Category Archives: Uncategorized

Early Spring

ruta bagaI had an operation on my foot recently (a million thank yous to our brilliant NHS and to the staff of the Golden Jubilee National Hospital, Clydebank, in particular.) So I’m wearing a giant black foam and Velcro shoe-thing, and getting around on elbow crutches. The Troubadour will testify that I’m not the most patient patient in the world; but I have to say it’s been (mainly) lovely to lie back and relax. Doctor’s orders! Toes above nose is the advice, ie foot elevated at all times. I decided not to gross you out with a photo of my foot but instead offer you this delightful rutabaga, which bears a striking resemblance.

Anyway, by week three I was looking for some simple foodie distraction and, needs must, ordered a Tesco delivery which arrived on Saturday morning. I can hirple a little, and squat somewhat; and pivot between the sink, cooker and fridge for short periods. So my little Tesco stash has saved me from frustration meltdown.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s ‘Fruit’ book has been inspiring. There’s nothing seasonal in the fruit line at this time of year in Scotland; but of course there are certain staples which never grow here at all, so if I have to spend food miles, that’s the way to spenImage result for images mangoesd them. I’d always recognised this for citrus fruits and bananas; but of course mangos also count.

When I did my volunteer stint in Zanzibar we arrived in the fresh mango season. We were advised not to eat fresh fruit (you can imagine my dismay) because of the risk of malaria and various other tropical diseases. Soon enough I decided my natural immunities would have built up a bit, and gave them a try. Fabulous! That almost sherbetty, tart edge to the voluptuous sweetness! The street vendors sold them ready prepared, so you didn’t have to wrestle with the awkward stones; and they offered you an optional sprinkle of a reddish powder which I eventually managed to understand was a mix of chilli and salt. It was sublime.

HFW recommends the Mango Lassi – Indian in origin although the mango is optional. So I followed his instructions, apart from using ready-prepared mangoes instead of the fresh whole fruit. My justification is that at the best of times, those pesky stones drive me nuts – it’s so hard to separate them from the clinging fruit. Just now, with my crutches, the wisdom of wielding sharp knives on recalcitrant objects is obvious even to me, the original (and clumsy) Health and Safety Refusenik.

Ready-prepared mangoes are brilliant. Neat juicy cubes. But they do bring with them a regrettable amount of plastic. So when I’m up and running again I’ll have to find some nifty tool or whatever. Online I found a blog by Elise Bauer, which suggests canned mango pulp or frozen mango as alternatives. However she goes on to say the canned version is probably sweetened and I definitely want mine salty. I’ll look out for frozen mango, which no doubt also arrives robed in plastic, but probably less so. I find frozen fruit and veg very good in terms of avoiding food waste, so I can compromise with the plastic.

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Put a packet of mango cubes in a liquidiser goblet; add 3 large tablespoons of natural yoghurt, along with a little less iced water. Add a good pinch of salt, and the bashed seeds from 2-3 cardamom pods. Whizz. Job done. Pour into two glasses and enjoy with a friend if you haven’t got a Troubadour.

 

HFW gives specific amounts but it’s pretty obvious you just have to adjust to your liking. Also I discovered that a food processor doesn’t work; I’d assumed they do much the same thing – but you need a liquidiser to – er – make it liquid! Funny how that little gem of knowledge has eluded me all these years. Slainte, everyone! Now I’m away for a wee lie doon.

 

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You say tomato. Me too.

Heilroom Tomatoes

This gorgeous collection of tomatoes comes from website ‘The Spruce’, with an excellent article on how to grow tomatoes from seed. I wish I could say they were the well-deserved fruits of my labour, but that would be to pre-empt all kinds of things. After all, this will be my first year of growing tomatoes and I don’t think beginners’ luck comes into it. Instead, I’m relying on the good advice and little gifts of plantlets from my many talented gardening friends. And the Troubadour’s gift of remembering to water and feed. Actually when I write it all down, it doesn’t seem like I personally have much to offer in the tomato-growing field. But hey, I’m keen and will shower them with love and affection, and take lots of nice photos of them as they develop. And serve them with pride.

So why am I planning to grow tomatoes this year; and why am I even thinking about it right now, in the depth of a Scottish so-called winter?

