen explains:

“Inevitably several get caught close together and that’s when the pecking starts. Generally it’s the Greats and Blues that hack into each other. Usually they’ll go for the eyes – not a pretty sight- which is why I initially take a look at the net to see which birds are close together, very tangled or too near the ground. Those birds come out first and are put into individual bags, before being taken back to the ringing station for processing.”

The tits obviously can’t kill with one blow to the back of a human’s neck but they seem to know how else to cause maximum irritation to a creature many times their size:

“The Greats and the Blues also attack the ringer, usually pecking away at your cold hands and causing a lot of language. You know what it’s like when you have a sore bit down the side of a nail? They seem to home in on that. I often get home with little peck marks all over my hands. I find it amazing that such small birds can cause such pain. At an owl sanctuary recently I was “bitten” by a tame petting Eagle Owl but that didn’t even bruise. It was a friendly “please stop”. The only other birds who peck/bite are woodpeckers and some sea birds such as gulls.”

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Aggression from other tits isn’t the only challenge these tiny birds face either. They have to deal with a form of brood parasitism which has seen blue tits and great tits engaged in a potentially bloody war about home invasion and who parents who. This happens when the great tit [Parus Major] fails to find an ideal place to lay its eggs and simply invades the nests of the smaller blue tit, who are half the size of these invaders. Being much smaller, the blue tit often capitulates, deciding to abandon their nest and fly away which, at least, protects them from being pecked to death or incurring severe injuries. Interestingly, the blue tit seems to have evolved a way of salvaging something from its loss with scientists reporting incidences of the bird re-entering nests taken over by great tits, and laying their own eggs in it, in the manner of a cuckoo. The resulting chicks temporarily assume the identity of their foster parents, recognising great tit calls as their own and behaving in species congruent ways. Known as sexual misimprinting, it tends to cease upon fledging and the adult blue tits birds revert back to their species specific behaviour.

The same doesn’t apply though, to great tits raised by blue tits. These tend to remain imprinted upon their blue tit foster parents, even trying to mate with other blue tits when adult. So why do blue tits not remain imprinted then? It has been postulated that perhaps blue tits lead a riskier and more rackety life than great tits and their smaller size [in comparison to a great tit, that is] means they have much to lose should they try to compete with other sexually mature great tits for food and a mate. So they go back to their own kind which is especially critical come the time when they need to raise their own brood.

A nest full of baby birds is a place full of conflict and competition: the needs of the adults have to be balanced against the needs of each chick and the brood as a whole. The parent birds are in competition with their own chicks for food and ensuring that their energy needs are met is a finely tuned thing. This is where humans come in handy, in providing supplementary feeding for birds throughout the winter hunger gap and when birds are nest building and hatching their eggs. A bird that meets the spring, well fed with fat reserves like a butterball turkey is more likely to be a winner in the mate stakes and will certainly have more energy to spend on wooing rather than desperately trying to build its strength up as natural food sources regenerate. Comely female blue tits probably aren’t terribly impressed by a bird more interested in a suet ball than the gentle curve of their saffron- yellow breasts.

So help all birds this coming winter by keeping them fed and remember that not all feeding areas are created equal in the eyes of smaller birds such as the tits. Larger bird feeders and bird tables tend to attract bigger, more voracious birds who are able to fend off tits easily and consume food faster, making it trickier for other birds to eat enough food to maintain body weight and causing them to expend precious energy fighting for their share. If your bird table has hooks to hang nut feeders, shells and fat balls from, alongside a large flat table top for larger birds to eat off, members of the tit family don’t tend to come off very well. Despite their supple, dexterous bodies and beaks, they can end up crowded out.

Birds from the tit family are aerial acrobats, able to feed upside down, contort themselves into the tiniest of spaces to extract food (watch a blue tit or coal tit feed from hanging coconut shells and you’ll see what I mean) and semi hover in the air to peck at nut feeders. So hang up feeders that only the tits can reach, filled with peanuts, fat, niger seeds and sunflower hearts. Hang them at different levels and, if you have a large enough garden, in different areas to discourage avian tit fights over food which waste even more calories and energy during a cold winter. These feeders may well attract goldfinches too but the blue tit can more than easily hold its own against them, giving you your own version of Hidden Tiger, Crouching Bluetit in the garden this winter and spring.

