Friday, 27 November 2009

My scrumps

I ran into Old Man Mallet in the apple orchard yesterday. This was a cause for concern as a) my pockets were literally bulging with apples, b) he was carrying a twelve bore shotgun and c) it’s his orchard. As he glided down the footpath towards me I noticed a pair of squirrels hanging lifelessly from his left hand, an observation that did little to settle my unease.

Perhaps I shouldn’t feel guilty. Thousands of apples line the orchard floor; a muggy sweat of rotting fruit thickens the air with dust and vinegar. It’s an alarming amount of waste and a sad indicator of the decline affecting many English orchards; two thirds of which have disappeared in the last three decades.

Scrumping is by definition an act of criminal enterprise, the acquisition of another person’s property without consent. Theft. Robbery. Pilferage. Orchards aside, I’ve had my eye on an old pear tree that sits in the front garden of a house at the end of the road, branches flecked with russety-hued fruit. Surely too many for one household alone, this is becoming increasingly apparent as a mash of squidged fruit drifts up the driveway and across the lawn. Zero chance of confiscating a few pears off the tree though - not without stilts anyway.

This is the essence of conscientious scrumping - “a few”. Two years ago my parents experienced a sorry episode in which the plum tree on the farm was completely stripped of fruit overnight. Less scrumped, more harvested. As part of the bigger picture it’s not that important (at least it wasn’t a van load of tools), but when you’ve spent the summer looking forward to untold crumbles it’s far from ideal.

Is Scrumping a simple gesture of enthusiasm towards oft-wasted food or contemptible, premeditated plunder? I make it away from Mallet unscathed; he’s far more concerned about being late for a game of tennis at the Manor. Fruit looting has won the day, but I’m stuck with an image of him propelling dead squirrels across court with a beaten-about Slazenger. What a way to spend an evening.

Posted on 25th November 2009

Tuesday, 24 November 2009


 How I chortle, reclining on the sofa with a glass of chilled wine. “Father of two Steve from Hampcestershireboro” has only gone and prepared a plate of ravioli that boasts the visual appeal of a pile of old envelopes; judging by John’s face, the taste too. Had this moment been illustrated in The Beano, Gregg might be shaded in woozy off-green, “Boik!” captioned in close proximity. C’mon Steve, get it together. “Cooking doesn’t get tougher than this” – I’d hazard that I’m not alone in thinking, “Yeah right”.

 Maybe I was a little hasty. ‘The Invention Test’ that features prominently in the early rounds of Masterchef will be one of the big attractions for visitors at Masterchef Live, which runs this weekend at the London Olympia. The premise is thus: compete against 29 other entrants, rustle up a dish with a bag of mystery ingredients in half an hour and (hopefully) make it through to the final four to have your meal judged by John & Gregg.

 I’d been pretty Zen-like en route to the show this morning, but as the expanse of hobs, chopping boards and knife blocks unfolds in front of me I feel a quiet flicker of panic. This flicker seems to ripple through the group when it’s announced that Sir Terry Wogan is to be a special guest judge; sampling the final dishes and offering a critique with John & Gregg. Being lampooned for burning the garlic is one thing; accidently poisoning a national treasure is another story.

 We’re waiting for the green light to inspect our mystery ingredients. A keeno rival on a nearby cooking station is peering into her bag inquisitively – actually, as I scan the units, everyone is. I take a look and catch a glimpse of a chicken breast, bacon rashers, Parmesan, carrots, broccoli, white wine, mascarpone, fresh mint and parsley. Storecupboard essentials like onions, garlic, sugar and spices are on a shelf under the counter. Compere TV’s Andi Peters gives the nod – it’s all on.

 “Fifteen minutes to go”. I’ve barely peeled the carrots, there’s so much left to do. What I have succeeded in is spilling a glass of water across the work surface; my trainers are soaking. I finally decided to make a chicken, mint and carrot salad with spicy harissa dressing – it’s still a long way off mind. Chicken’s poached though, which is a result.

 “10 seconds to go”. Any notions of adding a few quirky food styling tricks are out of the window; it’s literally a case of toss it all together, throw it on the plate and grin. I’m sorry Steve.

 My finished dish tastes pretty good, but lacklustre presentation looks to have slighted Nadia Sawalha, who was on hand to choose the final four. A guy on an adjacent unit seems pleased not to be up on stage with the finalists, as he shows me the raw centre of his piece of chicken I can kind of see why. The winning dish does look pretty good, a spicy grilled chicken breast with herby couscous. John, Gregg and Tel look pretty impressed. I didn’t even realise there was couscous in the bag.

Posted on 13th November 2009