Two reasons: Firstly, let’s get it over with, eeek B****t. Who knows how our food supplies will be affected? It’s all a bit chaotic out there.

Secondly – you can hardly find a home-grown tomato in the shops these days.

There’s a full and fascinating account of the fall of the Scots tomato industry here, by Gordon Davidson in the List – 10 years ago! He finishes by saying ‘if there’s ever going to be a Scottish tomato revival, I doubt I’ll be here to see it.’ How bleak; and prescient.

Various attempts have been made since then and it’s not all doom and gloom. Scotty Brand have set up in Hawick in the Borders, with some success in a range of veggies, including tomatoes. I have actually tasted their tomatoes, weirdly perhaps, through a vodka experiment at the Borders Distillery, also in Hawick. Most laudably, this recently-opened distillery is trying out local produce in combination with their fine new-make spirit. The link above tells the Scotty Brand story in which the sadly recently departed Andrew Fairlie takes a leading role. Rest in peace, Andrew; your legacy lives on.

So for 2019 – I’m going toIMG_0557.JPG avoid Dutch and Spanish tomatoes if I can. Not just because they might stop sending them to us after 29th March! But because, frankly, there’s not much flavour to them. I’m hoping to do better. So I’m spending a lot of time doing this (left) just now – blethering, sorry researching, scribbling things on the back of envelopes and bemusing seasoned tomato growers with the most glaikit of questions. And I’ve bought a frame thingie for the back garden to keep my tomatoes sheltered against the wash-house wall. And I’ve been out there hoeing away the weeds in our freak early spring which we know won’t last. It’s been lovely but I gather it’s not really a good thing. I was charmed to find the ladybirds already out and about among my greenFruit and Vegetables for Scotland: What to Grow and How to Grow It (New Edition)ery, but then chilled to read that this will likely be their undoing, when the normal frosts return.

Finally as usual, I have been reading: I bought a great book which addresses itself to the growing of fruit and veg in our climate – it’s brilliantly detailed without going all techy and nerdy and I’m loving it. [I’ve also bought a much simpler, more basic book called ‘How to Grow Stuff‘ – this one urges everyone with space on a window ledge to get on with it and see how easy it is. I’m reserving judgement on this – being easily distracted, I’ve started many gardening projects in my life with enthusiasm and then forgotten about them so that everything shrivels up and dies for lack of love. It’ll be different this year because the Troubadour and others will help. That’s the plan.

And nothing at all to do with tomatoes, but I was at a postcard fair in Kinross a couple of weekends ago and found this lovely card – below. I believe it is thanking British air crew who dropped food parcels on the Netherlands at the end of the second world war, when thousands were starving during the last bitter months. This I know because I used to cook for a former airman of the bomber command, and he told me about his involvement in these food drops. He was visiting Amsterdam on holiday 40 years later when a woman in the street stopped him, with tears in her eyes, to thank him. And look at the performance of the Dutch veg industry now, notwithstanding my rejection of their tasteless tomatoes! I guess we all need each other.

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Grace and the Gobbler

Photo alert: these are randomly picked from the past as I can’t find a single photo of a turkey in my vast food-photo collection. Funny, that. So instead I’m just posting some seasonal favourites.

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As in every other year at this time, I have spent the last month dreaming up my Christmas dinner. Consulting cookery books for the perfect balance of gourmet delight and ease of delivery. Writing lists, sharing ideas with the Troubadour, crossing out and starting all over again. And now of course the shopping has begun, and the prep is under way – the practice runs and the experiments. I love it. It’s what Christmas really means to me – getting the people I love around the table and sharing nice food and drink and lots of laughs. It’s the stuff of life.

DSCN0184As I may have shared before, however, I have a bit of an antipathy to the turkey. This is despite the fact that it’s a nice low-fat meat, and my own mother used to pluck turkeys at a local farm every December, to bring in a bit of extra cash. I have fond memories of me aged 10 playing around the farmyard while a team of three strong women grabbed, drew necks, hung up the squalling gobblers, and pulled feathers like fury. You’d think I’d embrace the family tradition every year – not necessarily in killing and plucking, but in giving a turkey the loving touch for the festive table.

