March 10, 2008

FOOD: May 05, AU Edition

When the weather’s cold and the sun sets mid-afternoon, Eli Jameson finds brightness in the kitchen

It has always amazed me that when T.S. Eliot wrote the line, ‘April is the cruelest month’, he wasn’t talking about the onset of winter. Of course, this is hardly surprising given that he lived in the northern hemisphere. But for myself, April, with all its attendant rituals – the changing of the clocks, the airing of the jumpers – has always been a grim affair.

Somehow, it’s hard to be cheery when the sky turns black at what always feels like four o’clock.

To cope with this seasonal black dog, I’ve tended to take refuge in good food and cooking: after all, much better to stick a roast in the oven than your head in one. Not only does keeping the cooker on full-bore help heat at least one end of my drafty circa-1890s terrace house, but it also provides something in the neighbourhood of an acceptable substitute to that favourite summer pastime – namely, standing in front of the barbeque searing off ribeyes and drinking shiraz at 8:30pm, when it’s still bright and sunny.

Another advantage is that winter comfort food (for lack of a better, and less hackneyed, phrase) can be as simple or as complicated as one likes. For the home chef with a busy work schedule who still likes to muck about in the kitchen a few nights a week, this is a great advantage: if I’ve knocked off a bit early and am home by six or seven, then I might happily bread and fry some eggplants, knock up a red sauce, grate a few cheeses, and boil some spaghetti (perhaps even making the noodles myself, if the mood strikes) to wind up with a ridiculously huge platter of eggplant parmagiana that will keep me in lunches through the week. (Fill a good bread roll with a few rounds of the leftovers, wrap in foil and bake until gooey). Otherwise, tossing a tray of veggies in the oven to roast for an hour or so while pottering around the house tidying or simply watching the 7:30 Report over a quiet drink pays a myriad of dividends. Out of a concession to age and arteries, I don’t do this very often, but lately I’ve taken to tossing the results of this together with some pasta, cream, and good freshly-grated cheese (see recipe).

Another old standby for when people come by the house is a lamb-and-pasta dish I picked up when I lived in New York (and yes, I realize that complaining about a Sydney winter after spending one particularly bleak December-through-February living next to the East River does show a lack of perspective, but bear with me). This involves getting some lamb steaks, flattening them out, rolling and tying and them up into little parcels with mint, rosemary, and cheese.

I then brown the packets, set them aside, and make a rich red sauce in the same pan – deglazing, of course, with some hearty red wine. That done (and here’s the beauty: all this fiddly work can be done in the afternoon), I boil up some orichiette pasta, and serve it in bowls with some of the sauce and a couple of lamb rolls. If you’re out to impress, cut the lamb on a bias and arrange artfully on top of the pasta.

Whether simple or complicated, there is something restorative about the whole cooking process that shuts off the white noise of the previous twelve hours and makes for a welcome distraction from a bout of winter blues. As American novelist Nora Ephron once put it, ‘what I love about cooking is that after a hard day, there is something comforting about the fact that if you melt butter and add flour and then hot stock, it will get thick! It’s a sure thing! It’s a sure thing in a world where nothing is sure; it has a mathematical certainty in a world where those of us who long for some kind of certainty are forced to settle for crossword puzzles.’

Adapted from Madhur Jaffrey’s World Vegetarian

This a great winter soup that’s not too complicated for a weeknight and packs a spectacular payoff. Plus, with the exception of the optional truffle oil, it costs virtually pennies a bowl to make. My family eats vats of this over winter.

You’ll need:
• Approx. 250g Great Northern beans, soaked overnight
• 2 litres vegetable stock
• 2-3 peeled garlic cloves
• Dried mint, oregano and/or other dried herbs
• Olive oil
• 3-4 diced onions
• 2 starchy potatoes, peeled and diced
• Leaves of one silverbeet or one head rocket, thinly shredded
• Fresh parsley
• Salt and pepper
• Good extra-virgin olive oil (or, for something really special, truffle oil)

1. In a biggish, heavy-bottomed pot, bring the stock and the beans to the boil. Skim off the froth that comes to the surface, and add the garlic and dried herbs. Give it a good stir and simmer, loosely covered, for up to an hour or until the beans are tender. At this point, crush the garlic cloves against the side of the pan.
2. In a second, bigger pot, bring some olive oil up to a medium-high heat and add the onions and potatoes, stirring so that nothing sticks and everything picks up a bit of colour (about five minutes), with a shot of salt and pepper. Add the silverbeet or rocket, stir until just wilted, and pour the other pot with the beans over the whole affair. Bring it all to a boil, then simmer and stir occasionally for about half an hour.
3. Just before serving, toast some thick slices of good crusty country bread and set aside. Using a wooden spoon, mash some of the potatoes and beans against the side of the pot – this nicely thickens the broth. Check seasoning and ladle into bowls, and drizzle a little good extra-virgin olive or truffle oil over each dish. Serve with toasted bread.
Serves: an army.

roastveg-pasta.jpgROAST VEGETABLE PASTA

Even though it takes a little while to roast the veggies, the actual work time involved in this pasta is virtually nil. And all the cream and cheese makes the healthy bits of the dish much more palatable.

You’ll need:
• 250g dried pasta, such as fettucini, papardelle, or rigatoni
• An assortment of baby eggplants, fennel bulbs, zucchini, onions, et cetera – whatever looks good at the market that day, roughly chopped
• 200ml whipping cream
• 1 cup (or more) freshly-grated grana padano cheese
• Fresh parsley, for garnish
• Olive oil

1. Place the chopped vegetables in a roasting tray with a good glug of olive oil, salt, and pepper. Toss the lot around to coat, and place in a reasonably hot pre-heated oven. Meanwhile, place a pot of salted water on the stove to boil.
2. After about 45 minutes or so, check the vegetables – when they are good and soft and roasted, throw the pasta in the water.
3. Warm some cream in a wide saucepan, bringing just to the boil. When the pasta is a few minutes away from being al dente, remove the vegetables from the oven and toss with the cream. Add a good handful of the cheese.
4. Drain the pasta, and toss with the cream, vegetables, and cheese. Serve in warmed pasta bowls and sprinkle on some more cheese and fresh parsley.
Serves four

Posted by InvestigateDesign at 11:41 PM | Comments (0)

FOOD: Sep 05, AU Edition

Want a fun challenge in the kitchen? Make your own pasta, says Eli Jameson

Ah, the pasta aisle of the supermarket. Fettucini, cavatelli, oricchiette, rigatoni, penne rigate...just reading off the names on the different boxes and bags is enough to make one feel Italian. And so many of these shapes have names that sound cool even in English: Does a plate of priest’s caps (agnolotti) appeal? No? Well, perhaps a steaming bowl of strozzapretti – or ‘priest stranglers’ – will sate your appetite as well as your anti-clerical urges.

But almost every packet of pasta for sale in the supermarket has one thing in common, regardless of shape: it is dried. Which means that it is made by combining water and hard semolina flour and extruded in factories through various shaped dies. Some of these pastas are very good, and indeed gourmet dried pastas are showing up on the shelves of more and more suburban markets (tip: look for noodles that have a particularly rough sauce-holding surface as a sure tip-off of quality), but they lack a certain something. Now, I keep a five kilogram sack of penne rigate in the cabinet because it’s an incredibly economical and convenient base for a huge number of dinners. But there are times that some occasions, and some recipes, that call for more than just a couple of scoops of Barilla tossed into boiling water.

That alternative is, of course, fresh pasta. Contrary to what one might think, fresh pasta is not simply the pre-dried version of what comes in a rectangular blue box with instructions to ‘cottura 11 minuti’. Instead it is made from eggs and flour – which is why the stuff has a pretty firm use-by date – and unlike dried, only takes a few minutes to cook.

So where to get the stuff? Some fresh pasta is available from gourmet Italian delis and even supermarkets, but it is ridiculously expensive considering what goes in to it. Instead, I say, make your own.

I sometimes think that there is a conspiracy out there in the world of TV chefs and cookbook authors to keep certain ideas and techniques just vague and complicated enough so that the average punter remains mystified and unable to fully recreate certain end-products – or at least not regularly enough to become adept at them. I have a fantastic cookbook by the American chef Charlie Palmer which is almost like a detective hunt: every photograph of a finished dish has some extra touch or flourish not included in the printed recipe, and the reader has to study it closely to discern the hidden item. Call it The DaVinci Cookbook school of food writing. The end result is it convinces ordinary home chefs that fresh pasta can only be made with two kinds of imported artisinal flour and lots of kneading, followed by ample time for both chef and dough to have a good rest.

This is, of course, completely untrue, and there is no reason why fresh homemade pasta can’t become part of any home chef’s regular – i.e., at least weekly – routine. The advantages are numerous: though it takes a little longer to prepare on the front end (and we’re only talking about twenty minutes, with a little practice), it takes only moments to cook. One need only be up from the table for five minutes, tops, to knock up a pasta course before rejoining the rest of the party.

Furthermore, the texture is night-and-day to that of dried pasta. It holds sauce much more effectively – one might even say intimately – and as a result, one needs less to coat it. This is where the old adage that pasta is not about the sauce but the pasta comes from, and it’s impossible to understand unless one has experienced the difference. Fresh pasta absorbs sauce in a way dried simply can’t.

To make fresh pasta, one really only needs to get a hand-cranked pasta machine, costing between $60 and $90, depending on brand, at decent homewares stores. Word to the wise: spend the money on the more expensive Italian model if you can. The cheaper look-alike made in Korea will do the job just as well, but doesn’t stand up to regular use over the years, and will need to be replaced far sooner. Beyond that, the only ingredients are flour (I prefer Italian strong, or ‘00’ flour, but the basic house-brand stuff will do just as well) and eggs (see last month’s column on the virtues of fresh eggs – they make a difference here as well). Ready? Let’s begin.

To make a simple pasta like, say, fettucini for two, just place two cups of flour in a bowl, make a well in the middle, and crack the eggs into it. (Rule of thumb: one plate = one egg = one cup of flour). With a fork, begin to combine the eggs with the flour until you have a mass of dough. On a well-floured work surface, knead this well until it becomes a ball, and it starts to get stretchy when worked with the meat of your hand.

Now comes the fun part. Take about a third of the dough, flatten it, and run it through the machine on its widest setting (1). It may take a few goes at this stage to get it fully formed and looking like a square of pasta, but once that is achieved, keep running it through until you reach the second-thinnest setting (generally number 8). Give this sheet a dusting of flour, and repeat with the remaining dough. And when it’s all done, run it through the wide noodle cutters that come with the machine. Presto! You’ve just made fettucini!

So what now? Well, for one thing, it should be lightly dusted with flour and laid out on a sheet so that it doesn’t stick together, and allowed to dry out a bit. One can also make this at lunchtime for an evening’s dinner party without worrying a bit. When cooking time comes, plunge it into a pot of boiling, well-salted water, and let cook for just 2-3 minutes before tossing it into a pan of sauce. Make an alfredo by frying off some finely-diced onion in a large whack (100 grams) of butter, and adding a good slug of cream, a handful of parma cheese, salt, pepper and nutmeg. (Healthy it up with some greens, asparagus, or mushrooms if you like).

Or make a ravioli – those same sheets can be cut into circles and pressed together around a filling of your own invention, sealed by an egg wash. Use the flat edge of your chefs knife to press them shut so they don’t pop in the water. A favourite stuffing in our house is beetroot, sage, and goat cheese, served in a brown butter sauce jazzed up with beetroot greens.

Whatever you do, don’t be intimidated, and don’t let yourself be constrained by your imagination. Once you’ve got the technique down, you can knock up sheets of the stuff in all of twenty minutes. Your guests – and your palate – will thank you.

Posted by InvestigateDesign at 11:36 PM | Comments (0)

FOOD: Dec 05, AU Edition

iStock_000000700250Large.jpgSEEING RED
Eli Jameson celebrates summer and separates the ripe tomatoes from the hoary chestnuts

Hear the word ‘tomatoes’, and what do you think of? Spaghetti piled high and swimming in marinara sauce? Garden vines hanging heavy with ripe, red fruit? Or perhaps something less pleasant – childhood memories of supermarket tomatoes as tasteless as their plastic packaging, sliced into a salad of sweaty iceberg lettuce and gloppy dressing the colour of jaundice?

To me, tomatoes always mean one thing: summer. Regular readers of this column are familiar with my fierce dislike of the colder months, and so the arrival of abundant and cheap tomatoes in the markets is always a cause for celebration. For the foreseeable future, there will always be a truss of tomatoes, still on the vine, on the kitchen bench ready to go on sandwiches, be tossed into some dish or other, or simply sliced on a plate and sprinkled with sea salt and a little extra-virgin olive oil – the ultimate simple summer salad – perhaps with basil and a torn-up ball of buffalo mozzarella.

But what’s the story with tomatoes? Are they fruits or vegetables? Were they really once thought to be poisonous, until someone ate a bucket of them on the steps of a small-town U.S. courthouse? There are a lot of strange stories that have grown up around tomatoes, and I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve fallen for some of them (the courthouse steps one, especially) myself over the years.

Tomatoes, according to the invaluable Wikipedia, are a fruit, at least scientifically speaking: they are the ovary, together with the seeds, of a flowering plant. However, because tomatoes are generally served as a main dish and not as desert, they are legally classified – at least in the United States – as a vegetable. The issue even went so far as the US Supreme Court, which in the 1893 case of Nix v. Hedden declared tomatoes as vegetables because of their popular use (along with cucumbers, squashes, beans, and peas), a decision which had huge tariff implications at the time. For a good time, invite a botanist and a lawyer along to your local’s next trivia night, and make sure the emcee asks the fruit-or-vegetable question.

