If not now, when? Winter in the Calais Jungle

The journey starts at midnight on Sunday. We have a ton of dried and tinned food on board and wood to build 10 shelters – all paid for by donations from our local community. The roads are clear and we make good time to Folkestone; by sun-rise we are already in Calais.

I am a 25 year old graduate, living with my parents in Somerset while I study to be a counsellor. Here, I can save money and study in safety and comfort. I live just a four-hour drive and 20 minutes on the Eurotunnel from Europe’s biggest refugee camp – home to over seven thousand refugees. I went because the people there need help. What I experienced shocked and inspired me and I’ll be going back every month until conditions improve.

After joining up with the small charity Auberge des migrants International, I enter the Jungle in the back of a van. I’m sitting on a roll of insulation and I can see timber, plastic sheeting and various tools. After ten minutes or so I know we have entered the Jungle when the van slows and the ride gets bumpy. I have no idea what to expect when the van stops. The door finally opens. I step down into the mud. Around me I can hear hammers and saws and smell the delicious aroma of chapattis and breakfast cooking. And then, the reek of overflowing portaloos.  A man cycles carefully through a puddle in the road, a water container balanced between his knees. A volunteer listens to a group of refugees and writes lists in a notebook.

While I wait for instructions I get talking to an Eritrean named Afwerki, who pokes his head out of a doorway. He is wearing a grey hoodie, jeans and immaculate white trainers, all donations from Auberge.  He tells me he has been in the camp for three months, trying to find a way to the UK.

My shelter tenants arrive. They have been on a waiting list for some weeks and they are keen to get started. We carry materials through the narrow paths between existing constructions to a plot where refugees are making space for the shelter. Previously used as landfill, the site is pock-marked with trenches and littered with rubble. It’s hardly ideal land to build on. Very little is ideal about the Calais Jungle.

Afghan lad on roof of shelter

After learning how the structures are assembled, I am sent off to start the second shelter. I meet Hakim, Kamal and Tahir, three brothers from Afghanistan. Together we start the day’s second build. As the structure takes shape, I learn that Hakim, the oldest, was a commando in the Afghanistan army before fleeing the country. He wants to get to Canada, while his brothers aim to meet family already in the UK.

At midday, I give Kamal some cash and mime for him to find some lunch for the four of us. By now we have joined the wall-timbers and the rafters are in place. We stretch blankets over the wooden frame, before wrapping the whole structure in waterproof plastic wrap. The floor is made out of pallets, and the inside is clad with rolls of insulation made from recycled clothes and rags.

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We are on the northeast edge of the camp. This side faces away from the main road where the French authorities have erected tall razor-wire fences between the refugees and the passing lorries, on their way to the ferries and the Eurotunnel. Here you can see out across the flat fields of Nord-Pas-de-Calais. My eye is drawn to a solitary portaloo, wrapped in a torn blue tarp that billows in the wind. The smell is a constant reminder of how under-provisioned the Jungle is. Neither the UN nor the big aid charities are here. Small charities like Auberge struggle to fill the void while the so-far mild winter could turn cold any day.

Over an hour has passed since Kamal went off. My stomach rumbles; I begin to wonder whether he has pocketed the cash and legged it. We fix thick marquee-like material to the rafters and nail on the door.

My doubts about Kamal vanish as I see him round the corner of a hut carrying a large cardboard box. He picks his way through the rubbish towards us, stepping over broken tent poles and piles of cast-out food remains.

We clear the floor of the half-finished hut and spread a blanket on the ground. The brothers and I take off our shoes and sit down. Kamal places a baguette in front of each of us, and then he takes a pan of Afghan chicken, rice and salad from the box. I am given the biggest piece of chicken. It is delicious – I say so and they all smile. The low sun warms us as we eat and the brothers teach me the Pashto for “chicken”, “rice” and “thank you”. They laugh at my attempts as they wipe clean the pan with hunks of baguette. I suspect that Kamal has spent more than I gave him, but he refuses to accept any more money.

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At the end of the meal, Hakim says “God is great” and we continue to build. I reflect on the times I have carried out building projects with my brothers in Somerset. I am so close to home here. This country is familiar to me, but the Jungle is not the France of my childhood holidays.

