food

London: “Food: Bigger than the Plate” @ the V&A

The V&A’s exhibitions have been quite fashion-heavy of late (Dior, Mary Quant), and whilst I do like historical fashions, I’m not so keen on designer-based things (I seem to be in the minority though, as I think Dior is completely sold out for the rest of its run, and you’d probably be wise to pre-book Mary Quant). So I was glad to see they were offering an alternative to fashion in the form of Food: Bigger than the Plate, which runs until 20th October and is all about the future of the food industry.

 

I tend to book ahead at the V&A just to avoid queuing at the ticket desk, but it probably isn’t necessary for this exhibition, at least on weekdays. Admission is £17, which is a lot, but as usual, I only paid half with National Art Pass (if you visit as many exhibitions as I do, you definitely end up getting your money’s worth). There weren’t many people inside the exhibition, but I had to wait for a few minutes to enter because they were changing over staff at the entrance. This wasn’t a problem for me, but it clearly was for the old woman behind me who passed the time by loudly complaining about them (and possibly me, for not just walking right in? It was hard to tell who she was angry at. Everyone, I guess). After dealing with people being rude to me and my volunteers on a regular basis at the museum where I work, I have very limited tolerance for this kind of behaviour, so because I wasn’t at work and was free to do so, I may have made a comment right back to her. Seriously, please do not be horrible to customer service people who’ve done nothing to deserve it. Their jobs are awful enough without having to deal with your abuse.

 

At least the mean lady had the decency to disappear quite quickly after we got inside the exhibition (I think she might have been embarrassed after I called her out), so I didn’t have to keep awkwardly bumping into her as I wandered round. The exhibition covered four separate themes: composting, farming, trading, and eating, but it was more free-flowing than a typical exhibition here, which is probably why they had a round flow-charty thing serving as a map in each room to indicate how far along you were. And I have to say that the exhibition was definitely bigger than I was anticipating, certainly “bigger than the plate.” (Huurrrp.)

 

Of course I think sustainability is important, but I have to admit that I don’t think it’s the most fascinating of topics, so I was impressed that the exhibition held my attention throughout, right from the toilets near the entrance, though they definitely were display-only (I did kind of have to pee, but not in public)! They were water-free toilets, where the poop is caught in some kind of biodegradable bag. To be honest, the mushrooms grown out of bags of used coffee grounds were way grosser – just look at them! I’m not a mushroom fan at the best of times though.

 

There were a lot of examples of plant-based leathers and plastics, a collection of leather goods made from the hide of one poor cow, maps showing fruit trees in London where you could do a bit of urban foraging, and zines covering how to make beer from things like yogurt, but lest it all become a little too crunchy, there was also this great booklet/artwork parodying sustainability taken to extremes by offering ideas on how best to capture your tears to either make your own salt (you need something like 200ml of tears for one gram of salt) or to feed moths (and believe me, the pictures of moths licking tears off someone’s face were terrifying, especially for a lepidopterophobe like myself).

 

And then we got into farming, which was a mix of delights and horrors. There was a collection of tinned pork products that had all come from one pig who had been followed from birth to death by an artist. This was accompanied by a video of the pig’s life, up to and including slaughter (hence the horrors). I watched a bit of cute baby pig doing pig stuff, but moved away pretty quick before they got anywhere near the slaughterhouse. Since I don’t eat them, and I know damn well what happens to them (I’ve watched enough PETA propaganda films in my day), I don’t particularly want to watch it happening again, but I think it is good that it was there so those who do choose to eat meat can at least see where that meat is coming from (I’m really not a particularly ethical vegetarian, but I do think it’s only right that if you’re willing to eat it, you should be willing to watch it die).

 

On a happier note, chickens! Some guy is trying to breed healthier chickens through crossbreeding (as an example of how factory farming has destroyed the health of most modern breeds, a woman had attempted to make bone china from the bones of factory farmed chickens vs. organic chickens, and the factory farmed china was all grey and crumbly and horrible. Made me sick just looking at it), so there was a chart of chickens showing the breeds he had mixed and some (admittedly taxidermied) examples of the new breeds he created. There was also Florence, an adorable little strawberry plant who was having her environment monitored by a computer, and you could ask her questions about her mood, interests, etc, and get a fairly incoherent response in return. And after passing through all the horrors of factory farming, we got to sample an herb-based beverage from a kiosk, though sadly not the cherry one that was sitting out on the counter.

 

On the subject of beverages, the trading section (which was the smallest section here) contained the recipe for Coca Cola, at least as determined by the company that makes Cube Cola, after much trial and error. And now I guess you’ll be able to make it too, though I strongly doubt many of us are going to go out and buy nutmeg oil and powdered caffeine. There were some nice posters in here, and it’s always interesting to think about how far some food travels, like bananas to Iceland, which was the subject of a video here, though I confess I am definitely not a locavore sort of person (though we might all have to be if Brexit goes ahead. Have you actually looked at how many things in British supermarkets are made in the EU? Because it’s seriously most foods. It’s almost like no one actually thought this through…).

 

I was most excited for the eating section – the name was a bit of a misnomer, as there was only one thing you could eat in here, but I’m way more interested in culinary history than eating weird “foods of the future,” so that wasn’t really a problem for me, at least until I got to the diagrams of various cakes known only in Portugal. My experience of Portuguese baking (as sold in London) has not been great, but some of these cakes looked awfully tempting! I can’t say the same for the cheese made from celebrity cultures, including a cheddar from Suggs’s ear wax, and a Comte made from Heston Blumenthal’s pubes (I’m throwing up in my mouth a little just thinking about it). I guess I would eat cheese made from my own bacteria, but I can’t imagine it would taste particularly nice, as anyone who has smelled my feet would likely agree.

