Unknown pleasures

Tom Ravenscroft on what to look forward to at this summer's music festivals.

I may be about to put myself out of a lot of potential work by announcing that festival season is on the horizon - the busiest and most lucrative period for almost anyone who works in the music biz - and that . . . I'm not sure how much I like it. Festivals fill me with dread a little. There are so many in the UK now, ranging from small parties held in the gardens of the parents of bored rich boys to huge, rather soulless affairs organised by multinational companies that have no interest in music but rather enjoy selling you stuff.

Given their sheer numbers, there must by now be a festival perfectly suited for everyone in the country - there's probably even one called Tom in a Field and yet I still can't find one that's the perfect fit for me. The music is either too mainstream or too pretentious and the festival-goers are either too cool or not quite cool enough. The emphasis on good food and clean, ethical living and the excitement evoked by the word "shower" would make sense if we were planning on living there for the rest of our lives. I used to comfort myself with the thought that no one is really enjoying himself at any festival but just pretending to because everyone hates a party pooper.

In much the same way as I don't like watching films with large groups of people, I think I prefer listening to music in smaller numbers. There is also the issue of sound: the bigger the stage, the worse the sound seems to get. A slight gust of wind and, as at a festival I once attended on the Spanish coast, the only person who gets to hear the songs is a fisherman three miles out to sea. (I'm sure he liked the Wooden Shjips and was grateful for their accompaniment to his daily toil.)

In recent years, however, something has changed. The larger, more commercial festivals have become the musical equivalents of gossip mags, spitting out drivel at a billion watts into the faces of ripped-off teenagers. As a result, the variety of acts elsewhere has greatly improved. It is slowly removing my years of scepticism and is perhaps even creating a drop of excitement (so, this is what it feels like).

Listening habits have changed considerably: most people are no longer just being fans of, say, indie or techno, but pick bits they love out of an expanding range of genres. Festivals are increasingly representing this and, in doing so, are also reflecting my tastes better than they ever did.

To some degree, it isn't about festival programmers putting on things you like, but about them having the courage to put on acts you might hate. Audiences don't have to like everything they see over a weekend, but should be given the opportunity to discover something that's fresh and unexpected. It's that possibility of stumbling across your new favourite band that had disappeared a bit from the scene, with too much emphasis on buzz bands of the day or nostalgic acts you felt the need to tick off as "have seen". The Field Day festival in east London is a good example: despite its ability to house briefly almost all of London's twits, it packs into a single day a hugely diverse collection of noises. There are many acts I have no idea about and some I suspect I won't like.

This summer, I am looking forward to see-ing Bob Log III, Fools Gold, C W Stoneking, Health, SBTRKT, Jon Hopkins, Ducktails, Emeralds and the Horrors - but looking forward even more to the list of new acts I hope to have heard at the end of it. Music is rather brilliant at the moment and there is frankly more than one can possibly get through, so it can be frustrating when you see the same acts everywhere you go; it's a waste of all the talent out there. I hope things carry on in this vein - who knows, perhaps in the next couple of years a few organic food stalls might have been converted into stages for badly rehearsed drone bands from Long Melford. I'll stop now - I'm sorry to go on, but I don't get out much.

Fresh sounds from the BBC 6 Music DJ

This article first appeared in the 30 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Hands up who knows how to fix our schools

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