Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Food For Free #2

Cherry-plum Prunus Cerasifera

Locally common in hedgerows in a few scattered areas of England. The twigs are brown, not dark-grey like blackthorn, and without thorns. The fruits appear rather earlier than sloes and are reddish-yellow in colour.

Bullace Prunus Domestica

Occurs occasionally in hedgerows throughout the British Isles. Fruits like large, egg-shaped sloes, though of variable colours.

The bullace was the domestic plum before cultivation produced the more succulent varieties. Its fruit is not quite as sour as the sloe, but is still normally left on the branch until the early frosts have reduced some of its acitidy.

From Food For Free: A guide to the Edible wild Plants of Britain by Richard Mabey,
Wm Collins Sons & Co. Ltd, 1972

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Food For Free #1

Dittander Lepidium Latifolium

Dittander is a hot, pungent root, and was gathered from the wild and occasionally grown in gardens as a condiment before horeseraddish and pepper became popular. It is a perennial and has an obstinate and aggressive root system like horeseraddish, yet in uncommon in the wild. Only beside a few estuarie on the South and East Coasts can the tall, elegant leaves still be found.

Marsh Mallow Althae Officinalis

The plant that gave the sweet its name. Today marshmallow is made from starch, gelatine and sugar. But once it was produced from the roots of Althaea Officinalis, which contain not only their own starch, but albumen, a crystallisable sugar, a fixed oil and a good deal of geltinous matter. They were gathered by fishermen's wives in the dykes and salt marshes of the East Coast, Where the plant still grows, in soft branched clumps with velvety pink flowers.

Pignut Conopodium Majus

The Custom of Grubbing for pig or earth nuts seems to have died out now, even amongst children. There was a time when they were one of the most popular of wayside nibbles, even though extractineg them from the ground was as delicate a business as an egg and spoon race. They cannot be pulled out, for the thin leaf talk breaks very quickly. The fine white roots must be unearthed witha knife, and carefully traced down to the tuber.

The 'nuts' can be eaten raw once they have been scraped or washed, though one early botonist recommended them peeled and boiled in broth with pepper. The plant, a slender, feathery umbellifer, is still common in June and July in woods, meadows and sandy heaths.

From Food For Free: A guide to the Edible wild Plants of Britain by Richard Mabey,
Wm Collins Sons & Co. Ltd, 1972

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

food in fiction # 2

In our house George Orwell has become a bit of a hero.
Here are some quotes from Keep the Aspidistra Flying and The Road to Wigan Pier. The first one feels particularly relevant when I walk past the food wrappers and still blooming trees on City road.

'For what difference does spring or winter or any other time of year make to the average civilised person nowadays? In a town like London the most striking seasonal change, apart from the mere change of temperature, is in the things you see lying about on the pavement. In late winter it is mainly cabbage leaves. In July you tread on cherry stones, in Novemeber on burnt-out fireworks. Towards Christmas the orange peel grows thicker. It was a different matter in the Middle Ages. There was some sense in writing poems about spring when spring meant fresh meat and green vegetables after months of frowsting in some windowless hut on a diet of salt fish and mouldy bread.
If it was spring Gordon failed to notice it.'

Orwell, G. (2000) Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Penguin Classics

'at the end of his lecture he would suddenly turn to us and demand, ‘What’s the most important thing in the world?’ We were expected to shout ‘Food!’ and if we did not do so he was disappointed.'

Orwell, G. (1958) The Road to Wigan Pier, Mariner Books

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

bread and brioche

photo taken and bread baked by steve brett

I've been doing a bit of research into bread. This is mostly because a friend of mine recently told me the reason for the invention of the French loaf. The baguette is a symbol of France (though it is thought to have originated in Vienna) because of a law passed in 1920, which stated that no-one should be working before 4am. This meant that baguettes were the only sensible choice as their shape made them far quicker to bake.

The baguette's significance in French culture echoes the significance of bread's importance to culture in general. It appears in biblical references, prayers and hymns and has been used for centuries in political rhetoric as short hand for all food as well - it could be argued - as for other material wealth. It is a symbol of prosperity and security. In ancient Egypt, bread's role in the diet was crucial. It provided protein, starch and trace nutrients and was eaten by people of all levels in society.

