Food as resistance – pushing back against the lies that blind.

Home made lentil soup and home baked sourdough with autumn sunshine.

Eating is an agricultural act

Wendell Berry

That memorable quotation from Wendell Berry is the same sentence that inspired Michael Pollan – both of them profoundly important voices within the US farming and food scene. You’ll find posts about both writers here on the Potwell Inn site. For Wendell Berry the point is that eating is part of the agricultural cycle. Crops are sown, cattle are tended and the culmination of that process is eating. Of course there are good and bad ways both of growing and tending, and these form a crucial moral prelude to the decisions we make about the food we eat. Here at the Potwell Inn we’re neither vegetarian nor vegan but we absolutely respect the rights of others to make their own ethical decisions about eating. We all have to accept responsibility for our food choices.

But it’s not that simple to know what’s happened to the foods that supermarkets sell and the advertising media promote at vast cost. Yesterday Madame and I watched every TV news channel we could find in order to get some information about a big demonstration in London. The media were silent; but not the kind of silence that comes from simply not knowing anything. This was the silence of omerta. A tacit vow of silence that evades scrutiny and protects the powerful. And so we turned to a reliable source of news on the internet – Double Down News – where we watched a powerful video by George Monbiot, forensically examining what Vance Packard (more than sixty years ago) called “the hidden persuaders”; building his case on an examination of the intensive salmon farming industry. Monbiot is a vegan, but this was not an attack on eating fish. It was an examination of the hellish conditions surrounding intensive fish farming, the slaughter of seals if they threaten the “crop” and the utterly misleading advertising that leads consumers to believe that this industrial product is somehow the natural expression of historic and wild Scots culture. That’s “natural”; historic”; “wild”; “Scots” and “culture” stripped of their red light warning apostrophes and stapled on to an unforgivable product like a prom dress.

Before lunch today we were sitting and wondering how it is possible to live honest and virtuous lives in a post-truth culture when Wendell Berry’s sentence popped into my mind. I’d love to be able to say that I’d spent hours preparing the bread and the soup, but in reality neither take up that much time. Sourdough bread matures slowly like a narrow boat journey but with a bit of forward planning it always arrives bang on time with no more than 20 minutes of actual work. It takes longer than that to walk to the supermarket and back.

The lentil soup is act two of a very simple meal of gammon poached in cider and vegetables. The (very small piece of) meat, free range Gloucester Old Spot, raised on a local farm and sold by the farmer at the Saturday market, lasts us for at least two meals. The poaching liquor becomes stock for the soup. The herbs and vegetables are either grown on the allotment or bought at the same market and the cider comes from Herefordshire – forty miles up the road. In this way an occasional treat stretches to three meals and four batches of nourishing winter soup. This kind of thoughtful eating pushes back at the tide of disinformation, challenges the lobbyists and PR execs and enables us to live really fulfilled lives, eating cheaply and well and staying healthy without falling under the spell of the industrial behemoth.

At every stage in the production of food there are moral and ethical decisions being made which we know nothing about. At every stage there also are bad and downright greedy decisions being made that lead inexorably to eutrophic “dead” rivers and contaminated soils producing food that may even have carcinogenic properties. The story that’s not being told is about the many, often small pioneering projects that are producing foods which are ethical, organic and taste wildly better than their industrial imitators.

Nick and Kate’s eggs

A couple of days ago I wrote about our friends’ smallholding in the Brecon Beacons. Amongst the sheep and pigs; half a dozen hens spend their days scratching amongst the fallen leaves and dirt. Between them in peak season, in a good week they probably produce three dozen of the best eggs you’ll ever taste. Dark yolked and full of goodness, the eggs are the product of a free-ranging diet of insects, grubs windfall apples and worms with a feed of layers mash at night. These are eggs you can poach without being ashamed. The yolks sit up proud in self contained whites. What if the price of this kind of food to us, the eaters of it, is that we must confine ourselves to eating less of it? Well, why not?