 

This section wasn’t only about food, but also about the nature of consumption. There was a display of pottery with designs depicting the early sugar cane industry, and all the slavery and suffering that went along with it, and objects from the intriguing project “Enemy Kitchen” by Michael Rakowitz, who started serving Iraqi food in Chicago during the Iraq War, to try to increase cultural understanding. He even served a dinner off of Saddam Hussein’s personal china, and imported a box of dates into the US from Iraq just to show that despite the difficulties that arose during the importation process, it could be done.

 

The last section of the exhibition was a massive dining table set with different dishes at every place – some were examples of art, others were inventions that could help people with various disabilities, like Parkinson’s, to feed themselves – and a counter where you could order your own food of the future. You didn’t have a choice of dish, you just selected three qualities you thought the food of the future should have (such as sustainable, vegan, delicious, affordable, etc), and they would make you a teeny cracker based on your choices. I am far too much of a picky eater to gamble like this, but Marcus gave it a go and ended up with some kind of courgette crisp topped with mushroom puree. He said it tasted sort of like pizza.

 

I have to say that I enjoyed this exhibition much more than I thought I would, given the emphasis on the future of food (when I’d usually prefer to learn about the past). I learned a lot, and it is definitely interesting, though not always appetising, to think about what food might become in the future. If I had one complaint, it’s that this exhibition featured an awful lot of products, most of which were conveniently for sale in the shop, which gave it rather a corporate feel (and because most of the products were pretty cool, I ended up buying more than I usually would at a museum shop. I’m a sucker for Tarot cards, and they had a food-themed pack you can use when you can’t decide what to have for dinner), which didn’t seem to match with the ethos of the rest of the exhibition. However, this is a fairly minor quibble, and I think it is very much worth seeing if you can get in for half-price (£17 is a bit steep), since it’s always good to know more about where your food comes from. 3.5/5, and I’ll leave you with a collage Marcus put together of the gorgeous wallpaper (if I ignore the butterflies) commissioned specially for the exhibition, and found throughout the gallery walls.

 

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Butler County, OH: The Donut Trail

This is a bit of a departure from my normal posts, but I’ve kept mentioning the Donut Trail, and I realise some of you are probably curious about it, so here we are. There is clearly some kind of PR genius working at the Butler County Visitors Bureau, because the Donut Trail is a brilliant way of attracting tourism to an otherwise unremarkable part of Ohio. I had never even heard of Butler County before the advent of the Donut Trail, and I certainly wouldn’t have thought of planning a trip to Southern Ohio before it – I took a trip to Wapakoneta as a teenager, which I suppose is actually central Ohio (I tend to think of everything south of Akron as “Southern Ohio,” at least culturally), but nonetheless, that experience was enough of a taster for me (this will make me sound like a snob, but I had driven down there with my jerk ex-boyfriend to see his friend’s punk band play a show, which turned out to be at a 4H Club. We accidentally went to the wrong place when we first got there, and walked into a room full of hunters gutting a deer, who didn’t take particularly kindly to two weird looking kids. Even after we hightailed it out of there and made it to the correct 4H Club, it was…interesting. I’m sure those kids were perfectly nice, but man, were they ever hicks). But once I heard about the Donut Trail, I was willing to brave just about anything to get my hands on all those doughnuts, not to mention the t-shirt.

   

Basically, someone noticed that there was an unusually high concentration of independent doughnut shops in Butler County, Ohio, which is just north of Cincinnati. Therefore, they had the clever idea to devise a trail incorporating 12 of them, with an accompanying passport. Visit all the shops, get your passport stamped at each one, and you get a free t-shirt, which you have to go to the Visitors Bureau to collect. As I’ve said, this is brilliant, because it not only attracts tourists, but it gets them to spend money at local businesses, all for the price of a t-shirt, which I’m sure they get cheaply printed in bulk.

  

Now, I love doughnuts, but I am a realist, and I know there was no way in hell I could eat a dozen doughnuts in a day and remain in any kind of functional state. Therefore, we decided to spread the trail over 3 days. This was also useful because a lot of these establishments open at 4 in the morning, and are closed by noon, if not sooner, so unless you want a much earlier start than I find acceptable, there is no easy way to hit them all in a day, given that the trail is about 80 miles long. We also had to first drive the four hours to Butler County from Northeast Ohio (where my parents live) before we could begin, so unless we left around midnight, we couldn’t have made it there early enough anyway. One of the doughnut shops is optional because it is much farther away than the others, so we decided early on that we were going to have to skip it to make the trail work, which I guess is not ideal, but it was a fully sanctioned cheat, so we took it.

   

Our first stop was the Central Pastry Shop in Middletown, and I started in the stupidest possible way – by ordering a giant cake doughnut. I love cake doughnuts the most, and this one came highly recommended by the woman working there (almost everyone we encountered on this trail was super friendly, and once they saw we were doing the trail, were very keen to point out all their specialties), but as I learned (actually, this was something I already knew going in, I just chose to ignore it at first), if you’re eating doughnuts in bulk, raised doughnuts are the way to go. The doughnut I chose was called an ugly, because of its crusty, irregular surface, and though it was delicious, it was very very fried.

