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Artistic Censorship and XXXTentacion

Identity politics marks a shift from being mindful of ones own prejudices to policing others’ thoughts.

XXXTentacion has been blacklisted from publicly funded Radio 1. The Guardian seeks to justify this censure by claiming the artist’s rise to fame was built on his terrible personal misdemeanours. This view is clearly wrong- firstly there are many violent, lost individuals in the world, that certainly does not guarantee them success in the arts; secondly, his music is clearly far more nuanced and reflective of his troubled feelings towards existence, hardly promoting his actions uncritically. In fact to the contrary, it’s precisely his strikingly effusive self-doubt and anger that makes his music such a relief from modern pressure, makes his sorrowful position so relatable. The BBC has made a grave error, in this specific and in the general case.

Art must be protected, which is not to say artists should be safe from criticism, precisely the opposite. If you look at the work of anyone born before the 20th century, you’ll find the creator was almost certainly in possession of beliefs and views which would have them blocked from Twitter. 

 Do we stop listening to The Smiths because Morrissey is incorrect about the relationship between ISIS and Halal? Of course not, if the songs’ component words and music help make sense of your inscrutably incomprehensible life, or help you through a tough time like no other friend could, there’s the value. It’s why we have art. It’s why we started blowing coloured dust onto cave walls.

 It doesn’t mean we accept all the politics and prejudices, the inevitable human failings of the artist into our ‘identity’, any more than loving the work of Ian Curtis and Joy Division makes me a Manchester City supporter. 

 The human experience is too complex, dark, and rich to be limited by political correctness. Art is the antithesis of, if not the antidote to, political correctness.

Down in the River

My friend Jack and I walked around the river Thames last Sunday. The greyness of London at this time of year soaks through your pores. Last Winter I wrote a piece of music, called ‘The White Sky’. With all that anaesthetic blankness overhead, Summer can feel as distant as a house you you moved out of years ago.

I have written before about the South Bank, and how much I love its blend of expansive modernist architecture, ragged but lovely humanity, and the timeless industry of the River. Its faded and renovated squalor embodies the grandeur and the humanity of the capital. When I was young, my parents used to take me to see Bach’s St Matthew Passion at the Royal Festival Hall every year. Even back then, I felt how strong the character of the South Bank was: this thriving concentration of artistic output in the midst of urban dereliction (it used to be a lot seedier twenty years ago, believe me). Nowadays, I like to meet up with friends there. There is always something interesting (and free) to stumble upon such as a musical performance in the RFH lobby or a photo exhibit in the National Theatre balconies. It is the quality and the abundance of this sort of thing where you really see the advantage of living The Big Smoke.

So we wandered round the Thames. We met a girl on (what used to be called) the Hungerford footbridge who was trying to sell dream-catchers. She was somewhat furtive about the fact she wanted to money for them. Jack fancied her. I have no idea what a dream-catcher is. At the foot of the bridge we went straight in for a free hug (were they the same troop as at Glastonbury?), watched the skateboarders, and discussed Joanna Newsom. A girl was down on the beach beneath the Oxo tower, combing for something or other. Then Jack mugged a child, and we had a look at some more stuff, and parted company.

With some more time to kill I headed back onto the bridge by Embankment for the second time that day. It was getting dark and I was tired so I stopped to listen to a morbid yet persistent steel-drummer. The West Indian clangs sat weirdly with the gloom, but it was a nice way to take in the end of the day over the Thames, since I was cold and tired. Looking across to St Pauls, the Barbican, and the Natwest Tower made me think about the persistent grind of London. Working and surviving in this city can really feel draining although people do not often like to admit it. Actually, come to think of it, sometimes it’s all we talk about, perhaps because it is something we all share. The city looks awesome of a Winter dusk. Shelley wrote of the eponymous mountain in his poem ‘Mont Blanc’:

Power dwells apart in its tranquillity,

Remote, serene, and inaccessible

The lines could have been written for those fortress casinos in the square mile. If good old Percy Bysshe were writing today, he might well write about the city instead of Mont Blanc, and he could have picked a worse spot than the Hungerford bridge to reflect man’s relation to the vast and awful power down the river.

I looked over to the terrace on the South Bank where the free-huggers had been. The crowds had mostly gone home. It gets cold down there when the sun goes. I noticed there was an arc of people performing. The double amputee at the end of the bridge was still begging after hours in the bitter evening, poor sod.

