Archive for the ‘Food politics’ Category

I spent the morning at the Beehive today in support of  artisan cheesemakers Biddy Fraser-Davies (Cwmglyn Farmhouse Cheese) and Jill Whalley (Mt Eliza Cheese). The three of us presented submissions to the the Primary Production Select Committee who are labouring over the NZ Food Safety Reform Bill.  The proposed reforms are a reaction to Fonterra’s whey protein contamination scare back in 2013. The bill aims to tighten the regulatory framework.

Biddy and Jill gave compelling accounts of the costs they already face in complying with laws designed for the big dairy companies. My submission outlined the reasons why we need to support our artisan cheesemakers. 


Jill and Biddy pose for MPs and their iphones after demonstrating the different regulatory standards for NZ and European raw milk cheeses

My verbal submission as follows:

I am a former food manufacturer, now a journalist and food writer. For the past 15 years I’ve written and made feature stories about New Zealand’s artisan producers – including many who operate in the dairy sector. In light of the proposed tightening of our Food Safety laws I want to  speak in support of the small scale cheese makers who are already suffering from the significant costs and constraints of the current regulations. I know many of them are too intimidated to speak for themselves

I’ve stood alongside Biddy and Jill and Chris Whalley as they make their cheese and I can tell you they are good operators – their premises are spotless, they know the science, they monitor, test  and record every step of the process, and they produce very good, characterful cheese – cheese that New Zealanders can be proud of.

New Zealand is the world’s leading dairy exporter. Milk, butter and cheese: it’s how the world sees us – and yet our food safety laws make it nearly impossible for our artisan dairies to operate. Listen to the submissions today and you’ll wonder how these businesses make any money at all. I believe we are reaching a tipping point – by trying to eliminate risk we risk losing the artisan sector.

We need these small businesses to succeed because they do what the big companies don’t. They innovate, they set trends, they test the market, and the big companies follow.

You see it across all food categories –  craft beer, artisan bread, coffee, ice cream, even butter (thanks to Lewis Rd).

I speak from experience having introduced fresh pasta to New Zealand many years ago. We started small, built the business over several years (with no food safety issues) then sold it to a multi-national who saw value in further developing the category. It’s now mainstream.

Could we have built that business under the current and proposed food safety regulations? Given the compliance costs, I don’t think so. Neither, I suspect, would Kapiti Cheese who started at the same time. They’re now owned by Fonterra. That’s how it works in the food industry. Small companies innovate, big companies follow, or take over.

So I find it strange that on the one hand we talk about the need to add value to our dairy industry and on the other hand we pass laws that make it extremely difficult for people to do so. Bills such as this one will continue to stifle innovation – to the detriment of the industry as a whole.

Without the artisans we wouldn’t be making goat and ewe’s milk cheeses – products with enormous potential. Without people like Biddy and JIll we wouldn’t be making raw milk cow cheese, so why do we insist their cheeses meet a much higher standard than raw milk cheese imported from Europe? Where is the sense in that?

Of course we need to keep our food safe but this is risk management gone mad. It’s paranoid and it’s unfair. If Fonterra had to pay more than 40% of their revenue in compliance costs – as Biddy will this year – they’d be screaming, and the regulators would be making more than the producers.

It’s high time that dairy scientists and MPI got together with the specialist cheesemakers to work out a sensible validation and testing regime that’s appropriate to the scale of their smaller non-export businesses. And then maybe their compliance costs could be subsidised by the bigger dairy companies who stand to gain the most from a well-supported artisan sector.

As you go through this Food Safety Reform bill, clause by clause, put yourselves in the shoes of small businesses who want to create new products, and try to strike a balance between the need to minimise risk and the need to create an environment that fosters the sort of innovation that will add value to our most important primary industry.

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A couple of weeks ago I received a box full of Fairtrade and Trade Aid food products as part of the Big Fair Bake campaign. I was surprised at the range of ingredients, given that it wasn’t so long ago that Fairtrade was limited to coffee, chocolate and bananas. My box contained Palestinian almonds, Medjoul dates (the best kind), cocoa, chocolate, coconut milk, raw sugar, bananas and cinnamon. My mission was to bake something that included some of those ingredients.