And then there is the tale of the brave Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson, who is said to have eaten of a basket of tomatoes on the steps of the Salem, New Jersey, courthouse in 1820 to turn the tide of public opinion and show that the fruit was not the least bit dangerous to anyone who didn’t suffer severe hearburn. Alas, the much-loved Johnson tale is not true: the American television network CBS popularized the story in a 1949 episode of You Are There, in which an actor playing the colonel declared to an assembled throng of two thousand, “What are you afraid of? Being poisoned? Well I’m not, and I’ll show you fools that these things are good to eat!”

As it turns out, tomatoes were grown and eaten in North America since at least 1710; not only were they not thought of as poisonous, but Puritans of the time even eschewed the things, fearing their alleged aphrodisiac properties! That great gourmand and man of the world Thomas Jefferson himself purchased the fruit (not yet classified a veggie by the courts) to serve at state dinners in 1806, and from 1809 onwards planted them at his estate, Monticello. Jefferson’s cousin Mary Randolph, author of the extremely influential 19th century cookbook, The Virginia Housewife, contained some 17 tomato recipes for such exotic dishes including gazpacho and gumbo.

Today, tomatoes are not only not considered dangerous, but downright healthful, especially as they are rich in the cancer-preventing antioxidant lycopene. Bloody Mary, anyone?

160.jpgChilled Tomato Soup

This is one of my favourite mid-summer soups, adapted from Charlie Palmer’s excellent cookbook, Great American Food. He suggests serving with toasted croutons with warm goat cheese and basil; I think that can get in the way of the clean tomatoey goodness of the soup. But try it – you may like it. In any case, this is a great dinner party starter course for the height of summer.

You’ll need:

About 8 large, ripe vine-ripened or truss
Some good extra-virgin olive oil;
1 finely chopped onion
½ cup chopped celery
1 tablespoon minced garlic
Fresh basil leaves
500 ml sparkling mineral water
1 sachet
2 teaspoons Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce
Good sea salt, like Maldon
Fresh-ground pepper

1. Peel, seed and chop the tomatoes; set aside. Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large, heavy pan and sauté the onion, celery, garlic, and about 8 basil leaves – which should be torn in half as you toss them in. Lower the heat and continue to cook gently for about four minutes (you want the vegetables to soften but not pick up any colour), and add the tomatoes, sparkling water and sachet. Bring to the boil, then lower the heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Take off heat and let rest for 30 minutes, then remove and discard the sachet.

2. Puree the mixture in a blender, working in batches if necessary, until the soup is quite smooth. Pour through a fine sieve and strain into a non-reactive bowl – giving the solids a push if need be to extract liquid. Add a couple of teaspoons of Lea & Perrins (just enough to bring out the tomato flavour; not enough to make it obvious) and your salt and pepper to taste. Cover and refrigerate until icy cold – at least four hours.

3. Serve in chilled, flat soup bowls, with a spring of basil for garnish.

Posted by InvestigateDesign at 11:15 PM | Comments (0)

FOOD: Mar 05, AU Edition

Neil Perry.jpg

Australia’s cable cooking programs give Eli Jameson tummy trouble

Is Foxtel holding Neil Perry’s dog hostage somewhere in the bowels of its Pyrmont broadcasting facility? The question would almost be worth asking, given the amount of time the celebrity chef and Rockpool owner spends schilling for the cable provider and submitting to mock interviews about why he’s so in love with his new digital cable setup.

Of course, that’s a bit over the top. Foxtel doesn’t need to use standover tactics to get Perry to lend a hand any more than Range Rover does to get Perry to drive one of their cars. (As a “Land Rover Ambassador”, that company’s website tells us, “Neil Perry drives a Range Rover which perfectly represents his position as one of the countries leading chefs owning and operating the famous Rockpool and XO restaurants in Sydney.”) Instead, the cable provider simply airs series after series of Perry-themed programming, including his deadly-dull restaurant infomercial known as “Neil Perry’s Rockpool Sessions.”

As a result of all this publicity, Perry has catapulted himself into that upper firmament of brand-name celebrity chefs that includes former Perry employee Kylie Kwong and Sydney café owner Bill Granger – who, in keeping with the small-world nature of the Australian food world, once worked with Kwong as well. (This is in contrast to such great Australian chefs as Tim Pak Poy, who for years ran one of the best restaurants in the country but generally stayed out of the limelight).

Close business histories are not all the three have in common. Perry, Kwong and Granger share an admirable belief that consumers should demand the freshest ingredients possible, a philosophy that has led to better quality and diversity on Australian shelves. And, on their shows at least (when there isn’t an army of prep chefs around to do the scut work), the three also preach a gospel of simplicity which holds that cooking should be easy, not intimidating, and most of all, not time-consuming. Endless chopping, basting, and roasting are out; a quick sear in the grill pan and a drizzle with a just-whisked dressing before rejoining one’s guests for another champers in the backyard is in. One almost never sees a “hero” – the pre-prepared dish that went into the oven ages ago to be pulled out at just the right moment in shooting – on these shows, since everything is quickly tossed together a la minute, as they say in the restaurant business.

This is all very well and good, but those of us who actually like to muck about in the kitchen, get excited when zucchini flowers show up in the shops, and never buy pre-made ravioli because it’s so much more fun to make one’s own, I think. Or rather, back in the heat of the kitchen, while everyone else sits in the lounge room watching Bill Granger’s family scramble over each other to eat breakfast in bed.
At least Ian Hewitson (a pioneer Melbourne restaurateur in his own right), with all his sponsored brand loyalties, spends most of his show, Huey’s Cooking Adventures, actually cooking. Which makes the fact that he once told viewers to make garlic mayonnaise by first glopping a few spoonfuls of store-bought mayo into a bowl almost forgivable.

Sure, that may seem lazy, but it’s nothing compared to Granger, who thinks twenty minutes stirring risotto is a chore and once spent an entire segment of his Lifestyle Channel program explaining that Italian delis are great places to buy ready-to-eat picnic supplies. Now really, in 2005 Australia, do we need to be told that Italian delis are great places to pick up good cheese and olives?
Thus those looking to TV to improve their skills in the kitchen in a serious manner – and not just pick up a new way to combine seared salmon, sesame oil, and Asian greens – have to look abroad, especially to the UK, to do so. (If someone had told me, a decade ago, that today most of my cookbooks would be by British chefs, I would have asked them if they also saw a serious taste bud-injuring accident in my future).

Nigella Lawson, for one, is a great believer in celebrating the techniques of cooking, and is absolutely unapologetic about the fact that time and effort spent in the kitchen is in no way mutually exclusive with having a good time. Fellow Briton Gary Rhodes, meanwhile, manages to combine a passion for fresh ingredients with an instinctual feel for the fine line that separates what is challengingly possible in the home kitchen to that which makes ambitious solo chefs pull their hair out, pour another glass of wine, and order pizza instead. And even Jamie Oliver, behind his luverly-jubberly cockney routine, still manages to cram an awful lot of ideas and “hey-I-didn’t-know-that” tips into his show.

It’s a shame, though, that a country that likes to think of itself as sophisticated about food and where a woman can lose the chance to lead her political party because her kitchen isn’t sleek enough is not producing more chefs who want to share their knowledge and do their part to increase viewers’ skills. Certainly there is a market for it, if the demand for books and programs by the likes of Lawson and Oliver is any indication. Maybe Perry and Co. are worried that if too many secrets get out, Australians will stop going to their restaurants for the really challenging stuff and start doing it themselves.

Gin is generally thought of as a historically British spirit – think District Commissioners touching it with bitters on the verandah at the end of a hard day administering their particular corner of the Empire, or the very English Col. Henderson berating the help for putting ice in the G&Ts in The Year of Living Dangerously – but it actually has a very international history.

Invented by the Dutch (hence the phrase “Dutch courage”) in the 1600s, the British took to it in droves during the reign of William and Mary, and later discovered mixing it with tonic water was an agreeable way to ward off malaria.

But today some of the best gin in the world isn’t being produced in Northern Europe, but much closer to home in New Zealand. Sold in a tall, sleek bullet of a bottle, South’s makers advise that their customers “leave the tonic in the fridge” – and they’re right. This is a gin that exists on an entirely different plane. Martini drinkers who would never think of sullying their cocktail shaker with anything but Bombay Sapphire will suddenly wonder how they had spent so many years in the wilderness.

Because the thing about South is that it is as smooth as a newborn’s skin, the result of a double-distilling process that creates a grain-neutral spirit that works as incredibly clean canvas for the brewer. From there, traditional ingredients such as juniper berries (of course), lemon, orange, and coriander seeds are added – as well as some very new world ingredients, including manuka berries and kawakawa leaves. The end result is a gin that, despite the high alcohol content, lets drinkers play with it almost like a wine, picking out various flavors that come and go as it passes through the mouth. Just a touch of vermouth and a quick shake-and-strain with some very cold ice is all that’s needed to bring it to life.

South’s parent company also sells fantastic premium vodka called 42 Below – a reference to their distillery’s line of latitude – in a variety of flavours. Their manuka honey vodka, chilled to the point where it starts to get a little syrupy, is particularly delicious.

Posted by InvestigateDesign at 08:37 PM | Comments (0)

FOOD: June 05, AU Edition

Eli Jameson writes that cooking is just like defending a besieged castle: sometimes, it’s done best with boiling oil

Pity the carnivore in love with the vegetarian. All of a sudden one of his most cherished loves – all things meaty and on a plate – is called into question by the new love in his (or occasionally her) life. Can a relationship last when two parties disagree on something as fundamental as whether or not the children’s song ‘Baa, Baa, Black Sheep’ is cause for hunger pangs? Or if tempeh is actually yummy, or something sent up to torture us from the depths of hell?

Samuel Jackson’s hit man in Pulp Fiction summed up the dilemma perfectly when he chowed down on one of his more hapless victims’ fast food order: ‘That is a tasty burger! Me, I can’t usually eat ‘em ‘cause my girlfriend’s a vegetarian. Which pretty much makes me a vegetarian.’

Now my wife is a vegetarian, but nowhere near as doctrinaire as Jackson’s movie girlfriend – the most flack I ever cop for frying up a load of bacon and slapping it on some toasted bread with good mayonnaise is caused by health concerns, rather than moral ones (‘are you sure one packet is meant to be eaten by just one person?’). Still, though, I know men whose vegetarian partners would leave them if they found out they regularly went to steakhouses for lunch. One friend’s vegetarian girlfriend even uses meat as a weapon: if things are going well, and she’s happy with the way she’s being treated, beef is on the menu. If not, the poor man is sent packing to the salad bar.

Since we set up housekeeping together a few years ago, I’ve had to figure out ways to cook dishes that satisfy both my wife’s moral code (apparently pancetta is not allowed, even if it’s pretty much dissolved in the final product) and my love of rich food. And in truth, cutting out meat has made me a better cook in a lot of ways: I’m much more conscious of the quality of ingredients, and have learned that vegetables have more of a role than as a creative garnish to a really good piece of meat. No longer do I believe a meal is balanced if it has been sprinkled with parsley.

In terms of technique, this newfound emphasis on cooking with things that grow on the ground rather than run around on it has taught me a renewed love for deep-frying. Perhaps it’s an atavistic masculine thing: if I can’t cook manly things like ribeye steaks, at least I can cook in a manly (i.e., dangerous) way that involves high temperatures and the potential for serious injury. Sort of like the way some guys cloak their creativity by expressing it through the medium of power tools. And unlike those wimps, I don’t even wear safety goggles.

Back in the days before I left my butcher for my wife, I still enjoyed the whole frying process – but never to the point where I would put a bench-top Fry-o-lator at the top of my Christmas list. But with a vegetarian to keep happy, deep frying preserves domestic harmony while also horrifying the health police. It’s also a great way to handle leftovers: golf balls of the previous night’s mushroom risotto can be coated in an egg and parmasean mix and fried in olive oil for a particularly decadent take on the Sicilian classic arancini.

But two of my favourite deep-fried treats involve that late-summer treat, the zucchini flower, and that winter delight, the artichoke heart. The former is my go-to, make-ahead starter course whenever the things come up in the local farmers market (good food retailers like the David Jones Food Hall also stock them - keep an eye out when the time is right); the latter, a fun way to bang and clatter around the kitchen and wind up with something that is, almost literally, heart-stoppingly good.


Three flowers makes for a good first-course serving; my supplier sells in packets of ten, so we generally tend to have five per person at my house. Waste not, want not, right? The goal here is to make the lightly-battered, delicate zucchini flower the perfect vehicle for an incredibly rich packet of warm, melted cheese and herbs.

