Category Archives: eating

The act of eating. Dining, products, flavours.

New product: Belgian chocolate at Coles supermarkets

Rarely does my heart skip a beat in the confectionery aisle of an Australian supermarket. In France or Germany I could happily fill a shopping trolley with a chocolatey smile on my face. In Australia I mope my way down the aisle, pausing only for the occasional stop-gap measure to allay my chocolate cravings.

For those who don’t know, there is no decent chocolate available at an average-consumer pricepoint in Australia. We get to choose from Cadbury’s oddness (though much better than the product of the British namesake), Mars’s mediocrity (in the form of Dove) and Nestlé’s disappointments. Beside these are Lindt and the marketing success of their Lindor balls, and just occasionally Milka (no reason to cheer).

To be fair, I think I should mention those supermarket lines that are my accepted craving suppressants. For sweet-caramelly-greasy fixes: Lindt Excellence Milk, Nestlé Double Blend (milk, emergencies only). For cocoa-everyday fixes: Cadbury Old Gold (the original version: 45% cocoa solids; not the dry, gritty 72% one). With bits: Lindt Excellence Orange Intense (excellent!), Cadbury Old Gold Roast Almond, Nestlé Noir Intense Cherry. (Note that the Lindt and Nestlé Noir are outside the everyday chocolate pricebracket.)

I’m telling you all this to set the scene for a new product at Coles supermarkets. A housebrand Belgian chocolate You’ll love Coles – Belgian milk chocolate in milk, dark and milk-fruit-nut. Australia is experiencing the start of the luxury housebrand product phenomenon; something which started in the UK about seven years ago. Alas, the psychology of premium products and supermarkets in Australia doesn’t readily lend itself to actual, real, serious quality on a supermarket shelf. Whereas the UK supermarkets Tesco and Sainsbury introduced quite impressive premium housebrand chocolates to their shelves, I wasn’t about to hold my breath about the Coles version.

Coles Belgian milk chocolate block

Lucky, too, for the Coles product is no great bonus for the Aussie supermarket experience, despite the surprisingly good pricing (under A$4.00/250g). The milk version (26.5% cocoa solids) is very sweet, with a mild cocoa flavour. It has a nice snap, with a quick melt, and the mouthfeel is smooth and thick; quite delightful in comparison to the products mentioned above. You can’t expect much of this sort of low-cocoa milk chocolate, so at least the textural positives are a winner. The dark version (46% cocoa solids) is sweet and a bit waxy, with a strong vanilla note and reasonably good melt. It is rather insipid and I don’t feel like eating the rest of the block. The milk-fruit-nut version is just sweet, with the added sweetness of the fruit drowning out the already pale cocoa notes.

A little bit of googling revealed that Coles is sourcing this chocolate from the Belgian company Italo-Suisse, who in turn source their couverture from Callebaut. Callebaut is a great place to start for excellent chocolate (their couverture is used by a large number of quality chocolate producers and chocolatiers), but somewhere along the way — either in a custom formula requested by Italo-Suisse, or in the addition of other ingredients (more sugar?) by Italo-Suisse — it becomes an unimpressive product designed to appeal to overly sweet palates and seduce with the uncommon (in Australia) long, creamy mouthfeel. What a pity. Still, a better option than many other things on the supermarket shelf.

– DM

Chocolate 2007 – London

L'Artisan du Chocolat
[This is the first article about travel. Others: London/UK, Paris.]

I was in the mood for cocoa bean product. I set off with a sheaf of addresses under my arm. Chocolate from here to eternity. Well, Melbourne to London, Paris and Lyon, more like. I knew there would be ups and downs; disappointments and cries of delight. I wasn't sure where (or if) I would find satisfaction.

This is the first instalment of my Chocolate 2007. What I ate in London. It wasn't all from London, but it was all English. Well, it was all sold by English producers.

Later instalments will cover other places, and I'll add links to those articles.

I do not pretend to have the experience and vocabulary to adequately analyse the flavour profiles of chocolates. Nonetheless, I have a good nose, eat a hell of a lot of chocolate, and endeavour to describe things in a way which gives some idea of why I like or dislike a product.