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Here’s the truth. I got so obsessed over the years with doing the whole turkey dinner absolutely from scratch that I sickened myself, and couldn’t face actually eating the damn thing with its two kinds of home-made stuffing, bread sauce, cranberry and orange compote etc etc. And that made me crabbit. Which is not a good way to come to the table. So I’ve been doing alternatives for many years now, and most of those have worked out really well. Including improved mood on my part.

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This year I will be cooking for eight meat-eaters and four vegetarians. My plan for the meat-eaters was ham. But something happened to me yesterday, as I walked through the door of our delightful local butchers, Cheyne’s; and I found myself interrogating them about the provenance of their turkeys. Yes, turkeys. Since free-range is the only option when I buy a hen, I asked first of all about their Kelly Bronzes. And obviously I’m a bit out of touch with meat prices since I don’t cook a lot of meat at home (again, the Troubadour’s influence). However I was shocked and horrified at the price and after a lot of humming and hawing I compromised all my principles and have ordered a normal, not free-range, fresh turkey (also pretty costly, but half the price of the Kelly Bronze). Eeeek, ouch, crivvens, help ma boab. Guilt re the welfare of the birds, fighting with my inbuilt thrift or maybe you could call it parsimony. I couldn’t in all conscience spend £70 on a turkey. My mother would turn in her grave.

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Today however my equilibrium has been restored because by timely coincidence I opened an email from FareShare asking for donations for people whose Christmas menus might otherwise be constrained to beans on toast. So I’ve given them a wee chunk of my Christmas budget and suddenly it makes perfect sense to scrimp on the free-range credentials. It’s a tough old world out there, and if yesterday, I thought I had a moral dilemma, I’ve suddenly had it put into perspective.FSCN0162

So I’m trusting that all my dear friends coming to me on Christmas day will help peel the sprouts, stir the gravy, ply me with gin, and generally prevent me from going into OCD orbit; and that comfort and joy and good cheer accompany all the little donations that help to spread the gladness. Here’s FareShare’s details if you’re looking for your own little Yuletide Balancer: FareShare Donate

Waxing lyrical

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Recently I mentioned that I wanted to cut down on my use of plastic, especially clingfilm, in the kitchen. I was nervous that it would be impossible because the alternatives might not be great. Well as is often the case, as soon as you dig around a bit you discover a well-trodden path which somehow has eluded you up till now.

It turned out that all I had to do was turn right from my own close and walk a hundred yards down the street – Minerva Blue Crafts was in the middle of setting up workshops to show people how to make beeswax wraps. So I signed up, paying the princely sum of £15. While waiting for the event I had a look around and found beeswax wraps for sale in Lakeland – at a staggering £19.99 for three! I love Lakeland, and if I’m looking to treat myself, that’s often where I go. But it has to be said, sometimes their goods are on the pricey side.

So, come the day of the workshop and I discovered I’d got the date wrong and was working – driving a minibus to Hawick (the new Borders Distillery) and back no less, more of that in my next post – and the next date (yesterday) was already fully booked, so popular are these workshops proving to be. So I’ve booked again, but meantime, to satisfy my curiosity, I dropped in with my camera; here are some shots of Newburgh Women Saving the Planet!

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I haven’t got the proper knowledge yet of how it’s done, but will report back in a future post on exactly how you create these handy wee cloots. They can be used to cover a bowl of leftovers in the fridge, or to wrap up a sandwich to take to work – or, no doubt, lots of other things. I overheard a conversation about wrapping one’s husband up in one; the main attraction being that it takes warm hands to make it fit properly … but maybe that’s an advanced class!

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More detail on all of this at a future date. Meantime, for those of you who follow my blog, let me just announce that I finished my 50,000 word NaNoWriMo challenge on Friday night and posted it in at 5 to midnight! So that’s me with the first draft of a novella in my eager little clutches, and after I’ve recovered from November’s bad posture cramps, eye strain and weight gain, will be trying to figure out what to do with it. Hurrah!

 

 

A lot to be thankful for

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Our corner of Fife, bordering onto the Tay, is very fruitful and there’s been a lot of pickling and potting going on. Above is a bowl of windfall pears I was gifted, and made into chutney. More on that later. Meantime, over the weekend, I’ve enjoyed a bunch of events which were set up as fundraisers so here, for the record, are some details:

At work (Lindores Abbey Distillery) we joined in ‘the world’s biggest coffee morning‘ and raised £250 for Macmillan Cancer Support. Lots of people brought in some home baking and our visitors put a wee donation in the box.