I approached the horseshoe of singers by the river bank. There were a few people stopped to listen despite the cold so I took a seat on a bench. Close up you could see that they were a dozen or so young ladies probably around the age of twenty. I realised they were American immediately when they started to sing. Not from their accents. Everyone sings in American accents. The clue was in their quality and understanding of performance, of which Americans are the masters. They are just better than everyone else at entertainment. It’s like when you see Russian ballet dancers, Italian drivers, Australian cricketers, Spanish Flamenco dancers, British football hooligans, French pickets, or German nudists: as far and wide as you travel, when you see one there is something inside you which clicks and thinks: ‘They’re taking it to a whole different level. Shit, that comes from the source.’

The girls (a troupe from Princeton Universty NJ called The Tigressions) were singing a capella standards, and their own arrangements of modern pop hits. Rich harmonies, perfect tuning, packaged with all that American charm. Perfect to warm the proverbial cockles. I recall them singing an arrangement of ‘Happy Ending’ by Mika. It was surprising to hear something so luscious and personable amidst all the cold riverside concrete. Singing just for the joy of singing. No pretensions to fame and stardom, that bane of true music. Just a group of young ladies on holiday in a ridiculously grey city, enjoying singing with each other.

There were others who were enjoying this spontaneous performance as well. I noted a slightly gruff looking cyclist who seemed absorbed by the music. He sat there intently, taking it all in, clutching his bike frame. Also there was a little girl who went right up to the singers and stood right in front of them. She was young and uninhibited, bathing in the overlapping vocal lines. I hope the young ladies from New Jersey enjoyed their vacation in London. At least they looked like they were having fun, despite the gloom. It is indeed cool that they were able to contribute to and even become part of the life of the South Bank in their visit. I was grateful, at least.

For the Love of Food

In this blog I have written a fair amount on the way we eat. To summarise my thinking so far: I think that food is all about connection. It is about connecting with the people with whom we eat it; the community from which we purchase it; the farming economies that produce it; the animals that become it; and our own bodies which sensually, nutritionally, and spiritually benefit from it. Food is not only the fuel of human life. It is the medium through which we learn about and express ourselves.

I am not waxing lyrical here. I genuinely believe in ascribing such importance to food, as you may have guessed if you have read my other food posts (ignore the bit about the monkey-brain dip). Allow me to elaborate.

When a friend cooks you a meal, it is hard not to feel cared for in even a small way. It shows that someone has taken the time and trouble to nourish you and to create a nice evening which can be shared enjoying each other’s company. 

The movement away from local shops to supermarkets, though it is a cliché to say, is excoriating communities. We are losing contact with the supply source, with accountability for products, with the traditional skills and knowledge of butchers and fishmongers, with the simple joy of friendly, no-strings banter over a cauliflower and a bunch of carrots. Ironically, by being in the larger consumer space of a supermarket we are more separated from each other than ever. Usually the first words spoken to us in a supermarket shopping trip are ‘how would you like to pay?’. 

As we ignore the ‘country of origin’ labels on the products, and collectively empower supermarkets with massive bargaining power, farmers’ businesses become dictated to them by supermarket buyers. This has a direct effect on the way our land is farmed: the quality of produce; the intensiveness of the methods involved; the range of foods we are presented with; and the quality of life of people working in the industry. 

We ignore the information available to us about the standards of life afforded to the animals we are going to eat and just search for the cheapest, most prettily packaged meat. The result is the commodification of animal life. We close our eyes to the suffering, despite all the lessons from history which we ignore at our peril. Dioxin contamination, foot and mouth, BSE, salmonella and the rest are not blips in farming quality. They are a growing trend. The resources used by intensive meat farming in terms of grain, water, and energy are so great that many people find it immoral to eat meat at all. But if we insist on free-range, non-intensive farming and let go of our relentless hunger for cheap, poor quality meat with every meal then I think meat eating would no longer be such a strain on the environment. It is not the animals but the factories we lock them in which cause the problem. 