LONDON

Hotel Chocolat | Prestat | Charbonnel & Walker | Montezuma’s | L’Artisan du Chocolat

Last time I lived in London, people seemed to talk about Leonidas and Godiva at the luxury end, Charbonnel & Walker and Prestat too, and Thorntons as some sort of non-supermarket mid-range special thing. By 'people' I mean 'the general populace'. There might have been other purveyors. Indeed, The Chocolate Society has been around for over fifteen years. At that time, Charbonnel & Walker and Prestat were both beyond my means, while Thorntons was officially banned from my household because of the very sweet, gritty nature of many of its products. I don't consider British Cadbury to be chocolate in any meaningful sense (indeed, I'd rather eat my toenails), so I'll leave that there.

Hotel Chocolat

My London friends live, in 2007, around the corner from a new purveyor. Hotel Chocolat. Although I trust my friends' taste implicitly, my eating-Britain track record meant that I ventured into this 'Hotel' with scepticism. Unfounded scepticism, for Hotel Chocolat really is quite impressive as a chocolate retailer. Hotel Chocolat is a retail brand associated with both a long-standing mail-order product, The Chocolate Tasting Club, and now a surprising number of shopfronts. There is a certain British tackiness to having a producer of good chocolate in a so-common-in-Britain chain format, and their very skillful marketing adds to this big-business impression (a number of British foodbloggers received tasting samples in the mail at Easter, for instance. And I'm jealous).

Hotel Chocolat - shop
Source: Hotel Chocolat

The brand is clearly pitched at a broad, self-indulgent market, as the products range from fairly gimmicky through to seriously well thought out blocks of single estate chocolate (GBP 4.25/75g). There are lots of pralines (bonbons), numerous coloured and flavoured blocks, and a rather dizzying range of simpler blocks of chocolates (GBP 2.90/100g). The prices are within typical ranges for this sort of retailer.

Hotel Chocolat - pretty block
Source: Hotel Chocolat

With such an ambitious range there is a reasonable danger that the focus on quality is lost, even with a large producer. Consider that the single estate 'Purist' range alone contains thirteen different bars, four of which are flavoured. Indeed, I’ve read that some of Hotel Chocolat's products are sourced from other European producers, including the German company Coppeneur, so there is even more scope for variability in product.

With the exception of a truffle with gritty couverture, I was quite happy with what I tried: three standard bars (Venezuela 43%, 72% and Ginger, Ebony (72%) and Orange) and a number of the pralines. All of these were good for their price bracket. Not exceptional, but clearly better than the mostly mundane 'luxury' products of many major chocolate manufacturers (Lindt, Nestlé, etc). Perhaps a little overpriced in comparison to the excellent Belgian brands Dolfin and Café Tasse which are generally around the EUR 3.00 mark for 70-85g. Hotel Chocolat is probably pitched below the main consumer focus of those two brands.

I also tried one 'Purist' bar — the Milk 62%. Many people regard this as an impossibility when I first tell them: how do you make a milk chocolate with 62% cocoa solids? You reduce the sugar content. This block had min. 19% milk solids. It was bitter but with a touch of creaminess — an unfamiliar combination in block form, perhaps more familiar if presented as a truffle. It's made from a Trinitario bean grown on volcanic soil in St Lucia. I would assume that the soil is in part responsible for the rather unusual flavour profile of this chocolate, with a dry and initially cold profile, gradually bringing out black tea leaves, cocoa and a touch of orange perhaps. Not really something I need to revisit. And especially at the price.

Despite my feeling of commercial overreach and slight overpricing, I would welcome it if something like Hotel Chocolat made a foray into Australia. As it stands, Australia is suffering from a gaping hole in the middle of the chocolate market. More about that in a later article in this series. (I'll add the link to that when it appears on the site.)

Charbonnel & Walker, Prestat

Two long-standing chocolate purveyors in London are Charbonnel & Walker (henceforth 'Ch&W') and Prestat. Both present their wares in attractive packaging reminiscent of decades long past and vie for a monied, snobbish market. The brands were a surprise component of the redesigned David Jones foodhalls in Melbourne and Sydney a few years ago, with that retailer's own bonus markup to make the prices even more unrealistic.

Located in the Piccadilly Arcade, a stone's throw from HRH Prince Charles's digs at Clarence House, Prestat has a small old-fashioned arcade shop. The selection of loose chocolates was more modest than I expected. An attempt at conversation with the sales assistant wasn't a failure, but any enlightenment about brand differentiation (interested tourist wanting to know how Prestat and Ch&W differ) was not forthcoming, as the Prestat assistant claimed never to have tried any of Ch&W's wares. These little revelations (whether as truth or marketing rubbish) just piss me off. Little better than a sports coach who doesn't know anything about another team's players, claims of ignorance of a close competitor's product smack of mediocrity.