You’ll need:
• 12 zucchini flowers, preferably with zucchini stems attached
• 150 grams mozzarella cheese
• 150 grams fresh parmagiano reggiano or grana padano
• 1 bunch chives, finely chopped
• 150 grams flour
• 200 ml beer
• Cayenne pepper
• Good sea salt
• Black pepper
• Olive oil
• Butter
• Lemon (optional)

1. First, make the batter: a good flour-based batter needs at least half an hour to rest and come together. In a wide bowl (you’ll be dipping in here later) mix the beer and the flour together, adding a dash of cayenne pepper, salt, and fresh-ground black pepper. What you’re looking for is a lightish consistency, not a heavy, gloppy batter.
2. Then, make the stuffing. Mix up the two cheeses, most of the chives, and some salt and pepper in a bowl (taste to make sure the balance is to your liking). Take the zucchini flowers and, being careful not to tear the leaves, open from the top and with your little finger or a small spoon pop out the stamen from inside the flower. Fill with stuffing, and twist shut, laying aside on a plate. These can sit in the fridge until you are ready to cook.
3. Get a good, heavy-bottomed pan out and fill with a centimetre’s worth of olive oil, and a good whack of butter to boot. Allow this to get quite hot – test it by dripping some batter into it; if it doesn’t immediately set to sizzling, the oil is too cold. Working in batches, dip the flowers into the batter using a turning motion that works with the direction in which you closed them, to help keep them sealed during frying. Place in the oil, and, turning occasionally, fry until golden brown. Set aside on paper towel, sprinkling with salt, until all the flowers are cooked. Place three on each plate, sprinkle with some of the leftover chives, and a squeeze of lemon juice (optional). Serve immediately.
Serves four.


Adapted from Julie Rosso and Sheila Lukins’ New Basics Cookbook, this recipe hails from Chicago’s celebrated Gordon Restaurant. Apparently this was a classic from the day the eatery opened in 1976, and the whole thing does have a bit of a wonderfully haut-1970s feel to it.

You’ll need:
For the béarnaise sauce:
• 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
• 2 tablespoons dry white wine
• 1 tablespoon chopped eschallots
• 1 teaspoon dried tarragon leaves
• 125g room-temperature unsalted butter (for this sort of sauce, it pays to buy some good-quality butter, like Lurpak)
• 3 egg yolks
• Salt and pepper

For the fritters:
• 1 cup flour
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• 1 cup milk
• 1 egg
• 1 teaspoon olive oil
• 3 cups corn or peanut oil
• 10 artichoke hearts, halved, rinsed, and dried

1. Make a batter by mixing the flour, baking powder, salt and pepper together in a bowl, and then combining with the milk, egg, and olive oil. Let this rest for at least a half-hour.
2. Knock up a quick béarnaise by boiling down the vinegar, wine, eschallots, and tarragon until reduced by half, and then allow to cool. Then, get some water to near-boiling in a double-boiler (or just use a steel bowl over a pot like I do), and in the top part, combine the vinegar mixture with the egg yolks, giving it a good whisk. Bit by bit, add the butter until the sauce thickens, season with salt and pepper, and set aside.
3. Working in batches, dip the artichokes in the batter and then fry in hot oil. Drain on paper towels, and serve on plates with a daub of béarnaise on each fritter.
Serves four.

Posted by InvestigateDesign at 11:56 AM | Comments (0)

FOOD: Apr 05, AU Edition


Eli Jameson says the best way to keep kids slim is to run them around – not tax their snacks

We Australians are a funny lot: we are either fiercely individualist and independent, reflecting the best of our settler virtues, or we curl up in a ball, scream “it’s all too hard!” and demand that the government come in and pass a law to solve our problem-of-the-moment.

This second instinct – which threatens to make Australia have more in common with California than just wine and weather – is kicking in more and more often these days. With an alleged “obesity crisis” in the news seemingly every week, an unholy alliance of journalists and public health professionals have teamed up, demanding that Something. Be. Done.


Up until recently, the focus has been largely on “junk” food and its advertising, and in a country with no guaranteed right to freedom of speech, there has not been much outcry at the idea of banning companies (specifically sinister American ones) from promoting their products and making them seem as attractive as possible. After all, the reasoning goes, if Australian kids aren’t subjected to all that evil advertising for maccas and other unhealthy foods, they’ll all of a sudden turn into those mythical European kids we hear so much about who skip to school with lunch pails full of roast squab, farmhouse bread, and little flagons of extra virgin olive oil.

Lately, though, the debate has taken a new and potentially expensive turn. The co-director of something called the NSW Centre for Public Health Nutrition, Karen Webb, has recently come out with a proposal that the government step in and regulate the price of food. “There needs to be some pricing regulation for lower energy-dense food versus the unhealthier alternative,” she recently told Sydney’s Sunday Telegraph. “In some areas, it is obvious there is a problem – for example, soft drinks are cheaper than milk.” Of course, this is not the sinister conspiracy Webb makes it out to be: mixing cornsyrup and water and getting it to market is a lot easier and cheaper than maintaining and milking a herd of cows and getting their perishable produce into refrigerated shelves.

There was a time when sane people would hear that some academic was trying to tax them into changing their eating habits, and they’d respond in a calm and clear voice that World War II-era rationing was over, and perhaps you’d just like to wait here while the men in white coats come? Yet, amazingly, Webb’s argument seems to have support: the Australian Medical Association, among others, has come out and said it would get behind the idea. After all, fat people have higher medical bills, higher medical bills are paid for by the taxpayer, therefore the taxes are just a way of making sure the large pay their fair share, and so on.

Of course, it’s also just another way to encourage the notion that everything one does as an individual, even what one eats, is the business of everyone else, including the state – and ignores the fact that “the personal is political” is not just a bad bumper sticker, but also a really bad idea in practice. The last thing we need are Cuba’s infamous block captains checking up on the contents of our fridges.
The reasons some kids are fat in this country are easy enough to see, and using taxes and levies to monkey with the prices of various foods will change nothing except the government’s bank balance. It’s hard to imagine the price point at which an over-indulged kid’s parent would stop fattening his or her offspring like a foie gras goose and start buying from the local wholefoods cooperative: would $8 for a Big Mac be too much? How about $12?

No, the problem isn’t that healthy food is too expensive, thus kids are too fat, and therefore a whole new government institution needs to be spawned to fix the problem. In fact, with a minimum of time, knowledge and skill, fresh fruit and vegetables can be found and cooked, often for far less than something pre-prepared.
Webb and other healthy-living advocates ignore the fact that there’s a lot more to an individual’s food choices, be he rich or poor, than sheer economics.

It’s that nobody makes their kids get out and do anything: everything from parental terror over drugs, booze and “stranger danger” to regulations such as bike helmet laws which make healthy activities that much more marginally difficult have turned Australia into a country where parents would rather let their kids sit around and play with their X-box, “so at least I know where they are and can keep an eye on them”.

And there’s a bigger point, too, that is often missed in this sort of discussion. It’s that no matter how much one likes fat-free food or organic food or expensive gourmet food, sometimes a Big Mac just tastes good. And no amount of tax is going to change that.

THIS 389 IS A 10
To hear the marketing boffins tell it, Australia’s vintners haven’t had a bad year for ages (or at least since they came on the job). If you believe the press releases – a.k.a. “tasting notes” – every vintage is a stand-out classic that’s destined for the cellar, and can just as easily be opened with tonight’s steaks as put away for the eighteenth birthday of a child who hasn’t even been conceived yet. So when Theresa at my local bottleshop told me the ’02 Penfold’s “Bin” range was tipped to be as good as those of the 1996 vintage, I was skeptical.

I shouldn’t have been. Especially at the higher end of the range, Penfold’s has come out with some real standouts this year – especially their Bin 407 Cabernet Sauvignon and their Bin 389 Cabernet-Shiraz blend (famously referred to as “poor man’s Grange”). Unlike some of their offerings of recent years, which I feel have often been over-oaked or over-fruited or otherwise just somehow out of balance, these manage to hit just about every note right, right now. One can only imagine how they’ll be in ten years time.

Although Penfold’s claims, in an admirable moment of honesty, that the 407 is a bit closed and needs a few years to open up, I found that after a really good swirl in the glass, it woke up and filled my nose with multiple layers of cabernet fruit. Even better, though, was the 389: I got started seriously drinking red wine in the early 1990s and, when I could afford it, 389 was my favourite. The 2002 vintage instantly reminded me why this was, as the fruit and oak are so elegant and perfectly matched that if they could enter “Dancing With the Stars”, they’d win hands down.

The rest of the range is good, too, with the Bin 138 being an easy-drinking favorite, full of approachable Grenache grapes that could make even die-hard white drinkers put the chardy back in the fridge.

Posted by InvestigateDesign at 10:14 AM | Comments (0)

FOOD: July 05, AU Edition

Eggs aren’t just for breakfast anymore, says Eli Jameson.
Just make sure they’re fresh

I had a friend, many years ago, who was terrified of eggs. He wasn’t plagued by dreams that involved giant eggs coming out of the sky, or having to stand up naked and give a speech to the annual convention of the Egg Marketing Board. Instead, it was the mere sight of an egg outside of its shell that absolutely horrified him. One of his more darkly hilarious monologues involved his horror at going out to a pizza restaurant in Paris once with a large group of relatives and an even larger hangover the day after his sister’s wedding, and having a pie with a quivering fried egg cracked into the middle of it placed in front of him by a smirking garçon.

Oddly, though, ‘hidden’ eggs didn’t bother him. Sauces made with eggs, meatloaves bound by eggs, French toast soaked in eggs – all of that was fine by him, so long as he wasn’t around to see the preparation. Which shows that even if he had a few screws loose in the food department (it would take a Freudian half a decade to work out how his mother gave him this particular phobia), he at least had pretty good taste.

Needless to say, I’ve never known this terror. Poached on toast with a sprinkling of Maldon sea salt; fried in butter and drizzled with hot sauce (Tabasco is great, but my new favourite is a Mexican brand called Tapatío); or gently scrambled with lots of cream, chives, and smoked salmon, I just don’t think it’s possible to go wrong with eggs. Unless, of course, one overcooks them.

But it is this first preparation, poaching, that seems to cause many home chefs the most grief. Raised to believe that poaching an egg involves some sort of complicated French alchemy involving whirlpools and vinegar, and until recently unable to get anything fresher than supermarket eggs that have spent days or weeks in trucks and on shelves, even many good cooks I know just don’t care enough to bother.

Which is a shame, given that it is so easy, and the results potentially fantastic. Nothing showcases a really good egg like poaching. All one needs to do is heat a pan of water – about an inch or so deep – with a slug of good white wine vinegar to the just-bubbling point, slide the eggs in one by one, and wait a few minutes before pulling them out again with a slotted spoon.

Which brings us to the first problem with eggs, no matter how they are prepared: most of the eggs found on supermarket shelves are not truly fresh, and are laid by chickens fed in an insipid diet that leaves their product as tasteless as the factory tomatoes over in the produce section. This means they won’t poach properly – instead, they’ll run all over the pan (don’t ask me to explain the science, just trust me on this). Worse, they’ll be tasteless. Although there are many instances where an ‘organic’ label is just a marketing con to separate greenies from their money – more on this in a subsequent column – when it comes to eggs, every input counts. If your farmer is playing music to his hens, make sure it’s calm and relaxing stuff. You can’t get good eggs from chooks whose nerves are being jangled up by a Wagner fetishist.

I get my eggs from my local farmers’ market, where they sell free-range eggs from Chanteclair Farms, outside Sydney. These eggs, which can also be found in some supermarkets, are always fresh, and the hens have been fed a special diet that makes their yolks rich, golden and creamy – as well as high in Omega-3, which fights cholesterol and helps mute the chant of
‘remember, thou art mortal’ that tends to play in the back of one’s head when one eats as many of the things as I do.

beans and eggs.jpgBEST-EVER BEANS AND EGGS
When the mercury is low and the bank balance lower (or even if it’s not), this is a great, cheap plate of comfort food that elevates its humble ingredients to far more than the sum of its parts.

You’ll need:
• 1 800g tin of Heinz baked beans in tomato sauce
• 1-2 brown onions
• 3-4 tablespoons brown sugar
• 50 grams butter
• Balsamic, red wine, or sherry vinegar
• White wine vinegar
• Dijon mustard
• 4 slices bread (I like Helga’s Light Rye)
• Salt & pepper
• 4 eggs

1. First, caramelize the onions. Slice the onions into thin half-moons, and put them into a wide pan over very low heat with the butter, and just let them sit there, stirring them occasionally. The more time you can devote to this, the better: you want them to slowly sweeten with just the barest of heat. About ten minutes in, throw some brown sugar in – this will really up the sweetness factor. After about twenty minutes, turn up the heat to medium and throw in the balsamic (or red wine or sherry) vinegar until it reduces, and then add the beans, stirring in Dijon mustard, salt, and pepper.

2. Meanwhile, get another pan out to poach the eggs. Put in an inch or so of water, add the white wine vinegar (this helps hold the eggs together), and heat to the barely-boiling. One by one, crack the eggs into a cup or small bowl and slide them into the water.

3. Toast the bread, and cut it into quarters. Assemble by putting half the beans on each of two plates, arranging the toast quarters (using the French and calling them croutons would be too pretentious in this case, even for me) around the beans, and putting two poached eggs on top of each. Season with a bit more salt and pepper, and serve.
Serves two.

eggs poaching in tomato sauce.jpg‘SPECIAL’ EGGS, ITALIAN STYLE
I first saw the great American-Italian chef Mario Battali make a variation of this in the U.S. many years ago; since then, I’ve discovered that poaching eggs in some other sort of sauce is a staple dish in many cultures. The Persians, in fact, do a remarkably similar version of this; they call it gojay farangi; in our house, what my three-year-old calls ‘special eggs’ is an unbreakable Saturday tradition.