   

By the time I’d eaten it, I kind of never wanted a doughnut again, which was unfortunate because we’d arrived at stop number 2: Milton’s Donuts. Here I just opted for a simple glazed (to the disappointment of the man working there, who really wanted us to get some kind of cream cheese concoction. I didn’t mention that I hate cream cheese with a passion, even if I had been in the mood for something rich, which I definitely wasn’t), and even though Holtman’s, our next stop, had an impressive variety (shown at start of post), I just went for a basic chocolate iced, along with an orange juice in an attempt to cut the grease. We tried to visit Stan the Donut Man on the way, which was already shut despite it supposedly being open until 5, and though I didn’t think much of it at the time, this would prove a bad omen.

   

Having already eaten two more doughnuts than I wanted to, we called it quits for the day, and headed into Cincinnati for Taft’s House, then checked into our hotel, and paid a visit to the excellent Rhinegeist Brewery (we specifically stayed downtown so we could walk there and both drink some beers for once. One of the annoying things about America is that they have like a million breweries, but no public transport outside major cities, which normally means that because I can’t drive, Marcus doesn’t get to drink, unless we go somewhere with my parents and they drive. And I don’t even like drinking very much, but I feel obligated to do it to at least justify not driving). The next morning, we got up bright and early and headed straight back to Butler County to Ross Bakery, which had a really nice man working there who was keen to hear all about London. I got off to a much smarter start by ordering a glazed twist, though I think the doughnuts might have still been with me from the day before, because I almost immediately started to get a stomachache. Things started to blur together at this point, but I know we visited Mimi’s, because I told myself I was only going to have a bite of their sprinkle doughnut and save the rest for later, but it was so damn delicious I ate the whole thing. We also went to Martin’s and the Donut Spot, and I was spending the time in between doughnuts slumped over in the car seat, clutching my gut with one of the worst stomachaches I’ve ever had. This was not a particularly fun day (you can actually see how much my enthusiasm plummeted between Ross Bakery and the Donut Spot).

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Fortunately, things eventually settled enough that I was able to grab a picture with the Alexander Hamilton statue in Hamilton, visit the Harrison Memorial outside Cincinnati, venture into Kentucky so Marcus could take a picture in front of the awful Creation Museum (we definitely did not go in, and it was kind of creepy even being near it), and even eat one of the best pizzas I’ve ever had from Taft’s Brewporium, which also has an excellent logo, based on the story of Taft and the bathtub (shame their beer was just OK, but I would go back for the pizza in a heartbeat), followed by soft serve from Putz’s Creamy Whip. We even made it to Jungle Jim’s later that night (the largest grocery store in the world, which I have wanted to visit for years, though sadly it was disappointing. It was big, it was just not as nice as I’d been led to believe, feeling more like a bargain store than anything), where we developed a problem with the brakes in our car (borrowed from my parents).

   

Because of this, Marcus was understandably a bit anxious about driving it the next day (I should point out the brakes still worked, they just made a terrible grinding noise every time we stopped suddenly. I can be a bit reckless, but I’m not suicidal), but we’d come so far that I wasn’t ready to give up on the Donut Trail. So we successfully visited Jupiter Donuts, Kelly’s Bakery, and the Donut House, just leaving old Stan the Donut Man. As it was only 9 in the morning, we weren’t really worried about them being closed, because who closes at 9, when you’re supposed to be open until 5?! Stan’s, that’s who. By the time we got there, there was a sign on the door reading, “Sorry, Out of Doughnuts!” At 9 in the morning. On a weekday. I mean, that’s a hell of a business model – making only enough doughnuts so you sell out eight hours before you’re supposed to (we were aware that a lot of these places closed as soon as they sold out, we just didn’t think anyone could possibly sell out that early). Needless to say, I was pretty damn pissed off, and spent a fair amount of time in the parking lot bemoaning my fate, and life in general, when I noticed a man going into Stan’s. Curious, I followed suit, and though they were indeed out of doughnuts, there was a woman working there who was more than happy to stamp our passports, so I could claim my damn free t-shirt. So while we did technically complete the Donut Trail, I felt a bit unfulfilled, having not actually eaten the final doughnut. Still claimed the hell out of my t-shirt though (there are more doughnuts printed on the back).

   

We had wanted to spend the rest of the day in Columbus, but because of the car issues, we paid a quick stop to Brewdog in Canal Winchester (since it was on the way anyway and we needed to stretch our legs), which now has a beer museum (which was OK, not really worth blogging about though) and headed straight back to my parents’ house. Although the Donut Trail didn’t turn out quite as I was hoping, I am still glad we did it (and honestly, I would probably do it again if I could space it out more. Writing this post has really made me want a doughnut!). All of the doughnuts we tried were good, and some were exceptional, though I would have loved to be able to complete it in a more leisurely way so I could have tried more of their specialties rather than limiting myself mainly to plain glazed so my stomach didn’t explode (I did allow myself one cake doughnut a day, so there was some variety, just not as much as I would have normally gone for). If you live in Ohio, I’d recommend doing it in a series of smaller trips rather than all at once. From talking to the people at the doughnut shops though, we certainly weren’t the only people who had travelled to do it (they mentioned people from all over the US, and a few other Europeans), and some people actually did complete it in a day, so I guess it is doable, though probably not particularly enjoyable. Now someone needs to come up with an ice cream or pizza trail, so I have something to do on my next trip to the States! And I think someone at the Butler County Visitors Bureau definitely deserves a raise!

Bonus incredibly unflattering action shot of me eating a doughnut.

