Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Food photography, women and the Pink Lady Food Photography awards

This is Valter Mlecnik, who is a wine maker and spelt farmer. I took this shot while on a trip to Slovenia.  This picture was a finalist in Food and its place. 
Joana Roque, who at 76 is still baking bread at her home in a village in the Alentejo region of Portugal. Here is the blog post about that trip.  This photo was in the last 400. 

I didn't win but there was an impressive selection of pictures in the gallery at last night's awards. Tessa Traegar won the lifetime achievement in food photography award. She gave an interesting speech about how food photography used to be regarded as the poor cousin to other genres of photography and how that perception has changed drastically. In fact food photography is probably the fastest growing and most popular type of photography. She also mentioned how few women photographers there used to be in photography in general (although women photographers have always been stronger in the fields of food and still life photography). Certainly in food photography, this is changing. There were many female photographers amongst the finalists in these awards, and the winner was a woman, Tessa Buney, with a stunning shot of noodle making, which is heartening. But in other types of photography, women photographers (as are ethnic minorities) get less work, are paid less and have less prestigious jobs. 
I've always been interested in controlling the image. At school I spent assemblies giving the other pupils a makeover in my mind's eye and working out how I would photograph them. By the age of 18 I was shooting groups, the gigs I regularly attended. I grew up on the NME when it was the coolest weekly newspaper with funny, dark, intimate, writers like Charles Shaar Murray, Nick Kent, Mick Farren, Chrissie Hynde and Julie Burchill. I remember 'Susan Wells'. The boys at NME, and make no mistake, it was mostly male, public school educated at that, were thrilled that they had a great new female writer. Susan turned out to be Steven 'Seething' Wells, the punk poet, not a woman at all.
There used to be fierce hand-wringing debates in the music press as to whether women could write and perform rock. Looks stupid now doesn't it? 
One of the other things that women were deemed not to be able to do was photography. As a short, young-looking woman, I struggled to be taken seriously as a photographer. I'd take my portfolio into Art Directors' offices and hear 'Who helped you shoot these?' No one, I replied, it's my own work. Women Art Directors weren't much help either, they often preferred to hire young good-looking men who would make them feel attractive (a quality in short supply if you are an older female in a position of power).
When I did get commissions, and took a male assistant, inevitably the subject would assume that my assistant was the photographer. One writer said to me: "The problem is you don't look like a photographer". Photographers, if they had to be female, looked like Annie Liebowitz, tall, skinny and fairly asexual. You see, a camera doesn't hang right if you have breasts. Or something.
Are things different now? I don't know. Front covers still seem to be shot by men, while women photographers still get the little jobs. Photography bylines still seem to be mostly male too. White male, of course.
One of my most unsettling experiences of sexism was, sadly, with female photographers. Channel Four hired me to get portraits of some extremely good, but overlooked, female photographers from the past. It was at a busy reception and I found it hard to get these women to respond to me, to look at the camera, to listen to my instructions. I put it down to distraction. But then a middle-aged white male photographer arrived and quietly asked the women to look his way for a group shot. He didn't have to battle for this. He just asked them. To a woman, their heads swivelled meekly towards his camera. They responded to his instructions for a set of shots.
I almost didn't believe my eyes, I wondered if I'd seen this properly. After all, this was a documentary series on the difficulties these female photographers had faced and their lack of recognition, despite having covered some of the most important stories of their eras.
But I knew I wasn't imagining it when one of the Channel Four press officers came over to me saying 'Did you see that? How they obeyed the male photographer and not you? How sad'. We were both baffled. And I felt slightly humiliated, to be frank.
But I loved photography, loved it to the point that I'd print all night, sleep on the canvas backgrounds in the studio so I could continue early in the morning. I had one green hand, my printing hand, from the developer chemicals.
In terms of influences, I admired the purist philosophy of Henri Cartier-Bresson: no cropping, catching the moment. Although unlike him, I rarely used the 'standard' lens, a 50mm, which is closest to what the human eye sees. I mostly used a portrait lens (85mm or 105mm) and a wide angle (I had a 35mm and a gorgeous 24mm). My cameras in the analogue era, were Nikons, solid metal but light-weight, and manual. Everything was manual, focussing, light readings, the lot. And I still think that this is how you learn. 