You’ll need:
• Olive oil
• 1 good-sized brown onion
• 2-3 (or more) cloves garlic
• ½ birds eye or bullet chili, chopped (optional)
• 2 x 400g tins peeled Italian plum tomatoes
• Dried mint
• 4 slices of thick, crusty Italian bread
• 4 eggs

1. Make a simple red sauce. Dice the onions, slice the garlic, and throw it in a hot pan of olive oil with the optional chili. Feel free to throw in a slug of the previous night’s wine at this point if there is any left over; red sauces are a very personal thing. Add the tomatoes (make sure they’re imported from Italy; if you want to buy local, avoid Aussie tins and make the sauce with fresh tomatoes instead), breaking them up with a wooden spoon. Add some dried mint, which is my personal touch, and let simmer, uncovered

2. Once the sauce has cooked down a bit, use a spoon or a ladle to make a depression in the sauce, then crack an egg into the well, repeating until all the eggs are in. Cover and let simmer.

3. Meanwhile, toast the bread – I like to rub the slices with olive oil and a smashed clove of garlic, but that’s not 100 per cent necessary – under the grill. By the time the bread is ready, the eggs should be coming pretty close to done as well. Plate them up by putting two pieces of bread on each plate, then topping with an egg and red sauce.
Serves two.

Posted by InvestigateDesign at 12:33 AM | Comments (0)

November 27, 2007

Aspartame: Sweet Little Lies, Sept 07 issue

new soda (2)0013.jpg

How a popular artificial sweetener in all diet drinks,
“sugarless” gum, low-fat icecream and a host of “sugar-free” diet, fitness and drug products, is probably creating health problems for a good number of New Zealanders and Australians, argues campaigner CHRIS WHEELER

In 1987, a leading scientist issued a grim warning about the key ingredient in a wide range of food products: “I am a Pediatrician, a Professor of Pediatrics at Emory, and have spent 25 years in the biomedical science, trying to prevent mental retardation and birth defects caused by excess phenylalanine…I have considerable concern for the increased dissemination and consumption of the sweetener, aspartame, (1-methyl N-L-a-aspartyl-L- phenylalanine) in our world food supply.

“This artificial dipeptide is hydrolyzed by the intestinal tract to produce L-phenylalanine which in excess is a known neurotoxin. Normal humans do not metabolize phenylalanine as efficiently as do lower species such as rodents and thus most of the previous studies in Aspartame effects on rats are irrelevant to the question, ‘Does phenylalanine excess occur with Aspartame ingestion?’”

Professor Louis J. Elsas, II, M.D., Professor of Pediatrics, was testifying before the US Senate Committee of Labor and Human Resources on the subject, “Nutrasweet: Health and safety concerns”, November 3, 1987.

That was 20 years ago, and aspartame, or Additive 951, is still in use. As Elsas stressed at the time, the rat studies which were used to “prove” aspartame’s safety are inappropriate because human beings are not rats, a point which New Zealand and Australian food safety regulators, toxicologists, doctors and politicians still refuse to recognise. We, in possession of a bit more elementary commonsense, may choose to differ on the point of whether we are all being treated as the real laboratory rats by the time the sad – but also absurd – tale of aspartame is finally spelled out in these pages.

Rats are, of course, the basis of food safety science. We can’t afford to kill human beings in the course of supporting food industry profiteering. We use the poor rats – and dogs, cats, rabbits and monkeys – as part of our experiments that have seen some 80,000 toxic chemicals introduced for our “convenience” over the past 60 years by industry with often the barest attention paid to long-term health outcomes for actual human beings. Rats are – in a sense – our surrogate consumer advocates: they die on the Cross of science for our sins and bad science makes sinners of us all.

In the meantime it has often become difficult to find anyone in our immediate circle of friends who is really well, while a familiar pattern has developed of alarming new diseases and disorders developing at earlier and earlier ages alongside endemic infertility, an increased rate of birth defects and children and even babies falling sick with cancer – something previously unknown to our forefathers. But so familiar are we with the sea of synthetic chemicals washing around us we never attribute blame to them, in fact we even add them to our food to enhance flavour, “mouth feel”, smell, colour and, of course, sweetness – the thing we use aspartame for instead of ordinary old sugar or honey.

But what about our children?

Consider for a moment how many cities around New Zealand and Australia are opening new hospitals and setting up increased facilities especially for treating children who in ever-increasing numbers are going down with what used to be relatively rare adult diseases like diabetes, leukaemia, brain tumours and weird new diseases like autism and hyper-activity that turn tiny kids into monsters. Generations who had children before the 1950s would wonder why we so nonchalantly accept the huge toll of chronic disease in children that now exists, with so little comment and such apparent acceptance of the inevitable.

Meanwhile we carry on feeding ourselves and our children with the thousands of new convenience foods laden with a witch’s cauldron of chemical preservatives and additives, convinced by TV advertising and our faith in a vague common social mythology that neither our politicians, our health regulatory bureaucrats nor our complaisant food and beverage industries would deliberately poison us.

Worst of all, many of us are now feeding a new generation of human beings – our babies, our children and our pregnant selves – with a popular synthetic sweetener poison, aspartame/Additive 951 (also known as Nutrasweet, Equal, Spoonful, Benevia, Equal Measure, Canderel, etc), which has been reported in a long series of scientific, peer-reviewed studies as carrying the ability to maim, distort and disable intellectual and physical development from the foetal stage to adolescence.

In fact, over the 26 years that have passed since aspartame’s introduction into the world food chain we are now moving into generations of human beings whose parents and parents’ parents have been continuously exposed from breakfast to dinner-time to aspartame, monosodium glutamate and a baneful assemblage of human nervous system toxins that American neurosurgeon Dr Russell Blaylock has termed “excitotoxins”, chemical poisons that can over-excite the neural pathways to the point of nerve death. (1)

What is more, while we have finally accepted in our law courts and at a Government level that substances like Agent Orange, lead, and blue asbestos can medically disable particularly where long-term exposures are involved, we seem quite unable to extend that logic to the artificial dietary chemicals that we consume every day, year after year.

Little wonder then, that ill health and classrooms full of medicated children are part of normal, daily life and lunatic murders, road-rage, air-rage, depression and a steady media reportage of odd and irrational behaviour in people of all ages is just put down to “modern living.”

Unknown to most of us, and apparently ignored by the authorities we trust, aspartame use has been associated in the scientific literature with a huge list of medical and psychological disorders including irrational rage, headaches, numbness, fatigue, blurred vision and blindness, heart palpitations, brain lesions and tumours, memory loss, dizziness, muscle spasms, choking spasms, miscarriages, sexual dysfunction, irritability, anxiety attacks, vertigo, epileptic seizures, rashes, tachycardia, tinnitus, joint pain, nausea, mood alterations and depression, hearing loss, slurred speech, loss of taste, and insomnia, as well as eroding intelligence and short-term memory. It also helps trigger multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, chronic fatigue syndrome, Epstein Barr, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, mental retardation, lymphoma, and birth defects.

Since current Labour Party policy is recommending the use of diet products containing aspartame in our schools in order to counteract the growing obesity problem in our increasingly sedentary child population, we should pay attention to this recent warning from Professor Ralph G. Walton, M.D., Professor of Clinical Psychiatry, at the USA’s Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine:

To whom it may concern: Although undoubtedly well intentioned, any attempt to replace sugared beverages with aspartame containing diet products will, in my opinion, have a devastating impact on the health of our children and adolescents. The alarming increase in obesity, type II diabetes, and a wide variety of behavioural difficulties in our children is obviously attributable to multiple factors, but I am convinced that one powerful force in accentuating these problems is the ever increasing use of aspartame. Aspartame is a multipotential toxin and carcinogen. The dipeptide component of the molecule can alter brain chemistry, significantly changing the ratio of catecholamines to indolamines, with resultant lowering of seizure threshold, production of carbohydrate craving and in vulnerable individuals leading to panic, depressive and cognitive symptoms. The methyl ester component of aspartame is metabolized to methanol, which in turn is broken down into formic acid and formaldehyde. Methanol can lead to serious eye problems, formic acid and formaldehyde are potent carcinogens. The diet food industry and the F.D.A. (plus, also, our own NZFSA and FSANZ – ED) are fond of saying that aspartame is “the most studied product in history” with an outstanding safety record. In fact however virtually all of the studies in the medical literature attesting to its safety were funded by the industry, whereas independently funded studies, now numbering close to 100, identify one or more problems. It would be especially tragic if an attempt to improve the health of our children led to even greater exposure to this highly toxic product. Thank you for your attention to this urgent public health issue. Ralph G. Walton, M.D. Medical Director, Safe Harbor Behavioral Health Professor of Clinical Psychiatry, Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine Adjunct Professor Of Psychiatry Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine NOTE: Dr. Walton’s study on aspartame: “Adverse Reactions to Aspartame: Double-Blind Challenge in Patients from a Vulnerable Population,” is viewable on the website and in the folder

Junk food addicts in Rotorua put a baby through a spin drier. Apart from “P” ("pure" methamphetamine), was Diet Coke involved? Aspartame reacts with methamphetamine to produce totally lunatic behaviour. The 2002 Lundy murders down in Palmerston North were committed by a husband and father, Mark Lundy, who slugged back over a litre of aspartame-containing beverages every day before finally murdering his wife and daughter. How many of the truckies and car drivers who regularly lose control of their vehicles on straight New Zealand roads or drive onto level crossings in front of approaching trains were consuming one or more of the aspartame products readily available on petrol stop counters? Airline pilots, using aspartame products to keep down their weight in a sedentary job, report suddenly experiencing dizziness and loss of spatial perception at critical points in landing planes filled with hundreds of the trusting public. Henri Paul, Princess Diana’s driver in that fatal Alma Tunnel car smash in Paris, was a heavy Diet Coke consumer and the medical drugs he was taking not only interact negatively with aspartame, but were prescribed in the first place to deal with symptoms probably caused by aspartame use. Tony Blair, George Bush and Bill Clinton all steadily consume Diet Coke according to the evidence of TV news clips. One could say Monica Lewinsky and the whole Iraqi bloodbath may have been influenced by the Clinton/Bush/Blair addiction to aspartame, a chemical closely connected to irrational behaviour.

Aspartame products like Diet Coke, Wrigleys gum, Lemsip, and Roche’s fizzy Vitamin B tabs are so constantly advertised on TV and present in our brainwashed lives that we take them for granted and never for a moment examine the hidden implications behind an additive our experts assure us is completely without blame.

And let’s not forget little Abby Cormack down in Wellington at this point. Her addiction to sugar-less Wrigley’s chewing gum with its direful health consequences occupied our media’s fleeting attention span for a few seconds in recent times. Of course the arrival of American anti-aspartame activist Betty Martini in support of Abby’s growing campaign wasn’t something our newspapers, particularly the NZ Herald, wanted to know about. The media, of course, can’t afford to rile Coca Cola or Wrigleys’ New Zealand representatives and their law hacks – their aspartame products bring in a huge advertising dollar.

In fact the one distinguishing feature of the short-lived anti-aspartame campaign last August/July (2007) was just how the New Zealand media steered clear of giving ANY space to the issue of what Kiwis could be doing to their health by making famous brand diet products containing a junk poison actually extracted from virtual raw sewage (genetically engineered E. coli bacteria are used to produce aspartame) part of their daily life.

The NZ Woman’s Weekly, which might be considered supportive of Kiwi women, even thought a story about aspartame hazards directed at women, who are the largest group consuming aspartame products, was somehow inappropriate given that their pages are usually devoted to much more serious issues like Paris Hilton’s stint in jail.

One shouldn’t expect the New Zealand Food Safety Authority (NZFSA) to take much interest in the issue. They refused to let Betty Martini speak (July 19) to their oddly-named Consumer Forum, which is stacked with people happy to act as a rubber stamp for Authority policy – policy which could be summed up under the rubric “Anything good for industry is good enough for the NZFSA.” Acting CEO Sandra Daly has herself confessed to using aspartame-containing products in firm belief in their virtue and the NZFSA vigorously defend the sweetener, convinced by all the shonky science from food industry junk “experts” and an American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) loaded down with ex-chemistry industry flakes that aspartame is the best thing since sliced bread. Regulatory authorities worldwide – even at the level of United Nations and European Union involvement – are hardly any better and seem to have a revolving door relationship with the chemical and food industries. Who else, after all, is going to give chemists and toxicologists the sort of salaries their university educations lead them to expect?

“Food is just chemicals” and “People are just chemicals” is the popular mythology inherent in a science and medical education these days, so why doubt aspartame, which, when all is said and done, never kills you straight away and is “just another chemical?”

Since I first became aware of problems being caused by aspartame back in 1990, I’ve been taken aback by the relaxed attitude of the science and medical community towards the whole chemical food additive and pesticide chemical residue issue as it relates to the human food chain. More alarming still is the manner in which ordinary people can put up with huge physical and mental damage from addiction to aspartame products like diet soft drinks without ever questioning the most obvious item(s) in their diet that could be causing the problem.

When I finally got to cross-examine Abby Cormack I was astounded to discover that sugar-free chewing gums were only the tip of the iceberg.

She’d been consuming aspartame products for a total of nine years and the gum was just the last straw to break the camel’s back and cause her total collapse into massive depression, muscular dysfunction, skin problems and other chronic symptoms that half a dozen medical specialists and numerous hospital visits could provide no answer to. Simply stopping her daily use of sugar-free gum produced an immediate initial cure. Now that she has been more than forty days free of ALL aspartame products practically all her medical symptoms have disappeared and Abby has become a leading New Zealand activist in a call from the Soil & Health Association, the Safe Food Campaign and the ADHD Association for a total ban on aspartame.

