Community Cookery Schools in Bristol: Changing the City's Food Habits And Health?

The Bristol Food Connections Festival is now in its 3rd year. And for 2016, Barny & the Square Food team will be at the Riverford Yurt on Friday 29th April with representatives from other of Bristol's Community Cookery Schools to discuss what difference we're really making. 

Away from food television, fat and sugar politics, celebrity-ism and the middle-class food revolution, perhaps our relationship with food is being changed by people making soup out of vegetables which would otherwise be thrown away or by a class of children who have made fresh pasta, gone home and shown their parents how it is done.

There are over 100 food education initiatives in Bristol. From full-fledged cookery schools and urban growing projects to after-school cookery clubs, the business of teaching and learning about food is everywhere in the city. This event explores how they work and what impact they are having on people and the city.

Beyond teaching ordinary people to cook healthy and affordable food, could community cookery schools also be having an impact on social welfare policy, on food ethics, urban and local food systems, shopping habits, public health policy, environmental awareness, mental health strategies, school communities, and food poverty awareness?

Following a live cookery lesson with Square Food's Barny plus other cookery teachers from Co-exist Kitchen, HHEAG and All About Food, illustrating how a typical community cookery class might work, you can look forward to a panel of cookery teachers and experts along with volunteers and students to lead a lively debate on these topical and far-reaching issues.

This is a free event but you'll need to Click here to register your attendance. 

Square Food Foundations spiced lentil & vegetable soup

A hearty meal for 6


This is a vegetable soup with spices in it. You could use other vegetables – eg sweet potato, celeriac, swede, parsnip - than the ones I have indicated.

The spices are important; they really do bring depth and sparkle to even quite dull vegetables. But if you don’t have all the spices, just use ones you have or curry powder or paste will do fine as well.

Note: if you buy spices, buy the whole seeds not the powders - and invest in a pestle and mortar. It will become one of your favourite kitchen friends.


2 sticks celery
2 carrots
1 large white onion
300g butternut squash or similar
2 potatoes
3 cloves garlic, minced
½  tsp chilli powder or flakes
1 tsp cumin seeds, coriander seeds, fenugreek seeds, ground
1tsp turmeric powder or fresh turmeric root grated
3 tsp freshly grated ginger
100g red lentils
1 tin coconut milk (optional but lovely)
Groundnut oil
Large bunch freshly chopped coriander
2tsp salt


Dice all the vegetables separately quite small – 1cm

Fry the celery carrot onion & celery until soft & caramelised. This can take 15-20 minutes but it’s worth it

Add the garlic and spices & cook for a few minutes longer, stirring well

Now add the potatoes, squash, lentils, coconut milk, 500ml water (approx.) & the salt and bring to a gentle simmer. Simmer gently for 1 hour or until all the vegetables and lentils are soft. You may need to add a little more water. If so adjust the seasoning accordingly

Stir in the chopped coriander just before serving.



Roast Vegetable Frittata


This is the perfect meal to use up any leftovers, especially after a sunday roast

Serves 4

600g (1lb) mixed winter veg such as potatoes, shallots or onions,carrots, squash or pumpkin, parsnip, celeriac, beetroot
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
3 tbsp rapeseed or olive oil
8 eggs
handful mixed herbs, such as curly parsley, chives and thyme, finely chopped
20g (¾oz) Parmesan, hard goat’s cheese or other strong-flavoured hard cheese, grated
100ml of milk

Preheat the oven to Gas Mark 5, 190°C, fan 170°C. Meanwhile, peel and slice or cube your chosen veg.

Put the veg into an ovenproof dish, about 23cm (9in) square. Add the garlic, oil, season and toss well.

Roast for about 40 minutes, stirring halfway through, until the veg is tender and starting to caramelise in places.

Beat the eggs together with the chopped herbs and salt and pepper. Take the dish out of the oven, pour the egg evenly over the veg and scatter over the grated cheese.

Return to the oven for 10-15 minutes until the egg is all set and the top is starting to colour. If your oven has a grill, you can use that to accelerate the browning of the top. Leave to cool slightly, then slide the frittata out on to a plate or board. Serve warm or cold.





Roast Squash & Chickpea Curry

Serves 6


2 onions finely sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 red peppers, roughly chopped
2 x 400g cans tomatoes 

1 x 400g can chickpeas (or equivalent weight dried, soaked overnight and cooked according instructions on pack)
2 tsp fenugreek
2 tsp coriander seeds (seeds all ground together) 2tsp fennel seeds (seeds all ground together)
1 tsp cumin
2 tsp freshly chopped ginger
1 finely chopped red chilli
2 tsp turmeric
big handful freshly chopped coriander,
2 bay leaves
2tsp fennel seeds

Use a mixture of the following vegetables, all chopped or broken (in the case of the cauliflower) into bite-sized pieces: cauliflower, carrot, sweet potato, celeriac, swede, parsnip. You can use blackeye or other beans instead of chickpeas if you’d prefer. Use dried rather than tinned pulses if you can: they are cheaper, taste much better - and less weight to carry home from the shop. Allow about 300g total weight of vegetables/pulses per person.


In a heavy-bottomed pan sweat the onions, garlic & peppers over a low heat, until soft. Add the spices, stir to toast a little, then add the tinned tomatoes and an equal quantity of water to tomatoes. Add the salt and bay leaves. Simmer well for an hour; should be sweet, aromatic, rich.

Meanwhile, toss the vegetables in a little oil, salt, turmeric and fennels seeds and roast them in a hot oven until brown but still almost crunchy – especially the cauliflower.

Once cooked, combine the vegetables with the base sauce and simmer very gently for 25 minutes. Add freshly chopped coriander and serve with flatbreads and yogurt. 


A feast of vegetables

We've been busy this week, cooking with our Back in the Kitchen group, some of the women at One25, and today with a gang of half-termers who'd booked our one-day Let's Cook Workshop. In amongst all that, Barny's found time to put the finishing touches to his programme for next week's Vegetarian Cookery workshop.