Parus_major_Luc_Viatour


Nick Stone writes Invisible Works
Thank you to Andrew MacDonald and Helen Bristol.

“My daughter calls what I am doing the Vagina Monologues of food”- I talk to MsMarmiteLover

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Photo courtesy of Kerstin Rodgers

 

 Stand in front of a map, don a blindfold and point, and the chances are that you’ll choose a country that food writer Kerstin Rodgers, aka MsMarmiteLover has either visited or plans to do so very shortly. For those of us who lack the budget of an oligarch but still aspire to eat well and see the world, Kerstin is your go-to woman, having travelled widely on a realistic budget as sole parent, often with her child in tow, and packing little more than a curious mind, an appetite and a guidebook. And now Kerstin ventures forth to Bury St Edmunds to stage a show at the Theatre Royal with wine expert Nick Adams which promises to marry memoir, menu suggestions and travelogue with food and wine pairings, compared by BBC Suffolk presenter, Lesley Dolphin. It is a night that promises to be interactive and informal and offers something a little different for audiences in this Georgian jewel of a venue.

Check out Kerstin’s blog and her four books and you will see that she isn’t the kind of woman to draw the footbridge up behind her either. Her latest book is packed with advice and guidance for would be food writers with a dream of making a living in one of the most competitive industries of all and her blog is jam packed with seriously useful advice designed to make you feel that you can do it. There’s recipes of course, but also a fresh and at times irreverent take on the High Church of Careers in Food and the Art of Travel Discourse with stories about her exploits in places such as a state fair in Alaska where she could have paid ten dollars to enter a raffle to win her own gun or meeting anarchic French wine producers (and correctly and helpfully defining what anarchy actually means).

She writes about staging an exquisitely researched secret 18th century tea party at Dennis Severs’ ghostly Georgian house in Spitalfields, Christmas spent with her daughter at an abandoned mining town La Vieille Valette near Alès and Kimchi cooked Gangnam style which was inspired by her first Korean meal, served bizarrely in Ecuador and not, um, Seoul or Pusan. This is set against a back story which involves her starting out as a teenage photographer at New Musical Express, becoming the subject of the Madness single ‘My Girl’s Mad at Me’ and launching the supper club/pop up/underground restaurant movement in the UK in 2009 via the inception of her supper club The Underground Restaurant.

At a time when the dominant narrative around single parenthood can lean towards little money, limited horizons and a serious lack of agency, Kerstin is a refreshing change and I would have loved such a role model back in the day when I (briefly) found myself alone with a child. You also might not know that Kerstin is a facilitator and, as she describes herself, a passionate believer in the punk philosophy of a DIY philosophy as applied to food, meaning that she acts as friend and mentor to many small food producers across the UK. Kerstin helps them to establish themselves in a crowded market and sell their wares whilst sharing mutual expertise and advice. I am hoping that she will find Suffolk a new and fertile stamping grounds for her ideas and initative and that we might benefit as a county from her gastro-expertise which has been hard won over time.

Another of Kerstin's books
Another of Kerstin’s books

Over the course of a near three hour interview (a lot of which featured delicious food world gossip and off the record laughs) I asked Kerstin about her life and career and about what we might expect when she comes to the Theatre Royal. As someone who adores food writing myself, I am keen to hear her opinions on the genre and what direction it might take in the future. “I’m desperately hoping that food blogging won’t die out” Kerstin says, straight off the bat when I ask her this. “My daughter calls what I am doing the Vagina Monologues of food but I do worry that people don’t actually want food writing and content anymore. They want lifestyle.”

Yet Kerstin’s blog is remarkably broad in its remit without being unfocused, going from elaborately staged supper clubs to relatable suggestions for creating a similar ambience in your own cooking and home. From embroidering her own tea towels to writing posts about niche ingredients that we all buy then wonder what the hell to do with (bottarga anyone?), there is a spirit of can do realism in Kerstin’s work. You encourage people to enjoy their nests, I remark.

“I’ve always been a bit of a nester. I love doing that. I think we are still in recession and a few lucky people aren’t and people haven’t got a lot of money. I’m very careful with money. I’ve just been careful. There was an urge to go with that when I started the supper club. That, in a way, was the ultimate nesting thing, you are having a whole night out in my own house.”

