Escape with me to an island (or three)

I made a podcast!

As part of my efforts to teach myself how to make audio (a guy’s gotta up-skill!), I’ve created ARCHIPELAGO — a series of island adventures for you to enjoy in your armchair. The first three episodes have dropped and are available wherever you get your podcasts (including Apple and Spotify):

  • A little intro about islands (and why, in a year like this one, they’re radder than ever — even/especially if you can’t visit them in person)

  • Robben Island — the story of my first swim, as an 11-year-old, from Nelson Mandela’s former prison to the mainland

  • Ilha de Mozambique — the tiny tropical island the world forgot about (and which I made my parents take me to when I was 18!)

The next three episodes (about the Princes’ Islands in Turkey, the Isle of Jura in Scotland, and Bali in Indonesia) will be released weekly from next Tuesday onwards.

To get them all, just subscribe to ARCHIPELAGO in your favourite podcast app.

Now, I’m a little shy about sharing this: my audio skills are still rudimentary. Nevertheless, I hope you’ll enjoy! Please feel free to send crit/feedback/advice so that my future podcasting endeavours will continue (hopefully!) to improve. (And sorry, in advance, for those pesky sibilants; I promise to do my best to tame them in future!)

Newspaper clipping featuring a pic of me shortly after completing my second (and last!) Robben Island crossing in 2001. Episode 1 of ARCHIPELAGO recounts my first crossing, in 2000.

Am I the only millennial without a sourdough starter?

Fear not, though: my sister has WhatsApped me instructions on how to make one. In the interim, I have been baking conventional bread in my Dutch oven. And cookies… WAY too many chocolate chip cookies (damn you, BA). My kitchen habit has gotten so out of control that if a few hours go by without me wielding a whisk, knife or spatula, I start getting the shakes.

This year, making food switched from being an occasional fun activity to become a nourishing lifeline; a soothing weapon against anxiety; a way of travelling the world (see below). Given those yeast shortages and rationed sacks of flour, I’m sure that for many others it’s become the same.

Food for thought

Those shortages, while annoying, offer us a reminder that the food on our plates doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Even if the likes of Bon Appétit and Alison Roman like to pretend otherwise, everything we eat is the result of a complex ecosystem — not just of supply chains and logistics, but encompassing people, culture, the environment and much more besides too.

Without wanting to get overly Michael Pollan or Dr Bronner’s on you, I do think it’s worth remembering that the purchase of every ingredient is a political and ethical act. What we choose to consume — and in which quantities — can, cumulatively, have significant consequences. With that in mind, I’m determined to understand our food systems better, to be more informed about where ingredients come from and, in turn, make more responsible buying decisions (an intention that is thankfully aided by the abundance of fresh organic produce from local small-scale growers in this neck of the redwoods).

Helping me get educated are:

  • Puerto Rico-based Alicia Kennedy and the SF Chronicle’s restaurant critic Soleil Ho who both often eloquently address the knotty political, economic and cultural dimensions of food in their awesome newsletters; so does Jonathan Nunn, across the pond, in Vittles

  • This terrain is also excellently covered by non-profit site The Counter

  • On The Tip-Off podcast, the behind-the-scenes story of a tenacious journalist’s uncovering of slave labour in the tomato fields of the Italian South was an eye-opener. DON’T BUY TINNED ITALIAN TOMATOES, y’all. Read the original story on The Guardian

  • Loved this round-up of indigenous foods you can have shipped to you if you live stateside; I’ve got my eye on the cornmeal and beans

  • The FT’s Rana Foroohar on “The problem with Big Food

  • The scary reports by Forest500 (pdf) and Rainforest Action Network (pdf) on “deforestation risk”… Kikkoman (your fave soy sauce), Nestle, Ferrero and other giants really need to get their act together to prevent our tropical rainforests from going up (literally) in smoke

Your recipes wanted!

Big thanks to the folks who weighed in on my Artichoke Conundrum. I ended up steaming it, adding butter. Yum!

What are your current favourite recipes? The tried and tested ones you’ve kept on coming back to over the past few months because of their ease (or complexity), the flavours they offer or memories they conjure? If you send me a link or scan, I’ll collate a few of them to share on next month’s Dispatch.

Travels to Italy (in my kitchen)

For someone with an almost unhealthy obsession with food, wine, negronis, Elena Ferrante, Under the Tuscan Sun, Roman Holiday (and, of course, Call Me By Your Name 🍑) , it seems utterly bizarre I’ve never been to Italy. It was an omission I’d been planning to rectify this year, in fact. With that trip on hold indefinitely, I’ve been visiting through food instead. Making pasta and pesto from scratch. And pizzas on our new pizza stone. (With tinned Californian* tomatoes for the sauce, fyi!) Also rewatched the glorious Fat episode of SFAH, in which Italy plays both starring role and stunning backdrop. My future bestie Samin is never far!

  • Which countries have you been visiting in your kitchen lately?

