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For the Love of Food

In this blog I have written a fair amount on the way we eat. To summarise my thinking so far: I think that food is all about connection. It is about connecting with the people with whom we eat it; the community from which we purchase it; the farming economies that produce it; the animals that become it; and our own bodies which sensually, nutritionally, and spiritually benefit from it. Food is not only the fuel of human life. It is the medium through which we learn about and express ourselves.

I am not waxing lyrical here. I genuinely believe in ascribing such importance to food, as you may have guessed if you have read my other food posts (ignore the bit about the monkey-brain dip). Allow me to elaborate.

When a friend cooks you a meal, it is hard not to feel cared for in even a small way. It shows that someone has taken the time and trouble to nourish you and to create a nice evening which can be shared enjoying each other’s company. 

The movement away from local shops to supermarkets, though it is a cliché to say, is excoriating communities. We are losing contact with the supply source, with accountability for products, with the traditional skills and knowledge of butchers and fishmongers, with the simple joy of friendly, no-strings banter over a cauliflower and a bunch of carrots. Ironically, by being in the larger consumer space of a supermarket we are more separated from each other than ever. Usually the first words spoken to us in a supermarket shopping trip are ‘how would you like to pay?’. 

As we ignore the ‘country of origin’ labels on the products, and collectively empower supermarkets with massive bargaining power, farmers’ businesses become dictated to them by supermarket buyers. This has a direct effect on the way our land is farmed: the quality of produce; the intensiveness of the methods involved; the range of foods we are presented with; and the quality of life of people working in the industry. 

We ignore the information available to us about the standards of life afforded to the animals we are going to eat and just search for the cheapest, most prettily packaged meat. The result is the commodification of animal life. We close our eyes to the suffering, despite all the lessons from history which we ignore at our peril. Dioxin contamination, foot and mouth, BSE, salmonella and the rest are not blips in farming quality. They are a growing trend. The resources used by intensive meat farming in terms of grain, water, and energy are so great that many people find it immoral to eat meat at all. But if we insist on free-range, non-intensive farming and let go of our relentless hunger for cheap, poor quality meat with every meal then I think meat eating would no longer be such a strain on the environment. It is not the animals but the factories we lock them in which cause the problem. 

From infancy we learn to ignore the needs of our bodies. We should be learning to listen. We dull our taste buds and senses with artificially flavoured, coloured, fatty, sweet food. We cherish the notion of eating like fois-gras geese until we feel stuffed. Does the amount of food on our plates always coincide with the exact amount we need? The metabolism is an amazingly evolved tool, being capable of taking advantage of a rare glut of fat and sugar, storing it efficiently. But of course now we have no shortage of these commodities. The result is obesity, and a palette which yearns for ketchup with everything. Fast food is not just convenient- you can buy a healthy meal just as quickly and easily. It is about delivering our bodies a quick hit of fat and sugar and perpetuating a diet of short-lived satisfaction. Through educating our palettes and senses, and by cooking our own food rather than buying factory prepared crap we get a feel for the nature of our food and the needs of our bodies. 

Right, I’m off for a kebab.       

The English, their Food, and their Cooking Pt.2

I have found after much research and experimentation that there are two crucial factors in cooking a good chicken:

1. Buy a good chicken 

2. Do not ruin it 

This may sound horribly obvious. But so many times I have been served a chicken by people I know, or by restaurants where they have tried all sorts of tricks from Heston Blumenthal or Gordon Ramsey, and therefore presume their chicken is cordon bleu. But they ineluctably neglect one of these two foundations of roasting a good pullet. And the chicken is disappointing. They have put butter and crap under the skin, they have rubbed it with herbs or spice, they have slow cooked it, crisped it, inverted it, stuffed it with a smaller fowl, stuck a little top hat and monocle on it, or even used organic salt, would you believe, and all with the best of intentions. But the result is never as good as when you simply buy a genuinely good chicken (not necessarily an expensive one from a UK supermarket) and do not ruin it. If you follow these guidelines then the flesh will be delicate and moist, the skin will be crispy, and the gravy will virtually make itself. 

This last point, I should like to add, is the best way of measuring the quality of a good chicken, in my opinion. If there is enough good fat and good juice in the flesh, and the bird has been cooked at the right temperature for the right amount of time, the cooking juices will only need the slightest of hydration and seasoning to form a creamy and delicate gravy. This is why I like cooking chickens in Switzerland. An inexpertly or, more to the point, cheaply reared chicken will not have the right balance of fluid and fat to make a good gravy. However, Olympic athletes have been known to inject themselves with the gravy from Tesco’s economy chickens to promote muscle-growth and anabolic rates, so there is something to be said for these sorry animals. 