Kerstin provides a much needed alternative to the dominant media image of lone parents- the idea that they all live poverty-struck, grim and unimaginative lives of subsistence, eating TV dinners in front of a giant flat screen. This narrative can be a dangerously narrow one where aspirational and hard-working single parents are not accurately represented in the media. It’s important to be a different role model, I tell her, whether you intended this to be the case or not.

“I’ve been a single mother for twenty years. I KNOW what it can be like. I was on benefits too and the one thing I didn’t do was starve. In fact what I could afford to do was eat. That was the one thing I could do. I was one parent with one child taking on all the responsibility and it’s an intimate situation. I don’t hide things,” she said.

“It’s not what you say, it is also what you do. Kids aren’t watching us cook anymore. It’s a really important life skill.

“It is tough [single parenting] and as single parents, we are very scary. We’re often single women and we are managing! I’m a bit like Elizabeth the First; without a man I am more efficient… Stronger, I get stuff done and a man can be a distraction. It can take away from yourself to look after them although I’d quite like one, sometimes….” she laughs.

Kerstin self identifies as feminist, telling me that “to learn to drive, it’s the most important thing to do, as a vehicle gives is freedom. It’s a feminist thing,” and we talked at length about the ‘official’ food world and the narrow tropes that tend to dominate it.

“99.9% of the worlds cooking tends to be done by women yet there is an inverse proportion of men doing the high profile restaurant reviewing, food writing and cheffing. It’s narrow and it is wrong and its all wealthy white men.”

Kerstin is well documented as the creator of the now widespread idea of eating out in other peoples homes, known as supper clubs. Despite the profound effect her idea has had upon the culinary zeitgeist she claims, “If I were a man, having created a new style of eating, I would not be in this position I am in. It can be really difficult to earn money and one of my battles is trying to earning enough money to carry on.This is my living, people pay money for my food.

“Tim Hayward (a food writer and owner of Cambridge bakery and cafe Fitzbillies) always says you need to be rich to be a food writer. Many people who work in food are well off to start with,” she adds.

What do you call yourself, I ask. What job description describes you best in this career of yours which weaves together so many different creative and practical strands?

“I call myself a reporter” she replies. ” I feel that is what I am doing. With my blog I only write about what I have done, seen and the people I talk to. Basically I go to places, like when I met the anarchic punks who make wine. I go to them, I interview them and spend the day with them. I learn about what they do and photograph it and then report back.

“And that is the sort of stuff thar really interests me.”

Kerstin’s background as a rock photographer stands her in good stead in an industry where visual aesthetics are beginning to take precedence over the ability to construct a sentence and write knowledgeably about the culture of food. Her ability to let a photograph tell the story is clear (and if you check out this blog post, you’ll see what I mean) but she is generous with her skills and keen to pass them on to a new generation of bloggers- if they are willing to listen and learn.

Her latest book, Get started in food writing: Teach Yourself (Hodder Staughton) is packed with handy tips from how to construct a recipe to building brands and securing TV appearances. “It’s the first non cookery book I have done and although it was pretty badly paid for a lot of effort, in the end I enjoyed doing it,” she says, wryly.

“It is a bit of a dry format but I tried to make it as juicy as possible. I enjoyed doing the interviews, from the horses mouth of talking to people so to speak, and that really interests me”, she added.

This is a word heavy book, and she is unfairly comparing it to her previous cookbooks which are visually very rich, packed with lovely images, memories and recipes with context. However ‘Food Writing’ solicits the expertise of some very well known food industry bods including the aforementioned Tim Hayward and is a really useful resource with cautionary tales about what the business can be like and hints on avoiding these pitfalls. Kerstin’s work has been plagiarised in the past and has had to use the resources available to her in order to seek redress through social media and her own blog posts about the experience. “I sometimes think that sometimes with certain celeb chefs, my feed is basically their pinterest board,” she confided.

I ask her about the recent backlash against the ‘clean food brigade’ those deliciously glossy and long boned young women (because they do tend to be female) who are all over the weekend food supplements, plying us with recipes for avocado slices dropped into cucumber (Yes, this was actually offered as a ‘recipe’, recently) and other digestively moral advice.

“There are all these skinny 22 yr olds talking about food. I went to Istanbul with one of them recently” she confides, “It’s the shadow side of the food industry. Its basically, a complicated relationship with food. It’s rock n roll, it’s glamour and we have incredible guilt about what we eat,” Kerstin says emphatically.

