Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Eteaket, Frederick Street, Edinburgh

While roaming New Town late at night, my friend L pointed out a basement cafe on Frederick Street.

"Have you been there? It serves all types of crazy teas!"

I hadn't been there, although their logo seemed familiar and I think I might have had a nose round their stall at Taste of Edinburgh. I was intrigued to see how they would compete with Edinburgh's other tea-based cafe, Loopy Lorna's. I resolved to check Eteaket out the next day. It's pronounced etty-qwet (as in good manners) but I can't help but see it as ee-teek-it.

View of Eteaket from Frederick Street

Despite going fairly late in the afternoon, the place was busy and the waitresses seemed distracted. I found a table in the corner, and was a bit annoyed as my table was a wrought iron patio type affair, whereas the other tables looked much more comfortable. The decor was stylish, but not particularly groundbreaking. As I was on my own, I was pleased to see a selection of current newspapers to keep me entertained too.

I ordered a White Peach tea, which arrived soon after. It was served in a very clever teapot design, that allowed the tea-leaves to circulate in a filter tube. Once the brewing time was over, the leaves could be sealed off from the tea. I was particularly impressed by this, as one of my pet hates is overbrewed tea. This is especially an issue when using a teapot, as you get a great first cup, but the second cup is bitter and nasty. The waitress also brought over an egg-timer, to brew the tea for the correct amount of time, and a pretty china cup and saucer.

White Peach Tea at Eteaket

The tea tasted a lot lighter and fresher than a standard tea, as it is a white tea, which is made from young tea leaves which are not oxidised and fermented the same way black teas are. It also had a very strong flavour of peaches, which was most apparent in the aftertaste. The website and menu don't really make clear if this is just a quirk of that particular tea, or if peaches have actually been added to the leaves. Given the strength, I would say there is probably some additional peach flavouring in the blend. The teapot held a litre of tea, and I got 4 or 5 cups worth, which was excellent value given that I'd only paid marginally more than I would have for a standard mug of breakfast tea in other cafes.

The next day, T and I were in town again as I had discovered some Lakeland vouchers left over from Christmas and wanted a bit of retail therapy. We also trekked round several bookshops looking for a certain book which none of them had, so I suggested another trip to Eteaket to recover!

This time I went for the Royal Earl Grey, and we shared a cream tea. The cafe was even busier today, so we were very lucky to get a table (a comfy one too!) almost straight away. However it took the waitresses some time to clear away the last guests' debris, something I had also noticed the day before. We followed the egg-timers, and as I am still unsure about whether I like Earl Grey, I went for a lighter brew than I would normally. However, mine was overbrewed and I had to add quite a lot of sugar to overcome the bitterness. I'd noticed a teapot sitting on the counter waiting to be served for a few minutes, so I suspect that mine was already brewed before it even reached the table.

Our cream tea was good, with two generous scones, one plain and one raisin. It also came with a good size portion of clotted cream and jam. I love clotted cream on scones, so I was happy to see this. The jam was a bit disappointing, as it was more of a "smooth style" jelly than a proper homely jam. It seemed strange to be serving rare teas, a wide range of patisserie and a specialist cream not really found at this end of the country, alongside a Tesco Value style jam. However, the range of sandwiches and pastries looked really good, and they had the banoffee tarts I had at the Breadwinner day!

T liked Eteaket, and pronounced it "less chaotic" than Loopy Lorna's. Although Loopy Lorna's looks very homely and amateurish, I thought the service there was much more efficient than at Eteaket. Tables weren't being cleared quickly, and orders took a while to arrive. It was also unclear whether people sitting in were meant to pay at the counter, or if that till was for take away orders. Loopy Lorna's has the upper hand in staff efficiency, and a more unique atmosphere, but Eteaket had a much more comprehensive tea selection, as well as an approach geared towards tea appreciation rather than straight-up drinking..

Overall, I enjoyed both my visits to Eteaket, and will probably go here rather than a chain coffee shop when in town. The service was a bit haphazard, but the tea was some of the best I've had in a while. They also had tea in caddies to take home, and a great selection of tea accessories (including this really cute teapot/cup).