Fairtrade Florentines

Fairtrade Florentines

I decided to experiment with Florentines, partly because I’d never made them before and also because I wanted to make use of the dates, chocolate and almonds I’d received. I spent a morning devising a recipe and discovered that these delicious Italian biscuits deserve their reputation for trickiness. Florentines should spread themselves thinly; they should be chewy in the middle with lacy edges that are crisp to the bite. My first batch resembled flat rock cakes with too many nuts and not enough fruit, so I cut back on the flour, reduced the almonds and added more candied orange peel. This second batch was really good – my family scoffed the lot before I could get them into the tin. Just as well – Florentines should be eaten fresh before they lose their crunch.

My recipe is on the blogger page of The Big Fair Bake website, click here. I recommend making your own candied orange peel; it’s not difficult and it tastes so much fresher than those packets of mixed peel that gather dust in the back of the pantry. I’ve included the instructions with the recipe and I’ve also explained how to blanch and skin the whole almonds. You could, of course, buy them already skinned and slivered but then they wouldn’t be Fairtrade and that would defeat the whole purpose of the bake off. I think as consumers we should make the ethical choice and buy fairtrade ingredients where we can. By doing so we return a larger profit to the farmers who generally get paid less than anyone else in the value chain. It’s the least we can do.

Visit the Fairtrade Facebook page to win prizes in the Fair Bake competition.

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Thanks to Lewis Road Creamery I am awash with milk. I received my sample bottles on Tuesday and I’ve been guzzling it ever since. I’m a huge fan of this company’s cultured butter so I knew its milk would be good – it has a clean, fresh creamy taste that somehow seems better than standard milk – the question is why? What does this artisan company do that’s different?

Milks & Creams Family Shot (1)

Firstly, Lewis Road milk is organic. I do think that makes a difference – Zany Zeus’ organic milk also tastes great.

Lewis Road milk comes from grass-grazing cows that haven’t been fed any waste  products from the palm oil industry. The arguments against this are mostly to do with environmental issues, but that aside – and I don’t know if affects the taste of the milk – I do think it’s wrong to feed cows dusty-looking stuff that comes from the fruit of a tropical palm tree. Cows are meant to eat grass.

Lewis Road produces 100% jersey milk. Jersey milk has a high percentage of milk fat so it does taste creamier.  Milk from standard brands is not separated by breed – it’s a mixture of milks. Currently about 80% of the national herd is either holstein-fresian (the black and white ones) or holstein-fresian/jersey cross. Jersey cows (small and brown) account for only 12%. Jerseys produce milk with higher percentages of milk fat but holstein-fresians beat them on volume – hence the work that has gone into creating the crossbreed which appears to be a good compromise for farmers who are paid on the total quantity of milk solids.

Lewis Road milk claims to be more natural and less processed. In particular it makes a deal out of not adding permeate to its milk. This is where it gets a bit controversial and quite tricky because permeate is a natural component of milk. It is essentially lactose and water and it’s a byproduct of ultra filtration. Large dairy companies like Fonterra use this process to remove proteins which are then used in high-protein, higher-value products. The permeate, which is also separated off, is then added back in various amounts, allowing the final protein levels of the milk to be standardised, thus overcoming any seasonal variability. You can’t really call permeate an additive because it was in the milk in the first place but it is a bit sneaky because the way it’s re-introduced enables factories to adjust, or water down, the milk to the lower end of the minimum allowable protein content. In short, big companies like Fonterra are using all the technology at their disposal to extract the best value out of every litre of milk. You can’t blame the farmer-owned co-operative for doing the best by its farmers and there’s certainly nothing wrong with its milk but the permeate practice is a bit of an eye-opener for those of us who imagined milk was not quite so highly processed. Lewis Road milk is processed too: it’s pasteurised and mostly homogenised; the fat levels are adjusted according to type and the calcium-enriched product must have either been added to or adjusted in some way. It is not milk straight out of the cow, but the processing is minimal and Lewis Road milk does taste like milk used to taste. In this, I’m sure my taste buds are influenced by the charmingly retro (recyclable) bottles. The company’s artisan values are wrapped up in some very smart packaging.

