Injecting joy into mealtimes is a key goal for me as a cook. Thackeray implored us to enjoy our meals properly as we will be “many hours in the week, many weeks in the year, and many years in your life happier if you do”.
The National Food Strategy gave some interesting statistics about the amount of time various countries spend “enjoying” their food. America spends the least, and as eating is rarely their sole focus or main activity it makes it harder to quantify the time spent, but the estimate is 63 minutes per day. Canada was next lowest, at 65 minutes, then Ireland, 75, and then we have the UK at 79 minutes per day. Contrast this with the top of the list: first France, where they spend 133 minutes per day eating, followed by Greece at 128, Italy at 127 and Spain at 126. The huge difference is no doubt largely accounted for by the lengthy lunch breaks (followed by a Siesta) in hotter Mediterranean countries.
The UK invention of the sandwich, which has been adapted and adopted throughout the world, can be delicious, but perhaps it also exemplifies all that is wrong with our attitude towards eating. The placing of a meal between two slices of bread came about because it enabled the meal to be eaten whilst doing something else (in the Earl of Sandwich’s case that something was gaming) but how many sandwiches are eaten whilst people continue working? I’m not too fond of the word “mindful” but it is, at the very least, what we should be when eating.
Being someone who lives to eat rather than the other way around, I am rather shocked by the rapid rise in serious eating disorders. The number of children being admitted to hospital for this reason has risen by 84% in the five years to 2022, a period covering the Covid lockdowns. Sadly, we probably all know of someone included in this statistic.
Whilst I have never had a serious eating disorder, my childhood relationship with food was not good. I gave up on school dinners after being forced to sit alone with my uneaten mashed potato until afternoon lessons commenced. I was told that I was a very wicked girl to waste food in this way. If vegetarianism had then been an option, I would surely have embraced it, such was my dread of finding gristle in meat. I drank only water and my dislike of milk, another hangup created at school, left my mother fretting about how to get sufficient calcium into my diet. Please see this as evidence that things can be turned around, which for me happened when I left home and became responsible for cooking my own meals.
Since 6th April 2022, food businesses that employ more than 250 people have been legally required to print the calorie count on menus, a decision that has been criticised by those with eating disorders as they say it can trigger anxieties. I certainly hate to see it and recently, when the waitress came to ask whether we would like to see the dessert menu, I nearly replied “no thank you because I have already reached my calorie allocation for this meal”. Of course, I realise that with ready-made food forming a larger part of people’s diet, it is no longer true that this is a treat or special occasion and so there does need to be more information available. However, with so many special dietary requirements this information is available on request, so perhaps the calorie count could be treated as part of this? In isolation it is a fairly crude measure.
I have also known several relationships flounder on the rocks of different attitudes towards food. A recent newspaper article entitled “My husband is obsessed with his gut health and I can’t stomach it” details one example. The writer complained that since her husband had signed up to Tim Spector’s Zoe project the main result that she had witnessed was his rejection of pretty much everything the rest of the household like to eat. This was scuppering her attempts to raise children who aren’t “super-fussy” and don’t fret over their food choices. It is easy to see how quickly a “balanced diet” and “healthy eating” can become the opposite.
I continue to look for ways to make mealtimes fun and Summer presents numerous opportunities for making a meal an occasion to remember. We are treated to a quick succession of seasonal ingredients, each of which deserves to be celebrated. I have a list of foods that I hope to taste at least once during the year, although worryingly as I look at the list I compiled a decade ago, several are now so endangered that they are off the table. Others are increasingly difficult to acquire but therefore even more worthy of celebration.
However, it is not just the rare ingredients that make an occasion, we also feel obliged to make the most of every sunny day owing to their rarity in our temperate climate. This July has been particularly lacking on that score. Whilst we may try to plan for these occasions, we need also to be able to pack a simple impromptu picnic when the weather is playing ball. A friend’s homemade pasties, eaten whilst sheltering from the rain amongst the rocks, is one particularly memorable example of an impromptu picnic. My equivalent, although less impromptu, is to make a raised pork pie for eating warm. Once you have tasted the difference between one still warm from the oven compared with shop bought you will think the effort worthwhile – perhaps once a year, when you know a picnic is on the cards.
The British seaside is wonderful whether you are picking a crab in one of the many informal fish venues that pepper our coastline or just sitting on the harbourside eating fish and chips. Catching and cooking your own fish is a real thrill. In fact, anything you have picked yourself tastes special, and the blackberries are ripening right now.
Some ingredients are actually easier to buy today than they used to be, like Clotted Cream. Do you remember when you used to post pots as presents from a west-country holiday? Now we can usually buy it in the shop attached to the filling station just a couple of miles away! That enables me to serve a cream tea almost at the drop of a hat and a fresh home baked scone is far superior to almost all that are offered in tea shops. Serving the scones still warm from the oven is the most important factor. Buttermilk is an enhancement I use when I can, but you can still make a good scone by substituting plain yoghurt. My recipe is below.
Enjoy your summer eating!
Scones should never be made in advance but eaten before they are cold. They are very quick to make, but if you want to prepare in advance, you can go as far as rubbing the butter into the dry ingredients, and then add the egg and buttermilk when you are ready to bake them.
8 oz plain flour
½ level tsp. salt
½ level tsp. bicarbonate of soda
½ level tsp. cream of tartar
1-2 tbsps. caster sugar
1½ oz butter
1 egg, beaten
5 tbsps. buttermilk
beaten egg or milk to glaze (optional)
Pre-heat the oven to 230C/Gas Mark 8.
Sift the dry ingredients into a large bowl, then rub in the butter until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Add sufficient egg and buttermilk to make a fairly soft dough. Gently roll or pat the dough out to a thickness of about 2cm/¾”. Cut with a sharp knife of cutter (do not twist the cutter or this will cause uneven rising). Brush with beaten egg or milk if you like a glazed top. Bake for 8-10 minutes, until brown and well-risen. Serve immediately.