What is the Human Cost of our Food?

I was totally shocked by an article by George Arbuthnott in the Sunday Times Magazine recently on the human cost of our food “They’re the invisible army – modern day slaves, trafficked into Britain to work in the food factories and farms that supply our leading supermarkets. They live in squalor, are paid next to nothing and are often physically abused.”

For a very long time, I’ve been deeply concerned about the relentless downward pressure on the price of many food items. The consequence has been to force down the price of the wrong foods. Living on the farm and being actively involved in the food business I know it simply can’t be done. It’s impossible to produce any kind of food that is nourishing and wholesome for the retail price that’s being charged for many items. The horse meat scandal should have taught us that, but after the initial shock the message is soon forgotten. Someone has to be paying to supply us with the unrealistically cheap food we have now come to believe is our right.

In the 1980s we spent 27.7% of our income in real terms on food, nowadays its just 16.2%, so the reality is food has now moved a long way down our list of priorities.

When the supermarket offers ‘Buy one, get one free’ most of  the general public are unaware that is usually the farmers or food producer who is supplying the ‘free’ one consequently they are getting half the amount of money for their produce. When the retailers need a product they ask their suppliers to source it at a certain price and on and on it goes through an increasingly convoluted food chain which often involves migrant workers, who have been hoodwinked by the promise of generous pay and good working conditions. The human traffickers and gang masters who lure these vulnerable, uneducated people – who are often desperate to get work – prefer to target those who don’t speak the language so they can’t communicate with fellow workers. They work in many areas of food production, meat packing and processing and the supermarket buyers sometimes do not realise exactly how the product is achieved at the price. But it’s time to ask questions. Many large fruit and vegetables farmers are greatly dependent on migrant labour for harvesting, and there are many who treat their workers honourably and work with the gangmasters who do not engage in exploitation. But it’s very much a live issue; BBC Farming Today Program also looked at it recently.

Paul Broadbent the chief executive of the GLA (Gangmasters Licencing Authority) explained their modus operandi “The traffickers are locking people up for six; seven hours a day and then making them work 16 to 17 hours. The victims are absolutely trapped because they are financially tied to these people. They don’t feel able to report it to the police because the enforcers have told them they will be deported.”

“They take the passport, mobile phone and any form of identification off the victims and set up a bank account into which all their earnings are paid, it may be the case that victims either don’t know what they are signing or the enforcer threatens and intimidates them into it. The controlling man then uses the account to apply for bank loans and benefits and racks up thousands of pounds. Every conceivable fraud and deception is committed and they rule with an iron rod. They force people to live in squalor and pile them high.”

Animal welfare issues are increasingly highlighted and rightly so but how about the human cost of our cheap food.

 

Pumpkin, Goat Cheese and Kale Tart

 

Kale is now in full season and several varieties are available in the farmers markets.

 

Serves 8

 

175g (6oz) Shortcrust Pastry

 

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

450g (1lb) pumpkin or butternut squash

1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves

 

150g (5oz) Ardsallagh goat cheese (or another soft goat cheese)

75g (3oz) spring onion, chopped

2 eggs and 3 egg yolks

200ml (7 fl oz) cream

1 teaspoon thyme leaves

25g (1oz) Parmesan cheese, grated

50g (2oz) Gruyère cheese, grated

110g (4oz) kale – raw and stripped off stalk

salt and freshly ground black pepper

 

23cm (9 inch) diameter tart tin

 

Make the pastry, wrap well and rest in the fridge.

 

Preheat the oven to 200°C/400°F/Mark 6

 

Peel the pumpkin or squash and cut into 2.5cm (1 inch) chunks. Arrange on a roasting tin.  Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil.  Season with salt and sprinkle with thyme leaves. Roast for 30 minutes approximately or until tender, allow to cool.

 

Bring a large pot of water to the boil, add the kale, blanch for 2 minutes, drain and refresh under cold running water, drain. No need to blanch rocket.

