Scallop risotto with marsala

scallop risotto recipe 008

I have this trace memory that harks back to my days as a psychologist. I travelled around a fair bit in my job and often found myself spending the night in various hotels around the UK.

If I stayed more than a couple of nights I made it my mission to find at least one good place to eat and one good bar or cafe to hang out in the evening. I didn’t always succeed but I tried my hardest. One of the projects I worked on took me to Oxford, a city i’d visited several times for conferences and one that I love. This time I stayed in a hotel on the edge of the Jericho, one of the suburbs of the city. Once run down, it is now all arty and bohemian so looking for a place to eat was extremely easy.

As I was staying a few nights (and was earning a decent crust in those days) I had to give Raymond Blancs Brasserie Blanc (it was Petit Blanc back then) a try. It was good, as expected, but it was Branca, an Italian almost opposite that left me salivating and for ever trying to recreate the dish I ate three times in one week (it really was that good).

When i’m doing demo’s or teaching sesssions people often ask me what my favourite food is and are surprised that I have such simple tastes. Give me a perfect seafood risotto followed by proper panacotta any day and am happy. The risotto I had that day at Branca was the best I’d ever eaten. So simple, risotto with garlic and topped with scallops, yet so effective. The re-creation of which has eluded me for years. but I think I finally did it!

Scallop Risotto

1 small onion finely chopped

2 small cloves of garlic, finely chopped

25g butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

Approx 100g Arborio rice (generous)

splash of dry Vermouth

1 pint of fish stock

salt and pepper

To finish:

4 nice fat scallops, corals removed

25g butter

drizzle of olive oil

a good splash of marsala wine

one lemon

fresh parsley

scallop risotto recipe 002

Heat the oil and butter for the risotto in a shallow frying pan. Add the onion and soften until turning golden but not brown. Add the garlic and stir for a minute then add the risotto rice. Stir for a couple of minutes in the hot oil until it begins to turn transluscent (i.e. not chalky any more) then add a splash of Vermouth. Let the pan bubble until its evaporated then add enough stock to cover the rice. Try to avoid stirring, but give the pan a shake every now and again to prevent the rice sticking. As the stock is absorbed add a little more stock keeping the rice covered until you have used the full pint. You may need a little more but just check the consistency of the rice. Once it is al dente, or almost soft. Turn off the pan and allow the risotto to rest. It should absorb the last of the liquid.

scallop risotto recipe 003

scallop risotto recipe 006

While the risotto is resting heat a small heavy bottomed frying pan ( cast iron is best) add a little olive oil to coat the base and wait until it’s really hot (almost smoking). Add scallops to the pan, they shouldn’t stick if the pan is hot, just sizzle and start to shrink in the heat. Cook for a couple of minutes until nicely browned then turn over.

At the end of cooking add a good splash of marsala (stand back as the pan may spit) then add the remaining 25g butter. Serve the risotto and finish with the scallops, spoon over the buttery juices, squeeze some lemon juice and sprinkle with parsley.

scallop risotto recipe 009

1 Comment

Filed under Seafood recipes

The RNLI Fish Supper at Moelfre lifeboat station

Next month see’s the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) Fish Supper launch a new fundraising event created to raise money and awareness of the work the RNLI, but also to encourage individual’s to eat more fish!


Between the 9th and 11th October individual’s can host their own Fish Supper, inviting family and friends to share the meal while collecting donations and raising money for the RNLI charity. It doesn’t matter if you are an accomplished chef, cook or total amateur it’s about sharing and supporting our hard-working primarily volunteer, lifeboat crews who are on call 24 hours a day. Over 8,000 RNLI volunteer crew members look after our coastal waters across the UK and Ireland regularly missing their evening meals, so get your friends together and eat in their honour!

RNLI 2015 002

As I live close to the sea and act as a firm advocate for local seafood I was lucky enough to get the chance to attend the inaugural fish supper held at Moelfre Lifeboat station on Anglesey. Around 30 guests including lifeboat men and women, fishermen, seafood suppliers and restauranteurs gathered to sample canapes, made with locally supplied seafood followed by traditional fish and chips supplied by Moelfre’s Coastal cafe and Fish Bar.

Cywain Pysgod (which means fish in Welsh) supported the event. They are a project run by local business support company Menter a Busnes, and co-ordinated by Caroline Dawson, a passionate supporter of local seafood. Their aim is to create a more profitable and sustainable Welsh Fisheries sector by increasing the value of the catch through identifying new markets and developing new products.

RNLI 2015 008

RNLI 2015 013

So, go on… get involved! Anyone can host a fish supper. There is a special page on the website where you can register. You will be sent a free party pack which includes recipe inspiration, party game ideas and place-name cards. The Fish Supper doesn’t have to be held between 9–11 October, it’s quite flexible although the RNLI asks that all Fish Supper donations are received by 7 November.

Our evening finished spectacularly with the launch of the lifeboat, a rare opportunity for me as it’s about half an hours drive from where I live, but it was a clear beautiful evening, with stunning views over the Irish sea and all in all it was quite exciting!