The whole aspartame issue becomes, in fact, a clear indication of the huge blind-spot we all collectively have towards the things we do every day and somehow it exposes a defect in our nature that even rats and other lower order species don’t appear to suffer from.

For unlike us, laboratory rats avoid aspartame wherever possible.
In fact when US corporate additive producer G. D. Searle (later Monsanto/Nutrasweet) and Food & Drug Administration (FDA) food additive regulators tried to force-feed the stuff to rats as part of the Mickey Mouse pseudo-science used to validate such additions to our diet worldwide, the rats – being much cleverer than us – carefully isolated the chemical grains of aspartame from the food it was mixed with and left the puzzled “scientists” and “experts” with neat little piles of the poison in the corner of their cages. Rats apparently don’t need experts to tell them what is safe. They rely on commonsense.

We are the laboratory rats!

Without a question of doubt, we are the real rats in the laboratory for a large number of food additive poisons in the food chain, but we are unlikely to be exposed to anything much more virulent and disabling than the scientifically established neurotoxin aspartame, (2) officially known as Additive E951 or 951 and technically defined as L-Aspartyl-l-phenylalanine methyl ester, 98%, aspartame CAS #22839-47-0, C14H18N2O5, which is now present as a sweetener in literally thousands of supermarket food and beverage products, as well as medicines and popular supplements. Patrol the shelves of your local supermarket, health shop and pharmacy and see for yourself. Look at the ingredient lists of your favourite foods and beverages and establish your own personal damage control.

Don’t expect much sympathy for your sudden interest in what goes into your food, least of all from our doctors, health authorities and politicians.

The only doctor in the whole of Oceania to stick her head over the parapets and condemn aspartame in public is Australian Sandra Cabot, in her Liver Cleansing Diet book series. And while Sue Dengate’s Australian food allergy activist group, the Food Intolerance Network (Website: covers a huge range of food additives and the problems they cause, aspartame only gets a mention among the huge list of other problem-causing chemical additives Sue has to deal with. Jenny Scott of the Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) Association in Auckland and our long-standing health and organics campaign association, Soil & Health (publishers of “Organic NZ) are similarly stretched. Voluntary organisations simply lack the essential resources to carry out a job we actually employ the NZ Food Safety Authority and Food Standards
Australia New Zealand to carry out using our tax dollars.

In a society with citizens more concerned and knowledgeable about food safety, NZFSA and FSANZ wouldn’t last longer than the time it took to close down both offices and turn their collective staffs out onto the street. But we all currently seem to accept a vague social mythology that says both organizations are doing their job. Truth is, they are not. They rely solely on suspect data from the food industry and from official regulatory bodies like the FDA and European Union and United Nations food safety qangos, who defer to experts reliant on industry for employment and funding.

The simple fact is, paid employment defending the public’s interest in genuine, ethical food safety does not exist outside the odd Green-type political party as in Europe or New Zealand, where isolated politicians like our own Sue Kedgley are prepared to devote a large slice of their life to coming up to speed with the essential scientific and political background knowledge essential to understanding the nature of a chemical additive like aspartame.

The media, watchful for their industry advertisers, completely ignore the toxin and treat yours truly and the handful of food safety consumer activists like Jenny Scott, Meriel Watts, Alison White, Patricia Holborow and Sue Kedgley (the whole food safety issue is women-led), as obsessives with too much free time on our hands. It’s only the small band of phenylketonurics among us who pay attention to the only toxicity warning appearing on aspartame products – “PHENYLKETONURICS: Contains phenylalanine” or simply the term “phenylalanine”, which means nothing to the rest of us.

Phenylketonurics suffer from an inherited genetic disease known as phenylketonuria (PKU), a severe allergy to phenylalanine. They must be particularly careful about what they eat and normally follow a carefully tailored diet which excludes high protein foods. Their motivation comes from the fact that they can suffer permanent brain damage if exposed to the raw synthetic phenylalanine which comes as part of the complex aspartame molecule. For the rest of us it’s “just another additive” and “the Government wouldn’t allow that sort of thing if it was bad for us.”

Well, Governments regularly do some pretty stupid things, and remaining willfully ignorant about something you may be consuming every day which has a long history of fraud, shonky science, corrupt politics and health hazard is certainly not bliss – aspartame can kill and “death” is one of the outcomes underlined in court documents filed as part of major class action litigation against the aspartame-using food industry currently in progress in the USA. (3) About this course of events, however, the Australasian media has so far been completely silent. It’s a can of worms no one wants to open in this country where aspartame is in thousands of products and approved by Government edict.

The silence is also very much a phenomenon of our south Pacific isolation. Particularly since release of recent Italian data (4) on aspartame’s firm connection with cancer there has been growing involvement of Northern Hemisphere media in discussing
the issue. In fact ever since Professor Olney pointed to an increase in brain cancers in November 1996, drawing attention to a rising curve in brain tumours in the USA starting within a year of the introduction of aspartame/additive 951 in 1981, there has been growing concern in the science community over the continued presence of aspartame in popular diet beverages like Diet Coke and in Wrigley’s chewing gum and a host of Weightwatchers, fitness, health and diet products (read food and beverage labels for 951, “artificial sweetener” and/or “Phenylalanine” warnings).

This concern reached critical mass recently with the publication in peer-reviewed medical journals of two intensive studies by the Italian Ramazzini Foundation, in 2005 and 2007 (4), that demonstrated a clear connection between aspartame consumption and a variety of cancers including brain tumours – something that the very first research on aspartame in the 1970s indicated before aspartame approval became a political issue pushed through the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) by the Ronald Reagan White House administration in payment for election campaign funding and support from the chemical industry (G.D.Searle and Monsanto in particular).

Of course in the normal, commonsense world where we, the ordinary public live, we should be able to say “Well, if there’s a problem over aspartame’s level of toxicity and other issues of potential hazard, we don’t want it in the food chain!” This is the sensible response. What nearly everyone in New Zealand – and certainly in NZFSA’s ironically-named Consumer Forum – doesn’t know, however, is how heavily politicised the whole issue of the original approval process for aspartame was under FDA governance.

Aspartame, as we have seen, is fully approved as part of our food chain by the combined regulatory agency, Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) and our own NZFSA. FSANZ was formerly known under the rubric of ANZFA (Australia New Zealand Food Authority), but changed its name, according to popular Internet myth, because when you do a spell-check the suggested correction for ANZFA is always “unsafe”!
“Unsafe” is certainly the least of the criticisms one might make about Additive 951/aspartame. The synthetic sweetener rapidly breaks down in the human body into three chemicals hazardous to human health: – (1.) Aspartic acid, (around 40%); (2.) Phenylalanine, (around 50%); and (3.) Methanol (10%).

This breakdown process takes place spontaneously at a temperature of 30 degrees Celsius and happens immediately a diet product enters the human body (we operate normally at a temperature of 37 degrees).

Hence a can of Diet Coke exposed in those bins outside a service station on a hot day – a common sight anywhere in New Zealand and Australia – will already be laced with a cocktail of dangerous toxins as will any diabetic bakery and Weight Watchers product containing aspartame which has been heated in its processing. Any analytic laboratory can prove this point for you for a cost of less than $100.

The science behind methanol or “wood alcohol” toxicity is beyond debate. It’s something you learn about early in a chemistry training because it’s in every laboratory and is similar in some of its effects to ethanol, the ordinary drinking alcohol in all booze of whatever description. Easy access to methanol is a standing temptation at medical school and chemistry class parties, but it can blind you. Too much ethanol will normally only cause vomiting and loss of consciousness. Methanol is another story – it’s quickly absorbed through the stomach and small intestine mucosa and converted into formaldehyde, a severe poison and carcinogen. Then, via a process called aldehyde hydrogenase, it is converted to formic acid.

These two metabolites of methanol are toxic and cumulative. They can make you go blind and they can quickly kill you – which they do, often.

Anyone who consumes a litre or more of Diet Coke or some other aspartame-containing beverage per day is probably already near the limit for chronic methanol poisoning (6) and will be suffering muscle pain, headaches, migraines, sleep problems, dizziness and/or seizures, amongst other health problems. This is because aspartame breaks down extremely rapidly in a liquid form.

The well-known Hollywood actor, Michael J. Fox, sponsored by Diet Pepsi, has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease.
He received free supplies of the sponsoring diet product. Parkinson’s is a well-diagnosed outcome from excess aspartame consumption, as is Alzheimer’s. Fox denies a connection to his Pepsi consumption, but aspartame and Parkinson’s – and Pepsi sales – flourish on such denials.

At the present time, in North America, there have been a rash of court cases and coroners’ court hearings over sudden deaths from acute methanol poisoning, which we, with our knowledge here, can connect to the chronic aspartame product consumption of the victims. Similar cases are probably occurring all over New Zealand and Australia, but may easily be attributed to other causes such as a heart attack unless a careful autopsy is carried out and a history of aspartame use discovered.

As this story was going to press the ad hoc group of activists publicizing Betty Martini’s anti-aspartame speaking tour of New Zealand main centres were collating records on the dozens of New Zealanders who have been contacting us over the severe medical problems they have been suffering due to addictive consumption levels of aspartame products like diet drinks and sugar-free gum. In every case they were completely let down by our conservative medical profession, who appear to be almost completely oblivious to the medical conditions caused by aspartame and listed earlier.

It’s the same story – and even worse – in the home of aspartame.
Chuck Fleming’s wife, Diane, is currently serving a 50 year sentence down in Virginia, USA, for supposedly killing him with a methanol overdose.

Chuck was a fitness fanatic, body builder and basketball player who drank litres of aspartame-containing diet drinks every day as part of his fitness routine and suddenly dropped dead – hardly surprising under the circumstances. The autopsy showed chronic methanol poisoning, enlarged heart, fatty liver, pulmonary oedema, etc – all symptoms of aspartame abuse. Police indicted Diane for poisoning her husband even though she helped them try and find out why he died and passed a lie detector test with flying colours.

Says methanol expert Dr Woodrow Monte (presently in retirement down in Tim Shadbolt’s Invercargill) “When diet sodas and soft drinks, sweetened with aspartame, are used to replace fluid loss during exercise and physical exertion in hot climates, the intake of methanol can exceed 250 mg/day or 32 times the US Environmental Protection Agency’s recommended limit of consumption for this cumulative poison.” (6)

Dr. James Bowen, an authority on aspartame toxicity, explains that the heart muscle is very sensitive to methanol alcohol poisoning and any stress on the muscle from such a source often results in sudden death. He says: “The aspartame molecule is an alcohol poison about 20,000 times as toxic a poison as ethanol (regular old sipping, or beverage alcohol) on a per weight basis.” (7)
NZFSA and FSANZ, secure in their ivory towers down in Wellington, simply say “this can’t happen.”

Methanol’s hazard is exacerbated by the presence of the two amino-acids Aspartic acid (aspartate) and phenylalanine, in the break-down of aspartame in the human body. These two synthetic toxins (in their aspartame form) have a multiplying or synergistic role in methanol chemistry inside our bodies, a role which is still being studied and discussed in the scientific literature.

But again, their independent role as toxins is not subject of debate unless you are an “expert” under contract to the aspartame-using food industry or, perhaps, a food safety regulator working for FSANZ or the FDA.

Phenylalanine in its synthetic form causes the most pernicious problems among aspartame addicts (Yes! It’s highly addictive!).
The amino-acid lowers the epilepsy seizure threshold in the human brain and depletes serotonin, triggering manic depression, suicidal tendencies, panic attacks, anxiety, insomnia, mood swings, paranoia, hallucinations and irrational rage. Airline pilots have a standard direction within their own inner circles and publications advising them to stay well clear of all diet products containing aspartame, following some alarming aspartame-induced lapses of control and judgement at the controls of passenger jet aircraft which have resulted in pilot-deregistration. (8)

Regarding the serious issue of who is in control of your airline flight to Sydney, the pilot or a diet drink, Dr Russell Blaylock warns “Some of the more common complaints (from pilots using aspartame products) include, disorientation, difficulty thinking and concentrating, visual blurring or even monocular blindness, seizures and heart failure. It is well known that the ingredients in aspartame, as well as its breakdown products, have deleterious effects on the nervous system and retina. For example, phenylalanine is a precursor of the catecholamine neurotransmitters in the brain and elevated levels in the brain have been associated with seizures.

It should also be pointed out that these catecholamines are metabolized to form other excitotoxins and peroxide products that can lead to elevated free radical formation and lipid peroxidation within the neurons. Likewise, aspartic acid (an excitotoxin) acts as an excitatory neurotransmitter and can lower the seizure threshold making a seizure more likely. The additive effect of aspartic acid and phenylalanine would significantly increase the likelihood of a seizure, especially under hypoglycemic conditions. This would occur if a diet drink is substituted for a meal, or if one is on a stringent diet.” (9)

The confusion our regulators suffer over aspartame’s potential hazard lies in a very common area of ignorance suffered particularly by toxicologists, dieticians and, in fact, anyone with an elementary background in university-level chemistry – the sort of people who, in other words, end up as “experts” in our national and state regulatory system. Both aspartic acid/aspartate and phenylalanine are common amino-acids found in nature in foods as well as in the human body. They are protein building blocks and wherever they occur in nature and in our diet they are always combined and accompanied by a huge array of associated bio-chemicals and substances with which our digestive system and physiology is entirely familiar.
They NEVER appear as independent ISOLATED amino-acids as they do in their aspartame break-down form, and in a healthy human body their complex action in the functioning of our brains and nervous systems is carefully monitored by a huge cellular system of biological checks and balances.

