The West Highland Line: A Tour Guide’s Guide

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Travellers on Scotland’s world-renowned West Highland Line can look forward to a number of exciting initiatives over the next couple of years. Revamped trains will offer innovations such as see-through windows, flushable toilets and, best of all, on-board “tourism ambassadors” to tell visitors all about the route.

Recently, over a pleasant evening of cocktails, canapés and lounge jazz in the Marine Bar, Mallaig, I got chatting to one of the newly recruited “ambassadors”, who was kind enough to give me an advance copy of their script, which I’m delighted to reproduce here. And I must admit, even to a seasoned traveller like me, it’s remarkably enlightening.

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The Isle of Eigg, viewed from the site of the proposed Isle of Muck Monorail terminus.

Section 1: Mallaig to Fort William

The line to Mallaig was built in 1901 in order to take herring to London, back in an era when fish had much higher disposable incomes than they have today. But the railway soon caught the imaginations of local humans as well, keen to escape the industrial grime of Beasdale and Lochailort for the unspoilt majesty of Dalmuir.

The importance of Mallaig as a port grew following the introduction in 1932 of its first car ferry, the Road to the Isles. To avoid confusion with the vessel’s somewhat unusual name, the nearby A830 trunk road was subsequently renamed the Boat to Fort William. Mallaig’s once mighty fishing industry has declined from its 1960s heyday; but the sea continues to play a vital part in the village’s economy, and species as diverse as prawns, haddock, salmon and mackerel can be found in its Co-op to this day.

Our first stop is Morar, whose “White Sands” were famously featured in the film Local Hero. The movie’s soundtrack was written and performed by jobbing musician Mark Knopfler, who has since fallen on hard times and can often be found hanging around the beach during tourist season, noodling away on his guitar for pennies. A similar fate befell locally-born weather presenter Carol Kirkwood, who now lives in a wheelie bin outside the Morar Hotel, offering speculative long range forecasts in exchange for Special Brew and pork scratchings.

At Arisaig, the line affords spectacular views of the islands of Rum and Eigg, which take their names from the two most popular breakfast items in the West Highlands. The village itself is a pleasant five minute stroll downhill from the station, though the return journey is an arduous three day climb that should only be attempted in the presence of a Sherpa. Arisaig is currently the westernmost railway station in Britain, although it is scheduled to lose this title in 2019 when the Isle of Muck completes its long-awaited monorail network.

Historic Glenfinnan is where Bonnie Prince Charlie raised his royal standard to instigate the Jacobite Rising of 1745. As the train crosses the iconic Glenfinnan Viaduct, it accelerates to a near-standstill so passengers can admire the famous monument to the Prince on the banks of beautiful Loch Shiel – surely one of the finest views in Scotland.

Of course, none of this is of the slightest interest to the thousands of grown men and women who come here every year with the sole purpose of following in the footsteps of a fictional schoolboy wizard. In this respect, it’s no exaggeration to say that Harry Potter has done for Glenfinnan what Miss Hoolie did for Tobermory. On the station platform, local entrepreneurs rush to sell Harry-themed postcards, keyrings, golf umbrellas and gimp masks to enthusiastic tourists – whose children, meanwhile, remain on the train, staring at their phones, valiantly trying to get Snapchat to work with a one bar mobile signal. They have no idea who Harry Potter is.

From Glenfinnan, the train continues east along the northern bank of Loch Eil, stopping briefly to pick up frostbitten escapees from the loch’s Outward Bound centre, and on to the village of Corpach, which gained its name – meaning “field of corpses” – following a particularly violent shinty match in 1470.

At Banavie, we pass the famous Neptune’s Staircase, a system of locks on which boats ascend 60 feet to the higher section of the Caledonian Canal. You’d do well to take a moment to admire this while you still can, because after almost 200 years in operation, modern accessibility requirements dictate that it will shortly be pulled up and replaced with a state-of-the-art “Neptune’s Travelator”. Banavie is also the home of the signalling centre that controls every train departure on the West Highland Line, from Mallaig all the way to Helensburgh, with the aid of an exceptionally loud whistle.

On the approach to Fort William, the region’s most celebrated landmark finally comes into view, to gasps of delight of locals and tourists alike. No trip to the area is complete without paying it a visit; but once you’ve been to McDonald’s, it’s also worth checking out Ben Nevis. Despite its status as the highest mountain in Britain, the climb to the summit is surprisingly straightforward, attracting visitors in large numbers – partly to admire the stunning views, but mainly so they can bang on about it for years as if they’re Sir Edmund chuffing Hillary.

Section 2: Fort William to Crianlarich

The circuitous nature of this section of line can be traced back to a design meeting at Glasgow engineers Forman & McCall in 1889. Chief engineer James Bulloch, running late and still drunk from the night before, hastily sketched out a route on the back of a beer mat on the tram to work before presenting it to his colleagues. When the practical difficulties of the proposed line were pointed out to him, Bulloch decided to brazen it out, as the minutes of the meeting record:

Mr Forman observed that the intended route would pass over miles of saturated, uninhabitable bogland, rendering its construction almost impossible; but Mr Bulloch demurred, insisting it would “aw be fine” and that “awbody kens trains can float, eh?”. Mr Bulloch then abruptly left the meeting and headed in the direction of a local hostelry, pausing briefly to urinate in the street and swear at a passing horse.

Based on Bulloch’s visionary design, the line heads northeastwards from Fort William to Spean Bridge. It passes close to the Commando Memorial, which honours a local regiment who helped conserve scarce textile resources during World War II by going into battle without any underwear. Their sacrifice became a symbol for British stoicism in wartime, and led to the coining of the term “crack troops”. The highly lifelike Commandos sculpture was completed in 1952, and it’s understood the Queen Mother took enormous pleasure in unveiling it.

Roy Bridge was home to the parents of Mary MacKillop, Australia’s first ever saint, and indeed its only one until the recent canonisation of Dame Edna Everage. North of the village lies the glacial feature now known as the Parallel Roads of Glen Roy, although prior to improvement works during the last Ice Age, it was referred to as the Single Track Road of Glen Roy with Passing Places.

From Tulloch station, we head south past beautiful Loch Treig, whose evocative-sounding Gaelic name translates into English as “Loch of Death” – a macabre naming convention shared by nearby Loch Arkaig (“Loch of Indiscriminate Slaughter”) and Loch Ossian (“Loch of Stamping on Little Bunny Rabbits”). Here, the train begins its long climb to the highest station in the UK at Corrour. The steep incline poses a challenge for the ironically-named “Sprinter” trains that operate this route, and it’s relatively common for the guard to ask passengers to get out and push.

The scenery around Corrour may be familiar as the location of the “Great Outdoors” scene in Trainspotting, in which the group get off the West Highland Line train and set out to climb the nearby Leum Uilleim mountain. Rumours that the same train also inspired the film’s “Worst Toilet in Scotland” scene remain unconfirmed.

By this point, there are no roads for miles around, and the surrounding countryside is wet and treacherous, as starkly illustrated by the dozens of abandoned, half-submerged rail replacement buses visible from the train window. The train, however, continues serenely across the moor to Rannoch station, its tracks “floating” on a mattress of tree roots, earth and brushwood, which represents something of a triumph for drunken, last minute railway design.

The railway line finally rejoins the main road just before Bridge of Orchy, which consists of a hotel, a church and not much else. In West Highland terms, this is enough to qualify it as a major conurbation. We then round the spectacular horseshoe curve at the base of Beinn Dorain, on which the train will often pass itself coming in the opposite direction, before arriving at Upper Tyndrum. If ever you’re catching the train here, be sure to go to the correct station: the village also has stops at Tyndrum Lower, Tyndrum Even Lower and Tyndrum Subterranean, making it the only settlement in Britain with more railway stations than people.

Finally, after almost two hours’ travel through largely barren wilderness, the scenery changes dramatically. Bright lights, office blocks, multiplex cinemas and retail parks begin to dominate the skyline, which can mean only one thing: we are approaching Crianlarich.

Section 3: Crianlarich to Glasgow Queen Street

Crianlarich is where the Mallaig and Oban lines meet, which means a wait of around ten minutes while the two trains divide, sub-divide, sub-sub-divide and reattach, often all at the same time. As a result, the station is beloved of smokers, who gather on the platform and attempt to consume as many cigarettes as possible before the scheduled departure. The all time record is held by the late Willie “One Lung” Jackson of Locheilside, who on 23 October 2004 managed to puff his way through thirteen filterless roll-ups and a cheroot before being ushered back on to the train.

These days, smoking is officially prohibited even on the open platform, following a successful complaint from a nearby sheep with a slight bronchial condition. Like the rule outlawing on-train drinking after 9pm, this by-law is both warmly endorsed and religiously observed by regular users of the West Highland Line.

The first stop on this final section of the line is at Ardlui, at the north end of Loch Lomond. Traditionally, this is the last northbound stopping point for day-trippers from the central belt who get off here, stop for a few pints in the Ardlui Hotel and get the late train home, which is sufficient for them to claim proudly that they’ve “done” the Highlands.

From Ardlui, the train proceeds south along the west bank of the loch, which despite its proximity to Glasgow, remains an unspoilt oasis of serenity, punctuated only by a few hundred passing speedboats, jet skis, cruise ships and supertankers. The picture postcard view across the loch was largely unobstructed until the past few years, when local practical jokers began planting trees at regular intervals to irritate tourists attempting to take photographs through the window.

The next stop, Arrochar and Tarbet, is situated on the narrow isthmus between two lochs. Arrochar sits at the head of Loch Long, a popular location for diving and fishing – though many old-timers feel these pursuits have lost much of their excitement since the closure of Arrochar’s torpedo testing facility in 1986 – while the village of Tarbet lies on Loch Lomond, a little under two miles away. During the Scottish-Norwegian War of the 13th century, Viking invaders would haul their longboats across the isthmus in order to reach Loch Lomond. Warriors who completed this arduous task were traditionally rewarded with extra pay and rations. This was known as an Isthmus Bonus.

Garelochhead station looks over the naval base at Faslane, which houses the UK’s stockpile of Trident missiles. As at Glenfinnan, locals have been quick to capitalise on the area’s fame, and souvenir hunters are encouraged to visit the pop-up shop on the platform and pick up a fully functioning scale model of a nuclear submarine to entertain the kids.

Helensburgh Upper represents the end of the West Highland Line “proper”, after which the train joins the busy Strathclyde suburban rail network. The remainder of the route is perhaps less spectacular than what has gone before, but still has much to recommend it. As we reach the Clyde Estuary, a number of anonymous but renowned local artworks become visible, including Still Life With Shopping Trolley and a postmodern arrangement of dead pigeons and Tennents cans that is simply entitled Glasgow. The train also provides the ideal perspective – and distance – to view the towns of Greenock and Port Glasgow at their very best.

Finally, after further stops at Dumbarton Central and Dalmuir, we reach our final destination of Glasgow Queen Street. As you disembark, keep an eye out for any West Highlanders who have travelled with you, as they take a moment to absorb the contrast between Scotland’s largest city and the landscape of lochs and mountains from which they’ve come – before swiftly realising their mistake and getting straight back on the train.

[Author’s note: Please note that this is an unofficial draft copy of the tourism ambassadors’ script, and I cannot be held responsible for any minor inaccuracies contained therein. For a more authoritative representation of the line, you might want to check out the Friends of the West Highland Line website and/or this wonderful BBC documentary from 1960, showing a day in the life of the line in the era of steam travel.]

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Add a touch of tripe to your coleslaw…

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Sainsbury's coffee ad

Wandering past my local Sainsbury’s today, I was delighted to notice a poster in the window advertising various pieces of Halloween-related tat. Not that I’m particularly fond of Halloween, you understand; my happiness came from the hope that this new ad campaign might spell a merciful end for its predecessor.

In case you’ve been judiciously avoiding all media, social and otherwise, for the past month or so, I should probably explain what I’m on about. In its “Little Twists” campaign – I can’t quite bring myself to include the obligatory hashtag – Sainsbury’s encourages us to wax experimental with otherwise familiar meals, adding horseradish sauce to macaroni cheese, instant coffee to spaghetti Bolognese and pickled herring to banoffee pie. (I may have made one of those up.)

It’s not that I’m opposed to innovation in cooking – quite the contrary – although as I’ll come to in a moment, these suggestions aren’t really innovative at all. And I can just about accept the fact that they persuaded the otherwise impeccable Jarvis Cocker to do the voiceover – even though a little part of me dies every time I hear it. My greater problem – and admittedly, it’s a terribly self-centred one – is that people seem to think I must be all in favour of it. “Ah, that coffee Bolognese thing – that’ll be right up your street, won’t it, with, you know, your make-it-up-as-you-go-along no recipe whatnot?”

Well, it’s not up my street. It’s not even in my council ward, postal district or school catchment area. This isn’t creative cooking; it’s just babble – reminiscent of a concussed Manny in Black Books spouting jumbled-up entries from the Little Book of Calm. Not all of the suggested combinations are necessarily awful – Alison Lynch wrote in Metro that she’d tried out the coffee-in-Bolognese idea and found it surprisingly palatable – but that’s not really the point. The problem with the Sainsbury’s ads is that they represent the worst of all cooking worlds: miserable conformity, dressed up as innovation.

