My live local challenge: week 4

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

– Charles Dickens speaking about my live local challenge in his lesser known work Low Expectations

Welcome to the fourth and final week of my live local challenge. Thank you for joining me on this escapade. To be honest I’m rather surprised that I made it this far, I was fully expecting to be surreptitiously splashing about my stash of olive oil by week two. Last week‘s frolics with fungi and flour are now a distant memory, although my rodent-based fury is still burning with a vengeance. This week has been steeped in lard and quiet desperation, more on that later. First of all let me tell you about cheerier things.

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Roughly speaking my entire menu for the month has come from within this red circle.

Herbs and spices

In my day-to-day cooking I rely heavily on an ever-growing collection of herbs and spices, which has taken over my pantry shelf and is now invading the one  below in a bid for full larder domination. This month I haven’t had access to so much as black pepper. Denied my extensive spice cabinet I have had to get creative and accumulate a new range of flavours.

In addition to familiar friends such as rosemary, sage, thyme, fennel and parsley I have also been getting acquainted with some of the more eccentric members of the British spice scene.

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Hogweed seed: an unusual spice with a complex aromatic taste, somewhere between cardamom, citrus and liquorice. I grind the seeds into stir-frys and use them to infuse warm milk for a comforting insomnia cure.

Dandelion root: a gnarly looking fellow that packs a bitter punch. I sauté the smaller, less acerbic roots in butter, salt and honey and add them to salads for a bit of crunch.

Yarrow leaf: a subtle fragrant herb with a flavour profile similar to parsley or celery. The taste is very versatile but is destroyed by heat. I add it after cooking to roasted vegetables, omelettes and pastry dishes.

As well as eating them fresh I am also trying my hand at drying herbs, with a view to creating a wild curry spice collection. I have been drying the herbs in the Biltong box that my Dad lovingly constructed for my last birthday. So far this box has been used to prove bread, set yogurt and dry socks. In short it is an invaluable piece of kit for all areas of my life.

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Me and my budies, hangin’ in the biltong box.

Ingredient sources:

Herbs from Hogacre Common and the grassy river banks of Oxfordshire.

Pasta

What else have I been making this week? Let me tagliatell-ya. On Saturday I produced my first ever batch of fresh pasta. It had a slightly nutty flavour and more bite than the dried alternative. I was suprised by how simple the process was and would definitely repeat it again.

FYI the earliest recorded writings on pasta date back to Horace in the 1st century AD when it was already established as an everyday ingredient in the kitchens of the Roman empire. The earliest recorded mention of a pasta maker can be found soon after. According to ancient mythology it was invented by the god Hephaestus. 

‘I will smite you with my lightning bolt’

– Zeus

‘I will spear you with my trident’

– Poseidon

‘I will smother you with my spaghetti’

– Hephaestus

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I used my pasta to create a carbonara-inspired dish with buttered spinach, pork crackling and fresh herbs

Ingredient sources:

Pasta flour from Wessex mill. Duck eggs from Willowbrook farm. Pork fat from Coopers Oxford Pork. Spinach from Sandy lane farm.

This week’s biggest challenge

On Saturday I learnt a hard lesson about the local supply chain. I arrived at East Oxford farmers’ market in order to pick up my usual dairy supplies. ‘I’m sorry we’ve run out’ the stall holder informed me cheerily. I met her apologetic smile with stoney silence. No cream meant no butter, which meant no fat for cooking. I hastily moved on to avoid embarassing the vendor by weeping all over her depleted stock. Unwilling to spend a week  subsisting  on boiled  potatoes I was forced  to purchase  a kilo of pork belly which I rendered into lard for the purpose of roasting and frying. All this week’s dishes have consequently had a rather porcine overtone.

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Ready to stir-fry with my new lard supply.

Closing remarks

It is ten to twelve on the final day of my 31 mile food challenge. I am preparing to celebrate the return of my food freedom with a tub Ben and Jerry’s which has been languishing in my freezer since September. As the minute hand inches towards midnight  and my hand inches towards the icecream I am gripped by a mood of somber reflection.

When I embarked on this project I was full of curiosity, hope and the naïve enthusiasm of one who has never had to bring their own salad to an all-you-can-eat buffet. How do I feel now as the project comes to its close?

The positives

  1. I’ve developed a new albeit largely pointless skillset
  2. I’ve discovered a panoply of fantastic local producers who I will absolutely continue to purchase from
  3. I didn’t starve
  4. My mum said she was proud of my acheivements.

The negatives

  1. I have given away over a litre of gin in exchange for seawater
  2. I’ve been blacklisted from all the pubs in Oxford for ordering tap water
  3. I have spent my evenings cooking alone at home and consequently my most meaningful social interactions over the last month have been with a psychotic squirrel and a culture of fermenting yeast.
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My love for humanity is like the foliage in the woods: time will change it. My love for Boris resembles the eternal rocks beneath.

The verdict

During the course of my live local challenge I have gained a new appreciation for local living but I have also come to acknowledge that the global food chain is a necessary and magical thing. I’m so glad I did it. I’m so glad it’s over. I will never, ever do it again.

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