Marseille to Lyon: Et Tout le Reste

Are here on Gilligan’s Isle! (I know I’ve made that joke before, but I couldn’t resist doing it again. Damn catchy theme songs.)  As you might have guessed, this post is not about Gilligan’s Island (though it could be, since I have a soft spot for ’50s and ’60s sitcoms. I’ve actually been on a real I Dream of Jeannie kick lately, which is pretty good if you ignore all the glaring misogyny), but is the usual sort of mop-up post I do at the end of a trip if I have enough places to write about that didn’t really fit in with my other posts.

   

The first of these is Chauvet Cave, or more accurately, the exact replica of the cave they’ve created 20 km away, called Caverne du Pont D’Arc. You can’t visit the actual cave due to its fragility, unless you’re a researcher, but the original is home to some of the earliest known cave drawings, which are around 30,000-32,000 years old but were only re-discovered in 1994, as a rock slide had sealed the cave off around 21,000 years ago. The replica would normally merit a post of its own, but for the fact that you can’t take photos in the cave (even though it’s a replica), so I don’t have much to show you. As soon as we worked out when we were going to be in the area, I booked tickets online, because they only do a handful of English language tours a day, and they often sell out in advance. These were €15 each. We ended up getting there about an hour before our tour, so we went to look around their museum first, mainly because I wanted to see derpy cave lion, who is featured prominently on their website. He was every bit as derpy as I was hoping, and there were some other derpy prehistoric animals as well, in addition to a short video presentation about the paleolithic people who did the drawings, and some basic information about the caves.
  
We finished with the museum in only about twenty minutes, so we just walked down to the cave to wait for our tour to start, along with loads of other Anglophone people. A French lady (who spoke English, obviously) gave the tour, and we were each given a pair of headphones so we could hear what she was saying, which was smart because a new group entered the cave every five minutes (there are tours in French pretty much every five minutes, but the English ones only appear to be once every two hours, which is why you should pre-book), so we would have been standing close enough to the other groups to make it difficult to hear our guide without them. Some guy tried to take a picture early on, despite everyone being told multiple times that it wasn’t allowed, and our guide politely but firmly shut him down, which I loved (and I was glad the darkness hid my smirk). The caves are pretty amazing, even in replica form (actually, especially in replica form, because I think it’s awesome that they were able to re-create the exact feel of a cave, right down to the much-appreciated cool temperature), and though the horse panel is the most famous, my favourite was actually the cave lion panel, because derpy cave lions! There are also a number of hand print drawings, some drawings of cave rhinos, cave bears, and deer; and a lot of cave bear skulls and bones (you can view photos of all the panels here). I’ve never been much for prehistory, but even I have to admit that cave drawings this old are really interesting and well worth checking out, though I was disappointed that the only thing in the shop featuring the cave lion was a notebook.
  
Later that day, en route to Lyon, we decided to make a pit stop at the Arnaud Soubeyran Nougat Shop and Museum, because why would I not want to chance to sample some nougat? There actually weren’t any free samples left when we arrived, but that didn’t stop me from buying quite a lot there, even at a steep €4 per hundred grams. We popped in to the small museum , which was free, and even though it was all in French, I thought it was adorable, especially the replica beehives with very characterful bees. I especially appreciated the free impeccably clean toilet (with a seat!). The nougat noir, which was really more of a brittle, was one of the most delicious candies I have ever eaten, and I highly recommend it (and I think you do get what you pay for, because their nougat was pretty much solid almonds, and when we looked at cheaper brands, you were lucky to get like ten almonds in the whole bar). We also stopped at Valrhona’s City of Chocolate, and though we didn’t visit the expensive museum of chocolate, we did stop in the shop, which had a ridiculous amount of free samples. I ate myself sick in about five minutes of arriving.
  
Since it seems to be the thing to do in France, we also visited some churches, including the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourviere, which was on a massive hill in Lyon that we had to take a funicular to access. Here’s a tip: there is a huge queue for the basilica funicular, but none at all for the amphitheatre one. If you take the amphitheatre one, you can easily walk to the basilica from there if you don’t mind walking up about fifty steps (I did mind, because it was a million degrees, but it was still better than queuing for like an hour). The amphitheatre was extremely meh, especially because parts of it were covered in scaffolding in preparation for a music festival that takes place there (and the museum was closed), but the church was fine, if you like that sort of thing. It had some impressive lions out front, and the walk down took us near the Musees Gadagne, so it wasn’t much of a detour from our day or anything.
  
On a more serious note, we also visited somewhere that was quite meaningful to me – not on account of being a church, but because my grandpa was there. As you might know, if you’ve read my other blog (which I was no longer actively posting on, but I will try to update it soon because on my recent trip home, I discovered a bunch of photos I’d never seen before (including some amazing photos of my grandma when she was a young adult) and a journal giving a day-by-day breakdown of where my grandpa was during the war. You know, the kind of stuff that would have been immensely useful when I was initially doing that blog), my grandpa served in WWII, and was stationed in Europe from late 1944-46. In addition to the letters he wrote to my grandma, I also have some of the pictures he sent her, and one of them was taken in Marseille, which I only knew because my grandpa wrote it on the back. Unfortunately, he didn’t write exactly where he was, so it took a bit of sleuthing based on the stuff in the background, but I eventually determined he was in front of the funicular at Notre Dame de la Garde, which overlooks the city. Ever since I found this photo a few years after my grandpa died, I’ve wanted to try to re-create it if I ever went to Marseille, and this was finally my chance (I have since found multiple photos of him in other locations in Marseille, but of course I only found them about a month after visiting Marseille).
  
