Amazon Dot – a cheap way into voice activated Smart Home control

Before Christmas I didn’t even know I need such an Amazon Dot, now I use it all the time! It’s relatively easy to set up, I was soon up and running.  However I am still learning about the more advanced features.  It works with Alexa voice recognition and the Alexa app – which integrates well with other things.

If the voice recognition mishears you, you can try again (with different words) and give feedback via the app.


In less time than it takes to get my phone out, I’ve asked my Echo what the weather forecast is, and what my commute is like. The Echo reminds me of appointments, and I can dictate items on shopping lists whenever I spot I’m running out of something.

It’s turned my elderly HiFi into a voice operated Internet radio. As I happen to have a Nest thermostat, I can also ask my Echo to ask it to turn the heating up or down. As soon as smart light bulbs become cheaper, I’ll be telling it to turn the lights on and off!

I’ve only had it a few days, but I can see that using it with If This, Then That ( I will be able to use it with all sorts of things.  It would be particularly useful for people with failing vision, for instance you can turn a radio on and select stations purely by talking to it.

It amuses me how many say they can’t see the point of such a device. I remember when TV remote controls first became available, my parents were shocked that people would be too lazy to get out of a chair to change channels. I suspect many of us wouldn’t be without our TV remotes and predict that devices like this will soon be thought of as indispensable.

Why I don’t like foodbanks

Foodbank sign inviting donationsI’ve always felt uneasy about foodbanks. Don’t get me wrong, they’re run by kind and caring people – who care pasionately about some very vulnerable people. However, I watched an academic debate about foodbanks, and realised that I was right to have concerns.

I think it should be a basic human right to be able to have some choice about what you eat. I’m not talking about whether to have beluga caviar or foie gras (and I wouldn’t want to eat either). I’m talking about the right to choose my own basic food items. I can’t imagine how I’d feel if my diet consisted of items chosen by others.

The Trussell Trust, a Christian charity, is the main  organiser of foodbanks in this country. They are also the main source of information/statistics (which the debate I watched felt was a cause for concern). Their site shows nearly a million people were being helped last year:People helped by foodbanks

and I fear this figure is rising.

The Trussel Trust ask for donations of the following items:

  • Milk (UHT or powdered)
  • Sugar (500g)
  • Fruit juice (carton)
  • Soup
  • Pasta sauces
  • Sponge pudding (tinned)
  • Tomatoes (tinned)
  • Cereals
  • Rice pudding (tinned)
  • Tea Bags/instant coffee
  • Instant mash potato
  • Rice/pasta
  • Tinned meat/fish
  • Tinned fruit
  • Jam
  • Biscuits or snack bar

So where’s the fresh and healthy ingredients like fruit and vegetables? I realise why they’re not asking for these items – it’s not very practical for the operation they’re running.

So if you’re destitute, our society now thinks you should live on sugary processed goods (to help your health deteriorate)?

I have a particular problem with fruit juice:

Food Bank request for fruit juice
– because it includes the word “fruit” many people think it’s a healthy choice. As someone who has diabetes I know it makes my blood sugars soar (and crash) almost as fast as pure sugar. That leaves me feeling first tired and then irritable, and once your blood sugars become unstable it’s a job getting them right again.

The politicians like foodbanks, as they can pretend the problem is being dealt with – at no cost to them.

The supermarkets also love supermarkets, as it’s an opportunity to increase their sales and pretend they have a conscience! You see messages like “Buy an extra tin and leave it on the way out”. Wouldn’t it be better, from a logistics point of view, to ask for cash and buy exactly what was needed (in bulk from a cheaper supplier)?

In Each One of Us is Precious, Eddy Knasel talks about inequalities in pay, and how the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. That article led me to read The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.  It is hard to think of a more powerful way of telling people at the bottom that they are almost worthless than to pay them one-third of one percent of what the CEO in the same company gets…

So when politicians come knocking on my door, I’ll be asking them what they intend to do about food poverty – so that foodbanks, like slavery, can hopefully become part of our history.

Happy 2015

Happy 2015

A new year is often a time when we decide to make changes. After 17 years, as a rural business consultant with ADAS, and just over 17 years as a lecturer at Reaseheath College, I’ve decided it’s time to have another change. So in April I plan to be working for the best person I know ;-), and will be self employed.   It will mean that I can concentrate on things that I really care about, like supporting small artisan food producers and sellers, or helping you to use your computer better. So if you need any help with things like

or you just need an extra pair of hands at a trade show (or when staff haven’t shown up), please get in touch.