Another trick that supermarkets use is Known Value Item pricing bias. An item of known value is a product, such as a tin of Heinz beans, whose price can be objectively compared between rival stores. Supermarkets know that your average customer will be far more likely to assess and remember the price of a box of Kellogg’s Cornflakes than a tomato, for example, which would necessitate an assessment of quality and a price per weight. Each box of Kellogg’s Cornflakes is the same in each different supermarket. But every tomato is different: it could be from anywhere in the world that produces tomatoes, its flavour, texture, ripeness etc. are variable, and it is not easy to see how much each individual tomato costs, unless you weigh them all individually and work it out. Therefore, instead of competing with their competitors for low prices on fruit and veg, supermarkets find it more effective to drop the price on a KVI, such as the products of Heinz or Kellogg’s, and tactically increase the price on vegetables. Retailers know that more often than not, their customers will just scoop up a load of spuds into their trolly and off they go. They won’t even check the price of non-KVI’s till they get their receipt, if at all. 

Very clever. But what has this profit-honing tool got to do with the way we eat? Well if you think about it, KVI’s are going to be pre-packaged, homogeneous foods. Non KVI’s are going to be un-uniform, natural foods like fresh fruit and vegetables. Therefore generally the supermarkets are going to be pricing pre-packaged, pre-prepared foods more competitively than fresh produce. But is it simply the supermarket which is leading us away from the holy land of fresh food, cooking and reality? 

Again, an issue here is the word ‘Known’ in KVI. In England, knowledge of the true value of food is on short supply. If English consumers were better at discerning quality of fresh produce, and demanding it over pre-packaged food, we would be able to bring that to bear on supermarket purchasers. The ruthless buyers of today’s colossal English supermarkets have become the chimera of the general population’s woeful relationship with food. 

To summarise this point, I believe that we have become culturally divorced from food in the UK. We have lost any cultural sense of good produce and good taste. Supermarkets which spring up in the name of efficiency and convenience reinforce and extend this trend. They give it momentum. Supermarkets have for the last decade been retailing (supposedly) higher-quality higher-price product ranges, but this does more harm than good. Why? Because consumers now believe that the way top find better produce is look for better packaging, and a higher price tag. While the produce is often marginally better in these posher product ranges, we are not using our senses and instincts to discern good food. We are cheating ourselves not only of a great sensual experience which is our birthright as animals, but also of the refinement of our judgments and tastes which should be occurring every time we go shopping. 

The efforts of the English over the last 20 years to improve the way they eat and cook may have been well-intentioned but, in reality, self-defeating. I think that the impetus for finding out about better quality produce has led to the rising importance of packaging and the influence of the marketer, advertiser, and product designer in the way we buy from supermarkets. Similarly, we are desperate to learn how to cook, and who do we turn to? TV Chefs and food writers. Now of course this new breed of celebrity and cultural icon can confer some of their knowledge to their audiences. But do you think they learnt to cook by watching telly? We are convinced the food they make is good quality because they are on TV and because they say it is. But whether it is or not is irrelevant. We cannot tell, because we cannot taste or smell it, nor can we feel it or properly see it. 

Learning to cook off the telly is like learning to paint by listening to an audio-guide. 

Cooking is not about following a recipe. It is about following your instincts. To cook a pasta sauce correctly, you cannot follow a timer. You use all your senses to determine exactly when the consistency, concentration, and delicacy is right. You know what the end result should be, and you don’t stop until you get there. How do you know? Because you have grown up in a culture where you and everyone else has always eaten good pasta sauces and have done for generations. Like a knowing what a good cup of tea tastes like: not too watery, not too milky, not over-brewed, just the right colour, just the right temperature, in just the right mug. Imagine a French chef trying to teach a Frenchman how to brew a cup over the telly. Sacrilege. 

Sadly, the divorce from reality in TV cookery education is not an exception to the norm of televisual communication. It is an effective example of how the medium of television divorces the viewer from reality. TV is also highly addictive, which convinces us to allow it deeper and deeper into our lives and our systems of knowledge. However, this is one for another blog.             

The English, their Food, and their Cooking Pt.1

I love food.

I love cooking. I love good eating. I love figuring out how to cook food which is ruthlessly healthy and intensely tasty. I love cooking for friends. I love cooking on big occasions for lots of people. And I love cooking for myself. I love buying food. I love talking and arguing about food. But I truly hate something about the way we the English relate to food.  

I use the term English advisedly here: I cannot really comment on the other nations of the UK. Anyway, any Sassenach discussion of Scotch cuisine always starts with haggis and descends ultimately into gasping about deep-fried mars bars. Look, the Scots just enjoy them. And having heart-attacks. 

I grew up in quite fortunate gastronomic circumstances. My family is fairly cosmopolitan. My parents used to live in Italy, and we used to drive all round Europe for our family holidays, which meant I got to eat loads of different types of cuisine at source, as well as get a feel for the produce of slightly more demanding cultures. At home, my parents always cooked amazing food, for which I shall always be indebted to them. 