And of course, it was mostly black and white. Kodak TriX was my film of choice, lovely crunchy contrasty pictures. I printed on Afga Record Rapid, a paper with olivey blacks. 
I loved printing, emerging squinting into the daylight after a long session. I liked the darkness, the smell, the isolation. I'm a damn fast printer, for I trained in Fleet Street, where sometimes films were printed wet. Sometimes the story was needed so fast that you wouldn't wash the film after fixing, you stick it through the enlarger still wet. Then you'd have to print 50 10 x 8's identically, by hand, creating a rolling flick through the dev, then briefly in the fix, then squeeged, dried through a roller and packed into a manila envelope. A messenger would run down to Fleet Street and deliver by hand to each picture editor. 
At the beginning I was the messenger. It was thrilling to enter the black and white marble of the Art Deco Daily Express, the dark, cramped Daily Mail and Evening Standard, in Fleet Street proper. The Times and The Guardian were a pain as they were off my route. I grew strong and fit running back and forth Farringdon Road all day. The noise coming off the hundreds of typewriters, clattering, the sheer scale of the newsroom, the gruff picture editors, smoking indoors. We don't see any of this now in the modern office, hushed to the padded sound of computer keys, aglow with digital light, everyone in their own world. 
Now I'm shooting mostly food and travel photography, I've gone digital and Canons have replaced Nikons. Financially it's cheaper to shoot digital. I stopped shooting for years because I couldn't afford to pay for film and paper. Now we can shoot non-stop. That's progress. 

Monday, 21 April 2014

10 things I hate about restaurants

I've always loved going to restaurants. I was lucky, my parents took me out to eat from a young age. Proper restaurants, not fast food, there were no McDonalds when I was a kid. Every summer hols we'd drive through France, sometimes to Italy or Spain. My parents valued and spent money on travel and food, they still do. So we'd have meals in restaurants en route. My siblings and I learnt 'restaurant behaviour'. We had wine with our meals, watered down. We knew how to order. We knew whether to cut bread or tear it. We learnt about unsalted butter, horse meat steaks, sparkling or still water, about courses. We memorised the ice cream menu, lemon sorbet in a lemon, 'chocolat liegeois'  'dame blanche', off by heart. We even got bored with the formulaic menus.
The first thing we would do on returning, sometimes not even stopping to drop the suitcases back home, was go to the Agra, round the back of the Post Office Tower, to eat tandoori.
As an adult, I still love restaurants. The magic of a restaurant occasion is why I started a supper club, I liked it so much I made a 'pretend' restaurant in my house.
But there are few restaurants that I visit regularly. I don't go as much as other bloggers, unless there is something specific that interests me. Often I think, I could make this better at home. In fact I can't think of anything worse than only eating in restaurants. When I've been on holiday where I have no access to a kitchen, I get desperate to cook. Restaurant food alone is not sufficiently nutritious. It is over-handled by chefs, portion control is often stringent to the point of absurdity, and you'd be surprised by how much they buy in: bread, icecream, chocolate decorations for desserts, fresh pasta, puff pastry, pickles and sauces. My most asked question in restaurants? Did you make it? Is this home-made?

1) Noise.
Loud music in restaurants, I always feel, is there for the benefit of the staff not guests. The music is to energize the staff, to make them feel their workplace is 'fun'. But what about the guests? If I'm going to a restaurant with someone else I probably want to talk to them. Only very low background music is acceptable in certain types of restaurant. We aren't going to a disco.
In The Spaghetti Tree, a book about the 'trattoria' revolution in 60s London dining, the famed restaurant designer Enzo Apicella declares: 'In Italy it's frowned upon... restaurants play pop or jazz because, it is supposed, it makes people eat faster, so they leave the place faster and can be replaced by new customers.'
And what about people with hearing problems? My mum is very deaf and she selects a restaurant based on acoustics, not food. For example, I enjoyed the food at MEATliquor, but the music was deafening, auditory water-boarding. I feel sure that it interferes with your taste buds. I like to concentrate on my food.