Later on I meet an Iranian outside the Ashram Kitchen, a large tent where volunteers serve free meals to all comers. He tells me “I had a good job as an engineer in Iran, how did I end up here?” It is a story that I keep hearing.


The following day when I enter the camp, the atmosphere has changed. We hear rumours that a young Sudanese man was murdered when a fight got out of hand. Groups of stoney-faced riot police block roads in the camp while they investigate. They unearth no evidence and leave, restoring the Jungle to its own laws.

It’s raining. The ground turns treacherously slippery and the smiles and productivity of yesterday seem an age ago. I am with Conrad and Mark. Our job is to deliver extra materials to three of yesterday’s self-builds, before making the journey home in the afternoon.

We drive past the building site funded by the European Commission over three months ago. Five million euros (£3.6M) in August this year to build large tents and facilities to house 1500 refugees. Since then the population of the camp has more than doubled and the buildings are not yet out of the ground. We pass a man in high-vis sitting in a stationary digger. He watches refugees file by towards a truck handing out tins of food. An hour later, we pass him again – still doing nothing.

The Jungle too moves at it’s own pace and we wait for a sewage truck to empty a row of overflowing portaloos. I turn around and see a man unloading the wood from our trailer and stashing it behind a hut. I run over to get the wood back, followed by Behrouz, the young man the wood is intended for. A scuffle ensues as Behrouz realizes that some tools are still missing. Behrouz reaches into his coat; the thief follows suit as they shout in rapid Farsi. Mark manages to get between them and the situation diffuses. The sewage truck moves on to let us pass. I am struck by the absurdity of our work here; who are we to say who deserves and who doesn’t?

Everyone seems to be coughing today. One volunteer at the Ashram Kitchen tells me that TB is going around the camp, as well as scabies; an itchy condition caused by mites that burrow into the skin. The poverty of the Jungle is the perfect breeding ground for Cholera; polluted water and people with ever-decreasing immune systems. Many have died here already; the winter will claim many more.

It is a relief to drive out of the camp for the last time. Tired and muddy, we head towards home.

David Cameron recently asked how we can stand by while our allies take the fight to Isis. What about our responsibility to help those displaced by the same conflict? Last year the UK accepted 10,050 non-EU asylum seekers; a quarter of those taken by Germany; less than half the number accepted by Italy, with its struggling economy, and 4000 fewer than France.

Britain and France are building fences and hoping the situation will go away. It’s not going away. It has to be addressed. If not now, when?

You can donate here to buy tools and materials for the builds.



Annie’s tall stool

After my success crafting a pair of bedside tables in February, I’ve set my sights on making a tall stool to go in the kitchen. As I spend so much time in there, I thought it might lure people to perch a while and chat with me while I cook.

Planing the planks for the top was easier this time. A freshly sharpened plane and the practice from making the tables sped the process up considerably. In the image below I have drilled the planks for the seat, inserted the connecting dowel and prepared the glue. Joining the seat-planks together might be the most satisfying part of the project – seeing the glue squeeze out as the planks meet and compress. The next day is always exciting too; taking the clamps/ straps off and planing it up.


Last time I was home in Somerset, I rifled through dad’s wood pile for a piece of oak for the legs and runners. They look like firewood in the image below:


But after some careful attention they came up nicely. The main difference in design to the bedside tables is the positioning of the supporting runners. These I have staggered for the stool to give a choice of foot-rest height. It also allowed me to join with wedged through-tenons, instead of meeting the tenons mid-mortise.


A thin wedge, carefully driven into a diagonal slit in the end of the tenon, forces all four sides of the tenon outwards. That the tenon-tongues are as much as 1mm too small in places is of no consequence when the wedges are hammered home. After cleaning up with a sharp chisel, they looked like this:


For the holes in the underside of the seat, I set my drill to 20mm to achieve four holes of even depth. DSCF8899

I don’t recommend doing this part (or any woodworking, for that matter) while watching tv – two nicks on my thumb from the chisel taught me that lesson!


The finished stool looks like this with one coat of Danish oil. Runners where the legs meet the top would have added greater stability, but I like the minimalist look without the extra support.  Bit by bit, the flat is filling up with my home-made furniture. Hopefully this kitchen perch might encourage my girlfriend to chop some vegetables.