For those of you already booked, here's what you can expect to cook/prepare/eat and for those who haven't got a place, you can still get one! 

Barny's Feast of Vegetables, Thursday 5th November 2015. 6pm 

2 raw winter vegetable salads

Roast cauliflower with hazelnuts

Bruschetta of mixed greens

Vegetable frittata

Spelt grain, squash & purple sprouting with harissa

Roast vegetable curry

Goat’s cheese & vegetable pasty


And to whet your appetite even further, here's a taster in the form of one of the recipes

Bruschetta of mixed greens

This makes a delicious winter starter. Use a mix of, say 3 greens; eg curly kale, spring greens, cavolo,  purple sprouting broccoli. Or just one will do nicely as well

500g mixed greens stripped of stalk & torn into bite-sized pieces

3 red onions finely sliced

3 garlic cloves, finely sliced (not minced)

¼ tspn chilli flakes

Olive oil, lemon, black pepper, salt

In a saucepan, sweat the onions in olive oil until soft and slightly caramelised. Add garlic & chilli flakes and continue sweating till the garlic is soft and almost brown. Transfer to bowl. Don’t clean the pan.

Heat the pan with a little more olive oil until almost smoky hot, add the cabbage leaves, toss a little in the oil and then add just enough water to get the cooking of the cabbage going – about 200ml. The less you can get away with, the less you will have to drain off – along with flavour from the cabbage.

Season the cabbage with just a pinch of salt and cover with a lid. Simmer until cabbage just cooked. Remove from heat and add back the onion/garlic mixture.

Grill thick slices of bread brushed with oil and garlic. Heat up a generous mix of the cabbage in a small frying pan, heap on the slices of grilled bread

Olive oil & a squeeze of lemon…..



Provence in the Autumn & other French Cooking

Provençal stuffed vegetables

I hate the word ubiquitous almost as much as I hate what generally passes for a stuffed pepper, but never has the word had a better soul mate. The stuffed pepper, along with nut-roast and vegetarian beef Stroganoff, was what vegetarians got offered in restaurants in the 1960s instead of Steak Diane or Truite aux almonds, but which, unlike these equally abused dishes, still lies dormant in the culinary wastelands.  At its very worst, its stuffing is composed of overcooked, but somehow dry, boiled rice, mixed together with undercooked fried onion and tinned tomato to form a stiff porridge. This mixture is inserted into a whole red pepper which has had its top sliced off (in the 1960s the pepper was green, but we’ve moved on a long way since then). The pepper is then cooked with its lid on, long enough to warm the porridge, but not soften the pepper. It is served, falling over and spilling its greyish contents onto the plate, with grated cheddar - or without, if the victim is vegan. 

The legumes farcis de Provence are, properly made, barely from the same gene pool. This recipe uses the same vegetables as the ones for making ratatouille – which in itself makes a very good stuffing. Instead of using meat (see below), you could use a mixture of ricotta and soft goats cheese. Like so many dishes Provençal, it is delicious cold as well as hot and can be prepared well in advance. For six people. 

For the vegetable cases

6 medium-sized, firm but ripe tomatoes

3 small aubergines

6 small red or white onions

6 small red or green peppers

3 medium or 6 small courgettes


For the stuffing

300g minced veal, beef or pork

100 g diced bacon or salt pork

1 large or 2 small onions, diced

3 cloves garlic, finely chopped

The pulp of aubergine and tomato, chopped

I cup boiled rice ( leftover risotto rice is perfect)

2 tablespoons grated parmesan

2 tablespoons mixed fresh herbs (basil, tarragon, parsley), chopped

salt, pepper, olive oil


For the top

A cup of soft bread crumbs

Zest of half a lemon

2 tablespoons mixed fresh herbs – as above

salt, pepper, olive oil

Peel off the outer skin of the onions, leaving the top and tail intact. In fast boiling salted water, briefly – 1 minute – blanch the courgettes and then, for a little longer, the onions. Cut the courgettes in half, lengthways. Cut the aubergines in half similarly and slice the tops off the tomatoes, peppers and onions. Using a combination of small sharp knife and a dessert spoon, scoop out the insides of all vegetables but the peppers, reserving the pulp of the tomato and aubergine for the stuffing. Remove the seeds and white fleshy bits of the peppers. Brush the aubergines and peppers with olive oil and a little salt and bake in a medium oven for about ten minutes, just to soften them.  

To make the stuffing, use a deep-sided frying pan or casserole and fry the onions until soft in a little olive oil. Ad the meat and fry briskly, stirring as you do, until the meat is slightly browned. Add the salt pork and garlic, fry a little more, and then add the tomato and aubergine pulp.  Season with salt and pepper and cook gently for about 25 minutes or until the meat is tender. Finally, add the rice, parmesan and herbs, mix well, check for seasoning and transfer to a bowl. 

Mix the breadcrumbs, lemon zest, herbs, salt and pepper with a little olive oil, just enough to hold the mixture loosely together. Stuff the vegetables with the meat mixture, scatter the breadcrumbs on top, drizzle with olive oil and bake for about 25 minutes.

(The wine which springs to mind as the perfect companion to this dish is a Rosé from Bandol. Crisp, fresh fruit with the gentlest hint of tannin in its pale blush-pink colour)

Book onto Provence in the Autumn at Square Food Foundation and learn how to cook Provencal stuffed vegetables and other delicious French classics. 

13 cooks reach a milestone (and write a charter...)

We've just wrapped up our second training programme for care home cooks from the Milestones Trust. 

During the course of this ten week programme we have cooked some 28 dishes, from soups to souffles and lentil and bean fritters to spiced chicken wings, used hundreds of fabulous ingredients, had a seminar on the Food For Life Catering Mark Standard, visited an organic grower, washed dirty vegetables, washed up, burnt things, jointed chickens, picked herbs, eaten lunch, dozed off, drunk coffee, tea and even wine.