Finally, Lewis Road organic cream: it’s fantastic. I’m sure this is the ‘jersey effect’ – jersey milk being naturally richer – but it’s also because the milk fat levels have been kept higher than the minimum standard of 35%. Lewis Road cream is 39% and its double cream is 48%. Yes, double cream. This is a first for New Zealand. The UK has single (18% min), whipping (35% min) and double (48%) but we have only ever had one type of pouring cream. I had always assumed it was equivalent to double but I was wrong about that. In this leading dairy country of ours, the cream has only ever been as rich as UK whipping cream. I find this just as astounding as the fact our big dairy companies have failed to provide us with cultured butter. It’s all very well to be producing products for export (Fonterra and Westland both make cultured butter for customers offshore) but we haven’t been well served at home. Thank goodness for artisan producers like Lewis Road Creamery. Now we have flavoursome butter, good tasting milk and deliciously rich double cream.

Lewis Road Creamery’s milk and cream products are  available in Auckland and have just been spotted at Moore Wilson in Wellington. Organic Jersey Milk 750ml RRP $3.10. Organic Jersey Cream 300ml RRP $3.99. Double Cream 300ml RRP $4.49

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I’ve just read yet another once-over-lightly article about eating and buying produce that’s seasonal and local.

This one in the NZ Herald is hooked on the suggestion that TV cooking shows and food magazines encourage people to buy “fancy” out-of-season ingredients that must be flown in from other parts of the world. Hort NZ comes out on the side of buying local (as you’d expect) and Turners and Growers say they only import to supply customer demand.

The subtext to this debate is Hort NZ’s campaign to introduce Country of Origin Labelling. Now, I fully support the campaign. I can see no reason why we can’t know where our food is produced. Personally I always do buy in season, which most of the time means local as opposed to imported. But things are never that simple.

For instance, when I buy snowpeas from Zambia it’s true I’m contributing to global warming (via food miles) and failing to support our local growers (by omission) but it’s also true that I’m helping the economy of a country that’s not as fortunate as my own. I think that’s a mitigating factor.

The other thing to consider is the double standard that’s rarely mentioned in articles like this one, ie, food writers like me encourage people to buy ‘in season and local’ but we don’t really want other countries to apply the same criteria to New Zealand.  As an out-of-season supplier in many overseas markets, this country would be in serious trouble if everyone decided to be a locavore.

Similarly, we need to be careful with the assumption that local will be fresher – I’ve seen some very sad looking local vegetables for sale, especially outside the main urban areas. And if it is true that most imported fresh produce is “fumigated, irradiated or put in cool storage”, then I’d like to know how we keep our own exported produce fresh during long journeys.

There are no easy answers, I just wish reporters would take their stories a bit further than the obvious.

As to the Masterchef hook in this particular story, I’m not sure that cooking shows do drive a demand for out-of-season fruit and vegetables. If so, it can only be that they are being screened out of season. But I am sure about recipes in magazines and I strongly disagree with the man from Turners and Growers who says food magazines often feature certain products that people expect to be able to buy in New Zealand (and, presumably, can’t). I read the food sections of almost every NZ food and lifestyle magazine including the one I write for (NZ Life & Leisure) and the recipe writers are all really careful to stay in season, even ‘though the finished food shots may have been styled weeks before publication. There is also a notable effort to use products that are readily available.

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I arrived back from Australia a few days ago with my head reeling from a weekend workshop at the Sydney Cooking School. I’m still not quite sure what to make of it but I discovered a side of the food business that has nothing to do with creating good tasting food – food styling is all about making inedible stuff look tasty. And man, there is such an art to doing it well!


Not Real Ice Cream

The weeekend workshop was run by Denise Vivaldo, an American/Italian based in Los Angeles. She was in Sydney at the recommendation of my friend Harriet Harcourt, a cook and a food-stylist who lives in Perth. Harriet helped organise the course and told me I should sign up – you’ll love it, this woman is brilliant.

And she is. She is warm, funny and hugely entertaining. More to the point, she has written the bible of food styling based on 25 years of experience tricking up food for televison, film, cookbooks and multi-national food companies. And she is so good at it that during her Sydney course I found myself salivating over food that may well have killed me.