 

Line the tart tin (see instructions) and ‘bake blind’ for about 25 minutes. The base should be almost fully cooked.  Remove the parchment paper and beans, brush the base with a little beaten egg white and replace in the oven for 3-4 minutes.  This will seal the base and avoid the “soggy bottom” effect.

 

Reduce the temperature to moderate 180°C/350°F/Mark 4

 

Heat the oil in a sauté pan, add the chopped spring onions to the pan, cover and sweat gently on a low heat for about 6 minutes or until almost soft.

 

Meanwhile, whisk the eggs in a medium-sized bowl; add the cream, cheeses, thyme leaves, cooled spring onion and kale or rocket. Mix well and add seasoning.

 

Taste or otherwise, heat a frying pan, cook a teaspoon of the mixture on a gentle heat for 2 or 3 minutes until it coagulates – taste and if necessary correct the seasoning.  Arrange chunks of roast pumpkin (peel removed) and chunks of goats cheese over the base of the tart.

 

Pour the filling into the base of the tart.   Return to the moderate oven for 30–40 minutes or until the centre has just set. Serve warm with a freshly tossed green salad.

 

Pumpkin Curry

 

Fresh curry leaves are readily available nowadays one can usually buy them from Asian shops or frozen if fresh are unavailable –they have a distinct flavour but if they are unavailable you can leave them out

 

Serves 8

 

1kg (2 ¼ lb) pumpkin, peeled and cut into 2.5cm (1in) chunks

4 green chillies, finely sliced

25g (1oz) Bombay onions, finely sliced

2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped

a sprig of fresh curry leaves

1 teaspoon ground fenugreek

1 teaspoon mustard powder

Pinch ground turmeric

110ml (4floz) coconut milk

 

Put all the ingredients in a medium saucepan and bring to the boil. Simmer until the pumpkin is cooked – approx.. 10 – 20 minutes, depending on type of pumpkin.

Serve with a selection of curries or on its own accompanied with rice.

 

Kuku Kadoo

 

This is the Persian version of a Spanish tortilla or Italian frittata – we’ve been enjoying it with the last of the summer zucchini.

 

Serves 6-8

 

2 tablespoons (30 ml) extra virgin olive oil

1 lb (450g) onions, chopped

3 cloves garlic, crushed

¼ teaspoon fresh ginger, finely grated

6 small zucchini, halved and cut thinly across

Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

8 organic eggs

1 teaspoon turmeric

3 tablespoons flour

½ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda

 

Parsley sprigs and sumac

 

10 inch (25.5 cm) pan

 

Preheat the oven to 180ºC/350ºF/gas mark 4.  Heat the oil in a frying pan over a medium heat.  Add the chopped onions, garlic and ginger.  Cover and sweat for 6-8 minutes, add zucchini. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper.  Stir and cook for 6-8 minutes.  Whisk the eggs, add the turmeric, flour and bicarbonate of soda.  Add the cooked zucchini mixture.  Pour into a greased gratin dish.  Bake for 25-30 minutes.  When just set, serve sprinkled with parsley sprigs and sumac.

 

Alison Heafey’s Autumn Nut and Caramel Tart

 

This recipe comes from former student Alison Heafey, who got it from her friend Cindy Mushet, author of The Art and Soul of Baking. I always encourage students to share recipes as well as asking for recipes in restaurants; it’s a great way to expand your culinary skills. This is possibly my favourite autumn tart.

 

Serves 10–12

 

For the vanilla shortcrust pastry

175g (6oz) plain flour

50g (2oz) sugar

¼ teaspoon sea salt

110g (4oz) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1.5cm (½in) pieces

2 large organic egg yolks

2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

1–2 teaspoons water

 

For the frangipane filling

110g (4oz) whole natural almonds, lightly toasted

100g (3½oz) caster sugar

50g (2oz) unsalted butter, softened

2 large organic eggs

2 tablespoons plain flour

½ teaspoon almond extract

 

For the nut and caramel topping

110g (4oz) water

300g (10½oz) granulated sugar

2 tablespoons golden or corn syrup

110g (4oz) unsalted butter, softened

110g (4oz) double cream, at room temperature

75g (3oz) whole unsalted almonds, lightly toasted

60g (2½oz) pecan halves, lightly toasted

50g (2oz) walnut halves, lightly toasted

 

 

Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/gas 4.