I permitted the assistant to guide me to a handful of chocolates — three 'customer favourites'. Double mint: very dark mint-flavoured couverture with a firm mint fondant with pasty mouthfeel. Coffee mint: firm fondant, milky coffee flavour. Banoffee: Sweeeeeet. Banana and caramel. Kiddiefood. Violet cream: quite firm (not hard) fondant, somewhat violetty.

No reason to return. Old-fashioned is good, but why pay the price for too-firm, pasty fondant?

Onwards to Charbonnel & Walker, whose main shop is also in an arcade, the Royal Arcade, in Mayfair (a little northwest of Prestat, in other words). Ch&W have a somewhat more modern-refined air than Prestat, but the packaging is designed to evoke a similar era. They have a wider range of boxed and loose chocolates and associated products. The sales assistant was charming, but largely unknowledgable about anything beyond Ch&W's product. She freely volunteered that she had no knowledge of chocolate until 'just recently' when she joined the company. Marvellous. I had nothing against her, but certainly wonder about a company at this level which doesn't train its staff to converse intelligently about the basics of chocolate (and I wasn't being demanding). I found I wasn't interested enough in Ch&W's range to warrant a purchase beyond a violet cream. The fondant was rather firm and the violet clean. Slightly more incentive to return to Ch&W than to Prestat, but the feeling of snob-value pricing is too great.

Montezuma's

A relatively new kid on the chocolate block, Montezuma's has a shop in the new buildings at the western end of Old Spitalfields Market, near Liverpool Street Station. It appears to be pitched as a 'fresh young thing' with a touch of cheeky hipness and a definite philosophy, as reflected in the text on their website. The firm is based in West Sussex.

Montezuma's

A small range of pralines sports exciting-sounding flavours and cute names (Scurvy, Irish Tipple, Fitzroy). Montezuma's chocolate bars are also novel: peppermint and vanilla, nutmeg, and more.

Staff were young and friendly, but I didn't get the feeling that there'd be any intelligent choco-talk. I might be doing them an injustice.

The chocolates were, broadly, enjoyable. The truffle centres were sometimes clearly and cleanly flavoured, though the vanilla one in particular seemed underendowed. Scurvy is stunningly fruity and perfumed, and reminded me clearly of a Fry's Five Centre Bar (for those who know/knew them). Two of the bars I tried were good: Orange and Geranium (73% cocoa solids) was brightly floral (a little heavy at first), while the Milk Chocolate: The Dark Side (54%, organic) showed warm cocoa notes, with strong hints of chocolate ice-cream and cake. Nice melt and good thick mouthfeel. Alas, one bar really disappointed: Strawberry and Sweet Paprika was distinctly anodyne. A fruity sweetness and the occasional minute piece of strawberry were the sole non-chocolate elements of this bar. The sweet paprika was indiscernible by four tasters. I can't understand how a manufacturer can produce such a dud next to a range of good stuff. Nonetheless, at GBP 1.85-2.20/100g for the bars, the best items in the range are very well priced. The truffles are about GBP 3.00/100g which is also good, though I'd need to try more of the range to be convinced of the value. Choose carefully and you'll be happy.

L'Artisan du Chocolat

Getting serious now. L'Artisan du Chocolat is probably the UK's most prominent serious quality chocolate brand at present. They make their own couverture and have a strong reputation for very fine pralines and other products.

L'Artisan du Chocolat

Notwithstanding the seven-year-old child nagging his mama to buy 'another' bag of Tasties at GBP 5.50 for 150g (what the rest of the world would call Smarties, though that is, of course, a trademark of Nestlé), the shop in Lower Sloane Street wasn't as dauntingly exclusive as I had feared, and the aroma and display of chocolates was seductive. The pralines take the (increasingly common) form of uniform filled rectangles with an identifying pattern on the upper surface, and cost between GBP 5 and 10 per 100g, depending on how you buy them.

The pralines (all from the 'Couture' range) were rather variable, though clearly all of a much more impressive standard than any of the previously mentioned producers and with a lovely ganache. Still, it was odd that my sample ranged from the bold and fruity Rose, clearly evoking Turkish Delight rosiness, to the almost absent Lavender. In between were Moroccan Mint (mild and hard to characterise), Violet (so delicate as to disappoint), Madong (smoky and interesting), Green Cardamom (delightful), Tobacco (intriguingly hot and fruity, reminiscent of chewing tobacco).