RNLI 2015 029

RNLI 2015 040RNLI 2015 048RNLI 2015 052RNLI 2015 031

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Crisis at Christmas


On Monday I finished the last of the three shifts  I’d volunteered to do for Crisis at Christmas. Based at Deptford Day Centre (the closest centre to where my Mum lives) I worked the last three days before it all ended and the centre returned to being the Lewisham LeSoCo college campus.

This was my first time volunteering for Crisis. My sister Kate, author of Exploring Art in the City and a veteran Crisis volunteer (usually based at Bermondsey but taking a year off as she’s a week away from giving birth) was the one who inspired me to sign up.  She told me I’d love it and find it rewarding.She wasn’t wrong.

I wanted to volunteer last year but it didn’t happen. There were so many other life changing events going on, plus it’s not an easy task too-ing and fro-ing between Wales and London, so I have to plan my time carefully. This year it all came together, not the full seven days which I may sign up for next year, but with Christmas, kids to organise and other commitments to consider three days was the most I could manage. This year one of those kids did her own organising. Rosy my teen waitress is all grown up and has moved to London, she sofa surfs and does odd bits of work while trying to find the kind of work she wants. She will only be the teen for one more year and has had enough of Wales.  She decided to stay down south for Christmas and sign-up for Crisis as well. We reunited after a month apart over the kitchen sink where we reconnected and had a great time. The work was hard, fun, tiring, emotional but ultimately the most fulfilling job I’ve ever done. I woke on Tuesday with aching legs and feet, physically drained, tearful, emotional, but still buzzing from a truly epic experience.




On day one Rosy and I arrived at the gate and within half an hour were changed, and in the kitchen. Lunch service was still ongoing; it looked busy. I was more terrified than if I’d been serving a gourmet wedding breakfast. I didn’t know what to expect.

Mary, the kitchen co-ordinator gave me a very brisk run down of procedure. I hadn’t slept much the night before and really had to hit the ground running to remember everything. Mercifully there wasn’t much evening prep to be done so I got an opportunity to familiarise myself with the kitchen, follow Mary’s lead while getting on with what needed doing.  It wasn’t long before Mary broke the news to me that this was her last day, from Sunday I was the chef in charge and the kitchen co-ordinator. Shit!!!!

Dinner passed without incident but food was sparse towards the end and more people arrived than I’d anticipated. I wanted to make sure both guests (most importantly) and volunteers were able to eat, so as day two arrived I knew we had to make more.

We arrived early and this time a different chef was on duty. I started to plan for dinner as soon as I got in the door, prep needed doing so I distributed tasks among those who had arrived early and those still on duty. I made sure volunteers got a lunch break and then as the evening shift arrived I packed some of them off home. Sunil, the morning chef didn’t seem to want to go and in the end he chose to stay on until the end of the evening admitting he wanted to see how my shift went. He wanted to learn and watch.  This wasn’t the first or last time I felt humbled, or proud of what we as a team achieved during my time at Crisis. With two very experienced assistants (Heather and Dave) plus Sunil, the night flew by and ran smoothly and efficiently and food was plentiful.

Day three on the other hand turned into an 11 hour epic. I’m sure the number of guests rose with every meal. At lunch it was 270. By dinner it was closer to 300, including volunteers.  The team was now familiar with my mission and mantra…cook ‘shit loads’ and my kitchen assistants (an awesome, amazing, hard-working bunch without exception) stepped up to the challenge. They shredded, chopped, grated, mixed, got creative and inspired and accepted that basic food could still be tasty.


Our team had to prepare for dinner one woman down as Rosy went home sick, and no extra chef in the form of Sunil. It was hard work, we ran it up to the wire but the “Sex Pistols of Balkan brass” the  Trans-Siberian Marching Band distracted the guests with their noisy, chaotic, high energy, hugely entertaining performance and bought us an extra 10 minutes to prep dinner. We were a little late, but nobody was watching the clock that evening.

I’m proud of how well we fed our guests and volunteers. Even at the final hour we managed to find meals for stragglers, like the man who hadn’t eaten in 48 hours brought in by one of the outreach workers. We accommodated extras every day like those from Bermondsey who, rumour had it, came over to Deptford as the food was better!

I met guests and got a hearty thumbs up, Heather told me I HAD to return next year or they would hunt me down and Dave told me that despite how hard it was on the last day I nailed it. Brad told me I “rocked”. Another guest told me it was “Best food all week”,  while another had 6 helpings of pudding! and it was great we were able to give them six helpings!

On the last evening after service finished I took my dinner and sat in the day room. I watched some terrible karaoke, chatted to one of my kitchen assistants who was also homeless and had lived in a caravan for the last couple of years, I finally got a tour of the centre, but never quite got that briefing or debriefing. I only cried on the job once; when a teenage girl who looked like Rosy came to the counter for food. Dishevelled, thin, out of it, I realised how lucky my girl is despite her sofa surfing, to have love, safe places and a choice. I had to leave the counter. I also discovered that many of those at the day centre were not homeless, simply lonely, isolated, in need of company. Having lost a friend two days before Christmas who was lonely and depressed it really hit home how much we need people around us and I felt so priviliged to have such a close group of mates.

My sister told me I’d love it and she wasn’t wrong. What she didn’t tell me was how much I would learn, or how much it would touch and change me. I went home and cried….i’m still shedding tears and its now Thursday.