The basilica has been here since the 1870s in its current form (though a church has been on this spot since the 13th century), and was actually bombed in 1944 during the battle to liberate Marseille (you can still view the scarred wall), though survived largely intact. This would have happened before my grandpa’s visit anyway, as he must have been either in late 1945 or early 1946, well after liberation. Sadly, the funicular (which looked amazing) was torn down in the 1960s (you can now either walk up (seriously a gajillion steps), take the cute little motorised “train” that rides up here, or just drive up and park at the top, which is lazily what we did), and all the walls looked different than the one my grandpa was sitting on, so it was really really hard to find the spot where he was, not to mention that the background looked completely different, because there was no funicular, and there was the addition of a lot of really tall trees that don’t seem to have been here in the 1940s. So I just had to try to take a photo in lots of different spots and hope one of them would match up. Eventually we found an information desk staffed by a nun, and though she didn’t speak much English, I showed her the original photo, and she was able to direct me to a spot near the large cross in one of the lower levels of steps near the church. I think the exact spot is now a car park, but I got as close as I could! It was just nice to be somewhere my grandpa had been when he was around my age (I kind of wish I’d brought his army jacket and put it on for the pictures, but that seemed a bit militaristic), and of course I went in the church and lit candles for him and my grandma (I’m not at all religious, but they were, and I reckon it can’t hurt!).
  
Finally, I feel I should talk about the elusive chichis fregis, or “fried willies.” Obviously, with a name like that, I had to try them, but as I mentioned in the Van Gogh post, there’s one particular village called L’Estaque about 10 km out of Marseille that specialises in them, with three stands opposite a little shopping street, and when we passed through, all of them were closed. Not to be deterred, I decided we needed to swing by on our way back to Marseille (we flew in and out of Marseille, so had to return anyway), and fortunately, this time they were open, though after a day of eating pastries, and knowing I had a flight ahead of me, I wasn’t inclined to eat as much as I would have done the first time we drove through. This was a shame, because the chichis fregis, though very greasy, were delicious, and the panisses were even better. The chichis fregis are like doughnuts flavoured with orange blossom water and coated in sugar, but with a very custardy interior and crisp exterior, and the panisses are made of chickpea flour, which is cooked with water to a polenta-like consistency, left to cool, and then cut into shapes and fried, which makes them more like savoury little fritters. Very good, and worth the trip, but I wish they had opening hours listed somewhere – at least on the actual stalls – so we could have avoided the disappointment the first time around! I also find it weird I didn’t at least find panisse somewhere else, since I thought it was a general south of France thing, but nope, I only spotted it in this village. Maybe I just didn’t go to the right places.
  
After this trip, France is still not on my list of favourite countries (I know this is probably not a common sentiment, but I much prefer Belgium to the bits of France I’ve seen. Admittedly, there’s still a lot of France I haven’t been to, and maybe those parts are better), but it’s warmed my opinion enough that I don’t think I’ll avoid it for eleven years again (I’m probably gonna need more panisses and chichis fregis at some point). I think I just need to time any future visits better so they’re not over a Sunday or in the height of summer!

The Dorset Knob Throwing Festival!

I do love a bizarre local festival (see Kattenstoet), and the Dorset Knob Throwing Festival certainly falls under that category. I first became aware of it a few years ago, via a cooking show, I think (can’t remember which one), and this year, the stars aligned and I was able to attend (OK, Marcus and I were planning on going somewhere in England on the early May bank holiday weekend anyway, and we were thinking of Leicester (to see some Daniel Lambert sites), until I thought, “wait, when’s the Dorset Knob Festival?” Turns out it is also on the early May bank holiday weekend. Decision made).

I’ve been to enough, shall we say, provincial festivals and fetes in England to know roughly what to expect, so I wasn’t setting my hopes too high, but I was still expecting an amusing day out based solely on the obvious sense of humour possessed by the festival organisers. But first things first, what, you may ask, is a Dorset knob, and why is there a festival based around throwing them?

In the words of Dorset Phil, who performed at the Knob Festival, and described them more eloquently than I can: “Knob knob knob, Dorset knob, I likes mine with cheese. Hard as wood, tastes real good, but it goes soft when I dunk it in my tea.” (I recommend watching the whole video; the verses are pretty great too, and it is damn catchy.) Basically, they are small, hard, dry, extremely bland (I don’t agree with the “tastes real good” line) biscuity things that used to be generally available in the area, but are now produced by only one baking company, and only seasonally.  They’re made out of triple-baked bread dough, so it’s sort of like what would happen if you left a small roll somewhere for a good month or so to dry out. And yes, people eat them with cheese, typically a local blue cheese, which is how they were serving them at the festival (I did not have one there, because I hate blue cheese), but you can also dunk them in tea, which is how the competitors eat them in the knob eating contest. As for why they throw them…well, I genuinely can’t find an answer to that, but perhaps it’s related to similar traditions elsewhere in England of throwing hot cross buns. Ten years ago, someone seemed to realise that Dorset knobs had a hilarious name, started an innuendo-laden festival in their honour, and it’s grown from there, even having to move to a new location this year to accommodate the crowds.

  

Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t due to cooperate on the day of the festival, as it was supposed to rain all day, only getting worse as the day progressed. So I threw on wellies and my raincoat, and we showed up right when the festival opened, before the rain got really bad. This turned out to be a smart move, as we were able to park relatively close to the field where the festival was taking place, and it wasn’t super crowded.