Another product, the Liquid Salted Caramels, has received a good deal of praise in Britain. They were good, but by no means earth-shatteringly amazing. I think the novelty of a chocolate ball with a runny caramel centre perhaps seduces people too readily.

If I had the ready cash, I would make L'Artisan du Chocolat one of my regular haunts — by choosing the successful varieties for my palate I could happily grow squidgy on this producer's diverse range of yummies.

And finally

Alas, I arrived on the wrong day to sample Paul A Young's wares in Camden Passage. The shop was closed. Very sad, as I'd been building up to this final tasting before moving on to Paris. C'est la vie and all that. There will, I hope, be another opportunity.

– DM

[This is the first article about travel. Others: London/UK, Paris.]

Searingly sour citrus tart

Lemon tart with flavoured stripes

The bag of lemons stared at me. Days turned to weeks. They greeted me every morning with an admonishing, jaundiced glare. ‘Use us!’ Weeks turned to months. Gradually the glare turned to a grey and furry myopia. ‘Save us!’ cried the survivors, still resembling a primary colour, though showing not-so-premature signs of ageing.

Permit me a moment of immodesty: I’m a dab hand at lemon tart. And this seemed a suitable tribute to the bag of surviving citrus. I dithered over the best sacrificial form: creamy, well rounded, mellow and tangy lemon tart (as in so many Australian cafés), or eggy, curdy lemon tart (Ã la tarte au citron), with its characteristic intensity and flavour explosion?

My recipe search led me to an untried candidate: the tartelettes au citron in Camille Le Foll’s Modern French Classics (a brick of a book, nicely presented and not bad recipes). Happy to try a new variant on the theme, I unpacked the ingredients and prepared to weigh and measure.

Juice of 3 lemons

I hate that. Really. Big lemons? Small lemons? Modest lemons? Gnarly lemons? Mine were small and past their prime. It seemed prudent to increase the arbitrary lemonicity to four. And I wasn’t scared of pushing the boundary of tang. A real zinger of a tart would be fun.

I made the curd, mixing happily, watching the syrup take on that yolky, glossy, slightly translucent character. I let it cool and tasted it. The curd was simultaneously sweet and strikingly sour. Not excessive, but by no means shy.

The pastry was rolled and shaped and rested. The tarts filled, baked and then removed from the oven, gently bubbling.

Tasting time approached. I decided to try Tart One au nature. Ka-bam! Not-shy had become oh-my-god-my-eyes-are-watering. I’m brave. A tart can’t slay me. It wasn’t unpleasant. It was bold. But after consuming about two thirds of it, I noticed a certain apprehension before each new mouthful. A mild burning could be felt in my throat. What monster had I created?

Lemon tart cooling in pan

Frightened, but also a little proud, I shared my searingly sour tarts around. The victims were at times tougher than I, though most agreed that some whipped cream would be nice as an accompaniment. The recipe below should yield a distinctly tart tart, but as lemons vary, so will the acidity. If you are one of these sour-mouthed dessert lovers, you could experiment — but I’d strongly recommend following the quantities in this recipe for the first attempt.

– DM

Links:

Camille le Foll: Modern French Classics Books for Cooks AU | Amazon US | Amazon UK

Recipe:

 

Searingly Sour Citrus Tarts

 
  Source: adapted from Camille Le Fol: Modern French Classics (Hachette Illustrated, 2004)

Yield: 4

 
  Ingredients  
220 g sweet shortcrust pastry
200 ml lemon juice
20 ml
(1 tbsp (AU))
lemon zest – chopped finely
250 g sugar
4 eggs
35 g butter
100 g unsalted butter – softened
  icing sugar– for dusting
equipment: six 12cm tartlet pans – preferably non-stick with loose bases
  1. If you are making the pastry yourself, let it rest in the fridge before rolling it out. Divide the pastry into six equal pieces. Gently shape each piece into a rough ball and then roll out to a thin circle, large enough to fit inside the tartlet pan.
  2. Line each tartlet pan. Trim the edges so that the pastry is level with the top of the pan rim. Rest the pans in the fridge.
  3. Combine the lemon zest, eggs and sugar in a saucepan and stir over low heat until the mixture thickens. This can take up to 15 minutes.
  4. Strain the resulting mixture (lemon curd) in order to remove the zest. (Not essential, but improves the texture.)
  5. Stir in the butter in small batches, then add the lemon juice and combine well. Leave to cool.
  6. Preheat the oven to 160°C (lower for convection oven).
  7. Place the tartlet pans on a metal baking tray. Fill each tartlet with curd to about 5 mm below the rim.
  8. Place the tray in the oven and bake for 20-30 mins, until a pale golden colour (the curd will be bubbling around the edges). Remove from the oven briefly. Dust with icing sugar and then return to the oven for another 5 mins.
  9. SERVING NOTE: The sourness will vary depending on the lemons; such is nature. If you have achieved searing sourness, I found the best accompaniments were: whipped cream, sweetened whipped cream with roasted hazelnuts, a light dusting of alkalised (Dutch process) cocoa with cream, or perhaps a coffee syrup.