My first attempt at making Neapolitan-style pizza was, um, avant-garde to say the least. I’m hoping practice will ultimately make perfect. Also dreaming of one day owning a wood-fired oven.

A brief love-letter to fungi from a newfound fan

You probs know all this already but in case you didn’t…

  • Yeast (like the stuff we use in baking) is actually a type of fungi

  • Trees communicate with each other through underground fungal networks

  • Also: in November, Oregon could become the first state in the USA to vote to legalise psilocybin (magic mushrooms); currently it is decriminalised in Denver, Oakland (go East Bay!) and Santa Cruz (no surprises there…)

Loved this TNY feature on the wonders of fungus.

Joyful abandon(ment)

Only fairly recently have I discovered the almost illicit-feeling thrill of ditching things I’m not enjoying instead of sitting with them doggedly (neurotically?) till the very end. Life’s too short, I’ve decided, for Hollywood from episode three onwards, or that extremely dull Hemingway short story in the recent, rather underwhelming fiction issue of The New Yorker.**

Stuff I have been sticking with, however, include:

  • The Zen Beat poet genius Gary Snyder’s essay collection, The Practice of the Wild. In it, he weaves together ecology, geography, history and linguistics to offer richly wise reflections on the natural world and our place in it

  • Several pulpy historical novels found in the nether regions of the Amazon Kindle store; devoured in single sittings; too embarrassing to cite by name

  • Netflix’s sublime Call My Agent (mentioned previously). With criminally short seasons, I’m rationing this slowly and still have season three to look forward to. The second season concluded with a cameo from the ravishingly evergreen Juliette Binoche — every bit as delicious as she was in Chocolat a 1000 years ago. If anyone is prepared to leak her skincare regimen, this sun-wizened South African journalist is all (wrinkly) ears

  • Babylon Berlin (also Netflix). Kinky concubines! Communist conspiracies! Corrupted cops! Beautifully acted and with sumptuous sets, this intoxicating Weimar-era neo noir series is a decadent, sleazy and somehow pitch-perfect delight. (Thanks, Honora!)

  • I’ve also been enjoying the new Gaga album, Chromatica, which mercifully sees her firmly back in the pop-disco territory so emblematic of The Fame and Fame Monster. Indeed, as I listen, I’m transported back to 2009 when I was on one of my first (exhilarating, slightly terrifying) visits to a gay bar and “Bad Romance” was screaming from the speakers

  • I’ve punted it previously, but I have to reiterate: the spellbinding, haunting Floodlines from the Atlantic is one of the best narrative podcasts I’ve listened to. About the traumatic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, it’s an extremely timely one too

What are the songs you keep going back to? Which are the period dramas that are hitting the right notes? What’s the last book you read to the very end?

All fired up

On this rugged stretch of Californian coast, the ocean’s breezes, its icy temperatures and recurring fog can make it easy to forget about the climate crisis. So, too, the absence of teargas or screams or necks crushed under knees could make it easy to pretend that police brutality or systemic injustice do not exist.

But I’m painfully aware that — no matter how deceptively tranquil this gusty Arcadia might be — it would be folly to pretend or to forget. Not when 2020 is on track to be the hottest year in history. And not when America’s cities have been ablaze — both with protest and state-sanctioned thuggery.

However rapid technological innovation might seem, in many respects we remain trapped in a 19th century dystopia — one in which systematised unfairness, injustice, exploitation, cruelty and greed continue to cause untold destruction, violence and suffering — in particular to people of colour, to women and to the environment.

They say it’s darkest just before dawn. Am I delusional to hope that, within my lifetime, the citizens of the USA and South Africa (and other broken, traumatised countries like ours) might prove capable of forging a new social compact — one founded on community, compassion, respect, equality, fairness and dignity?

In South Africa, there’s the philosophy of “ubuntu” — “I am because we are” (a philosophy which sadly doesn’t get practised there nearly as frequently as it’s discussed). Wouldn’t it be nice, though, if one day this kind of interdependency — and everything that flows out of it — finally trounced the winner-takes-all status quo which continues to be so harmful?

Writing in the FT, the ever-eloquent Ben Okri argues that “something is in the air” — that this time it’s different. It’s up to all of us to make sure he’s right.

Porpoise spotted!

I’m too much of a wuss to brave the waters at my local beach clad solely in a Speedo these days so I recently acquired a wetsuit. I suspect my 11-year-old self would be appalled by my lack of grit.

{In case a friend forwarded you this, click above! Think a friend would like it? Then feel free to forward to them!}


*Not that labour conditions for agri workers in this great state are exactly a bed of roses, either….

**A caveat: in some (I suspect mostly rare) instances, persistence is ultimately rewarded — like Elena Ferrante; I struggled through almost the entire length of the first volume of her Neapolitan quartet until something switched and I was completely in love and very grateful I hadn’t given up. I breathlessly consumed the rest of them.

Thanks for reading this (especially if you — brave soul — managed to make it to the very end). Replies, as always, are appreciated. Send me a recipe, a stash of SlimFast or a book recommendation. See you next month!