  

Admission was a fiver, and I was initially a little dismayed when I saw the venue…though I had been expecting crap, I was hoping I’d be wrong, but it just looked like a very standard English outdoor festival – some stalls by local food producers, and then some random generic crap for sale, like those wooden bowls and leatherware that seem to pop up at every market. However, once we got inside and saw all the knob-themed things, I started to perk up, because it was funny, and also rather delightful.

  

In addition to the knob throwing (of which more in a second, but I think they really missed a trick by not calling it “knob tossing”), there were SO MANY OTHER knob-themed games, including putt-the-knob, knob and spoon race, splat-the-knob, guess the weight of the big knob, knob-spotting, etc etc. I was also thrilled to see that they had t-shirts, tote bags, and bumper stickers for sale, because one of my main aims in visiting was to score myself a knob t-shirt (mission accomplished, though maybe they should consider having black t-shirts in women’s sizes. I’m not a huge fan of pink, and they were already sold out of men’s smalls in black). But of course we started with the knob throwing. You got three tries for a pound and you had to throw underarm, and it is not as easy as it looks. They’re light, and they don’t go very far (I think a hot cross bun would be a hell of a lot easier to throw). I definitely did not take home the glorious bronze knob for my attempts.

As you can see, I also pinned the knob on the Cerne giant. Although I did indeed get it in the right place, anatomically (the blindfold wasn’t very effective), you actually had to land in the correct, pre-chosen secret square, which could have been anywhere on the board, to win the prize. We also attempted to guess the number of knobs in a jar, albeit unsuccessfully. Once we’d had enough of knob games, we wandered around a bit and dropped far too much money on food, including some surprisingly excellent brownies, local honey fudge, a three pack of beer from Cerne Abbas Brewery (which honestly, we bought mainly for the bottles with their Cerne giant label), and of course, an ice cream (though I pretty much just ate sweets, I was pleasantly surprised by how many savoury veggie options there were, including a vendor selling steamed puddings filled with dal that looked intriguing, but the food tent was hellishly crowded on account of the rain, and I wasn’t up for braving it again after I’d passed her stall), and then stood around listening to the musical stylings of the aforementioned Dorset Phil (who writes songs about drinking, and Dorset, and sometimes both, as in the case of his Badger Ale song), who I actually really enjoyed (but then I quite like the Wurzels, and he had a similar sort of amusing regional accent vibe).

Other than “awwwing” at all the cute puppies people had with them, there wasn’t really much else to do, and the rain was coming down harder, so we called it a day. Honestly, considering the size of the festival, I was amazed we spent almost two hours there, and that I enjoyed myself as much as I did. It was indeed, as the sign at the entrance promised, a “knobtastic day.” Kudos to the organisers for having a great sense of humour, and to everyone working there for being really friendly. It kind of reminded me of the funfair in that episode of Father Ted when Ted is trying to get interviewed by that TV show (minus the shitty rides), but it was self-consciously so – they’re definitely in on the joke!  The whole thing was really quite charming, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I would go back again, especially if I lived closer!  3.5/5.

Chiang Mai, Thailand: Thai Farm Cooking School

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I’m actually not a huge fan of Thai food, or Asian food in general, mainly because my diet is mostly based around bread, cheese, and pasta, and I don’t really like rice.  However, I love cooking, so I was happy to go along to a Thai cooking class on a farm outside of Chiang Mai.  The course cost 1100 baht per person, which is around 22 pounds, but included all the food, and transport to and from our hotel, so was really pretty reasonable.  The “Thai Farm” provided transport out to the farm in the form of a pick up truck with covered benches installed in the back (it was hot back there!); after everyone had been picked up, we were instructed to choose the dishes we wanted to cook – we had a choice of three different dishes for each of the five courses, all of which had a vegetarian/vegan option available.  Once our selections had been made, we proceeded to a market to pick up some of the ingredients for the recipes; all the produce would come from their organic farm.

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We were given a brief tour around the market, and received an explanation of some of the ingredients, and then given a little time to wander.  The market shared the interesting smells of the West Side Market, but because it was in an open sided building, there were a lot more bugs (also the meat section was kind of scary, not in terms of the animals they were selling, but sanitation wise)!  Some of the fruit looked amazing, and there was a stand selling crepes filled with your choice of sweets that seemed awfully tempting, but I figured we’d be eating enough throughout the day, so didn’t buy anything.

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We then headed to the farm, about an half an hour drive from the market down a long, winding dirt road; upon arrival, we were greeted with cold drinking water (much appreciated) and Thai hats and aprons to wear during our cooking session.  Our instructor then gave us a very lengthy tour of the farm, encouraging us to smell and taste many of the herbs and vegetables we’d be using; though he was very engaging, the tour lasted for an hour, and it was probably the hottest day of our trip, so even with the hat and loads of slathered-on sunscreen for protection, I was pretty desperate to get back in the shade.  Alas, the cooking session took place in a kind of hut, with gas stoves that got very hot, but no air conditioning, not even a fan, so even in the shade, things weren’t much better.