From infancy we learn to ignore the needs of our bodies. We should be learning to listen. We dull our taste buds and senses with artificially flavoured, coloured, fatty, sweet food. We cherish the notion of eating like fois-gras geese until we feel stuffed. Does the amount of food on our plates always coincide with the exact amount we need? The metabolism is an amazingly evolved tool, being capable of taking advantage of a rare glut of fat and sugar, storing it efficiently. But of course now we have no shortage of these commodities. The result is obesity, and a palette which yearns for ketchup with everything. Fast food is not just convenient- you can buy a healthy meal just as quickly and easily. It is about delivering our bodies a quick hit of fat and sugar and perpetuating a diet of short-lived satisfaction. Through educating our palettes and senses, and by cooking our own food rather than buying factory prepared crap we get a feel for the nature of our food and the needs of our bodies. 

Right, I’m off for a kebab.       

The Prisoner

If you know me you will know that I am not TV’s greatest fan. I lived without a TV set for several years and now I watch very little. I only watch crime dramas made in West London in the late 1970s, and the odd sporting event or film.

This is because TV is, for the main part, totally bollocks. And watching a programme which is touched by some sort of merit will still very rarely be more productive than reading, listening to music, or sleeping.

BUT 

The Prisoner was a great discovery for me (not that you need a tv to watch it, mind). It was made in the 1960s when the formulae of modern tv had not been boiled-down into the refined opiate of today. Also, the production team saw themselves as being a little bit on the intellectual side, for better or for worse. As such they set out to make a programme which would pick up where Aldous Huxley, Franz Kafka, and George Orwell left off. 

The Prisoner, for those of you who have never seen the show, is set in a bizarre psychological prison, which looks and functions like an isolated sea-side village whence there is no escape. The eponymous character, also known as Number 6 is our hero. We learn (during the preposterously long introduction to every episode) that he ‘resigned’ from some abstracted powerful company/agency, and was abducted to the village in order to find out his motive. 

Number 6 represents the free-spirited, heroic individual. The village represents society which is under the thrall of the system: the conspiratorial powers that be. Number 6’s resistance to interrogation, and protection of the secret of his motives represents the individual resisting the tyrannies and oppressions which arise in the modern world as a result of power, politics, economics, and the darker sides of human nature. 

Patrick McGoohan (below) stars as the Number 6. He also co-created the programme, and had a large part in the production of the series. What’s more, is unspeakably cool, and a snappy dresser to boot (I have adopted the blazer and black polo neck to my putative wardrobe for when I have grown up). 

Now the series has real flaws. Firstly, and most obviously, the deadly sentries which keep everyone in line are big, bouncing, soggy, white beach balls. I imagine the creators thought this would be symbolic, futuristic, and terrifying. In reality, it is an embarrassingly laughable device, and undermines the dark power looming over the village. They needed some evil bastard meting out punishment, not a silly twat. 

Secondly, because of the programme’s lofty theme, you feel that the writers expect a lot of their subject matter. Sometimes they struggle to make a convincing point about oppression and resistance in society. You feel that there are occasions when they duck behind the weirdly symbolic characters and situations so they don’t have to pin down their social critique. 

There are many other things you can point to in The Prisoner which are not quite right. For example, the bizarre trampoline-based duelling sport that Number 6 engages in from time to time. It simply must be up there as one of the most ridiculous sci-fi sports ever dreamt up. I am sure there are one or two in Star Trek too. 

But, despite all its shortcomings, The Prisoner is absolutely brilliant. 

Number 6 is the sort of chap that would beat James Bond at cards, impregnate his girlfriend, then fight for the rights of the lowliest underdog. He would deftly sort out a baggage mix up in a Croatian airport in Croatian, beat up a car-jacker, then make a forthright speech about Liberty from the top of a big cake. He is an activist and a gentleman. And an Olympic-level boxer. 

The programme does provide some genuinely interesting and intelligent insights into society, free-will, and individuality. I thought the episode about political elections was particularly good, for example: Number 6 Stands for election and cannot help but be subsumed by the political system. Individuals are subject to the systems they exist in, and struggle to break free from them because of the natural human desire for liberty of thought and action. 

Now I heard the other day that there is going to be a remake of The Prisoner, starring Ian Mckellan. The issues raised back in the sixties have not gone away, but I cannot help but think that ITV (hmmm…) will trivialise the issues in the production. It will be flasher, snappier, more modern and tempered to modern, hypnotic television-watching habits. It will cooly carve away anything too naff, and make it all quite accessible. But what it will almost certainly miss is the maverick boldness of the original’s production. It was possible in the 1960’s to make a genuine attempt at high-brow television. Nowadays it would be seen as pompous. 