Crisis doesn’t just help people at Christmas, it helps all year round. If you would like to volunteer find out more here or get involved in the Crisis Skylight projects.

If you spot a rough sleeper in London, or any other city, there is currently SWEP provision (Severe Weather Emergency Protocols) to help find shelter during the cold weather…find out who to contact here


Filed under Christmas, Food issues, Food poverty

The Christmas countdown: Pudding series #2..triple chocolate and brandy


If you are all about the chocolate, but like the idea of Christmas pudding you can always opt for this ‘fake’ version that includes not one, not two, but three different types of chocolate! It has the rich density of a Christmas pud but without the fruit and are like a cross between a cake, a brownie and a muffin.

They are also quick, straight forward, no fuss and very popular. I prefer to make individual puddings that are generous enough for two (or one person with a very sweet tooth and plenty of room!!)


On this occasion I made loads as they also make very nice presents!

Double chocolate chip ‘fake’ Christmas pudding (Makes one 17cm cake, or six very generous ‘puddings’)
150g plain chocolate broken into squares
175g muscovado sugar
120ml double cream
75g butter softened
3 eggs beaten
25g cocoa powder
150g plain flour
100g breadcrumbs
150g white chocolate chips
100g milk chocolate chips
100g mixed peel
Grease and line a 17cm cake tin with baking parchment, or grease individual large muffin tins.
In a small pan melt the plain chocolate with the cream and half of the sugar. Beat the remaining sugar, eggs, butter, cocoa and flour until smooth. Stir in the breadcrumbs and chocolate mixture then add the chocolate chips and mixed peel. Stir well. Spoon the mixture into the cake tin (or tins) and bake in a medium oven (180 degrees C / gas mark 4) for 45 minutes. Serve hot with cream or brandy butter.


Leave a comment

Filed under baking, cakes & Baking, chocolate, Christmas, home cooking, Recipes

The Christmas countdown: Pudding series #1 Date and pecan with salted caramel sauce

christmas food 2014 016
See! It’s not all bah humbug. And so begins a Christmas countdown of my favourite alternative Christmas puddings, especially for those that loathe the traditional, dense fruity stuff.  According to Unilever and Love Food Hate Waste 5 million Christmas puddings get thrown away every year, I’m not sure if this is through over consumption and over enthusiastic purchasing or just because there are a lot of people who don’t like the stuff. Instead why not try something different?

There are plenty of alternatives to Christmas pud that are cheap, easy to make, have as much wow factors as a blazing steamed pudding and will bring many more gasps of appreciation.

To begin this brief, last-minute series one of my all time favourite desserts. Sticky toffee pudding with a twist, and a handful off chopped pecan nuts, a bit of spice and a salted caramel sauce with vanilla salt and there you have it, perfection in a dish.

Sticky date and pecan pudding with salted caramel sauce (makes 6 to 7 puddings, depending on the size of your dishes)

270g dates
50g pecan nuts (chopped)
half a teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
150g unsalted butter
185g self-raising flour
125g soft brown sugar
2 eggs
200g golden granulated sugar
120ml double cream
Vanilla sea salt

Preheat the oven to gas mark 4/180 degrees C. Grease six muffin holes or individual tins.
Place the dates and 250ml water in a saucepan. Bring to the boil then remove from the heat and add the bicarbonate of soda. Add 60g of the butter and stir until melted.

When you add the bicarbonate of soda the pan will fizz. The addition helps soften and 'break down' the dates which may remain a litle hard otherwise

When you add the bicarbonate of soda the pan will fizz. The addition helps soften and ‘break down’ the dates which may remain a litle hard otherwise

Sift the flour into a large bowl, then add 125g of the sugar and stir well. Add the date mixture and egg and stir well. In the bottom the dishes add enough pecan nuts to make a pattern then spoon over the batter and bake for 20 minutes.
christmas food 2014 007
christmas food 2014 009
christmas food 2014 011
For the caramel sauce place the granulated sugar in a heavy based saucepan and cook over a medium heat stirring constantly until it turns into a thick amber coloured liquid. Once you reach this point all the sugar should have melted so you can stir in the remaining 90g of butter, still stirring constantly. Then trickle in the cream whisking as you do. The mixture will spit and bubble rapidly. Boil for 1 minute, it will rise in the pan as it does so make sure it doesn’t boil over. Stir in a teaspoon of vanilla salt and allow to cool slightly.

Leave a comment

Filed under baking, cakes & Baking, Christmas, Christmas menu's, home cooking, Recipes

Food Bank Britain: who isn’t eating?


Image courtesy of the Trussell Trust

This might read like one of those bah humbug kind of posts, it’s not supposed to be one, but as Christmas creeps closer I’ve begun to look back over the past year and realised that a lot of things are not right in the world.

Perhaps with my change of circumstances, both for the good and bad, I’ve become more acutely aware of the huge inequalities within the industry that I work in. I’ve found it increasingly difficult to reconcile my feelings about the gulf between have’s and have-nots. Those that can afford good food and those who can’t…as if eating good food is only a right for those with money.

