Sunday, April 23, 2006

Al Frrrrrrrrresco

Today we had our first meal out of doors (spring rolls and Vietnamese Chicken Salad), which was excellent and a sign of good things to come. Unfortunately, it is not *quite* warm enough for everyone to really embrace the garden eating-- I think I was the only one who would have been quite content to stay outside, but this might have been because the Westie and the little boy who live next door came out to play, and I think they are both the best ever.
It does show some weather-based progress, though, and in honour of it, this afternoon we will descend on the Peartree to celebrate with out of doors booze.

By the way, does anyone else think that Al Fresco would be a good name for a person? A friend of a friend in high school said her Dad's barber was called Al Dente. I thought that was good, too.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Fowl Deeds

(ha-HA!?)

After my week or so of hardcore blogging I have been a little lax recently, but I do have a good excuse. I heard from Tesco in response to the nasty letter I wrote them about the chickens, and because of the incredible dissatisfaction I received from their letter I have been at a bit of a crossroads. So, in the last week I have been mulling over whether I am ready to cross the line from 'concerned consumer/animal lover' to 'chicken crusader/total social pariah' and start writing righteous letters to newspapers and standing around holding leaflets that have horrible pictures on them. One of the things that has been most helpful to me is how weirdly supportive everyone has been about my soap boxing-- here on the blog, at home, generally among friends to whom I have cautiously mentioned this-- which is partly what makes me think that maybe I should go all out and start a little pro-bird, anti-Tesco campaign (then again, the fact that everyone has been nice about it reminds me that I quite like my friends and that I would prefer not to alienate them). Anyway, here's the run-down of my exchange with Tesco. I have just cut and pasted my letter to them below and then typed out their response, so if it all seems a bit wordy, I apologise. Oh, I was also kind of graphic, so be prepared for that, too.

Tesco Customer Service
PO Box 73
Baird Avenue
Dryburgh Industrial Estate
Dundee DD1 9NF

2 April 2006

To whom it may concern;

While shopping in Tesco (Broughton Road, Edinburgh) today I noticed something in the meat aisle that disturbed me for a number of reasons. I had previously believed that Tesco’s standards of animal welfare and wellness were reasonably high for a supermarket, but after seeing hock burns on the roasting chickens on display I am disappointed to say that I am no longer convinced of this. As I am sure you know, hock burns are the result of over-crowding of chickens, which results in the chickens being forced to squat for extended periods of time in their own excrement. Because of the high ammonia content of chicken excrement, it burns sores through the flesh of the birds. As a long-time Tesco customer, I am appalled that your store would be willing to sell birds that are not only so inhumanely treated, but that you are also willing to market a piece of meat with has fairly obviously been soaking in avian faeces.

Additionally, this chicken was marked with a label that I found to be deliberately misleading. It referenced the farmer who raised the chicken, who (if I remember correctly) had his premises in ‘rural Fife.’ The label implied that the farmer and his family had been running a small farm for a number of generations, and also referenced his compatibility with Tesco’s animal welfare standards. If this is the case, I am shocked that Tesco’s welfare standards are so abominably low that they would allow a supply from a farmer who so obviously over-crowds his livestock. If this is not the case, and this farmer did not raise this actual chicken, Tesco is guilty of false advertising. Regardless, I think that your corporation is misleading the public with this system of labelling, and the verbal manipulation used implies a standard of farming which is obviously far beyond that in which this bird was raised.

In truth, I am most greatly disappointed because I have, in general, always found my shopping experience in Tesco to be a pleasant one, bolstered by the friendly staff and the wide selection of products (especially the expanding range of organic products and free-range meats). I am very sorry to have had my estimation of your corporation so tarnished.

I am forwarding a copy of this letter to the CIWF (Compassion in World Farming) Trust, who recently gave Tesco a score of 35.1 out of possible of 60 points on the supermarket’s overall performance and awareness of animal welfare. This rating means that Tesco out-performed such competitors as Sainsbury’s and ASDA. If this is the case I am loathe to see what abominations these supermarkets stock.