The main system of social conformity nowadays rooted in the television. Perhaps the best thing would be to avoid watching it in the first place.  

The English, their Food, and their Cooking Pt.2

I have found after much research and experimentation that there are two crucial factors in cooking a good chicken:

1. Buy a good chicken 

2. Do not ruin it 

This may sound horribly obvious. But so many times I have been served a chicken by people I know, or by restaurants where they have tried all sorts of tricks from Heston Blumenthal or Gordon Ramsey, and therefore presume their chicken is cordon bleu. But they ineluctably neglect one of these two foundations of roasting a good pullet. And the chicken is disappointing. They have put butter and crap under the skin, they have rubbed it with herbs or spice, they have slow cooked it, crisped it, inverted it, stuffed it with a smaller fowl, stuck a little top hat and monocle on it, or even used organic salt, would you believe, and all with the best of intentions. But the result is never as good as when you simply buy a genuinely good chicken (not necessarily an expensive one from a UK supermarket) and do not ruin it. If you follow these guidelines then the flesh will be delicate and moist, the skin will be crispy, and the gravy will virtually make itself. 

This last point, I should like to add, is the best way of measuring the quality of a good chicken, in my opinion. If there is enough good fat and good juice in the flesh, and the bird has been cooked at the right temperature for the right amount of time, the cooking juices will only need the slightest of hydration and seasoning to form a creamy and delicate gravy. This is why I like cooking chickens in Switzerland. An inexpertly or, more to the point, cheaply reared chicken will not have the right balance of fluid and fat to make a good gravy. However, Olympic athletes have been known to inject themselves with the gravy from Tesco’s economy chickens to promote muscle-growth and anabolic rates, so there is something to be said for these sorry animals. 

Another trick that supermarkets use is Known Value Item pricing bias. An item of known value is a product, such as a tin of Heinz beans, whose price can be objectively compared between rival stores. Supermarkets know that your average customer will be far more likely to assess and remember the price of a box of Kellogg’s Cornflakes than a tomato, for example, which would necessitate an assessment of quality and a price per weight. Each box of Kellogg’s Cornflakes is the same in each different supermarket. But every tomato is different: it could be from anywhere in the world that produces tomatoes, its flavour, texture, ripeness etc. are variable, and it is not easy to see how much each individual tomato costs, unless you weigh them all individually and work it out. Therefore, instead of competing with their competitors for low prices on fruit and veg, supermarkets find it more effective to drop the price on a KVI, such as the products of Heinz or Kellogg’s, and tactically increase the price on vegetables. Retailers know that more often than not, their customers will just scoop up a load of spuds into their trolly and off they go. They won’t even check the price of non-KVI’s till they get their receipt, if at all. 

Very clever. But what has this profit-honing tool got to do with the way we eat? Well if you think about it, KVI’s are going to be pre-packaged, homogeneous foods. Non KVI’s are going to be un-uniform, natural foods like fresh fruit and vegetables. Therefore generally the supermarkets are going to be pricing pre-packaged, pre-prepared foods more competitively than fresh produce. But is it simply the supermarket which is leading us away from the holy land of fresh food, cooking and reality? 

Again, an issue here is the word ‘Known’ in KVI. In England, knowledge of the true value of food is on short supply. If English consumers were better at discerning quality of fresh produce, and demanding it over pre-packaged food, we would be able to bring that to bear on supermarket purchasers. The ruthless buyers of today’s colossal English supermarkets have become the chimera of the general population’s woeful relationship with food. 

To summarise this point, I believe that we have become culturally divorced from food in the UK. We have lost any cultural sense of good produce and good taste. Supermarkets which spring up in the name of efficiency and convenience reinforce and extend this trend. They give it momentum. Supermarkets have for the last decade been retailing (supposedly) higher-quality higher-price product ranges, but this does more harm than good. Why? Because consumers now believe that the way top find better produce is look for better packaging, and a higher price tag. While the produce is often marginally better in these posher product ranges, we are not using our senses and instincts to discern good food. We are cheating ourselves not only of a great sensual experience which is our birthright as animals, but also of the refinement of our judgments and tastes which should be occurring every time we go shopping. 

