Living with dragons

In a society filled with Google Maps, MapQuest and other easy access map services, Gregory Marler de

Intense followers of the NMA awards may remember a nomination made last year for OpenStreetMap (OSM). The project, set up four years ago, involves creating a wiki-map of the world that can be modified by anyone who creates an account. Unlike other online and offline map providers, the resulting map is free to copy and use how you like, with no restrictions or fee except ensuring that you credit your changes and link back to OSM.

A free map data source like this is great for small organisations that can't afford the alternatives, but some people still question whether it's useful or required in their simple life. A couple of months after the 2007 NMA awards ceremony I was set to move up north to the beautiful city of Durham. Seeing that only the river and A1 motorway had been mapped in Durham for OSM, I decided to start an experiment.

The experiment was to live without using any maps unless I could copy, publish, and modify them without requiring explicit permission or paying. So to guide me to locations and addresses I could use: a 1948 map that was so old its copyright and usefulness had expired; and I could use OpenStreetMap, that might as well have marked the city 'Here be dragons' because no one had added the streets. To record the stresses and difficulties I experienced I set up a blog, Living with Dragons, so you can follow along and know how I'm doing.

Prior to moving to Durham and starting this experiment, I had spent slightly less than 48 hours there. Going anywhere outside the very centre would require guessing where to go or going with someone who knew. I was invited to houses of new friends but had to ask them to doodle directions from the nearest place I had previously been to.

Along with living without maps, I'm also dedicating some time to building OSM's coverage of Durham. This requires me to walk down every road and footpath I can possibly find, and by the end of it, I'll know Durham very well. But mapping an unknown area is harder than somewhere you're used to. I couldn't systematically divide up areas to map each week. Sometimes I'd map a small area but discover it to be the type of housing that is a warren of short roads and many footpaths/alleyways.

Since October I've mapped the city centre and the area to the east of it. I'm currently working to the North, and what's been done can be seen here. On June the 7th and 8th I'll be arranging a mapping party so you can come along on either or both of the days to learn what to do while helping me out.

Dragon drawing by Joyce Webb

HEINZ BAUMANN/GALLERY STOCK
Show Hide image

With the BBC Food’s collection under threat, here's how to make the most of online recipes

Do a bit of digging, trust your instincts – and always read the comments.

I don’t think John Humphrys is much of a chef. Recently, as his Today co-presenter Mishal Husain was discussing the implications of the BBC’s decision to axe its Food website (since commuted to transportation to the Good Food platform, run by its commercial arm), sharp-eared listeners heard the Humph claim that fewer recipes on the web could only be a good thing. “It would make it easier!” he bellowed in the background. “We wouldn’t have to choose between so many!”

Husain also seemed puzzled as to why anyone would need more than one recipe for spaghetti bolognese – but, as any keen cook knows, you can never have too many different takes on a dish. Just as you wouldn’t want to get all your news from a single source, it would be a sad thing to eat the same bolognese for the rest of your life. Sometimes only a molto autentico version, as laid down by a fierce Italian donna, rich with tradition and chopped liver, will do – and sometimes, though you would never admit it in a national magazine, you crave the comfort of your mum’s spag bol with grated cheddar.

The world wouldn’t starve without BBC Food’s collection but, given that an online search for “spaghetti bolognese recipe” turns up about a million results, it would have been sad to have lost one of the internet’s more trustworthy sources of information. As someone who spends a large part of each week researching and testing recipes, I can assure you that genuinely reliable ones are rarer than decent chips after closing time. But although it is certainly the only place you’ll find the Most Haunted host Yvette Fielding’s kedgeree alongside Heston Blumenthal’s snail porridge, the BBC website is not the only one that is worth your time.

The good thing about newspaper, magazine and other commercial platforms is that most still have just enough budget to ensure that their recipes will have been made at least twice – once by the writer and once for the accompanying photographs – though sadly the days when everyone employed an independent recipe tester are long gone. Such sites also often have sufficient traffic to generate a useful volume of comments. I never make a recipe without scrolling down to see what other people have said about it. Get past the “Can’t wait to make this!” brigade; ignore the annoying people who swap baked beans for lentils and then complain, “This is nothing like dhal”; and there’s usually some sensible advice in there, too.

But what about when you leave the safety of the big boys and venture into the no man’s land of the personal blog? How do you separate the wheat from the chaff and find a recipe that actually works? You can often tell how much work a writer has put in by the level of detail they go into: if they have indicated how many people it serves, or where to find unusual ingredients, suggested possible tweaks and credited their original sources, they have probably made the dish more than once. The photography is another handy clue. You don’t have to be Annie Leibovitz to provide a good idea of what the finished dish ought to look like.

Do a bit of digging as part of your prep. If you like the look of the rest of the site, the author’s tastes will probably chime with your own. And always, always, wherever the recipe is from, read it all the way through, even before you order the shopping. There is nothing more annoying than getting halfway through and then realising that you need a hand blender to finish the dish, just as the first guest arrives.

Above all, trust your instincts. If the cooking time seems far too short, or the salt content ridiculously high, it probably is, so keep an eye on that oven, check that casserole, keep tasting that sauce. As someone who once published a magic mince pie recipe without any sugar, I’m living proof that, occasionally, even the very best of us make mistakes. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad