Archive for February, 2013

February 20, 2013

A meat-free month

I spent January as a vegetarian. Nothing to do with the recent UK scandal about horse meat and food security (which became news after I’d started)  but for my own personal reasons. I’m not squeamish about meat eating – after all, I have long owned a copy of John Seymour’s ‘Complete Book on Self Sufficiency’,which contains the unforgettable line  ‘first lure your pig to the killing room’, but it’s the sheer quantity of meat that it seems people are eating that I am uncomfortable with.

Meat used to be revered. Reserved for High Days and holidays, a piece of meat would be cooked – perhaps for  Sunday dinner – and then the left-overs used through the week to make more dishes. Thrifty cooks still do that now, and there are a proliferation of good cook books and websites on thrifty cooking and eating. But what makes my stomach turn is the unthinking way in which meat is eaten all the time – and largely poor quality, untraceable meat, in mince, burgers, chicken nuggets, etc etc.

It’s simply not sustainable for the planet for an ever increasing population to eat meat in the quantities we do. Huge emerging middle classes in quickly developing countries are now eating more like the UK or USA, when previous traditional diets were largely vegetarian. Great swathes of rain forest are getting cut down to graze beef cattle. Field after field of grain is grown – not to feed people, but to feed animals that will then feed people. The difference in resources required is enormous.

And as for fish, it is a worry that the humble mackerel, once the king of under-appreciated fish, has now made it’s way onto the MSC‘s list of unsustainable fish. I’d say the MSC is the best place to look if you’re interested in making good choices about the fish you eat.

I’m not suggesting that the world turn vegetarian. Though it would help, and it will be interesting to see what impacts the recent horse meat scandal has on the long term eating habits in the UK – though really I suspect very little. What I’m suggesting is that, by reducing the amount of meat we eat, choosing it carefully when we do eat it, and really enjoying it, instead of mindlessly buying another burger, we might help reduce the impact on the planet’s resources. I know that it is something of a middle class answer to talk about ‘making friends with your local butcher’ as not everyone has the luxury of either the time, money or indeed butcher, to make that decision, but choosing to eat less meat is within everyone’s grasp.

So, I shall climb down from my soap-box now.

What I’ve realised after a month of vegetarianism is that it can be much cheaper. A bag of lentils as a source of protein is far less expensive than even the cheapest cut of meat. I wanted to spend the month cooking proper food, not heating up vegetarian pre-prepared stuff, and I found that everything I cooked was cheaper than a meat containing equivalent.

I ate more vegetables too. I realise that this sounds obvious but I do not think for one second that a vegetarian diet is immediately healthier than an omnivorous one. After all, crisps, sweets and chocolate are meat-free, and I have met vegetarians in the past who have existed largely on chips. But when I’ve taken the time to cook new vegetarian dishes, it’s felt really positive, and not a second rate option.

I have a goal to try one new vegetarian dish each week for the year, and I’m keeping a little record of what I’ve cooked. I have been using Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s ‘Veg Every Day’ and Sarah Raven’s ‘Garden Cookbook’ a lot, and also the recipes which come from Abel and Cole. My veg box is a place of ever increasing interest because of this shift in my eating and I can only hope that my allotment will be too.

I said that I’d had a month of vegetarianism, and since the end of January I have re-introduced meat into my diet. I’ve eaten meat twice. On both occasions, it was a really considered choice, in places with a strong provenance. I didn’t regret my decision, and thoroughly enjoyed what I was eating. Mindful eating definitely is a key, in my mind, to that decision. Apart from those two occasions, I have remained meat free and I am likely to carry on eating like this for some time.

(Incidentally, if you’re looking for good articles on the recent horse meat scandal, and the UK attitude to eating horse meat, try Them Apples)

February 4, 2013

A visit to Opera North

Last week, I was given the opportunity to visit the opera by The Culture Vulture and Opera North. I hadn’t really thought of opera as being for people like me so I hesitated at first, but it seemed a good opportunity to challenge my assumptions and so, encouraged by my friend and ‘culture date’ for the evening, Jo, I accepted the ticket.

Otello, based on the Shakespeare play, was performed by Opera North at The Grand Theatre in Leeds. There’s plenty of room on the internet for reviews about the performance but, for us, the opera trip was a catalyst for debate about what assumptions we had about opera, what the barriers to engaging with it as an art form were, and why people might think it’s not for them.

