The Great Avocado Crime Wave

I shouldn’t laugh – this really is quite serious – but there is something really funny about avocados being at the centre of global organised crime. It feels a little like a detective story written by Salvador Dali.

The root cause of it, unsurprisingly, is climate change. Extreme weather in South America has had a significant effect on the harvest and the fruit has been priced out of the reach of many local consumers. A secondary cause, especially in Australia and New Zealand, is that demand is far outstripping supply, to the point where any avocados are being harvested from orchards in the hope of making a quick buck. Apparently, Down Under they even trade through social media.

Despite how bonkers it sounds – and I still think it’s the silliest thing I’ve heard in ages – it’s incredibly serious and I think ought to force us all to look at how we view food. I ate my first avocado at the age of 30; it’s not something that I grew up with. Vegetables were the basics; peas, potatoes, carrots, sprouts, cabbage, parsnips or swede (or beetroot with a salad). Fruit was even more basic – pears, apples, plums, oranges, bananas for a treat. Food fads were extremely rare and superfoods were unknown. What we did have was food grown locally, bought locally and tasting delicious.

If we promoted local produce, grown according to our local climate, I do think we would all be better off for it, both in terms of health and in not allowing crime to pay – which is what it’s all about really, isn’t it?


Eco News of the Week

Sorry, I’ve been on a series of courses this week, so the Econews is a bit of a mishmash. Here’s some of my favourite stories from the Guardian over the past few days…

Suicides of nearly sixty thousand Indian farmers linked to climate change

That’s a slightly misleading headline. Climate change isn’t the reason for farmers killing themselves; but it is destroying their crops and ruining their livelihoods, and one thing leads to another, if you understand. I don’t doubt that this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, and we will hear similar stories from other countries reliant on agriculture – China, most of Africa and South America – which begs the question of when it will start to affect European and American farmers. Already many farmers in Britain are going out of business. Intensive agriculture simply isn’t sustainable but the public demand a constant supply of cheap, fresh food. We have to change our mentalities or this will soon be a major issue worldwide.

Underground magma triggered Earth’s worst mass extinction with greenhouse gases

I love a good geology story, me. I have to admit that some of my favourite films feature massive volcanic explosions and earthquakes; if I get an additional landslide or avalanche chucked in for good measure, I consider that a bonus. I’m fully aware that it’s pretty strange to be so obsessed with rocks but I am, so something like this was bound to attract my attention. And it looks like it won’t be long before the Yellowstone supervolcano gets blamed for climate change, so therefore it’s okay to burn coal and oil (if you believe what is said in certain corners). It’s nonsense, of course. It isn’t the fact of climate change that is the issue (although that’s pretty bad), but it’s the rate of change. Mass extinctions happen, either through climate change, asteroid strikes or disease. We can’t legislate for that, but what we can legislate for is how quickly the mass extinction happens. And it may be time we pulled our metaphorical fingers out.

Is it fair to blame Coca-Cola and big corporations for our waste crisis?

Personally, I’m very happy to blame pretty much anything on Coca-Cola, McDonalds and any other big corporation I’m not a fan of. I’ve put on three pounds this week? That’s Exxon Mobil’s fault. I can’t remember where I put that important phone number? That’s all to do with GlaxoSmithKline. It isn’t their fault at all, but I’m not going to take the blame am I? And this is entirely the problem – we don’t take responsibility for our actions. In the First World, we can usually choose to buy produce without packaging, but we don’t because we’re lazy. We could pester companies about the amount of plastic that they use and suggest biodegradable stuff, but we don’t because we don’t think they’ll listen. If we stopped buying their stuff and dented their profits, they’d listen – but we have to recognise our own role in this. They supply the demand we create. The quicker we sort this out, the better. But in the meantime, carry on blaming Pepsico and others regardless; it’s the least they deserve.