Sunday, 28 June 2009

Tonkatsu with Japanese-ish Salad

In my handbag I have a red notebook. In the notebook are various scrawls and doodles that categorise my life at any given time. The current notebook has a few shopping lists, a pictorial representation of our holiday in Florence, and a record of how far I ran in January. It also has a list of hard-to-find ingredients I am always on the lookout for.

The two items that refused to be knocked off the list were freeze-dried raspberries (Ideally powdered, but I'll take whole. I would also be tempted by freeze-dried strawberries.) and panko breadcrumbs. I'd tried the Thai store in Bruntsfield, but to no avail (they did have kaffir lime leaves though, so that got crossed off the list). Lupe Pintos was also lacking on this occasion.

The area of Edinburgh I live in is apparently the "Chinatown" area, although you wouldn't know it. The only clue is Hot Hot Chinese, an advice centre for elderly Chinese, and the Chinese service at the local church. The evidence is there, but there are no dragon arches and bilingual signs like some of the more established Chinatowns around the world. I came to the conclusion that if I was to find panko, it would probably be available within a 10 minute walk. Googling around, I found there was a Chinese supermarket hidden on Lauriston Place at the junction with Tollcross.

I headed down there the next day. Within a minute I'd found not one, but two varieties of panko. Yay! I went for the one that was cheaper, I think because it didn't have English instructions on the packet. There were loads of other weird ingredients in there, plus a good selection of utensils and woks. There was also a large section dedicated to nearly every brand of pre-made stir-fry sauce you can get. I have never seen so many varieties of Blue Dragon and Sharwoods in one place.

So... On to the actual post!

I had some pork chops in the freezer that I wanted to use, and the only recipe in the Wagamama cookbook that used them was tonkatsu. I've never had this, so I thought I'd give it a go. I promised T "crispy Japanese pork" for dinner, but conveniently forgot to tell him that it would be served on a salad.

Tonkatsu: Slightly out of focus as I was impatient to eat

Overall, I don't think this dish really worked. The tonkatsu was pretty tasty (and it's the first time I've breadcrumbed something where the breadcrumbs stayed mostly on the meat and not in a pile in the pan) and I quite liked the crispiness of the salad too. It's also the first dish on here to feature a mangetout! However, I wasn't convinced by the recommended sauce, a mixture of ketchup and Worcester sauce, although it did taste weirdly Asian given the total Britishness of the two component ingredients.

The main failing was pairing the salad with the pork. Although Wikipedia has just told me tonkatsu can be eaten cold, it felt strange having a lukewarm piece of meat on a freezing salad (all the ingredients except the spinach were kept in iced water to ensure their crispiness).

T was not interested in the salad at all, and I struggled to finish mine. I would probably make it all again, but have it on different plates. The tonkatsu would be really tasty with some stir-fried vegetables or on a ramen soup, while the salad would be better accessorized with some smoked fish and lots of dressing.

I now have a fridge full of daikon, spinach and bamboo shoots and a cupboard full of panko... more Japanese food to come soon I guess!

Japanese Style Salad (adapted from Wagamama Cookbook)
Serves 4 as a side dish, or 2 veg lovers.

2 small carrots, julienned
4 inch chunk of daikon (mooli), julienned
25g mangetout, thinly sliced diagonally
1 green chilli, finely diced
8-9 spring onions, thinly sliced diagonally
a handful of alfafa sprouts
3 handfuls of spinach

1) Once all the vegetables have been washed and chopped, place everything but the spinach in a bowl of ice water for an hour to ensure their crispiness.
2) Using the spinach as a base, artfully arrange the drained vegetables on top.
3) Add the toppings and dressings of your choice.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Tailend Fish Bar, Leith

This post was meant to be about croissants. I'd laminated some yeasted dough, rested it, and left it overnight ready to bake myself some fresh croissants for breakfast. I carefully rolled out the pastry, cut it in to triangles, and rolled them over to form the distinct croissant shape. After 20 minutes rising in a warm place, and 25 minutes in a hot oven, it was time to eat.

They were slightly crispier on the outside than was ideal, but no matter. Inside, the dough was hot and steamy, but not right. Instead of being buttery, light and fluffy, it was stodgy, yeasty and dense. Yuech!

So instead of telling you how to fail at croissant baking, I'll tell you about some really awesome fish and chips I had.