A collection of moments captured during the programme. 

A collection of moments captured during the programme. 

But maybe the most important thing we did was talk. And it was the debates and discussions which led the programme through all its changes and challenges. There were times at the beginning when I think people wondered why on earth they were on the course. So much to learn, so little time to learn it. Too many obstacles. And we kept coming back to the big questions of time, knowledge, resources, complex and differing demands of residents, support from management…

But out of the debates and discussions and along with the chopping and cooking, came the learning. The reasons for being on the course became clearer, confidence and purpose grew; there was method in the madness.

And in the end what we were really talking about was not so much knife skills or techniques or budgets or food safety but about a different approach to food and cooking. And how these different principles could be applied in practice in our own kitchens and what the next steps towards making a real difference might be.

Which is where the cooks charter came from….

The Milestones Home Cooks Charter

This is the idea we discussed for the group to set certain standards within their own kitchens which would be in line both with the Milestones Trust Food Policy and The Food For Life Catering Mark Standard. 

  1. All food and drink ingredients used in the kitchen to meet the FFLP Bronze Catering 
  2. Organic Sunday Lunch  (once a month) 
  3. Milk: 20% Organic milk
  4. Bread: one day a week home-made bread
  5. Vegetables: 20% organic
  6. Eggs: 100% free-range eggs
  7. Fish: always MSC approved fish
  8. All meat & poultry Red Tractor as standard (ie always traceable to the farm, assurance of high standards of animal welfare etc) 
  9. 20% meat and poultry free-range or organic

We're still a way from reaching some of these targets but to have got this far is to have reached a milestone. Our next cohort of cooks arrives later this year and we're already excited. For more information about the Milestones Trust, click here. Or, to find out more about the professional training that Square Food has to offer, click here. 

Clifton Lido Funds Cookery Training for Primary Schools

Following on a successful year as Clifton Lido’s good cause 2013- 14, funds raised by Lido will assist two primary schools to join our unique programme: How to Teach Cooking in Your School

The programme supports schools implementing new National Curriculum requirements; teaching hands-on cooking in schools.  This is a professional development course for teachers with a whole school approach.

Applications are open to Bristol Primary Schools for a partially funded programme; training and empowering teachers to deliver cooking lessons embedded in the curriculum.

Interested schools should write to for an application form. More details can be seen here. Deadline for submitted applications: November 14th

Background: The National Curriculum has changing - requiring all primary schools to teach hands on cooking.  Square Food are thrilled that the School Food Plan states 'instilling a love of cooking in pupils will also open the door to one of the great expressions of creativity.' Square Food Foundation is playing a central role in supporting Bristol's schools to achieve this. Our Primary Schools Programme empowers teachers to teach cookery in the classroom, developing skills, techniques, recipes and confidence.

Square Food wish to work with teachers from across the city; thereby sowing the seeds of change for generations to come, reaching children far and wide – turning the tide and reinstating cooking as a lifelong skill.


Following the successful pilot with Knowle Park Primary and Victoria Park Primary Square Food are now working with other primary schools; embedding cookery in the whole school.  We would like to offer two partially funded places to two additional, really committed, primary schools.

“You are taking it beyond the safe zone, you are taking it to proper cooking skills.”- Holymead School Governor

“Amazing, fabulous, delicious, and helpful!” -Child from Knowle Park Primary

“I didn’t like it, I loved it.” “I don’t like broccoli, but I liked that!” -Children from Victoria Park Primary

“We are delighted that Lido, its staff and members have been able to support Square Food over the last year – and that this programme will provide a lasting legacy of our partnership, supporting food education in schools across the city” -Mark Thwaites, General Manager, Clifton Lido

Middle Eastern-style spiced baked apples

We love Autumn, and to celebrate we've been baking apples all week.  Our Kids Simple Suppers class and Back In The Kitchen over 55's have tested several recipes and the winner is.......

Middle Eastern-style spiced baked apples

4 large apples

45g unsalted butter, softened

75g nuts (eg cashew, almonds, pistachio)

100g dried fruit (eg apricots, raisins, dates)

50g pomegranate seeds

2 tsp cinnamon

80g muscovado sugar

1 tbs pomegranate molasses

½  tsp rosewater

1 tsp lemon zest

  1. Preheat the oven to 180c
  2. Core the apples from the stalk end down, making sure that every last trace of core & pips has been removed, but carefully enough not to pierce through the bottom of the apple
  3. Chop the nuts. The best way to do this is to put the nuts in an ‘envelope’ of greaseproof paper and bash them gently with a rolling pin. In this way the nuts won’t scatter all over the place. Don’t chop them too fine.
  4. Chop the fruit to the size of the dried fruit in a fruit cake
  5. Mix the fruit and nuts together with the butter, sugar, cinnamon and pomegranate seeds. Add the molasses, rosewater & lemon zest. Mix thoroughly
  6. Fill each apple with the mixture, pressing it well into the cavity
  7. Place on a baking tray and cover with foil
  8. Bake for 45 minutes
  9. Serve with pouring cream or home-made custard or even a scoop of vanilla ice cream if you enjoy the hot/cold thing

We're also celebrating Autumn with a very special offer. We invite you to bring a friend for free and hope you'll take this opportunity to join us and to introduce some new people to our Masterclasses.

**** Autumn Offer - Bring a Friend For Free ****

Win A Copy of The Kitchen Orchard Cookery Book

The Kitchen Orchard

For Natalia Conroy, an exciting new food writer, the kitchen is an orchard, the source of abundant meals, platefuls of fresh salad or slow-cooked vegetables. She combines seasonal produce with essential everyday ingredients making sure nothing goes to waste. 

Not so different then from Barny's own food philosophy that underpins each and every one of Square Food Foundation's Masterclasses.

Natalia's first cookery book is the Kitchen Orchard - a gorgeous hardbacked back with more than 100 recipes to feast upon. We've got three copies, each worth £25, to give away to our Square Food supporters. 