Climate change to cause humid heatwaves that will kill even healthy people

One of the ladies I work with is getting married at the weekend, and they are having their honeymoon in Rome. Or they were, until they got an email from their travel agent – because the temperatures have hit “dangerous levels of heat” and there is a drought in Italy, their honeymoon is being relocated to a Greek Island – still lovely, but not what they’d booked. In 2003, people in Paris died during a heatwave where temperatures regularly exceeded 100F over an extended period. If temperatures exceed 35C regularly, especially if the weather is humid, the body cannot cool itself and people will die. It’s not something that will just happen in far away countries – it can happen anywhere. This is one of the realities of climate change.

Green & Black’s new UK chocolate bar will be neither organic nor Fairtrade

We all love chocolate, right? (Okay, I’ll make allowances for the girls I work with who are allergic to it.) So who else is disappointed by this story? I’ll admit that I haven’t eaten Green & Black’s for a while, because they stopped making their Dark Cherry Chocolate, which I absolutely LOVED, and then somebody told me that they were owned by Cadburys – who have since been taken over by Kraft and we’re back to large corporations taking over small independent firms. So now I only eat Hotel Chocolat (who do make a dark cherry chocolate – with alcohol) as they are also organic and Fairtrade. It seems that American owned companies are somewhat dismissive of the Fairtrade objectives, and so it is a good time to show support for an excellent cause – and hit the buggers in the profits.

Have a wonderful weekend everyone!

Come Dine With Me, Andronicus Style

This is the feast that I have bid her to/And this the banquet she shall surfeit on. (Titus Andronicus, Act 5, Scene 2)

I want to try and avoid too many references to Game of Thrones in this post, and it’s just as well I’m looking at the climax of the play because it allows me to explore another controversial series which is unbelievably popular with its fanbase – Hannibal. I think you’ll see why when we get to the end.

I’ve said previously that this play has two scenes for which it is justifiably notorious – Lavinia’s rape and mutilation at the hands of Tamora’s sons in Act 2, and the final dinner party in Act 5. Like Hannibal (arguably a modern-day counterpart) Titus considers himself quite a chef and insists on preparing the banquet himself. It’s easy to see why when all is revealed in the course of dinner. He has invited everyone (all the main characters are present, except Aaron, who is kept offstage as Lucius’ prisoner) and serves the Imperial party himself, before dropping the first of his bloody bombshells.

In the middle of the main course, Titus murders his daughter – who has spent the majority of the play in dumbshow – in front of all the guests. If that wasn’t enough, he then points out to the Empress that the pie she has just eaten contained the corpses of her two sons, whom he had murdered while she was off getting changed. In the chaos that ensues, everyone except Marcus, Lucius and young Lucius are dead. Even the stage directions suggest the level of mayhem:

He kills Saturninus. Uproar. (Stage Direction, Act 5, Scene 3)

It does beg the question of whether everyone has to die; but I think they do and it’s an entirely necessary scene. There wasn’t really anywhere else for the story or characters to go; this final, brutal dinner party offers the audience a sense of catharsis from the relentless cruelty inflicted throughout the rest of the play. In amongst all the bloodletting and cannibalism, a sense of justice has emerged. Unlike Hannibal, this isn’t killing for pleasure or for the sake of it, but to redress the universal balance – the cruel are punished and the just are allowed to live. Titus has done wrong, partly in killing Tamora’s son but also in killing one of his own sons – and he also dies. Lavinia’s death is itself couched in controversial terms which would have rung true for a 16th century audience but perhaps do less so today. Tragic as the play is, there is a glimmer of hope at the end that civilisation has prevailed.

I do find Titus Andronicus to be a wholly underrated play. Many people can’t see beyond the blood, gore and brutality to the actual story underneath – which is sad, and tragic, but not without hope and it’s certainly not boring. It’s also quite a short play, which helps if you have a slightly limited attention span. I hope that in this age of Game of Thrones and Hannibal it gains a new, appreciative, audience – or at least one that has a stronger stomach.



This is an old case from the mid-1800s but is interesting because it raises quite a few questions about what constitutes a defence to murder. It also continues a theme I have previously broached on here, which some people may find offensive. It doesn’t bother me much as I don’t eat meat anyway.