E has a friend, K, staying with us for the summer. He arrived on Sunday, jetlagged and exhausted from the transatlantic flight. Instead of letting him rest, we decided to drive him to Leith for some traditional fish and chips.

It's a bit of a tradition to deep fry things in Scotland, and there is a rumour that a chip shop exists where they will deep fry ANYTHING for you. It starts with a Mars bar, and ends up with you paying to batter your shoes.

Most chips shops are ok, but not great. You'll get some soggy chips, and greasy bit of overcooked fish. It's ok if you are drunk at 4am, but less ok if that's your dinner. I'd heard that the Tailend was different, and were more about good quality fish well cooked than trying to outdo the chippy down the road for how many different pizza flavours they can deep fry. (Yep. In Scotland even pizza can be deep fried.)

We opted for take away, as we didn't really have enough money to afford to eat the same food in the next door restaurant. If you take away, it's about half the price of sitting in, but essentially the same food. E and K went for the Cod supper, and I went for the Hake and chips.

The food took quite a while to come, and the staff, while friendly, weren't the most efficient. We eventually got our bag of greased up goodies and went home to eat it.

The first thing I noticed when removing the boxes from the bag, was how little grease there was soaked in. The reason many chip shops wrap everything in several layers of paper is to prevent your hands getting too greasy when all the fat starts coming out of the food. The Tailend boxes were still pretty pristine from grease, which suggested the fish and chips had been fried at the correct temperature and well drained before being packed up.

Reasonably small amount of grease

Although the chips had gone a bit soggy from the 15 minute journey back to the flat, they were still crispy on the outside, while soft and meltingly tender inside. They were my dream chip. I love getting fat chips (no skinny fries for me) which are actually crunchy.

Dream chips and Great Hake

The fish was also delicious, with a crispy batter surrounding the flaky flesh. Deep frying will never showcase fish in the same way sushi or grilling does, but it makes a bloody good attempt when done right.

The only downside is that Leith is so far away!

The Tailend on Urbanspoon

Monday, 22 June 2009

Dorie Greenspan's Croq-Tele (TV Snacks)

The quest to work my way through the whole of "Paris Sweets" continues with Patisserie Arnaud Larher's Croq-Teles. The name translates as "TV crunches", as they are an ideal substitute for popcorn or crisps. I made the hazelnut version, with ready ground nuts as I don't have a food processor.


These little biscuits were deliciously moreish, and the recipe introduction promised "up-front saltiness". However, I found them only a tad salty, and should have added much more salt to get that sweet-savoury taste. I don't know if this is because I have a mild salt addiction, or just the European habit of putting salt in everything! I find "Paris Sweets" an interesting book because Dorie Greenspan often comments on recipes from an American viewpoint. Sometimes I agree with her, and sometimes her comments seem so strange to me! I guess that is as close as I will get to proof that I am more at home in Europe than in the special relationship.

The dough is incredibly dry and crumbly, and reminded me a lot of making shortbread. The mixture barely holds together, so you have to squish it quite hard to get the balls to form.

A Stack of TV Snacks

Croq-Tele (adapted from Dorie Greenspan's Paris Sweets)

75g ground almonds
25g ground hazelnuts
100g sugar
1tsp vanilla sea salt
140g plain flour
100g unsalted butter, cubed

1) Preheat the oven to 180c, and line a large baking sheet.
2) Mix the ground nuts, sugar and salt together in a bowl, making sure there are no lumps.
3) In another bowl, crumble the flour and butter together, either using your fingertips or a pastry blender. The mixture should look like breadcrumbs.
4) Add the nut-sugar mixture, and combine. The dough should come together but be quite fragile. Tip it on to the worktop and squidge it together to form one lump.
5) Pinch of small pieces of dough and form in to rough balls. You should be able to get about 50 cookies from the mixture, so each ball should be about the size of a cherry.
6) If you have a large baking tray, you might be able to fit all of the cookies on, otherwise you'll need to do two batches. They don't spread much in the oven, so they'll only need 1.5-2cm gaps between them.
7) Bake the cookies for between 10-15 minutes. They should be set but not browned.
8) Cool them on the baking tray for 3 minutes, if you pick them up too early they'll crumble.
9) Once hardened, transfer them to a cooling rack. Try not to eat them all immediately!