Good reviewer gives restaurant a drubbing

There aren’t many restaurant reviewers who I trust to say clearly what they think without adding in a touch of egomania. Jay Rayner of the Observer is one of the ones I trust. He was the first serious reviewer I’d ever read who didn’t shy away from clear negative reviews, as well as good positive ones.

Why am I writing this? Because one of his most recent reviews is marvellous. Here are a few quotes from his review of London restaurant Suka from 29 April 2007.

Any attempt at conversation – ‘God I hate this place. How can they live with themselves,’ etc – kept being interrupted by waiters trudging off into the distance and back again
[…]
The one advantage of this set-up was that the waitress was so far away from me, and the music so loud, I couldn’t really hear her recitation of the menu’s ‘concept’.
[…]
Anyway, having eaten there, I can sum it up myself: ‘We are now going to extort as much money from you in as short a period as possible for as lacklustre a meal as we can get away with.’

Now go and read the whole thing. It’s great!

– DM

UPDATE: I’m not alone in cyberspace when it comes to expressing respect for Jay Rayner. If you’re interested, take a look at what Silverbrow has to say.

Failed food: Cadbury Picnic Hedgehog

Cadbury Picnic Hedgehog

What were they thinking? Take a hedgehog, remove its spines, dessicate it, add chocolate flavour, and roll it into a Cadbury Picnic. It doesn’t sound promising: Cadbury Picnic Hedgehog.

Come to think of it, we don’t even have hedgehogs in Australia! Your average teenage chocolate-bar-buyer probably doesn’t even, like, know what a hedgehog is. The bar should perhaps have been called a Picnic Echidna for the local market. I’ll check the ingredients list to see if it’s only made from local ingredients. Hmm, can’t tell. Perhaps there’s an illicit trade in dessicated hedgehog. AQIS should be told!

My local Coles supermarket was clearing the shelves of ‘New’ Cadbury Picnic Hedgehogs. Special! Clearance! Within the best before date. How could I resist?

A unique combination of peanuts, chocolate fudge, biscuit pieces, caramel and wafer in delicious Cadbury milk chocolate.

Deep down I knew there were no mammals involved. Hedgehogs just don’t work in confectionery. The manufacturer, Cadbury, was apparently thinking of that Australian slice-staple Hedgehog, mostly made of crushed biscuits, chocolate, butter, sugar and nuts.

The Cadbury Picnic Hedgehog (formerly known as ‘New’, now ‘Clearance’) bore no resemblance to Hedgehog. Really. To say someone was even thinking of Hedgehog when they developed this product would be stretching things. Take one Picnic bar, remove the rice crispy bits, add biscuit nuggets and pieces of so-called fudge. Bite into it.

Stop!

Those fudge pieces are quite firm. Firm enough to make you think the chocolate bar contains foreign bodies (think: contamination scare). Was I about to break a tooth on a stone?

The very firm little ‘fudge’ pieces were thin and rectangular and tasted just a bit of chocolate. A textural disaster. The nuggets of biscuit were flavourless and powdery. This Picnic was on a downer.

I love the idea of product development. All that balancing of flavours and textures, shapes and nuances, sounds like heaps of fun. Companies tend to be quite secretive about these things and employ experienced professionals to devise new products. So what happened here? Experts’ day off at Cadbury? An executive whim imposed on the consuming public? I’m writing to Cadbury as you read.

– DM

Burn your hot cross! It’s time for something Swedish

ready to eat

Think of Easter and food, and you probably get images of chocolate eggs and hot cross buns. How about a change from the mundane? A diversion from arguments about peel-or-no-peel in the hot cross buns or whether people expressing affection for chocolate hot cross buns should be crucified?

I’ve never seen these in Australia (though I’m sure there’ll be some expats cooking them for family and friends), so get ready for another sweet surprise before Easter. Scrumptious little buns from Sweden — edible ones, not those of some tennis player. Known as semlor or fastlagsbullar, these babies are fairly simple to make and much too easy to eat. After spending five winters in southern Sweden, I can assure you I had had ample opportunities for detailed examination of the product (also known as gorging oneself).