Sincerely,
dev

What I got back was this:

Dear dev,

Thank you for contacting us.

We currently stock full ranges of both organic and free range chicken products in our chilled poultry cabinets and have done so for many years.

We demand high standards of animal welfare and are committed to ensuring that we source chickens from suppliers who operate to high standards of production. Our suppliers are audited rhrough an independent farm assurance scheme. We also have an agricultural them dedicated to raising animal welfare standards within the industry.

Thank you for your comments. I hope this reply reassures you that Tesco is fully committed to animal welfare.

Yours sincerely
For and on behalf of Tesco Stores Ltd

Alison Irvine

Now, I don't know about you guys, but that reply actually did not reassure me of Tesco's 'high standards' of welfare one bit, particularly since I had seen the damn hockburns on another couple chickens at the supermarket that day. I am annoyed that there is such an obvious socio-economic divide in terms of the quality and wellness of food that people are offered, and that because I can afford to buy a free-range chicken without really even thinking about it I get better quality and better piece of mind. So, I went and did a little investigative work so that I can offer you guys that comparative pricing on chickens at Tesco. Use it as you choose-- I know spending more money on something that essentially seems the same probably feels a bit weird, but when you upgrade your chicken you aren't just paying for welfare, you are paying for quality, too. If we were all straddling the poverty line I wouldn't ask, but I know we aren't, and I honestly think that the change has to start with those who can and those who know, so that eventually everyone (over-educated uni grads, single mothers with 5 kids to feed, wealthy gourmets) is offered the most ethical, high-quality choice available and that the animals who feedus are treated with respect and kindness. For more information, ask away, or if you want something a little more reliable than just my bitching, you can always check out Hugh F-W at www.rivercottage.net (also good for seaosnal fooding!) or the peeps over at Compassion in World Farming Trust at www.ciwf.org.uk (exceptional for really cute pictures of exceedingly clean-looking cattle, though there are also some upsetting pictures of pretty vicious cruelty). Okay, so here's the chicken info as of 8 April 2006:*

At Tesco, a normal, battery hen (complete with hock burns, flaccid meat, and the kind of Karma that bring you back as one of those chickens) will cost you 2.25 pounds per kilo.
A Free Range hen (this guarantees a reasonable amount of extra space and access to the outdoors during the day for the chicken, hence a bit more exercise and therefore more flavourful meat, but the bird can still legally be fed creepy soy meal or GM foods) costs 3.17 pounds per kilo.
An Organic hen (which is the best you can get at Tesco, though as i have discovered their organic chickens are NOT Soil Association approved, and therefore have substantial room for improvement) will cost you just over 4 quid per kilo.

So, if you are feeding 3 fairly hungry peeps, you would get a 1.3 kilo battery chicken for 3 quid, and a 1.3 kilo Organic chicken for a fiver. The difference is two pounnds (as in, that last pint of Carling that pushed you from okay-ish to utterly mortal this weekend, and gave you a raging hangover the next day), but I can assure you that the pleasure of cooking and eating the organic bird is so different it would blow your mind.

And now, I am going to stop my rant. It seems I have made my decision about that whole Animal Lover v. Social Pariah question...


* I apologise to the American audience for not having proper stats on your supermarket options-- I'll try to gather some in June, or until then, you can do the Inspector Gadget stuff at your local supermarket.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

The Risen Bean

I used to hate beans on toast, that British classic. I detested the sort of mealy texture of the beans, and I hated the fact that I knew there was nothing but sugar in the tomatoey sauce. I *particularly* refused to eat them because Jeff kept trying to convince me that they are some sort of Council Estate Health Food (whether or not this is believed to be true on the housing estates themselves I don't know, but what I do know is that two tins of beans does not supply the necessary vegetable for a day, and it gives way too much sugar to small children, who all seem to be hopped up on Capri Sun all the time anyway). But, then I tried an experiment and managed to change my mind, resulting in pretty much weekly bean consumption here. Which is nice, because Jeff loves beans, and this way we have reached a compromise between his preference for salt of the earth (or sugar, I guess) and my preference toward pretentiousness.