For all the [adopts best Christopher Morris voice] FURORE about this campaign – which, of course, is exactly what it was designed to generate – there’s nothing revolutionary about putting coffee in a Bolognese sauce. People – albeit not that many – have been cooking with coffee for years. It even gets a semi-honourable mention as a last minute stew addition in my own food bible, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage Meat Book. It’s vaguely rich and vaguely savoury, and as such, makes a vaguely OK addition to most dark, meaty dishes – though a decent beef stock cube will do much the same job, but better.

Ultimately, just as you’ll struggle to come up with an idea that nobody’s had before (cf. every proprietary argument about a Twitter joke ever), there’s barely a combination of ingredients that hasn’t been explored. Be it coffee, Irn Bru or blue WKD, if you can drink it – and in this, blue WKD finds itself on the borderline – you can probably get away with bunging it into a casserole. As long as its predominant characteristics correspond roughly with the effect you’re after – coffee for savour, Irn Bru for sweetness or blue WKD for, er, blueness – you won’t go far wrong.

When it comes to adding the weird and not-so-wonderful to your food, the relevant question isn’t whether it’s right or wrong, or possible or impossible: it’s why you’d want to. Without a coherent answer to that question – an answer that might encompass flavour, colour, availability and necessity, among other factors – you’d be well advised not to bother, pending further investigation.

This is where the Sainsbury’s ads fall down: they rely on us asking “why not?”, rather than the more pertinent question “why?”. They remind me of QT, the forgotten-but-not-gone instant tea, which was advertised in its early ’90s “heyday” with the somewhat plaintive tagline: “Try it – you might like it.” (We did – and we didn’t.)

If you’re in the food business, and the best selling point you can come up with is “well, you never know, it might not be awful”, you probably need to ask some serious questions of your product development and/or marketing teams. Yet, nearly 25 years on, this is effectively what Sainsbury’s are doing. Moreover, it seems to be working, in that their sales of spaghetti and instant coffee have apparently boomed since the campaign began. Which just goes to illustrate one thing: we really are a bunch of pliant, unthinking, head-nodding numpties.

Why else would we go through the joyless exercise of making the same handful of largely boring meals again and again, to exactly the same prescription, then suddenly decide to stir utterly random things into them because some bright spark in an ad agency has planted the idea in our heads? I don’t believe in God, but if I did, this is exactly the sort of situation in which I’d implore him/her/it to help us.

This isn’t just an advertising phenomenon; it occurs on an even more startling level via food programming, when an ingredient used by a TV chef one day becomes virtually unobtainable the next, as thousands of us rush to mimic what we’ve just watched, because it seems easier than thinking for ourselves. How wonderful it is to live in a society in which we can think and do largely as we please; and how depressing to discover that, given the opportunity, we generally elect not to bother.

Is there a better way? Well, of course there is. And because I’m good to you, I’ve already taken the trouble to write about it. Just use the same skills you employ every time you pick a meal from a menu, or decide which components of your fry-up should form the next forkful. In other words, pick the flavour and texture combinations that seem right to you. Add something if it fits with what’s there already and the effect you’d like to achieve; and if it doesn’t, don’t. Develop your meal as you would a painting, pausing for thought before you add to it, and it will make sense in its final form, because every decision in its development will have been the product of your own critical analysis and taste.

And if, by that process, you end up adding coffee to your Bolognese, Monster Munch to your burger or Kia Ora to your duck, then that’s absolutely fine. You might just happen upon something surprising and wonderful. At worst, you ought to end up with something unusual (if not entirely new) but still edible.

More often, though, you’ll come up with a meal that may not be radical or outlandish, but is original nonetheless: your own creation, not one of Jamie’s, Nigella’s or Sainsbury’s(‘s). Instead of putting horseradish in your macaroni cheese, you might decide to add English mustard instead: similarly warming and spicy, but in both flavour and colour, a more appetising addition to the cheese sauce. And if you don’t feel like eating the same boring Bolognese, then make it with different meats, vegetables, herbs, cheeses, whatever. As long as you remember to think and taste as you go, it really will turn out fine.

And don’t worry too much about whether the dish still qualifies as a spaghetti Bolognese. If something tastes good, it doesn’t much matter what you call it. And in the extremely unlikely event that you get a knock on the door from the authenticity police, you’ll have an irrefutable defence: “At least I didn’t put instant f***ng coffee in it.”

The No Reci-Pie Man

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Close-up photo of pies

Last Saturday afternoon, I was a proud guest at the marriage of my great friends Eilidh and Carl. In the evening, I fed 160 people at their wedding ceilidh. What’s more, I didn’t cock it up.

Here’s how I did it.

First things first. Why am I bothering to tell you all this, other than for the anatomically improbable purpose of blowing smoke up my own arse? (Actually, a length of hosepipe and a firm shove would probably do the trick, but let’s not go there.)

I’m telling you about it for a few reasons. Firstly, I’d never previously cooked for more than about 30 people. So my story might be of some help to you, if ever you find yourself catering for larger numbers than you’d ever imagined.

Secondly, I don’t always find it straightforward to explain what I mean by “no-recipe cooking”. Many people, understandably, presume I’m advocating a “throw it all in and hope for the best” approach. I’m not. But between that ill-advised method and its ultra-cautious opposite – measuring everything to the gram, millilitre or minute – there’s a vast middle ground. And that’s what I’d like to encourage all cooks to explore, whether they’re cooking for two or 200.

And thirdly, the reason I set up this blog in the first place was to encourage more people to cook the way I do: with imagination, with freedom, with the senses – and without recipes. I’m pretty much evangelistic about this, because I’ve done it, I’ve eaten the results, and I know it works. But if you haven’t, you’ll probably need some convincing. If I can’t do that by cooking for you in person, then this is probably the best example I can give you of the no-recipe method in action.

I hope it’s helpful, and I hope you enjoy reading it.

The background

I’ve never organised a wedding. But I’ve spoken to plenty of people who have. And of all the many stresses associated with the day, the catering has to be one of the greatest. You want every aspect of the day to be happy and memorable, including the food. You want to be able to feed all your guests, whatever their dietary requirements. But you don’t want to spend weeks trailing around potential caterers, shelling out two months’ wages to the only one that turns out to be available, then staring forlornly at a load of uninspiring, unwanted curled-up sandwiches at the end of the night.

Against that background, I can see why Carl and Eilidh turned to me. They’d eaten my food before, and they knew it was pretty good. They knew I wouldn’t charge the earth (in fact, I was more than happy to give my time for free, by way of a wedding present). And they knew, I hope, that I’d do everything in my power not to let them down.

But to look at it another way, they must either have been desperate or stark, staring mad. I’d never done anything approaching professional catering in my life. And while I’d fed them pleasant enough meals in the past, I hadn’t always done so at the appointed time – not always within an hour of the appointed time, in fact. If I couldn’t serve a meal for four at roughly the time I said I would, what chance did I have with 160? They haven’t said as much to me, but as the day approached, they must have woken in a cold sweat more than once at the prospect of the food turning up halfway through Auld Lang Syne.

Still, desperate or otherwise, they asked me, and at once I said yes. From that moment, I was obliged to indulge in a pastime I usually prefer to avoid.

Planning.

The plan

I was fortunate to be given free rein on what food to serve. But at the same time, there were several qualities that the meal had to have.

Most obviously, it had to be tasty. As noted above, it had to be prompt. It had to be varied enough to cater for a range of tastes, appetites and diets. As it would be served from a single buffet table, it had to be portable. It had to be a one-person job – particularly once I’d established that my flatmate and potential co-chef would be away in Portugal at the time of the wedding. Out of consideration for Eilidh and Carl’s budget, it had to be affordable. And taking all those other factors into account – it had to be doable.

All of which appeared to rule out my originally intended centrepiece for the meal: pies, and lots of them. But just as I was about to resign myself to this, I stumbled upon the company that would make the whole thing possible again: the DIY Scotch Pie Company.

The DIY Scotch Pie Company, I discovered, is a small and recently established business in Fife that makes empty Scotch pie shells and sells them by mail order. In other words: my saviour.

A few emails later, I was the proud owner of 240 mini Scotch pie shells. A “doh” moment of realisation after that, I was on a train to Kirkcaldy to pick up some vegetarian pie shells as well. And after some welcome words of advice and support from the company founder, Martin Burns, and a reassuring look at the large Combi oven that would allow me to bake four large trays of pies at a time, I was ready to write the menu.

The menu

I’d never written a menu before. And as those who know me would testify, marketing isn’t exactly my natural calling. But I’m not completely oblivious to the importance of good presentation, both of the menu and the food itself. With this in mind, I took the basic ideas I’d had for soups, stews and pie fillings, and set to work on giving them some extra allure.

For instance, as one of the vegetarian options, I wanted to make a cheese, onion and potato pie. I knew it would taste nice enough; but it didn’t sound particularly appetising. The solution: to take each constituent element and tart it up a bit. Bog-standard “cheese” became “mature cheddar”; onions were replaced by shallots; and as they’d just come into season, I decided my potato of choice would be the Jersey Royal. “Mature cheddar, Jersey Royals and shallots”: yep, that sounded a whole lot better. For a few pence per pie, and with no extra effort, I’d enhanced both the quality of my pies and – almost as importantly – their appeal.

Similar This Morning-style makeovers were applied to other parts of the menu. Broccoli and Stilton soup is cheap and easy to make, and justifiably popular, so I decided early on that it should make an appearance – but it all sounded a little familiar and dull. But if one blue cheese would work, why not another? Scotland produces some spectacular blue cheeses of its own, so I chose to go local. The soup would be not broccoli and Stilton, but broccoli and Dunsyre Blue.

On a more practical note, I planned where possible to work on multiple dishes at once. So the curry pies – one meat, one vegetarian – would come from the same onion and spice base, before being separated for the meat and vegetable additions and finishing touches. And the filling for the beef and ale pies would, with the addition of boiled potatoes, fried mushrooms and a little thyme, become the basis for one of the stews.

The other determining factor of the menu takes me back to my “no recipe” principles. Wherever possible, I like to cook without unnecessary restrictions: so if I can avoid using scales, measuring jugs and timers, I will. Precision cooking is all well and good; but imprecision cooking is so much less stressful.

The most obvious pitfall of this approach is the potential for losing track – especially with four or five giant cooking pots on the go at one time. (How long has that stew been cooking? An hour? Two hours? A week?) But if the pitfall is obvious, so too is the path around it: choose ingredients that will readily forgive a spot of inattention.

Carl and Eilidh's wedding menu

Look through the menu and you’ll see that everything on it is oversight-friendly.

The soups were to be blended, not chunky; so it’d hardly matter if I cooked the vegetables for far too long (which I did). Shin of beef takes a good three hours to become tender, and several hours longer to fall apart. (I’ve no idea how long I ended up simmering it, but the chunks of meat stayed happily intact.) The flesh of a chicken is more delicate; but by using thigh meat instead of breast, and with plenty of chorizo to donate flavour and lubricating fat, even this would stand up to a fair bit of careless cooking.

The shopping

With the menu finalised, it was time to shop.

Actually, when I say “finalised”, that isn’t quite true. Yes, I’d given names to each of the dishes; but I didn’t know exactly what they’d comprise. I hadn’t worked out which vegetables and spices would find their way into the vegetable curry (in the end, I went for sweet potato, peppers and marrow), or how tomato-ey I’d make the chicken stew.

I did toy briefly with the idea of doing a trial run of the meal in advance of the wedding, to give me a better idea of quantities and proportions, but decided against it for a couple of good reasons.

Firstly, producing a small-scale version of the wedding meal wouldn’t have come close to replicating the challenges of the real thing, for reasons I’ll come to in a moment.

Secondly – and far more significantly – I couldn’t be arsed.

Instead, I worked out – very roughly – how much of each meat I’d need, along with the other main (i.e. advertised) ingredients such as cheese and broccoli. That was as far as I intended to dabble in weights and measures. Beyond that, I decided simply to buy a shedload of the flavouring and bulking ingredients that would find their way into several of the dishes (carrots, onions, potatoes, tomatoes), along with plenty of the extras that would allow me to adjust, boost and balance the flavours at the last minute: not just the obligatory salt and pepper, but sweeteners (sugar, honey, mango chutney) and sharpeners (lemon, vinegar) as well.

And I had no shame at all in buying a selection of “lazy” ingredients: stock cubes (good ones, mind you), curry pastes, minced ginger, tinned beans as opposed to dried. My bad. I promise to do better next time – if you agree to provide me with an army of sous-chefs. Otherwise, I won’t. [Gratuitous plug: for a more extensive take on so-called “cheating” at cooking, beg or borrow a copy of Fire and Knives issue 12 and read my article in that. Gratuitous plug ends.]

In short, I tried to make everything about the meal preparations, from shopping to serving, as “normal” as possible. In my day-to-day life, I don’t make minutely detailed shopping lists, turn my nose up at “cheaty” ingredients, weigh ingredients to the nearest gram or time my cooking to the minute. So why do things differently here? Adopting a load of new habits would only make a tough task tougher.

In retrospect, this was the best single decision I made during my first attempt at mass catering: that I would do it the no-recipe way.

The day before

All of this sounded great in theory. But as a catering novice, I still had no real idea how well it would work in practice. At around 4pm on Friday, on being handed the key to the kitchen, it was time to find out.