Officially, they’re a pre-Lenten delight, which of course means that you shouldn’t eat them in the 40 days before Easter. More precisely, they should only be eaten during Shrovetide: Monday in southernmost Sweden (home of the term fastlagsbullar), and Shrove Tuesday elsewhere.

The astute reader will have noticed that I’m writing about these buns much too late. It’s almost Good Friday. However, few Swedes have qualms about consuming semlor anytime between the beginning of January (just like Easter eggs, they appear earlier every year) and Easter, so why quibble about religious tradition?

The basic concept: Cardamom, cream, marzipan; all in a sweet bread. They’re an institution across Sweden, with annual competitions to find the best baker, and frequent discussions about who has good ones for how much. There’s little talk of varieties or flavours, because the only common variations on this traditional item are what to do with the marzipan, whether to add extra almonds, and how to eat them. I have, however, seen recent mention (in Swedish) of chocolate semlor and ones filled with raspberry jam. Sacrilege! Crucifixion?

freshly baked

The buns (semla and bulle just refer to types of bun in Swedish) are made from an enriched yeast dough.

Semlor filled and ready to eat

Purists will actually take a little bread from the centre of the bun, crumble it, and mix it with the marzipan before filling the bun. Some bakers add flaked or crushed almonds to the cream, others garnish the top of the bun. The basic model requires that the buns be dusted with icing sugar. Cardamom is usually added to the bread, but can (unconventionally) be added to the marzipan. Don’t even think of omitting the cardamom from the recipe!

cream filled

The decision about how many buns a recipe will make is rather individual. I’ve seen a recipe where 375gm of flour makes 20 buns, but another where 500g of flour only makes 12! Yum. The recipe printed here strikes a balance between indigestion and petit-fours.

The dough for the buns sometimes includes the following, but these ingredients aren’t essential and some can be hard to find here: ground almond and bitter almond, ammonium carbonate (E503a: a raising agent rarely used in Australia), and Swedish quark (‘Kesella’, 10% fat). It’s also useful to know that the marzipan we can get here has a rather low almond content (about 30%), whereas Scandinavian ‘almond paste’ is usually 50% almonds (and appropriate for this recipe).

Finally, a little comment on how to eat a semla/fastlagsbulle. If you enjoy snorting cream, then feel free to stick your nose into the cream as it squidges out. The more conventional reader might be interested to know that semlor of the type described are only about 100-150 years old, and the main precursor to these is an enriched bun served in a pool of warm milk. This is how some people continue to eat the newer variant. Whatever you do, remember that one is never enough and three is generally a tad piggy.

burp - all gone

– DM

This is a revised version of an article which was first published in The Age (Epicure), Melbourne, on 08 Apr 2003.

 

Semlor
(Swedish Lenten Buns)

 
  Source: Duncan Markham
Yield: 8
 
  Buns  
200 g plain flour
35 g sugar
0.5 tsp ground cardamom
0.5 tsp salt
ca 14 g dried yeast (instant)
35 g butter
ca 100 ml milk
1 egg – lightly beaten
  Filling  
4 tsp milk
150 g marzipan – grated
200 ml whipping cream
1.5 tsp icing sugar (pure)
  1. Mix the flour, sugar, cardamom and salt in a bowl. Make a well in the centre and add the yeast.
  2. Melt the butter in a saucepan. Add the milk. Cool the liquid to lukewarm. Add 2/3 of the beaten egg.
  3. Pour the liquid into the bowl. Slowly mix the dry and wet ingredients, then knead this dough until soft, smooth and elastic. Add a little extra milk if necessary. Cover with a cloth and leave in a warm place until doubled in size (60-90 mins).
  4. Knead the dough lightly, then divide it into eight equal pieces. Form each piece into a round bun. Place the buns on a greased/non-stick baking tray, ca 5 cm apart. Cover and leave in a warm place to prove until doubled in size (60-90 mins).
  5. Preheat the oven to 230°C (lower for convection oven). Lightly brush the tops of the buns with the leftover egg.
  6. Bake for 7-10 mins, until deep golden brown. Take care not to burn them (it can happen quickly). Remove and allow to cool completely on a wire rack.
  7. With a very sharp knife, horizontally slice off the top quarter of each bun and put to one side. Using a fork, scrape out about two teaspoons of bread from the middle of each bun and place this in a small bowl.
  8. Mash this bread with the milk for the filling. Add the marzipan and mix to a fairly smooth paste. Place a liberal tablespoon of filling in the middle of each bun.
  9. Now whip the cream until it holds its shape well but isn’t completely stiff. Pipe or dollop the cream over the filling.
  10. Lightly place the top of each bun on top of the cream and push down gently, just enough to squidge the cream to the edge of the bun. Dust the lid with icing sugar.
  11. Best eaten with a cup of coffee or in a bowl of warm milk. Store in the refrigerator for up to 48 hours.