Inspired by the comment made on The Roquefort Files by one Lucky Duck, I will now share with you my secret to truly lovely beans, just in case Keith and I don't get around to slaughtering anything besides our respective sobriety any time soon... I actually was thinking maybe I should put this oneout there before reading Lucky Duck's comment, but I was wondering if maybe I wanted to keep it to myself, instead.

Furthering the twin blogging that Keith and I seem to have been doing this week, this alteration was actually mostly pilfered from Nigel Slater's "The Kitchen Diaries", which, as Keith has mentioned, is awesome. It has a really good balance between East and West, seasonal recognition and managing to eat something other than root veg in January, farmers' market trawling and recognition of the ease of popping out to the corner shop for oven chips and beer. Good stuff, and I think a really nice introduction to eating with the seasons, with a nice recognition of even a chef's human frailty and without the 'raise your own' intimidation factor of some of H.F-W's stuff. Plus, I love seasonal cookbooks, because that way I only let myself read one month at a time, and then it feels like there is a new cookbook for me each month. This is much cheaper than actually buying a new cookbook every month, and it also saves space in a kitchen that already has three shelves full of books.

So, any more tangents aside, what you do is toss some bacon (cut up into wee bits) into a pan at low heat and let it leak out some nice bacony fat while you chop up an onion. It helps if the bacon is quite good-- like butcher's or farm bacon-- because then it actually has some fat to lubricate the pan, and it doesn't just leak injected water and E numbers. I think it would work with grocery store bacon in a pinch, though, if you let it fry gently for a little bit and then dump out the gross watery stuff that leaks out, then add a drop or two of olive oil. Let the onion soften and the bacon cook a bit, without getting much colour, then dump in your tin of beans. Heat them up, and add a teaspoon of black treacle (mo-lasses for the Americani), a glug of mushroom ketchup (no U.S. equivalent, though perhaps a smidge of A1 might be a worthy addition here), and either some Tabasco sauce or a bit of chopped or dried red chilli (I used both Tabasco and chillies, but this is because we enjoy the spice. Not everyone does). Stir it around so the treacle mixes in nicely (it takes the colour from disturbing neon-y red to a nice, deep rust), and what you have is about 6 trillion times superior to the original. I like it most on baked potatoes, with a criminal amount of butter, but it is enjoyable on toast, as well.

Do with this what you will. I know it sounds like too much time invested for a supper of baked beans, but it actually only takes about 5 minutes, and really makes all the difference in the world. Oh, and don't be confused-- there is even MORE sugar in my way of doing it, but I accept this because it is MY sugar. Being arbitrary is my life.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Awry

How would you say this word?

AW-Re?

or

a-RYE?

Please excuse my poor phoneticisms. I have only noticed recently that I may have been mispronouncing to myself it as I read and write. Luckily, I don't think I have actually used it in conversation, which has prevented a replay of the Unfortunate Faucet Incident of '95:

(Small Dev is a Sophomore in High School, and has just finished the first night of Little Shop of Horrors at school, in which she plays pretty much nothing. In a stroke of strange luck, a SENIOR in the play who lives near her asks if she would like to go get ice cream with her and her friends-- SENIORS!-- and then get a ride home. While at ice cream a Senior Boy comes over to talk to Dev, who tries not to reveal that this was actually a Terrible Idea, and that she wants to go home and watch Aladdin with her eleven year old sister.)

Senior Boy: Hey.
Dev: -Gulp- Hi.
SB: Uh, nice job in the play. Your character was really complex.
Dev: -Actually manages to laugh, and relaxes enough to make an effort at sarcasm- Oh, yes. Incredibly multi-fauceted.