As others set to work decorating the hall – stunningly, as it turned out – I plugged in my iPod and speakers and tried to work out where to start.

Actually, that’s not quite true. I already knew where to start: in the logical place. My soups, stews and pie fillings would all take different amounts of time to cook: three hours (ish) for the beef, two for the lamb, barely an hour for the chicken, and even less for the various veggie options. So that, roughly speaking, would be the order of events.

So, having sliced 4 kilos of beef into what Fergus Henderson describes as “pie-sized chunks” – now there’s a man who appreciates that there’s a time for specifics and a time for common sense – I was ready to cook.

I mentioned a little earlier that I saw little point in doing a scaled-down dry run of the meal, and here’s why. Had I been making this stew for three or four people, I’d have done a lot of things differently – and, to be honest, better. I’d have dusted the meat with seasoned flour and seared it in small batches, maybe 200g at a time, so that the browning flavours (and colours) would dissolve into and enhance the sauce. But with 4 kilos of meat, that would have equated to 20 batches. Sod that.

Instead, the browning phase became more of a token effort – three big batches, as I recall – giving the meat a bit of colour, but not much. Where I’d ordinarily have softened the onions slowly to release their sweetness, here they received little more than a cursory shoogle-about in the pan. And while I’d have liked to have made a rich beef stock to enhance the gravy, there just wasn’t the time or space here. So I’d have to look elsewhere for my flavour boosts.

“Elsewhere”, in this case, refers to a few good beef stock cubes, plus a couple of big bones, bought for 50p each from the butcher’s freezer and left to simmer away with the rest of the meat.

So this wasn’t going to be my dream stew, then; but under the circumstances, it would more than do.

Similar short cuts applied to just about everything on the menu. Any spare bones were added to the appropriate pots – I’d bought the lamb and chicken on the bone for this exact purpose – and my powders and pastes were thrown into the curries with something approaching abandon.

While the stews bubbled away, it occurred to me that the whole operation was, so far, proving remarkably serene; and so, for the time being, it continued. A quick sample indicated that the chicken was cooked, so I added the last-minute ingredients (olives from a jar, haricot beans from a tin), adjusted the sweet/sour/salt balance (in this case, with sugar, balsamic vinegar and just a little salt, as the chorizo already contained plenty), then, after a final taste to confirm that all was as it should be, took the stew off the heat. One dish down, seven to go.

The same pattern applied to each dish: check for cooked-ness; add any final ingredients; adjust the seasoning with appropriate sweeteners and sharpeners (redcurrant jelly and red wine vinegar for the beef; mango chutney and white wine vinegar for the curries); and leave to cool. Where the stews needed thickening, I used cornflour dissolved in a little water. Perhaps wheat flour would have been preferable in some cases; but the risk of filling my stews with little gluey lumps was too great for me to take.

As more dishes were completed and more hobs freed up, I caught up with some of the remaining jobs: boiling spuds, wilting spinach, starting out on the soups. I kept half an eye on the clock, but only for selfish reasons: I was determined to make it to the pub in time for last orders. Beyond that, I had little reason to worry about timings at this stage; that was an issue for the following day.

The night before

Whatever job you happen to be doing, it’s important to take time out to unwind. Arguably, I did this to a fault: a quick pint before last orders turned into a trip to an impromptu house gig featuring the wonderful Viking Moses. My state at the end of the evening is summed up by this video (warning – contains strong language and gratuitous close-up beardage).

(Some context might be useful here. Just before I left, I was discussing the following day’s pie plans with the illustrious DJ, video editor and occasional guest star of this blog, Dylan Matthews. Dylan was patiently explaining to me that it didn’t matter how much meat or gravy I put into my pies, as long as I put a lot of love into them. Understandably alarmed, Tom Youll suggested strongly that I should avoid putting any love into them at all – hence the “love pies”/”no love pies” debate.)

The wedding day

Fuzzy-headed as I was, I hadn’t completely lost sight of what remained to be done. And unlike the day before, the success of Saturday – well, my part of it, at least – would all be in the timing.

The ceremony would take place at 1pm. At 5pm, after the first of the post-wedding feeds (this one, mercifully, not my responsibility), I’d be free to return to the kitchen. The ceilidh would begin at 7, and I’d be serving food at 9.

I’d left myself a couple of jobs for the morning – making the broccoli soup and finishing off the veg curry – so I popped into the kitchen to complete these before donning my gladrags and making my way to the wedding, which, as you can see on the Darroch Photography blog, was bloody fantastic.

All of this meant that, come 5pm, I was exactly at the point I’d hoped to be: everything cooked and ready to reheat, with only one job left to complete. One job; but it was a biggie.

Making the pies.

Several pies

This was the point at which, to use a highly technical piece of chef’s terminology, I began to shite it. Every task I’d done up to this point had felt familiar, even if the scale didn’t. But this was new territory, and the doubts began to appear.

How long would it take me to make, roll and cut the pastry for around 200 pie tops? Were the DIY cases as good as the online testimonies suggested, or would I open the boxes to find hundreds of mouldy and/or shattered shells? Would I just end up panicking and running out of the kitchen, jumping on a train to the Highlands and living out the rest of my days in a bothy?

Well, no, I wouldn’t. I’d like to make this bit sound more dramatic than it was, but as soon as I started up my pie production line, I realised it was all going to be OK. With an hour and a half to go until service, I was feeling in control again, and my kitchen looked like this:

The author in the kitchen

And with a bit of welcome assistance in transporting the food to the buffet table, the guests were happily slurping and chomping away by 9pm. (OK then, 9.05pm.)

Not everything went exactly as planned, of course. Without the benefit of properly browned meat, the beef looked rather more like dog food than I’d have liked; though it still tasted bloody good. And I didn’t have time to make quite as many pies as I’d hoped – though 168 isn’t half bad – so I’ve been left with rather a lot of spare shells. But that’s hardly a disaster: it just means I’m going to have to eat an awful lot of pies over the next few weeks. Life’s a bitch, eh?

Importantly, everyone seemed to enjoy the food. At least two people told me that these were the best pies I’d ever eaten – and one of them wasn’t even visibly drunk. Vegetarians, vegans and gluten-free-ers stopped to thank me for thinking of them while planning the menu: many of them hadn’t expected to find anything they’d be able to eat.

And most of all, Eilidh and Carl loved it: the food, the dancing, the music – everything. So my last words are to them: many, many congratulations, all my very best wishes for the future, and thanks for inviting me to be part of the day.

It was a crazy idea, but somehow it worked.

[All photos by kind permission of Darroch Photography, apart from the blurry and rubbish one, which is my own.]

With provenance to guide us

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Something Tikka Masala

Another week, another we’re-not-eating-quite-what-we-thought-we-were story. This time, it’s the news that 24 of 60 takeaway meals sampled by Which? contained meat other than the advertised lamb.

Of these, twelve included cheaper meats in addition to lamb; seven contained no lamb whatsoever; and five had been so heavily processed that the scientists were unable to identify what meat(s) they contained. In other words, we can decipher the human genome, but not the doner kebab.

Granted, none of this is very pleasant. It’s undoubtedly fraudulent. Depending on what the mystery meat turns out to be, it could be stomach-turning. (The Mail, with characteristic restraint, took the discovery of the “UNIDENTIFIED” meat as its cue to ask, “Is there rat in your kebab?”)

But is it surprising? Hardly.

As long as there are humans, there will be fraud. And while we tend to think of fraud in purely financial terms, it occurs in relation to any tradeable commodity, from fine art to fishcakes. As such, every government devotes resources to combating it.

But not every form of fraud is pursued with equal vigour, or with equal success. Tax fraud might cost the UK 16 times as much as benefit fraud, but you’d hardly know it from reading the papers or listening to Government ministers. And food fraud, no matter that it has existed for as long as food trading, barely enters our consciousness until a particular scandal happens to capture the attention of the media and the public.

The inevitable consequence of such a scandal is that we get terribly worked up about one particular symptom, with no great attention paid to the others (let alone their causes). Such was the backlash to last year’s revelations, it’s unlikely we’ll find much horse in our burgers for the foreseeable future. But that’s no indication that the fraudsters have gone straight. And as public investment in food safety analysis continues to be cut, we’d be impossibly naïve to imagine that the situation is destined to improve.

But then, we are impossibly naïve; and what’s more, it suits us to remain that way, because our chief expectations around food are fundamentally incompatible.

We expect to take pleasure from the food we eat; but at the same time, we expect to pay as little as possible for the privilege. And achieving both of those things at once depends to a great extent on the questions we choose not to ask, and the truths we don’t much care to think about.

When we eat a £1.99 portion of fried chicken and chips, it doesn’t suit us to consider the conditions in which the birds lived, or the drugs with which they were pumped in order to survive them. Deep down, we might have a fair idea of the grim reality; but at the moment of consumption, the truth would impinge unacceptably on the pleasure.

So it is with our “lamb” curry. We choose to believe it’s full of good-quality diced lamb, of the kind we see in our local butcher’s or supermarket – though when we compare the price of fresh lamb with that of the curry, it’s hard to see where the takeaway is making its money. But anyway, the meat looks like lamb – though admittedly it’s taken on the colour of its surroundings – and even though its flavour is overwhelmed by the curry spices, we’re still reasonably certain it tastes like lamb. But as a few of the Guardian’s writers recently discovered, our palates and expectations frequently conspire to hoodwink us. And so the opportunities for substitution and dishonesty are far greater than we’d care to admit.

What allows us consistently to enjoy the cheap food we eat is the same thing that lets us engage with a far-fetched book or film: our capacity to suspend disbelief. Our empathy with the heroic space warrior, taking down alien after alien with his trusty plasma gun, is contingent on our suppressing what we know perfectly well: that the entire scenario is utterly implausible.

This suspension of disbelief doesn’t only apply to the ethics of the fried chicken meal or the authenticity of the lamb curry; it applies to every aspect of food processing, from farm, to factory, to retailer, to restaurant. Every time our food passes through a different pair of hands, another opportunity arises for fraud, adulteration or corner-cutting to take place. And at every stage, we take great pains not to think about it.

Even when the “fraud” is entirely inconsequential, we choose to pretend it doesn’t happen, then become indignant when confronted with the reality. Anything that compromises our fantasy of what goes on in a professional kitchen – for instance, the common and harmless practice of food being prepared off-site and heated up on the premises – is sufficient to provoke our largely directionless outrage.

This is ludicrous. Face it: everyone involved in your food’s journey from origin to plate needs to make a living, legitimately or otherwise. And the more steps this journey involves, the more people need to get paid. Even if the final product seems remarkably cheap, they all have to make their money somehow. So the only way you’ll make actual rather than perceived savings, while reassuring yourself that nothing untoward has gone on, is by taking the various jobs on yourself.

The trouble is, not many of us are in a position to grow our own vegetables, catch our own fish, raise our own animals or even cook all of our own meals. So what are the alternatives?

At one extreme, we have the option of saying “sod it”. Buy whatever’s cheap and tasty, and simply accept the fact that we could be eating almost anything. To a large extent, this is what most of us do already; but when we do, we should at least have the balls to admit it, and not get affronted when we find out that our 3am kebab might contain something other than prime lamb.

At the other end of the spectrum, we can go all out to establish the provenance of our food – if we have the time and money. The simplest way to do this is to go organic: not particularly because of any inherent superiority, but because organic producers are required to submit to a regime of scrutiny, testing and animal welfare that goes way beyond any Government-imposed standards. (Tacitly, we appear to believe organic food to be more trustworthy, judging by the way we feed our children: organic produce accounts for only around 2% of overall UK food and drink sales, but the figure for baby food is a startling 54%.)

Between these two extremes, of course, there’s a substantial middle ground: it isn’t a straight choice between doing everything or nothing.

The more we cook for ourselves using fresh, unprocessed (or, at least, less processed) ingredients, the less risk we run of eating something unsafe or unexpected. The broader the range of foods we learn to cook, the better placed we are to eat with the seasons, enjoying ingredients when they’re plentiful and inexpensive (ironically enough, lamb is cheap as chips at the moment…).

The more we learn to use up spare or leftover food creatively, the less food and money we waste, allowing us to spend the savings on better quality ingredients.

And the more pressure we put on our politicians to invest in food testing and supply chain monitoring, the more chance we have of actually finding lamb in our lamb curry.

 

The State I Am In

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With the near-inevitability of drunken late-night attempts at cooking and/or the need for a restorative New Year breakfast, it seems as good a time as any to post this – a guide to cooking for the pissed, hung over or otherwise damaged.

It’s the second edited extract from my book, The No Recipe Manifesto, which will finally see the light of day in 2014. (In case you missed it, here’s the first extract).

Lastly for 2013, thanks for following the blog, and for the likes, shares, retweets and comments – they mean a lot.

Have a good, and well-fed, New Year.

Drunk Plate

It’s perfectly possible that much of this advice will be of little relevance to you, because you’ve never been in the position of needing to feed yourself, and potentially others, while dealing with the immediate or residual effects of the demon drink.

But if you have, I suspect that my experience – depressingly extensive as it is – may be of some use. And even if you haven’t, you may yet be able to find a point of reference, if ever you find yourself afflicted by a lack of motivation, coordination or both.

Floyd

I can’t be certain who was the first TV chef I ever saw – not because I was drunk, I should point out, but because I was young – but since we’re talking about the mid-1980s here, I can be reasonably confident that it was either Delia Smith or Keith Floyd.

In case you didn’t have the pleasure of witnessing the great man in action, I’d better provide a bit of context. Keith Floyd was a fine cook, a funny and charismatic communicator – and, on the telly at least, permanently pissed.

I can’t recall ever seeing him cook without a large glass of wine within easy reach, which he would slug merrily in between tasks (and, I’m quite sure, in between takes as well). I’ve certainly followed his estimable example as regards wine consumption; so it would make sense that I would also take his lead when it comes to drunken cooking too. But, oddly enough, I don’t.

The thing is, Floyd would guzzle wine as the rest of us might drink tea. It wasn’t that the food he was making was somehow appropriate for the inebriated; just that he happened to be so. In fact, many of the tasks he undertook while under the influence were among the last things you’d want to replicate if you found yourself in a similar state: chopping, slicing, sautéing and flambéing.

Without the presence of a well-prepared camera crew, no doubt armed with first aid kits and fire extinguishers, I’d have worried for his well-being. If I tried anything similar myself, I’d be even more worried for my own.

As a consequence, my advice on alcohol-influenced cooking is quite unlike Floyd’s, with rather more emphasis on personal capability and safety.

(I’m pretty sure this is the sort of thing they mean when they talk about “responsible drinking”.)

Soaked cuisine

The first question to ask yourself when drunk and hungry is the same one you’d ask yourself when sober and hungry: “What sort of thing would I like to eat?” (Admittedly, it may sound more like “whassorrhing waaaaliyyaeeee?”, but let’s not split hairs.)

The pissed answer to that question, though, is likely to be different from the non-pissed one, and not just in its pronunciation. All five senses are impaired as a result of drinking alcohol; so a meal that would smell and taste just fine to your sober self may well seem rather bland once you’ve had a few jars. As a consequence, you’re likely to seek out, and be able to cope with, more potent flavours than you normally would.

You’re also more likely to crave fatty foods. Scientific opinion is divided as to the primary cause of this: some believe that it is caused by an alcohol-induced change in the balance of brain chemicals; others argue that we are naturally programmed to seek out the highest energy (i.e. fattiest) foods, but that our rational minds are capable of overriding this instinct when we’re sober. From the drinker’s point of view, it hardly matters which theory is nearer the mark, because the outcome is the same.

And lastly, you’re likely to want – or rather need – some starchy ballast to soak up some of the booze.

Now, having decided roughly what you’d like to eat, it’s time to ask yourself a further question: “What am I capable of doing?”

This is a trickier one, because the answer you produce will most likely be optimistic going on ludicrous. Mercifully, though, such optimism will rapidly dissipate once you work out what you can actually be arsed to do, so you should be reasonably content to rein in your initial ambitions.

Nonetheless, it’s probably worth drawing up a few house rules. Anything requiring elaborate knife skills, precision timing or significant quantities of hot fat is best avoided. (As is flambéing – sorry Keith.)

Put all those criteria together, and you may well find yourself being led in the direction of rice and spice.

Rice and spice

Unless you’re in a desperate hurry – in which case you’d probably have stopped for chips on the way home anyway – rice is a near-guaranteed winner. Whether you use the microwave or stove-top absorption method, it takes a matter of moments to assemble.

My microwave rice prescription, incidentally, is this: Put three parts water to two parts rice – unrinsed, and not the easy-cook kind, which is the rice equivalent of UHT milk – into a microwaveable thingy, cover it with cling film, pierce the film a couple of times and microwave until all the water has been absorbed. Even if you’ve overdone the bevvy quite severely, it ought to be within your powers. If it isn’t, I’d respectfully suggest you rethink your cooking plans.

How you accompany your rice will probably depend on what you have in your fridge, because you’re unlikely to have planned your food shopping with drunken cookery in mind. But on the off-chance that you have, the ideal ingredients are those that require no chopping, no frying and next to no attention.

Chicken thighs or drumsticks (bone and skin on), duck legs (ditto) and pork ribs will all satisfy your meaty cravings, and can simply be coated in your chosen sauce or spices, covered in foil and bunged in a low to medium oven for an hour or so. If you feel confident in your capacity to pay sufficient attention, you can always remove the foil and turn up the heat at the end for a spot of browning.

Some of my favourite drunken combos include: sweet chilli and soy (good for ribs); curry powder, honey and soy (particularly with chicken); and five spice, chilli powder, salt and a pinch of sugar (ideal for duck legs, as the absence of added liquid allows the skin to crisp up).

Accompany any of these combinations with a pile of lovingly microwaved rice and you’ve got a hefty and powerfully-flavoured meal on the table – or, far more likely, on your knees in front of the telly – in about an hour, without using a single hob, knife or chopping board.

Tasty though these simple, spicy dishes are, they’re conspicuously vegetable-free. You may not care about this in the slightest; but if you do, and if you reckon you can cope with a small amount of chopping, some sliced onion and peppers, and perhaps some fresh chilli, can be scattered over your saucy meat before it goes into the oven.

Alternatively, if you feel more confident about using a hob than a knife, one of those handy supermarket packs of stir-fry vegetables (fresh or – whisper it – frozen) will allow you to introduce a modest dose of vitamins to your meal without having to handle any sharp implements.

Lastly, the benefits of textural contrasts in a meal are, if anything, increased after a few drinks – think of the salad on your late-night burger or kebab – so a healthy stash of peanuts or cashews is worth maintaining for garnishing as well as snacking purposes.

Or, with a little lateral thinking, you might be able to find a less obvious source of crunch in your fridge or freezer. I’ve had surprising success with breadcrumbed scampi, cooked in the oven as directed, and mixed into a spicy, saucy concoction at the very last minute. It might be a rather low-rent version of the crispy chilli dishes I frequently order from Chinese takeaways; but I don’t see anything too much the matter with that.

Pasta

It takes quite a lot to persuade me away from the rice and spice route after a night out. If it happens, the compelling reason is normally a lack of suitable ingredients: plain rice and curry sauce doesn’t quite do it for me these days.

But if I’m out of fresh meat, I try to make sure I haven’t exhausted my stash of the cured stuff. Bacon is a reliable staple – and can, of course, be turned into save-the-day sandwiches to render all “what to eat” discussions redundant – but if I’m craving something more varied and substantial than a bacon sarnie, they’ll find their way into a dead simple tomato sauce.

If I feel capable of using a knife, some onion and garlic will never go amiss. Nor, especially in a post-pub state, will a good dose of chilli (fresh, dried or powdered). But if I conclude that I shouldn’t be messing around with sharp implements, a pair of scissors will suffice for snipping the rashers into the oiled pan. With the addition of a tin of chopped tomatoes, followed by some enthusiastic bubbling and stirring to conduct a controlled evaporation on the excess liquid, it should be done by the time the pasta is. I’ll normally finish it off with an extra swirl of oil, just for luck.

Potential variations are pretty much endless. Replace the bacon with fat slices of chorizo, salami or other spicy sausage. Or, if the fridge is looking bare, it’s always worth scanning the shelves for suitable tins and jars. I’m not a fan of tuna in tomato sauces – it always seems to degenerate into a pink, visually and texturally unappealing sludge. But olives, anchovies and capers are all favourites of mine; used all together, along with tomato and chilli, they form a puttanesca sauce that veers remarkably close to southern Italian authenticity.

One further thing: in your weakened, fat-craving state, you’ll probably want to top your meal with cheese. Lots of cheese. All the cheese. Parmesan is all well and good, but I’ve a none-too-guilty fondness for cheap, plastic cheese strewn all over my 2am pasta. I’m usually too drunk to remember the ensuing nightmares anyway.

Oh, and one further further thing: if any wine (red or white) has survived the evening thus far, use it to enliven the sauce. You might thank yourself in the morning.

Bread

As well as the ever-welcome bacon, there are plenty of late night candidates for slapping between two slices of bread. Leftover roast meat – refried if you like, and can be arsed – is an ideal candidate if you happen to have some in the fridge. Failing that, if you can’t squish some mince into a vaguely burger-like shape, it’s a poor show indeed. And if you feel like jazzing it up with some cumin, chilli or whatever else, that’s probably within your powers too; but remember to avoid any liquid additions, as they’ll take away the natural binding qualities of the minced meat.

With either of the above examples, there’s a good case for using your alcohol-fuelled creative streak to invent a fancy mayonnaise of some kind (and by “invent”, of course I mean stirring your preferred powders and unctions into a blob of bought mayo). Stick to what’s familiar by all means – tomato ketchup and mayo for a no-frills variation on thousand island dressing, or mayonnaise and curry powder for a basic Coronation-style sauce – but you’ll probably end up being rather more imaginative than that.

Fortunately, if the mixture turns out to be indescribably, inedibly awful, even in your less than discerning state, you can find this out from a quick taste before you slather it on your sarnie, so you shouldn’t be faced with that of “Christmas is cancelled” moment that occurs when you arse up the seasoning of a lovingly-cooked stew.

Best of all, as far as I’m concerned, is that an enhanced mayonnaise – or, for that matter, an unenhanced one – effectively removes the requirement to butter the bread. Much as I love butter, the task of spreading it, rock hard from the fridge, on to soft white bread is one I can rarely manage successfully at the best of times, so I’ve got no chance after a few bevvies.

And finally, my friend Emma’s excellent rule of thumb – that any sandwich is improved by the addition of crisps – becomes even more accurate, and more relevant, with respect to the drunken sarnie.

The morning after

For many of us, hung over eating means one thing: the fry-up.

I’m an avowed fan too; though I confess that its regenerative effects seem to be diminishing as I get older. These days, when I’m looking to extinguish the raging inferno in my head and body, I’m more likely to turn to a spicy, salty noodle soup.

Having sworn by this for some years, I was pleased but not too surprised to find that this approach appears to have some basis in science.

Dr. Alyson E. Mitchell, a professor of food chemistry at the University of California, recently presented research findings indicating that “Yak-a-mein” – a highly spiced beef and noodle broth from New Orleans, known to locals as “Old Sober” – is one of the best hangover remedies going. The soy sauce in the broth restores salts lost from the body as a result of alcohol’s diuretic properties. Vitamin B1, found in the beef, helps to prevent the buildup of glutarate, a substance thought to contribute to the headache part of the hangover.

The broth also contains sliced hard-boiled egg, which I’m not sure I could stomach when feeling queasy, but apparently I’d do well to: eggs are a good source of cysteine, which breaks down the toxic substance (acetaldehyde) produced when alcohol is broken down by the liver.

With or without the egg, I can certainly vouch for the overall feeling of well-being, or at least slightly-better-than-before-being, conferred by a salty, spicy soup. It’s also reassuringly easy to make: boiling water, noodles, a good beef stock cube, seasonings (including plenty of soy) and some fresh chilli, and you’re just about there, though some chopped spring onions and fresh coriander will never go amiss either. Should I wish to add meat – and let’s be honest, I probably will – I’ll try to stop my hands shaking for long enough to slice it finely, so that a couple of minutes’ poaching in the stock will be enough to cook it through.

If I decide to go breakfasty instead, this will take one of two forms: a full-on fry-up; or a ridiculously proportioned “Scooby snack” style sandwich, with a slice of toast in the middle as part of a token, doomed attempt to hold the thing together.

When it comes to fried breakfasts, there are only three pieces of advice I can usefully give. The first – which is dependent on having sufficient patience – is that good sausages respond wonderfully well to a very slow fry, over up to an hour if you can bear to wait that long. Any fat and gristle lurking within, which will have been broken down to some degree by the mincer, will become more tender still during a long, slow cook.

Secondly, it’s worth yet another reminder that a low oven provides a more than handy store for anything that’s ready ahead of time. My policy these days is to get the meaty parts of the meal ready first, so that the last few minutes can be spent on the more time-critical tasks of cooking eggs and making toast.

Thirdly and finally, if you’re as hopeless at frying eggs as I am, may I recommend what an old university friend of mine called “flat egg”. This is basically a thin omelette; or, if you prefer, fried beaten egg. You don’t have to worry about breaking the egg yolk, because you’ve done this on purpose at the outset. And for sandwiches in particular, I find it works at least as well as a regular fried egg. You’ll miss out on the arguable joys of runny egg yolk running down your chin and on to your jumper; but you’ll probably find you can live with that.

Sober uselessness

Even if you’ve never had a drink in your life, some of the above advice may yet prove useful.

The qualities that make these meals appropriate for stumbling drunks – minimum hassle, little or no chopping, forgiving ingredients – also make them suitable for the sober but listless. After all, being unable to face the washing up is by no means the sole preserve of the hung over.

Without the effects of alcohol, the cravings for fat, spice and stodge may not apply; but on the other hand, a number of “easy” ingredients that are a little too worthy for the intoxicated eater can come back into the mix.

For instance, if you want an even simpler equivalent to the pasta dishes described in this chapter, make the sauce in the same way but add a drained tin of pulses – white beans or chickpeas, say – at the end. The pulses take the place of the pasta, allowing you to create a genuine one-pot meal – a handy thing when you really can’t be arsed to wash up. For an added touch of piousness, not to mention crispness, you might even choose to accompany it with a green salad.

On the very odd occasion, I’ve been known to whip up such noble and healthy meals myself.

The trouble is, I always seem to want a pint afterwards.

