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Archive for July, 2013

Hens just wanna have fun

Nick Harman visits a Happy Egg Co farm to see if the hens are really smiling. Al Stuart takes pictures of birds.

There are just a few chickens to be seen in the area outside the hut at the Happy Eggs Co Bulbourne Farm in Tring, Hertfordshire. The farmer Jean-Paul (JP) Michalski reckons it’s because it’s too hot for them to come out, but it might just be because they’re camera shy.

They’ve had a lot of visiting journalists recently. Happy Eggs Co, owned and monitored by Noble Foods, are keen to show just how contented their chickens are and have been issuing invites to the press left, right and centre. So the 14,000 strong chook flock, housed in huts spaced across the 120 acre farm could be excused for having a ‘want to be alone’ moment.

Now of course serious food journalists would spurn such invitations, preferring to drop in totally unannounced or come over the wire at night dressed as anarchists. Well the first option wasn’t really practical for us and the second we dismissed because neither I nor the photographer wanted to get our noses pierced.

So there is the suspicion that, rather like a care home for the elderly warned of an imminent inspection, the managers have sent the moaners and troublemakers off for the day and shoved all the dead bodies into a locked room out of sight.

That’s cynical though. On this brilliant sunny day, the chickens we see do indeed seem very happy, although chickens tend to have a rather malignant expression at the best of times. Those that have braved the 30 degree plus heat outside are making contented ‘book book’ noises and drumming on the toes of our boots with their beaks like Gene Krupa after too much coffee.

‘All these young trees will soon grow to provide lots of lovely shade for them,’ says JP talking about the wild pear and other fruit trees planted in profusion about the shed area. The hen sheds, which resemble something out of Tenko, are themselves large and airy and are regularly dragged, literally, to new locations to give the hens pastures new to peck about in.

Novelty is important to chickens apparently, they are inquisitive creatures JP says, and this explains why structures normally seen in a kids’ playground are dotted about the hens’ large open areas. Chickens it seems, are girls who just wanna have fun.

Each morning the sides of the sheds are flung open and, when it isn’t so very hot, a tsunami of feathers floods out as the hens eagerly get outside to begin their day pecking at the ground, dust bathing and playing with the toys. Research has shown that bored, unhappy hens don’t just have a lower quality of life, they also lay less good eggs too.

In the sheds the smell is, well actually there is very little smell at all thanks to a grating that lets the droppings naturally fall away from the hens’ laying and sleeping areas. The hens are free to come and go as they please all day long and the hut design means that fresh air constantly passes in and up to exit through the top vents so making it pleasantly cool and breezy despite the sun beating on the roof.

The eggs the hens lay here in the semi shade roll gently to the back of the laying area where a small conveyor belt trundles them outside to be placed in boxes. It’s all very calm and the chickens are as docile as family pets; cheerfully nibbling at feed and taking water from the constant supply fed to their small beak-activated drippers.

JP picks up random chickens and strokes them, which they seem to enjoy, and he explains that he can tell the health of the hens from such inspections.  Hens apparently peck at each other when stressed so the feathers look bad and they would not be amenable to being picked up if they weren’t happy.

Of course the elephant in the hen house is what happens when the hens’ laying days are over? Well as you’ve probably guessed they are not given a lethal injection and full military honours burial in a plot overlooking the setting sun, but sold for meat to the far east.

The average life expectancy of a laying hen is fourteen months, when in fact they could live for over fourteen years, but old chickens do not lay satisfactory eggs for the supermarket buyers. JP does try and find the hens a life after lay, but with so many chickens becoming redundant all the time, only a small percentage can ever be rehomed.

Rather sad but the art of farming is one mixing pragmatism with decency. Happy Egg Co farms, as far as we could tell and were shown, are doing everything they can to ensure their hens are properly and ethically treated and the result is better eggs for everyone.

So pay the extra pence for Happy Eggs Co eggs when you’re next out shopping and see if you can taste the difference. Maybe you’ll end up happier too.

This article first appeared on Foodepedia

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Streatham Festival Family Day

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Streatham Festival Family Day, a set on Flickr.

Categories: Uncategorized

Lounge Lover, Shoreditch

Art love

Lounge Lover is not a restaurant, the restaurant, Les Trois Garcons, is next door. This means that you’d best not turn up hungry because, frankly, you’re going to leave hungry too and quite possibly succumb to the lure of the chippy on the way home.

But of course you can tell this by looking at the menu; the food occupies two pages and the cocktail list about fourteen so you don’t have to be a genius to see where the focus lies. This place is a lounge, that non-U word for a sitting room, and here the idea is to relax on the gloriously mismatched but oh so desirable furniture and take on board a few drinks.

While doing this you can marvel at the decoration, everything from old French grandfather clocks to a rhino’s head stuffed and mounted and shot in mid roar – what do Rhinos need those enormous teeth for? Aren’t they vegetarians?

In general Lounge Lover looks like the interior of Mark Anthony “Baz” Luhrmann’s mind, a riot of camp, colour and devil may care eccentricity with small private rooms tucked exotically away off the main drag. As my pal A says, and he’s been around, ‘notice how everything is portable? If this place ever went under about the only thing they’d have to leave for the receivers is the paint on the walls.

That’s unlikely to happen, the three chaps who own this, the restaurant, the coffee shop nearby and a chateau hotel in France, know what they’re doing. They set up Les Trois Garcons and Lounge Lover back when this area was a bit dodgy; now the locals are generally richer than the customers. But there is much more competition too, in what was a bit of a food and drink wasteland you can find any number of cool hangouts for the new media types.