Me: I’ve always thought opera was for posh people, who dressed in fancy clothes so they could see other posh people, who were also dressed in fancy clothes, singing in another language. I know I’m not the only person who feels this way, and, having sat through my first opera, I now know that my assumptions were wrong.

Jo: I love listening to opera but wasn’t that bothered about seeing it performed until I saw Opera North’s production of Don Giovanni last autumn. Now I’m hooked! Opera is definitely greater than the sum of its parts: melodramatic theatre, caricatured personalities and awkward scripting, all brought together to provide a stage for some really exquisite music. It shouldn’t work but it does.

Me: When I mentioned on Twitter that I was going to the opera, I got lots of questions about what I was going to wear.  When I looked around the audience, there was a distinct lack of evening dress. Everyone was just in smart-ish clothes – just the kind of thing you’d wear for any night out in town. I’m wondering we get a lot of our perceptions about opera from seeing it on period dramas or something!

Jo: I can understand why people think there is snobbery around opera. There was a ‘shushing’ incident during Otello. I don’t think the sush-ers meant to be rude, more that people get passionately involved in the performance. Powerful music needs powerful silence to let it breathe and be fully appreciated.  Most every situation has a kind of etiquette or ritual attached to it.

Me: Another thing much of the audience had in common was grey hair, but actually, because opera deals with dramatic emotion, it’s perfect fodder for younger people. I wonder if it’s because opera seems to have a feeling of being ‘classical’ – most people could name something like ‘Madame Butterfly’ but not a contemporary opera. Is there even such a thing?

Jo: Popular music is full of songs about love, jealousy, defiance and betrayal. Our greatest hits aren’t about having a nap or walking your dog. Music that grabs your heart doesn’t deal with the in-between moments of life. That’s true of all kind of music and opera is no different.  ‘No good opera plot can be sensible, for people do not sing when they are feeling sensible.’ WH Auden.

Me: As Otello is sung in Italian, I was afraid it would be difficult to follow but the English sur-titles made it easy to understand what was going on. The language wasn’t at all complicated—the story and dialogue are stripped down to the bare bones. However, although the sur-titles were useful, they often reduced the emotional breadth of the music to just a couple of lines of dodgy dialogue.

Jo: As I got into the performance, I found the sur-titles really distracting. Next time I’d like to research ahead of time so I won’t have to read them. I think it’s like Saint-Saëns Danse Macabre—once you know the story, you can’t help but hear the instrumental characters in the piece.

Me: Although the production was impeccable, the opera itself wasn’t for me. There were some stand-out moments—the love duet between Otello and Desdemona—but for someone visiting the opera for the first time, Otello might not be the best choice. I think it’s a mistake to assume that because people know the Shakespeare play, they will find this particular opera accessible or appealing – even though the music was stunnin. They feel like two very separate entities.

Jo: I can’t fault the production, it’s just not an opera I’d choose to see again or recommend. The story didn’t satisfy me. I felt no investment in the characters: Desdemona was too wet; Otello wasn’t solid enough for his status; Iago’s strength was in the music; and Emilia just made me cross! Musically, my highlight was the love duet, ‘Gia Nella Notte Densa’.

Me: For me, the most impressive parts of Otello were when more than one character was singing at once and all their emotions and perspectives are woven together.  After eight years of living in Leeds, and countless visits to the theatre and ballet, I’m so glad I’ve finally seen an opera; I’m definitely a convert and a new fan of Opera North.

Jo: It was a huge privilege to stand on that stage; I now feel a personal connection to the theatre. I’m looking forward to booking my next Opera North performance, Dido and Aeneas. It’s only an hour and it’s sung in English and the cheapest seats are going for £15—it’d be a great place for anyone tempted to try opera out for themselves.

So, opera is for me, after all. Which, I’ll admit is something of a surprise. Now, I really do think that opera is for anyone and everyone  – so, if you get the chance, do try it out. And if you’re lucky enough to live somewhere where you can see Opera North, then grab that opportunity. Overwhelmingly, again, it seems that the only way to decide if you like something is to try it. Otherwise you’ll never know…