Calling All Curmudgeons

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Kiss me

Christmas is a time of joy, peace and goodwill to all men.

If you agree unreservedly with that statement, you might not want to bother reading on.

If, on the other hand, your spirits sink on that day in mid-September when all the shops simultaneously fill their shelves with all manner of Christmas tat, and only really recover on Twelfth Night when the tree finally comes down – leaving in its wake a deadly sprinkling of pine needles and shards of shattered bauble – I’d like to suggest a way to inject just a tiny bit of joy into your otherwise dismal festive period.

Get cooking.

Why? Well, I can give you three extremely good reasons.

Avoiding relatives

You’ll recognise the scene. It’s late morning on Christmas Day. Auntie Hilda, who’s been on the sweet sherry since 9.30, is already slurring her words and has taken to hanging around in disconcerting proximity to the mistletoe. Little Eddie, high on a cocktail of Irn Bru and a whole bag of chocolate coins, is in the living room, flailing away wildly with the light sabre his parents so prudently bought him for Christmas. If the telly survives the onslaught, it’ll count as a bonus. And Grandpa’s flatulence is already so noxious that you shudder at what might happen once sprouts are introduced to the equation.

Given a free choice in proceedings, what you’d really like to do is retire to your room with a good book and an enormous whisky, and stay there until sometime on Boxing Day when everyone’s finally buggered off. But you can’t do that, or you’ll be roundly decried for being the miserable git you so obviously are. So you have to grin – or at least grimace – and bear it.

Unless…unless…

Take on the role of Christmas chef and you can guiltlessly avoid all this. Better still, you’ll amass a load of brownie points as you selflessly toil away, magnanimously refusing all offers of help (but graciously accepting all offers of drinks). Your family and guests will be universally grateful for your efforts – and they don’t have to know that peeling three pounds of spuds represents unimaginable bliss by comparison with having to sit through another microsecond of Uncle Derek’s golfing anecdotes.

Music

I really can’t emphasise this one enough.

I don’t mind a Christmas carol or two. Very occasionally, I might even catch myself singing along to one. On the scale of festive assaults on the ears, they rank right at the bottom.

Worse – much, much worse – are the Christmas “hits”. These are the songs that have tormented you every time you’ve made the mistake of turning on the radio or setting foot in a shop over the past six weeks: Shakin’ Stevens, Band Aid, Mariah sodding Carey. And worst of all (apart from Cliff, obviously): Paul McCartney and Wings.

(N.B. The above link will take you directly to the offending song. You should only click it if you utterly despise yourself – or if you have some sort of aural S&M fetish, with a particular focus on the “M”.)

It beggars belief that the man responsible for some of the finest pop songs of all time could have vomited up this particular festive “classic”. Despite your most determined efforts to avoid it, sheer repetition causes its hideously jaunty melody to burrow its way into your brain, until you wake up screaming on Christmas morning, incapable of thinking of anything else. The Frog Chorus would be better than this, or even – and I don’t say this lightly – Mull of Kintyre.

Simply having a wonderful Christmas time? My arse.

So this Christmas, my playlist will comprise the likes of the Phantom Band, Camera Obscura and Withered Hand, performing songs that have precisely naff all to do with Christmas. And if someone swans in and tries to put on “The Most Depressingly Generic Christmas Album in the World…Ever!”, I shall hack the CD to pieces with a meat cleaver, take out the offending relative with my patented Sprout Cannon, and put Leonard Cohen‘s Famous Blue Raincoat on repeat until dinner’s ready.

(I do appreciate that there are some honourable exceptions to the horrors of Christmas music – but even Fairytale of New York begins to grate after the 237th listen. So the only Christmas songs permitted under my watch come from Slow Club – but to be honest, they could write songs about management accounting and still sound bloody fantastic.)

Control

Finally, being the Christmas Day chef gives you one further vital benefit: control. You can make the meal exactly as you’d like it.

Granted, there might not seem to be all that much room for originality in the Christmas meal, given all the compulsory elements.

But even if the core ingredients don’t leave you much room for manoeuvre, there’s still a surprising amount of scope for innovation, and for catering to your own tastes. So if you’ve a particular distaste for massively overboiled sprouts – and to be honest, why wouldn’t you – you can shred them and stir-fry them with pancetta and chestnuts until crisp and glorious.

And if the turkey normally turns out dry and miserable, and you’re left munching through its depressing leftovers, in the form of sandwiches and curries, for days afterwards, why not try a variation on Chicken à la Gran.

Cut the crown (the breasts and breastbone) away from the rest of the carcass and just cook that for Christmas Day. This spares you the conundrum of trying to keep the breasts moist while the legs cook through. And you’re bound to have ordered far too big a turkey, just as you do every year, so nobody’s going to go hungry.

The legs and other sundry bits can then be put to whatever use you like, making a far nicer Boxing Day meal than the usual Leftover Surprise. I’ve had particular success in the past by jointing the bird (don’t worry if this is somewhat haphazard) and using the pieces, backbone and all, to make a turkey equivalent of coq au vin.

Lastly, since we’re on the subject of control, may I remind you about the art of stopping. If everything seems to be happening too fast, and you’re losing track of the various pans, just turn off the heat for a moment and replan. The turkey (or other roast dead thing of choice) will sit very happily on the worktop, lightly covered in foil, for as long as you need to finish off the veg and gravy and get those f***ing roast potatoes to crisp up. And even if the meat ends up a little cooler than planned – that’s to say, stone cold – some hot gravy, strategically poured, will ensure that nobody’s any the wiser.

Ho ho ho

Lastly, a confession.

It might not be obvious from what I’ve written here, but I really enjoy Christmas.

That doesn’t mean that everything I’ve said so far is a lie – simply that it can be read with either a positive or negative spin. And as I’ve given you the negative spin at some length, here’s the positive one. An opportunity to cook Christmas dinner to your exact specifications, and to the delight of your friends or family, while enjoying many a festive eggnog and listening to all your favourite music, – well, what’s not to like?

Merry Christmas!

Kiss me happy

(N.B. Photographs are the copyright of Don Wheeler Enterprises. The No Recipe Man takes no responsibility for the extent to which they may frighten small children.)

Chicken à la Gran

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Gwen Lees

At what point would you begin to describe yourself as a good cook?

Is there a particular rite of passage involved? Does it happen when you first cook something that wouldn’t be out of place at a half-decent restaurant? When you host a successful dinner party? The first time you make a proper pie from scratch?

In the absence of an agreed definition, here’s my take on the subject.

I started to believe I was a decent cook when I realised that, instead of thinking “how do I make this dish?”, I found myself thinking, “what shall I make with these ingredients?”

As with most life changes, I’d struggle to pinpoint exactly when this shift of perspective took place. But at a conservative estimate, I’d say it took me ten years of regular cooking, and quite possibly more. And if I’m honest, I’m still learning.

Looking back, this probably isn’t surprising. Learning my cooking skills in the 1990s through reading books, watching TV and following recipes, I was in thrall to the celebrity chefs who were just beginning to take over our tellies. I’d go round to my Gran’s house and watch Ready Steady Cook with her; and as the likes of James Martin came up with fabulous-looking meals on the hoof, I’d wonder aloud how exactly they managed to do that.

As I recall, my Gran didn’t say much, if anything, in response. But on reflection, I’m sure she must have been smiling to herself. She knew exactly how they did it, because she used to do the same thing herself, every day.

By my definition of “good” cooking, my generation are indisputably lesser cooks than our grandparents – or, in most cases, our grandmothers – were. We might be able to produce pleasant enough meals. But because we’ve grown up in a time of plenty – plenty of choice, at least, if not necessarily plenty of money – we simply haven’t learned to innovate.

In the cases of my grandmother and her contemporaries, innovation was born of necessity. Bringing up four children during post-war rationing, the ability to conjur a meal from whatever happened to be around was an essential survival skill, not a lifestyle choice.

Moreover, it was a skill she had to develop swiftly. By her own admission, when she got married, she couldn’t even boil an egg. (Though as I’ve mentioned before, I have some sympathy with that.)

When I came to sample her cooking, some forty years on, it reflected the good habits she’d taught herself as a young mother. She had a seemingly miraculous ability to expand a meal to serve twice the number, or deal with an excess of a particular ingredient without wastage or over-repetition.

(That last point, incidentally, is more fundamental than it might seem. As the ever-excellent Amy Fleming explains in the Guardian this week, the urge to avoid eating the same thing over and over again is more than mere fussiness: it’s hard-wired into us for our own survival and well-being.)

So my interest in – OK then, obsession with – creative, resourceful cooking can be traced directly back to my Gran. In fact, I can see her influence in almost all of the principles I’ve discussed on this blog.

For instance, she had a tremendous appreciation of flavour and texture; and in particular, how to create contrasts of flavour and texture in order to enhance a meal. She saw any foodstuff as a potential ingredient, if the circumstances were right; to the point that various unlikely foods – crisps, biscuits, breakfast cereals – found their way into her creations, to remarkably good effect.

And while she enjoyed cooking, she saw no point in toiling away for hours for the sake of it – especially when the wine was flowing freely in the other room. So she would happily use tinned or otherwise prepared ingredients when it made sense to do so. Some might see this as cheating; to her, it was merely common sense.

These traits were captured in one particularly memorable meal – a spicy, creamy chicken casserole containing, among many other things: a tin of Campbell’s condensed mushroom soup; tinned artichoke hearts (why go through the palaver of preparing fresh ones if they’re going to spend an hour or more in a stew?); and a crunchy topping made from…Phileas Fogg corn chips.

Memorable it may have been – to the point that my sister and I still talk about it in awed tones – but like anything she cooked, it was never to be repeated in exactly the same form. There was no point asking her to recreate a dish, because she wouldn’t be able to tell you how she’d made it. In any case, the contents of the fridge and cupboards would never be exactly the same as the previous time; so the resulting meal would be different too.

As you’ll gather from the Ready Steady Cook example, I didn’t give all this a lot of thought at the time. Only in her later years, when she was too unwell to cook and I could no longer enjoy her creations, did I realise that one of my greatest ambitions – in fact, one of my only clear ambitions – was to be able to cook like my Gran.

It was, and remains, a worthy ambition, if a relatively uncommon one. Her skills, if not altogether lost, are far rarer these days, because we have so much more choice in what and how to eat than she did when she was feeding her family.

To reiterate, I’m not ignoring or denying the fact that millions of people are living below the poverty line. But in 2013, we’re presented with a huge selection of available ingredients, as well as countless cheap if not exactly nutritious alternatives to resourceful home cooking.

Under such circumstances, how do we get people cooking as my Gran did? And do we really need to?

To answer the second question first: yes we do. Even if we accept regular food scares as an inevitable by-product of our pursuit of cheap food, there’s a limit to how far costs can be trimmed. Food prices are rising overall, and will continue to do so, with the consequence that even the nastiest reformed-meat horror shows will take an increasing chunk from already tight household incomes. And if we continue to throw away the best part of half the food we produce, rather than teaching ourselves the skills and thought processes that will allow us to make use of it, the problem will only get worse.

Back to the first question, then. How do we learn – or relearn – to cook?

I don’t believe it has to be a massive undertaking. A collective lack of confidence, combined with a bewildering array of cooking and eating options, might have led us to fall out of the habit of thinking creatively; but that doesn’t mean we’ve lost the capacity to do so.

As I’ve written before, we all know more about food and cooking than we realise. Everything we’ve ever eaten has the potential to teach us something about cooking, if we only stop to think about it.

My Gran certainly understood this. Her wartime service in Italy introduced her to a range of ingredients and flavours she’d never have encountered at home. She didn’t actually do any cooking while she was there; but years later, when the relevant ingredients became available in Britain, she was able to introduce them to her meals. (On reflection, this would explain why much of what she cooked was so magnificently garlicky.)

As you’ve probably gathered, I could talk all day about my Gran and her cooking. But it wouldn’t get us all that far; and she certainly wouldn’t have appreciated an extended public tribute. So instead, here’s a real life, practical example of how cooking like my Gran – or, more specifically, thinking like her – remains as useful and relevant as ever.

Cooking “Gran-style” – a case study

Recently, I bought a chicken.

My decision to buy it was a relatively straightforward one. First of all, I wanted to eat some chicken. Second of all, the choice of free range chicken in the supermarket was typically depressing: a few whole birds for about 7 quid apiece, or countless twin packs of breast fillets for a fiver. The bits I really wanted to buy – whole legs or thighs – were nowhere to be seen. Not for the first time, looking across shelf after shelf of identical breast fillets, I found myself wondering where all the chicken legs actually go.

Anyway, I worked out that if two breasts cost £5 on their own, and if the whole chickens would almost certainly boast two breasts apiece, all I needed to work out was whether the remainder of the bird – comprising (to my mind) all the best meat, plus the skin and bones that would make a fabulous stock – was worth two quid of my money. Not a difficult decision.

So I bought a whole free range bird. As chickens go, this one wasn’t huge. But it was still more than my flatmate and I would be able to manage in a single sitting.

This left me with a few options. The first, and the simplest, was to roast the chicken whole, eat what we wanted, then think of a way to use up the leftovers.