All you have to do is Like Square Food's Facebook page AND share the newsletter (pinned at the top of the Facebook page) and we'll enter your name into a prize draw.  Winners to be announced on 2nd October 2014.  

******* Autumn Masterclass offer - Bring a friend for FREE*********

Thank you and please vote!

Over the last year we have been lucky enough to be the Clifton Lido's good cause; this has included a Bake Off, an overnight swim and a mountain of donated pots and pans that we have distributed to people who didn't have them at home. On top of this we have made some great connections, meeting people from around the city to tell them about the work we do.  These new friendships have brought new volunteers, new partnerships and new opportunities; supporting our mission to teach people from all walks of life to cook good food from scratch.  

A case in point,  Lido member Camilla Kerr kindly nominated us for the Lloyds Bank Community Fund Prize, we were short-listed and are now in with a chance of winning up to £3000 to spend on new knives, pans, bowls and chopping boards for our bespoke teaching kitchen in Knowle.  This is very good news indeed.

YOU can help us win. Simply vote for Square Food Foundation using one (or all) of the following methods: 


Twitter #CommFund DJZ (You must have a Twitter account)

TEXT VOTE DJZ to 61119. Standard text message rates apply

At one of our local Lloyds Bank branches! Ask a member of staff for a token. You do not need to bank with Lloyds to cast a vote in branch.

  • Brislington Branch: BS4 3QA just off Bath Rd on Bloomfield Road behind the Sainsbury’s
  • Knowle Branch: BS4 2PY (Wells Rd, near Broadwalk Shopping Centre)

You can cast your vote NOW using one or ALL of the above methods! Each different method counts as one vote ;-)

At Square Food we consider ourselves lucky to have such good friends and supporters, all part of the Square Food family. Thank you to everyone who contributes, in so many ways - from attending an Masterclass, volunteering your time, donating a computer monitor, raising funds, voting in the above or simply reading this blog.  You are all helping and every single bit makes a difference.

Thanks in advance for your continued support

****** Autumn Masterclass Offer - Bring a Friend For Free *******

pan amnesty

Spread the word. 

Pan Amnesty with Lido - Sept 2013

Taking stock

A well-made stock has the potential to catapult your cooking to the next dimension, simultaneously utilising the vegetable drawer/allotment glut and giving you a warm glowy feeling inside as the summer sun fades into a distant memory.

square food foundation for web-21

This a general guide to all stocks; fish, meat and vegetable

Stock vegetables: The following ingredients are suitable for stock: onions, carrots, celery, leeks, fresh tomatoes – not too much – French bean or other trimmings -  fennel but only in a vegetable or fish stock – thyme, bay, rosemary – but not too much – garlic – always, perhaps asparagus trimmings, pea pods and carrot leaves in the summer.…… Never put the following ingredients in a stock: brassica, starchy vegetables, fines herbes (tarragon, etc.) or any vegetables which haven’t been properly washed or are turning brown. Stocks are best made with an accumulation of carefully looked after, refrigerated vegetable trimmings.

square food curry masterclass for web-4

For a meat stock, roast off the bones (unless they are left over from roast or otherwise cooked meat) and throw them into a pan with the vegetables and enough water to cover well. Bring to a rolling but gentle simmer. You will never get a good stock if you let it boil. As the stock cooks, the fat and other impurities will rise to the surface. Skim them off religiously every so often until the liquid looks clear. You can now either put it in the oven (on the floor of the oven) at about 110oC or gas mark 3 for about 5 hours, or simmer it on top: blip…….blip……blip….. very slow.

For a fish stock, put the washed bones, cleaned heads, fish bits and frames together with vegetables and water as above. Bring to a gentle simmer as above. Skim religiously as above.

A vegetable stock, not having the flavour benefits of meat and fish, needs to contain lots of vegetables. To get a good soup, stock base or risotto stock, I would use two heads of celery, 6 carrots a bulb of garlic and 3 or 4 leeks……

square food curry masterclass for web-45

To strain the stocks: pass through a colander and then through a fine sieve to remove any bits.

Learn to cook the perfect stock and delicious vegetable dishes with Barny: 12 Vegetable Dishes to Change Your Life


Monday 21st July, The first Square Food LinkAge lunch club

We’ve been running Back In The Kitchen cooking club for nearly a year now.  A lively Monday morning “drop in” for over 55’s – full of banter and good honest cooking from scratch. In the beginning it was just Barny, one 'student' and one volunteer. Despite all the posters, tweets and newsletters, no one else turned up. Luckily, Barny isn't easily disheartened and with our friends at LinkAge Bristol on the case, it wasn't long before the word got out and we were soon over-run.

back to the kitchen group

Today, Back in the Kitchen is a buzzing, thriving class, with firm friendships formed, skills learnt/re-learnt, new recipes tried and many meals shared.

“Monday mornings are the highlight of my week – I look forward to cooking so much, it makes me really happy”  Sally*

“I couldn’t boil an egg before I came here.  Now I regularly cook for my wife at home, scones, shepherd’s pie, all sorts” Tom*

“This is an inspiring place, full of good people” John*

 This week we tried something new, we ran a pilot Lunch Club in collaboration with Linkage and our landlords, The Park  This is an exciting development. Firstly it puts our club cooks to the test of “service” (at which they excelled) and secondly it brings new people together to enjoy a home cooked meal.

12 guests. 6 Back in The Kitchen class cooks. A menu of minced beef, new potatoes, summer vegetables and a summer fruit tart. A lovely space provided by The Park. White table cloth, flowers, cooking & service by the Back in the Kitchen class.

'Went like clockwork. There was a sense of this having the potential to become something special. For SFF, LinkAge, The Park and for everyone involved. For it to become a regular event in which to eat great food,  share food experiences and explore ideas for the future; Autumn, for Christmas, at The Park, foraging in the woods…. All ideas welcome.' Barny 

At Square Food, we know food is the great leveller – a simple way of bringing people together, and Monday proved that philosophy a hundred times over. We were delighted to be joined by local Councillor Chris Jackson who generously pushed back a meeting at City Hall to make time for a quick bite.