“There’s all these diseases from overeating such as diabetes but these girls are unrealistic. We all looked like that when we were 22, or most of us did. It’s easy to be thin and moral when you are 22 with beautiful youthful hormones, dancing all night in clubs,” she added.

“I’m not a fan: it’s another fad and in a years time we’ll all be going, do you remember that time when we were all mad about…? It’s another form of dieting, these women are diet bloggers. It’s this lifestyle thing, focused upon what you look like and these girls photograph well. Can any of them cook? I don’t know.”

So at its worst is it a form of eating disorder?

“Yes.”

Look at the men in food, I add. Not glam are most of them?

“We treat food like fashion and it is all about being in your twenties- there’s ageism going on too,” she agrees.

V is for Vegan is one of Kerstin's books and she was at the vanguard of vegan recipe creation.
V is for Vegan is one of Kerstin’s books and she was at the vanguard of vegan recipe creation.

Kerstin writes about vegetarian and vegan food a lot and one of her books is an incredibly useful and realistic cookbook for vegans (V is for Vegan). Despite her concerns about some aspects of the food industry, she is aware that the zeitgeist is quite sensibly focusing upon eating less animal fat and finding ways of enjoying food without contributing towards the environmental burden upon the planet.

“*I don’t have meat in my house and it is an ethical choice. The book (V is for Vegan) is my way of paying respect to the vegan community and I would have loved more space as its quite a short book. I fought to get the pages I got.”

Going back to economic constraints on food budgets she points out that “the first thing we give up on when money is short is meat. I think eating animal protein should be a rare treat if you are going to do it and a lot of it is not good for your health., I don’t think it is something for 3 times a day.

“Meat used to be for Sunday best. Stir fries etc, tiny bits of meat making it go a long way for the rest of the week. We never used to eat the amount of meat that people eat today.

“I honestly believe that cutting down on eating animal protein is good for your health.”

The advantage of travelling so much means that Kerstin is able to see these trends (if indeed this issue should be called a trend) and her travels to the USA in particular have informed her recipe development and menu creation although she is exasperated at times by the way we respond over here.

“The decision to become vegetarian or vegan is more respected in the States and [it is] very well written about over there. Lots of very well respected chefs are doing fantastic things with food but here, yet again, we’ve turned it into a fashion item. The British always seem to need to turn everything into a gimmick, like we do with street food” she said although she acknowledged the benefits of veganism becoming “fashionable again” for newly vegan people desperately searching for inspiration.

The Theatre Royal will be a good fit for Kerstin in my opinion with its intimate Georgian atmosphere. The show’s format is a new thing for her and she is keen to explore new ways of working in food and collaborations with people who possess expertise and longevity..

You’ll be well placed on that stage, I tell her. People in East Anglia are happy to travel miles to see a show. We’re kind of like the British version of Midwesterners living on the great plains, I laugh, and whilst it might be something a little different to the usual theatre programme, I think that those attending will enjoy the format.

“I’m working with Nick Adams who is a most respected master of wine” she said.

“I know him. He isn’t showy, you talk to people in the know and they say ‘yup’. He is very knowledgeable and quite acerbic about wine which is refreshing. I’m keen to see what he will do.”

We’ll be like the Muppets audience, jabbering away and completely slaughtered in the stalls and little theatre boxes if he passes the wine around, I comment, which we laugh about.

“It’s hard, talking about wine,” she explains.

“I’ve just done an article for the Wine Trust. I basically finished it at 2am last night and I’m not a wine buff. I hate writing wine descriptions. Some people do it really well but its very difficult to describe HOW something tastes and I always try to avoid it. I tend to concentrate upon stories about the wine, the winemakers- that I can do something with.”

So, the show will be something different for those of you going along and by all accounts, a new way of working for Kerstin Rogers. She told me that “this mania about food will move on. We’ve kind of jumped the shark about it and I’m wondering what the zeitgeist is going to be next.”

I agree that the mania needs to move on but I am hoping it will leave room for a more considered debate about food and the kind of enjoyable essays about food and the people who produce it that Kerstin and other good food writers publish. Kerstin has always been aware that they are the real stars of the show. The rest of the food world will eventually, and hopefully, catch on.

This feature was previously published on Bury Spy and publicised an event held at The Theatre Royal