The efforts of the English over the last 20 years to improve the way they eat and cook may have been well-intentioned but, in reality, self-defeating. I think that the impetus for finding out about better quality produce has led to the rising importance of packaging and the influence of the marketer, advertiser, and product designer in the way we buy from supermarkets. Similarly, we are desperate to learn how to cook, and who do we turn to? TV Chefs and food writers. Now of course this new breed of celebrity and cultural icon can confer some of their knowledge to their audiences. But do you think they learnt to cook by watching telly? We are convinced the food they make is good quality because they are on TV and because they say it is. But whether it is or not is irrelevant. We cannot tell, because we cannot taste or smell it, nor can we feel it or properly see it. 

Learning to cook off the telly is like learning to paint by listening to an audio-guide. 

Cooking is not about following a recipe. It is about following your instincts. To cook a pasta sauce correctly, you cannot follow a timer. You use all your senses to determine exactly when the consistency, concentration, and delicacy is right. You know what the end result should be, and you don’t stop until you get there. How do you know? Because you have grown up in a culture where you and everyone else has always eaten good pasta sauces and have done for generations. Like a knowing what a good cup of tea tastes like: not too watery, not too milky, not over-brewed, just the right colour, just the right temperature, in just the right mug. Imagine a French chef trying to teach a Frenchman how to brew a cup over the telly. Sacrilege. 

Sadly, the divorce from reality in TV cookery education is not an exception to the norm of televisual communication. It is an effective example of how the medium of television divorces the viewer from reality. TV is also highly addictive, which convinces us to allow it deeper and deeper into our lives and our systems of knowledge. However, this is one for another blog.             

The English, their Food, and their Cooking Pt.1

I love food.

I love cooking. I love good eating. I love figuring out how to cook food which is ruthlessly healthy and intensely tasty. I love cooking for friends. I love cooking on big occasions for lots of people. And I love cooking for myself. I love buying food. I love talking and arguing about food. But I truly hate something about the way we the English relate to food.  

I use the term English advisedly here: I cannot really comment on the other nations of the UK. Anyway, any Sassenach discussion of Scotch cuisine always starts with haggis and descends ultimately into gasping about deep-fried mars bars. Look, the Scots just enjoy them. And having heart-attacks. 

I grew up in quite fortunate gastronomic circumstances. My family is fairly cosmopolitan. My parents used to live in Italy, and we used to drive all round Europe for our family holidays, which meant I got to eat loads of different types of cuisine at source, as well as get a feel for the produce of slightly more demanding cultures. At home, my parents always cooked amazing food, for which I shall always be indebted to them. 

I became aware of the horrors which lurk in English cooking when I started going to school. I went to my local state school which I loved. However, I was one of those kids who brought a packed lunch (like the international kids of whom there was a good number). I was traumatised by the sight and the smell of the slop being dished out. There was hard oily pastry covering some weird sweet meat-jelly (as a main course). The boiled potatoes smelled of dishwater and were lousy with wretched black lumps. Dessert? Think saccharine pink biscuits doused in a sputum of watery custard. I could describe more of the horrors but I should move on to the merciless dinner ladies. They wore thick glasses which distorted their eyes (honestly, they all did) and, while I am sure they were all perfectly nice people, they forced the poor children in the care to finish every last festering lump on their plates. My god, why? Why did they think I did not want to eat it? Because I had an eating disorder at the age of five? Because I was evil? Because I was trying to give them more plate scraping work to do, just despite them? 

Incidentally, my uncle (who went to the same primary school as me) was so traumatised by one session of a dinner-lady bullying him to eat some putrid fish that he never has been able to eat fish ever since. 

What was strange to me was that so many of the kids thought the food was fine, even better than what they got at home. And I don’t think my school was unusual. Nor have things changed much, if Jamie Oliver is to be believed. Kids are still getting used to eating swill. 

Interest in food has changed in England over the last 20 years or so. People want to eat and cook stylish, healthy, and what they deem to be good food. But here is the problem. ‘What they deem to be’. 

In Italy, I would say that people generally know what a good pasta sauce or tomato tastes like. They know because they have grown up eating good sauces and good tomatoes. The English have not. The tomatoes we get in supermarkets here are for the most part laughably poor quality. If any of you know any Italians, ask them. Even better, go to Italy and look at the produce. And weep. Farmers and retailers have to supply Italians with good produce because if they do not, it will not get bought. 