Contrary to popular cliché, however, the simplest ideas aren’t always the best. Had I taken this option, I know exactly what would have happened. We’d both have gorged on our favourite bits – the legs, the wings, the little nuggets of juicy meat next to the backbone – and left the dry, pale breasts untouched, condemned to a future of distinctly unappetising chicken sarnies. Once we’d worked our joyless way through those, hopefully I’d have found time to make the carcass into stock before it began to smell a bit iffy. But I have to confess, my record on that is some way short of 100%.

An alternative possibility was to take the meat off the chicken before cooking. On the face of it, this had several advantages. It would have provided enough meat for two separate meals – one made with the breasts, the other with the rest – thus reducing the scope for unappealing leftovers, as well as sidestepping the problem of cooking the breast and leg meat together, when the former requires much less time to cook. It would have allowed me to make the stock that same day, and to use some of it to make tasty sauces for the two dishes. And best of all, it would have given me the opportunity to announce, “I’m just off to bone the chicken”, before bursting into fits of schoolboy giggles.

So this plan had quite a lot going for it, and only one downside: I really, really couldn’t be arsed.

I’m sure an expert butcher could bone out a chicken in a couple of minutes. Well, I can’t. Experience has shown me that it takes me at least fifteen minutes, and sometimes more, to get a significant majority of the meat from a raw chicken. It’s a messy, fiddly job, and the kitchen always ends up looking like a Hammer horror set by the time I’ve finished.

So I’d ruled out one option because I didn’t much fancy the likely outcome, and another because it failed the all-important “arsedness test”. What to do?

Fortunately, there was a third option – a method I’d come up with a couple of years back, using my very best Gran logic.

Removing the meat from a whole chicken is messy and laborious; but removing the breast fillets is an absolute doddle. (If you’ve never done it before, there’s many a YouTube clip to show you how, such as this one.)

With the breast meat removed and set aside for a future stir-fry, all I do is cut away the breastbone with scissors, so that the chicken lies flat when placed upside down, and I’m left with an ideally proportioned two-person roast.

Cooked this way, what would have been the soggy underside of the bird instead crisps up nicely in the oven. And without the breast meat to worry about, it’s far easier to cook – or should I say, far more difficult to overcook – than a whole bird. Finally, the bones – both the roasted carcass and the raw breastbone – get turned into stock, either the next day or (my preference) overnight in the slow cooker.

So. I had my chicken. I had my plan. All was well with the world, and I imagined my Gran giving an approving nod at my resourcefulness. I got home, thoroughly pleased with myself, before remembering something rather important.

My flatmate was in Portugal.

Some swift replanning was required. A chicken that would comfortably have served four – or, as I’d originally envisaged, two people twice over – now had to serve one person. Repeatedly.

All of a sudden, many of the parameters had changed – but not quite all of them. I still couldn’t be bothered to bone the chicken – especially with no flatmate with whom to share my smutty jokes. But the roasting option, with its now-inevitable excess of leftovers, had to be ruled out. And with no freezer space going spare, my primary challenge was to find a way to get through the whole bird on my own, with enough variety to minimise the risk of chicken fatigue.

There was only one question to be asked at this point: “What Would Granny Do?”

After a moment’s reflection, I decided she’d probably have done this.

I cut away the breasts as usual, bunged the rest into a large saucepan along with a couple of onions, a carrot and a few peppercorns, and brought the pan to the gentlest possible simmer.

After an hour’s simmering, the chicken was cooked and the stock, enhanced by the presence of lean meat as well as the skin and bones, was starting to look and smell very tempting indeed. But I knew that, while the meat itself was cooked through, the skin and bones had plenty left to give.

I lifted the chicken out of its hot bath and left it on the worktop to cool for fifteen minutes or so. Once it had cooled enough to handle, I picked the just-cooked meat – easily two meals’ worth of it – away from the bones, which went back into the stock for another couple of hours, enhancing its colour and flavour even further.

Here, incidentally, is demonstrated the value of the “arsedness test” – which is firmly grounded in my Gran’s principles, even if the terminology is very much my own. Removing the meat from a raw chicken, as I’ve indicated, demands a lot of skilled knife work and even more patience. Removing it from a cooked, cold chicken is easier, but still requires a fair bit of cutting, prising and tugging as the cooled-down meat clings determinedly to the carcass. But with a moist, still-warm bird, the meat comes away in the fingers with minimal persuasion. In other words, it passes the arsedness test with flying colours.

Over the course of three hours – but only a few minutes’ actual work – my single whole chicken had turned into three ingredients, each of them full of potential: breast meat (raw); the meat from the legs and body (cooked, but not overcooked, and ripe for reuse in any number of dishes); and rich, tasty stock. Yes, I’d be eating chicken for a few days to come. But importantly, I wouldn’t have to eat the same thing twice.

So I turned half the stock into a broccoli and potato soup, using the veg I’d originally earmarked for the two person roast, and topped this off with a few shreds of the cooked meat. Over the following three days, I made a stir-fry that used up both breasts (a touch excessive to feed one, perhaps, but sod it) and two meals (a curry and a pasta sauce, as I recall) from the remaining meat. Each of these was enhanced with a little of the remaining stock. And all that – four quite different meals, one of them preposterously large – from a single free range chicken.

Of the tasks I’ve just described, there’s nothing you couldn’t do yourself, whether you’re an experienced cook or a novice. I had all the skills needed to do it myself while I was still in my teens. But it had simply never occurred to me to do it

In other words, it’s taken me twenty-odd years to think like my Gran – that is, to think in terms of resources rather than process, and to respond creatively to changes of circumstances. And most importantly of all, to understand there’s more than one way to skin a cat – or, in this case, divide up a chicken.

10 things you’ll never learn from a recipe – part 1

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rsz_p1000596

Already read this? Skip to part 2

I swore I’d never do one of those “ten things” things. That determination has lasted for all of seven posts.

In the end, it turned out I couldn’t think of a better way to bring together the concepts behind this blog. Taken together, I hope these “ten things” will give a coherent sense of how you might go about moving to a predominantly recipe-free existence, and the benefits of making that shift.

For reasons of digestibility, I’ve broken the article into two. Part 2 will follow before long; but for the time being, here are the first five things you’ll never learn from a recipe. I hope you find it useful.

1. You can cook creatively

Yes, you.

(More to the point, you can invent and cook a near-infinite number of different dishes, but more of that in part 2 of this article.)

How do I know this? Well, firstly, you already know how to cook something, irrespective of how simple or how “cheaty” it is. It might be something you don’t even class as cooking: making a salad or sandwich, or a stir-fry consisting of pre-chopped meat, a pack of prepared veg and a bought sachet of sauce. It doesn’t matter. It’s enough.

Secondly, you know what you like to eat. Not in the sense of “I like sausages”, though you may well do. But whenever you eat something – new or familiar, Michelin-starred dining or a dirty burger – you know whether you enjoy it. And if you do, it’s a short step to work out what you enjoy about it, and to apply those lessons to the things you were planning to cook anyway.

Take an example that’s familiar to most of us: fish and chips. Most of us love it; but why?

For me, it’s all about the contrasts of flavour and texture: the moist flesh of the fish counterbalanced by the brittle crunch of the batter; salt, vinegar and ketchup delivering a sweet-sour-salt balance. Collectively, these contrasts give a welcome lift to a meal that could otherwise tend towards blandness.

If these are roughly the same qualities that appeal to you, the next step is not to attempt to recreate the dish, but to work out how to create equivalent effects in the meals you were planning to cook anyway.

A pinch of sugar and a dash apiece of soy sauce and rice vinegar will bring the sweet-sour-salt contrasts into a stir-fry; a handful of crisp fried breadcrumbs, sprinkled over a bowl of spaghetti, will provide welcome textural variety.

Neither of these adjustments demand any additional skill on your part; just a little imagination, allied to an appreciation of what you enjoy eating and why.

By all means, stick with the styles of cooking you already know and feel comfortable with; but apply a little lateral thought, informed more by your experience as an eater than as a cook, and you’ll instantly elevate your meals to a higher and more creative level.

A good recipe, devised by someone with a keen appreciation of flavour and texture, might well produce similar effects; but if you’re simply following a set of step-by-step instructions, you’re unlikely to have cause to consider where these desirable qualities are coming from. And the next time you go into the kitchen, you’ll have no better understanding of food and cooking than you did the last time, or the time before that.

This seems something of a waste.

2. You can’t rely on a recipe

Recipes, self-evidently, are designed to be followed. You will need 100ml of this, 250g of that and a teaspoon of the other.

The unstated principle underlying this method of cooking is that the writer has gone to great lengths to conceive, fine-tune and test the recipe so you don’t have to.

This may or may not be true. Many a recipe, even from the most esteemed of sources, has been subject to little of this presumed diligence. But even if it has been painstakingly road-tested, the principle remains flawed.

The recipe writer is obliged to work to a standard set of assumptions around the ingredients, equipment, skills and judgements of the person cooking the dish. A casserole that specifies the use of “stewing steak” will vary significantly in outcome, depending on the size, shape, water content and fat distribution of the meat. An instruction to “brown the meat over a high heat” will produce quite different results based on the quality of the hob and cookware involved, as well as the cook’s interpretation of the word “brown”. And crucially, as I’ll discuss in more detail shortly, one person’s gentle simmer is another’s jaunty boil.

These, along with countless other variables, combine to ensure that no two people, following the same recipe from beginning to end, will create quite the same meal.

In other words, a recipe doesn’t bring about reliability or consistency, just a comforting illusion of both.

And if the primary justification for cooking from recipes turns out to be false, surely it must be worth looking for a better way.

3. Salt and pepper are not the only seasonings

With the ingredients, quantities & method largely prescribed by the writer, most recipes afford the cook only one opportunity to adjust the flavour of the dish: “Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper.”

This is more than a little restrictive. It gives the cook no more creative scope – and often less – than the eaters at the table, who will also be armed with salt and pepper, but perhaps mustard, mayonnaise or cranberry sauce as well.

When you cook a stew to a recipe, and it lacks a certain something – due to the inadequacy of the recipe, natural variations in the ingredients or method (see above), or some combination of the two – you can end up at a loss as to what to do.

Keep adding salt and/or pepper? Well, it might work up to a point, but it won’t make a dull stew interesting; and at some stage it’ll become unpalatably salty, or have its base flavours obliterated by peppery heat.

Instead, think back to those fish and chips, and their sweet, sour and salty seasonings. Add salt in moderation; and a twist or two of pepper if you like; then, with appropriate caution – bearing in mind that it’s far easier to add than to take away – adjust the flavour with sweet and/or sour additions.

What you elect to use will depend on what you’re cooking and what you have in your cupboards. Redcurrant jelly works well with red meats and rich, dark sauces; and it seems logical to enhance a wine or cider-based sauce with its equivalent vinegar. But really, what you use is up to you: as long as it doesn’t seem completely bonkers in principle, it’ll almost certainly work in practice.

Gradually add and balance the sweet, sour and salty seasonings, tasting at every stage, until you’re happy with the overall effect. To reiterate, you don’t want to overdo the sweet and sour additions, and there will be times when only one or the other is needed, or neither; but if you ever find yourself faced with an insipid meal and feeling powerless to do anything about it, you’d do well to remember the sugar bowl and the vinegar bottle.

This doesn’t just apply to stews but to curries, stir-fries, pasta sauces, gravies, salad dressings: pretty much anything, in fact. If you’ve never tried it before, I’m willing to bet that you’ll be pleasantly amazed at the difference it makes. And if you are, you’ll never look back.

There are plenty of other ways to perk up a meal just before serving; and while I won’t cover them in any detail here, one further “rule” to bear in mind is that if something works as a condiment, it’s likely to work just as well as an ingredient. (More on that, as well as the importance of the sweet-sour balance, in this article.)

An enlightened approach to seasoning will be of benefit whether your meal is recipe-based or not. But having established your ability to improve on a recipe by departing from it, why not take things a step further and work towards doing without recipes more generally?

4. Texture is as important as flavour

This statement probably needs to be qualified slightly in that, if something tastes absolutely disgusting, you won’t be able to rescue it by tinkering with the texture

But texture is often the making of a great meal. To return to the fish and chips example, if the batter is soggy or absent, the eating experience is completely altered, and much diminished, even if it doesn’t actually taste any different.

If you think about the foods you like to eat (not necessarily the ones you like to cook), you’ll find examples of textural contrasts wherever you look: the croutons on a bowl of soup, the crispy batter on southern fried chicken, even the crunchy salad on a late night kebab.

And as I’ve discussed before – albeit in the context of chocolate – you can introduce a new element of variation and creativity to your cooking simply by playing around with the shapes, sizes and arrangements of your ingredients.

But when I talk about texture, I’m not just referring to the solid ingredients. The consistency of a liquid can be varied to produce all kinds of effects: a thin but flavourful broth; a comforting, flour-thickened gravy; a syrupy glaze.

There are various ways in which to give your sauces the texture you’re after, none of them complex in themselves, but each deserving of a fuller exploration than I’ve space for here. So these will be the subject of a future article; but in the meantime, my piece on the art of stopping might help take the stress out of one of the most straightforward and useful techniques: reducing a sauce.

As it happens, it also leads me neatly on to the next of the “ten things”, and the last for now.

5. “Slow cooking” isn’t just a figure of speech

For a long time, I took slow cooking simply to mean “things that take a long time to cook”. It isn’t.

Actually, I suppose it sort of is. But it’s far more than that.