 

First make the pastry. Put the flour, sugar and salt in a food processor fitted with the metal blade. Pulse five times to blend the ingredients. Add the butter and pulse 6–8 times until it is the size of large peas. In a small bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, vanilla extract and 1 teaspoon of water. Add to the food processor, then process until the dough begins to form small clumps. To test the dough, squeeze a handful of clumps – when you open your hand they should hold together. If they fall apart, sprinkle the remaining water over the dough and pulse several times. If necessary, add up to one further teaspoon of water to bring the dough together.

 

Remove the dough from the bowl and knead it gently 2–3 times, to bring the dough together. Shape it into a round disc approx. 15cm (6in) across. Set aside in the fridge to chill for 30 minutes. Break the cold dough into 2.5–5cm (1–2in) pieces and scatter them evenly over the bottom of a 24cm (9½in) tart tin. Use the heel of your hand to press the dough flat, connecting the pieces in a smooth layer. Press from the centre of the tin outwards, building up some extra dough around the base at the edge of the tart. Using your thumbs, press this excess up the sides of the tin, making sure it is the same thickness as the dough on the bottom. Roll your thumb over the top edge of the tin to remove any excess dough (save this for patching any cracks that might form during baking). Chill for at least 30 minutes.

 

Bake ‘blind’ for 20–22 minutes or until the edges and centre are set. (If the shell is cracking and sticking to the baking parchment lining, replace it and continue to bake for a further 5–6 minutes.) Remove the baking parchment and beans and set aside to cool. Once cooled, return the pastry shell to the oven and bake for a

further 10–12 minutes or until the crust is a pale tan colour. Transfer to a rack and cool completely before adding the filling.

 

Meanwhile, make the frangipane filling. Put the almonds and sugar in the bowl of a food processor and process until finely ground. Add the butter and blend. Add the eggs, flour and almond extract and mix thoroughly. Pour the filling into the tart case and bake for 30–35 minutes, or until firm in the centre and lightly browned.

Set aside to cool completely.

 

To make the topping, put the water, sugar and golden (or corn) syrup in a saucepan large enough to eventually hold all the nuts as well. Heat slowly until the sugar has dissolved and the liquid is clear. Then increase the heat to high and boil rapidly until the sugar darkens to a rich golden brown colour.

 

Remove the pan from the heat and immediately add the butter and cream (be careful, as the mixture will rise in the pan and splutter). Stir briefly with a wooden spoon to blend, then add the toasted nuts. Stir gently to coat the nuts in the caramel sauce, then immediately spoon the nuts over the cooled frangipane tart, reserving the caramel in the pan. Use two spoons, not your fingers, because the mixture will be very hot. Finish, if you like, by spooning some of the caramel sauce over the nuts. Set aside to cool.

 

Remove from the tin just before serving. Serve at room temperature.

 

The National Organic Conference – Addressing the Needs of the Market will be held on 5th and 6th November 2013 at the Bridge House Hotel, Tullamore, Co Offaly. Book online www.nots.ie or 0719640688

You can travel to every part of Ireland and encounter an interesting, distinctive, local farmhouse cheese.  Read some amazing stories about the people behind farmhouse cheese on their new website or visit one of the farms and experience first-hand, the story of farmhouse cheese – farm visits are free to attend but you must book your place online  www.discoverfarmhousecheese.ie

If you have visitors staying and are racking your brains for something original, stylish and fun to do with them, contact Eveleen and Pamela Coyle and they will arrange a Fabulous Food Trail for you in Dublin or Cork city. They’ll show you all that is best in contemporary Irish food, shops and cafés as you wander through the lesser known parts of each city, tasting as you go. www.fabfoodtrails.ie or info@fabfoodtrails.ie or by calling (01) 497 1245.