I’m going to go off on bit of a tangent here. About a  month ago I read a headline in the Guardian “Move over ‘poverty porn’ … is it the era of ‘prosperity porn’?” The whole concept of ‘poverty porn’ disgusted me to begin with. The idea that we watch poor people on our TV for ‘entertainment’, like it’s a dirty pleasure, but then another thought dawned on me. Why don’t people want to watch programmes about the poor anymore? Is it because there are a growing number of people in Britain  living in poverty. Everyday working people, those unemployed through no fault of their own and not the ‘dole scum’ they like to portray. People are beginning to empathise with the people in those programmes. They are beginning to understand what it is like to struggle. Is this perhaps the reason for the switch? A subtle government ploy to change the message? Now more people than ever are living in poverty the focus is shifted elsewhere. Where once we laughed at the poor now we’re being encouraged to laugh at the rich.

You can call me a conspiracy theorist, and I might not be correct in my assumption, but you can’t argue that the media is full of disingenuous information about how the economy is improving, shallow programmes that dumb us down and make us forget to focus on the things we should be angry about, the awful things happening in the real world, and who created the mess in this country.

Despite my education I’ve never been rich. I learned that critical opinion, morality, intellectual achievement was more valuable than money. I learned the lessons the hard way. I grew up on a council estate in a family of activists. I frequented the picket line while my parents shouted scab at strike breakers. As their strike dragged on into its sixth month and employees lost their pay we suffered extreme poverty. I have memories of scouring the fridge for anything to eat, asking when shopping would be done and being told not this week. We had no money. I’m almost convinced we even had to hide from a debt collector knocking on the door once. As growing teenagers we were hungry, but we never starved because we were lucky, my mother knew how to cook and make do. Generations after the 1980’s are even deprived of that skill since cooking, sewing etc were no longer considered as ‘life skills’.

So back to the point, I’m getting a bit sick of the TV food industry where a bunch of wannabe’s take part in reality cookery shows (yes I did it, I hold my hands up, guilty as charged..but it wasn’t for fame, that was the last thing on my mind, it was just for the hell of it, for the experience). There are hundreds of cookery programmes on the TV and chefs are ‘celebrities’. Were not. We make nice food for those that can afford it. The viewers of these TV shows include a host of people who happily live off ready meals, takeaways, junk food and haven’t a clue how to cook, or are not able to afford the ingredients to emulate the TV chefs dishes.

This is the way I see things….

  • Supermarkets sell masses of unnecessary food at inflated prices (we know this because you only have to look at Aldi and Lidl to know that it can be cheaper)
  • Advertising props up the idea that you need ‘convenience food’
  • Schools do not teach basic cooking skills, these lessons were not considered core skills and so were abolished by the conservative government in the 1990’s
  • Supermarkets link up with schemes like Fareshare to make themselves look better, to improve their profile by ‘helping’ the community. This is because their profits have dropped, not out of any sense of altruism or genuine caring
  • Many food banks are based in supermarkets where its the community, the people who are struggling, that are buying extra things to ‘donate’ not the supermarket giving freely
  • On top of this supermarkets are making it harder and harder to retrieve discarded food from the skips. In my area supermarkets tip bleach on what would be perfectly edible food, and hide it behind gates with razor wire and locks. Once upon a time students and the skint would have lived off this, now it just goes to landfill.
  • Supermarkets give very little to the local food banks and skips are still full of perfectly useable food.

Figures from the Trussell Trust, between April 1st 2013 and April 1st 2014 913,138 people were given 3 days emergency food rations. This is three times the number of people receiving aid in 2012-2013 and one can only imagine what the figures will be for 2014-2015. While The Real Junk Food Project cafe based in Leeds reports that they have intercepted 11.8 tons of food since March 2013, which has created 3338 meals served in their Pay as You Feel cafe (Dec 13′-July 14′).

I paid a visit to my local food bank where I spoke with Helen Roberts, part-time village post mistress, volunteer food bank organiser and do-er of other ‘random’ jobs. She co-ordinates the food bank at Bangor Cathedral, my nearest city, which is open Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoons. I visited on a Friday to find out about how they distribute emergency food.  I was early so sat in one of the pews watching the silent bustle of the volunteers preparing to open and packing numerous carrier bags with 3 days worth of food.


A volunteer packing emergency supplies bags


Volunteers sorting produce at the Cathedral

Helen reported a steady increase in users since they opened. Usually agencies helping people with other issues such as homelessness (Shelter Cymru), mental health problems (Community Mental Health Trust), housing issues (North Wales housing) or substance misuse problems (CAIS or NACRO) will make a referral to the food bank. Individuals are given vouchers which entitles them to either a family pack or a single persons pack containing three days of emergency rations. Depending on circumstances this maybe supplemented, such as, where there are more children in the family.

There is also a growing number of people arriving with no voucher. They are walk-ins that stop by because they are struggling at a particular time. Some of these are working people who for one reason or another find themselves in difficulty. They are never turned away. In these cases they are given a letter which entitles them to a further three days emergency food but usually they are also signposted to another service if necessary.

One of the problems with the service is that food packs only contain ‘ambient’ goods (so no fresh, chilled or frozen produce). Goods such as breakfast cereal, UHT milk, a variety of tins with sandwich fillings that can be used for lunch such as corned beef, tuna, bread and margarine, plus the ingredients for 3 main meals (tinned meat, chicken).