It’s true. The crushed ice in a refreshingly cool looking cocktail came from a jar marked poison. Nearly as bad, I licked some delicious looking caramelised chicken juice off my hand before realising it was the brown stuff I’d been using to paint a raw chicken. The thought of salmonella had me sluicing my mouth out with what I hoped was fresh water.


‘Roasting’ a Raw Chicken

Painting raw chickens to make them look roasted was just one of the mind-bending exercises I worked my way through on this eye-opening course. My chicken was only so-so but I did quite a good job of making a pre-prepared Weight Watchers risotto look reasonably appealing. This is not something I’d ever have to do in my professional life but big food companies pay big money for this sort of thing and I suspect my fellow students had ambitions in this area.


The ‘Pizza Pull’

I was more interested in making food look attractive for my blog or the occasional magazine recipe and I’m happy to say I now have quite a few tricks up my sleeve. I know how to do a “pizza pull” so you get those yummy strands of mozzarella looking just right, I can present a perfect fried egg and I know how to get great-looking grill marks on a hamburger bun – an eyebrow pencil fills in the gaps. I’ve discovered how to fake ice cream and cappuccino froth, and I have zillions of uses for Scotch Guard.

The problem is, I’m not sure if I can actually bring myself to use all these tricks. I had my doubts during the chicken painting lesson but by day number two I was having a full on ethical attack. Was it honest? I hit Denise up about this. Honey, she said, would you want to be photographed without makeup? Or words to that effect. Well, I rarely leave the house without lipstick at least, so I can see where she’s coming from.

We had an interesting discussion – she’d obviously given it some thought – and the upshot is, it depends. It depends on the context and the degree: is it enhancement or falsification?  Foundation or facelift? The comparison with makeup and fashion photography is a good one. We know the clothes have been altered for a perfect fit on the model and we know the cosmetic pics have been airbrushed – we accept it because it makes for a great looking photograph and even ‘though we know we won’t look as good if we wear that dress or that lipstick, it gives us something to aspire to.

Food photography works the same way – it has to look better than it does in real life. That’s why we learned how to paint a ‘roast’ chicken. A real roast chicken doesn’t look half as good when it’s photographed: partly because it collapses and looks tired and wrinkly before the photographer has set up the shot, and partly because we can’t smell a photograph so it has to work twice as hard to make us want to eat it. So we stuff it with paper towels to plump it up, give it ten minutes at 180°C to stretch the skin, then paint it with a mixture of gravy browning and food dye. A sprinkle of paprika and and a spritz of oil finishes it off and it will stay looking good for hours. I would also challenge anyone to tell the difference if it had been styled by a pro.


Denise Vivaldo with assistant food stylists Harriet Harcourt (left) and Kirsty Bryson (right)

Since I got back from Sydney I’ve been examining food photographs in quite a different way, especially the ones you see in advertisements. I now know if I was to bite into one of those high rise hamburgers, the beef would be raw, the buns would be sprayed with scotchguard to make them sauce resistant, the mustard would shine with glycerine and I would be rewarded with a mouthful of pins and make-up pads. However, I also know that if the picture on the poster was a real hamburger I would never even open the box. Ditto for the Weight Watchers’ Risotto.


Weight Watchers’ Risotto Inside and Out: the reason why we have food stylists.

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Having just come back from China, where I saw one or two things that would make your eyes water (see my last post), I’m once again having to defend my position on the relatively harmless farming of ducks and geese for foie gras.

The activists who continue to picket Le Canard restaurant in Wellington are now projecting videos into the restaurant in an effort to harass customers while they enjoy an evening out, which may or may not include eating foie gras at a restaurant that specialises in the cuisine of South-West France – cuisine in which ducks, geese and foie gras have a starring role.

The reason I’m writing what is now my third blog post on this issue is that the activists are being very selective about the information they choose to present. I’d like to redress the balance on behalf of Pascal the chef, who is simply too stressed-out to do so himself, and I’d like to apologise to our long-suffering and loyal customers who are being treated as collateral damage in this campaign. Yes, the activists have a democratic right to protest but they have no moral right to harass our customers.

