What are you having for supper tonight?
I shall be eating crayfish from the river at the bottom of my garden, served with mayonnaise made with eggs from my own hens. The eggs will do double work in an egg, bean, and tomato salad, with the tomatoes just ripe on their vines, and picked lovely and warm, not supermarket chilled. I’ll make a big green salad from my loose leaf lettuces, add a few chopped spring onions, and throw fresh basil and mint and parsley over the lot.
If there is food tonight that is fresher, food that has travelled less far before supper, someone must be living on top of their courgette plants and eating them raw.
One of the reasons I moved out to the country in 1994, is that I wanted to grow my own food and live closer to the land. In the city I had the world’s smallest veggie garden and two hens. I had started eating only organic, long before it was fashionable, and I was running out of patience with late-night clandestine cabbage drops from a hippy in Essex. The only thing for it was to sell up and buy the one thing they’re not making any more of; land.
I don’t have a farm or even a smallholding. You need surprisingly little of God’s good earth to grow an abundance of food. The traditional walled vegetable garden that came with the traditional country house, was always an acre in size, because an acre can feed twenty people comfortably, Add an orchard and a bit of room for chickens and a pig, and you could more or less feed yourself and rabbits friends and relations forever.
When I was growing up in the impoverished north in the swinging sixties, that never quite managed to swing quite as far as Accrington, we had no supermarkets, but we had allotments. My parents were poor, and they relied on their potatoes and penned rabbits. We had what Mrs Winterson called ‘butcher’s meat’ only on Sundays. Mid-week, it was either our own chicken or our own rabbit, and plenty of veg.
I learned how to grow things because without them we couldn’t afford enough to eat. It was a very direct connection between the soil and our mouths.
The advent of the supermarkets, and the rise and rise of convenience foods, and one-stop shopping, has broken that connection. Who can forget poor Jamie Oliver trying to get school kids to recognise raw fruit and veg? They all knew the Macdonald’s logo, but none of them had ever seen a leek.
I don’t want to glamorise poverty, or turn into one of those pub bores who tell you how much better things were in the old days. I find it odd though, that my family, who had no car, no phone, no inside loo, no bank account, no credit cards, slot meters for electricity and gas, and one winter coat, ate far better than todays so called working classes. We were not fat but we were fed.
All that changed in the 1970’s when Asda opened a supermarket in Accrington. With their price promises and loss leaders, and food so cheap it is almost free, Asda is the epitome of what the supermarket stands for. Let’s not blame them. People want cheap food. My parents generation were amazed that they could buy food cheaper than they could grow it on their allotments. It seemed like a dream come true.
The last fifty years has been a sad story of dreams come true followed by new nightmares. We thought the Welfare State could solve our health and social security problems. We thought that Comprehensive education would mean opportunity and equality for all. We hoped the end of the Cold War would bring peace across the world. We were told that Free Trade would promote harmony and prosperity between nations, and that the UN would ensure that there could never be another world war.
It hasn’t quite worked out that way has it? We shouldn’t be surprised then that all the talk about food revolutions and globalisation has given us food that costs nothing, tastes of nothing, makes the West obese, the developing world impoverished, and is ruining farming while supermarket profits soar.
The truth is – you can’t get something for nothing. Why should a chicken be cheaper than a cinema ticket?
Food scandals of recent years – the foot and mouth crisis, salmonella, CJD, have made Britons a bit more cautious about intensively reared and highly processed meats. Our obesity levels – fast catching up with the whopping 65% in the USA – have turned the nation towards healthier, simpler eating, with its emphasis on home cooking, rather than fat soaked and sugar laded convenience foods. But it takes a long time to change the habits of a lifetime, and we are raising kids who have no idea that food is about the land; they think it comes pre-packed and that vegetables don’t taste of anything.
I recently opened a small shop in London because quality food is so important to me. Good food needs no fancy sauces and Michelin stars. The best ingredients, simply cooked, are a feast. A chicken carcass with a bit of meat on it, thrown in a casserole dish with spuds, carrots, two onions, split peas, a slosh of wine, bay leaves and sage, will feed six of you for next to nothing. Chuck in some sliced runners for the last 10 minutes and throw a handful of coarse chopped fresh parsley on top of each bowl if you like. It takes two hours to cook, and during that time you can have a glass of wine and get on with something else. The recipe for tasty stress-free cooking is to use what’s to hand, and keep it simple, seasonal and local.
