January 2009


Katrina’s website

A diet that has been sustainably produced threatens to be a dull affair, but choosing food that is made in harmony with the landscape can open the door to a delicious world.

 Last week I attended a press launch for a marketing campaign called ‘Discover the Origin’. It groups together a delicious quintet of food and wine, namely: Parma Ham, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, Burgundy wines, Port and Douro Valley wines. The event was an interesting and fun mix of wine tasting, cookery demonstrations and talks about the individual products. But there was a serious point grouping five PDO (Product of Designated Origin) together as this strikes at the heart of contemporary food politics and raises a number of apposite points around farming, provenance, food miles and diet.

 

These are issues that I have been particularly conscious of recently as I have also been reading a book called So Shall We Reap by Colin Tudge, with the onerous sub-title How everyone who liable to be born in the next ten thousand years could eat very well indeed; and why, in practice, our immediate descendants are likely to be in serious trouble. (As this book was published in 2003 then it is slightly out of date, it doesn’t examine the current food crisis and the rising price of staples, nor the impact of crops grown for bio-fuels but is still on the button for much.)

 

While Tudge’s weighty tome and the enjoyable ‘Taste the Origin’ day of food and wine tasting couldn’t have been more different presentations, there were a number of times where the message overlapped and made an interesting parallel.

 

The book points out that ‘if farming is to be as productive as possible and yet be sustainable, it must first and foremost march to the drum of biology; and this means that it must acknowledge and play to the strengths of landscape, the climate, the crops and livestock, which of course is geared primarily to the human requirement for good food.’[1]

 

The Parma ham tasted at the press conference is a text book example of these principles: the hams must be produced and cured in the hills around Parma; the pigs are fed the whey by-product of locally produced parmigiano-reggiano cheese; the hams are air cured and the final product is revered by foodies all over the world. (My 13 year old nephew is a particular fan.) As Paulo Tramelli Marketing Manager for Parma Ham said, ‘I was in born in Parma, this ham is not just a product but it is part of our heritage.’ This is local food developed in harmony with the landscape.

 

All highly estimable and it is tempting to take this a step further and to extol the virtues of eating locally and there’s a lot to be said for such purism and if I ever visit Parma then I very much doubt I would go for Chinese. (Nor would I go for a pizza in Beijing.) But I live in South London and I love the fact that when I go shopping I rub shoulders with people from all over the world and can find authentic ingredients from every continent which I have to purchase using sign language.

 

But doesn’t this go against the grain of both the Taste the Origin campaign and So Shall We Reap. From a sustainability point of view isn’t it better to stick to British food? Locally grown and transported a minimum number of miles. And from a gastronomic slant isn’t it better to stick to ‘what grows together goes together’? After all what could be better than a glass of red Burgundy and a coq au vin or a Barbera d’Asti and a risotto flavoured with parmigiano-reggiano, combinations that have grown up hand in hand over centuries?

 

From a foodie angle there’s certainly something to be said for this ‘if it ain’t broke then don’t fix it’ argument. But that takes out the fun of experimenting. I was initially surprised to see New Zealand chef, Peter Gordon demonstrating at a press conference that puts so much emphasis on food origins. Gordon is well known for fusion food and here he cooked up a risotto that substituted Japanese miso for the stock and used oriental mushrooms such as shiitake. The result was as flavoursome risotto as I have ever tasted and it had a creative edge that encourages people to cook, eat and experiment with food in a way that has to be good for nutrition and well-being. (Although I’m not sure what Italian die-hards would say about it.)

 

But while international foods are great in the kitchen, what do they really cost? They can hardly be described as marching to the drum of biology if they are transported all over the globe just to please our spoiled palates. I asked Gordon about ‘food miles’ and a flash of annoyance flashed across the mild mannered chef’s face. He told me that he wished that the expression ‘food miles’ had never been invented and that he had written an article in The Independent criticising this knee-jerk concept. I dug it out.

 

He had written with barely concealed exasperation that ‘Eighty-two per cent of vehicle kilometres associated with transporting food consumed in the UK are generated within the UK itself, for example by big freight lorries burning fossil fuels carrying food round the M25; or going to and from warehouses in the middle of nowhere.’

 

I am sure that there’s a lot in this argument, and the concept of ‘food miles’ is ridiculously simple, and doesn’t take into account the cost of producing food, using green houses, irrigation etc. Nor would I ever advocate an entirely home-produced diet, British food is global-centric now and the better for it. But I still don’t buy how transporting lamb/apples etc from New Zealand when our own farmers are suffering and Britain is reduced to importing 80% of its own food can ever be justifiable.

 

But I whole heartedly agreed with Gordon when he spoke with passion about finding the best ingredients, as Tudge describes these are the ‘ones that are made in harmony with the natural landscape’, ‘march to the drum of biology’ and meet the ‘human requirement for good food’.

 

And I applaud The Discover the Origin campaign. My only criticism is that it is restricted to these five products. I would love to see more food and wine under this umbrella, a real marketing push for PDO, after all there are so many lovely things from all over Britain: stilton cheese; Kentish cob nuts and travel further a field and even the most restless cook will always find something to experiment with. The PDO system reminds us that we don’t live out of supermarkets, but from the bounty of the land, and that is something we should respect.

 

 

 

 

 

 


[1] So Shall We Reap by Colin Tudge, Penguin, 2003. 