“Cooked impeccably” lunch club guest

“Excellent food, excellent company” lunch club guest

[gallery ids="493,494,495,496,497,499,500,501,502"]

All pictures, courtesy of LinkAge

We’re making plans for the Autumn about how to take this forward, and our guinea pigs, ahem - guests, gave glowing praise for both the food and the idea. They especially enjoyed being able to sit down with the cooks who made the meal for them.  Many thanks to our Back In The Kitchen Group for taking up the challenge, and doing so in such a professional manner, and to our new friends who came to enjoy the food and give us their feedback.  As ever, we are indebted to our gallant volunteers, without whom this wouldn't have got off the ground.

We're on the lookout for regular volunteers to support this project. If you think you'd like to give a few hours of your time each week,  please contact

And, if you would like to be kept up to date with our plans, or indeed join the Back In The Kitchen Cooking Club please email to register your interest.

The Island Goats

Part Four: Sunday 22nd June 2014 9.30 am  

In the end Pluto didn't come on the boat. Rupert, with his lifeboat team baseball hat on, said a flat no. And that was that. But of course, next to being with Rebecca, Pluto's favourite place is in the boot of her car, in amongst the soft muddle of old tartan blankets. So that's where he stayed for the duration of our swim, no doubt secretly in a state of blissful relief.

And I didn't cook breakfast over a driftwood fire on the island beach either. But I did, for the first time since swimming in the sea here in Ireland, put on a wetsuit; one of those short-sleeved, short-legged ones that make you like like an Edwardian gentleman swimmer but less elegant. If that's possible. Rebecca said I should wear one and she was right. We stood, in our wetsuits on the harbour side, looking over the wall at the sea and at the Island, waiting for Rupert to bring his boat to the harbour entrance. The sea wasn't flat or calm at all. There was a light North Easterly wind. We watched them both, the sea and the wind. They thought they would dance together for us.

I am not going to go into the detail of the swim itself except to say that the first half was strange and deeply unsettling and it was very good to have company. It turns out that Rebecca swam before she walked. If Rebecca swims like a seal, I swim like Charlie Chaplin. It was only after drinking a cup or so of seawater and after Rupert had called from the boat that we were half way there  that I really found myself understanding what being in this kind of water meant and how to not ever imagine you can do better than you are doing. Maybe that goes for most things in life. I am pretty sure that Rebecca could have swum to the Island, done a couple of circuits of it and be sitting on the steps of the jetty writing notes for next year's Ballymaloe Litfest before I had even arrived there if she had been less patient and supportive.

So a huge thanks to you, Rebecca. And to Rupert who, in a paradoxically reassuring way, scooted off to fish for mackerel at one point, his little blue boat bobbing carelessly some 100 metres away.

I would do it again. I am going to do it again. In the end it only took 45 minutes anyway. Nothing really.

So why did I do it, this Lighthouse Island swim which has so preoccupied me over the past couple of weeks? 

I think the reasons have changed. I think they always do when you set out to do something you have never done before. Of course it was about raising money. For SFF and for The RajKSoni Legacy Fund. And I'd like lots of it please. And if you want to sponsor me just go  to I was also doing it to support the marathon swims which happened at Lido on behalf of SFF and at Portishead on behalf of the RKSLF yesterday.  I salute all those swimmers and hope that their day was as wonderful and life-affirming as mine was on Friday.

So I think my real reason for swimming to the Island begins there too; with life itself. Well, three things; life, the soil & cooking.

There are two jetties on the island. The one we arrived at and the one we walked to, over the island, to be picked up again by Rupert. A little way up the steep pathway, we came across a mother goat who had just given birth to two kids. The bloody afterbirth was on the grass, glistening in the sun. I would say the birth had happened while Rebecca and I were in the sea. The mother goat was licking one of the kids which stood blinking and wobbly in the sun, against the grassy bank of the path, in this new world, knowing nothing, not yet even having suckled from its mother. The other kid lay on the pathway. Its neck was crooked sideways and although alive and trembling, its mother was paying it no attention. She knew it wasn't going to survive.

There are 6 or 7 wild goats on the island - well and now there are 8. But not 9. They survive because there is fresh water from a spring to drink and grass and flowers and seaweed to eat. A small community of wild goats getting on with the business of living.

I have put life (and death) bit out of the three things because that's the bit we all recognise. But really the soil comes first. The thing we humans, as the world's most powerful community, are destroying little by little every day. We are not thinking about the soil.

In my last posting I mentioned Craig Sams' talk at the Ballymaloe Cookery School. If you have got this far with me on this journey, then read about Bio-char and its place in sustainable farming systems. By which I mean organic. Because that's more important than Bio-char; Craig himself began his talk with a brief history of the organic movement in the UK, placing its principles at the heart of his case for Biochar.

We have spent the last ten years not talking about organics. It's gone out of fashion. Even the Soil Association is having to be circumspect about it. And for the rest of us? It's too difficult, to expensive, the arguments for it are dubious, it won't feed the world, it's a middle-class Waitrose, colour supplement thing. Most chefs don't give a damn about it. And that alone speaks volumes. And Bristol Green Capital isn't engaged with talking about it either. Not really. It remains on the margins. Now we talk vaguely about sustainability because it's less provocative.

A wilful blindness to the plight of the soil. Don't tell me all the reasons why organics is not the answer to anything or that GM crops just might have the solution, that poor people can't afford organic food and what a romantic middle-class joke the whole notion of small organic farms is. I just can't bear that anymore. What's wrong with romance anyway? We are not feeding the world anyway, we can't ever hope to. Let's talk about the science and real solutions yes, but lets talk about the science of soil itself to start with.