Like anything that may be OK in moderation, this system is quite unable to deal with the flood of free aspartic acid, phenylalanine and methanol resulting from direct aspartame consumption.
The human body, being the glorious mechanism that it is, will try to compensate, but under the steady assault from a poison like diet soft drinks, will eventually weaken and sicken with any combination of over a thousand symptoms.

Dr H.J. Roberts, author of a leading text on the medical damage caused by aspartame, Aspartame Disease: An Ignored Epidemic, has become an acknowledged world expert on aspartame poisoning, its diagnosis and treatment at his Florida clinic. He now lists over 1,400 medical symptoms and disorders triggered by aspartame, collated from the thousands of patients who pass through his clinic’s doors. His book itself is based on the detailed case histories of 1,200 patients whose symptoms of disease disappeared when aspartame was removed from their diet. He estimates:

“Hundreds of thousands of consumers, more likely millions, currently suffer major reactions to products containing aspartame. Today, every physician probably encounters aspartame disease in everyday practice, especially among patients with illnesses that are undiagnosed or difficult to treat.” (10)

Consumption – and particularly HEAVY consumption – of aspartame-containing food and beverage products, is the equivalent in logic of tipping a can of petrol over your car’s efficiently working engine and setting the whole engine compartment on fire! Of course, petrol drives a car’s engine, but it must be in the right place under the correct controls. In flames, the car may continue to run for a little while longer, but the fire will eventually consume it and put it off the road for good.

What our bodies are not familiar with and what our bodies cannot cope with and remain healthy are the three artificially-created chemicals that result from the immediate break-down of aspartame as it passes the 30 degrees C threshold – aspartic acid, phenylalanine and methanol. But none of this fazes our health regulators.
FSANZ and NZFSA say methanol appears in many items of normal diet, like fruit, without causing damage. But natural items of diet with a methanol content invariably contain ethanol, which is a natural buffer against methanol poisoning. (6) Aspartame products contain no such buffer. Ethanol is not present in aspartame. Our regulators appear ignorant of this elementary fact.

FSANZ and NZFSA deny that aspartame toxins can pass over the blood/brain barrier – a crucial point in understanding how aspartame toxins circulating in the blood can cross into brain cells and interfere in brain chemistry. Their assertion is based on seriously out-of-date aspartame “science” held in their standard database and used to answer public queries. The problem is that this “science” is based on shonky data proven some years ago to be the work of paid science hacks working for the aspartame industry. (11) However, the very fact that all aspartame products must – in theory – carry the “PHENYLKETONURICS: Contains phenylalanine” warning gives the lie to this claim from our regulators.

The synthetic phenylalanine overdose contained in aspartame easily crosses the blood/brain barrier just as the ordinary ethanol alcohol in our booze does and just as the toxins in all the other recreational drugs we consume, like “P”, Ecstasy, heroin, cocaine, etc, do. Our drugs of choice, in fact, would lose their popularity straight away if this mystical “blood/brain barrier” wasn’t so easily breached in the first place.

Under detailed cross-examination NZFSA and FSANZ representatives invariably fudge these issues and display denial symptoms and ignorance of the most basic facts about this toxin.

And it’s not just our own poorly-educated regulators and the American FDA who approve the product.

Tens of thousands of tonnes of aspartame are poured into the world food chain with the full approval of the World Health Organisation, European Union, and in fact every regulatory agency from here to China – the country which is presently competing with the USA to become the top supplier of aspartame on the planet. It seems we all can’t get enough of aspartame.

Aspartame, of course, is highly addictive, just like our other legal drugs, nicotine and ethanol/alcohol. What better way of ensuring huge annual profits to the food and additive chemical industries than by inserting a guaranteed, legally permitted and “scientifically approved” additive like aspartame into our supermarket food chain?

But it doesn’t get the rat vote! And with that curious intelligence displayed by “lower” species everywhere, cockroaches won’t eat it, cats and dogs won’t eat it, ants won’t eat it and flies won’t eat it – but politicians, food regulators and medical professionals worldwide consider it safe enough for us, and dutifully out here in God’s Own Country many of us are consuming it in such large quantities that the products are among top-selling supermarket items and the food industry is laughing all the way to the bank.

“Hundreds of thousands of consumers, more likely millions, currently suffer major reactions to products containing aspartame. Today, every physician probably encounters aspartame disease in everyday practice, especially among patients with illnesses that are undiagnosed or difficult to treat”.

Many diet products contain aspartame, though it's health effects have been debated throughout the years. Get some health information on artificial sweeteners to see how they may cause serious health problems like diabetes and obesity.


Of course the main reason aspartame is approved in New Zealand is because aspartame is approved in the United States. Aspartame is a heavily politicised issue because it is a major American corporate profit base worth billions of dollars and, as every New Zealand adult should know by now, we usually bend over backwards to please Uncle Sam.

We may pretend to be anti-nuclear, but even George Bush knows that’s a snow job kept in circulation to fox the natives. The USA maintains a major US National Security Agency spy base down at Black Birch Stream near Blenheim and US Central Intelligence Agency planes involved in “renditioning” suspected “terrorists” to torture chambers in North Africa and Afghanistan have been spotted flying in and out of the US Deep Freeze programme’s Harewood, Christchurch air base.

Sucking up to the USA is good politics. Monsanto and the corporate chemical industry have helped put every American president in power since the 2nd World War and good relations with the USA means keeping American corporates happy and ensuring their products pass through our regulatory process virtually automatically providing they have the FDA stamp of approval. In that respect NZFSA’s present acting CEO, Sandra Daly is kept completely in the dark. FSANZ is in the same position.

The immediate former US Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, is a central player in the aspartame approval drama, funnily enough, and the full story of what happened is like an episode out of The Sopranos, but I’ll try to keep it brief.

The scene opens on January 10, l977. FDA Chief legal Counsel Richard Merrill has been considering the huge list of violations of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, committed by G. D. Searle under the administration of former Ford White House Chief of Staff, Donald Rumsfeld.

Rumsfeld has been trying to get his pet project, the super-sweet chemical aspartame, through the FDA’s approval process for a new food product.

Approval of the product is worth billions of dollars to Searle and a huge bonus for Rumsfeld. The problem is, the FDA’s scientific team consider the sweetener is a dangerous poison with the potential to kill. Not only this, but they have amassed a pile of evidence that Searle, with Rumsfeld’s obvious approval, have gone through vital laboratory test reports on aspartame safety, eliminating evidence that the product maimed, disabled and killed test animals.

All the evidence for Searle malpractice has been assembled by the FDA’s Jerome Bressler into an important document – now known as the Bressler Report – that anyone can read (it’s on the official Federal record and available on As a consequence, a Richard Merrill writes a 33-page letter, recommending to U.S. Attorney Sam Skinner that a grand jury investigate Searle for “apparent violations of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, 21 U.S.C.331(e), Act 18 USC 1001, for “their willful and knowing failure to make reports to the Food and Drug Administration required by the Act 21, U.S.C. 355 (i) and for concealing material facts and making false statements in reports of animal studies conducted to establish the safety of (aspartame).” The legal machinery creaks into action, but the whole process is hampered by the fact that the corporate chemical industry pretty effectively controls Washington.

In the meantime it’s suddenly January 21, 1981, the day after Ronald Reagan, a former B-grade Hollywood actor takes office as U.S. President.

He’s sailed into the White House on a huge raft of election funding from corporate America and G. D. Searle in particular and the word is out that he will not forget his friends. Donald Rumsfeld is still G.D. Searle’s president and a firm Reagan favourite. Rumsfeld has been greasing Republican palms all round Washington for the past few years and telling the Searle sales force “he would call in all his markers and that no matter what, he would see to it that aspartame would be approved that year.” (5)

That same day G.D. Searle reapplied to the FDA for the approval of aspartame despite the fact that up-to-date this approval has been denied pending the prosecution of the company. No problem.

Reagan and Rumsfeld already have a staunch Republican hack ready for the job as new FDA Commissioner – Arthur Hayes, who in short order overrules the FDA’s own board of inquiry who have refused to approve aspartame and gives the product the FDA’s stamp of approval.

It’s well-known in Washington circles, however, that aspartame is not just any old political FDA approval, but is, in fact, a general signal to corporate America that Reagan means business and Big Business at that. The signal in particular, tells Big Business that from now on all the brakes are off, tricky regulations about silly things like public health and safety are gone for good and “Let’s get together and make money, boys!”

Arthur Hayes is quickly bored by his job at the FDA, at any rate, and before too long goes off to work for notorious PR flack firm Burson-Marsteller, who just coincidentally, you understand, happen to be retained by G.D. Searle! At about the same time, Federal attorney Sam Skinner – remember, he’s the one who’s been assigned to prosecute Searle for fraudulent tests in their original aspartame application? – gets “an offer he can’t refuse” from – Guess who! – Searle’s lawyers! – and goes off to work for them for a reputed $US1,000 per day, effectively sabotaging the whole Federal case and, of course, effectively ending any litigation threat against Searle for its deliberately falsified aspartame data.

The whole debauched exercise is the start of a long-standing criticism of US federal authorities – and the FDA in particular – that they have a “revolving door” relationship with G.D. Searle, Monsanto and the chemical industry in general. And, of course, as far as NZFSA and FSANZ is concerned this whole shoddy exercise just never happened. But it did, and it’s recorded in US Senate records. (5)

1. Russell L. Blaylock, M.D., “Excitotoxins; The Taste That Kills”,
Health Press, Santa Fe, N.M. 87504, 1994.
2. John W. Olney and others, “Increasing Brain Tumor Rates: Is There a Link to Aspartame?” Journal Of Neuropathology And Experimental Neurology Vol. 55, No. 11 (November 1996), pgs.
1115-1123. James Bowen, M.D. “Aspartame Murders Infants in violation of Title 18, Chapter 50A, Sec 1091-3 of the Domestic Genocide Code” see . Also Dr. H.J. Roberts, “Does Aspartame Cause Human Brain Cancer?” Journal Of Advancement In Medicine Vol. 4, No. 4 (Winter 1991), pgs. 231-241, and his book, Aspartame Disease: An Ignored Epidemic, Sunshine Sentinel Press, Florida, USA, 2001, Website:
3. The suits were filed in Shasta, Sonoma and Butte County, California early in 2004. They allege that the food companies committed fraud and breach of warranty by marketing products to the public such as diet Coke, diet Pepsi, sugar free gum, Flintstone’s vitamins, yoghurt and children’s aspirin with the full knowledge that aspartame, the sweetener in them, is neurotoxic. Defendants in the lawsuits include Coca-cola, PepsiCo, Bayer Corp., the Dannon Company, William Wrigley Jr. Company, Walmart, ConAgra Foods, Wyeth, Inc., The NutraSweet Company, and Altria Corp. (parent company of Kraft Foods and Philip Morris).
4. Morando Soffritti, Fiorella Belpoggi, Davide Degli Esposti, Luca Lambertini, Eva Tibaldi, and Anna Rigano, Cesare Maltoni Cancer Research Center, European Ramazzini Foundation of Oncology and Environmental Sciences, Bologna, Italy, “First Experimental Demonstration of the Multipotential Carcinogenic Effects of Aspartame Administered in the Feed to Sprague-Dawley Rats,” Environmental Health Perspectives, Volume 114, Number 3, March 2006;
5. Gordon, Gregory, 1987. “NutraSweet: Questions Swirl,” UPI Investigative Report, 10/12/87. Reprinted in US Senate report (1987, page 483-510).
6. Dr. Woodrow C. Monte, “Aspartame: Methanol and the Public Health,”
Journal of Applied Nutrition, Volume 36, 1984, No. 1, page 42-54.
7 See Dr James Bowen on aspartame website.
8. “Aspartame – Not for the Dieting Pilot?” Aviation Safety Digest, Spring 1989; Hicks, M., “Nutrasweet … too good to be true?” General Aviation News, July 1989; “High on High”, Plane & Pilot, January 1990.
9. ASPARTAME AND PILOTS – Position paper by Russell Blaylock, M.D., neurosurgeon on in section “Aviation Dr. Blaylock’s position paper on aspartame and pilots.” Also see
10. Pat Thomas, “Aspartame – The Shocking Story of the World’s Bestselling Sweetener,” The Ecologist, Vol. 35, No.7, September 2005, pages 35 – 46.
11. Nisperos-Carriedo, Myrna O., Philip E. Shaw, 1990. “Comparison of Volatile Flavour Components in Fresh and Processed Orange Juices,” Journal of Agriculture & Food Chemistry, Volume 38, page 1048-1052.
For details of how to get aspartame out of your system check the Websites –,, and the Aspartame Toxicity Center, A new video exposing the aspartame industry is “Sweet Misery: A Poisoned World”, available from Email:, Tel (USA) – 520 – 624 -9710. Also see the medical text on aspartame: “Aspartame Disease: An Ignored Epidemic”, available online from or Tel (USA) 1 800 827 7991 H. J. Roberts, M.D. (along with other books and tapes). Dr Roberts’ book contains a chapter on trial lawyers and drug interactions since aspartame is a severely neurotoxic drug and class action litigation has already begun. See also books on aspartame by neurosurgeon Russell Blaylock, MD, “Excitotoxins: The Taste That Kills”, and “Health & Nutrition Secrets To Save Your Life.” See websites above for details. The latter book tells aspartame victims what they have to avoid and why, and explains how a victim can re-build their immune system. Dr. Blaylock also has a book on Cancer Strategies.
With aspartame having caused so many tumours in original studies this is a helpful resource.