What happens to your food while it cooks is as important as how long it cooks. Two casseroles, cooked for the same amount of time at almost exactly the same temperature, will turn out completely differently. One will be a triumph, the other little short of a disaster.

This is why.

When you use boiling liquid to cook solid ingredients, the cooking will take place at 100°C, give or take a degree or two, whether that liquid is bubbling wildly or simmering almost imperceptibly. But in the first case, the solid chunks will be thrown around by the fast-moving liquid, crashing into the surfaces of the pan and each other. It’s hardly surprising that this should break them down, turning the meat into strings and the vegetables into sludge. In fact, it would be bizarre if it didn’t.

A very, very gentle simmer, where only the tiniest bubbles rise to the surface of the liquid, and then only rarely, will impart almost exactly the same amount of heat to the meat and veg. But in their relaxing bath – as opposed to invigorating jacuzzi – they’ll retain their shape and structure even after several hours in the pot.

The sauce may not reduce to your liking using this gentler method, but that’s easily remedied without harming the solid ingredients. On this, may I refer you back to the previous item, and to the Art of Stopping piece.

While the minimal simmer is what you should be aiming for, don’t worry about the occasional moment of inattention; a few minutes of faster boiling, while best avoided, shouldn’t punish you too severely. But if your idea of a simmer is something altogether more lively, I’d urge you to try the ultra-slow approach. Trust me, you’ll notice the difference.

Slow-cooking doesn’t have to take place on the hob, of course. Some of the nicest and easiest meals I’ve made have been of the slow-roasted variety: cuts of meat that can be shoved in a low oven and left alone for hours while a magical transformation takes place.

But that, I think, is for another day, and another article.

Continue to part 2

A Phantom Band is for Christmas, not just for life

[A little off topic, this one, but on a subject close to my heart. In the unlikely event that you’re missing my food-related warblings, check the last few back issues of The Leither magazine, if you haven’t already.]

phantoms strange friend

A few weeks ago, my favourite band in the world had all their instruments and kit stolen from their tour van after a gig in Lille.

This would be a hefty enough hoof to the knackers of any musician, but that it should happen to the Phantom Band seems particularly harsh (and not just because they’re magnificent, although they are). They’re a six-piece band, and a relatively tech-heavy one at that. Every guitar, amp, keyboard and twiddly bit in that van will have been scrimped and saved for, in part from the meagre income that comes with being a non-stratospheric band in 2015, and in much larger part from the day jobs that allow them to make their music in the first place. This photo they posted on their website shows the final, horrible calculation.

phantoms cash

Most cruelly of all, this is the second time in little more than a year that they’ve had all their stuff nicked. The upshot is that they’ve had to pull all their scheduled shows for the rest of this year while they work out what the hell to do next. If they decided to give the whole thing up as a bad job, I’d be gutted, but I’d fully understand it.

If you’re not familiar with the Phantoms, or with the economic realities of making music, none of this may bother you. After all, you might think, if they were really that good, surely they’d be selling enough records to pay for a few new guitars; and if they’re not, then nothing lost. And anyway, what were they thinking, embarking on a tour of Europe without a full time security guard and a comprehensive insurance policy? (If you really want to know the answer to that last question, just ask any skint touring musician – and stand well back.)

And in response to the first point, I’d respectfully suggest that the music business is not, and has never been, a meritocracy. A leg-up from a wealthy record label, influential promoter, prominent critic or X Factor judge will always be thousands of times more effective than years of writing, recording, releasing and touring. As a result, the charts continue to be populated with a largely arbitrary mixture of the good, the average and the irredeemably dreadful; and much of the best music you could ever hear, you probably never will. And unless they’re remarkably resilient, the people who make that brilliant music are only ever a scathing review, sparsely attended gig or cowardly theft away from questioning why they bother.

Yet you’ll never convince me that a band as commercially huge as Radiohead, or as critically worshipped as the Velvet Underground, is anywhere near as good as the Phantoms; because to my ears they’re not, as my iTunes “times played” stats will emphatically testify. And while I’m here, Rozi Plain is better than Kate Bush, Withered Hand is better than Bowie and eagleowl are better than the Beatles. That’s the joy of personal taste: you can disagree with these statements as much as you like, but you can’t disprove them.

When news broke of the Phantoms’ misfortune, the response from their fans was swift and heartfelt: hundreds of messages of support to the band; concerted but fruitless social media appeals to track down the missing equipment; and even talk of a crowdfunding campaign to help replace it. Hopefully the public reaction will have been a source of some solace to them. If nothing else, it might have brought home the point that every time they play, whether that’s to 500 in Glasgow or a few dozen in Weston-super-Mare, there’s someone in the room who truly believes they’re watching the greatest band in the world.

But, gratifying as it may be, knowing you’re loved doesn’t buy you a drum kit. And while the crowdfunding idea has a certain appeal – I’d be more than willing to contribute, given the disproportionate amount of pleasure I’ve had from the 60 quid or so I’ve spent on their albums – I’d imagine the band has mixed feelings about asking loyal fans for what would effectively be a handout.

So as an alternative, here’s a radical idea – a touch retro, I admit, but it might just work. Why not…buy their records? More specifically, why not take away all your Christmas shopping stresses by simply getting everyone Phantom Band records for Christmas?

Buy an LP for your mum, a CD for your big brother, a digital download for your wee cousin who doesn’t really get the concept of a music player that’s larger than the palm of his hand. And when your great auntie Mabel asks why you’ve given her an album of vaguely obscure Scottish indie/folk/electronica/Krautrock, when she’s always been more of a Vera Lynn woman, explain that it’s to broaden her horizons, promote the arts and support a worthy cause (i.e. helping the Phantoms buy a new bass pedal and/or a few well merited pints). If pushed, encourage her to think of it as a musical equivalent of adopting a goat for her through Oxfam.

At worst, you’ll get a few grumbles from confused friends and relatives, and a handful of records gathering dust in a corner before finding their way to a nearby charity shop – which in turn might help some extra folk to discover them. At best, you might just recruit a few new Phantoms fans – and if they could convert a few people, and the people they convert could convert a few more, then the first ever Phantom Band stadium tour might not be too far away. (Well, I can dream, can’t I?)

So head to the Chemikal Underground website or the Phantoms’ online shop, and you can improve the lives of your friends and family, and support a band that more than deserves it, without so much as shifting your arse off the sofa. Or if there are other under-the-radar artists that you’d rather support in the same way, by all means buy everybody their albums instead. Believe me, they’ll appreciate it.

Or, as a cheaper alternative, you could just carry on listening to their music on Spotify instead, secure in the knowledge that if another 10 million people would only do the same thing, they might just about be in a position to buy a couple of new guitars.

Junk food for thought

This week’s episode of “No Shit, Sherlock” is brought to you by the consumer group Which?, whose analysis of the worthy-looking sandwiches and pasta salads we buy for our lunch indicates that they can can be as unhealthy as so-called junk food.

Today’s Guardian, in its analysis of the analysis, notes that “Caffè Nero’s brie and bacon panini was highlighted as having more calories (624) than a McDonald’s quarter-pounder with cheese (518)”.

All that surprises me about this is that we’re expected to find it surprising in the first place. Break down the two sandwiches into their constituent parts – bread, red meat and cheese – and there’s no meaningful difference. So what would possess anyone to imagine that the brie and bacon panini – or panino, for all you Italian grammar pedants out there – would be somehow healthier than a burger comprising much the same stuff?

Other findings reported in the Guardian article are similarly illuminating. Mayonnaise – a mixture of a little egg and vinegar and an awful lot of oil – is quite high in fat. Adding a packet of crisps and a bottle of Coke to your lunch will increase its calorie count.

The Which? report, and the fact that it appears to qualify as news, say little we didn’t already know about packaged food, but a great deal more about our relationship with brands. To be fair to Caffè Nero, I’m not sure they’ve ever advertised the offending panini as some kind of healthy option. But if you perceive McDonald’s as representing the very worst of everything, it’s only logical that you’d imagine anything with an M&S or Pret a Manger logo to be less bad for your physical and moral well-being.

The only problem with this is that it’s patent nonsense, and always has been. If we accept the vices and virtues of capitalism in all its other aspects, why would food be the exception? Everyone in the business of selling food, be it McDonald’s, Caffè Nero or your local kebab shop, wants you to buy their wares. Within the scope of the brands they’ve defined for themselves, they’ll try to sell you what you’re most likely to buy. And they don’t much care if you get fat, develop type 2 diabetes or die; unless, of course, their brands become widely associated with those things, which might affect their sales.

We overconsume certain types of food – meat, salt, fat, refined sugars and starches – because we like the way they taste. So it’s hardly surprising that our convenience foods, from the Big Mac to the mayo-laden chicken pasta salad, are packed with these food types. Any food vendor could change the composition of its products tomorrow to include less of any or all of them. But we’d enjoy them less, so we’d be less inclined to buy them; and so it would be commercial suicide.

Of course, the holy grail of food marketers is to convince us that we’re eating better when in fact we’re doing nothing of the sort. And if we really are willing to believe that one red meat and cheese sandwich is fundamentally healthier than another, it looks like they’re on to a winner. But if we pause for even a moment to assess what we’re about to eat, we can work out that the difference exists purely in our imagination.

Which? executive director Richard Lloyd has stated that he wants “all manufacturers to adopt traffic-light nutrition labelling […] so consumers can see exactly what products contain.” And who knows, maybe that would have some impact on what we buy; but I have my doubts. What I can say with rather more certainty is that the big vendors would do as they’ve done with all previous legislation to give us improved information about the food we buy: first, they’d resist it, then they’d circumvent it. (For a longer and more considered view on this particular topic, see this piece I published last year.)

Ultimately, if we genuinely do want to eat better – and I’m yet to be convinced we really do – the solution will be found not on food labels but through our senses, thoughts and actions. You don’t really need to be told that Subway bread is chock-full of sugar; you can taste it. (If you walk within a few yards of one of their outlets, you can even smell it.) Nor should you need a Which? report or Guardian article to tell you that most processed food contains a lot of not-so-good stuff; buying it will always represent an act of blind faith, even if the labels end up 90% covered in nutritional information.

As was always the case, the best way to be confident in what you’re eating is to buy unprocessed (or less processed) food and prepare it yourself. Your lunchtime pasta salad might contain almost anything; an orange, labelled or otherwise, is still an orange.

How much importance you place on all this is, of course, entirely up to you. Few of us have the time or inclination to eat the “right” thing all the time. And I’m certainly not averse to the odd double cheeseburger. But if you’re as surprised by today’s news as Which? seem to expect you to be, it might be time for a little more lateral thinking and a little less brand loyalty.

Pronouncements on gender

Male female image

Who said there are no good news stories any more?

Whoever it was, he/she might have to revise his/her opinion.

As you surely guessed from that last deliberately clunky sentence, I’m referring to the frankly splendid news that Sweden has added the gender-neutral personal pronoun “hen” to its dictionary.

The Guardian reports that “the pronoun is used to refer to a person without revealing their gender – either because it is unknown, because the person is transgender, or the speaker or writer deems the gender to be superfluous information”.

Far from being “political correctness gone mad”, this is grammatical correctness gone sane. For writers, the lack of such a pronoun in English is a right pain in the non-gender-specific arse. When we want to refer to an unspecified individual, all our options are unsatisfactory. We can attribute a gender to the person; we can find a longwinded way of making clear the gender neutrality (as in the “he/she” example above, or the even more irritating “(s)he”’); or we can opt for the gender-neutral but grammatically incorrect “they”.

In spoken English, almost all of us choose the third option, largely because “he/she” sounds even dafter than it looks. Many of us do so in writing as well; but while I don’t think I’m the most ardent grammar pedant around, I can’t quite bring myself to write something I know to be wrong. I make more than enough grammatical errors by accident without throwing in deliberate ones as well.

Some writers choose to alternate between male and female for their hypothetical examples. Daniel Kahneman does this to good effect in his 2011 masterpiece, Thinking Fast and Slow. But this only really works in longer pieces of writing, where the reader has time to get used to the convention. Use an arbitrary “he” or “she” in isolation, and the reader is unnecessarily distracted by the question of why the author has chosen that particular gender for that particular example.

In many languages, the issue doesn’t arise. In French, every noun in the language is gendered; but the personal pronoun is the same for everyone. For instance, “sa plume” can mean “his pen” or “her pen”; although the pen itself remains resolutely female. Additionally, French-speakers have the option of using the impersonal “on” in their hypotheses, whereas the English equivalent – “one” – has the unfortunate effect of making one sound as if one is talking out of one’s pompous posterior.

So we end up simply muddling through, finding all sorts of elaborate ways to remain readable without being wrong. We make our examples plural so we can use the gender-neutral “they”/”their” without fear of correction, or we reconstruct entire sentences so that the personal pronoun doesn’t feature. Basically, we go to disproportionate lengths to replace one short word that our language has evolved not to have.

As many have noted – including Gary Nunn in this Guardian piece, which itself draws on Denis Baron’s geekily glorious The Web of Language blog – this issue has been rumbling on for 150 years and more, championed by people far more eminent and zealous than me. New pronouns such as ze, ip and thon have been proposed, discussed and roundly ignored.