2) Topping up wine glasses.
This is upselling the wine. They are doing this because making you buy another bottle of wine is an easy buck for a restaurant. I loathe it. I'm an adult and can top up my own wine thank you very much. It irritates me, this force-feeding of booze. Most people like to keep an eye on how much they are drinking. Three drinks is my maximum.

3) Small portions:
Two examples: I went to Made in Italy in Kings Road recently. I had a spaghetti vongole, priced as a main course not as a starter (primi piatti), which couldn't have had more than 60g of cooked pasta. That's not a main meal.
At Pollen St Social, I ordered the much recommended burrata salad, I was shocked how stingy they were with the cheese, it was the size of a walnut rather than an apple.
Many of the fashionable restaurants give you smears and droplets rather than sauces. This makes it hard to eat, difficult to lift off the plate.

4) No bread.
I judge a restaurant by its bread. If a restaurant has good bread, you can more or less forgive them any other failing. If you have to buy it, buy the very very best.

5) No vegetarian options.
Even though I occasionally eat fish, I will often order the vegetarian menu, to see what they can drum up, without the easy option of meat and fish. I've rarely been impressed. So often it is yesterdays left-overs, wrapped in puff pastry. Or a risotto. Or beetroot. Yawn. Carnivores can't cook for vegetarians; the flavours are underpowered. My friend Les Wong often won't go with me to a restaurant 'you can only eat the sides'. That is a typically carnivore-centric attitude. I'm happy with sides.

6) No reservation
This is multi-millionnaire Russell Norman's technique and it has caught on. I remember waiting an hour and a half to be seated at the old Polpetto and then getting a bad table. Russell said to me "I don't want people from the provinces to be reserving tables. I want young workers from Soho. So I won't allow reservations". I then had to put up with snotty staff and loud music. It's a shame because the food was so good.
No reservations makes money for the restaurateur: to keep people hanging around in the bar spending money on drink while they wait.
I will not stand outside in a queue for the privilege of spending my money in your restaurant if you won't allow reservations.

7) Bar stools.
I like sitting down. Properly. With my feet touching the ground.
Again, this is a profit boosting strategy: if you aren't comfortable, you will eat up more quickly and they can turn tables (or bar places) faster. McDonalds started it in the 70s with an extreme version: these were not just bar stools, but were tilted so that you couldn't sit in them, you just propped a section of your bum onto the ledge.
If you are going to have bar stools, perhaps because of a genuine lack of space, at least have a rung where small people (like women) can put their feet and handbag hooks attached to the bar so that it isn't stolen and is easy to reach.

8) Snotty staff and tips. 
One of the reasons I love restaurant critic Marina O'Loughlin's columns, apart from the honest and witty writing, is that she is anonymous. Hence she often gets the crappy seat that is so often assigned to the unimportant guest. Revealing. Here is a guide to the best tables at top London restaurants by critic Richard Vines.
Tips. I usually pay 10%. I didn't like it when they automatically added service then left a gap for you to pay more service but that seems to have fallen into disuse now. In the States it is a ridiculous competition as to who can pay bigger tips but it's generally about 20%. In France service is included.

9) Free services: Cover charge, tap water, wifi.
Cover charges tend to be a European thing, unpopular in the UK. Rowley Leigh used to have a cover charge, for bread, radishes and butter at Le Cafe Anglais but discontinued it after complaints. Is it to make sure that customers spend a certain minimum? Is it to pay for laundry, which can be 10% of a restaurants profits? (Although tablecloths seem to be a thing of the past, except in posh places).
In London today, most restaurants will give you tap water. Much of Europe, however, they have the same attitude as British restaurants did before 2010. It's now law that you can request a glass of tap water.
Wifi: every bar and restaurant should have free wifi. It's not an issue for me in the UK as I have a UK phone, but abroad, it's a nightmare. Even hotels still act like giving you wifi is a privilege you should pay for. Tourists need wifi. I'll often go eat in a restaurant purely because it has free internet, like the Wimpy bar in Maun, Botwana.