It is bread's role as an equalizer in society that interests me. Returning to France and more specifically to the French revolution, it can be seen that bread was symbolic in the proletariat's rise to power. Firstly, There was a division between the peasants and the bourgeois aristocrats in the very type of bread they consumed. Peasants at this time (C18) would eat only dense brown bread, while aristocrats would eat only soft white loaves, believing their constitution to be too refined to deal with anything else.

Secondly, the legendary - and rather miss translated or maybe even fabricated - inflammatory remark by Marie Antoinette "let them eat cake" in response to hearing that the peasants had no flour with which to make bread. The correct translation of this is in fact "let them eat brioche" which is a sweetened, more expensive, egg based bread. Whether or not this remark was actually made, it represents the view of the division between the classes; the way in which either were considered to view food. One sees a luxury, the other a necessity.

This view of the class divide is obviously a generalization but it is the symbolic line that has been drawn time and again between the workers and the bourgeoisie. Bread is an has been used in political speeches to suggest a fair chance for people of all means. However, while there may be bread for everyone, there is still only brioche for the privileged few.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Rowntree's Gift: Using Food Baskets

picture by me

A Food Basket seems a simple thing. The first image that probably comes to mind is a hamper, overflowing with various delicacies. However food baskets contain more than just treats. In his 1902 study of poverty, Rowntree used the idea of a ‘basket of goods’ to show what a household needed to live a decent life. Those that did not have the requisite goods in their ‘basket’ were considered poor. For Rowntree this included such items as cheese, dumplings and several other products and services he saw as necessary. The relationship between food and poverty is therefore held in the simple notion of a ‘food basket’.

As a measure of something as complex as food poverty, the idea of a food basket can be seen as crude. It sees the world as purely made up of those with, and those without. However, what interests me about the idea of a ‘food basket’ is that it is presented as an ‘absolute’ measure of poverty yet has room for a variety of subtler, relative measures. By defining what is ‘necessary’ there is room for subjectivity. Food baskets can be manipulated to include many different items. They are fertile ground for debate about an age old question: What do people need to live a decent life? Food baskets show that we choose what makes people poor but that there are some things people need.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has continued to use a ‘basket of goods’ today. Their 2009 study has shown that food prices have risen 9% in the year to April 2009, having a clear impact on the poorest members of society. This shows that we cannot be complacent about poverty in the UK today.

Exhuming the idea of a Victorian philanthropist might seem odd, however it is increasingly pertinent. Rowntree’s original study, whilst not perfect, helped to dismiss the myth of ‘the undeserving poor’. This idea is still to be found today in ideas of an ‘underclass’ and the supposed ‘chav culture’. By showing that there is an absolute side to poverty and that many people don’t have access to these basic resources, food baskets can do more than they first appear to.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

biodynamic agriculture

image from here

First of all, this is a great source of information on biodynamics. Secondly, a small overview.

Biodynamic agriculture is a farming practise by which humans can withdraw what they need in terms of produce without the introduction of external influences such as pesticides or hormones to the farm. It is in essence the creation of a model eco-system on the farm.

The principle of the practise is that each component of your farm nurtures another component, partly through its waste, partly through its yield. The crops feed the animals; the animals fertilise the land and produce compost for the crops.

Rather than mere dependence on season, biodynamic husbandry calculates harvesting and breeding by the cycles of the moon. This may seem fanciful at first but the article Lunar Effect on Thoroughbred Mare Fertility by Nicholas Kollerstrom compares the breeding records of 14 years of data from a leading UK stud farm and finds a striking correlation between successful conceptions and the stages of the moon. It was found that there was a definite trend of mares being in season in the days following a full moon. On a farm that depends upon the delicate balance of a natural ecosystem, such information is vital as the harvesting methods is geared for necessity, not industry.

Monday, 12 October 2009


image from herokids

Oliver Twist sheepishly walks towards the towering Mr. Bumble.
“Please sir, I want some more.”
“MORE?!” yells Mr. Bumble

This famous scene from Oliver Twist is one that we can use to think about the wave of ‘productionist’ answers to food security problems. Replace Oliver with the world’s citizens and Mr. Bumble with policy makers, and we see an interesting picture emerging. Like little Oliver the world is asking for ‘more’. The answer given by policy makers is on the surface the opposite of Bumble’s indignation. They want to give us more.