I was very proud that last year my blog on Good Food Shops has now received over two million page views, from an amazing 194 different countries! My partner thought I’d run out of placees to visit, and stop doinging it after 3 months! Hopefully it’s helped you to find better food, and also helped the businesses it features to remain viable (and helped the economy by bringing in tourists).

As I will probably, like many, be on a reduced income, I’m also planning to do a new blog, or web site, on how you can still eat well, and healthily, with less money.

I’d like to wish you all good health and happiness in 2015, and hope to work with some of you later in the year.

Loyalty cards and the politics of a Christmas dinner

Loyalty cardsI’ve always been fascinated by consumer profiles.  When Tesco introduced the Clubcard, David Sainsbury initially rejected the idea of introducing a similar scheme. However when Sainsbury’s saw the adverse affect that the Clubcard had had on Sainsbury’s sales, they soon changed their minds.

The value that you the consumer get from “loyalty cards” (usually expressed as points – so you don’t realise how little it is) is nothing compared with the information you’re giving the retailers.

Clive Humby, from marketing firm Dunnhumby, helped Tesco to establish their Clubcard in 1994. Lord MacLaurin (who was then the chairmen of Tesco) famously said “What scares me about this is that you know more about my customers after three months than I know after 30 years”.

It’s very easy to see how profiling works. YouGov kindly let you search their information online:

Enter your favourite products, and it will tell you all sorts of things about other people who like that product:

The possible lifestyle of a Warburtons customer

So the shops can use this data to predict what sort of thing you may want, and more importantly what they can try and sell you to make more profits.

As it’s nearly Christmas, and just for a bit of fun, I thought it would be interesting to compare the politics (and possible gender) of people for different roasts:

Politics of Christmas Roasts

£64 million of wasted food at Christmas

graph showing Christmas Food Waste

I was horrified to read reports in the press this week about a Unilver poll which found that we waste £64 million of food on Christmas dinners!


  • 17.2 million Brussels sprouts
  • 11.9 million carrots
  • 11.3 million roast potatoes
  • 10.9 million parsnips
  • 9.8 million cups of gravy
  • 7.9 million slices of turkey
  • 7.9 million cups of stuffing
  • 7.5 million mince pies
  • 7.4 million slices of Christmas pudding
  • 7.1 million pigs in blankets

will end up in peoples waste bins!

How did we end up in such a state, where there’s around 925 million undernourished people in the world and we’re feeding our bins! As a small boy I’d loved to have done potato prints – but my mum told me food was for eating, and not to be wasted.

How times have changed, we even have have competitions to see how quickly people can stuff obscene amounts of food into their stomachs:

Picture of people eating ridiculously large burgers

We definitely need more education for our our children (and their parents). Portion control is a good way to teach kids maths. If we’re having 10 people for dinner and 50% of people like sprouts, and the sprout lovers eat 6 sprouts each, how many sprouts do we need?

Leftovers are some of my favourite meals. We will buy a sensibly sized turkey, the bones will make stock, and we will enjoy tukey and ham pie, turkey risotto and turkey curry etc.

Have a look at sites like Love Food Hate Waste for more inspiration. You’ll save money and feel better. Perhaps you could join me and donate some of your savings to Oxfam?

Manufacturing trouble?


Friends, who work in the food industry, think they do a superb job making food that’s both easy to serve and affordable. A book I read in the 70’s told me that the mission statement of Marks and Spencer was to subvert the class structure of Britain by making items available to the working classes that previously only the upper classes could afford! I can remember the excitement of having a Chicken Kiev for the first time! The example of Chicken Kiev is interesting. Most of us tend to think it’s a traditional dish, probably from the Ukraine. However I think it’s origins are French – and it was originally made with veal.

Posh restaurants changed it to chicken, because it was more expensive! Now you can buy two Chicken Kievs and get change from £1! How did this come about?

We can thank factory farmers for bringing down the price of chicken. I think most people would be appalled if they walked through a modern intensive poultry farm.

Florida chicken house

The few that allow cameras in are probably the better ones, in terms of animal welfare. Due to their intensive rearing, a typical supermarket chicken today contains more than twice the fat, and about a third less protein than 40 years ago.