What shocked me the most was that food is mostly bought for these parcels. In the past the food bank received deliveries from the CREST Co-operative Fareshare service. Fareshare is an organisation which works with partners in the food industry securing surplus food and delivering it to a variety of community projects and charities across the UK. Sadly, although the service was only established in 2010 it has now been discontinued. According to Anna Hughes the marketing manager for Crest the operation was ‘not sustainable’ in North Wales and not enough groups had joined. Organisations wishing to receive deliveries from the service paid a £500 yearly membership fee which helped cover the costs of staff, fuel, deliveries and other overheads. Some of these community groups are now left without regular donations (like the Bangor Foodbank) while others access the service that runs out of the Wirral. I mentioned to Anna that it was a shame the service had closed now that there was a greater need for it and she agreed, although it was a decision made by the directors of the organisation. Perhaps such a large annual fee was off-putting for local community groups, who knows. I just think it is a shame there is no Fare share service here in North Wales at all.

I talked to volunteers and sat for a while quietly observing the steady stream of ‘customers’ arriving. They weren’t queuing around the block like they might in a bigger city, but there were plenty needing help, some of whom I knew by sight some people were collecting for others who weren’t able to get to the Cathedral.  It saddened me and made me thankful that I do know how to cook well and know how to make-do with very little. Whole generations of children and young adults are growing up in Britain watching their working parents struggling to put food on the table, struggling to know how to make a meal and not knowing how to manage on an ever decreasing income.


One visitor collecting supplies for a neighbour

So what’s my solution? I know, it’s not easy…but I would push for the following…

Proper cookery, budgeting and nutrition lessons in schools would be a start. Follow that up with affordable fresh food all the time as a right, not a privilege. Go back to the days of buying from markets, small producers and greengrocers (remember them?). Buy meat from the butcher in smaller quantities, bread from a bakery. Do I sound old-fashioned? Well they did seem to get some things right back in the post war era where people came before profits and we all lived in a community. Perhaps its only now people are beginning to realise this..

So I am putting my money where my mouth is. In the coming months I will be telling you about a new project I am starting up under the umbrella of The Real Junk Food Project…a community, pay as you feel cafe using diverted produce.. keep watching this space, I’ve a long way to go yet.

In the meantime…donate food if you can, buy local, help your community. That is all.


Filed under Food issues, Food poverty

New Pop-up dates…finally!

A some of you will know I am working on preparing my new supper club venue. I have a base, I just need to get it ready! This is taking a little longer than anticipated, but like all good things…it can’t be rushed.

Supper dates and exciting news about what else will be going on at the new venue will be posted in the new year and I hope to be back to business as usual from January.

BUT DO NOT FEAR!!  I have two pop-up Sunday dinners coming up, run in conjunction with Neuadd Ogwen, Bethesda. This is my new local arts centre…yep its all happening in North Wales (well Bethesda to be exact). Not only do we have the longest zip wire in Europe, several notable recording studios and a huge amount of artistic talent, we now have our very own Arts Centre and its 2 minutes walk from my house!

The pop-up Sunday dinner dates are:

Sunday November 23rd: Spiced pork and crumble (plus veggie/vegan options) £15 a head.

Sunday December 14th: Christmas theme, glazed maple ham, turkey and all the trimmings. mince pies, chocolate roulade, brandy cream and rum butter £15 a head

To book please follow the link for Neuadd Ogwen here. Booking in advance is essential and all bookings need to be received by the Wednesday before so that orders can be placed and food waste avoided.

Thank you all and I hope to see you there

Denise x

Leave a comment

Filed under North Wales restaurants, Pop-up cafe, secret supper, underground restaurant

STOP PRESS: Exciting Competition Announcement for local cooks and chefs (Gwynedd and Ynys Mon)

Here is that exciting announcement I mentioned on Friday.

For all amateur chefs & cooks in Gwynedd or Ynys Mon I just want you to know that I am working with FLAG (fisheries local action group) and Menter Mon on a project to promote local seafood. As part of this we are holding a competition which will offer 20 lucky cooks the opportunity to win £100 to hold their own seafood themed ‘supper club’ (for friends, family or even total strangers if you wish!) plus the chance to attend a one day seafood master class with local seafood experts hosted at the Food Technology Centre, Coleg Menai

To qualify for this competition you must be a resident of Ynys Mon or Gwynedd, not be a professional chef working in the industry locally, be keen to use and learn more about local seafood, and enjoy cooking and entertaining…that’s it!

For further information and an application form where you can tell us why you would love to participate in this project, please email me at

Thanks and good luck!