Key documents about the future of food have come to the same basic conclusions. The FAO, the UN body responsible for food policy, believes we need an increase of 70% more food. DEFRA sees a 50% increase in cereal, and an 80% increase in meat production as necessary to avert food crisis. The World Bank was amongst the first to see that Food production will have to increase. Despite disparate figures, most key bodies agree that production must increase, that indeed we will need ‘more’.

However their answers have more in common with Mr. Bumble than we might think. Understanding of ‘more’ is narrow and taken to be purely about production and not distribution. Explanation for this can be found in the consistent prioritising of economy over society. The primary Public Service Agreement of the UK government to its citizens is to “raise the productivity of the UK economy”. Creating a fair society and “stronger communities” come much further down the list. This is indicative of what we see in food policy, prioritising growth when really we should be thinking about what resources we have now, where inequality is and how to address this. Though factors of fairness, safety and sustainability are included into documents, it seems like there are economic blinkers on policy makers. There are 1 billion poorly nourished people in the world and 1.6 billion people are overweight. Simply producing more food will do little to address such injustice.

I believe citizens need to sharpen an argument for what we want from food policy. To start asking questions about social justice and sustainability is difficult but necessary if we want a food system that truly gives us more.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

TV Chef

image from

Food – as one of the staples of human life – has a great deal of cultural significance. This is apparent in its appearance throughout art and its constant reference in literature throughout history. A more immediate indicator of food’s continuing prevalence at the forefront of our minds is its ever-changing aesthetic and appearance on television.

There was a time (the entire middle ages) when the status of an aristocrat would be judged by how alien and exotic the dishes at their banquets were. This represented man’s power over – and separation from- nature and is echoed in such ritual acts of the placing of great oaks upside down in the soil (a supposedly druid practice). Desserts in particular would have looked entirely inedible to the working classes of the 18th century.

Humanity’s divorce from nature culminated in the industrial revolution and the scientific ambitions of the 19th and 20th centuries. We wanted to explore space, eat astronaut meals – meals in pill form looked very attractive to us. Finally the formality of meal times would be a thing of the past.

However, there was of course a backlash to this. It probably is connected with the writings of John Ruskin and the Arts and Crafts movement in general, but the rustic approach to cookery started to gain appeal. By the mid-1970s, people were dissatisfied with the broken promises of the futuristic and convinced that long prophesied post-modernity was upon them.

Delia Smith’s Cooking programme became popular in 1986, around the time Nuevo Cuisine (more art composition than meal) was popular among the super rich. This minimalist, style over content meal was combated with a revival of old fashioned cooking practise.

Delia led the way for Jamie Oliver’s Naked Chef in 1998, who intensified the argument in favour of local, quality ingredients and simple, hearty preparations. In fact, as the founder of this TV food movement, it was inevitable that Delia would eventually fall victim to it when she produced her ‘cheats’ programs, apparently cheapening the campaign.

Ethical food practices started to gain notoriety over those decades. The Soil Association had been a politically left wing and progressive institution since the 1960s and over the last 30 years have become a major charity and mark of genuine quality food. As intensive farming lost popularity in favor of cheaper farming abroad, British farmers directed their produce at the Organic market. This market emerged in earnest in the 1990s, when the movement had been going long enough to capture the attention of the middle classes. The Vegan diet is still a mainly side-lined sub culture, but that too is gaining in popularity.

It is my belief that the post-modern panic of the 70s and 80s was not real post-modernity. Only now do we have total access to the past and the future. Heston Blumenthal is aware of the humanistic values of meal times. He’s also aware of the principles of privileged dining and futuristic space meals and he’s combining all of these aspects into a kind of food museum in his restaurants. Shows like The Supersizers Eat…are a testiment to our understanding of the foods place in our cultural heritage. The past is now a continent we can explore, bringing back exotic and weird fruits.

Friday, 25 September 2009

The Oxen Lake

The Oxen Pond in Newfoundland is circled by a wooden boardwalk. Dotted along this path are plants with short descriptions of their names and quotes about their uses. Evocative names like ‘The Creeping Snowberry’ are detailed with details of how indigenous people used them for medicinal and ceremonial purposes. This is part of an ‘Ethnobotany’ project being run by the Memorial University of Newfoundland’s Botanical Garden. Ethnobotany is the study of how people and plants interact, often with a focus on the practices of the past. What interests me about this discipline is how it blends cultural study (ethnology) with more traditional scientific study (botany). Crouching by the water, reading these signs made me start to wonder how Ethnobotany could give a perspective on food.