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In the TICC (Tayside Institute and Community Centre) there was the usual Saturday coffee morning which on this occasion was to raise funds to fight our cause to have our railway station reopened: and we raised £600. A couple of weekends ago a small group of us also put on a wee music-and-words event, with the support of the artist in residence, and raised £150 for the same cause. It would be brilliant to have the line open again. The picture below is of a hamper put together by small individual donations – just normal day-to-day stuff that makes all the difference.

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And last night the Troubadour and I attended a concert in Dysart, near Kirkcaldy, to support our singing friend Alan.  We were entertained by two great community choirs – Healthy Harmonies, an NHS staff choir; and Capital Voices, from Edinburgh. The minister made a few introductory comments about having attended ‘Food Crisis Summits’ over the last 20 years – her first was in Botswana in 1998; the most recent in Kirkcaldy. I honestly don’t know what to say about people going hungry in this day and age, either in Africa or in Scotland – or anywhere else for that matter. It’s not just about poverty, it’s about politics. We could all be doing far better in sharing out the bounty. Anyway for the record, those two choirs last night raised £1,200 for the Kirkcaldy Food Bank, and that was a brilliant result.

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Finally – here is a beautiful loaf, handformed and baked like a sheaf of wheat – complete with wee mousie having a nibble. It was made by Barry and his staff, of the Wee Bakery, and gifted to the church for Thanksgiving. I’ll use the words of Robert Burns to sign off and wish you always enough food to enjoy and share:

May the moose ne’er leave your girnal wi’ a tear-drap in its e’e’

Scotland’s other drink

Not Irn Bru; not Lindores Aqua Vitae; and not, of course, Scotch Whisky, single malt or otherwise. All of these are magnificent in their own way and at the right time, but for the moment I’m talking about gin.

There are over 50 gin distilleries in Scotland and some of them are good to visit.  I had the pleasure of a couple of days in St Andrews recently with good friends, and we partook of a little tasting to while away a quiet Monday afternoon. If you look up ‘gin St Andrews’ on social media you will probably find Eden Mill first – and I have to say, that is also a delightful set of gins with a good tour. However we were on foot and strolled into the St Andrews Gin Company‘s bar on South Street. We had booked in advance and our table was waiting for us.

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Our delightful and knowledgeable host Mike conducted us through a very pleasant tasting of their three gins – Pink Grapefruit, Lemongrass and Ginger, and Orange, Cardamom and Tonka Bean. Each was paired with a different Fevertree tonic water; wedges of citrus; and we also had little jars of sprinkles to add as we pleased. These included black peppercorns and cardamom pods. 

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I would never call myself a gin expert but it was really pleasant to take a relaxed and no-pressure hour or so to sample the gins, pay attention to what I was tasting, and try the different additions. I’m pretty sure that as soon as you start sipping, you lose 90% of your faculties to spot any differences – but it’s a very enjoyable way of losing! I liked the grapefruit version very well – it was light and refreshing and knocked back beautifully. Then when I tasted the lemongrass and ginger, I thought that was better – it had a little extra layer of spiciness which I really enjoyed; and the black peppercorns gave it a grand wee bite. By the time we came to the final gin, the Orange, Cardamom and Tonka Bean, my taste buds were confounded by (a) obviously, the fact that I already had two good measures inside me; and (b) Mike’s comment that this was his personal favourite and in the company’s view, the most sophisticated of the three. Now you’re not going to sit there in your middle-aged bliss and argue the toss with a fine young man dispelling good cheer, are you? Shallow, I know. A couple of weeks later I couldn’t say whether I preferred the lemongrass or the orange, though I think I liked them both a bit better than the grapefruit. They were all lovely and this is why I will never be a sensory expert!

After our tasting we had a first-class haddock and chips and mushy peas, chosen from a good fresh bar menu; and our whole afternoon – tasting and lunch – cost £19 which we felt was excellent value.