EDIT: Just found the original recipe and commentary online.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

Food Adventures in Mallorca

Florence had been a gift from T for finishing uni, so I got to boss him around and make him eat weird food. Mallorca was a chill out holiday with friends from uni, and each of us had our own odd food habits. These included, but were not limited to:
  • preferring processed cheese over real
  • no red meat
  • no fish
  • no food with "bits" in (such as chocolate chip ice cream)
  • no rice
  • no white bread
  • no brown bread
  • no ham
  • no chorizo
  • only drinks white wine
  • only drinks red wine
  • no mushrooms
  • no spicy food
  • no well done meat
  • no rare meat
  • no dairy
  • no butter
  • no olives
  • no lemon/"acidic" flavours
So between seven of us, cooking dinner was a bit of a challenge. We were also feeling quite budget conscious, so we didn't want to eat out too often either. We had a couple of nice barbecues, and one night I made roast chickens with an improvised patatas bravas and spinach salad. I've never roasted two chickens at once, so that was fun. I've also never made patatas bravas, so I cobbled together a vaguely piccante sauce, although the potatoes weren't as crispy as I would have hoped as they were a little crowded in the small roasting tray. As is always the case with picky eaters, five of the group divided up four chicken breasts, while me and another feasted on four legs and four wings between us. I also ate both the parson's noses before the chickens even made it out of the kitchen, which is totally the best bit of cooking for seven.

Monkfish tail with prawns, potatoes and a dollop of caviar

We did go out a couple of times, and I nearly always went for seafood. I scored a decent monkfish tail (with a tiny dollop of caviar on top!) in Portals Nous, and a good attempt at paella in Santa Ponca. In Portals Vells, I had some sickly sardines, but they passed the time while the others sunbathed on the beach. I suspect I might be mildly allergic to sunlight, so I prefer to remain pale and interesting.

Paella with whole langoustines, prawns and mussels

While I don't get Italian food, I love Spanish food, and was disappointed we didn't manage to get to a tapas bar or two. I did get a few cafe cortados though, which is always good. A cortado is similar to a macchiato, in that it is an espresso with a dab of milk, but a cortado uses warm milk, while a macchiato uses foamed. I also tried an ensaimada, a typical Mallorcan pastry, which reminded me of the faworki my Polish grandmother used to make me 20 years ago. A crisp, sweet pastry, where filling and toppings are an optional extra. I think an ensaimada is baked, so the texture was fluffier, but the taste was almost identical.

Ensaimada and Cafe Cortado

The other Spanish delicacy I tried for the first time was deep fried whitebait. They were quite big, so I'm not sure if they were true whitebait, or just mature specimens. It felt a bit weird eating a whole fish (eyes! brains! bones!) but they slipped down rather nicely. The smaller ones were particularly nice, as the larger bones in the bigger fish were quite bitter.

My flatmate A is English, although his parents now live and work in Spain, so he spends a lot of time out there. We would like to attempt a Spanish meal at home, especially as there seems to be a decent Spanish population in Edinburgh, so many of the ingredients are available nearby. Bring on the pan con tomate!

Friday, 19 June 2009

Food Adventures in Florence: Part III

Fruit and Vegetable Stall in the Central Market

One day we checked out the Central Market in Florence, and bought some goodies for a picnic later in the day. We got bread, ham, cheese, olives and strawberries, and stole some butter from the hotel breakfast buffet to make sandwiches. We tried to eat our picnic in the Boboli Gardens, but they wouldn't let us in with food. This meant we went on a 8 mile hike around southern Florence looking for a good picnic spot. We eventually found a rose garden on the way up to San Miniato al Monte, only to find later that the back gate to the Boboli wasn't guarded with x-ray scanners and security staff, but a rather bored man in a hut who barely checked our tickets. So, if you want to picnic with the Medicis, the Belvedere entrance is the answer.

Tripe and other unidentified body parts

The market was excellent, a real paradise for foodies! I wish there was somewhere like that near here. Practically every meat stall had tripe for sale, which is apparently a Florentine speciality. There was also a pork stall selling ears, tongues, heads, tails and trotters, and another stall selling horse meat. I think if you are going to eat meat you shouldn't be precious about what you eat. There is no difference between killing a cow or pig and eating it than eating a cat, or horse, or dog. Plus if you are going to go to all that trouble, you might as well get your money's worth and eat the offal. Yum. (Although it was far too early in the morning for me to be brave enough to try a tripe burger.)