Let me put it like this: an Englishman cannot for love nor money find a satisfactory cup of tea outside of Britain. It is always wrong somehow. These bloody foreigners just don’t get it, right? For all their poxy coffees and fine wines, they don’t know what a good cuppa should taste like. That is what English food is like to foreigners. 

In England we have been getting a bit more clued up about food. We WANT to learn. We look up to Delia Smith, Hugh-Fearnley Whittingstall, Gordon Ramsey et al. We adore the holiness of organic food and decry g.m. farming as Satan’s cruel machination to kill our children. We watch interminable cooking programmes on the cancer-box. But these good intentions are nothing if when it comes to buying good produce, we take more interest in a ‘taste the difference’ label than the smell, taste, and feel of the food. We talk the talk well enough, but are yet to walk the walk. 

We wrap our food in rubbish. Next time you go to the supermarket, take as much food as possible out of its wrapping and make a pile. Bags, boxes, cartons, cling-film. It is staggering what supermarkets do. Not only is the amount of packaging an achingly avoidable environmental problem, it more importantly separates us from the sensual experience of the food. All those subconscious senses which have evolved over tens of thousands of years so that we can quickly determine the best, safest and tastiest foods are cut off by the plastic. 

Some may say that this is the fault of supermarkets. However, I would say that they get away with all their crap because we let them. We will pay more for a product just because it has been pre-sorted. We trust that taste-the-difference food will taste, well, different. We do not demand it. We do not say ‘these tomatoes have clearly been ripened in a lorry, I shall take my custom elswhere!’ or ‘this beef has been clearly butchered by an epileptic monkey and that pork I had is more water than meat, I am not coming here again!’ or ‘raspberries in December? no wonder they taste like tramp’s piss! Good day!’ or ‘fuck me, Jamie, those mussels smell like a dog’s gall bladder! Go see a doctor!’ 

I think we English are obsessed with getting a good deal when it comes to food shopping. We clearly love these patently mendacious 2-for-1 offers (supermarkets still use this pricing ruse so we clearly have not grown wise to it). But still we seem to pay so much more for our lacklustre vittles than other European countries. Maybe this is the trick. Supermarkets universally overcharge, making their customers desperate for a bargain. 

I was chatting to an onion farmer recently who was telling me all about his view of supermarkets. Essentially, he said supermarket purchasers know nothing and care less about the quality of food. They are ruthless in their price demands. That is all that matters to them. They are no different from stock-market commodity brokers. Farmers are squeezed, and standards go down. These unscrupulous purchasers can get away with it too because the majority of their customers cannot tell the difference. 

Similarly, people complain about the rights of battery chickens. But the English have been buying scrawny, tasteless chickens and watery, nasty eggs because we think they are perfectly edible and fairly priced (judgments with which I would disagree). The battery chicken is the result of these two elements: the English consumer’s economic priorities and their ignorance of quality. I was in Switzerland recently, and even the least expensive chicken in Migros was better than anything I have found in Tesco or Sainsbury’s. 

[I shall continue this directly in another post. This needs to be spread over several posts for mercy's sake if nothing else]        

       

How To Make Good Pork Crackling

Roast pork without good crackling is like a garden without any trees, a car without hub-caps, a jester without any bells, a farm without any dung, or a young vagabond without a twinkle in his rapscallious eye. It is missing its joy. There is something about the crisp, salty, melt-in-your mouth goodness of crackling that brings joy to the iciest of hearts.

People always seem to want to know how to get a good crackle, and there are a few common advices* offered by various chefs and food writers. They variously suggest rubbing with oil, rubbing with salt, with herbs, scalding with boiling water, scoring and so on. But I have never seen any writer offer an explanation of why pigskin crackles, and how any of the standard methods actually help. 

This post is my explanation of the processes involved in making crackling. As with the vast majority of culinary methods of which I know, if you just follow instructions and recipes without really thinking about what is actually happening to the ingredients then you will have little success. 

It is perfectly possible to employ all the methods mentioned above and not get a good crackling. If you have found yourself frequently frustrated, left with a tough leathery bit of football I would suggest that you try the following: run a blow torch over it. Voila! It will sizzle and puff up into light crisp balloons of crackling. It is not the best, mind you: it will be patchy and uneven. But the blowtorch just illustrates that there is no magic involved. It is heat that is the critical factor. 

