In these days of conservative politics, human rights abuses and global unrest, writing a food blog seems vapid and frivolous, and I agree that it mostly is. Not only is blogging supposedly dead – in the “old-school” sense of daily blogs written by a single person and designed to engage readers in conversation – but who actually reads them now? We’re all over on Instagram curating our lives; who has time to read an article longer than 250 words? Even if we do, are we genuinely engaged by the continuous churn of reposted, sponsored, SEO-optimised content titled: “Beyond the chip: 20 new ways with kale” or “Avoid these 8 common mistakes when buttering toast”? For a long time now, blogging has been about building your brand, driving traffic to your site and trying to land sponsorship deals and I have to say that I’m weary of the rampant consumerism. Blogging was once the domain of citizen journalism; now it’s all affiliate links and clickbait, radical democracy perverted as “the establishment itself”.
Here’s a story to make you cringe – three years ago we travelled to Mudgee in NSW for a week of relaxation and wine tasting. I wasn’t familiar with wines from Mudgee, so I sought recommendations from The Wine Wankers (a group of Australian wine experts with an extensive online following) about the best wineries to visit. A member of the team kindly supplied me with a list and asked me to pass on his regards to one of the recommended winemakers if I saw him. As it happened, I did see him (it was a small, boutique winery), and the encounter sparked a discussion about blogging that quickly turned sour. The winemaker had recently been contacted by a blogger who requested that he host she and a friend for dinner at his restaurant in return for a feature on her website. Now there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with mutual back-scratching in principle, but what made the winemaker uncomfortable was the thinly-veiled threat that if he asked her to pay for the meal, well, she couldn’t guarantee a positive review. Unfortunately this is not an isolated experience for those in the hospitality industry and the winemaker had every right to feel outraged at the attempted manipulation. I felt guilty by association and weakly argued that mine wasn’t “that” type of blog.
I’m doing that thing that people do, right, painting the past as a lost utopia? The reality is that blogging was exploited for its commercial potential virtually from the beginning and has been highly lucrative for those who got in early. It’s much harder to make a living as a professional blogger now (does this explain the rise of dodgy tactics?) but that doesn’t stop many trying. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against the use of blogs as a marketing tool. It’s a competitive world out there and for people whose livelihood depends on making a sale, blogging is an important communication medium, among many. The crux of the matter is that I crave originality. Don’t give me pop-up ads and expect me to hang around your site. I want to enrich my life with blogs that are beautifully written, that make me think deeply, provoke me, challenge me, inspire me to action, even if it’s just to cook. Fortunately there are many bloggers out there who still write like this: consider Tim’s thoughts on racism, Steve’s informative posts on food politics and Molly’s heroic coming out narrative. Food bloggers, all of them, and all with something really gutsy and interesting to say, not to sell. If I follow your blog, you can be assured that it’s because I think you do too (thank you).
I’ve been writing this blog for six years and have been contacted by my fair share of PR reps offering free products or cash in exchange for reviews, or app developers chasing content. All very modest in scale I assure you and nothing that I couldn’t easily refuse, but as the offers slowly mounted up I was forced to think hard about my position. Essentially it is this: we already live in an over-advertised world and I don’t want to write to influence you to buy just to make a buck myself. Monetisation is a slippery slope and I won’t even take the smallest step. You’ll never find sponsored content on this blog. I’ll never ask for or accept any product or service in exchange for a review. If I do happen to mention a specific brand (which is extremely rare) it’s because the recipe calls for it or it’s truly exceptional in some way. This stance makes me a dinosaur, I’m well aware, but I only want to write how I want to write (and read). I have a job that pays the bills and this blog will never be that.
So what has this got to do with cocktails or rhubarb or fennel? Not one thing. I’m sorry to be all serious and grumpy but this is something I had to say. Make this (delicious) drink and forgive me? Please?
Rhubarb & Fennel Fizz
For the fennel-infused gin and rhubarb syrup:
1 small fennel bulb
1/4 cup sugar
For each drink:
90ml rhubarb syrup
60ml fennel-infused gin
60ml sparkling water
Squeeze of lemon, to taste
1 lemon slice
First, prepare the gin. Wash and roughly chop the fennel, reserving a few pieces of fennel frond for garnishing the drinks later. Add the chopped fennel to a tall, narrow-mouthed glass jar and top with about half of the gin. Using a muddler, heavy wooden spoon (or the end of a rolling pin, as I did) vigorously muddle the fennel for two or three minutes. Add the remaining gin, stir and let the infusion sit at room temperature for 1-2 hours (2 hours produces a stronger flavour, but 1 is fine if you’re in a rush).
While the gin is infusing, prepare the rhubarb. Wash and chop the rhubarb and combine with the sugar and water in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat, cover and simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent burning, until soft but not completely collapsed. Remove from the heat and strain immediately through a fine sieve. Use a spoon to press the juice from the pulp. The pulp can be reserved for another use, such as muffins.
Strain the gin and discard the fennel. Refrigerate the gin and syrup until chilled.
For each cocktail, mix 90ml rhubarb syrup, 60ml gin, a squeeze of lemon and a small handful of ice cubes in a cocktail shaker. Shake vigorously. Strain into a chilled glass or small mason jar. Add 60ml sparkling water, a few ice cubes, a slice of lemon and a piece of fennel frond.