I became aware of the horrors which lurk in English cooking when I started going to school. I went to my local state school which I loved. However, I was one of those kids who brought a packed lunch (like the international kids of whom there was a good number). I was traumatised by the sight and the smell of the slop being dished out. There was hard oily pastry covering some weird sweet meat-jelly (as a main course). The boiled potatoes smelled of dishwater and were lousy with wretched black lumps. Dessert? Think saccharine pink biscuits doused in a sputum of watery custard. I could describe more of the horrors but I should move on to the merciless dinner ladies. They wore thick glasses which distorted their eyes (honestly, they all did) and, while I am sure they were all perfectly nice people, they forced the poor children in the care to finish every last festering lump on their plates. My god, why? Why did they think I did not want to eat it? Because I had an eating disorder at the age of five? Because I was evil? Because I was trying to give them more plate scraping work to do, just despite them? 

Incidentally, my uncle (who went to the same primary school as me) was so traumatised by one session of a dinner-lady bullying him to eat some putrid fish that he never has been able to eat fish ever since. 

What was strange to me was that so many of the kids thought the food was fine, even better than what they got at home. And I don’t think my school was unusual. Nor have things changed much, if Jamie Oliver is to be believed. Kids are still getting used to eating swill. 

Interest in food has changed in England over the last 20 years or so. People want to eat and cook stylish, healthy, and what they deem to be good food. But here is the problem. ‘What they deem to be’. 

In Italy, I would say that people generally know what a good pasta sauce or tomato tastes like. They know because they have grown up eating good sauces and good tomatoes. The English have not. The tomatoes we get in supermarkets here are for the most part laughably poor quality. If any of you know any Italians, ask them. Even better, go to Italy and look at the produce. And weep. Farmers and retailers have to supply Italians with good produce because if they do not, it will not get bought. 

Let me put it like this: an Englishman cannot for love nor money find a satisfactory cup of tea outside of Britain. It is always wrong somehow. These bloody foreigners just don’t get it, right? For all their poxy coffees and fine wines, they don’t know what a good cuppa should taste like. That is what English food is like to foreigners. 

In England we have been getting a bit more clued up about food. We WANT to learn. We look up to Delia Smith, Hugh-Fearnley Whittingstall, Gordon Ramsey et al. We adore the holiness of organic food and decry g.m. farming as Satan’s cruel machination to kill our children. We watch interminable cooking programmes on the cancer-box. But these good intentions are nothing if when it comes to buying good produce, we take more interest in a ‘taste the difference’ label than the smell, taste, and feel of the food. We talk the talk well enough, but are yet to walk the walk. 

We wrap our food in rubbish. Next time you go to the supermarket, take as much food as possible out of its wrapping and make a pile. Bags, boxes, cartons, cling-film. It is staggering what supermarkets do. Not only is the amount of packaging an achingly avoidable environmental problem, it more importantly separates us from the sensual experience of the food. All those subconscious senses which have evolved over tens of thousands of years so that we can quickly determine the best, safest and tastiest foods are cut off by the plastic. 

Some may say that this is the fault of supermarkets. However, I would say that they get away with all their crap because we let them. We will pay more for a product just because it has been pre-sorted. We trust that taste-the-difference food will taste, well, different. We do not demand it. We do not say ‘these tomatoes have clearly been ripened in a lorry, I shall take my custom elswhere!’ or ‘this beef has been clearly butchered by an epileptic monkey and that pork I had is more water than meat, I am not coming here again!’ or ‘raspberries in December? no wonder they taste like tramp’s piss! Good day!’ or ‘fuck me, Jamie, those mussels smell like a dog’s gall bladder! Go see a doctor!’ 

I think we English are obsessed with getting a good deal when it comes to food shopping. We clearly love these patently mendacious 2-for-1 offers (supermarkets still use this pricing ruse so we clearly have not grown wise to it). But still we seem to pay so much more for our lacklustre vittles than other European countries. Maybe this is the trick. Supermarkets universally overcharge, making their customers desperate for a bargain. 

I was chatting to an onion farmer recently who was telling me all about his view of supermarkets. Essentially, he said supermarket purchasers know nothing and care less about the quality of food. They are ruthless in their price demands. That is all that matters to them. They are no different from stock-market commodity brokers. Farmers are squeezed, and standards go down. These unscrupulous purchasers can get away with it too because the majority of their customers cannot tell the difference. 

Similarly, people complain about the rights of battery chickens. But the English have been buying scrawny, tasteless chickens and watery, nasty eggs because we think they are perfectly edible and fairly priced (judgments with which I would disagree). The battery chicken is the result of these two elements: the English consumer’s economic priorities and their ignorance of quality. I was in Switzerland recently, and even the least expensive chicken in Migros was better than anything I have found in Tesco or Sainsbury’s. 

[I shall continue this directly in another post. This needs to be spread over several posts for mercy's sake if nothing else]