Recognising and learning about the links between people and plants is clearly relevant for the study of food. There is much to be learnt from this discipline, to open up old knowledge and adapt this for today. The Creeping Snowberry mentioned above, can be an antiseptic but also makes a jam or maple syrup enriched drink. This gives a tiny indication of the wealth of hidden flavours, medicines and practices there are. Using this knowledge is perhaps a luxury but, in a world of decreasing biodiversity and more uniform diets, could be a way to reimagine the plants we might normally walk past.

It is important not to use this as a way of creating a patronising image of ‘the noble savage’. These knowledges could be ‘fetishised’ and become a badge of ‘right-on credibility’; yet another lifestyle choice. Instead Ethnobotany needs to be used in a way that shows plants as resources and tools that are both fragile and vital.

A quote from Food Facts For The Kitchen Front is of help here. This 1940s book was a present given to me by Henry and starts with the two facts that:

“what we can get is good for us”
“a great deal of what we cannot get is quite unimportant”

These statements show a simple way of viewing food as a resource that has collective benefits but that is constrained. It is appealing as it sees that constraints may be beneficial: that we can use food in a better way. This reinvigoration appears necessary in today’s context.

I would argue that food needs to be seen in this utilitarian way not simply as a lifestyle choice. Going back to historical uses of plants gives practical examples of this occurring. Framing these knowledges into the constraints of food security and climate change will prevent them from being irrelevant.

Looking at the natural world as a collection of artefacts that need conservation, rather than a living environment that needs stewardship is potentially as disastrous as seeing it as an unending source of human fuel. Perhaps this is what ethnobotany could help teach us.

Monday, 17 August 2009

food in fiction #1

'You know, in my part of the country we make small dumplings with raw potatoes, we boil 'em, soak 'em in egg-yolk, stick plenty of bits of crust over 'em and then fry 'em on bacon.'
He pronounced the last work with mysterious solemnity.
'And they're just just fine with sauerkraut,' he added in melancholy tones. ' I got no use for macaroni.'
This Completed their coversation about Italy.

from book 3 (page 373) of The Good Soldier Shweik, Author Jaroslav Hasek, Satire of the Austro-Hungarian Army during the First World War

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Food Deserts

Food deserts are places where it is hard to access healthy and affordable food. They are characterised by mini markets, takeaways and a lack of fresh, seasonal produce. The term ‘food desert’ first came to prominence in the 1990s but is useful for understanding the effects of food production and distribution today. As inequality in the UK grows, increasingly where you live determines what opportunities you have. Food deserts are found in areas where people have lower incomes and therefore less of the resources required to take advantage of the globalised food system. Supermarkets moving to the edge of the cities make having a car a requisite for accessing affordable food. Collecting local vegetables, meat and bread from different shops requires time and planning. Indeed this variety of shops may not even be available in the local area. Therefore it appears unreasonable to place the pressure for change at the door of those who are already disadvantaged.

Last year’s ‘Food Matters’ report produced for the government recommends that “The UK must continue to focus on fair prices, access to food and food security through competitive markets”.It is hard to see how purely ‘competitive markets’ will be able to address the complex problems of transport, income and planning that lead to the creation of a ‘food desert system’.

Food deserts show how environmental, economic, social and political issues can be expressed and influenced by food. This makes them compelling areas for study and action.

Chicken: Low Art, High Calorie

from the fantastic mark batty publisher

Just a small something on the subject of food and graphic design. Seeing as I live in London now, I might do some kind of fast food graphical tour some time soon... I'm especially interested in the way the big companies are dealing with current attitudes towards animal welfare and healthy eating. I'm fairly sure people prefer the honesty of the little dirty chicken shop.


Saturday, 18 July 2009

an email from olly

we've been wanting to start a food project for a while and now we've decided to make a start. here is an email i just recieved from olly on the subject...

How is London? I hope it is brilliant.
I heard something interesting on the radio that could maybe go into our idea pot. There's been all this controversy about how food from the west bank is not clearly labelled, not saying whether it's from illegal Israeli settlements or from genuine palestinian farms. Basically saying geographic labelling is not enough; there should perhaps be more to it.

Maybe this whole food labelling thing is a good route in to problems of how much to expect of people buying food and how much to expect of corporations and government. Perhaps something quite focused like packaging could be interesting.

let's hope we do something worth reading...