Well, not right now. I just want to tell you where the cooking bit fits in otherwise you will just go to the pub or to sleep with boredom.

So this is where cooking fits in and in particular the notion that we need a culture of food democracy, of good food for all.

I think if more people cook good food from scratch, the soil will become more important in the landscape of their own lives. Whether they live in a city like Bristol or in a village in the heart of Devon. And when you really think about the soil you are thinking about life itself.

And I think the movement towards real cooking, which is already happening, will lead food culture inexorably to the health of the soil and therefore to principles of organic agriculture. We will make the connection.

That's the direction of travel we are on at Square Food Foundation. While I have been away in Ireland, a garden at the back of the cookery school has been made. I imagine the courgettes are being eaten and the tomatoes almost ripe in this amazing weather. A tiny patch of soil, a gesture, you could say. But it makes the connection between what we put in our mouths and where it comes from. And that's a start.


Today's the day

Friday 20th 7.15am. Ballymaloe Cookery School Pluto has been very quiet over the last two days. Yesterday, while I was in the kitchen at the cookery school preparing food for dinner last night, he came and put his head through the doorway and stood looking at me. No words passed between us. I continued podding broad beans. And then, after a minute had passed, Pluto turned and slowly walked away. I almost felt sorry for him.

So he is going to go with Rupert on the boat. As I write this Rupert doesn't know. This last minute decision was taken very late last night between Rebecca and myself. Pluto absolutely has to come with us. On our swim to the middle island two days ago, he stood on the beach and howled without ceasing until we arrived back 40 minutes later. Pluto has abandonment issues. I feel I have been to hard on the little fellow now, a little lacking in sensitivity and compassion. So, he will go on the boat with the breakfast ingredients I will pack when I have finished this post.

We can put my slightly less than jolly tone to this final pre-swim post down to nerves. Infact it is a beautiful morning here; the sky is blue, the air still. We are ready. I will be packing a breakfast of eggs, bacon, tomatoes, bread and butter, everything, of course, from the farm and gardens of Ballymaloe. And a frying pan. When we get to the Island, we will find drift wood, make a fire and make breakfast. I guess making coffee is going to be too complicated

I was told last night that an Irish naval frigate has been notified of our swim and will be dropping anchor this morning East of the lighthouse island to keep a watchful eye on us. I didn't know Ireland had a navy.

Last night before the dinner, Craig Sams gave a talk on Biochar. if you don't know what this is, check it out. It was a brilliant talk, a call to arms about the soil. Soil is life and we are destroying it. Organic agriculture with help from Bioachar provide part of the solution to this. Conventional agriculture is doing the opposite. It's as simple as that. It made me realise that even in the world of green thinking, we have largely abandoned the notion of organic. It's time to re-engage with it.

See you later


To The lighthouse: Part three

12.55pm Wednesday 18th June Pluto's revenge. 

It's hard to describe how I am feeling right now. I am resigned  to taking the junior position on this mission.  I am happy that Pluto should receive an honorary professorship at Trinity College Dublin for contributing 'a unique body of knowledge to the study of marine science', or so I read this morning in the Cork Examiner. Some people might have raised an eyebrow or wondered how low a university would stoop to get funding even in these straightened times, but not me; I am all admiration and respect.

And, of course, I am happy to have spent hours into the morning of most nights designing the craft which will transport Pluto to the Island. Even though he has rejected outright my idea of strapping together two small surf boards with seaweed. And has insisted on hand-woven Persian silk for the mast when surely Indian would have done the job nicely and would certainly have been more colourful.

Up to this point and despite all these minor snubs and humiliations, I have managed to play my part with humour and good grace.

But the latest news is almost too much to bear.

Yesterday evening I received a text from Rebecca saying that she and Pluto have appointments in Schull on both Saturday and Sunday and so won't be able to do the swim on either of those days.

'An event I have to do,' said Rebecca vaguely, 'I had forgotten about it….important people to meet on Sunday….just have to do it….

Of course what Rebecca didn't tell me then was that Pluto is in charge of her diary.  And that, on a whim - or for darker reasons I am now realising  - he will change diary entries.

Over vodka at the The Blackbird and with Pluto distracted by the loving attentions of some small children, Rebecca confessed in a trembling whisper that it was indeed Pluto's doing and that she no longer felt her life was her own but could somehow do nothing about it. Such is Pluto's power over Rebecca. It was an emotional moment.

Same day 14.38. The strategic approach.

Napoleon, when faced with similar challenges, as before, say, The Battle Of Austerlitz, would retire to his tent and summon about him his wisest commanders (in this case among them was General Desaix).

Je pense, Napoleon would say brooding darkly, que nous avons un problème.

Mais…. mais -qu'est que c'est la vie sans problemes?

Well, as with Napoleon, we are not going to be defeated. We are now going on Friday morning. Rupert has put back his  friends' wedding till the afternoon. I will train at crack of dawn tomorrow instead of on Thursday evening. The tides won't be in our favour, but what the hell.

And Rebecca is going to stand firm.

We're in the Zeitgeist now, Pluto, old chap. Get used to it.

Before these dramas unfolded, I did another swim out from Paradise cove.The beach was empty of people, the tide midway and the sun shining in a deep blue sky. So beautiful.

I swam to the small orange buoy some 400 metres out to sea. I made myself do it. It was the furthest out I had been. Imagination is not a good companion for such a swim. You want to be thinking about kneading bread or even checking your bank balance, because imagining what's beneath, the 30 metres of water, the seaweed which drags gently against you feet (that's what the buoy is for; to warn boats about the seaweed) is not good. The thought that you might have heart attack or even just cramp and no one would be there. Or that you would find yourself swept out by strong currents you didn't feel at all even a minute ago, so that you are suddenly a mile, not 400 metres, out in the deep ocean, too tired to swim back.

