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Thursday, 10 January 2008

Eco-economics?

I watched Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's Chicken Run this week, and am giving my wholehearted support support to his CHICKEN OUT! campaign. For the last few years Emma and i have bought free-range chicken when we've been planning a roast, but I dread to think how much of the no-range variety has slipped through in some processed form or another. Not any more.

One of the things that really caught my attention was the meal he managed to put together using the remains of a roast. I opted to try and do the same with the leftovers from a bird we cooked a few days ago. I picked over the remains and mustered a good plate of scraps, and put the carcass to one side for the stock.

I googled for recipes, and found both the risotto and a stock on a cracking little blog called The Cottage Smallholder. I'd noticed that Whittingstall had included sweetcorn, stripping it straight off the cob, so I searched for tips on how to do this and got some indispensable advice from another blog - Something in Season - as to how to ensure that you don't lose any flavour. These are the type of blogs that I tend to get excited about. They show little pretence of being anything more than one person's perspective, but with information and insight of potential value to a broad audience.

The risotto was bloody delicious - as my own addition to the recipe, I found that a little fresh lemon juice added to just before serving sharpened it up to taste, and played well off all the ingredients - so I decided to prepare food again tonight. As a result I have a jumbo fish pie downstairs in the fridge, ready to be cooked and eaten tomorrow. Buying the fish for the fish pie, I was careful to select an alternative to cod and haddock, both of which are currently severely overfished. I ended up buying some fresh coley (part of the pollock family) as an excellent alternative.

It's not in my nature to do little more than sit around watching The Jeremy Kyle Show all day. Cooking is proving an excellent way to keep myself busy during paternity leave (above and beyond the rolling nappy changes, and the inexpressible nirvana of drifting off on the sofa in the middle of the day with your assorted progeny curled up next to you). Apart from anything else, the need to procure fresh ingredients has made for some nice local excursions with Lola, and has really got me thinking about consumer ethics. Emma and I already relish the fact that we live in a borough where recycling is mandatory, not least because this seems to me to be the exactly where local government can make a difference, and are making an earnest effort to start growing some of our own produce, but it is undoubtedly as paying customers where we can exert the greatest influence for good.

I know that the well-trodden response of the intensive farming apologists (of whom I'm certain that Kyle, below, is one) is to point to the fact that this approach makes chicken affordable to a large number of people on extremely tight budgets. For my part I can't help looking at the number of large people taking advantage of Tesco's two-for-a-fiver chicken offer and wondering whether actually they're simply eating two whole chickens where they might have done quite well to settle for just the one.

Part of the problem seems to be the perception that the only alternative to the two-for-a-fiver option is a twenty quid free-range bird that's spent its long and happy life attending gala luncheons in Kensington Gardens. Well, galvanised by Whittingstall's endeavours, I made a fist of Jamie's Fowl Dinners earlier tonight, and (amidst Oliver's trademark melange of inarticulate smugness and self-aggrandisement) was pleased to learn that there is a very viable halfway house - the 'higher welfare' chicken. These cost about a pound more than the cheap-as-chips bird, in exchange for which the chickens have a roomier environment with objects to clamber over and balls to play with; think The Great Escape rather than Schindler's List.

Ultimately the onus is on the consumer to show that he or she is prepared to fork out the extra cash. Change isn't something that can be led by the British farming industry - this would merely open the way for importers to satisfy any continuing demand for ultra-cheap meat. And, even though supermarkets have a responsibility not to endorse unethical farming methods, they're also answerable to consumer demand. It ought to be tremendously liberating for this power to so clearly reside in yours and my hands, but the reality is that we human beings seem to have a phenomenal faculty for cruelty, especially when we get to enjoy the benefits without having to witness its enactment first-hand.

On wednesday my father and I were lamenting the fact that some of the poor choices we make as consumers may stem from the decline of home economics as a subject taught within schools. Being that the human ecosystem appears to be under greater threat than at any stage in recent history, and that many of the problems stem in one way or another from the methods of mass production we embrace as capitalists and endorse as consumers, is there perhaps an argument for reinventing home economics as 'eco-economics', and getting this back onto the curriculum?

I have no idea what they teach in schools these days, or whether something so subjective could be approached in an objective way, but I wouldn't begrudge someone the right to spend a couple of hours each week trying to encourage my children to explore the choices they can make in seeking to recognise their responsibilities as a consumer, and paid-up resident of planet Earth.

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posted by Dan Light  # 11:35
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Comments:
A case well put but don't rubbish our Jamie. He is a true geezer as opposed to a jumped down one, and has done much to make us think about the quality of food we give our kids. All power to his wooden spoon.
 
Though the school dinners campaign clearly got many people thinking about this as an issue, I understand that it has had a detrimental effect in some respects, in that many more students are catering for themselves rather than paying for the healthy option. Ofsted puts this down to "a failure in marketing".

I'm sure it hasn't had such a detrimental effect on the one-man-brand that is Oliver, who is completing his remarkable transition from mockney chef to champion of culinary good causes. I'm not suggesting that he embarks on these campaigns solely as a vehicle for his own advancement, but there's certainly something about him I find much less sincere than Whittingstall, or, dare I say it, Ramsay.

What I will concede, quite readily, is that in comparison to Jeremy Kyle the man's a bloody saint.
 
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