10) Dreary desserts:
So many dessert menus are uninspiring. I think pudding is when the diner reverts to tradition, an urge that must be satisfied, even if one is quite happy to be modernist and experimental with the rest of the menu.  I think any pudding list should have:

  • a chocolatey thing
  • a fruity dish
  • an icecream
  • something meringue
  • something with salted caramel
  • something citrussy 
  • something cakey

 I think it was Gordon Ramsay that said pudding was the most important course in a restaurant meal, it's the last impression one has of a restaurant.
But one pet hate: tiramisu. Who likes tiramisu? It's like the Bounty Bar of desserts, only weirdos like them.

So what gets your goat about restaurants? What rules do you have? 

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Koeksisters, South African pastry

My trip to South Africa in February led to a discovery of a whole new cuisine, Afrikaans food, which is a melting pot of Indonesian, Dutch, British, French, Indian, Xhosa, Zulu, Bantu, Chinese and rustic farm food. There is one recipe, a pastry called 'Koeksister', which seems particularly influenced by the Indian dessert, Gulab Jamun, a syrupy pastry. It's so sweet, but so addictive.
The Cape Malays have their own version, pronounced slightly differently...a koe'sister...which veers more towards a classic doughnut, which is then dusted with dessicated coconut. I did ask advice from the blogging communities' own CookSister, Jeanne Horak-Druiff, who is based in the UK but originally comes from South Africa. She is the longest running 'British' food blogger, starting in 2004. She probably had to code her own blogposts back then!
My recipe for the classic Afrikans Koeksister can be found over at

Saturday, 12 April 2014

The Renal Diet Recipes

Much of food TV, food writing and of course, food blogging, is aspirational, part of a 'lifestyle': female chefs on TV are always young, slim and unsweaty, food writing is often about rare and expensive ingredients and time-consuming methods, while food blogging can be so twee. Who ties up their freshly-made cookies with ribbon? Who always drinks from a retro paper striped straw? As a self-confessed food geek, I'm always trying hard-core DIY recipes so I plead guilty to the second sin. And I am sometimes prone to the third vice, of prettying up my food photography and recipes, unlikely to be replicated by the average, home tired-from-work cook.
But at the other end of the scale from all this 'lifestyle' cookery, are the people whose diet is so limited as to be dreary, but they have no choice. I've been working with Vital Arts to create vibrant tasty recipes for renal patients, people on dialysis. 
Dialysis is a full-time job; people with kidney failure must go in to the renal ward for five hours, three times a week. Work is difficult and holidays are virtually impossible. The patients are tired all the time. Dialysis, while keeping them alive, is exhausting: you have all your blood taken out, cleaned and put back in. During the process, you feel at your most vulnerable, the life blood is literally being drained out of you. Most renal patients have diabetes. The diabetes explosion in the West will inevitably lead to a surge in demand for dialysis a few years down the line. 
There aren't enough kidneys for transplant. Immediately after my visit, I signed up online to donate my organs. Do it.
Most of the patients on the dialysis ward at the Royal London Hospital, the largest in Europe, are from ethnic minorities: African, Caribbean and from the Indian sub-continent. One of the reasons for this is that there are less donated organs from ethnic minorities and cross-racial organ donation often don't match for both blood and tissue types.  Ethnic minorities wait longer for organ donation and spend longer, often years, on dialysis. 
The renal diet is very restrictive. No potassium, no salt, and about half a litre of liquid a day, including all the liquid they have in their food. Sufferers are reduced to sucking ice cubes to allay thirst. Their kidneys have shut down and they cannot process the excess liquid. No potassium means for instance, no bananas, no yams, few nuts, few tomatoes, a tiny amount of coconut milk. Potatoes must be boiled and drained then cooked again, to rid them of potassium. And imagine a life without salt. In addition, the fact that most renal patients are diabetic means that they must restrict sugar, fruit and carbs in their diet as well as fat: double whammy. 
The people on the ward tend to go in for dialysis with the same people, on the same shift, every week, so they get to know each other really well. They develop close relationships, especially those that are picked up and dropped off by NHS bus, spending three days a week with each other. One of the favourite topics of conversation is food, so Vital Arts asked me to create some recipe cards of dishes that they could eat. The official NHS diet sheets tend to feature British food; in fact the over-boiled, bland food that the British have been trying to move away from, is exactly what a renal patient should be eating. But as dialysis patients come from different cultures, they want more inspirational recipes, dishes they can salivate over. At the same time the recipes should be fairly simple, for people on dialysis have little energy to cook. 
I went along to chat to some patients about the food they like and came up with three recipes. Vegetables and fruit are a problem for people on dialysis, they contain too much fluid. Therefore it is easier to have a protein based, meat diet. So one of the recipes is a chicken recipe, which has been tested. It's the only meat recipe I've ever included on this blog. 
Finally there was an excellent recipe given by a lady of Nigerian origin, a yam chips and tomato stew: she convincingly told us that her Nigerian diet was fine for people on dialysis. But the NHS dieticians said no, it was far too high in potassium. All of the below recipes were checked by the NHS dieticians, I was told to use less oil, less olives, to boil vegetables then drain the water away before using them. 