The videos they are projecting through the windows of the restaurant have been taken from the internet. You can goggle them on YouTube. They were filmed nearly 10 years ago, (before individual battery cages were banned by the EU) and they show the very worst of factory farming – practices and conditions that Le Canard has never condoned. This is like showing images of factory pig farming – sow crates and all – to people who buy ethically-raised pork.

They get away with it because so little is known about foie gras in this country. Indeed, the activists admit they have never seen the gavage (force-feeding) process themselves.

The fact is, there are good and bad farmers. Le Canard buy its foie gras from Rougié, a producer in the Dordogne that sources its foie gras from farms like the one shown in this video.


I believe we should be supporting farmers like these in the same way we support free-range egg farmers. Good farmers like these hate to be associated with the sort of industrial scale farms depicted in the videos selected by the activists. There is a huge difference.

I’ve visited foie gras farms myself and seen the gavage. The photo below shows the geese on a farm near Sorge. They free-range on grass with plenty of food, grain, walnuts and shade. When the farmer comes into the field they run up to greet him.

Foie Gras Farm, Dordogne

The last 20 days of their lives are spent in a barn where they are kept in family groups and fed maize porridge(3 times a day) from a pipe that’s inserted down their necks into the crop where digestion takes place. The whole process takes less than 5 seconds and the geese remain perfectly calm throughout. Unlike humans they have no gag reflex.

La Gavage, Dordogne

This is a good farm run by good farmers and it produces good foie gras. Farms that maltreat their birds do not.

But back to the activists who continue to say they are not picking on Le Canard. How else do you explain the fact that Le Canard is the only business they are targeting when there are many others who import, sell or serve foie gras and the associated products of force-fed ducks. (Those imported tins of duck confit contain the legs and thighs of guess what? force-fed ducks.) Where is the consistency in this protest action?

It’s strange too that the activists have taken their protest to the City Market in Wellington, not because the market sells foie gras (it doesn’t) but because Le Canard has an occasional stall there. They would force Pascal out of the market even though the terrines and rillettes he sells are made from New Zealand farmed ducks, which are not force-fed. Work that one out.

It seem clear to me that they are seeking media publicity for their cause by forcing a small French restaurant out of business. So far they’ve managed to attract three newspaper stories in which they vow to continue their bullying until the chef bows to their demands and takes foie gras off the menu.

What should worry fair-minded New Zealanders is that they have picked on such an easy target – a 30 seater restaurant in the middle of a recession. Will they be cheering when they put six people out of work?  I’m sure they will.

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I’m driven to write this post because the restaurant in which I have a share is being subjected to a bullying protest action by a group of animal welfare activists. Every weekend night for the past six months they have been outside Le Canard restaurant in Wellington accosting passers-by and restaurant diners with leaflets demanding they “Say No to Foie Gras”.

Le Canard (The Duck) specialises in the cuisine of South West France, specifically the Pèrigord region which is home to truffles, cèpes, duck and foie gras. Its customers dine at the restaurant because they like the style of food and the authentic ambiance it offers. No one has to order foie gras; those who do, know exactly what it is: the fattened liver of a force-fed (gavaged) duck or goose.

Foie Gras prepared mi-cuit for sale at a French market

It is not – as the protestors would have us believe – a liver that is diseased/infected with hepatic lipidosis. Can you imagine the health authorities of France or New Zealand allowing a diseased avian product to be sold or exported?  The gavage process is not done to make the animal as “sick as possible”, and “many birds” do not “asphyxiate to death” during the process. The highly emotive leaflet circulated by the protestors takes the very worst instances of factory-farmed cruelty and presents it as the status quo. Let me redress the balance.

I have worked as an agricultural journalist; I am now a food writer. I have lived in France, I’ve visited foie gras farms, I’ve seen the gavage in action, I’ve discussed the issue with practically every French person I’ve met and I’ve researched foie gras production for a feature I made for Radio New Zealand in 2006. This is what I’ve learned.

There are good and bad farmers. Just as New Zealand has farmers who mistreat their animals, so it is in France. Both countries have regulations to keep the worst operators in check; sometimes – as in the case of the Crafar farms – it can take some time for the authorities to act.