Posted by Ian Wishart at 09:29 PM | Comments (0)

August 12, 2007

The Vintner's Luck: March 07 issue



How NZ and Australian wines took on the world, and won

It’s not often we get a chance to celebrate international success these days, but as SELWYN PARKER in London discovered, they are seriously devouring the fruit of our vines, there:

Although it was in the depths of winter - January 15-16 to be precise, there was hardly a spare seat at Lord’s cricket ground in London. The event was under cover and it was at the famed Nursery Pavilion End of the ground. The occasion? The annual tasting of the New Zealand vintage when 120 Kiwi vignerons come over to present their creations in the world’s most important export market.

Every wine-exporting country judges its success by its performance in the British market, more specifically by percentage share and by average retail price per bottle. The tasting is both a proud showcase and a nerve-wracking examination for the New Zealand industry as buyers, wine pundits and oenophiles in general swirl, smell, see, sniff, spit and sometimes swallow their way through 600 wines.

How times have changed. Twenty-six years ago, when the British wine establishment was invited to the inaugural tasting of New Zealand wines, it was held in an upstairs room in New Zealand House. Those journalists and members of the trade who bothered to turn up only did so because they were intrigued to learn we produced something other than lamb, wool, butter, kiwifruit and All Blacks. New Zealand wine!

It was almost a contradiction in terms. In the eighties hardly anybody in Britain who wasn’t a New Zealander drank our beer (and still doesn’t), let alone our wine. “Most people came to laugh”, remembers veteran trade representative Philip Atkinson who organised it all. “I had to work extremely hard to get them there.”

The debut of New Zealand wine on the international stage could hardly be described as a glittering occasion. There were less than fifty wines on the table and they were only there by virtue of a mad dash from the airport in a Ford Cortina with a panicking Atkinson at the wheel. They had been freighted over in an RNZAF Hercules that arrived late. Knees knocking, the few New Zealand wine-growers to brave the pundits and retailers had brought over mainly whites, mostly sauvignon blanc and chardonnay, and some reds, mostly cabernet. Their anxiety was understandable. Apart from a few bottles of Cresta Dore and Bakano, labels of the sixties since mercifully buried, no New Zealand wine had ever been brought to Britain.

As it happened, it all worked out surprisingly well. As Margaret Harvey, the former Mt. Roskill girl who has helped pioneer New Zealand wine in Britain, remembers, the message was generally encouraging but blunt. “If you’re going to sell your wine here at all, it will be your whites”, the producers were told. “Your reds are yeech. Don’t show them here again”. The subsequent reviews for the whites were reasonably encouraging and the wine tastings became an annual, if minor, event on the British industry’s calendar. A stake had been put in the ground.

Wine pundits were one thing however, buyers another. Out in the boon docks of the retail trade whose shelves were stacked with European labels, it was hard going. Margaret Harvey had come to Britain as a pharmacist in 1975 but in an act of faith abandoned her profession to establish Fine Wines of New Zealand in 1985 out of her house in Camden Town at a time when the advertising authorities might have taken legal action for the first word in the company’s title. It was a one-woman operation and the owner remembers plodding around the wine clubs, pushing the New Zealand vintage night after night, often not getting home until the early hours.

Others like salesman Richard Goodman were also labouring in this stony vineyard. Representing Cooks and Montana at various times, he took on the supermarkets after the pundits told the growers: “You can’t expect us to write about your wine if we can’t tell readers where to buy it.” He and Atkinson often worked together, knocking on door after door.

“We got thrown out of a few places”, Atkinson remembers.

The message was simple: “You’ve got to stock New Zealand wine. We’ll do anything to get it on your shelves”.

And shelf by shelf, that’s what they did. The breakthrough was a supply contract with nationwide liquor retailer Threshers, which has been a friend of New Zealand wine ever since. The first supermarket to be breached was Waitrose, a chain with a reputation for fine fare, and other retailers gradually followed suit. Today the Kiwi product is found everywhere. Even Berry Bros & Rudd, purveyors of fine wines – French in particular -- for 300 years, started stocking the higher-quality labels a few years back.

Meantime the product was improving all the time. At first more enthusiastic than skilful, winegrowers began to adopt more professional practices under the tutelage of experts such as Australia’s Dr. Richard Smart, a world authority on cold-climate viticulture. They were quick to learn and the result was better trellising, leaf-plucking and spraying among other improvements. In Britain this was noticed as the pundits approved of the more subtle flavours instead of the “aggressive herbaceousness” that characterized the first offerings.

As the High Street came to stock more New Zealand wine, the believers in the government trade office found extra dollars to boost sales. One of the results was the first appearance at the London Wine Trade Fair of 1986, a landmark occasion that was followed by a splendid, celebratory dinner at Methuselah’s in Victoria Street. The dinner was a far cry from the budget tasting of 1981. Instead of a mad dash in a Ford Cortina, all the food and drink as well as the chiefs were flown in by Air New Zealand. Everybody who could be there was: Morton Estate, Delegat’s, Montana among others. One of the best investments ever made for the country, let alone its wine, it woke the industry up to how far the country had come gastronomically and vinously.

“It was a tiny participation at the fair but it was a big dinner”, recalls Atkinson who organised that too. “That made the difference. Suddenly we were real.”

But sales hadn’t taken off. Even a decade ago the Brits hardly deigned to wet their lips with the New Zealand grape. In 1996 the UK grudgingly took NZ$40.6m worth of New Zealand wine, which is barely a drop in this enormous bucket, and much of that was drunk by a hard core of expats and others who had an acquaintance with New Zealand, had tasted our wines and therefore knew better.

However with the groundwork done, the momentum was with New Zealand. From having hardly a foot in the door, sales climbed – rather, rocketed – from that $40.6m to $167m in 2006, an increase of over 400 per cent. Last year overall consumption in the British market fell while the volume of New Zealand wine sold, running against the trend, picked up by four per cent. It’s been an incredible decade envied by all other wine-exporting nations.

At the same time success in the UK market spun off into sales in other markets, like a badge of approval. Last year global volumes topped the magic half billion barrier -- to be precise, $512m -- for the first time. With the help of British distributors, the New Zealand vintage has even cracked the notoriously protectionist European Union. The Dutch drank $10m worth last year ($1.2m ten years ago), Germany $3m (well under a million ten years ago) and Ireland, home of Guinness, over $8m (nowhere near a million). The French, of course, still hardly touch our stuff.

The original pundits were right about the whites. They quickly became the building blocks of this expansion, in particular sauvignon. But nobody ever predicted that New Zealand pinot noir, a difficult wine to produce, would excite the British palate, let alone pinot gris, syrah and the trendy viognier. Sales of pinot noir in particular, the vintage du jour, have almost doubled year on year.

Most galling for rival exporting nations, New Zealand has somehow bagged the high end of the general retail market as consumers fell in love with our diversity of wine-making styles. It became a voyage of discovery for them to sample wines produced over an enormous distance of 1600kms, spanning the latitudes of 36 – 45 degrees. As the official body New Zealand Winegrowers points out, if that 1600kms were in the northern hemisphere it would run from Bordeaux to southern Spain. This huge range of wines is one reason why New Zealand occupies a premium position in the market, one that Australian producers would very much like.

Australia sells a lot more wine into Britain than does New Zealand (over £1bn worth last year). But as one of the bibles of the market, The Drinks Business, pointed out in January, it’s the New Zealand vintage that attracts the higher margins: “Australia’s average bottle price of £4.28 is second in the UK only to New Zealand with a stellar average price of £5.93.” Nobody is exactly sure whether the average price of an Aussie bottle held its own last year, declined or edged up by two pence (as ACNielsen reckons), but it certainly hasn’t done much by comparison with New Zealand wine. In other words, if New Zealand’s wine exporters were cricketers Shane Warne would have been hit all over the park.

The overall strategy is not to let the side down by going for the quick quid. Pioneers and long-time observers of New Zealand wine’s acceptance in Britain and other exports put this down at least partly to the team spirit among producers. “They have a collaborative approach. They want to make the whole New Zealand category,” says Atkinson. He’s watched in amazement as the biggest names in our industry extol the virtues of a rival label whose owner is caught up elsewhere.

Other regions don’t always behave like this. Wine pundits still shudder over the way Californian grower Charles Shaw did nothing for the reputation of his terroir by releasing Two Buck Chuck at giveaway prices to reduce a surplus. And they’re not too sure about one of the big successes of the last two years, the French Red Bicyclette launched by the US giant E&J Gallo, because a. it isn’t French, and b. California has no special claim to cycling. As an advertisement for Californian wine, it likewise did nothing.

Although New Zealand’s prices continue to head in the right direction, even the prestige labels are a long way – perhaps half a century – behind the equivalent French ones. For example, one of the top-priced Kiwi wines at the venerable Berry Bros & Rudd is the 2004 Mountford Estate pinot noir from Waipara at £232 [$650] for a 12-bottle case in bond. Although it’s hardly comparing apples with apples with apples -- or grapes with grapes -- that compares with £9,900 [$27,730] for just eight bottles of the 1967 Chateau d’Yquem sauterne. At the top end, French wines still have snob value.

ACROSS the Channel the attitude of old world producers towards our parvenu wine region remained one of rock-solid superiority throughout most of the nineties. This is understandable because they do, after all, have history on their side. “My family has been tending the vines here for 15 generations”, Monsieur Thomann, a vigneron in the tiny Alsatian village of Ammerschwihr in France, told me a few years ago when I was researching a book there. He said it in a matter-of-fact way but I worked out later that his forebears must have tended the grape in that very village from the 1550s.

He showed off his cellars with their cobwebbed, oval barrels that had survived the bombs and shells of two world wars that had almost destroyed the village and he plied me with books about wine -- its spirituality, mysticism, romance and general place in the history of Alsace and France. Monsieur Thomann was much less interested in the technicalities of viticulture than in the tradition. For him wine-making was almost a branch of the priesthood.

The way he went about his business illustrates the enormous gulf between old and new world producers such as New Zealand. M. Thomann had never considered exporting. “Why should I when I sell everything I produce here?” he asked.

He ran a degustation vente business – selling straight from the cellar. Connoisseurs simply walked in off the street, some having driven hundreds of miles from Belgium, Germany or Switzerland. They pressed a buzzer and sat down for a taste (degustation) and a chat with the man himself about the grape and the wine world in general (his son was the sommelier to the president of France). Thereupon he made his sale (vente), generally by the case load.

But now it’s all changed. New Zealand in common with other new world producers have become officially a threat, New Zealand more for what it represents than for how much it sells. “In this high-growth sector, where wine tends to become an increasingly industrialized and technological product, the dynamics unquestionably favour New World producers,” an authority wrote in French in a landmark article last year in the magazine L’Expansion. “By that I mean North and South America, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand”. While the “old continent” still dominates the market on the basis of claiming three quarters of total production, “its pedestal was breaking up.”

The statistics illustrate what the writer, a student of global wine markets, means. By the end of the eighties, Europe could still claim 96 per cent of all exports and was absolutely top of the heap. Now it’s down to 84 per cent and, if exports between EU countries are excluded, the losses are much more spectacular. That puts the old continent’s share of global markets at 66 per cent. In short, although New Zealand winegrowers can claim only some of the credit, a complacent Europe has been comprehensively thrashed in the higher-margin, British market where in 2005 new world wine sales exceeded those of the old continent for the first time.

That also happened to be the first year New Zealand sold more wine overseas than at home, an alarming fact duly recorded in France too. Producers there cannot believe that New Zealand not only made all that wine but sold it all as well. “Between 2004 and 2005, exports of New Zealand wine went from 31m litres to 51.4m litres, an increase of 60 per cent!” noted Viti-Net, an influential French wine industry website, in mid-2006. It added that the Kiwis vignerons are “focused on quality and the price of their wines is relatively high”.

Despite the stratospheric prices fetched by labels such as Chateau d’Yquem, that’s exactly what the French and Europeans have not been doing. As the EU’s agriculture czarina, Mariann Fischer-Boel, points out, the vineyards are churning out vin ordinaire. “We spend far too much money disposing of surpluses instead of building our quality and competitiveness”, she warned in mid-2006. Consumption was down, new world exports were making “huge inroads” and Europe was “producing too much wine for which there is no market”.

The result of these massive surpluses is that a lot of wine in France is subsidized and practically given away. At a supermarket it’s quite possible to buy a bottle of excellent local wine in Provence for a few dollars. And the wine that is not sold at all is distilled on payment of still further subsidies into something else. The whole system is blatantly protectionist and unfair to exporting nations like New Zealand, and it’s been going on for a long time.

Consider these amazing numbers. Well over 400m euros [$740m] has been spent on the “restructuring programme” for each of the last six years, but without much restructuring being done. In 2005 alone, 790m euros [$1.46bn] was spent on various “market intervention” measures that included subsidies for public and private storage, plus another 31m euros [$57m] for “grubbing-up” useless vineyards. (And still New Zealand beat the Europeans in the British market!)

