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 (As this book was published in 2003 then it is slightly out of date, it doesn’t examine the current food crisis and the rising price of staples, nor the impact of crops grown for bio-fuels but is still on the button for much.)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.’
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.
 So Shall We Reap by Colin Tudge, Penguin, 2003.