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However, once we started cooking, I could for the most part ignore my discomfort, as I was interested in learning some new recipes and techniques.  There were ten cooking stations, one for each of us in the class, with our instructor in the middle of the room so we could observe what he was doing.  We began by learning to make curry paste from scratch, either green, yellow, or red, our choice.  I had opted for red, which gets its colour from long red chillies, which are nowhere near as hot as the small ones, and includes a crapload of other exotic ingredients, like kaffir lime and Thai ginseng.  I really enjoyed using the massive mortar and pestle to grind it up; these were super heavy-duty ones, and it was great fun to bash out my frustrations on the paste.  That done, we learned how to make our choice of soup, which we then took outside to eat for the first course.  I am a total spice wuss (my favourite comfort food is homemade spaetzle sauteed in a bit of butter and lots of salt, so yeah, I tend to go for bland, yet salty foods), so I only put one chili in my Tom Yum, even though the instructor said to use two for mild.  Word of warning for wusses like me: it was so damn spicy, avoid the little peppers!  I think I might have just got a freak chili, because my boyfriend had put four in his, and said his soup was nowhere near as spicy as mine, but I seriously couldn’t even eat it without having an embarrassing coughing fit.  I didn’t put the little chillies in anything after that.  Lesson learned.

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We returned to the kitchen after soup o’clock to prepare the main dishes, including finishing the curry with the curry paste we made in the morning.  I was super excited to get to put tofu in my curry AND my stirfry, because I’d been counting on eating a lot of it on the trip, as it’s one of the few Asian foods I do really like, but had only seen it in vegetarian restaurants thus far (which I was really surprised about because Thai restaurants in the US and UK always have it on their menus, so I expected the same in Thailand, but it’s not as prevalent there as I’d been led to believe).  I was also pumped to use a beat-up, yet well-seasoned wok and shovel stirring thing, because I use a nonstick wok at home with a wooden spoon, which does the trick, but isn’t terribly authentic.  The flame kept burning my hand though, so I couldn’t keep the heat up quite as high as the instructor wanted me to.  So yeah, we cooked our curry and a tofu (or meat) stirfry with holy basil, and then sat down for the main part of the feast, accompanied by plain steamed rice, sticky rice, and papaya salad (which was again too spicy for my stupid weiner mouth, even though the instructor said he’d used light spicing).  Another word of advice; I took a bunch of regular rice because I didn’t know there’d be sticky rice, and I wanted to make sure I’d be full in case I didn’t like my curry (which was not a problem, since the curry rocked, and yes, I dislike rice, but at least it’s reliably edible), but sticky rice is like a gazillion times better, and then I was stuck eating a bunch of crappy regular rice, so don’t make my mistake.

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After lunch, we were given a little time to wander the grounds, and digest.  There was a nice little pond in the middle of the huts (there were four of them, and they all had a cooking class going on at the same time as ours), and a sleepy cat.  I was pleasantly surprised to see that even though the toilets were in another hut, they were clean and normal (non-squat) toilets, since after Phuket, I was kind of suspicious of any that weren’t in a city or hotel.  We were so full after lunch that I think we all felt a little sick at the thought of doing more cooking and eating, but our instructor assured us we could take the rest of the food to go if we wanted, so we all consented to cook the last two courses.

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These consisted of a noodle dish of our choice (pad thai, pad see ew, or spring rolls) made with fresh noodles from the market.  I went with pad see ew because it’s one of the few Thai dishes I really enjoy, because the noodles are so big and tasty, and it doesn’t have chili!  After cooking that and putting it in takeaway bags, we made pudding, which was either mango with sticky rice or bananas in coconut milk.  That was a tough call for me because I don’t like mango or cooked banana (unless it’s mushed up in something like banana bread where I don’t have to experience the texture), but I went with the sticky rice in the end because I figured I could at least eat the rice part.  We flavoured the rice with coconut milk and palm sugar, and oh my god, palm sugar is amazing!  It tasted like fudge (as in British sugary fudge, not chocolate) with more complexity, and I took a super huge blob just so I could sneak bites when no one was looking.  The finished dish made me feel extremely ill after I ate it, but that was probably far more to do with gobbling down all the palm sugar than the unpleasantness of the mango (I also don’t normally like pineapple, but Thai pineapple is amazing, so I thought Thai mango would be better too, but nope, still horrible).  Thankfully, our instructor served us delicious lemongrass tea that was meant to help with digestion immediately after.

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Even though I wasn’t crazy about all the food (which was not the fault of the farm, just my own weird palate and dislike of veg), I loved getting to learn how to cook new things, and I managed to survive the extreme heat of the day without air con, I was so engrossed!  I think it’s a fun experience for anyone with an interest in cooking or hell, eating, and Sawat (our instructor, who also appears to be the owner) was really friendly and helpful.  This is not going to turn into a cooking blog (not because I don’t like them; I actually read a tonne of cooking blogs, but because I wouldn’t want to take on all that work of recipe testing myself), but I thought just this one time, I’d include one of the recipes we learnt in class (I think it’s ok because they have them up on their website), for Pad See Ew, both because it’s tasty, and doesn’t have a lot of hard-to-find ingredients.  My own comments are in parentheses.

Stir Fried Big Noodles (Pad See Ew), from the Thai Farm Cooking School Cookbook

Serves 1-2

Ingredients:

200 grams big fresh noodles (about 7 ounces, though you can probably get away with using 8 if it’s easier, see note below)

100 grams sliced tofu (3.5 oz, I’d error on the generous side and throw in more, see note below)

1/3 cup sliced long beans

1/4 cup of sliced carrot

2 cloves of chopped garlic (again, I’d probably use more, but only because I love garlic)

1 egg

1 tsp of fish sauce or soy sauce

1 tsp of dark sweet soy sauce (if you can only find regular dark soy, that’s ok too)

1 1/2 tsp of sugar

1 1/2 tbsp soybean or vegetable oil

1 stem of chopped spring onion

Mix dark sweet soy sauce with big fresh noodles first and set aside.  Heat the oil in the wok.  Fry tofu until golden brown.  Add garlic, long beans, and carrot.  Stir fry until fragrant.  Push the vegetables to the side of the wok and add beaten egg.  Once they begin to set, quickly scramble them and stir through the vegetables.  Add noodles, and season with fish or soy sauce and sugar.  Add spring onion and stir fry thoroughly until well mixed.