Food miles – the distance food flies before it reaches the supermarket depots – let alone your plate, is just beginning to worry us. About time too. Apart from the environmental lunacy of flying beans from Kenya, (6000 miles) and tomatoes from Saudi Arabia, (3000 miles), these products must be picked unready and remain deep-chilled. The difference between locally grown, picked and eaten fruit and veg, and the uniform packs of sanitised, sprayed, sub- temperature ‘fresh’ produce on our supermarket shelves should be enough to convert us all back to sane eating – except that in our mad scramble for endless ‘variety’ coupled with low prices, we have forgotten what sane eating is, and sadly our children may never know.
When my godchildren come to visit me, the first thing they do is stuff themselves silly with fresh fruit – apples and pears in the autumn, raspberries and currants in the summer. They love picking soft fruit and their small fingers are just the right size. If you can’t grow your own, take the kids to a Pick Your Own, and let them discover that warm smell of real food.
For city dwellers, a day out in the country to a Pick Your Own is a wonderful way of entertaining the kids without a video, and relaxing the whole family back into a slower, gentler pace of life. It’s not just the pleasure of the food; it’s the rhythm that is so important. Picking food from the ground is calming. The land is part of our DNA. We evolved as hunter-gatherers, and there is a sense of peace and rightness when we slip back into our ancient birthright. What’s convenient about being stressed all the time? You can have a miserable afternoon in the shopping centre, or a great day out in the country.
And when you get home, there’s still time to sow a few autumn salad greens in among your flowers. Buy the kids a packet of seeds and let them do it.
I believe that kids are tuned-in to the natural world – all babies are Stone Age; they know nothing about mobile phones and ready meals, but they love the sunshine on their faces and the grass under their bare feet. When my godchildren were babies I used to take them into the veg garden and they would crawl towards the peas and beans, slowly and seriously pick them off, and chew on them like rusks.
When they were four and five, I said, ‘Let’s pick some carrots’. They stared round and saw nothing orange, so I showed them the green waving carrot tops and asked them to pull. As the Bugs Bunny size carrots came flying out, knocking one of them over, they both screamed with amazement and delight, and immediately fell to eating them, soil and all. These kids never have to be persuaded to eat their veg because from the beginning they have been connected to the land and they love it. Now I am teaching them to cook – not with a recipe book, but by saying, ‘Here’s what’s in season, here’s what we’ve got, let’s make something lovely.’ It’s creative and it’s fun, and it beats the supermarket and the microwave any day.
I don’t shop at supermarkets because I cannot bear the sensory deprivation. I am sure that the bright lights and gaudy packaging is to make up for the fact the food is entombed in plastic, ready washed, ready chopped, all the things that murder the sensual pleasure of touch, smell and taste.
One of the reasons we Brits love to visit Spain and France and Italy is the food – not just in restaurants, but in the markets and the little shops. While we have given ourselves wholesale to the supermarkets, the rest of Europe has been much better about preserving its food and small shopkeeper culture. Until 2004, when the EU forced its hand, France did not allow supermarkets to advertise on TV. Carrefour is the biggest supermarket chain in Europe but it hasn’t ruined the French way of life. By contrast, in Britain, there are now less than 30,000 independent grocers, and we supply only 4% of our fruit, and only 52% of our own vegetables. Sourcing cheaper options from abroad may look great as a supermarket promotion, but is has decimated our own farms and small businesses. If Gordon Brown and Tony Blair get their way, with ‘reforms’ to the Common Agricultural Policy, this can only get worse. We cannot bleat on, as the Prime Minister has done recently, about the iniquity of food miles, and at the same time offer no support to Britain’s farmers and growers. Sure, CAP needs to be reformed, but do we want local farming or not, and do we want to grow our own food or not?
Life is too short to eat badly, and if you do eat badly life gets shorter yet. The pleasure of real food is one of the true pleasures of life, and unlike most pleasures, food is one you can enjoy every day, and it does you good! To me, that’s fantastic.
The choices are simple; grow what you can, even if its only potatoes in a barrel in the back yard. Shop at markets and eat food in season. It tastes better, and there is growing evidence that the body thrives on seasonal food. The variety of the supermarkets is just more of the same, month in, month out. The variety of the seasons is exciting. I’m already looking forward to my little pink autumn turnips, and the last of the, by then, stringy green beans, stewed together in a navarin of lamb from the farm two miles away. Real eating. Real Food. Delicious!