Shamim's Chicken Tagine with ras el hanout
 Shamim, 54, is originally from Pakistan. She’s been in the UK for 35 years. Her husband has his own business selling gear boxes for cars and Shamim used to work for him. She has been on dialysis for one year now. Her daughter and her daughter-in-law, from Dubai, cook for her but are careful to comply with her diet.
This is a recipe from her daughter-in-law. It’s spectacular, a feast for a family and uses a North African cooking pot called a tagine. This is shaped like a cone, condensation runs up the insides and back down into the food. If you don’t have one, you can use a shallow casserole dish with a lid or, as many modern North Africans use, a pressure cooker.

Serves 6 people

1 tbsp of olive oil
1 medium chicken, jointed, cleaned
1 onion, sliced
3 cloves of garlic, minced
5 carrots, boiled for 10 minutes, then sliced. Water discarded
A pinch of saffron, ground
Juice of half a lemon
1 tbsp of ras el hanout spice mix (can be bought but recipe below)
3 black olives, stoned
handful of fresh flat leaf parsley, picked off the stems
150ml of water

Garnish with fresh parsley and or dried rose petals

Ras el hanout spice mix

This can be ground and used for several weeks if kept in a dry place. Every Arabic shop has it’s own spice mixture, here is a standard approximation of this recipe. Ras el hanout means from the best in the shop.
2 sticks of cinnamon,
10 cloves
1 tbsp of coriander seeds
1 tbsp of cumin seeds
1 tbsp of fenugreek seeds
1 tbsp of fennel seeds
1 tbsp of brown mustard seeds
2 tbsp of dried rose petals

Dry roast all of the ingredients except for the rose petals in a heavy bottomed frying pan, making sure you do not burn the spices. You want the oils and flavours of the spices to emerge.
Then grind all of the ingredients in a powerful blender or a pestle and mortar.

Method for the tagine:

Heat up your tagine or shallow casserole on a medium heat and when it has reached temperature, turn down the heat to low. First brown the chicken pieces in the oil, then place all the ingredients in the tajine, in order, with the chicken on top in your cooking vessel. Then add the rest of the ingredients. Cook for about an hour. If cooking in a casserole, first brown the chicken pieces in the oil, then layer up the casserole dish and bake at 160º for 1 hour 15 minutes. (If using a pressure cooker, follow the manufacturers instructions)

Garnish with parsley and rose petals. Serve with couscous.

Selina's Bangladeshi Fish Curry

Selina is 48, originally from Chitagarh in Bangladesh. She has been on dialysis for just over a year. She’s been in the UK for 25 years, coming here as a 15 year old with her sister. Her sister died ten years ago. She’s done several jobs while in the UK, worked in a shoe shop, in sweet shops and in a dry cleaners. She is helped by an English gentleman, a pensioner from the East End, who sometimes accompanies her to hospital for her dialysis, and cooks for her. He cooks typically English food which is rather bland, but good for a renal diet. But this is a favourite dish of hers, from her country.

Serves 2

1 tbsp sunflower or olive oil or mustard oil 
1 tbsp of turmeric powder
400g of tilapia fillets, washed and patted dry with kitchen paper
1 tbsp of vegetable oil
A pinch of red chilli powder (optional)
1 bay leaf
4 green cardamom pods, crushed
1 tsp of cumin seeds
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 brown onion, finely diced
1 whole green chilli, deseeded, sliced thinly
1 thumb of fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped
1 tsp of ground coriander
1 tsp of ground cumin
1/2 tsp of turmeric powder
2 tomatoes, chopped finely
a handful of fresh coriander leaves, picked from their stems
Juice of half a lime.