Miniature tartlette in Dolcissima

While wandering around the Oltrarno artisan district, we found a old fashioned bakery called Dolcissima. We'd just eaten, so weren't in the mood for anything too big. Instead I got a miniature tart of custard and baby raspberries. It was small but perfectly formed, and made me wish I lived nearby so I could buy boxes of these for parties.

Pizza with Capers and Anchovies

We couldn't go to Italy without trying some pizza, so we headed to Gusta pizza. The poor €:£ rate meant we were keen for a cheap meal, and we'd seen the wood buning oven in Gusta pizza while wandering around earlier in the day, as well as a good write up in the guide book. The place was basic, with orders being taken at the till and dispensed by order number. Eat in pizzas were served on a cardboard platter with plastic cutlery. Seating was on bar stools around empty wine casks, and drinks were self-served from a fridge. However, the pizza had a crispy base, with rich doughy crusts, and the toppings were simple but generous. Probably one of the cheapest meals we had, but also one of the tastiest too.

Random Graffitti

This graffiti was everywhere. I have no idea what the significance is.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Food Adventures in Florence: Part II

One of the few Italian dishes to which I will admit total love is gelato. Virtually every corner in Florence had a gelato stand. Some were branded, and sold mass produced Carte D'Or, but most advertised themselves as home-made.

The majority displayed their wares in freezer counters, with the ice cream towering high. Some decorated this mini-mountains with items representative of the flavour. Maybe a few nuts, pieces of fruit, or a few shards of coconut. However, I was much more drawn to the old fashioned style places, that kept their gelato in silver buckets.

Grom's Gelato Counter

became a regular stop in Florence, after a particularly over-priced experience near the Ponte Vecchio. Tucked away in back street, prices at Grom were more reasonable, and the flavours more interesting than some of the more touristy places. A large cup of ice cream cost €5 in Grom, and most of the ingredients were sourced using Slow Food pinciples. We tried the lemon and strawberry sorbets, the chocolate fondant, yoghurt, baci, and "crema di Grom", a kind of cookies and cream flavour. If we were lucky we'd snag a seat on the bench in the shop, and I'd strain to overhear a tour group being shown round the back of the shop, but most of the time we'd just stand outside looking slightly shifty.

Strawberry sorbet, baci and yoghurt

We also found a nice gelato shop in Pisa, which didn't seem as well populated with the stuff as Florence was. This had most of the standard flavours, but we couldn't work out what one of them was. So we ordered it to find out - it was a kind of toffee and almond flavour and delicous.

I've been trying to think of a food-based job, and part of me really wants to open a grown up ice cream parlour. There's a couple of Italian places in Edinburgh already, but they don't seem to have the crazy range of flavours we found in Italy. Maybe Scotland just isn't ready for fresh milk flavour...

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Food Adventures in Florence: Part I

I am going to admit something now that might totally destroy any shred of foodie credential I have. I don't really like Italian food.

Virtually everyday a post pops up in Google Reader about how someone was craving pasta, and ate it with just some butter and garlic, and it was the best thing ever. Blog after blog raves about roasted vegetables, rocket and parmasan. The shelves of the cookery department in every bookshop groan under the weight of Italian cook books. Every other cookery magazine has an Italian special, and as we approach summer, the Sunday supplements are filled with Mediterranean-style food.

Sure, I'll eat Italian food. I'll even enjoy some pizza. I don't mind risotto. But if I have the choice, I'll almost never choose Italian food. My theory was that it is a cuisine that requires fresh, high quality produce, something we don't get too much of in UK supermarkets. Even good grocers and markets don't always have the right ingredients, as the climate of Britain is just not hot enough to produce a lot of Italian fruits and vegetables. I did also wonder if maybe I just wasn't getting it. Perhaps there was some secret that I wasn't privy to.

T surprised me with an end of uni holiday to Florence. Yay! As well as being excited about seeing some old paintings in the Uffizi, some Italian Gothic architecture, I was excited to try the food. Maybe Italian food in Italy would be different to what we get here? Maybe I would like it?