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We’d had a great walk on the beach before the tasting, with Rosa the cockapoo-wannabee-mermaid; and afterwards we hit the charity shops which are definitely a cut above – it comes of having the most affluent students in the land living there half the year and clearing their wardrobes out at the end of every term. So you see, it’s not all golf, Wills and Kate in St Andrews. Other flavours are available.

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Scottish Sizzle

… and we’re not talking about sausages.

30 deg in Scotland? Most unusual; some summers we barely get 20. But 2018 is it, and it’s been a busy busy busy one for me. Too hot to be busy AND remember to post, so sorry for gap. Here’s a brief catch-up:

17th June – Hidden Gardens of Newburgh – brilliant first event which we hope will go on for years. Seven gardens opened and nearly £2,000 raised for charities, with the major part of it going to Newburgh Cub Scouts.

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5th July: my graduation! Seem to have mislaid all my photos but had a brilliant day, with piper in the square outside the Caird Hall in Dundee serenading us all as we spilled out afterwards. The Wunderkind and the Troubadour and I had a moment of mirth when we were posing for photos outside the magnificent Braithwaite’s and two Dundee wifies gasped in admiration – ‘it just goes to show,’ they beamed, ‘how you can achieve things NO MATTER HOW OLD YOU ARE!’ It was a hoot.

We got the bus back over the Tay Bridge and had a wonderful meal in the Newport – a restaurant I have lusted after for some time but always been too skint to afford. It’s owned and cheffed by Jamie Scott, who won MasterChef about three years ago. The food is all very local and beautifully presented; the service is great; but the building itself is fantastic, looking right out over the Tay, and with the whole windowed wall folded back to let the summer in. Like I say, it’s not every summer you could do that here.

Two days a week since April, now hotting up to three, as tour guide at Lindores Abbey Distillery – great fun and keeps me out of mischief.

Lots of gardening and nice seasonal gifts from gardening friends:

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One week at end of June looking after Rosa, the cockapoo who taught us her fetch and throw ball game.

My birthday on Broughty Ferry beach, with the troubadour and his 11, nearly 12 year old granddaughter, on whom I’m conferring the honorary title of Bendylegs because she is so amazingly supple. We took her up Dundee Law and she did a series of entirely spontaneous cartwheels and variations thereof. Joined on the beach by Rosa and her mum and auntie; gin and tonic flavoured cake afterwards, what’s not to like?

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Lovely lunch in Glasgow yesterday with oldest (in one sense) friend Marian at Urban Brasserie, our second visit so it must be good. She has inspired me to have one more go at becoming merely ‘overweight’ by dropping a few BMI points …

And today it’s the Troubadour’s birthday and we’re off to the Smith Institute in Stirling.

Menu planning

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Bananagrams is a daily routine for the Troubadour and me, usually after breakfast. If you like Scrabble, you’ll like Bananagrams even better, or at least you will if you prefer creating  good words to thrashing your opponents! Some of my friends (she knows who she is!) find the whole competitiveness thing utterly alluring. Getting a two-letter word onto a triple words score is all that matters even if you have no idea what that word means … not me, my friends, I’m rubbish at Scrabble.  But cast your eye on this picture – such fun!

Not enough Cs in the pack though – I wanted to add avocado, garlic, coriander and Mexican (we allow ourselves one proper name each per game! So adaptable). C’est la vie. I got round ‘rocket’ by going francaise. Pretentious? Moi? Will try and remember to take some photos of the finished dishes and post them on here. It’s dinner for twelve hungry potters so let’s hope it doesn’t disappoint.

Here’s a cautionary tale however:

DSCN0504Before you promise chocolate pistachio fudge (an old Nigella recipe, very easy and good), check you have a shop where you can buy ready-shelled nuts. I didn’t. I searched around and eventually had to buy pistachios in shells. My recipe called for 150g nuts and each of my packs had 200g (I bought two as I had no idea how much weight would be lost in the shelling). But now I do. Let me tell you, dear friends, that 200g of pistachios in shells amounts to 103g shelled nuts, a vast pile of debris for your compost heap, and two shredded thumbs. I have half a pack left but can’t face them. The troubadour can have them with his beer as a reward for going out, uncomplaining, to the shed to fetch the ladder for my aerial view photographs!