Fresh Turmeric from Akram’s Spice Cave


It didn’t take me long to sniff out Portsmouth’s best Asian food shop. The smell of incense draws the locals inside, where the produce transports you to Bangladesh, India, Thailand, Malaysia and everywhere in-between.

Akram’s Spice Cave stocks all the pastes, sauces and spices you could imagine, as well as an excellent selection of fresh herbs and exotic vegetables.

Just gimme those chunky roots

What keeps me coming back to Akram’s is the huge buckets of bulbous fresh ginger and vibrant turmeric – two ingredients which are increasingly demanding a place in my cooking.

As well as imparting a brilliant yellow colour to rice, sauces, fingers and chopping boards, fresh turmeric has a strong, aromatic flavour and some fantastic health properties.

Turmeric contains curcumin – a strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory:

Health benefits:

  • As a high source of antioxidants, Curcumin first protects the body against free radicals and then helps to boost production of anti-oxidant enzymes.
  • Curcumin fights chronic inflammation, which is linked with illnesses such as heart disease, cancer and Alzheimers.
  • Curcumin is also  believed to combat the effects of ageing, increase brain function and treat arthritis.


Studies recommend taking curcumin supplements, as the levels in fresh or dried turmeric are very low. However, our capacity to absorb curcumin is correspondingly low, which makes a nonsense of flooding the body with a high dose.

I just stick to using turmeric in cooking, instead of buying the more expensive supplements. Absorption is increased by combining turmeric with black pepper and fatty foods – two things I am happy to indulge in now and then!

Blitz and fry

I use a paste made from ginger, garlic and fresh turmeric in most of my curries, along with ground and whole spices and whatever fish, meat or vegetables I have in the fridge.

Not only is fresh turmeric really delicious, it is also abundant with health benefits. When added into hot oil, the sizzle and spit of the paste gives of the most enticing of aromatic smells. I am left wondering what I dish I am going to put it in next…






With bat and ball we seek that sacred place,

Beneath our eager feet, vermillion lawn

Betwixt those fresh-ploughed fields is full of grace,

Here on this springy grass we are reborn.


Look out across a patchwork quilt of fields,

Of browning wheat and terracotta earth,

The sun has giv’d the farmers fair good yield,

Old Mother Nature fills us all with mirth.


Against the clear blue sky upon the hill,

The towering monument stands tall and proud,

It draws the eye even against the will,


But then my gaze is drawn back to the ground;

The wicket is a spider web of cracks,

As summer sun beats down upon our backs.

A wood-fired life

20140919_102618On Tuesday I found out I would only be working Monday and Friday this week, so I jumped on a train home to Somerset. I’m writing this on the train back to Portsmouth, my hands cut and splintered and my trousers muddy.

An impromptu building project, began in September and now nearing completion, has drawn the focus away from the single most essential and time consuming job; wood.

It comes in twelve-foot lengths from the local saw mill; off-cuts in to ton bundles.

With softwood for the bread oven and oak for the house fires, both business and home-life are reliant on wood. For the house it is cut into foot lengths, for the oven, four foot. After cutting, it is stacked in a shed to dry for a year before being used. While burning wood seems cost-effective, the hours it takes to move it and cut it; and move and split and move and stack and move and burn, certainly add up.


Buried treasure

Amongst the mass of knotty planks and twisted grain lie a few straight pieces. We found an ash baton perfect for securing a pull-up bar in the bathroom doorframe. A piece of decent inch oak board amongst the gash formed the legs for my new bed-side tables.

A week with fewer hours of paid work has allowed me to help with the wood, enjoy the comforts of home and to cook three new recipes; I made spicy Moroccan vegetables with fresh turmeric rice on Monday, creamy sage and onion potatoes in the oven on Tuesday and a slow roasted belly of pork with noodles and black beans on Wednesday. Physical work makes you hungry and good food tastes all the better.

Country life

Chopping wood, unlike mucking out rancid barns and strimming nettles, is a job that romanticises rural life. Splitting perfectly straight-grained rounds of green ash must be one of the most satisfying physical activities. Then the backache kicks in from bending down for the still-too-big ones.

