Commonplace, Vol 2, Issue 5

In which the writer goes on about Lenten food, and a few more books.

Hello! We are now well within the season of Lent, and Patreon members will already know about some of the effects of the Lenten diet. To recap, this house is emulating - sort of - the medieval fast of Lent. We’re leaving out the reasoning that anything that lives in water is a fish, so we’re not eating porpoise, whale, or beavers, but we are using modern things like plant butter, Nutella, and the like.

[ Commonplace is an occasional newsletter about food and food history. Drew, who needs to eat as well as read and ramble, has a Patreon page at, about which people have said some nice things of late. Show your support, enable Drew’s book-buying habit, and get a look at the behind-the-scenes thinking on both this newsletter and Gentle Decline. Sign up today! ]

The plant butter, which is made by Flora, is very much the new discovery of the season. It is almost indistinguishable from real butter, and the differences are not objectionable. I am entertaining the heretical thought that I may like it more on toast and as a frying medium (I suspect it has a higher smoke point), although it doesn’t work quite so well on potatoes. But I think it’ll be a regular purchase even after Lent is over. It’s also considerably lower in environmental impact than the real thing, which is excellent, and doesn’t, as far as I can see, require a mad degree of irrigation or the like.

We’ve replaced milk for tea with oat milk. It is acceptable, although not perfect. For some odd reason of chemistry, it brings out the tannin-y taste of the tea, particularly near the end of the mug. It also doesn’t colour the tea to the same degree, so it always looks like there’s not quite enough “milk” in it. Oat milk has lower emission levels than dairy, and uses less water (by a very large margin) than almond milk. Soy milk might beat it on a few levels by a few percentage points, but I cannot stand the taste of it, so no.

We haven’t attempted to replace cheese with any vegan equivalent. We did get “vegan mozzarella” on pizzas last week, and with the best will in the world, I am not doing that again. It was edible (and slightly better the following morning when cold), but it did not resemble actual cheese in texture, appearance or taste. I have also failed to come up with any description of what it did taste like, beyond “even worse than processed cheese”. Do not recommend. Unrecommend. Avoid, even.

Fish is allowed, so we’re eating smoked mackerel, smoked salmon, anchovies, prawns, fresh salmon and canned tuna (so far). All of those are good, although they average about twice as much as you’d pay for meat, very approximately. The environmental impact of eating fish instead of meat is a bit dubious still, but it’s probably better - certainly small schooling fish like herring are better. Crustaceans involve large expenditures of fossil fuel to collect. Shellfish are pretty good, overall, but are also mostly shell.

Hummus (also humous, houmus, but not humus) has made a steady appearance. It’s a decent thing to put on bread, or scoop up with tortilla chips or carrot sticks, and it’s something we’d sometimes eat anyway. It’s essentially a vegetable, being prepared from chickpeas, and we’re eating some more of those too. We haven’t been eating as many beans as might be recommended, so I’m planning to increase those next week.

However. Under normal circumstances, I rarely feel cold, and I don’t feel a huge hunger-based urge to snack between meals (I mean, I do; toast and biscuits are some of the small joys of life, but it’s not because I’m actually wanting food). On this diet, I am constantly chilly, and constantly a bit hungry. This could be ascribed to something else, but on Sunday, which is the Meat Day, and right up to Monday evening, I was not cold or hungry. At the time of writing, it is between 17° and 18°C in the house, and I am wearing three layers including a fairly dense hoodie, and I am still feeling cold. I am normally comfortable in a t-shirt in 16°C.

Because of this, we’re eating way more carbs. Potatoes, rice, pasta, and particularly bread. These work in the short term, but they don’t provide sustained heat, as it were. At present, my thinking is that I probably wouldn’t need to actually eat meat to get that heat working again - we’ve done vegetarian for weeks at a stretch in the past - but I really miss eggs and cheese. Eggs in particular; I dreamt of hard-boiled eggs twice this week, and despite how much time I spend thinking about food in the waking world, I usually don’t dream about it.

All this is leading me to read a bit more about a purely vegan diet, of which I’ve previously been dismissive, on the straight-forward basis that humans are natural omnivores. It turns out that eating nothing but plants leads to deficiencies in iron, zinc, vitamin D, calcium, and omega-3 fatty acids, all of which are temporary (assuming you stop being a vegan) and also a deficiency in vitamin B-12, which can lead to permanent neurological damage. You can just about scrape through on the B-12 thing by eating fortified foods, where the fortification derives from yeast cultures, but requires a startling level of industrial processing, and the rest has to come from dietary supplements and pills, or very careful choices of very specific foods. Fish will cover you for everything above, although you do need to eat shellfish to get zinc (oysters contain plenty of it). So the Lenten diet is not going to do us any harm, but pure veganism is even worse than I thought. Don’t do it, kids.