Notes: By “big fresh noodles” they mean pad see ew noodles, or, as I usually see them sold, Thai rice sticks. I can never find the fresh in the UK, and have to go to Chinatown to find even the dried kind.  I buy the XL width ones, or the thickest kind I can find.  They usually come in 400 gram packets.  Just rehydrate in freshly boiled water for about five minutes, or whatever the packet says, before using in a stir fry if you’re using the dried kind.  Also if you’re using the dried kind, either only rehydrate 100 grams to end up with 200 grams of cooked noodles, or use the full 200 grams dried, but double or triple all the other ingredients to make sure you have enough – 200 grams of dried noodles that have been cooked is a lotta noodles!

They don’t specify, but when I cook any kind of stir fry with tofu, I use the extra-firm or firm kind (sold packed in water in the refrigerated section, not the shelf-stable silken kind), and press it for at least an hour to improve the texture, by wrapping it in a towel and weighting it down with a heavy pan, flipping halfway through.  I also love to bake it in a marinade first to improve the flavour, usually using the recipe in Vegan Eats World (I’m not vegan by any means, but it’s a great cookbook).  I also use WAY more than 3-4 oz if I’m cooking this as a main course, more like an entire 14 oz packet for two people, but I don’t really put veg in, and I love tofu, so use your own discretion.  I have to confess that my standard Pad See Ew recipe also comes from Vegan Eats World, and I love it (and admittedly prefer it to this version), but this one is probably more authentic, so give it a try.

And this is why I don’t have a recipe blog, because I can’t leave well enough alone and ramble on for three hours about ingredients.  Next week, I’ll be back to my regularly scheduled museums and historic homes, don’t worry!

Cleveland, Ohio: West Side Market

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Merry Christmas Everyone!  I’m going to use the holiday as an excuse to highlight one of my favourite places in the world ( at least, one of my favourite places that is neither a museum nor a library): The West Side Market.  Growing up in Cleveland, no Christmas was complete without at least one visit to the West Side Market to stock up on essentials; from the special farmers’ cheese for pierogies (though I was always partial to potato and cheddar, which I also make every year), the holiday ham or roast (I always gave that one a miss too!), delicious breads, and of course, lots of veg for the side dishes!  My grandma would throw on her Russian style fur hat (which we all laughed at, but she was probably much warmer than the rest of us) and my grandpa donned his adorable flat cap, and off we’d go for an afternoon of leisurely shopping!  Although my grandparents are now sadly deceased, and I no longer live in Ohio, I still come home for Christmas every year, and a trip to Cleveland’s most famous market is always a must.

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The West Side Market just celebrated its centennial last year, and the market building itself dates back that far as well.  I always love spotting its distinctive tower in the distance when driving over the Hope Bridge (which is another piece of architecture I’m very fond of), and as a result of a (small, fortunately) fire this past year, they’ve given the interior an extensive cleaning, so it’s currently less grimy than in the past, though it has managed to retain its distinctive musk (an interesting combination of raw meat, stinky cheese, coffee, and an occasional whiff of something delicious, depending on where you’re standing).  The produce vendors are all in an unheated tent-like structure outside, but the actual market hall is where all the good stuff is at!  (You may notice the much better than normal photos in this post, which are courtesy of my brother and his fancy camera!  Don’t get used to hipstery bokeh or decent picture quality around here though!)

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The interior of the market is a jumble of stalls selling things as varied as Cambodian curries, Chinese meets hipster steamed buns, crepes, gyros, and both traditional and unusually filled pierogies, reflecting the unique ethnic makeup of the city, though the floor space is dominated by the abundance of traditional butchers hawking all manner of beef and pig parts (and lamb, and chicken, etc, etc).  Although I don’t eat meat myself, I’m not especially squeamish about looking at pig and sheep heads, which is probably necessary for surviving the market experience (could definitely do without all the gross meaty smells, but you can always linger by the coffee stall when it gets too much!).

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Of course, though the fun of the market is in exploring all the wonderful things for yourself, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the things I like the most.  The best falafel in the world, as far as I’m concerned (and I’ve eaten LOTS of falafel) can be found at Maha’s Falafil, located in the outer left corner of the market over by the fishmongers.  Get the jumbo, you won’t regret it!  I like the enchiladas verde from Orale (though their prices are kind of steep, in my opinion) for a quick snack, and my brother never leaves without sampling a crepe from Crepes De Luxe.  The sourdough bread from Christopher’s is excellent for French toast, and I can put away a loaf of their asiago bread all too easily just by itself.  As far as sweets go (and you all know I have a real sweet tooth), I love the elaborate chocolate covered pretzel creations from Campbell’s, even though I always feel slightly ill after eating a whole one, and Vera’s bakery does proper old school coconut squares.  There’s loads of other bakeries too, so shop around and get whatever looks best that day; it’s probably all delicious!

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The market is open Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, but mid-day Wednesday or Friday are usually the best times to shop, as all the vendors are open, but it’s not super crowded.  If you ever find yourself in Cleveland, please try to come experience it; most Clevelanders are extremely proud of it (and rightly so), and I don’t think anyone will leave disappointed! I hope everyone is having a marvellous Christmas, and I’ll be back with another Ohio post next week!