How can the supermarkets sell food so cheaply?  A look at the ingredients gives us a clue. In the one I looked at there was less than 50% chicken! The ingredients listed were:

“Chopped and Shaped Chicken Breast Mix with added Water and Soya Protein (67%) [Chicken (48%), Water, WHEAT FIBRE (contains Gluten), Tapioca Starch, SOYA PROTEIN ISOLATE, Stabilisers (Triphosphates), Salt, White Pepper] , Garlic Butter (10%) [Unsalted Butter (from MILK), Garlic Powder, Sugar, Parsley, Citric Acid, Flavouring] , Rapeseed Oil , Fortified Wheat Flour and Wheat Flour Blend [Fortified Wheat Flour [WHEAT FLOUR (contains Gluten), Calcium Carbonate, Iron, Niacin (B3), Thiamin (B1)], WHEAT FLOUR (contains Gluten)] , Salt , Dextrose , WHEAT SEMOLINA (contains Gluten) , Maize Starch , WHEAT GLUTEN , WHEAT STARCH (contains Gluten)”.

The problem, as I see it, stems back to the industrial resolution, when workers left the land and moved into cities. Factories sprung up, producing cheap processed food.

There’s a long history of the food industry buying cheap ingredients, and then adding flavouring, sugar and salt to make it more appealing. I can recommend reading Swindled: From Poison Sweets to Counterfeit Coffee – The Dark History of the Food Cheats by Bee Wilson.  I’ve used chickens as an example, but I could have used many others.  It’s frightening when you read the real reasons why prawn are now so cheap, and you’ll probably want to cut them out of your diet when you read more (see here for an example). Another good read is Felicity Lawrence’s Not On the Label: What Really Goes into the Food on Your Plate. It’s shocking that, after the horse meat scandal, I’m struggling to find evidence of prosecutions etc.

As supply chains have lengthened, we’ve become more distanced from food producers. A small producer probably wouldn’t bother to substitute a cheaper ingredient to save a penny – but if you’re producing 100,000+ then saving a penny can add thousands to the bottom line.

One of the main problems is lack of education.  The eminent Professor John Webster told me in the 70’s the British public profess to have an interest in animal welfare, until they walk through the supermarket door and buy the cheapest food there is! Thirty years on and his message hasn’t changed (see here for example).

When I buy a chicken, I’m surprised how many meals I get out of it.  I buy a good one, and bulk it out with pulses and vegetables.  Nothing goes to waste, I always make a stock out of the carcass.

A recent report, by The Centre for Diet and Activity Research (CEDAR), looks at the growing price gap between more and less healthy foods.  According to the report, healthy foods in 2012 were three times more expensive per calorie than less healthy foods:

Price gap between more and less healthy foods

It’s no wonder obesity is increasing. When I look in shops like B & M and Home Bargains I see lots of cheap, but heavily processed foods. We’re lucky, where I live, to still have a greengrocer.  Many places no longer have one…

I welcome programmes like Jamie’s 15 minute meals, which show you that you can make tasty, reasonably priced meals in no time at all without resorting to packets and ready meals. I also commend Joanna Blythman’s What to Eat: Food that’s good for your health, pocket and plate – follow her guidelines and you can eat better and help save the planet.

Why we’re getting fatter!

Today is traditionally a day on which we make resolutions.  With recent headlines like 10-year-old girl weighs 22 stone, I’m sure many will be planning to loose weight.  Why is obesity such a problem?

I’m very worried that even quite young people are now becoming obese.  A report by Public Health England, on Social and economic inequalities in diet and physical activity, shows us a link between social deprivation and obesity amongst children:

This report tell us that people living in the poorest neighbourhoods will, on average, die seven years earlier than people living in the wealthiest neighbourhoods!  The reasons seem to be poor education and bad diets.  The better off spend more on fresh fruit and vegetables, whereas the worst off spend more on processed foods.  At the same time, people with the least income in general do less physical activity.

It’s also worrying how many people are now relying on food banks in the UK.  According to the Trussell Trust 346,992 people received emergency food from food banks in 2012/13 – a 270% increase on the previous year.

Many food banks don’t accept fresh produce, as they can’t easily handle it.  I’m pleased to see the Trussell Trust is now trying to teach people how to cook when on a low budget, and provides advice on food budgeting, hygiene and nutrition. A report from the Institute for Optimum Nutrition, point out that people below the poverty line find it hard to afford healthy food, which they reckon can cost up to 50 per cent more than filling but nutritionally poor alternatives.

So who do I blame for the mess we’re currently in?  Friends who work in the food industry say they’re keen to provide nutritionally sound, affordable meals. However a Consumers Association report on breakfast cereals last year points out that 32 out of the 50 cereals they looked at were high in sugar. In only two cases was this due to the fruit they contained; for the rest it was added sugar.

