Of the many things thrown into long-term doubt by the UK’s decision to leave the European Union (“Brexit”) is the UK’s commitment to EU environmental policies.
Then again, you only need to look at the UK government’s withdrawal of subsidies for renewable energy and support for fracking to see the likely direction of travel.
Of particular concern should be the fate of EU’s temporary ban on the use of pesticides containing neonicotinoids, which is due to be reviewed next year. The ban was introduced in response to mounting evidence that neonicotinoids were at least partly responsible for the decline in Europe’s bee population. The temporary ban was intended to allow time for further research to take place.
Neonicotinoids were introduced in the late 1980s, ostensibly as a safer alternative to older insecticides such as DDT, which had been shown to be dangerous to wildlife and humans. The way neonicotinoids work is by attacking the central nervous system of insect pests, causing paralysis followed by death. It stands to reason that any insect, including larger, beneficial pollinators, coming into contact with these chemicals are likely to suffer harm. But of course, vested interests in the shape of agribusinesses and the global chemical companies consistently denounce such reasoning as unscientific.
Last year the UK government exercised its powers to override the EU ban for a three month period in order to allow oilseed rape farmers to spray their crops. At the time, the agriculture minister George Eustace explained that “we have generally taken the approach we should look carefully at risk, not just hazard. Some of these chemicals have hazard but the risk is very, very small. We are very keen to ensure while we follow the evidence we don’t allow the EU to get too far down its precautionary principle route because we should keep a real focus on risk”.
Needless, to say, the UK government had opposed the EU ban from the outset,and it is quite possible that freed from the constraints of partnership working with EU countries the UK would allow its farmers greater use of neonicotinoidal pesticides.
In the meantime, research published during the window afforded by the EU temporary ban has so far shown more clearly than ever the harm that these pesticides cause to bees.
A paper published in July by the University of Bern, Switzerland found that neonicotinoids damage male drone honey bees’ sperm, with obvious consequences for bee populations. Predictably, in response to this finding, the global chemical giant Bayer, the world’s leading producer of neonicotinoid pesticides, suggested that “artificial exposure to pesticides under lab conditions is not reflective of real-world experience.”
The Swiss research paper was followed in August by the publication of an 18-year study, published in Nature magazine, which found evidence linking neonicotinoid pesticides with “large-scale population extinctions” of wild bees. The latter study is particularly notable, not only for the breadth of its scope but also for the fact that it found specific evidence that the use of neonicotinoids had led to “large-scale population extinctions of wild bee species” where it had been used on oil seed rape crops – the very crops for which the UK government overrode the EU temporary ban last summer.
In a depressingly unimaginative response to this latest report a spokesperson for the National Farmers Union stated that without the use of such chemicals “farmers’ ability to produce wholesome (sic), affordable food for the nation will continue to stagnate”.
Bees do not have a voice, but we do.
The most powerful way to express that voice is through the choices we make when we shop for the food we eat. Buying organic means rejecting food grown using pesticides. The more of us that exercise that choice, the more farming will be forced to change. Twenty years ago, eating organically was seen as the province of cranks. Now it is a mainstream choice. The fact that we do have that choice today is itself the direct result of people in previous generations consciously rejecting food grown using pesticides and other dangerous chemicals.
On to the recipe.
Is there anything more quintessentially British that the deep fried chip?
It’s rather sad on one level that it is so emblematic of British cuisine, but then again there is no denying that good quality chips do taste wonderful when they are cooked well.
The celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal has spent a long time researching different techniques in a quest to produce the perfect chip. Others have since built on his method, taking it even further down the “molecular gastronomy” route, such as this method involving brine, glucose syrup and a sous vide water bath. Others still have generously published their own detailed research into the arcane science behind the perfect fry, for example this amusing and meticulous account of an attempt to recreate the texture of a McDonald’s chip (I know, I know).
The consensus seems to be that a process involving triple cooking is the best route to chip perfection. I have borrowed heavily from these sources, and others, in presenting this slightly simplified and less-than-scientific technique, which I find still makes amazingly good chips – crispy on the outside whilst soft and fluffy on the inside. Be warned: since the method involves three cooking stages it is a lengthy process, which is why it’s a good idea to make these chips in bulk and keep them in your freezer until needed.
And of course, please make sure the potatoes you use are organic.
triple cooked chips
2 kg good quality organic main crop potatoes (maris piper and rooster are excellent)
1 tsp sea salt
ground nut oil for deep-frying.
1. Peel the potatoes and cut into chips, about the width of your index finger. Place them in a large pan and cover with water. Add the sea salt. Bring the pan to the boil, then remove from the heat. Leave the potato chips in the hot water for 5 minutes, then drain them gently into a colander. Gently tip the drained chips into a large bowl of ice-cold water and leave to cool. Once they are cool, drain them on kitchen paper and place in a large freezer-proof bag. Place in the freezer for at least an hour.
2. Remove the frozen chips from the freezer and tip onto a tea towel or kitchen paper to absorb any moisture brought out by the process of freezing. Pour the oil to a depth of at least 6 cm into a large, deep pan and place on maximum heat. Once the oil is hot (test this by dropping a cube of stale bread into the oil. It should brown within 30 seconds), reduce the heat slightly. Cook the chips in small batches (5 or 6) for 4-5 minutes, or until they have become very lightly coloured and have developed a slight crust. Use a slotted spoon to remove the chips and drain them on kitchen roll. Leave to cool completely.Once they are cool, drain on kitchen paper and place in a large freezer-proof bag. Place in the freezer for at least a further hour. Strain the oil through a fine sieve to remove any extraneous bits of chip. Pour the strained oil back into the pan. At this stage you can keep any chips that you don’t intend to use straight away in the freezer, ready for another day.
3. When ready to cook them, remove the frozen chips from the freezer for the final time. Heat the oil in the pan over maximum heat until hot. Reduce the heat slightly and cook the chips (in batches if you are cooking them all at once). Fry the chips for a further 6-7 minutes, or until they are a lovely golden brown colour. Remove from the oil with a slotted spoon. Briefly and drain on kitchen roll before serving hot.