It is also true that both countries sanction questionable farming practices by law. These laws enable us to farm on an intensive scale and produce the food we like to eat. In New Zealand it is perfectly legal to keep sows in farrowing crates and layer hens in cages where they have little room to move. In France it’s legal to force-feed ducks and geese for the production of foie gras.

Both countries set minimum standards and both countries have farmers who choose to farm at a much higher standard. These people farm less intensively, often free ranging their livestock and opting to take less profit for a more natural or artisan operation. So it is with foie gras. Some foie gras is produced intensively; some of it is produced by artisans.

In Périgord the producers have formed a regionally defined association to distance themselves from the practices of some factory produced foie gras that has become big business in parts of France but especially in Eastern European countries that have lower standards.

The duck and geese farms in Périgord tend to be small scale. The birds are hatched and raised free-range on pasture until the last 2 or 3 weeks of their lives when they go into a barn that’s separated into pens. They are gavaged 2 or 3 times a day in a process that takes less than two seconds per animal (farms are equipped with pumping equipment that delivers a measured dose, quickly and gently) I’ve read about birds lining up to be fed; in my experience this is an exaggeration but they are certainly not perturbed and I’ve seen geese walk off with tails wagging after the gavage.

Sheep in shearing pens are handled much more roughly than these birds. The farmers know they won’t get a good liver if the bird is stressed; it’s in their interests to treat them gently. It’s certainly not in their interests to grow the liver as big as possible so the birds can’t stand up. Despite what the activists say about farmers wanting to maximise profits by getting the biggest livers, the premium fresh duck foie gras (classified ‘extra’) is close to 500g; if it gets much bigger than that, the fat simply melts out during the cooking process leaving an inferior product.

Cruel and unnatural?

Some people will tell you it’s natural for a goose or duck to load up on food; it helps them prepare for a long migration. That’s true but not to the extent that it’s done for foie gras. One farmer summed it up for me when I asked if she didn’t think it was cruel to stuff food down a goose’s neck. She agreed it wasn’t natural but said it wasn’t cruel. She genuinely liked her geese and explained that there was a real art to gavaging a bird gently with just the right amount of corn mash.

Another farmer who said much the same, also added that it is hypocritical for a New Zealander (me) to suggest the gavage is unnatural when the New Zealand economy depends on forcing cows to produce hundreds of litres of milk when naturally it would only produce enough for its calf. Point taken. In the end we agreed that most, if not all, animal farming is based on pushing natural behaviours beyond what is natural.

Now for the bad farmers. You need only search YouTube to find some horrific examples of ducks kept in single cages with necks protruding, ready for the next gavage. The pipe is administered twice a day for two weeks with no kind words or gentle stroking – they may as well be on a conveyor belt. This is undoubtedly the shameful side of foie gras farming but is it any worse than battery egg production? Layer hens may not be subjected to force feeding but they do live in those tiny cages for their entire laying lives – an awful lot longer than two weeks.

Just as there are good and bad farmers there is good and bad foie gras. When my French friends buy foie gras in France they make the same distinction many ethical shoppers here make between battery and free-range eggs, or between conventionally raised pork and free range. They buy foie gras (fresh or prepared as a paté) from a local farmer whose reputation they trust. That way they know it will be good quality and that it’s come from a duck or goose that has been free-ranged and well treated during the gavage. Second best is to buy foie gras from one of the established reputable companies that process foie gras from their own contracted farmers in France.

Such a company is Rougié. Based in the Dordogne, it has been producing foie gras since 1875. Le Canard buys Rougié bloc foie-gras from a New Zealand importer.

A Cowardly Protest

People who feel strongly about foie gras would be better to aim their protest action at the governments of France and New Zealand: France for sanctioning the production of foie gras and New Zealand for allowing its importation. But instead of protesting outside parliament or the French Embassy, these activists choose to bully the little guy – a talented young chef who is trying to build a small business in recessionary times.  Pascal Bedel chose to settle his family in this country because it gave him a chance to start his own restaurant and because he admired the Kiwi spirit of equality and fair play. After 6 months of provocation from people I can only describe as bullies, I hope he still feels the same way.