Think of bacon turning crispy. When you fry or grill it for long enough, it will go as crunchy as a poppadum. Water is driven out, and fat soaks in, cooking the pork cells brittle. Blowtorching the skin is essentially doing the same thing as frying bacon. There is fat underneath which melts and cooks the skin, replacing the water which is driven out. 

When moisture is trapped in or under the skin, fat can not usurp its place. Scoring the rind allows the moisture to escape and the fat to melt out and all over the skin, just like bacon in a frying pan. As sharp a blade as possible, even a scalpel is good. But don’t cut all the way down through the fat to the flesh, because this can allow juices to bubble out, ruining the meat and the crackling. 

I have seen one well-known chef recommend pouring boiling water over the skin before oiling, salting, and cooking. This will not help. I imagine that the chef borrowed the step from traditional Peking duck preparation, where the skin is scalded first to tighten it and to remove any fat on the surface of the skin. This is important because the ducks are left to hang in a draughty window or doorway (Chinatown stylee) for a day to completely desiccate the skin, and residual oil would prevent the water leaving it. Chinese chefs take care not to pierce the skin so no fat can get through and spoil it. When Peking duck is done in authentic Beijing style, the skin is served first with pancakes – it is a fine delicacy. The rest of the duck meat is dished up in a subsequent course. 

Anyway, the scalding is pretty much useless in the above chef’s recipe because the pork joint is not left to dry for any length of time, and oil is poured straight back on to the skin! 

Salting- it seems like a good idea. Salting things dries them out, of course. Well, salting dries out food without having to cook it, more specifically. If the water is free to escape, then the heat from the cooking will be far more effective at drying the skin than salting. However, the mixture of excessive fat and salt is a combination you are genetically predisposed to adore. Great for your heart, too. 

Heat is everything. If you keep the oven low you will not get crackling. If you turn it up very hot then you run the risk of drying your perfectly juicy pork (and there is no greater sin than dried-out pork, not even usury). Pork does not like to be cooked roughly. It makes sense to remove the rind, fat and skin, when the joint has finished cooking and put it back in a very hot oven You can even use the grill. Incidentally, I always wrap roasted meat in foil to rest. If you merely cover it, it will lose a lot more juice and juiciness. If grilling the crackling, take care not to let it burn, all can be lost in a matter of seconds (this nearly happened to me the other day). 

Last but not least we come to the cut of meat itself. A good layer of fat really helps get the crackling sizzling, and also show that the pig has been fed well. You should only use good quality, free-range pork. Factory-farmed pork always has a terrible, unwholesome reek to it, and sweats all sorts of weird muck. I found out from a farmer that this curdled grey crap is actually milk: there are government regulations governing how much water may be pumped into standard non free-range meat, so the factory technicians use milk as well, which has not been regulated yet. 

So, if you want a vague recipe, score the skin shallowly (experiment with using a lot of scores) rub in some salt for flavouring. Use a high heat (above 220C) to crackle the pork, preferably off the joint after cooking. Oil may help to keep salt on, and make up for a lack of fat, but if there is enough blubber underneath the skin then that should do. 

But the only way to get reliably good crackling is to experiment, trying to get a feel for the cooking process. Every oven and every piece of pork is different, and your method will have to adapt accordingly. 

*Schwarzenegger says ‘advices’ so it must be right 

              

Eating animals: A food lover considers being a meat-eater

Just in case the title of this post scares people off I should quickly state the following: I am not a vegetarian, nor is this blog post about to try to convince its dear readers to become vegetarian. I am a lover of food: if I were a Roman I would pray to Edesia, the goddess of feasting; if I were on death row, I would spend ten long years meticulously planning the perfect final meal to the dismay of the Texas prison authorities; if I were a part of the body I would be the tongue; if I had a coat of arms it would carry the emblems of a big fat pie, some chop sticks and a morel; if I worked for Chanel, I would launch a his/hers fragrance called Eau de Tartufe, black truffles for men, white for women. Bloody hell I am starting to sound like Rudyard Kipling. Whom, incidentally, I would eat first if I were a cannibal.*

But despite my overwhelming commitment to fine dining, I am not a hedonist. That is to say, I think that ethical values come before aesthetics. Perhaps they are interrelated but hey let’s not get bogged down just yet. The overwhelming majority of people directly use animals for food, as companions, or clothing, indirectly via vivisection-tested medicines, and so on. But very few of us spend as much effort looking into the treatment of those animals as we do looking up the Jamie Oliver recipe for Eazy-Peazy Bangaz and MASH with a Lahvely red-woin Jooo. 