Leave a comment

Filed under competitions, local produce, sustainable fish, Welsh produce

Food waste and Bristol Skipchen

Bath & Bristol trip 2014 055

In May 2009 I was made redundant. I suspect many of you readers will already know this and it’s no secret that I started writing this blog and running my supper club as something fun to do while searching for a job.  What you may not know are the realities of living on a suddenly reduced income. Within six months I dropped from a very cosy salary of £30,000 a year as a health psychologist, to £72.40 a week income based job seekers allowance (once the redundancy money and ad hoc freelance work dried up).  This was before my marriage ended and my husband and I still lived together. He was working full-time and had a similar wage, which should be pretty good, but once you factor in all the trappings of the ‘middle-class’ professional lifestyle; hefty mortgage which he had to take over paying, credit card payments, household bills plus two hefty overdrafts (which we could no longer afford to pay off), the descent into debt and virtual poverty was swift. This is how people end up bankrupt and homeless. At one point my monthly bank charges topped £150 because I couldn’t pay in enough money to cut my overdraft. The wonderful HSBC bank refused to freeze the account, or stop charging me, which compounded my woe month on month.

Advisors from the CAB told us the only way to freeze charges and cut payments was to default (except the mortgage, council tax and utilities). They told us that store card companies couldn’t make us pay and couldn’t send around bailiffs. Luckily we didn’t lose the house, we kept paying the essentials but we did default. It was stressful and we still struggled to keep our heads above water, often not having enough money to put fuel in the car or buy food for the family. It was scary how all that could happen. I have a PhD,  but I couldn’t get a job. I was skint. I now have a terrible credit rating, but have learned what is important in life, what I can live without and just how precarious that capitalist lifestyle is.

I joined forces with my friend Sophie who was in similarly dire straights. Sophie relied on the tried and tested student practise of ‘skipping’ as a way to top up her food cupboards.  Skipping, for those not aware, is where people collect discarded supermarket food from the skips and use it to feed themselves. Technically its illegal (although not as immoral as chucking away perfectly good food or throwing bleach or rat poison over the contents of the skips so people can’t raid them and use the food…which happened in my area) and many supermarkets now keep their ‘discarded’ food under lock and key. Of course this makes it incredibly difficult to make use of the rejected goods, 90% of which is perfectly edible, safe and reusable.

With food banks, foodcycle, and soup kitchens on the increase, it’s not just those on benefits who are struggling to feed their family.  Barnardos reports that there are around 3.5 million children living in poverty in the UK (almost a third of all children) with 1.6 million in severe poverty . In the UK 63% of children living in poverty are in a family where someone works. There is a massive discrepancy in income, living conditions, outlook, perceptions, and I have lived this myself.

But it’s not just about food poverty, it’s about the relentlessly wasteful planet we now inhabit, the supermarket controlled world that has drained people of their cash (don’t kid yourself, everything is over priced, even those things they tell you are on ‘special offer’, you only need to take a trip to Aldi or Lidl to see that) and their common sense when it comes to buying food.  This has long been one of my favourite soap-box subjects and food rants (along with no cookery in schools), but I’m not the only one banging this particular drum, enter The Real Junk Food Project.

According to their figures around 1.3 billion tons of food gets thrown away globally each year. This amounts to nearly 40% of global production. 40%!!! That’s huge. Unimaginable. In the UK alone we waste around 15 million tons of food a year and this is predominantly due to stringent and confusing food safety legislation.

The Real Junk Food Project began life in February 2013 in Melbourne, Australia. Founders and co-directors Adam Smith and Johanna Hewitt were horrified by the amount of food waste they came across so set up pay-by-the-minute barbeques on the banks of the River Yarrow using discarded food. Later, when parenthood beckoned, they felt the lure to return home and back to Adam’s home town of Leeds with the aim of continuing the project. They hunted about, found lots of support and were finally offered  access to a struggling community kitchen in Armley, a particularly deprived part of Leeds. Meanwhile, at a local food activist meeting Sam and Conor (co-directors to-be) heard about the project. They too were  making their own discoveries about commercial food waste as they, and a cohort of other friends from university dined on the proceeds of supermarket bin raids. They heard about the project and approached Adam and Jo with food to exchange and a relationship was formed.

The Leeds Skipchen opened its doors for its first trial in December 2013 when the couple cooked Christmas dinner for the homeless population of Leeds. In the same month it became a Community Interest Company and has thrived and grown since sparking support and interest from all sectors. Now open 7 days a week the project is spreading and growing; new cafe’s are popping up across Leeds…and now, this, the first one in Bristol.

Bath & Bristol trip 2014 056

The other interesting feature of the Skipchen is the Pay-as-you-feel (PAYF) policy. This is what their website says about it. I couldn’t have put it any better, so over to them….

As well as the positive environmental impacts of reducing edible food waste the project also has clear social benefits through operating a strictly Pay-as-you-feel (PAYF) policy . PAYF offers an alternative to the conventional the payment system as there is no price on any produce of the café. Our system transcends monetary transactions and liberates people to use their skills and attributes as well as money to pay for their meals. Furthermore, we aim to highlight the absurdity that the produce we use has been stripped of its monetary value but still retains its nutritional value. By making people think about what they wish to contribute for their meals, the idea is to get society thinking about how they value food as a resource.

The pay-as-you-feel policy makes sense and takes me back to the early days of supper club, when we asked for donations. Later, this later changed to ‘suggested’ donations because people needed more guidance, they wanted to know ‘how much’ was OK. Although the supper club is based on a different concept (I was buying top quality ingredients for those evenings which was in fact pretty much the only time I did any proper shopping) and costs had to be covered, it was still a not for profit exercise. I liked being able to offer people a restaurant experience without charging the earth, bringing in customers that wouldn’t normally go to a top flight restaurant, making them feel welcome and relaxed, where hippies with dreadlocks could sit next to university lecturers and all would get on and find common ground.