By the Way…

Anyone who wants to avoid eating the product of a force-fed duck should also avoid eating  the readily available imported cans of confit de canard. The duck confit is made from the legs and thighs of fattened ducks. Which means if the protestors really knew what they were protesting against and wished to do it equably and intelligently they should be targeting every business in New Zealand selling imported duck products from France, not just the one small restaurant they’ve identified that serves foie gras.

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This is Biddy Fraser-Davies, the celebrated cheese maker from Tararua with her three cow herd: Sally, Molly and Emily.

Biddy the Dairymaid by Maddie Tait-Jamieson

Between them, and notwithstanding the needs of their own offspring, the jersey girls provide just enough milk to support Biddy’s small cheese making business. She produces two naturally rinded farmhouse cheeses each day and sells them to people who like to come and pat the cow that produced the milk that made the cheese on Cwmglyn Farm.
And what’s wrong with that? Quite a lot, apparently. The food safety people seem to think Biddy is a potential menace. She may not look it, in her pink crocs and purple apron, but the woman is dangerous; her cheese may constitute a health hazard. Not because her practices are unsanitary – all agree her standards are exemplary – and not because her cheese is substandard – it passes all the tests with flying colours. No, officialdom has it in for her because she failed to fill out the forms.
The Food Safety Authority woke up to the fact after Country Calendar profiled her last year. They came down on her with a tonne of paperwork and have spend goodness knows how much tax-payer money checking her out. It would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic.

Biddy Fraser-Davies

I spent a few hours with her recently as she made a batch of cheese, and I watched her dutifully document every step in the process. There was a form to record the heat treatment of each batch of milk from each cow and another that covered the cheese making process. All up each cheese required 7 temperature readings, 6 ph tests and 14 time checks. And it didn’t stop there – the documentation followed each cheese through pressing, maturation and point of sale; all in the name of traceability. Now that’s probably quite a sensible precaution for a big factory but it doesn’t translate to a dairy the size of Biddy’s. She has to fill out these forms for every cheese she makes. The compliance cost so far, including lab testing offsite, has come in at $5,000 – a huge chunk of her $20,000 turnover.
It’s enough to drive you mad – or out of business, and you can’t help wondering if that’s the idea. Are artisan cheese makers really such a threat to our dairy industry? Biddy has been making her cheese without a problem for 8 years. Her equipment is spotless, her cows are well cared for, their milk is checked regularly. You would think risk management requirements could be tailored to suit the size of small dairies like Biddy’s – especially now we are seeing such a resurgence of small scale cheese making. Encourage compliance by all means but don’t let bureaucracy kill the artisan culture.

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Interesting, the fuss over transglutaminase (the food industry enzyme used to stick proteins together). Sue Kedgley’s complaint to the Commerce Commission – that glueing two pieces of meat together and selling it as a single piece is deceptive – has confronted us with the idea that this sort of thing is common practice.

The meat industry begs to differ. Brent Slater, CEO of Beef + Lamb NZ, says transglutaminase is only used to glue top-and-tailed tenderloins together to create consistent sized portions for restaurants. That may be so in the world of beef and lamb,  but a quick google search reveals chicken nuggets, crab sticks and other reconstituted protein foods make use of the enzyme. Presumably it’s all on the label.

From a food safety point of view, it appears to be GRAS (Generally Recognised as Safe) but whether it’s done for portion control or to make something ‘palatable’ out of scraps, it’s an unnatural thing to do to food. And  it’s not just being used by food processors.  Molecular gastronomes have used it to stick chicken skin to fish and make noodles out of shrimps. Or – in a piece from the NY Times – how about sticking a fish back together after it has been boned? (Why would you do that?)

On a lighter note. The news stories about glueing meat together came just as I was cottoning on to the latest trend for meat that’s been pulled apart. In Wellington I’ve had slow-cooked pulled lamb, and just the other night at the Roxy, a bun stuffed with delicious five-spiced pulled-pork. “What’s pulled-pork?”, asked my daughter who later came up with her own version….

Pulled Pork, by Maddie Tait-Jamieson

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