How to shop better

Buying into Fair Trade foods isn't just an act of charity, explains Michael Bateman. The products, from Javanese sugar to chutney from Swaziland, are often the height of good taste

Everyone can be in favour of fair trading - but not if it means foul food. To drink poisonous Nicaraguan coffee (in support of a good cause) creates more of a feelbad factor than a feelgood one. But what if the product makes you feel good, and tastes good too? Well, this is what has been happening, quite effortlessly, without any obvious political or governmental initiative.

You might have already seen the brightly-coloured packages of Maya Gold chocolate, glowing in corners of your supermarket. It has a delicious vanilla and allspice flavour, and uses the spices of the Mayas of Mexico. If you examine the wrapping closely, you will see the Fair Trade logo, which we're assured: "Guarantees a better deal for Third World producers." You may even have come across their coffees and teas, Cafedirect is excellent and so are the Clipper teas.

Led by NGOs (non-governmental organisations, such as Oxfam and Christian Aid), a great silent majority of members of various clubs and guilds - including the two huge women's organisations, the WI and the Townswomen's Guild - have been making it their business to harass supermarket managers, demanding Fair Trade products. Of course, if the products weren't any good at all, no amount of moral blackmail would persuade people to buy them.

The products are also being heartily endorsed by television cooks such as Delia Smith, Gary Rhodes, Paul and Jeanne Rankin, and Antony Worrall Thompson and the food programme presenters Michael Barry and Derek Cooper.

Those lucky enough to live near one of the 250 of Oxfam's 600 shops which stock Fair World (the parent of Fair Trade) products have an even larger choice. There are around 70 separate items available, such as dried fruit, nuts, jams, chutneys, sauces, honey, tea, cocoa, coffee and sugar.

Fair Trading means seeing to it that at least some Third World producers get a fair price for their products, the profits of which can easily be absorbed. It is not so many years ago that we were scandalised to discover how poorly Sri Lanka's tea-pickers were paid, and how high were the profits of tea-importing companies.

Each product represents an inspirational tale, often about little people overcoming overwhelming odds. I've read some stirring case histories supplied by Oxfam. Take palm sugar, for example. You wonder which world markets the villagers of Padasuka in West Java might have found for their sugar, given that the West has abundant sources. In the UK, for example, sugar beet provides all our needs.

Palm sugar is rich, brown and tasty, and an almost essential ingredient in Thai cooking. It is extremely labour-intensive to harvest. Twice a day men climb the tall Aren palms to collect the sap. At home, the women clean it of impurities, then cook the syrup, or "dough", as they call it for, for seven to eight hours. They cool it, grind it to powder against the sides of a wok. and then sieve it twice. It takes 50 litres of liquid to produce this yellow, grainy sugar. But thanks to an NGO initiative, the community has been aided by a foundation which improves skills, offers technology, advises on marketing, quality control and packaging, and will provide loans.

Then there's organic honey, collected in the Zambian rain forest, which really takes some beating. Cylindrical bees' nests are made of forest bark, sealed with a grass door, and hung high enough on branches to keep them away from predators such as honey badgers. Harvesting is precarious and dangerous: men scale the trees with bundles of smouldering leaves, braving poisonous snakes. Hanging on with one arm, they use the other to scoop the honey into a bucket.

A local woman's co-operative in the Philippines, with the help of an Italian NGO, has created its own industry, producing delicious snack food of banana chips crisply fried in coconut oil. The modest objective of aiding disadvantaged women has been achieved to the extent that there are now 10 farmer federations involved, with 7,000 members.

Similar stories can be told of other Fair World products - jasmine rice from Thailand, cashew nuts from central America and seedless raisins in South Africa. And now all these good things are featured in a new celebrity cookbook, The Oxfam Fair World Cookbook (Cassell's pounds 7.99). It is surely the first such book to make any culinary sense, with respected cooks such as Anton Mosimann, Rick Stein and Raymond Blanc using and praising these foods.

Sophie Grigson, who has written the introduction, visited Swaziland to see one of the most inspiring Fair World operations, the Eswatini Swazi Kitchen, which started as a youth care project. She was thrilled at the quality of the sauces, chutneys and jams they make (the peach and ginger is particularly good) and deeply moved by the impact the tiniest benefits have on the community, especially orphaned children.

Some conserves are sent off in gift packs, and she describes a visit to a training centre where these were being prepared. "Here is a group of 18 physically-handicapped men and women, with glistening eyes, and skilled hands, some of whom have travelled over 90 kilometres to the rendezvous. They carve wooden spoons topped with miniature animals. At a price of 112 emalangeni each (20p), these additions to the gift packs allow them to buy their own wheelchairs and crutches in a country where the physically handicapped are rejected as too burdensome unless they can pay their own way."

As Sophie puts it: "Buying Fair Trade products has nothing to do with pity or charity. It is about good taste and good sense, it bestows dignity on the producer and helps to create a Fairer World for all of us." So here are some recipes from our top cooks and others, dedicated to good taste.

CASHEW CHILLI CHICKEN

This is a recipe contributed by Ken Hom, who can reproduce authentic Asian flavours simply and with readily available ingredients.

Serves 4

450g/1lb boneless chicken breasts, cut into 1cm/1/2in cubes

1 egg white

1 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons cornflour

300ml/10fl oz groundnut or peanut oil or water

2 teaspoons groundnut or peanut oil

50g/2oz Fair Trade cashew nuts

1 tablespoon Shaoxing rice wine or dry sherry

1 tablespoon light soy sauce

1 tablespoon Fair Trade Swazi Kitchen chilli sauce

1 tablespoon spring onions, finely chopped, to garnish

Place the cubed chicken in a small bowl and combine with the egg white, salt and cornflour. Place in the fridge for about 20 minutes.