The last figure says a lot. Although there have long been generous incentives to grub up loss-making vines, producers have shown a declining interest in doing so while pocketing all kinds of subsidies for making unsaleable wine. Back in 1993 for example, the EU spent 400m euros [$739m] on grubbing up, nearly thirteen times more than now.

And it’s going to get worse. In normal times Fischer-Boel, who is trying to reform all this, disposes of a budget of nearly 1.3bn euros [$2.2bn] a year purely to shore up European wine producers. France, whose vineyards account for 30 per cent of the EU total, collects the lion’s share of that. But any day now the czarina will announce new proposals offering even more generous encouragement to reform this deeply discriminatory system. The new plan is to reactivate the moribund grubbing-up scheme. This time there will be 2.4bn euros [$4.43bn] to flatten up to 400,000 hectares. Cynics of EU agricultural reforms may note that 400,000 hectares is not a lot of vineyard out of a total 3.4m hectares devoted to the grape. Moreover the grubbing-up is voluntary.

“This is a great opportunity to put the EU wine sector back at the top where it belongs,” hopes Mrs. Fischer-Boel. “We must not waste it”.

On past performance however, they probably will.

SO WHERE does New Zealand wine go from here? The British market can only get tougher, especially for the newer and smaller vineyards. The biggest supermarket chain, Tesco, is reportedly dropping ten per cent of its wine list from its shelves. Even to get onto a major chain’s shelves at all can require up-front payments of £50,000 [$140,000], which clearly favours the corporate vineyards. As Margaret Harvey says, “it’s one thing to make wine, another to sell it.”

And Europe is fighting back. French producers are developing their own labels instead just supplying others while relaxing restrictive labeling and other regulations. Italy has mounted a campaign to re-launch in Britain. Other regions are following suit – South Africa has managed to hike its margins in Britain and Australia is belatedly dealing with the surplus that has led to sales of low-cost, bulk wine.

There are risks to New Zealand vineyards. For example, at around $5m a year the R&D budget is pathetic by European standards. And now that Kiwi labels have got above the parapet, they could get shot at. New Zealand Winegrowers is concerned that some markets could play rough by introducing protection by another name, for instance by insisting on zero residues.

But that could also point the way forward in a market that’s turning greener by the month. British consumers have started to agitate for sustainability – the “carbon-free footprint” – in their food and drink. According to veterans of the market like Margaret Harvey, who is the only New Zealand-born woman to hold the Master of Wine qualification, sustainably produced wine would certainly make it easier to sell in Britain and beyond. “It’s very exciting,” she enthused. “Everybody should be on the sustainability programme if we want to keep commanding those high prices.”

That would certainly give Kiwi wine an edge that matches its image, similar to the one Australia had a decade or so ago. Over here New Zealand wine is regarded as new and exciting, the product of young and enthusiastic, even iconoclastic, vignerons who dare to play the game differently.

Like the All Blacks, you could say.

Posted by Ian Wishart at 03:17 PM | Comments (0)

February 26, 2007

Burning down the house: Feb 07 issue



The kitchen, the kitchen, the kitchen’s on fire at Eli Jameson’s place

The holidays bring visitors from around the world, and for the past few weeks I have been playing host to my old friend insomnia who has apparently decided he needed a break from the harsh northern winter and the Seasonal Affective Disorder that is its constant companion. I’m not sure which aphorism is more appropriate here: that houseguests, like fish, stink after three days, or that when even your neuroses have neuroses, well, you really do have problems.

In any case, three a.m. found me sitting up watching the sort of stuff one watches late at night on pay TV. No not that sort of stuff - get your mind out of the gutter. I’m talking about lifestyle programming, specifically cooking shows. Now regular readers of this column will know that I’m horrified by the current state of cooking programming and its programming-executive driven shift away from what is maligned as “dump and stir” TV and towards the clever gimmick. (Anyone who is interested in reading more about this transformation should check out - it’s very generously online - Bill Buford’s article in the New Yorker of 2 October 2006 on the rise of food television.) But then again, I’m a purist.

Anyway, the gimmick behind the show I was watching was that a New York chef, himself the very model of a Modern Masculine Metrosexual, would travel around America’s flyover country, the unfashionable bits in between the coasts, and sort out home cooks’ inability to bake a ham or boil water. In the episode I was watching, a very nice lady had written in because she was depressed that she couldn’t flambé some dessert or other -- crepes su-zette, I think it was.

I was immediately struck by two emotions: envy and amazement. Envy, that in every damn lifestyle and reality show I see set in the US, Americans seem able to afford vast homes with barn-like lounge rooms and kitchens that could have been equipped by Gordon Ramsay himself. And amazement that anyone would have trouble setting fire to something in a kitchen. I couldn’t work out whether such a skill - or lack thereof - was, as the song says, a blessing or a curse.

Me, I’ve been setting a lot of stuff on fire lately. It all started a couple of months ago at my annual turkey fry. Yes, turkey fry. Now for those of you not familiar with this custom, it originated in the southern United States, specifically Louisiana, and involves the deep-frying of an entire turkey in a vat of oil heated to around 180 degrees Celsius. Accomplish-ing this is not an easy task, and requires some specialist equipment. If you want to do this, head down to your local Chinatown and get an outdoor wok burner that hooks up to your barbecue’s LPG tank. I cannot be much more helpful than to tell you that mine has no English characters written either on the equipment or in the documentation (which is all in Mandarin) other than the word RAMBO, and when you fire it up it produces a roaring blue flame that looks and feels like someone just hit the afterburner switch on an F-111. On top of this you will need to get a really large pot. This accomplished, frying the turkey could not be simpler, and what you get is -- trust me on this -- one of the tastiest birds you will ever eat.

All one does is get a good free-range turkey, around five or six kilos and a lot of frying oil. Peanut is best but expensive; anything with a high smoking temperature will do. Start by plonking the bird into the empty pot and filling with water until it is just covered.

Remove the bird and use a screwdriver or some other implement to mark the resultant water line as this is how high you will want to pour the oil. One wants enough oil to cover the bird but not so much that the stuff boils over. I think you see where this is going. When ready to fry, heat the oil -- I can get 3 gallons up to temperature in about 15 minutes with my rig -- and carefully lower the bird (which you have dried well and seasoned with salt, pepper and some cajun seasoning) into the oil. The pot will bubble up spectacularly, settle back down and in about 45 minutes pull it out. The skin will be golden and crispy, the meat moist and tender.

Where I went wrong this year was to add an extra two-litre bottle, “for good measure”. Aiding me in the actual lowering of the bird was my friend the Major, a veteran of several foreign theatres of war including most recently Iraq. This is relevant, because as it turned out it was good to have someone on hand who is cool under fire. With fifteen other guests surrounding the vat and the gas burner powering away, we put the turkey in. And as predicted the oil bubbled up. And up. And then, unfortunately, up and over the sides. Two jets of fire shot up the side before settling down into a scorching conflagration of flaming hot turkey grease and oil that could only be tamped down with a heavy application of - wait for it - kitty litter.

The turkey, as it turned out, was delicious. The backyard pavement on which this occurred may never be the same, though: for weeks it drew every cat in the neighborhood.

RECIPE: Bananas Foster

So it was Mrs Jameson’s birthday the other night, and I decided to finish our home-cooked feast with this great recipe (which, oddly enough, is also a New Orleans creation). It’s a great capper for a romantic dinner because it is easy, delicious and impressive (especially if your kitchen is in view of the table, or you decide to do it tableside. To recreate this you’ll need:

1 cup brown sugar
75-100g good butter
2 bananas
100ml good dark rum, such as Havana Club, Mount Gay or Myer’s
1 hefty pinch cinnamon
2 scoops quality vanilla ice cream, ideally but not necessarily home made.

1. Open your bananas and split lengthwise. Heat a pan over high heat and melt the brown sugar and butter together. When the mixture has turned into a nice caramel, slide in the bananas and fry on both sides, coating with the sugar.

2. Now here’s the tricky part. And by all means, don’t pour directly from the bottle lest you conjure the ghost of General Molotov. First, turn out the lights for maximum effect. Then, pour in the rum carefully and then tip the pan forward to catch a bit of flame from the stove, or use a match if cooking on an electric. Flames should dramatically shoot up, and when they settle down add the cinnamon. Arrange the bananas with a scoop of the ice cream on two plates and pour over the remaining rum-caramel.

The key here is to make sure you don’t be too generous, as I was, with the rum. Otherwise you might find yourself, as I did, finishing your special evening sans eyebrows.

Posted by Ian Wishart at 12:43 AM | Comments (0)

January 26, 2007

Herb Omelet: Jan 07 issue



Eli Jameson says its time to freshen up

One of my greater failings in life is my utter inability to deal with the world of plants. A green thumb I have not. Even the most supposedly indestructible houseplants get a severe case of depression and commit arboreal suicide as soon as they find themselves in my care. The happy-looking ficus that was living in the back yard of our house when we moved in two months ago now looks about as lush as Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree. And speaking of Christmas trees, last year we set up an artificial number in the lounge and it started shedding its plastic leaves as soon as it realised it was notionally in my care. The floor had more little needles scattered around it than the footpath outside the “safe” in-jecting room in Sydney’s Kings Cross.

No wonder the Green Party held a week’s worth of demonstrations outside my house when they found out I’d requested brochures on a Tasmanian holiday. They figured I’d take one step off the plane and all the old-growth forests on the Apple Isle would decide to finally give up their respective ghosts.

Which is why I cannot have something I have always wanted, both for reasons aesthetic (read: reasons of ego - “why, yes, I do grow these myself”) and financial: a proper herb garden. Believe me, I’ve tried. I’ve bought basil planters by the pallet-load, visions of pe-sto-filled summers dancing in my head. Two days after installation the leaves wind up with-ered and charred by the sun, even if they were placed in the shade. Instead, I have to go to the markets and buy my herbs, which is tedious, inconvenient and expensive. How my local supermarche can get away with charging $2 for an anemic bundle of parsley is beyond me; the margins on such a product have more in-built fat than Dom Deluise. Either that, or the parsley farmer lost a lawsuit and needs the extra money because his wages are being garnished. (Ba-da-BOOM!)

Hopefully you do not have this problem. But either way, fresh herbs are as indispensable to good cooking as proper sea salt (always Maldon, and no, they don’t pay me a cent to say that, though yes, I’d be happy to take any spare inventory care of this magazine’s Sydney bureau) and extra virgin olive oil. All those jars of dried herbs that everyone keeps in the back of their kitchen cupboards are, for the most part, the enemy of taste. Although recipes typically tell readers to use less dried herbs than fresh because the power is supposedly concentrated, it is not long before, once unsealed, they quickly become deadly stale and add about as much oomph to a dish as a scant teaspoon of sawdust. There are a couple of exceptions to this rule: I find dried tarragon doesn’t hang around my house long enough to go off, and somehow retains more of its integrity than other herbs in the jar. And it means one can always knock up a bearnaise sauce on short notice, an event that happens with heart-stopping regularity around the Jameson chateau.

If you can possibly manage it, grow your own herbs to avoid the extortionate prices charged by the grocer. A handful of chopped basil (or something else if you like) makes something even as simple as a warmed-up bowl of tinned tomato soup into something else entirely, especially if you finish it with a drizzle of cream. And especially if you have the time and patience to do it in a mortar and pestle rather than in a blender or food processor a fresh, home-made pesto - basil, pine nuts, parmesan cheese, olive oil, salt - can’t be beat.

Rosemary is not only delicious, but it functions as God’s own skewer come barbeque time (get those silly little bamboo skewers outta here); stripped of most of their leaves the branches can be threaded through meat or fish and will impart their own flavour as they cook.

Dill adds a summery zest to fresh mayonaisses, especially when served alongside a nice piece of cold poached salmon and is great in potato and tuna salads. Thyme along with rosemary is tremendous on lamb, and recalls the flavour of great lamb dishes served around the Mediterranean where the creatures feed on the stuff in the wild, the taste being thusly imparted to their meat. And don’t overlook some of the other herbs on offer - chervil and marjoram for example - which are both underrated in my book.

Even if for reasons of space or, in my case, bad ju-ju, you can’t grow herbs it’s worth hav-ing a few at all times handy in the fridge from the market. Keep them wrapped in moist pa-per towel to keep them fresh for longer.

RECIPE: Herb-y Open Omelet
You’ll need
2 eggs
1 vine-ripened tomato
50-100g good goat’s cheese
good handful of basil, or whatever other herbs you desire
salt, pepper, and a knob of butter

First, chiffonade your herbs - that means roll them up real tight and slice thinly - and mix with the goat’s cheese. Set aside. Chop tomato into a medium dice, and set aside. And in a small bowl, whisk together the eggs with a bit of salt, pepper and about a tablespoon of water.

Heat a medium non-stick saute pan over medium-high heat and add a knob of butter. When the butter is melted and has stopped sizzling add the tomato and cook down for a moment. Add the eggs and swirl around the pan, making sure the tomato is reasonably evenly distributed. As the eggs begin to set drop marble-sized balls of the goat’s cheese and herb mixture around the pan, and finish under a pre-heated grill to melt the cheese down a bit and finish the dish.

Carefully slide out onto the centre of a warmed plate.

Since this is more a morning dish, I’d recommend nothing stronger than a bright moscato in the glass.

Serves 1.

Posted by Ian Wishart at 12:33 AM | Comments (0)