I had a few responses to newsletters earlier in the year about food supply lines, most notably about what’s on the shelves in Tesco. Cian supplies this bit of information:

Tesco appear to have shortages of quite different things in different stores. My normal Tesco seems to have had cauliflower throughout, but has no quinoa, cous cous, bulgerwheat or lentils. Friends on the north side tell me that they can still get lentils, but that waffles are basically impossible to find.

In my own local branch of Tesco, there have been no cucumbers for over a month now. Lidl has them in great piles, and they’re of Irish origin. My initial thinking was that specific branches of Tesco have no mechanism to move goods back up or across the end-points of the supply chain, so that when they run out of something, they’re kind of stuck even if the shop in the next district over has plenty of it. But the cucumber thing really does point to a complete failure of supply. My chief of research says the Tesco in Tullamore also has a complete lack of cucumbers - please report on your local supply situation. I don’t much like cucumber myself, but Nina eats it, so we do buy it regularly, or in the case of Tesco, attempt to do so.

In other news, I’ve been growing mushrooms. Cee sent me a kit for shiitake, supplied by a company in the Netherlands, and they’re very simple to get started on.

It turns out that fresh shiitake are really, really good. I’m looking forward to the next harvest from the box, and am carefully spraying them at regular intervals. The actual substrate-and-mycelium block is a bit alien-looking, so I won’t include pictures here. The only problem is that the block doesn’t produce very many of them at once, so if I was going to do this on an ongoing basis, I’d probably want to have three or four such blocks, which would then supply enough mushrooms to do something with every few weeks for a short while. You can also grow shiitake in more of their natural environment on logs outdoors, so that’s a thing to which I’ll be paying attention.

I have a plan for growing lettuce, rocket, and other green stuffs out of chicken reach; it’ll essentially be a set of shelves for pots and planters, tipped slightly forward, and mounted on a south-facing wall by the back door. And it’ll have two doors, cupboard-style, made of chicken wire, so even if the dinosaurs leap and flap up to shelf level, they won’t be able to actually get at the goods. I’m also going to make what will effectively be a fruit cage for the raspberries, and come up with similar protections for the potato pots and other things I want to grow. Plans aren’t finalised for that yet, but I’ll be putting in orders for seeds in early March.

As a follow-up to the cookery books, my copy of Nigella Lawson’s latest, Cook, Eat, Repeat arrived last week. I’ve glanced through it, and it looks excellent. I note with interest that the subtitle is “Ingredients, recipes and stories”, and I want to quote a bit from the introduction:

There is a particular immediacy about a recipe, in that it can never be written for posterity. Even if it endures long after its author, it is a message entirely in the present. There is often something unbearably poignant about old photographs - those hopeful faces, trapped in time, not knowing anything of the depredations of the future. Old recipes can seem similarly guileless, similarly vulnerable. It is not so much that the people for whom the recipes were written no longer exist, but that the food itself can often seem so unrecognisable, even alien to us now: such urgent sustenance reduced to historical interest.

Man. I think the only way there could be better food writing is if Robert McFarlane took to writing cookery books. There’s a full ten pages in praise of anchovies, too, followed by relevant recipes. It looks like a superb book, and you can expect to hear more from it in future issues as I get through more of it.

I also got a book called Happy Days and Hard Times: Memories inspired by the Museum of Country Life, which is essentially a book of photographs of exhibits from that museum (which is in Turlough Park, Castlebar, Co Mayo) alongside written recollections by various people who had visited the exhibition. It’s in connection with some ongoing research on a much later period than I usually deal with, and it’s a fascinating work.

Finally, a rather belated reply to the question of what kind of stove I have: I do my surface cooking on a glass-topped Bosch induction hob, which has touch-screen type controls (visible on the edge of the picture above), and the oven is a Beko electric fan oven. I love cooking with gas hobs, but I don’t like using fossil fuels any more than I need to, and the induction offers a pretty similar degree of control over the heat. Anna, who now lives on the other side of Maynooth, is getting one of the fancy Anova steam ovens, so I’ll get to make use of that when it arrives.

Anyway. This issue has been brought to you by two very inquisitive chickens, three very lazy cats, an absolutely disgusting dog, and a continued and apparently interminable lockdown. Eat well, and I shall write again soon.

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