After a shipwreck in the mid-Atlantic, Messrs Dudley and Stephens found themselves adrift in a small boat with the 18 year old cabin boy, Richard Palmer (there was a fourth man with them, but he played no part in what happened next, so I’m ignoring him). After a week, they had run out of food and had minimal fresh water left, and there was nothing on the horizon to indicate that there was a chance of rescue. So they decided to draw lots on the principle that the loser would be murdered and eaten, to give the others more chance of surviving. No prizes for guessing who drew the short straw.

So, Dudley and Stephens promptly slit the poor lad’s throat and proceeded to live off him until they were finally rescued about three weeks later. They were near to death when they were picked up and freely admitted what they had done, but claimed they had killed the boy “out of necessity.” Unfortunately, the Court disagreed that it was ever necessary to kill anyone, so Dudley and Stephens were found guilty and hanged.

Now I was thinking about how this principle applied, especially since many years later, the survivors of an air crash in the Andes were acquitted of the same charges in very similar circumstances – but then the penny dropped. The Andean crash survivors hadn’t killed anyone. They survived by eating people who had already died, so they hadn’t committed murder and consequently could not be liable.

Clearly, it seems to be the Court’s way of thinking that in such a situation, a person would simply have to starve, unless they can show that the person they are eating died without their assistance – which could be tricky, given where most of the evidence will end up. That said, it’s worth bearing in mind in case you ever find yourself stranded on a life raft with someone you don’t like very much and you’re miles from the nearest takeaway.



Jane Grigson wrote in her Vegetables cookery book that beetroot was the preference of people who liked their food dyed in medieval colours. Harsh, but there’s no escaping the fact that beetroot juice does stain everything fairly permanently, which is why it’s been used as a cloth dye for centuries.

People forget, though, that there’s more than one shade of beetroot. Golden beetroot is a beautiful deep shade of yellow – even though it tastes exactly like its purple cousin – and I wouldn’t be surprised if it dyed everything a wonderful saffron colour. I’d quite fancy that in a risotto with some butternut squash, thinking about it.

There’s also a wonderful rainbow beetroot, of which I’ve only ever seen photographs. I have no idea what this dyes things – I expect if you’re really lucky your teatowels will end up looking like Joseph’s Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, but somehow I doubt it.

As you can probably tell, I do like my beetroot, but I’m not sure I like it enough to justify using it as a motif for a bedcover. I’m finding it rather difficult to imagine what would possess a person to focus on a vegetable for a quilt. It strikes me as a bit bizarre, but it does look lovely and warm, and that’s the most important thing.

I think I’d still rather have a beetroot stew in the winter though.


There’s a pub near my office named after Edgar Wallace. I’ve always dreamed of going in there and settling into a corner with a pint of house ale and one of his novels. Perhaps that’s something I should put on my bucket list.

Edgar Wallace is one of my favourite writers of daft thrillers that entertain despite the plots having more holes and loose ends than a piece of my knitting. This story, featuring his best known detective Mr Reeder, is no exception. It’s completely bonkers and thoroughly enjoyable.

It’s very difficult to try and elaborate the plot without giving the entire game away. It’s quite convoluted with some intriguing characters – but for a short story to cover theft, bigamy, murder and insanity in the space of about 25,000 words isn’t bad going. You can see why he was pretty successful.

This story reminds me of why I like reading Edgar Wallace so much. He’s very much fun reading after a dreary day. I expect sitting in the corner of a pub with a pint of house ale would enhance the amusement factor of his novels quite a bit.

School Dinners

pink custard

Not everyone liked the meals provided when they were at school, especially if they were state educated. I always felt that I was the exception that proved the rule, because I rather liked mine. I especially liked the puddings, of which I think this was one of my favourites. Certainly, showing this picture to a few good friends led to near universal smiles and mumbled “oh, pink custard”.

Looking at it, this is probably one of the cheapest and most basic puddings a school kitchen could have produced; plain vanilla sponge cake accompanied by custard made with strawberry milk (and perhaps a little extra pink food colouring to make sure). There’s nothing to it. Yet it regularly provoked a race to finish your bowl so that you could go back and nab the very limited second helpings – it really was first come first served with those. I don’t think I ever managed to get seconds, I was too busy eating all the cabbage.