Criiiiiiinge.

Later in the play's run, I knocked the kid playing Seymour off the stage with a scrim during his big singing-monlogue in the second act. It was a good three days.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Chicken in a Basket

For Christmas Jeff made what he has since realised was one of his greatest gift-giving mistakes, ever. No, no, not the usual gift faux pas: of the cheap, itchy lingerie or nastly perfume sort. He knows way, way better. In fact, I loved my Christmas gift. But the mistake was that now he has to live with the consequences of having gifted me with The Meat Book, by the brilliantly double-barrelled Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, of River Cottage fame. Jeff thought it might mean more meat, as after he gave me a French cookbook for my birthday we dined frequently on treats inspired by the south of France. What it meant was a crusade.

The Meat Book, like the rest of the River Cottage series, centres on the topic of responsible eating and cookery-- in respecting your ingredients and your eaters by knowing the provenance and abilities of your food-stuffs, as well as knowing how to properly chop and sautee them. As I usually do when I get a new cookbook, I immediately sat down and read it cover to cover. It took a few days, as it is something approaching 600 pages (some of it probably more detailed than I need, as I do not have the space nor the tools to order and butcher an entire cow, though I theoretically now know how), but by the time I was done I was very well convinced. Since then our meat consumption has actually gone down, though I hold to the fact that we are benefitting immensely from the QUALITY, if not the quantity, of the new meat, all of which is carefully sourced from the local butchers and the Farmers' Market by your's truly (more on the joy of the Farmers' Market later, when I am on less of a quest). And the thing that I have been most sucessful about so far in this animal lover's crusade of mine is more or less keeping it to myself. No one likes to sit down at dinner at someone's house to realise they were only invited to see if they could be converted to something.

But today I was in the meat aisle of Tesco. Now, I must admit that even being as high and mighty as I am, from time to time I will buy meat from supermarkets, as long as it is from the organic section and marked with the Soil Association logo, which guarantees medium-high welfare standards for the animals involved. But (disturbingly enough) the poor, spooky battery chickens are right next to the organic meat, and as I picked up a packet of chicken thighs my glance fell onto a whole chicken. Now, they looked kind of gross and flaccid, yes, but, truthfully-- most chickens look kind of gross until you smother them with butter and roast them (mmm). The fucked up thing is that while Tesco claims to be all happy-go-lucky with their chickens (they all have a little label with a kindly looking farmer from 'rural Fife' on it and a wee blurb on how his family has raised chickens for generations on their family farm and how they comply with Tesco's welfare standards), these chickens had pretty obvious hock burns on their little naked knees. I won't go into serious detail, because I am not a total zealot, and I also think of the people who might read this as my friends, and if I gross you out too much you won't stay that way, but basically a hock burn is what happens when too many chickens don't have enough space, and they are therefore obliged to spend most of their lives squatting on a barn floor that is covered in chicken droppings, which are high in amnonia, and therefore burn through their skin. Hock marks are the calling card of battery hens: basically, the kinds of chickens who never see the outdoors, who are crushed into a giant barn so tightly that they barely ever move, and who are bred to be mutantly large-breasted (oh, the patriarchal, sexist world!!) so that shoppers can feed more people for less chicken, some times to the point that the chickens can't even stand for being so top-heavy. (Again, insert Pam Anderson/Jordan joke here).

So, today I am writing a letter to Tesco about how evil they are to mislead the buyer in this way. For you guys I am just spreading the word. I am not your mother, nor your God (though if you are interested in joining a cult where I am, please send donations in pounds Sterling), and I am not going to tell you what meat is right or wrong for you. Everyone's priorities are different. But I do think people should know that those damn touchy-feeling 'I am farmer who loves my chickens' labels are desperately misleading, and that they imply neither higher quality nor better welfare.

End of rant. Sorry to proselytise. Dev loves you, and she loves the chickens.