I sometimes stand atop the pile swinging the axe like one of Tolkein’s dwarves – cleaving wood like goblin heads and sending split halves flying.

As I head back to the city, I am aware that I am the only person on the train with dirty trousers. I am so glad to have gone home for a few days.

Wild Fermentation: Cabbage and Salt



Why kraut and kimchi are just as hipster as micro-brewing

Eating seasonally today is undoubtedly a good idea and has become very fashionable. It is always exciting when strawberries and asparagus come into season, but what about the humble cabbage?

For our ancestors, eating seasonally was a necessity. Living with the seasons didn’t mean noticing when your bag of apples comes from Kent instead of Kenya. It meant putting down a store of produce in the summer to last through the winter months.

If sauerkraut is stored properly it can last up to two years; the cabbage must be submerged under the level of the brine and refrigerated for long keeping. Sauerkraut is a wild ferment. Lactic acid bacteria are present in the vegetable, which means you don’t have to add a culture to get it going (as with sourdough).

Captain cabbage

Captain James Cook knew the importance of fermented foods. He prevented his crew from getting scurvy (vitamin C deficiency) by stocking his vessel with sauerkraut.

 We are 8% less likely to catch a winter cold virus by eating fermented food

With this in mind, it feels somewhat hypocritical going to the supermarket for an organic cabbage and a pot of sea salt to make my ferment. Cabbage can be bought all year round so why not just eat it steamed or in coleslaw?

Why should I eat Kraut and Kimchi?

  • It contains pro-biotic bacteria which aid digestion
  • It makes vitamin B in vegetables more accessible for our bodies to digest
  • Cabbage is rich in vitamin C
  • Sauerkraut contains glucosinolates – proven to have anti-cancer activity
  • It has a lovely flavour

unnamed While we’ve lost the imperative to store fermented food for winter and long voyages by sea, the benefits of eating fermented food remains the same.

According to a recent survey, we are 8% less likely to catch a winter cold virus by eating fermented food. The connection between healthy gut and healthy immune system is clear.

Like the kimchi, when making kraut the cabbage needs salting – both for flavour and to slow down the lactic acid bacteria. While the cabbage is brined for kimchi, it is dry salted for sauerkraut. I added two heaped teaspoons of sea salt to finely chopped cabbage, then mixed it in with my hands. After bruising the vegetables until their liquid could be wrung out, I packed the kraut – and all the liquid – into a clean kilner jar.


This is a very simple sauerkraut, just cabbage and salt. While this is makes for a tasty kraut, I like adding juniper berries, fresh herbs, caraway seeds and all sorts of other vegetables to the mix for variation.


Kimchi for me

10560489_590827111053035_8036321072699089412_oSourdough isn’t the only culture in my life.  Last night I started a batch of Korean kimchi, the fermented superfood eaten with almost every meal in Korea.

Kimchi is deliciously crunchy, sweet and sour and chilli hot. I would eat it for the taste alone, but it being rich in lactic acid bacteria seals the deal.

Lactic Acid Bacteria for me

There are two main types of lactic acid bacteria which will act as the dominant cultures in my jar over the course of the next week. The first is Leuconostoc mesenteroides. These bacteria produce lactic acid, facilitating the take over of  Lactobacillus plantarum. This duo keeps unwanted pathogenic bacteria at bay, while breaking down the vegetables in the kimchi to make them more digestible.

Jungle in a jar

Aristotle said that ‘nature abhors a vacuum’, whether that be the emergent layer of a rainforest, stretching for the sunlight, or the bacteria in a jar of kimchi.

The great thing about this kind of ferment is that we needn’t worry about the microbial pecking order.

Better to let lactic acid bacteria do their thing than to interfere any further than daily releasing the carbon dioxide produced, via the clip on the jar.

Smelly breath club

As long as everyone in the house is partaking of kimchi, a happy co-habitation is guaranteed. The pungent concoction of ginger, onion, chilli and garlic is enough to turn the most persistent mint-suckers and gum-chewers into fire-breathing dragons. Traditionally dried shrimp and anchovy sauce augment the pong, though I leave these out.

The combination of flavours is addictive enough for me to embrace smelly breath as part of having a healthy gut.