Sunset over the Arno

The first night we stopped for dinner at a restaurant near our hotel in the Santa Maria Novella district. La Spada is a traditional "spit roast" style restuarant, with all the main courses either grilled or roasted. I went for Gnocchi Bolognese followed by grilled veal chops. T had Penne al Sorrentina and then roast chicken. We also ordered some Tuscan beans, but they mysteriously disappeared (but did not reappear on the bill luckily).

The gnocchi bolognese was good, but I still didn't love it. The bolognese was meaty and unctious, and the gnocchi was tender and pillowy. The portion was small, but still very filling. However, it just didn't do it for me. I couldn't imagine ever craving this dish in the same way I do other foods.

Then came the veal chop. I was in two minds about ordering this, as part of me knew it was probably white veal, which is evil. On the other hand, it was already done and dead*, and I've been wanting to try veal for ages (especially since I found out rose veal is not evil). The potatoes that accompanied it were again technically good, but not very exciting. The veal chop was massive, and I wondered how Italians can manage a starter, pasta course, main course and pudding without feeling physically ill most of the time.

The chop was one of the most delicious things I have ever tasted. The outside was crispy and blackened from the chargrill, but inside was soft, tender, and slightly pink still. The beef flavour was subtler than steak, but still well defined and meaty. I ignored the potatoes and concentrated on eating the veal.

While I am still not converted to the delights of pasta, I am now hankering after another bite of that veal.

We skipped pudding, although I noticed a table opposite having some cantucci. If I can find some vin santo in Edinburgh I might give that a go at home.

*Of course, it was done and dead because they knew someone like me would come in and order it, but if we are getting down that path then it all gets a bit philosophical. Plus from a utilitarian viewpoint, veal is better than just putting male dairy calves down the moment they emerge from the womb. Got to love Ethics A-Level.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Vacaciones & Vacanza

I've been a bit quiet here lately. Despite my looming student loan, I have been on not one but two holidays! T and I went to Florence to celebrate the end of uni, then I went to Mallorca with uni friends to a villa owned by one of their parents. While this sounds very glamourous, Ryanair and sunburnt feet mean that this is not the case. I did eat a lot though, ranging from the terrible (processed cheese toastie), the ordinary (beach-front sardines) and the sublime (veal chops).

There are stories about gelato, markets, whitebait, paella and pizza all to come as soon as I work out how to get photos off T's camera...

Friday, 5 June 2009

Candied Kumquats and Financiers

I am so happy the weather has been good lately. Edinburgh is a much happier place to be when the sun is shining and the temperature is in double figures for once! It also means I got to take some photos in natural light instead of under an energy saving bulb with a wimpy built-in flash.

A few months ago, I bought a slice of cake in a cafe which appeared to be garnished with a tiny orange. A bit of research lead me to kumquats. This is not a particularly common fruit in Britain, and I don't remember ever seeing them in a supermarket. When I saw them the other week in the grocers, I figured I give them a go. (I also bought a pomegranate, but the less said about that the better. Yet another reason to always research what are the signs of ripeness in fruit rather than impulse buying.)

The kumquats sat in the salad drawer of the fridge for a few days. I didn't really know what to do with them. Then I saw this post by Cannelle et Vanille. I decided straight away that I would candy my kumquats. Once the kumquats and the syrup had cooled down, I tasted one. They were still a little too bitter, although I loved their sharp citrus flavour. I think I should have blanched them in boiling water rather than just simmering them. I'm way too impatient sometimes.

Candied Kumquats and Edinburgh sunshine

Aran had used her kumquats to garnish some financiers. I had a packet of 8 eggs. I also had some mini loaf tins from my visit to Kooks Unlimited in London. Can you see where this is going?

I made up my usual hazelnut financier batter, although this time I used 50g hazelnut and 50g almond. The next morning, I baked up a batch, garnishing some with the kumquats.

Financiers with Candied Kumquat

These had the crunchy crust of a good financier, and the buttery soft inside. While the plain ones were delicious, the ones with the kumquats were another thing entirely. The acidity cut through the cake, working as a foil to the butteryness. It seems like the only thing better than a financier is one with a big old citrus hit in the middle. To make it even sweeter, have it in the morning. Then you can feel better about the state of the economy - after all, you had a financier for breakfast!