Review: Fast Food Nation, by Eric Schlosser

Fast Food Nation

Book review

Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, published in 2001, is a well researched, persuasive and at times shocking work describing the excesses of big business and the broad spectrum of compromises that make modern, cheap fast-food lifestyles possible. It is interesting to review this work six years after publication, when a movie has appeared of the same name (late 2006) and when some of the issues raised in the book have gained greater momentum and seen some strategic improvements in the fast food world (such as McDonald’s ‘healthy’ menu options).

The profile of organic foods is markedly higher now than at the time the book was written, ‘good-conscience’ supermarkets have appeared in many countries (Macro Wholefoods Market in Australia, Whole Foods Market in the USA, Naturalia in France) and farmer’s markets appear to be growing in popularity.

I am sympathetic to much of what the book attempts to achieve, but only so far as it is supported by relevant facts. Schlosser’s research is excellent, his facts well supported and his narration outstanding. I felt no reason to doubt the plausibility of most of what was written (especially after reading the notes at the end of the book).

It should be noted that the movie Fast Food Nation is a fictional story about characters working in the various industries described in the book. The book itself is not fiction. It is a piece of investigative journalism with a strong ideological position.

This work is entirely aimed at a US-domestic readership. It is fairly accessible to outsiders, but the information, the ideology and the rhetoric are crafted for the readers Schlosser knows best. His few excursions into foreign territory are limited, clichéed and sometimes flawed.

Schlosser’s skill as a storyteller is marred by a strong tendency to draw the bow just a bit too long. His desire to paint detailed pictures of so many of the (real) characters in the book panders to the USAmerican penchant for the extended ‘local’ and ‘personal’ narrative which can alienate other English-speaking readers. But I’m sure it works for his intended audience.

If just half of the barely relevant scene-setting detail had been omitted, his work would have been sharper and more compelling; less inclined to trigger cynicism in the reader. Instead, I found myself sighing as yet another person’s story was told with too much detail before Schlosser finally reached his point.

Kenny Dobbins was a Monfort employee for almost sixteen years. He was born in Keokuk, Iowa, had a tough childhood and an abusive stepfather, left home at the age of thirteen, went in and out of various schools, never learned to read, did various off jobs, and wound up at the Monfort slaughterhouse in Grand Island, Nebraska. He started working there in 1979, right after the company bought it from Swift. He was twenty-three. He working in the shipping department at first, hauling boxes that weighed as much as 120 pounds. Kenny could handle it, though. He was a big man, muscular and six-foot-five, and nothing in his life had ever been easy. P187

Most of this verbose description is irrelevant to what follows: the relevant part of Kenny’s story is a long and harrowing one. A different type of narrative excess is seen below:

On July 11, 1997, Lee Harding ordered soft chicken tacos at a Mexican restaurant in Pueblo, Colorado. Harding was twenty-two years old, a manager at Safeway. His wife Stacey was a manager at Wendy’s. They were out to dinner on a Friday night. When the chicken tacos arrived, Harding thought there was something wrong with them. The meat seemed to have gone bad. The tacos tastes slimy and gross. An hour or so after leaving the restaurant, Harding began to experience severe abdominal cramps. It felt like something was eating away at his stomach. He was fit and healthy, stood six-foot-one, weighed two hundred pounds. He’d never felt pain this intense. The cramps got worse, and Harding lay in bed through the night, tightly curled into a ball. He developed bad diarrhea, then bloody diarrhea. He felt like he was dying, but was afraid to go to the hospital. If I’m going to die, he thought, I want to die at home. P193

It wasn’t the tacos’ fault. The food poisoning was caused by E.coli in some frozen burgers in Harding’s freezer, and that’s what the rest of the chapter deals with. But you don’t forget the tacos, even though they were irrelevant to Schlosser’s factual point. Tacos are fast food and apparently they weren’t nice on that memorable Friday night in July, 1997, so let’s include them for good measure? Guilt by association is a dirty trick.