Heat a wok until very hot and add the oil (see below, if using water). When the oil is very hot, remove wok from the heat and add the chicken pieces. Stir vigorously to stop sticking. When the chicken pieces turn white, after about two minutes, quickly drain the chicken of excess oil over a colander set in a bowl. Discard the oil. If you use water, bring the water to the boil in a pan. Remove the pan from the heat and immediately add the chicken, stirring vigorously until it turns white. Quickly drain and discard water.

Heat a clean wok until it is hot, then add the two teaspoons of oil. Add the cashews and stir-fry for two minutes, then stir in the rice wine or dry sherry, the soy and chilli sauces. Return the chicken to the pan and stir-fry until hot and coated in the sauce. Garnish with the spring onions.

FENNEL AND WATERCRESS SALAD

Serves 4

1 red onion, thinly sliced

3 oranges, segmented and the juice reserved for the dressing

1 head of fennel, thinly sliced

100g/4oz Fair Trade brazil nuts

1 tablespoon small capers

1 bunch of watercress, stalks removed

For the orange dressing:

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard reserved

juice of segmented oranges

grated zest of 1 orange

120ml/4fl oz olive oil

salt and Fair Trade ground black pepper

To make the dressing, use a small whisk to beat the mustard with the orange juice, then beat in the orange zest and olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Mix the red onion, orange segments and fennel with the dressing and allow to marinate for 30 minutes. Toss in the nuts, capers and watercress just before serving.

NOODLES WITH SPICED CHICKEN SOUP

Serves 4

For the chicken:

1.75g/41b chicken

2 teaspoons salt

2 onions, thinly sliced

3 garlic cloves, crushed

2.5cm (1in) piece of fresh root ginger, peeled and thinly sliced

1 stalk lemon grass, outer hard skin removed and thinly sliced

3 tablespoons Thai fish sauce (nam pla)

2 tablespoons Fair Trade palm sugar

For the soup:

2 tablespoons sesame oil

2 large onions, minced

6 garlic cloves, crushed

1 teaspoon grated fresh root ginger

1 teaspoon Fair Trade chilli powder

2 tablespoons soy sauce

25Og/9oz fine egg noodles

To garnish:

4 spring onions, shredded

175g/6oz fine green beans, blanched and finely diced

grated zest and juice of 2 limes

75g/3oz peanuts, deep-fried

3 garlic cloves, very thinly sliced and deep-fried

a small handful of fresh basil leaves, shredded

Place the whole chicken in a large pan and cover with salted water. Add the onions, garlic, ginger, lemon grass, fish sauce and sugar. Bring to the boil and skim off the scum. Cover and reduce the heat to a gentle simmer for one hour. Strain, reserving the liquid. Boil to reduce the liquid down to 1.75 litres/3 pints. Discard the skin and bones from the chicken and shred the meat. While the chicken is cooking, prepare the garnishes.

Heat the sesame oil in a wok and stir-fry the onions, garlic and ginger. Be vigorous and quick, stirring with a wooden spoon and allowing the ingredients just to begin to colour. Add the chilli powder and chicken. Keep stirring vigorously until the chicken is well mixed and the vegetables are coated in the chilli powder. Pour in the chicken broth and soy sauce.When the broth comes to the boil, add the noodles and cook for two minutes without allowing the soup to boil. Add the garnishes and serve straight away in bowls.

PECAN NUT TORTE

This is a cake from Rose Elliot which is a perfect afternoon treat. Try it with a pot of Fair Trade tea.

Serves 8

75g (3oz) butter

75g/3oz Fair Trade golden castor sugar

1 egg

100g/4oz Fair Trade pecans, ground

150g/5oz plain flour

3-4 tablespoons Fair Trade mango or guava extra jam

icing sugar for dusting

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas 4 and grease an 18cm/7in sandwich tin. In a mixing bowl, cream the butter with the sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the egg. Stir in the ground pecans, then mix in sufficient flour to give a fairly soft dough (not as firm as a pastry dough). Cut off a small amount and set aside for the lattice. Shape the rest of the dough into a round and place in the sandwich tin. Spread with the jam. Roll out the remaining dough and cut into strips. Arrange in a lattice pattern over the jam. Bake in the oven for about 20 minutes until the lattice topping is crisp and golden brown. Sprinkle with icing sugar while still hot. Allow to cool before serving.

ORANGE AND CHOCOLATE BISCUITS

Makes 30

A recipe from the Oxfam shop volunteers in Highgate, these are great with vanilla ice-cream.

150g/5oz butter

175g/6oz Fair Trade golden caster sugar

175g/6oz plain flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

75g/3oz Fair Trade Maya Gold dark chocolate, chopped

grated zest of 2 oranges

1 tablespoon orange juice

extra Fair Trade golden caster sugar to decorate

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas 4 and grease a baking sheet. Cream the butter and sugar together until pale and fluffy. Carefully mix in the flour and baking powder. Add the rest of the ingredients until you have a smooth, stiff paste. Roll out the paste 5mm to 1cm (14-12in) thick on a lightly floured working surface. Using a 5cm (2in) cutter, cut out the rounds and place on the baking sheet. Sprinkle the biscuits with a little additional sugar and bake in the oven for about 12 to 15 minutes until the biscuits begin to colour. Remove from the oven and leave to cool for at least five minutes before transferring to a cooling rack.

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