(I think that possibly wins the lamest joke EVER prize.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants.

While frantically trying to find a book on Middle Eastern trade regulations in the uni library for an essay a couple of months back, I spied Michael Pollan's "In Defense of Food" on a nearby shelf. I was way too busy to read it then, but I made a mental note to come back to it once exams and essays were over.

As I checked the book out last week, a note flashed up on screen saying that my library card expired soon. So soon, that instead of having the book for a month, I could only have it for 6 days. Is it a little ironic that the first time I ever find a book in the library that I actually want to read, my library card decides to die?

Anyway, I became determined that I would read all 200-odd pages in those 6 days. I know it took me the best part of a year to read "The God Delusion", but I was feeling optimistic. In the end, it only took me about 3 days to read the book. It's the stuff of undergraduate dreams: interesting, informative and well written. (The version I was reading also had a really sexy typeface. Oh yeh!)

Pollan sums up his argument as "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants". He questions the idea that we can be more healthy just by eating more nutrients, saying that fortified cereals and omega 3 diet bars are actually worse for us than just eating simple ingredients containing naturally occurring vitamins and minerals. We also eat too much because we stop when our plate is clean, not when we feel full, and lack a traditional food culture. Lastly, although animal products contain unique nutrients, like B12, we can obtain most of our dietary requirements more efficiently, cheaply and greenly in the form of vegetation.

For a long time, I have being trying to eat more healthily. I have chosen cereal bars over a piece of chocolate, and tried to resist the overwhelming desire to bake stuff. However, in the last year of so, my views have changed. Instead, I have shunned processed goods. I can't remember the last time I ate in McDonalds or Burger King, and don't think I have eaten a ready meal since first year. T recently made me a spaghetti bolognese using a ready made sauce, and it was so bland I wondered what the point was. Why spend £1.50 on Ragu/Dolmio/etc when you could buy a tin of tomatoes and some dried herbs for under a quid? Although I won't touch a ready meal, I'll happily have a big slice of homemade cake and some pork crackling. If the French can eat fatty, delicious food, why can't I?

Reading Pollan's work further convinced me. I had never questioned the idea of nutrition, and had taken vitamin supplements in the past. The idea that processed products are less nutritional makes sense, and going round a supermarket since, I was shocked at how little on the shelves was "food" in the purest form. While I cook most of my meals from scratch anyway, I have since started checking packets to see how processed things like mayonnaise and bread are. After all, the human race has survived for years without vitamin supplements, omega 3 milk and iron enriched water.

Sometimes I wish I could just stand in the supermarket and be evangelical. Tell people picking up ready meals that they are damaging their health, their wallet and the planet by buying it. Bin all the sugary chemical sweets in favour of some really good chocolates and toffees. I would love to turn back the clock and have an independent grocer, fishmonger, butcher and general store nearby. I think the food culture in Britain is burgeoning, but maybe I have a biased view as I actively seek information about food quality and origin?

Pollan's book is not without flaws. Many of his sources are quoted repeatedly, suggesting that some of his ideas don't yet have the diverse range of proof they need. He recommends a traditional diet, but doesn't specify what this means. Do you have to pick the traditional diet of one region and stick to it? Or can I have a roast dinner one night, then a curry, then a stir fry? Although there were a few passages that didn't entirely convince, on the whole I found that Pollan's theories fitted well with common sense. We should enjoy food as a pleasure, not as a fuel to be consumed quickly, alone with the television.

If I had the space, I would plant my own vegetable patch after reading this book. As I don't, I think I'll probably sign up for a vegetable box instead. I'm sick of going to the supermarket and seeing Thai asparagus for sale, when the grocers two doors down has British stuff in fresh.

Most of all, I'd recommend this book to everyone who is suffering at the hands of the Western diet. Anyone who is obese, diabetic, with high cholesterol and blood pressure, or on the brink of heart disease or stroke. I'd also recommend it to those of you who buy the diet range of ready meals, or who eat a special K bar for lunch in the hope that it will help you stay thin. It won't. Enjoy a nice ham and cheese salad and be happy instead.