Rub the turmeric powder and oil over the fish fillets and leave to marinate for ten minutes. Pre-heat the grill and grill the tilapia fillets until golden on each side. Handle them gently as you do not want the fillets to break up. Once cooked, lift out the fillets and set aside.
In a frying pan, fry the oil, red chilli powder if using, the bay leaf, green cardamom, and cumin seeds.
Add the garlic, onion, ginger and green chilli then add the ground coriander, ground cumin and turmeric powder.
Stir on a medium heat for five or so minutes, then add the tomatoes. Cook for another five to ten minutes then add the tilapia fillets. These should take around five or so minutes to cook. Garnish with coriander and a squeeze of lime.

Serve with chapatti.

Kalla's Kiri Hodi 
Kalla, 51, was brought up in Sri Lanka and Malaysia. She’s suffered from high blood pressure since her early 20s, hence she has been on dialysis for four years in the self-care section.
The renal diet means no nuts, no seafood, no aubergines, all of which are extensively used in the Malaysian and Sri Lankan food of her youth but Kalla occasionally has some as a treat when her mother comes to visit. Asian fruit and vegetables are particularly high in potassium.
String hoppers are a kind of steamed rice cake like idli. One requires a mould and a basket or pallet to steam them. 
But for this recipe, we have used rice noodles or you could serve rice. 
Kalla’s mother makes her own chilli powder. She grows her own chillies and takes it to a local miller, where they ground spice mixtures in small batches.
Note: liquid is obviously a problem with the renal diet so only a small amount of the Kiri Hodi gravy must be eaten. Generally a dry curry is best for those on dialysis.
This meal is eaten for breakfast or dinner. Hoppers are one of the most ancient foods, dating from the 1st century.

Kiri Hodi with String Hoppers or rice noodles

Serves 2

String Hoppers
225g of plain flour or  white or roasted red rice flour (available at Indian shops)
A pinch of salt
335ml of hot water

Kiri Hodi
400g of King Fish
1/2 a red onion, thinly sliced
1 small green chilli, deseeded, sliced thinly
3 -4 fresh curry leaves
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 tsp ground turmeric
1 cinnamon stick, whole, removed from sauce before serving
1/4 tsp of fenugreek seeds, dry roasted
50ml coconut milk
200ml of soy milk
Juice of half a lime
Garnish: fresh coriander

String hopper method:
Prepare a double boiler/ bain marie steamer with hot water just enough water to rest below where you will place the string hopper baskets.
Mix the flour and salt in a bowl then add the hot water, mixing it together. Do the ‘ball’ test. If you can press the crumbly dough into a large ball then you have the right texture. It shouldn’t be too wet however. It is important to knead the dough while it is hot. If the dough is too hot for your hands then empty the dough into a ziplock bag and knead it with a tea towel.
Knead the dough until it is fully mixed with no lumps.
Using a string hopper mould, place the dough into the gadget and squeeze out the noodles onto the string hopper pallet or basket, using a circular motion.
Place the pallets of noodles into the double boiler and steam the noodles over the boiling water for 5 to 10 minutes.

Kiri Hodi method:
Put all the ingredients except for the lime juice in a saucepan on a medium heat and let it cook for about 5 minutes. Then add the lime and a pinch of salt, bring up to a boil then switch off. Keep stirring and serve with string hoppers.

Vermicelli Rice Noodles:
Soak the rice noodles in boiling water for 15 minutes, then serve.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Chocolate 'nest' dessert recipe for Easter and nominations for awards

This recipe is very simple, but you do need silicon cupcake cups for it. I talk about what wine goes with chocolate in my April column on Winetrust100. Go here for the recipe

I'm on book deadline this month, so posts may be shorter than usual. I've not yet talked about my trip to Botswana have I?

In other news I'm thrilled to be on the Pink Lady Food Photography 'Food and its place' shortlist with one of my entries. I'll find out next week if I've won. And, even more exciting, I'm shortlisted as online food writer of the year at the Fortnum & Mason awards in May. Hmm, what shall I wear?