Squeeze your cabbage

Last night I chopped two organic pointed cabbages* and left them soaking in a 5% brine for 12 hours – 5g salt for every 100g water. This morning I drained off the brine and added a paste made from ginger, onion, garlic, cayenne pepper and a few tablespoons of the brine. After adding four thinly sliced organic carrots, I mixed the whole batch with my hands, squeezing fragrant orange juice from the vegetables.

(*Chinese cabbage is preferable)

While the 5% brine and soak time should be accurately observed, the balance of roots and chilli are to suit your taste. I like lots of ginger and not too much chilli, though traditionally the dish is made with cups of hot dried chillies.

I packed the kimchi into clean Kilner jars and wedged cabbage-ends against the closed lids. This forces the vegetables under the level of the spicy liquid. The kimchi will stay out on the counter for a week or so, before going in the fridge.


Kimchi for you

Like to join my Kimchi Club? Membership costs a chunk of ginger, a bulb of garlic, two heads of cabbage, a few chillies and a handful of sea salt.


Recommended reading – Sandor Ellix Katz, The Art of Fermentation.





The passing on of culture


The bakery where I work has an open layout, allowing the customers to see the busy bakers and vice versa.

Big Toys

Last week I was busy shaping a batch of sourdough loaves when I realised that a couple and their young son were watching me work. The lad was particularly interested in the pastry break, a large pair of  conveyor belts which run from side to side. Dough placed on the belts is passed through steel rollers which can be adjusted to sheet from 35mm down to 4mm.  Next to the sheeter stands the 60 litre dough mixer, its hook churning away at a pastry dough.


While I had the young man’s attention I moved the topic away from the machinery and onto the real reason the bakery exists: Sourdough. I explained how we make bread using our own levain which needs feeding flour and water at least every week.

One Culture to Take Away

While I talked, I put a little or our sourdough culture into one of the take away paper coffee cups, added equal parts of flour and water and mixed it together. I gave this to my new apprentice and instructed him to feed it again that night. His dad had told me that they used to make sourdough until their culture had died. Hopefully I have passed the teaching baton on to him now.




To screw or not to screw?

The last few nights I have drifted off with the smell of Danish oil fresh in my nostrils.

After my experiments with pallet furniture last week, I decided to up my game and have a go at joinery.  The mission: to craft matching bedside tables from some lengths of oak donated by Ladi, one of the owners at Bread Addiction. I’ve gone from making wonky furniture fixed with the paradoxical combination of nails and no-more-nails, to hard-wood joinery in the space of a few weeks. When my dad told me that using screws was cheating, I knew that to salvage any credibility I would have to learn the mortise and tenon joint.

IMG-20150205-WA0001 (1)This joint has been employed for 7000 years; the oldest recorded finding being in the wooden cladding of a well near Leipzig, Germany. The method is recorded as being used by the Linear Pottery culture around 2500 BC for the same purpose. Now, who am I to argue with centuries of carpentry experts?

The strength of the joint is achieved by cutting the tongue of the tenon to fit snugly inside the corresponding mortise hole. The picture shows the table leg on the left, in which two mortises have been cut using a 10mm chisel. The tenon, which is cut into the end of the rail on the right of the picture, fits nicely; so well that I had to stand on the leg and pull up on the rail to get it out again.

20150203_090725 (1)The tabletop consists of five planks, planed smooth and true using a hand plane. The challenge is to align all five pieces with no gaps in between; when held up to the window, there should be no light shining through the join. When this is done, the pieces are glued together with dowel connectors for extra strength. As I don’t have long sash clamps I put a strap around the table-top and used wedges to tighten it up.

The next day I took the plane to the newly connected pieces to level the planks into uniformity.  This project is the first time I have used a plane accurately; at first I struggled to adjust the blade and for every flat surface I achieved, two uneven ones went along with it. Eventually the tool began doing what I wanted it to do. As an improbable quantity of shavings gathered on the floor and on the bench, a glimpse of what the finished table would look like began to appear. I felt my spirits lift; maybe I wasn’t wasting my time after all.