Too many authors with a strong ideological position sacrifice the good, meaty facts (if you’ll excuse the pun) when they resort to cheap emotional point scoring with little content. Saying ‘you shouldn’t vote for MrX because his policies are cruel and his party is corrupt’ might have a basis in fact, but is immediately undermined if you then say ‘and he’s ugly too’. Throwaway lines give doubters and opponents simple, unnecessary ammunition. Taking cheap shots isn’t a virtue — a lesson that Michael Moore of Fahrenheit 9/11 has never learnt, and which Schlosser also fails at times. Schlosser’s opponents are numerous, coming from big business, the political right (who label him a lefty liberal or even a socialist), and quite a few who just feel he’s un-American. Dropping the cheap shots and focusing on the salient facts would have made the whole work tighter and less tiresome.

It’s not just the overextension of detail and the occasional cheap shots that distract from the point. Schlosser sometimes draws tenuous connections between events or facts and this tarnishes the respectability of his arguments. In line with the often careless USAmerican invocation of Nazism and the horrors of WWII, Schlosser attempts to draw a bad-guys line between McDonald’s, Walt Disney and Nazism: Walt Disney employed two German scientists after WWII who had both been associated with activities which resulted in the abuse or death of concentration camp prisoners. These men had nothing to do with McDonald’s or the relationships between Walt Disney and McDonald’s, but their irrelevant presence in the book serves as a cynical attempt to spray black paint on a canvas that will be thoroughly coated in blood and manure by the end of the book anyway.

One other example of rhetorical over-reach: fast food restaurants cause violent crime. Schlosser details a number of murders conducted at or by workers at these establishments. Without doubt, rotten conditions of employment can lead to extreme actions by some mentally unstable people, but there must be a reason why the popular term for crazed killings is ‘to go postal’ and not ‘to go McDo’.

Schlosser’s presentation of facts, events and purported causality is weakest and most frustrating as the end of the book approaches. He becomes repetitive and it’s clear that parallels in many other industries are somehow to be ignored, as are questions about society and human behaviour that beg attention.

For all the merit of his description of the absolute immorality of parts of agribusiness, the dehumanising tendencies of large enterprises and the bottom-line, and the unhealthiness of fast food from source to table, Schlosser fails comprehensively to take into account social factors in creating this situation. So much of what he criticises as the sins of big business exists in a chicken-egg relationship with the consumer. McDonald’s serves food at artificially low prices, from which producers earn the slimmest of margins and from which consumers can become unhealthy and obese. Who drives this? Consumers have been taught to hunt down the cheapest prices or exploit the maximum in convenience. They can still be depicted as victims, though not necessarily of the fast food business. Greed is not new, but nor is the desire for a bargain. An obsession with the bottom-line isn’t restricted to the corporations. I couldn’t help wondering which is the more effective argument: (1) your actions as a consumer promote the abysmal conditions in the meatpacking industry, or (2) big business exploits employees without regard to morality or humanity? Schlosser barely touches the first.

Schlosser concludes Fast Food Nation with a direct appeal to the reader. Gone is the narrative of facts. He finally says ‘this is me’ and writes about what he feels people should do and why. The somewhat propagandistic style at last turns into a clear personal stance — a refreshing change, as the reader could be forgiven the cynical exhaustion by the end of the preceding chapters. It is, however, also the point at which Schlosser does what so many anti-business-complex, pro-sustainability, pro-organic, pro-Slow writers do: not only does he fail to address individual responsibility, but the perspective of an empowered middle class takes over and he ignores the fact that the desirable, un-fast food is barely affordable for most of the main victims of fast food. Schlosser isn’t on the organic and Slow bandwagon, but the catch-cry is the same: choose to buy something else. When it comes to local food produced in a responsible, ethical manner, the price-point is usually out of reach of the most vulnerable sections of society — sadly also the employees enslaved in the various industries contributing to the black picture that Schlosser describes.

Fast Food Nation is good — if you already believe, or if you are willing to filter out the narrative fluff. It is skilfully crafted as the battle-cry for a sympathetic readership. It is without doubt a ‘must-read’, but better read in the cold light of day rather than in the warm glow of an ideological hearth. Its style guarantees that many unbelievers will remain resolute in their disbelief, but you could hope that the book sews some seeds of doubt in those who are at first determined to disregard even the more horrific facts retold in it.

-DM

Links:

contact Books for Cooks

amazon.com: Fast Food Nation

amazon.co.uk: Fast Food Nation