Food that gives you a hug

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Friends who don’t live here probably get sick of me saying what a great place Newburgh is to live. However – look at this picture – it’s only celebrity chef Tony Singh, making burgers at a WI meeting in our own church garden! And assisted by Rosie, our soon-to-be Cub leader and herself a chef lecturer. Tony had been invited by the Rural, and set up an unassuming stall with his lamb burgers, veggie kebabs, seared salmon and loads of lovely salads. I thought I might be hallucinating but no it was definitely him. Who else sports a turban and kilt with such panache? We had a great conversation about Sikh hospitality, food poverty, and personal identity. What a warm, friendly, down-to-earth guy.

I liked him so much that I bought his book and he signed it for me – ‘To Helen: Keep it tasty’ or words to that effect. I reckon I’m going to work my way through his recipes, a bit like Julie and Julia. Well not quite – Julie cooked a new recipe from Julia’s book every single day for over a year, and I couldn’t keep up the pace. But I feel a change of style would be good for me – I’ve been so at home for so long with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, especially the vegetarian recipes, that I’ve maybe grown a bit complacent. So now it’s time to spice it up!

As soon as ‘The Hidden Gardens of Newburgh’ is done and dusted, I’ll be getting close and personal with the aubergines, the coriander and the ‘Holy Trinity’ (his words) of ginger, garlic and chilli. Tony Singh’s view of food poverty is that all the government policies are too unconnected, and the people who write the policies don’t have enough personal experience of going hungry. And unfortunately he doesn’t have the answer – no nice wee projects that I could hitch a ride on. So I think I’m going to do some kind of ‘Feed the World Buffet’ – in the generous-hearted, lively and tasty Sikh way – and I’ll be looking for people to join in  the fun! Maybe end of August? Watch this space!

 

Dinner Lady

School dinners – they’re never far from the news, and not often for the right reasons. My mother was a dinner lady, and back in the day, as I remember it, we were fed the best of stuff. I remember mutton stew, cold roast ham salad, beef olives, Scotch Broth and other bone-building delights. I wasn’t so keen on the desserts, especially the jugs of pink custard; or that horribly oversweet fudgy tart thing they used to bring out. I’m in a minority there – whenever I find myself in school-dinner-reminiscence company, that tart gets rave reviews. Can’t expect to like everything. (Although check here for an entirely different appreciation of the Pink Stuff!)

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Nowadays though, it’s a different story. There’s been another wave of publicity around school meals. Some local authorities are pledging to make improvements to their verging-on-pathetic offerings, and doing something about the school-gate chip van. I know I’m old-fashioned in my sneery attitude to chips and pot noodles. The Wunderkind used to despair, oh fifteen years ago now, at this intractability, and the emotional blackmail regarding being one-of-the-crowd was a challenge to resist. But usually, I managed. Was he damaged for life? Surely not!

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(Bronze pie and bridie by Tony Morrow)

A few years ago, a nine-year old child in Argyll blogged about her school meals to brilliant effect. The local authority was furious and tried to block her site but the publicity generated brought (grudging, perhaps) improvements in its wake. All she did was take a photo every day of what was on offer; and it wasn’t inspiring.

One particular angle on this caught my eye recently. Edinburgh City Council are introducing ‘meat-free Mondays’ in their schools; and it seems this is not only about health claims but around concerns re livestock welfare. Quality Meat Scotland has challenged this, calling for a better informed understanding of the realities of red meat production in this country. It seems the Council has put their reasoning in a press statement; but when I google ‘Edinburgh City Council press releases’, I find the message, ‘Sorry, there are currently no press releases.’ Really? I double-check, and try the archives – still no press releases. Amazing.

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Anyway, I think Quality Meat Scotland has a real-life challenge to respond to here. They need to get better at communicating their animal welfare credentials; we all need good information to lend to this debate. And in my view, they should be helping butchers to engage more proactively with the healthy eating debate. How about selling stew and soup packs with all you need inside – meat, veg, barley or beans, parsley, chillis or whatever else, packaged up with a recipe – so that customers can reach beyond the inevitable burgers and pies? If children ate better at home – if we all had higher standards – surely in due course education authorities put more money into the pot for school meals.

But please – no pink custard.