It’s interesting how big food manufacturers have refused to use traffic light labeling. Maybe that’s why we worry about whether to buy full fat milk (which actually is skimmed to contain 3.6% fat) whilst eating crisps that have over 30% fat!

Teachers try and do their bit – but I don’t think it’s the first thing that OFSTED ask about.

Politicians will love to say they’re doing something about it. However they seem more interested in scoring political points off each other, rather than getting together and making sure something is done.

Many now trust supermarkets more than politicians. Did you watch Dispatches – Supermarket Secrets and Deceptions? It may change your mind about how you shop! The big 4 supermarkets now dominate the market:

According to data from Kantar Worldpanel, they have 75.2% of the market.  Bear in mind that the Co-op, Waitrose, Aldi and Lidl are in my “Others” category.  This means we now buy very little today from small independent shops.  I think this is why we now exist on foods from factory farms, and rely on artificial additives and preservatives to give taste and extend shelf life.  Good markets and greengrocers (traditionally the source for fresh and healthy fruit and vegetables) can be hard to find in many areas.

Our over-worked doctors haven’t got enough time to discuss healthy eating, so prescribe statins etc. to reduce cholesterol, and medications to reduce blood pressure. If you find all this depressing, well they’ve also got tablets to help you with that!

Thankfully organisations like the The Kindling Trust, with projects like Feeding Manchester, and the Plunkett Foundation, who led with Making Local Food Work, are making a difference.  I hope you’ll support initiatives like these.

I’ll finish this post with one of my favourite quotations from Margaret Mead. “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Farewell 2013!

As it’s the season for reviews, I thought I’d do a quick review of some of this year’s highlights of doing this blog this year.

I’ve been to some great markets, and The Merchant of Hoghton’s Food Producers:

and Orton Farmers’ Market:

were both amazing examples of how could a Farmers’ market can be.

I’m glad we went on a walking holiday in the North East this year, otherwise I might not have discovered  Cross Lanes Organic Farm, near Barnard Castle

with its green living roof, tractor tyre shelves and great food!

If ever your that way, you must also try and visit Robineau Patisserie in Darlington:

I’d go on quite a detour to visit there again…

This year I’ve been to some great butchers, and some fantastic bakers – like Bramhall Bakery:

As bread and cheese go so well together I must also mention the amazing Courtyard Dairy in Settle:

Since my visit they’ve won Best New Cheese Retailer at the 2013 British Cheese Awards, and Best Cheese Counter at the BBC Good Food Show, and at the same event, Andy also won Cheesemonger of the Year – I’m sure he deserves it.

It’s been nice to see cider make a comeback, although my comments refer only to the proper stuff, and not the stuff marketing people promote which is made with imported apples and added water and god knows what!

So I was very pleased to visit the Three Counties Cider Shop in Ledbury  – a wonderful village for food lovers in Herefordshire.  Even better than cider is a good perry, and Tom Oliver:

(in my opinion) makes some of the best you’ll ever find.

In fact, if you want the perfect meal, what could be better than a proper crusty loaf of bread, some tasty cheese and a glass of good cider or perry?  If you buy them from these people you’ll be consuming natural products and not artificial additives.

A big thanks to all the producers, for allowing me to write about them, and to you for reading this blog.

Happy 2014!

Some New Year’s Resolutions for Food Lovers

1. Eat more pulses

As a child I used to hate butter beans etc. that were unimaginatively served in school dinners.  But now I really enjoy trying different pulses and they’re good for your health.  Using pulses also means I can pay more for meat that has bean reared in an acceptable way, because adding pulses to stews and other dishes makes a little meat go a long way.

If you’re not sure about cooking pulses, there’s some help here and more recipes here.  It’s easier to use tinned beans, but cheaper to buy dried ones.  A pressure cooker saves a lot of time.

2. Eat more fruit and vegetables

I’m sure my doctor will approve of this one!  These days I much prefer a vegetable curry to a meat curry and it’s more authentic.  It’s time to rediscover fennel, red cabbage, and turnips.

3. Eat more seasonally

Why do we buy tasteless strawberries in December?  Eating according to the seasons is cheaper and better for the environment.

There’s plenty of advice on the web about how to do this, like the BBC’s Food Seasons and Eat Seasonably.