Bath & Bristol trip 2014 061

So, on a damp Wednesday afternoon five of us plus a baby in a pram jostled for space and a place to sit inside the busy Bristol Skipchen. Initially we dithered, confused, trying to work out what was the skipchen cafe menu and what belonged to the bar that ‘loans’ them space during the day. Once we’d sussed it out we chose a variety of dishes; vegeburgers, salad with mozzarella and a lovely lime dressing, watercress and spring onion soup, roast cauliflower. The cafe was happily chaotic with a vibrant group of diners leaving the counter with loaded plates of everything. I guess that for some this may well be their main, or only meal of the day. Conversation about the project surrounded us, and there seemed to be a keen interest locally.

Bath & Bristol trip 2014 059


I spoke to Sam who runs the Bristol Skipchen and he told me how it worked. He emphasised two points; first that the project is independent of the big supermarkets. Food Cycle and many food banks, are run in conjunction with, or hosted by supermarkets…ironic since they are the ones that create the problems in the first place. By staying free of their input its easier to challenge their stranglehold. Second, it deliberately avoids the supermarket skips around Bristol which are already used by many of the cities homeless population.

Food donations come from a variety of sources; a local homeless hostel that receives a surplus, a restaurant that over ordered mozzarella, a food PR company that couldn’t use a whole box of watercress, and is sometimes topped up with discards collected from skips in more affluent areas outside of Bristol, where the food would simply be thrown away.

Bristol Skipchen is run by volunteers, all young, enthusiastic and committed food activists and has a lets all-muck-in-and-help-yourself kind of feel to it, which is what they hope to encourage. I love that the Pay As You Feel policy got us all talking, discussing what we’d eaten, what we thought the food was worth, weighing up the time and skill put into its preparation, using our judgement and what we could afford (my visit took place whilst on a severely pared down budget). Some visitors there can’t afford anything, and in that way its fantastic for providing a square meal. We could afford to pay, so did so according to our means. We loved it; the concept, the buzz, the enthusiasm and the commitment. It was good to see it busy. The food was pretty good, if not cooked with total gastronomic expertise (sorry, I’m a chef and hard to please 100%) and there was plenty of it.

One of our group was my eleven year old son. Initially bewildered and perhaps slightly disgusted by the concept of eating food reclaimed from bins, he soon understood what it was all about, realised that I’d given him reclaimed food at home and so tucked into his lunch with no more hesitation. We were sad that there was no pudding, but they have to work with what they’ve been given  (a donation of cake ingredients please). So thankyou The Real Junk Food Project and Bristol Skipchen, you have restored my faith in human nature just when I’d given up hope, and you’ve inspired me. So yes, I will be returning there. Soon I hope and perhaps  the other side of the counter. I will make cake.

Bristol Skipchen is based in the Stokes Croft district of Bristol. Give them your support and your food donations and they will give you a delicious lunch.

 Bath & Bristol trip 2014 066Bath & Bristol trip 2014 063

Leave a comment

Filed under eating out, Food issues, in the press, social enterprise

A final look at Ludlow Food Festival…the bits I didn’t show you before

food festival Ludlow 2014 148

The Inner bailey, Ludlow Food Festival

food festival Ludlow 2014 028

the teen…if she gets stroppy

The teen and I saw and did a lot more than just get high on coffee at last months visit to Ludlow Food Festival. From Egyptian and Indian cooking to the sampling of a variety of wonderful products (everything from smoky cheese to absinthe marzipan and hot chocolate recipes from the 1600’s) we pretty much did it all.

As a food festival organiser it’s always great to get out and see how others do it. No, its more than great, its essential and not just as a demonstrator but also as a guest, as I was on this occasion. The one problem with running a food festival is that you never get an opportunity to really get out and see what’s happening ‘on the streets’, this is why I also really enjoy visiting food festivals (and I’ve been to a few!). They all have their own character and personality, whether small or large they all have something slightly different and distinctive about them. As an example, Conwy Feast (where I am demoing next Saturday) has the arts and lights programme, late night live music and a harbourside setting, Ludlow is in the castle itself and although it doesn’t have music, it does have a variety of daytime workshops and classes all based within the castle walls. Abergavenny has a bit of everything! All these different facets help keep them fresh and up to date.

This is most noticeable in the case of festivals like Ludlow and Abergavenny that have run a while. Our Menai Seafood Festival is a baby compared to twenty year old Ludlow, or even seventeen year old Llangollen, which despite being a lot smaller than the others, plays to that strength.

The longer established festivals are more polished, confident and often a bit more adventurous. They know who they are and what they are doing which in the case of Ludlow, is why it can successfully run for three days and still pull in the crowds (which total around 20,000 over the weekend).