Well here I am, so none of these things happened. Once round the buoy - which I touched briefly to prove I had got there - I swam a few metres inland and then lay on my back looking at the sky and listening to the sea rolling gently beneath me, feeling the ocean holding me . You will never get nearer to heaven than this.


It's me or the dog

For those wondering why Barny's in Ireland instead of Knowle West, he's on a bit of a sabbatical. Not one to miss out, he's supporting Lido's Midsummer Swim in his own special way - by swimming through the sea (and its wildlife) to Ballycotton Lighthouse. However, an unexpected swimming companion threatens to throw Barny's plans awry as he prepares for his challenge... 

Monday afternoon 4.30pm

Off the main Shanagarry beach this time. Low tide again.You have to walk for five minutes to get to the sea's edge and wade the same again to get out of your depth. I swam beyond the reef and into greener colder waters. Only one seagull flying low over the water for company. Someone - the daughter of a former lighthouse keeper - tells me it's going to take 1 hour 40 if i am lucky. She's got to be kidding. Why did I say I would do this thing

And the other problem is Pluto. Pluto is Rebecca's dog. His mission in life, his entire reason for living, is to look after Rebecca. And that means being with her every minute of the day. It's not that he minds other people's attention; at the Blackbird the other evening he wasn't above resting his nose briefly on my lap, but his heart is with Rebecca. Always and at all times. If, say, she picks up a glass of wine or laughs at someone joke, he sits up straight and though feigning a passable nonchalance, is worrying - about a possible accident befalling his beloved mistress. This means Pluto has to come with us. To protect her, he says,  from the shark, to guide her through the strong currents. Which would be fine except that in reality, as opposed to his dreams, Pluto isn't that keen on swimming in the sea. Chasing balls along the shallow sea's edge, yes, but when it comes to the deep dark green waters of the straights of Ballycotton, his loyalty to Rebecca will be reduced to sitting on the end of the harbour and imagining he is Afredo in La Traviata, howling the famous duet Gran Dio, morir si giovane (oh God, to die so young) except that Violetta is two thirds of the way to the Island and not so much at death's door as just moderately weary of both swim and singing dog.

So Rebecca's idea is to build a raft for Pluto and attach it by a rope to her waist. Certainly not my waist. He's not my dog. As much as I love dogs and as much as chivalry runs deep in my veins,  I'll have enough on my plate with the jelly fish. And I am not certain that this raft scheme is the best solution anyway. I have suggested a life jacket for him or at least a small outboard motor on the raft which Pluto can operate with his tail. And with both life jacket and outboard motor, I think Pluto could get into the part; like Russell Crowe in The Commander, pursuing the Frenchies against all the odds.

The thing about all this is that you start off with a simple idea. You see the lighthouse, gauge the distance with an experienced nautical eye, plan the route around the small island between the harbour and the lighthouse and make the decision. Simple. But nothing is simple. It's not the half mile you thought. There are cross currents. You need a boat with someone to skipper it. He needs to known what he is doing, know the waters. Tides, weather, sharks, jellyfish, sting rays, all these complications. And now Pluto.

Yesterday, on the way back along the coast path from my swim near Paradise Cove, I stopped and sat and watched a pair of mating kestrels. I have seen them almost every time I have been there. There they were, sitting on their ledge three quarters of the way up the cliff face. Occasionally the male bird would take off and glide over the cove, land briefly in the grass on the other side and then return, back over the cove to the ledge, to his mate. I wondered what he was doing, whether he was bored of just sitting with her, needed to be in his own space for while or was looking for rabbits. If anyone has any ideas about this, let me know.

Pluto/raft update: R's idea is now is a crate insulated with what she describes as 'the stuff they put in the walls of buildings'. Brilliant. I thought this swim was about me not a dog. Next thing, there will be a hero's welcome at the harbour for Pluto when we return, a flotilla of fishing boats, dogs lining the streets of Ballycotton and the mayor of Cork in attendance at The Blackbird for a reception of biscuits specially prepared by the students of Ballymaloe cookery school and water imported from some special stream high up in the Wicklow mountains.

For more information on Lido Midsummer Swim that takes place this Saturday 21st June  in support of Square Food Foundation, click here

To make a donation to Square Food Foundation, click here.

To find out more about Square Food Foundation, click here

Only basking sharks...


With Lido's Midsummer Swim fast approaching, Barny writes from his Ballymaloe hideaway with plans to undertake his own marine challenge that will (almost) mirror this Saturday's Swim, held in support of Square Food Foundation.         

'I thought I would update you all on my planned swim to Ballycotton Lighthouse. The island is about 1.5 miles from Ballycotton harbour. I have someone skippering a small boat to accompany me. He is on the Ballycotton Life Boat Team, knows the waters, and is confident I can do it safely.

The cross currents are manageable and there are only basking sharks* and no jellyfish. Rupert (the skipper) is going to have his harpoon at the ready just in case.

I may have someone called Rebecca swimming with me as well. She runs the literary festival at Ballymaloe and so I thought we could talk about poetry on the way. Shelley springs to mind for some reason. We may have to do it on Sunday 22nd not Saturday. But hopefully Saturday. I will let you know.

And if the weather is really rubbish we will have to cancel. And just to reassure you I am not being silly, I am training - off the rocks up the coast and other places. The water is incredibly warm. Well, not exactly warm but perfectly ok. Not freezing anyway.

The other thing is that as you will see this swim is for two causes; SFF & The RajKSoni Legacy Fund. I will split any sponsorship money 50/50.

Some people at Ballymaloe - including Darina and Tim are going to sponsor me. It would be good to see if I can raise some profile about it back in Bristol. I am going to tweet about it later today. Rebecca is my new twitter helper. If there's anything anyone else can do that would be great. I'll be in touch nearer the time and as things progress.


*Apparently there are sharks. I thought I was joking.