4. Eat more sustainable fish

It’s alarmed me how many species of fish seem to have gone (or become very scarce).  Why are we catching fish like mackerel and then feeding it to salmon in horrible fish farms?  I’d rather eat mackerel than salmon, and it takes about three pounds of wild fish to grow one pound of farmed fish

Find a good fishmonger and use the Good Fish Guide for guidance.

5. Drink less alcohol

My recent course at Cheshire Wine School reminded me that spending a bit more on a bottle gets a lot better quality wine so if I drink less I can improve the quality of what I drink!

I can’t stand low alcohol wines, but drinking a nice English cider or perry (like those made by Once Upon A Tree or Oliver’s Cider and Perry) rather than a glass of wine will also help cut down my alcohol consumption.

6. Buy more real bread

Real bread may cost a little more than the mass produced cotton wool sort that many of us eat, but I think it’s well worth paying a bit more for proper bread.  Watching Britain’s Best Bakery reminded me how passionate bakers can be, and I look forward to visiting as many as possible this year.

It’s easy to find a good baker:

It’s always nice to visit a proper bakery, bakers are some of the nicest people I know!

7. Buy more local foods

I’m delighted that local foods seem to be making a comeback.  According to the Food Ethics Council food accounts for 25% of the distance travelled by lorries in the UK, and 12 billion miles driven a year by consumers.

I’m pleased that small artisan producers are starting to use some of the tactics used by supermarkets and are now doing loyalty cards etc.

8.  Exercise more

The easiest exercise you can do is to not do a one stop shop at your supermarket!  Instead walk around your town or village and do more shopping at the small independents.  You can build up a relationship with them.  If you ask, they’ll often get thing in if they don’t already stock it, and they will advice you on what’s good at the moment and if you’re on a budget they’ll find you a bargain!

Going on a nice walk means you can eat more, and not put on the calories.  The endorphins produced by exercise beats taking drugs!  The Ramblers and the National Trust make it easy to find some nice walks (and here are some I’ve done).

9. Discover old recipes

There’s lots of new recipes on the internet, many of highly dubious providence.  This morning I saw a recipe for Champagne and Curry Soup with Oysters!  What a waste of good ingredients.

Instead why not have a look at some of the recipes our grandparents used? For inspiration there’s fantastic sites like  Great British Kitchen and The Foods of England.

I feel, having made a list of 9 things, that it should be 10! What have I missed out?

Incredible Edible Wilmslow

Just over a year ago I visited Incredible Edible Todmorden.  Like most people who visit this fantastic project I came away impressed and inspired.  The idea is now spreading (Todmorden gets visitors from afar away as Australia and Chile) and similar initiatives are beginning to bloom in France (see here).

I thought I’d visit Wilmslow to see how it’s going there.  I wanted to be green, so went by train:

and found herbs, edible flowers, and even strawberry plants growing on the station platform.

Outside the station I gather Community Payback had helped to create beds:

there’s wild flower meadows and apples, damsons and blackcurrants.

A sign:

explains about the shared town centre growing space and encourages you to help weed water and plant spare edible plants.

I then used their map to visit some of the other plots in the town.  My first stop was the King William pub:

to admire the edible flowers at the front, and the edible courtyard around the back.

Then it was on to Waitrose, where I found herbs growing outside their store:

Helen, from Incredible Edible Wilmslow, had suggested I visit when it was the Artisan Market, and I was glad I did.  Here I met Transition Town Wilmslow

where a very helpful lady told me what they’re doing to help tackle climate change, fossil fuel depletion and economic contraction.

The man at Growing Places:

besides selling stylish garden tools, was also actively involved in the project.

I didn’t get as far as Shenton Farm Shop in Handforth (where they have a herb bar), but they also had a stall in the market:

There was a composting area:

and a few planters helped make this area look better:

Off South Drive, four large raised beds are packed with herbs and vegetables:

Even outside Sainsbury’s they were doing something different:

The Incredible guide told me to find trolley attendant Mark, for more cookery ideas than Jamie Oliver!

Even businesses with no land had managed to grow hanging baskets with edible flowers:

and two opticians and a dentist are also involved:

You can see all the places I visited here.

I didn’t manage to get to the community orchard site as I spent longer than I’d intended in the Artisan Market.

They’re just making a start at Wilmslow Health Centre, which I think is great. A better diet had obvious benefits for our health, and I suspect the psychological benefit of communal growing are even greater.  Everyone I spoke to about the project was so positive about it. They’ve achieved a lot in a very short period and I left Wilmslow feeling a happier person.