Screen savours: Food bloggers are bringing their virtual fare into the real world
Thursday 25 June 2009
Ginger biscuits dipped in chocolate. Fig, walnut and black pepper bread. Honey and lavender loaf. Brownies... Most of the time, Chris Dreyfus – writer of the food blog More Tea, Vicar (more-tea-vicar.co.uk) – gets to type these mouth-watering words without, as it were, putting his money where his mouth is. But today, the blogger has emerged from his laptop-lit abode to man a stall stacked high with his own produce at Covent Garden's Real Food Market in central London. And he's finding it pretty tough going.
"When I first did the market stall a fortnight ago, I got about two-and-a-half hours' sleep the night before," says Dreyfus, who has taken a day off from his "real" job to be here. "I was trying to bake enough in a domestic oven so I wouldn't run out in the first 10 minutes of business. I don't think I'd do it regularly. It's too hard!"
Dreyfus, 31, is a member of the UK Food Bloggers Association, which, until 6 August, has persuaded one blogger a week to turn their virtual recipes into physical fare and flog them to a demanding lunchtime crowd in Covent Garden. Julia Parsons, writer of the popular home-cooking blog Slice of Cherry Pie (asliceofcherrypie.blogspot.com), is the founder of the Association.
"I started my blog in 2006," says Parsons, 34, an IT project manager by day. "It was a lonely business to begin with, as there was only a handful of us doing it in the UK. I set up a discussion forum as I thought it would be nice to give British food bloggers somewhere to talk to each other."
The Association now has 356 members, and the idea for the stall, she explains, was conceived virtually. "Covent Garden and I talked about having suppliers that our bloggers were passionate about to man the stall. But the bloggers themselves were really keen to get involved and sell their own produce."
Blogging may seem a solitary task, an online pursuit hardly suited to the social and physical pleasures of food and its consumption. But if there's one thing we ought to be able to agree on by now, it's that the internet is for sharing, just like the dinner table. "Food is social," agrees Dreyfus. "So it's great to have it out in the real world and meet the people I've been chatting to online."
Dreyfus, whose father is a professional caterer, says, "I never wanted to be a chef when I was growing up. I just loved eating! I started the website in 2004 because I had a crazy idea to write a book about British food. That idea fell by the wayside but the site stayed. It's my ramblings, some recipes and so on. I began writing about tea and cakes and went from there."
Britain's food bloggers may not have closed any restaurants with their reviews yet, nor caused a rush on sun-dried tomatoes at Sainsbury's, but their influence is growing. One of the UK's most popular food blogs is Dos Hermanos (doshermanos.co.uk), by the half-Bengali, half-Welsh Majumdar brothers. One of the pair, Simon, this year published his first book, Eat My Globe; in 2008 the London Evening Standard named him as one of the 1,000 most influential people in London.
"A lot of people search our restaurant reviews now, which is flattering," says Majumdar, "and quite a lot of good restaurants reproduce our reviews on their websites alongside those by, the major press critics, so they obviously value our opinion. I remember at first being excited by getting 30 hits a day on the blog. Now it's disappointing when we only get a few thousand each day."
Food bloggers who specialise in writing about restaurants review meals that they, unlike most mainstream critics, have paid for themselves. And those who specialise in home cooking often come up with recipes as appetising as anything in the latest weighty tome from Jamie or Nigella – and are considerably kinder on the wallet.
Blogging, argues Majumdar, may not always be as polished as its professional equivalent, "but we're quite nimble, so often our restaurant reviews are out before the newspapers. You get an interaction with readers that you don't get as much with traditional food writing. And some traditional food writing is very po-faced, very proper and polite. What you get from a blog is the democracy of opinions; although, of course, for every worthwhile opinion, you get 15 from people with no knowledge."
Food blogging became successful elsewhere before the bug hit Britain. Parsons was inspired to start A Slice of Cherry Pie after paying a visit to Chocolate and Zucchini (chocolateandzucchini.com), a multilingual repository of recipes and ruminations by Parisian foodie Clotilde Dusoulier, who has now published two books of what she calls her "edible adventures".
American Molly Wizenberg, who began her blog Orangette (orangette.blogspot.com) in 2004, now has a column in Bon Appetit magazine, and a book based on her online writings, A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table. She even met her husband via the site, and she's currently on leave from Orangette while the couple open a pizza restaurant in Seattle.
Like Wizenberg and Dreyfus, Dos Hermanos are keen to turn their virtual accquaintances into real-life diners. The Majumdar brothers organise regular restaurant meals for fellow bloggers – and, via their Facebook page, anyone else who wants to come along. "We just did one at Casa Brindisa [in South Kensington]," says Majumdar. "It's a big social occasion and it gives the restaurant a chance to show off their food. Breaking bread is such a social thing, and that's lost in the virtual world. So it's great to get these people together, even if they still refer to one another by their screen names. "
Back at Covent Garden, Dreyfus's baked goods are selling, aptly, like hot cakes. "I'm going to be very interested to see how the other bloggers cope," he says, as another satisfied customer wanders away with a bag of those magnificent ginger biscuits. "I presume the majority haven't done anything like this before, so I posted a 'Top 10 Tips' for them. Number one? Bring change."
The food bloggers stall is open for business every Thursday, noon to 7.30pm, at the Covent Garden Real Food Market, London WC2, until 6 August ( www.coventgarden londonuk.com)
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Rejina, a young Bengali-British writer and self-confessed "food geek", only started posting her Asian-infused recipes and delectable diary entries in March, but has been called "a future blogging star". She's taking over the food bloggers stall on 13 August.
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William Leigh is a terrific, if intermittent, writer and cook whose descriptions of life behind the hatch in professional kitchens are interspersed with his thoughts on ingredients (particularly south-east Asian ones) and links to his own recipes.
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