Volunteering - my Square Food journey

Square Food's first volunteer, Gretchen Doering talks about what it means to volunteer at Square Food Foundation and sheds some light on her own experience.  Having been an onlooker, a volunteer, a teacher, and now operations assistant, I can say with great certainty-we couldn’t do it without them. Some recent feedback from Enthusiast Masterclasses says it all “Superb! Thought the atmosphere was nice and relaxed with the tuition being really easy to follow—help was always available.” “Informal, yet structured.” “I learned a lot but felt comfortable and not under pressure.”

It is the extra pairs of hands that make this lovely atmosphere possible—to do the washing up during a masterclass, fetching the spare colander, getting the fish out of the fridge or the tarts out of the oven means the students and teacher can remain around the table. Having volunteers fill that role also means that the surplus from those courses can go to fund our community cookery courses. And by giving a volunteer a meaningful role, we engage and educate yet another person, building perhaps the best ambassadors for the cookery school.

square food curry masterclass for web-25
square food curry masterclass for web-36

I was having an orientation meeting with a new volunteer recently and she said she didn’t expect to be able to step right into one of the really good volunteer roles, she would understand if she had to work her way up.  I believe that all our volunteer roles are good ones—everyone gets to experience a bit of that magic that comes from a Square Food Foundation cookery class. Also, I must say that coming from the small, confined, circular sink of my former flat, I find the two expansive sink basins and drain board overlooking the garden outside a luxury—especially as both of the taps now work and have hot water! There’s something very satisfying about taking off my watch to immerse my arms in hot sudsy water, tackling a pile of dishes and knowing there is delicious, cooked-from-scratch food waiting to be tried.

And it’s not just washing up! If you want to spend one Sunday a month helping children with Downs Syndrome knead dough or stir fry vegetables, we’ve got a place at the table for you. If you want to venture to schools around Bristol to assist with a hands-on workshop or inspiring assembly, let us know. We used to have a volunteer who loved coming in to fold our aprons and iron our tea towels—no joke, and the role is still available! We have volunteers who assist with events and marketing, photographers and graphic design, all lending a hand to make connections, create choice, and change lives.

There is no better way to meet new people and engage in new project then to volunteer. You show up some place new, you have a task at hand to get on with, you’re usually learning something, and working with others usually means having a good time. When I asked Lucy nearly a year ago, why didn’t Square Food Foundation have more volunteers? Because having volunteers takes time—recruitment time, management time, an upfront cost of time that couldn’t be afforded even if there was time savings in the end. Knowing that volunteers can be your best ambassadors, that's when I volunteered to be volunteer coordinator.

Why volunteer? It is tactile, engaging, educational, and it is challenging (anticipating Barny’s next request), and it has the added bonus of tasting some delicious food. Most of our roles don’t ask for a fixed ongoing time commitment, though sometimes those exist, but you should know that you are so appreciated and essential on the days you do commit.

Why at Square Food?

There is a place for everyone here. Barny Haughton was the first person who I ever met from Bristol. He was teaching a class called Culinary Techniques as a visiting professor at the University of Gastronomic Science, and he told his story, of building a cookery school that taught everyone to cook, from the working professionals, the school children, and the disadvantaged—using ingredients from the field to the fork. Half the class was ready to come volunteer on the spot.

square food curry masterclass for web-9
square food curry masterclass for web-28

When I moved to Bristol and first caught up with Barny, he invited me to come along the very next day to assist with a class as One25, where I saw what I already knew firsthand: teaching people in all walks of life that no matter who or where you are, cooking from scratch can change your life.  I continued assisting with that class each month in addition to a few Enthusiast Masterclasses, Bristol Area Down Syndrome Support group, and schools groups on and off site. Whether it was assisting off site with a homemade pasta and pesto class with a scouts troop, or pasty lessons in a school hall to over 100 children throughout the day, I saw children engaging with food in a way they perhaps had not before; we were inspiring new cooks and new connections.

Join the conversation. Make connections. Create choice.

Cooking can change your life

Dear Head Teacher

Dear Head Teacher

How to Teach Cooking In Your School

I am writing to you following the brilliantly successful pilot with Victoria Park & Knowle Park schools. And I am inviting you to become part of the most important educational challenge of our time.


It's about giving children a love for real food and giving them the skills & knowledge to cook delicious healthy food. And critically about giving your teachers the skills & confidence to teach cooking in the class room. Not the same as teaching maths.

It's about how food connects with every other subject on the curriculum. And how it can engage the whole school and the wider school community.

It's about in putting food education  & cooking itself, so long on the margins of our cultural relationship with the food we eat, at the heart of the curriculum. And as important as any of these things is how it answers the question of what kind of a world do we want to live in.

In the old days, children would learn about food how to cook from their parents. But that was three generations ago.

After nearly 20 years of teaching cookery in Bristol I am still teaching grandmothers to make pastry and cook cabbage properly and how tell the difference between a parsnip and a swede.

So now, it's down to schools - particularly Primary Schools because the younger they start the easier it is. Cooking is just another language.

It's not difficult. All it takes is being awake to the world we want to live in.

Not before time, the government has finally realised that we need to teach cooking in schools. I believe this too. I would go further: I believe that we have a moral duty to make this happen and that in not doing so we are failing in our duty of care towards the children in our schools.

Nothing is more important than the food we eat.

This is not a sales pitch. Of course I believe that the programme we are offering Bristol schools is brilliant: simple, designed for purpose and delivered by serious food education practitioners to meet your school's individual needs. I also believe that this programme offers great value for money.

But the reason for this email is to try and engage you and all primary schools in Bristol in the debate. 

Bristol's unique position in the UK's food scene has just been celebrated in the Bristol Food Connections Festival. No city in the world has done anything like this before. Next year, Bristol will be Europe's Green Capital and food will be a central theme to its mandate.

So two things:

One: Sign up for our Autumn programme to train and empower teachers to deliver exciting hands-on food education in line with the changes to the National Curriculum

Two: Get in touch and join the conversation.

Thank you for reading this. If you want to know more about the programmes for schools or the work SFF does, please get in touch.

Have a good summer