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The first plan was to  cut four holes all the way through the tabletop and for the tops of the legs to come through. I took some of the ebony keys from an old piano, deemed good for glue by the tuner. The idea was to cut slits in the tops of the table legs and to hammer wedges made from the piano keys in to fix the legs in place. Thus when planed flush, not only would the join be very strong, it would also reveal the attractive black ebony wedges against the paler oak tabletop.


This time, however, I went for the less ambitious option in acknowledgement that I am not a master-carpenter. I cut four holes half-way through the top and glued the rails into the legs and the legs into the top.

I proudly placed the finished table next to the bed, rested my book and a lamp on it and stood back to admire my handiwork.

This satisfaction was short-lived. What use is one bedside table when the bed has two occupants?

Having tentatively worked my way through the first table, the making of the second went far more smoothly and quickly. Here is how they look with three coats of Danish oil:


Now that this project is finished, my thoughts turn to my next forray into carpentry and joinery. I’ve been promised a lesson in making dovetails next time I visit my parents – perhaps the bedroom needs another chest of drawers…


Bread Addiction in Southsea


A couple from the Czech Republic has packed in their day jobs to open Portsmouth’s first sourdough bakery.

Since arriving in Portsmouth four years ago, Nikola Ondrouskova and Ladislav Adamek had found real bread hard to come by. The bread they longed for was fermented day and night before being baked on hot bricks, to give it a substantial crust and a springy crumb. When such bread is abundant in their home village, and when you can buy a pint for less than £1, you wonder why they ever left! However, it is clear that Niki and Ladi have become attached to their adopted Southsea, so much so that they have given the city an invaluable gift; an introduction to some of the healthiest, tastiest bread known to humankind – sourdough.

From Cats and Dogs to Bacteria and Yeast

After taking on a dilapidated pet shop on Elm Grove, an up-and-coming street for independent businesses, Niki and Ladi had their work cut out. Out went the fish tanks and birdcages and in came the pastry brake and the proofers, the dough mixer and the stone-floor deck oven. In September 2014 the first sourdough loaves came out of the oven and for six days a week since then, production has continued. Brown and white loaves, loaves with seeds and fruit and tinned rye loaves are all made traditionally using organic flour, sourdough starter, salt and water; their only concession to active yeast being found in the semi-sourdough baguette and, of course, the pastries.


They called the bakery Bread Addiction because of their inability to live in a city without sourdough bread.

As another real-bread establishment springs up on the south coast, the locals are drawn to the enticing smells drifting out onto the street in the early mornings. Delegates from the good cafes and restaurants arrive to strike a deal – those who care about sourcing locally produced bread to bolster their menus. Gluten intolerants who have researched the elusive sourdough loaf appear in the shop, their apprehension turning to delight as they chew a sourdough crust with no adverse effects on their digestion.

Apprentices Welcome

In December 2014 the first apprentice from Training Vision arrived from Italy – 18 year old pastry chef Mara, who soon fell in love with the routines of the bakery. Bread Addiction has also given me the chance to continue learning the trade of sourdough baker. Having gathered the rudiments of slow fermentation at my parents’ bakery, Tracebridge Sourdough, the challenge for me now is to master the ideal conditions required by sourdough during the many stages between mixing and baking.

The Community Provides

Customers are not just buying the bread and leaving either – they sit and chat over a coffee and a pain au chocolat. The locals have given endless advice, hands to sell bread and wash dishes, even crates of locally brewed porter to be crafted into an enticing beer and barley bread. A good friend of mine, Adam Lawrie, developed the recipe, while he apprenticed at Tracebridge Sourdough in the summer. It is made with a mix of wholemeal and white flour, a sourdough leaven and a porridge made from flaked barley and local brewer Joe Ross’ Post-impact Winter Darkness. Co-owner of Staggeringly Good, Joe is another local producer – brewing his IPAs in the Brewhouse & Kitchen in the city centre.

Southsea Village Bakery

The city of Portsmouth is made up of several localities, crammed together on Portsea Island like sardines in a tin. Although Cosham, Fratton and Old Portsmouth all have their own unique feel, it is the southernmost part that is given the affectionate nickname ‘Southsea Village’. With the quirky shops on Albert Road, the common by the sea and the Kings Theatre, the sense of community in Southsea is clear to behold. Thanks to Ladislav and Nikola, a real independent bakery selling proper bread now completes the picture.