Friday is the day that most media and catering professionals visit. Dubbed ‘top chef’ Friday its the day the bigger names appear. This year chefs included one of the UK’s top female chefs Emily WatkinsDaniel Doherty , private chef Frank Pontais (who we caught the tail end of) and Ed Kimber (The Boy Who Bakes) who gave a French patisserie demo on the Graeme Kidd demo stage. It was late in the day when we arrived and after Ed’s demo we just had time for a short wander around,  booking into Saturday’s workshops and generally doing a bit of a recce. By the end of the day we’d planned our Saturday agenda, so sloped off for a bit of dinner at the newly opened Wildwood Kitchen. We were lucky, we hadn’t booked a table anywhere and predictably most of the restaurants were full. The Wildwood had space, possibly because it was so new. It felt new, but the food while not being wildly inventive (it may have been a special ‘festival’ menu), was tasty. The teen and I weren’t taken by many of the main courses and my choices were limited because of my gluten intolerance (it’s already getting on my nerves!!). Instead we selected a mediterranean platter, a superfood chicken salad and an onion and tomato salad which we shared. We’d worried we wouldn’t have enough but in the end it was plenty especially after dessert (mango sorbet for the teen and an Affogato ice cream for me. The caffeine shot perked me up and we wandered off to meet some friends for a drink.

Saturday was busy. We had a lot to pack in before heading back to Wales and we did just that. I’m just going to share with you a few of our highlights and things we loved, suggest some things you should check out if you can, and give a quick round-up of what we thought …I will be brief, but with lots of pictures.

food festival Ludlow 2014 001

Entrance to the castle

food festival Ludlow 2014 009

cheerful chutney selling ladies from Usk River

food festival Ludlow 2014 011

Beautiful packaging and delicious chocolate at Sue Gilmour’s Wonderful World of Chocolate

Ed, who previously worked in a bank, won The Great British Bake Off in 2010. He gave up the day job to bake full-time, has two cookbooks out already (The Boy Who Bakes and Say it With Cake), with his new one out now. He made a chocolate and passionfruit curd tart topped with chocolate ganache.

food festival Ludlow 2014 021

food festival Ludlow 2014 024

entrance to the inner bailey

food festival Ludlow 2014 031

The teen doing some serious curry and mango chutney sampling

food festival Ludlow 2014 042

fit onion seller

food festival Ludlow 2014 123

We even bumped into Boysie

food festival Ludlow 2014 130

The lovely coffee lady who gave us some of her coffee…from the little coffee bag company

food festival Ludlow 2014 131

Cheese’s with their own names from Orsom…little cheese, big personality…Woodew? we defintely would…we took one home with us

food festival Ludlow 2014 065

Tasting hot chocolate with the chocolate man from The Copper Pot...we brought two bags of hot chocolate and a recipe book favourite has to be the chilli and orange recipe from 1685

food festival Ludlow 2014 143

hipster fudge sellers at UFO

food festival Ludlow 2014 072

Steam punk treats from the travelling emporium…that’s where we bought our Absinthe marzepan

food festival Ludlow 2014 071

strange man from the emporium of all sorts of weird things

food festival Ludlow 2014 041food festival Ludlow 2014 138food festival Ludlow 2014 068food festival Ludlow 2014 142food festival Ludlow 2014 147

Cooking Like Cleopatra class with Egyptian born Marina Ibrahim...simple techniques with a bit of fun thrown in

Cooking Like Cleopatra class with Egyptian born Marina Ibrahim…simple techniques with a bit of fun thrown in

Marina’s mantra is “you can’t be wrong, if your recipe is cooked with love the food is going to be good!” I like this mantra, totally get where she’s coming from. Her cookery class focused on two traditional Egyptian dishes, Shakshuka and a beetroot salad. The class was simple, fun and practical. Even the fez wearing girls at the back, who appeared to have sampled one or two of the local ales managed admirably.

food festival Ludlow 2014 118

eager participants getting into the spirit of it with fez’s

From one female chef to the next…this time Rayeesa and her southern Indian Secrets masterclass. Encouraging her class to be liberal with the spices she demonstrated how to make a traditional dahl, sharing handy tips (don’t add salt to the lentils til later or they won’t cook!)

food festival Ludlow 2014 164

Rayeesa from Rayeesa’s Indian Kitchen in Hertfordshire running her Indian Vegetarian class (the teen’s choice)

food festival Ludlow 2014 178

spices at Rayeesa’s Indian cookery masterclass

food festival Ludlow 2014 183

we swooned (a little) over Marcus Bean (from ITV This Morning….although I never watch it)

food festival Ludlow 2014 121

cookery class participants enjoying their creations

food festival Ludlow 2014 196

…and I swooned even more over Chris Burt…who is genuinely lovely guy and a very talented chef committed to keeping it local. A trip to Shrewsbury to visit his restaurant Momo No Ki is on my bucket list of food places I must visit…soon!

We finished the day with THAT coffee masterclass and bounced off home happy, both agreeing that it was one of the best food festivals we’d ever attended. We even managed not to argue!

A big thankyou to Ludlow for their hospitality and friendliness and producers that gave us lots of lovely things to eat and drink, this was our swag from the day….some purchased, some freebies! I’ve mentioned a few of our favourites, but we also loved the Merangz from The Little Round Cake Company and Granny Tiggs sauce

food festival Ludlow 2014 263

Leave a comment

Filed under British food, cookery courses, Food festival, photography