Even now, an uncomplicated pudding such as Tottenham Cake (plain madeira sponge topped with pink icing) is my husband’s absolute favourite thing. He loves it. He doesn’t love the fact that he can only get it in one branch of Gregg’s, but that’s his own fault for being a fusspot. He also recalls the sponge with pink custard from his school days and immediately started badgering me to make him one. (He’s never eaten my baking; if he had, he’d know better than risk eating it). And my daughter still eats it at school now, although she much prefers the chocolate one.

And am I right in thinking that every so often we’d get a banana flavoured variety, or did I just make that up?

Cochineal – Genuine Bug’s Blood!


My late grandfather was a stern but lovable man with some very firm opinions. Even now, some 35 years after his death, he is still fondly remembered for referring to insurance salesmen as “death hunters” and lipstick as “bug’s blood”. I wonder how he’d feel about that last point if I were to tell him that he was, in fact, dead right.

Until the advent of safe synthetic dyes which could be used in makeup, the red of lipstick was formed using greater or lesser amounts of cochineal, which comes from the crushed bodies of a South American beetle similar to the cockroach. Cochineal can still be found today as a food colouring – check those labels when you’re out shopping if you don’t believe me – although it is rarely used in makeup for a pure red shade of lipstick.

A book I have been reading recently called “Travels through the Paintbox” gives a very good description of the lifecycle of the cochineal beetle. It is bred on the leaves of a particular type of cactus (and interestingly, appears as white blotches on the leaves) which are then harvested and the insects are then crushed, boiled and treated to create the dye. As with silk manufacture, a certain number of insects need to be retained to breed to ensure future harvests, so something like one in fifty beetles will be kept aside for this purpose.

So it seems Granddad was right. Lipstick really is bug’s blood. I’m just pleased I don’t wear it anymore!

How Safe Is Your Poultry?


Just to prove that fears about the quality of the food we eat, this headline comes from a Canadian Magazine published in 1947 (just under the one about Ingrid Bergman). In fact, fears and concerns about the quality of food have existed for decades, if not centuries and, it is said, were the origin of the story of Sweeney Todd – or at least, the contents of Mrs Lovett’s pies. In fact, I can remember the Great Curry Scandal of the 1970s, with allegations of cat being used to make tikka masala, or even Kentucky Fried Chicken. No wonder I became a vegetarian.

In recent years, the concern has been almost as much about whether the meat one eats is what it claims to be (and not horse meat or worse), as it has been about the amount of chemicals used in its production. Intensive farming practices mean that livestock are routinely fed antibiotics and hormones and also take in pesticides through their feed. The resulting meat is often little more than a chemical mix and has resulted in the growth of antibiotic resistant superbugs as well as an increase in autoimmune diseases. It is felt that organic meat is better, but the environmental cost of meat production, at a time when many people can barely afford to feed themselves, is one that needs to be considered.

In terms of health, I do not believe that meat is a necessary part of the diet. There are many vegetable sources of protein and Vitamin B12 is now artificially synthesised so there is no real need to be deficient. The land currently taken up by livestock production – including the land that produces their feed – could be used to produce food for humans. It is always worth taking a good look at intensive livestock farming practices to see if you really want to eat what it produces. You may be surprised by the results.

Van Gogh – Still Life with Absinthe


A bottle and glass on a table; and yet the whole painting is distinctively Van Gogh. It’s the brush strokes; thick with paint and in dazzling shades of green, blue, yellow and white against the varying browns of the café wall, the absinthe glass sizzles with life. I could almost reach out and drink it.

Van Gogh painted a number of still lifes over the years; it was a good way of honing his skills without having to waste anyone else’s time sitting for him. The majority, however, are of flowers – the best known of which is in the National Gallery – and the subject matter does make this one unusual. It wasn’t often that an artist painted his drink!

It’s a simple painting with a basic arrangement and yet there are things worth noting. The glint of the glass in the sunlight, the shimmer of the liquid, the person walking outside just visible through the café window; the perspective seems a little odd but it’s a vivid picture and has a distinct reality to it that one doesn’t usually see in a still life. It’s not his best known work by any means, but I think it’s underrated and I like it very much.