Lounge Lover still impresses though, a place to slide into at night for some drinks and nibbles and the nibbles are what we are here for. Even so we order cocktails – after ten minutes hopeless gazing I end up just picking at random, perhaps subliminally influenced by its name ‘A bit on the side’. Why can’t they just number cocktails? I remember the shame of ordering a ‘Slow comfortable screw up against the wall’ back in the 80s and it doesn’t get any better as you get older.

So to the food, the nibble menu’s divided up into raw, cured, fried and sweet and so we take a punt on Codfish ceviche with Swedish marinade, seeing as how ceviche is still fashionable and I like it anyway. It comes on crispy endive leaves and is as good as ceviche gets. The Swedish marinade is a bit of a mystery, what would Swedes use? Crispbreads? But overall we find they slip down fast and easy.

A trio of burgers appear next. Now I’m no fan of burgers, not when so many are bigger than your head and a sloppy mess, but mini ones I can get along with. Duck and cucumber archad, Venison & lingonberry

Madonna sat here, apparently

Aged rump and foie gras are the act here served in mini brioche buns. Again brioche buns are usually very horrid things to serve a full sized burger in, but here their sweetness balances the meats well. It’s not safe to say too much about foie gras, there are a lot of people out there who are simply gagging to stuff up anyone who dares say they like it, but it was good. Best burger is the venison, the berry being classic accompaniment. I have no idea what archad is, sorry.

Sweet potato fries come with a bi curious dip of crème fraiche and chilli sauce, these fries are really rather good and a welcome change from potato chips whether thrice fried or not, while a bowl of battered squid with cumin, red chilli and fresh lime zap is a bit odd as the squid isn’t battered at all. However it is well cooked otherwise, as soft as a politician’s handshake as pliant as one of their policies. The zap lives up to its name and makes me cough. We order more cocktails, try to look sophisticated and order Shoashin braised pork belly with

Nordic apple plunge. The plunge is a kind of applesauce, but full marks for its name, which sounds far more exciting. The belly is taut as a six-pack, the collagens well broken down. It has enough chewiness to make it interesting to chew and applesauce and pork is a no brainer success.

It’s getting a bit dark and LL’ s real clientele are showing up, party people; you can tell the place comes into its own as the night gets old. But we are actually old so we order fresh hot donuts with three dipping sugars dill, cardamom and cinnamon and prepare to leave. The donuts are squidgy and small, which suits us fine, and the cardamom makes an unusual contrast to the sugary sweetness, almost rendering the doughnuts savoury.

We are still a bit peckish but make it home without kebabbing it. Lounge Lover is not a restaurant but the food isn’t bar food either, it’s a place for classy supper post fun and it’s certainly somewhere different and pleasant to put your feet up for a while.

The Sage Tea Maker designed by Heston Blumenthal

Don’t call it a kettle

You’d think that a thing like a kettle would be beyond improvement; it boils water and that’s all it does and all it needs to do. Of course you can make a kettle look more stylish, and there are some fancy examples out there, but the invention of the cordless kettle was probably the last innovation to come along since the first kettles that turned themselves off.

Actually in our household when I was growing up the self-cancelling kettle was a thing of wonder, we’d switch it on just to see if it really would turn itself off and, when it did, turn and soundlessly gape at each other in wonder. You have to remember of course there were only three TV channels back then so kids had to find amusement where they could.

So kettles can’t be improved? Well yes they can, stick Heston Blumenthal in front of one and he’s immediately thinking ‘what if’ and the result of such thinking is the Sage Tea Maker

The clue is in the name, we saw one demo’d, along with a bunch of other Sage products designed by Heston, a few weeks back, and although all the gadgets were very interesting, the Tea Maker piqued our interest most so we asked for a loaner to review.

The first thing you notice is that it’s heavy. The German glass is quality, as it needs to be with a £199 price tag.  It is of course cordless and the base station has a brushed steel look and is liberally bestowed with LCD display, buttons and lights. You don’t just turn this thing on, you programme it.

There is a simple plan here. Different teas require different brew times and different water temperatures. The Tea Maker sorts the latter out by having a thermostatic switch in the jug. At 100C (for black tea) the switch goes and the water stops boiling. Then comes the bit which will have new generations of small boys enthralled, the stainless steel tea basket filled with loose tea lowers itself into the water as if by magic, but in fact by hidden magnets, and sits there brewing for the pre-set time (strong, medium or weak).

At the end of that time, the basket rises back up again slowly and impressively. Your tea is ready and a ‘ping’ alerts you, that’s if you weren’t already sitting with your nose pressed to the glass breathlessly watching. The machine can be programmed to ‘keep warm’ so that even if you do wander off  and come back a few minutes later the tea will still be hot and can’t be over brewed as the tea leaves are out of the water.

The way we were

The Tea Maker has presets for perfectly brewed green tea, white tea, infusions etc. and can be custom programmed to your own preferences if, that is, you think you know better than Heston.

It also has a ‘boil water only’ pre-set so you can use it as a normal kettle. Perhaps best of all the Sage Tea Maker has a built in clock so you can set the thing up before bedtime and wake up to freshly brewed, non-stewed, piping hot tea. Now that’s progress on the old Teasmade idea.

If we had any criticisms it would be that black tea actually ends up a bit too hot, scalding in fact as it has no chance to cool down, and the stainless steel basket stains pretty much immediately with tannin and needs constant scrubbing to keep it looking nice. Oh and did we mention that the Tea Maker costs £199?

But these are minor gripes to the person that is a true tea fan and has the money to spare to indulge their passion. The Tea Maker’s build quality, as well as its cleverness, justifies the price tag just about and if there’s nothing on the telly you can always have fun making some tea.

Buy it at Lakeland, Amazon or John Lewis