But I can’t quite bring myself to accept Baron’s conclusion that “after more than 100 attempts to coin a gender-neutral pronoun over the course of more than 150 years, thon and its competitors will remain what they always have been, the words that failed.” After all, if a century of failure were considered reason enough to abandon a cause, Brighton and Hove Albion fans like me wouldn’t exist.

So I’m proposing a modern solution to an age-old problem: online petitions. After all, if the campaign for the BBC to reinstate Jeremy Clarkson after his unfortunate producer-thumping misdemeanour can attract over a million signatures, just imagine how many people would support a petition to transform our language forever?

Oh, hang on. I’ve just checked, and it turns out there already is a petition to add gender-neutral pronouns to dictionaries. At the time of writing, 93 people have signed it.

Ah well – back to the drawing board…

The Ultimate A to Z of Cooking

Amchoor: (1) Spice powder made from unripe mangoes, popular in North Indian cuisine. (2) Geordie expression of complete certainty.

Blanch: (1) Of a vegetable, to boil very briefly so it retains its colour and crunch. (2) Of an older person, his or her reaction when presented with said vegetable

Crepinette: (1) A small flattened sausage wrapped in caul fat. (2) What posh people do when they visit the lavatory.

Dim sum: 2 + 2 = 5

Escalope: To run away to get married while disguised as a wiener schnitzel.

Flageolet: A small French bean with a penchant for S&M.

Guacamole: Popular but violent game in Mexican amusement arcades, in which burrowing animals rise from their holes for the player to hammer to a lurid green pulp.

Harissa: Co-presenter of the Tunisian edition of Two Fat Ladies.

Insalata: A popular uprising led by vegetarians.

Jus: Any gravy in which you can’t taste the Bisto.

Kedgeree: The recipient of a kedger.

Leguminous: Plants such as peas and beans that produce seed pods and glow in the dark.

Marinade: Flavourful concoction used in the restaurant trade to extend the shelf life of meat for up to 6 months.

Nougatine: The highly addictive active ingredient in a Milky Way.

Offal: The edible internal parts and extremities of an animal, whose use was championed by chef Fergus Henderson in his pioneering cookbook From Eyeball to Anus.

Petit Four: Diminutive Beatles tribute band.

Quinoa: Grain secretly developed by UK Government scientists in the 1980s that instantly confers aspirational middle class values on anyone who eats it.

Radicchio: Unique variety of radish that grows longer when it tells a lie.

Skim: To remove fat or other impurities from the surface of a liquid by bouncing a thin, flat stone across it.

Taramasalata: Distinctive and delicious pink dessert, much loved by children as a healthy alternative to ice cream.

Umami: The fifth basic taste after sweet, salt, sour and bitter. Identified by Professor Kikunae Ikeda in 1908, who defined it as “a bit like eating all three flavours of Monster Munch at the same time”.

Veal: Delicious but controversial meat, produced by locking one-day-old calves in a broom cupboard, attaching electrodes to their genitals and forcing them to listen to Sting albums.

Well-fired: Marketing term coined by Scottish bakers when sales of their “hideously burnt rolls” proved disappointing.

X: Distinctive spray-painted mark to indicate meat fit only for use in pet food and doner kebabs.

Yam: (1) A brown-skinned tuber of the genus Dioscorea. (2) In south east England, a colloquial expression meaning “my, how perfectly delicious”.

Zucchini: A two-piece swimsuit made entirely from courgettes.

If it’s a yes…

I realise this is supposed to be a blog about cooking. But today, I’m a little preoccupied with something else.

I’ve avoided broadcasting my voting intentions for the referendum for various reasons, the most obvious being that I haven’t been certain which way I’d be voting.

The past months have brought home to me that I’m not cut out to be one of life’s campaigners. I admire, and in some ways envy, those on both sides who’ve been pressing their case on the streets, on social media and in any number of pub and workplace conversations. And I realise that if everyone was like me, consciously standing apart and stubbornly refusing to pick a team and wear its colours, there’d have been next to no useful debate at all.

But for all my admiration for those who reached a firm decision quickly, I was never likely to be one of them. And when I did vote today, it was with some trepidation and regret as well as optimism and excitement. I don’t know – and nor, if you’re honest, do you – exactly what a Yes vote might bring. I’m pretty certain it would bring some economic hardship at first, but I couldn’t say how much or for how long. Nor do I know what additional powers – if any – will be handed to Scotland in the event of a No. I do know that, as an Englishman who has made Scotland his home, I’ll have a different sense of my own identity tomorrow morning if we vote to end the union; but I don’t know quite how that will feel or what my overriding emotions will be.

For life’s switherers and ditherers, voting in a General Election is relatively straightforward. It’s not a binary decision; there’s always an option that offers solace to an uneasy conscience. If you can’t face voting for one of the main contenders, there’s almost certain to be a minority alternative that sits more comfortably with your world view. So you still get the fuzzy feeling that comes from participating in a democratic process, albeit without any realistic prospect of influencing the outcome. (But in a first-past-the-post election, that feels OK too, because most of us live in constituencies that are never going to change hands anyway.)

In a referendum, there’s no such luxury. Once you’ve made the decision to take part, you know that a change of mind will have a double effect: switch sides, and you’re not just handing a vote to one side; you’re withdrawing a vote from the side you supported yesterday.

You’re also forced to share a position with people with whom you vehemently disagree in almost every other respect. If I voted Yes, I’d be standing alongside Brian Souter, as well as the guy who once hounded me out of a pub for being an “English c**t”. If I voted no, I’d be agreeing with the Orange Order and Nigel Farage.

So, for my first and only post about the referendum, I’ve deliberately waited until the polls have closed, so that it’s clear this isn’t a “vote yes” message (though that, ultimately, is what I did).

The reason I’m posting anything at all has less to do with readers in Scotland, most of whom have been engaged with the referendum for a long time, than readers outside it. For the past fortnight – in other words, ever since the shift in the opinion polls prompted a sudden and dramatic twitch in the collective sphincter of London politicians and media – I’ve heard several variations on the same stunned question: “How has it come to this?”

It’s a fair question. For decades, opinion polls have shown a significant majority of Scots to be opposed to independence. The SNP boasts the grand total of 6 MPs in Westminster – in other words, just over 10% of Scotland’s 59 MPs. Only one mainstream newspaper in the UK (the Sunday Herald) has come out in support of independence, and the huge majority of papers have actively opposed it. So how on earth can the referendum result be on a knife-edge on polling day?

Having watched Scottish politics for the past 15 years or so – sometimes from afar, but mainly at close quarters – I’ll try to offer a potted history.

I’ll begin in 1997. By then, we’d already had 18 years of Conservative rule, including the dismantling of heavy industry and the infamous Scottish “dry run” of the Poll Tax. But it wasn’t until ’97 that the Conservative vote finally collapsed, reducing the party from 11 Scottish seats to none and ultimately making “Tory” a dirty word in a historically fairly conservative country. This had the effect of creating a political space for the SNP to fill. But at the time, it still wasn’t enough to turn independence into anything more than a minority concern.

On finally coming to power, Labour proposed, campaigned for and won a referendum on Scottish devolution. The Scottish Parliament was formed – or rather, reformed – in 1999, using an electoral system (the Additional Member System) that was expected to ensure that no single party would ever secure a majority at Holyrood.

This system was primarily intended to ensure that Labour, which had won an overall majority of seats in Scotland at every General Election since 1959, would not have perpetual control of a Scottish Parliament. Such a system was essential for Labour to secure Lib Dem and SNP support in the devolution referendum; but it also suited Labour’s purposes, in that it provided an apparent guarantee against a future referendum on independence. Even if the Nationalists grew in popularity, there would always be a pro-union majority of Labour, the Lib Dems and the Tories, so no proposal for a referendum would ever be passed. Or so it was thought.

With the independence issue apparently booted into touch for the foreseeable future, almost all of the Labour and Liberal Democrat big guns at Westminster, faced with the choice of forging their careers in London or Edinburgh, chose the former. The main exception – Donald Dewar – sadly died less than 18 months after devolution. And with so few political heavyweights in the Scottish Parliament, and the Holyrood building project spiralling in cost and slipping in timescale, the Parliament and its ruling Lib/Lab executive (it wasn’t officially a “Government” until 2007) became objects of widespread ridicule.

All of this was a tremendous help to the Nationalists; as was the decision of the pro-union parties, fresh from completing one disastrous, overspent, delayed construction project, to launch straight into another: the Edinburgh trams. The SNP opposed the project, announcing its intention to cancel it in its 2007 Scottish election manifesto. Meanwhile, in contrast to Labour and the Lib Dems, it continued to send its big hitters to the now-completed Holyrood, not Westminster, including its newly re-elected leader: Alex Salmond.

At that 2007 election, I was asked by a friend to cast her vote by proxy. To my surprise, she asked me to give her first vote to the SNP; not because she had any great sympathy for the independence cause, but because she felt their politicians in Holyrood would govern Scotland more capably than the existing lot. Apparently, a lot of Scots felt the same way, and the SNP was returned as the largest party, albeit by a single seat.

Over the next four years, the SNP did indeed govern capably. Salmond, to his credit, moulded what was widely perceived as a ragtag, ideologically disparate, single issue group into a largely coherent, left-of-centre, social democratic party. The SNP differentiated itself from the Westminster parties with popular (or, depending on your point of view, populist) policies such as free university tuition and free NHS prescriptions; and it cleverly presented itself as something of a martyr over the Edinburgh tram project, graciously “allowing” the project to progress. In reality, it had no choice but to allow it, as it lacked the required majority to defeat it. But the Scottish people were left in no doubt that it was doing so under protest; and when the project inevitably descended into chaos, the SNP emerged with its credibility further enhanced.

At the UK General Election in 2010, Labour once again won a significant majority of Scottish seats – 41 out of 59. But the Tories became the largest party, and to the horror of many of their supporters, the Lib Dems joined them in coalition. Arguably, that was the decision that allowed today’s referendum to take place.

The immediate (and indeed continuing) upshot of that decision was that support for the Lib Dems plummeted. The Holyrood elections took place a year later, and the Lib Dems lost 12 of their 17 seats, 8 of them to the SNP; and the SNP secured the narrow majority that was never supposed to happen.

At that point, it became a certainty that there would be a referendum on independence. And you’d have thought it would also have been the point at which the pro-Union parties realised the seriousness of their situation and got their act together.

They didn’t – despite the fact that, in Salmond, they were facing a politician they respected and feared; and despite knowing that independence supporters dominated social media almost as effectively as independence opponents dominated traditional media. Instead, the parties reverted to type, directed their rhetoric towards issues that they thought mattered to potential “swing” voters in England – benefits, EU membership and immigration – and paid scant attention to Scotland. When MPs talked of a referendum, you could be 90% sure they were referring to the one about Europe that didn’t actually exist, rather than the one in Scotland that did.

Realising that their collective brand was toxic in Scotland, the Tories and Lib Dems deferred to Labour on much of the campaign, even though Labour’s own image, still tarnished by the Iraq war, was barely any better. Alistair Darling – not exactly a Scottish folk hero – became the figurehead, and Labour was allowed to take the lead on the desperate last-minute pledge to grant more powers to Holyrood, despite the fact that it, as a party, was proposing fewer enhancements than either of the coalition partners.

And the Holyrood leaders of the three main parties were barely seen – perhaps because hardly anybody in Scotland knows who they are. And on that, I refer you back to that decision of so many pro-Union MPs to stay put in Westminster rather than up sticks to Scotland. I understand that, independent or not, Gordon Brown and Jim Murphy are likely to stand at the next Holyrood election. From the No campaign’s point of view, it may be too little, too late.

And the No campaign itself has been almost tragicomically dismal, shifting from indifference, via scaremongering, to blind panic. If that really is down to complacency – and the panicked reaction to the more recent polls suggests little else – then it’s the most extraordinary misjudgement. Because in this referendum, whatever the overall outcome, every vote really does count.

Had the No campaign got its act together, treated Scotland as a priority rather than an afterthought, and committed to increased powers at the outset rather than in the final week of campaigning, it might have won this vote by a distance – something similar to the 2-1 anti-independence majority that was supposed to exist in Scotland all along. That would have put the debate to bed for a generation, or perhaps even more.

Instead, they’ve made a colossal Horlicks of it; with the consequence that hundreds of thousands of people, myself included, have done something they never quite imagined they’d do: placed a cross in the box beside the word “yes”. And so, as I prepare to stay up all night watching the results roll in for perhaps the most significant poll of any of our lifetimes, the vote is – to use a phrase I’ll hear more than once tonight – “too close to call”.

Even if the result turns out to be a narrow no, Cameron and company would be ill-advised to celebrate too wildly. The die has been cast, and the issue will arise again, in Scotland and perhaps elsewhere in the UK. If the main UK parties renege on their pledge for increased powers for Scotland, and try to carry on as if nothing has happened, it will arise again all the sooner. A lot of Yes campaigners will be gutted; but they shouldn’t be disheartened.

And if it’s a yes, it will be a reflection on a number of things: a competent, hard-working Yes campaign; a discernible rise in Scottish self-confidence; but perhaps most of all, a catalogue of cock-ups and misplaced confidence by the pro-union parties, not just over the past few months, but over the best part of two decades.

If it is a yes, it’ll be more than a bit scary. But it’ll be bloody exciting. And, in common with all the countries that have achieved independence from Britain – usually much more bloodily than this – Scotland will never ask to go back.