Now I would not suggest that it is the duty of the moral, civilized human being to launch their own exhaustive fact-finding mission into animal welfare. But there are a few questions you can ask yourself. For example: Do you think that an animal, even if you believe it to be a lower order of consciousness, deserves the right to live a life free from unnecessary suffering? Do animals have the right to live a life beyond that of a mere commodity, even if their bodies end up being used as such? Does mankind have an automatic right to use other species simply because it is more powerful? Is might really right? If you think you do not care one way or the other or you would rather not know, does deliberate ignorance (of any subject) mean you cannot call yourself a good person?

Different people will answer in different ways of course. Vegans believe that mankind’s relationship with animals should not reflect one of mastery in any way, and as a result they will not use animals for food, clothing, entertainment, companionship etc. This view is based upon a belief in an existential equivalence of all animals. However, this is something that many people will find hard to accept. Perhaps some don’t want to face difficult questions about pain or consciousness. But some vegans controversially draw a parallel between society’s use of animals and the Nazis’ attitude towards the Jews: “they are a lower order of life, so we can do what we please with them, and not feel bad about it”. I would advise any vegans reading this to be EXTREMELY careful where they make this argument because if misconstrued it could cause some people to be not just angry but very upset indeed. On a curious side note, the Nazis brought in laws banning vivisection and protecting animal welfare, apparently as an attack on what they deemed to be Jewish sciences and Kosher slaughtering methods. Although Hitler did not seem to take much notice when he trialled poison gas on his dogs.. 

I have a real respect for vegans. I personally think there are logical difficulties with being only an ethical vegetarian: what is the difference between eating meat and wearing leather, or eating battery-chicken eggs? If you are going to make an ethical point, you have to be consistent. But I truly abhor the dismissive usage of vegetarians and vegans in the media. You see Clarkson and Ramsey laughing about them as though they are idiots. A claim no-one would ever level at those two of course. Isn’t there enough complacency in our society already before we criticise others for living their lives in a way which seems right to them? 

My own personal view is that animals are conscious, feel emotions, and have their own unique perspectives on the world formulated from their different senses and experiences from humans. But I cannot extend to them a recognition of the same order of intelligence as humans. If you did then would you not have to expect them to act morally responsibly as befits their intelligence? An animal would be culpable for theft, murder, rape and all of the other things which make up the bloody daily workings of nature. This would be patently ridiculous, and a somewhat awkward drain on police resources and the judicial system. Not to mention prison overcrowding. Anyway… I cannot see the absolute difference between a human killing an animal for its ends and a lion, killer whale, spider, dog, cat, skylark, or jabberwocky doing the same. Death is part of life, and I can accept that. If you cannot then you should not. 

My problem is with the way in which humans use animals. Now if you accept that it is natural to use animals for food, clothing, labour on farms and the rest but they are capable of suffering too, do you think that humans have a responsibility to treat these animals with compassion and some concern for their interests? If an animal is going to give up its life, against its will, for you, should we not make sure that while it is alive it is happy? And when it dies it feels no pain or fear? 

We are lucky. It is easy to do this. For many years there have been various programmes and trading standards schemes set up in Britain set up so that we can quickly and conveniently select meat that has been produced with the welfare of the animal in mind. It is surprising, but Waitrose started its farm assurance scheme way back in the eighties. Red Tractor marked and free range lines of meat are widely available, and many supermarkets stock fewer battery than free range eggs. It is so easy to grab the first pack of pork chops you see on the shelf. It only costs a little more for us, but for the animal you are going to enjoy eating it is the difference between living in a crowded factory-barn as a mere commodity, or living in green fields, roaming around, pooing just where it likes. 

Oh and if you really think there is no moral element to humans using animals, then how about this argument for only eating free range meat: it tastes like real meat, it tastes really good, not like the regular muck they flog off to you and stick in McBurgers. Your taste buds will show you the way. 

*I would clearly not as he has been dead for many, many years