Katrina’s website

Last Sunday I tasted something which was on a par with some of the greatest gourmet treats that I have ever had the pleasure of eating. For a second I thought it was all over and I would no longer care for fine wine and good dining. It was a freezing day and my sister and I were walking a 20 mile ‘challenge walk’ organised by the Long Distance Walkers Association. (We were the light-weights, there were plenty speeding past us doing the 30 mile event.) At the first checkpoint, 10 miles in, we were given a glass of blackcurrant juice and a digestive biscuit.

Rarely has anything tasted so sweet, so delicious, so nourishing and thirst quenching. Partially it was the effect of exercising outdoors on a cold day, every nerve was tingling and alive including, it seemed, my taste buds. But equally I have rarely been so conscious of food and fuel, the link between energy and eating. The sugar in the drink and biscuit seemed to race to my muscles (I’m not sure how long it takes sugar to convert to energy but surely longer than this) giving me an instant lift, helping me to bounce off for the next 10 miles.

 I’ve had this experience before, also on a cold day, part-way through a day of strenuous hiking. A few years ago I went trekking in Nepal, its not the exquisite curries that stick in my mind or the yummy mo-mos, but a meal knocked up by the sherpas who were guiding me and the rest of a band of hapless foreigners along the way, just below the snow line. On camping stoves they knocked up a meal of chips, coleslaw and a jam sandwich, all served on the same plate. Again the cold, the hunger, the need for energy made this simple fair taste far more wonderful than it would in normal circumstances.

 Usually, for me, food/cooking oscillates between necessity and absorbing hobby. I am aware of the need for a balanced diet, but often that can be reduced to a battle between excess calories and the love of good food. But that juice and biscuit, (just as the odd Nepalese thali had been) were a timely reminder of the correlation between nutrition and physical well-being. Just how profoundly what I eat affects the way I feel.

 So while I once again have made a mental note to be more conscious of nutrition, I also realise that there are those rare moments in life when the most ordinary food will taste exquisite and nourishing in a way that the finest haute cuisine never can. And those odd moments will always creep up on me unexpectedly and must be cherished for their simple beauty, the taste of good food. 

 

 

 

2nd January,

Hang over ,

Weighing scales,

Back side as big as a cow.

 

Oh no, oh no, oh no,

 

Brown rice,

Vegetables,

Porridge,

Pineapple.

 

Jeans still too tight.

 

Cottage cheese,

Low fat yoghurt,

All bran,

Miso soup.

 

Weighing scales can’t be right.

 

Atkins,

Beverley Hills,

Cabbage Soup

F Plan

 

Spin at the gym and pump some iron.

 

Eat like a king at breakfast,

A prince at midday,  

A pauper in the evening.

 

Oh bring on those summer days of wine and chocolate

 

Light summer dresses, shorts and flip flops

And please, please, please

Let me fit into them again.

 

 

 

After cooking Christmas for my family I realise the error of my former ways and would like to say sorry.

To visit Katrina’s website click here.

 No one called me a cook twice when I was at catering college. I was a chef. I was training to cut carrots into the smallest brunoise dice, whip cream to its thickest point before it turned into grainy butter and cook every steak to perfection. My fellow students and I used to curl our lips and sneer at ‘domestic cooks’ with their over cooked vegetables, reliance on Delia Smith and most of all for their use of gravy granules. In those days a sauce wasn’t a sauce unless it had been deglazed, reduced, emulsified and napped. But those heady days are long gone. I am now a domestic cook and I have just cooked Christmas.

 My family is probably no more eccentric than anyone else’s (even if right now they feel as though they are). So cooking Christmas means accommodating: children with limited palates; the elderly with limited teeth; vegetarians; militant meat eaters; those who are hungry; those who don’t feel like eating much and those who have an abhorrence of garlic.

 How did I manage? By eating the very words that I shouted so loudly when I was a catering student.

 On Christmas day I cooked a turkey crown instead of a whole turkey. A crown is just the breast meat, As the meat isn’t cooked on the bone it isn’t as flavoursome and there’s no tougher but tastier brown meat, and there’s no carcass to make stock for a good Boxing Day soup. Plus there’s the moral objection (which I usually hold dear) that it is wrong to only use the best bits of meat and to spurn the lesser cuts. But a crown is easier to cook, carve and eat. And I had enough on my plate without worrying about what do with a couple of dried up wings. Sacrifices had to be made.

I also felt no shame in getting advice from those who have gone before. I looked up Delia on line (this is somehow less compromising than buying a whole Delia Smith cookbook) when I wanted to refresh my memory of how long to cook a honey-roast ham so the glaze is perfectly brown and bubbly.

Finally I used the odd convenience food: puff pastry, marzipan and yes gravy granules. How else was I going to get a gravy thick enough to please my good trenchermen relatives?

So all of this leaves looking back at the claims made my former self made and shaking my head in shame at my arrogant ignorance. I would like to apologise for any offence my high-fluting ways may have caused.

Of course working as a chef is a very, very gruelling profession, a few weeks of working double-shifts knocks the catering college greenery out of anyone pretty quick. But try doing a family Christmas with its inherent shopping, budgeting, cleaning keeping everyone happy, not swearing or drinking too much. That really sorts the women out from the girls. So here I say domestic cooks I salute you and all that you achieve day in day out 365 days a year!

 

To visit Katrina’s website click here.