Of course even finding such food can be a slow business, but the farmer whose meat we finally settled on is someone we now know and trust. The dairy farmer whose milk we buy sells better tasting milk and is able to run his herd profitably by selling direct to consumers. The flour we bake with is organic and comes from UK farmers – some of them no further than a short drive away. Again we buy direct from the producers; and of course our vegetables are mainly grown by us on the allotment.

So it turns out that growing, harvesting, shopping, cooking and eating really can be an act of resistance – pushing back hard against the lies that blind us to the realities of intensive industrial food production. Just as a thought exercise, imagine asking the manager of the local Sainsbury’s supermarket where his eggs come from? How much dairy farmers are paid for their milk? What exactly Red Tractor standards represent? I imagine the reaction would be one of bewilderment followed by the dark suspicion that you, as a dangerous radical; possibly hippy communist agitator would very likely be gluing your hand to a till, or throwing tomato ketchup at the security guard in the next couple of minutes.

So if you can’t get answers to these perfectly reasonable questions, don’t buy the product. Nothing is more likely to change attitudes than mindful shopping. You’d think, wouldn’t you, that selling milk from a vending machine at 20% above supermarket prices – next door – to a supermarket would be a sure fire failure. But it’s not. I regularly have to queue behind several other economically illiterate people to fill my bottles. Resistance – it seems – is anything but futile because every BS resistant customer represents a tiny but significant dent in the profits.

A simple meal with love is better than a feast where there is hatred.

Proverbs 15:17 Contemporary English Version.

Of course you might be thinking to yourself “how on earth would I find the time to do all this searching and growing? – and in any case I can’t cook !” There’s no denying that’s a tremendous problem for all too many people but I might respectfully suggest that a long and penetrating reflection on the kind of life we live; on work-life balance and whether cooking for and eating with people you love isn’t more deeply fulfilling than a solitary microwave meal in front of the idiot’s lantern – might signal time for a whole change of lifestyle. Madame and I have been hard-up all our lives and yet we’ve had tremendously fulfilling times. We somehow understood that living as simply as possible freed us from the tyranny of lies. Greed and dissatisfaction are symptoms of an autoimmune disease of the soul for which the only cure is withdrawal from the steroid fuelled world of unfulfillable aspiration. Our eyes are all too often fixed on the destructive and false goal of freedom to do as we please, whereas true freedom is not so much freedom from want – we all deserve to have our basic needs met – but freedom from endless wanting. And if such a philosophy drives a few PR operatives out of business that’s a price I’m more than happy for them to pay!

Eating above my pay grade

I can only think of three ways of being able to eat fine food most of the time: being born filthy rich; being fiercely ambitious and earning a pile yourself; and finally- teaching yourself to cook. Mulling over this thought today a quotation floated into my mind from heaven knows what remote corner of my memory.

When the painter was in funds he put mushrooms, fried eggs or tomatoes on top of the cheese; being very young when he evolved this recipe, he often smothered the cheese with fried onions, but this would be too much for most digestions

Recipe for ‘painter’s toasted cheese’ from Elisabeth Ayrton’s “The Cookery of England. Published in 1974.

Michael, if you hadn’t guessed, was Elisabeth’s painter husband, and the book isn’t so much a recipe book but a work of serious historical scholarship covering many centuries of cooking. What I loved about the quotation from the moment I first read the book decades ago, was the tremendous encouragement it gave me, knowing that there existed other people who understood and loved good food but were often reduced to cheese on toast when funds were tight. Most creative people; artists and writers particularly, would understand the challenge. If you love the thought of eating well on a cheese on toast income, you need to roll your sleeves up and get cooking.

Many years later, and with two of our sons working as professional chefs (the other is a fine cook too) I’m all too familiar with the cheffie tricks and shortcuts that make the provision of good enough food, night after night from a small kitchen – almost tolerable. If you want to pay for the kind of dishes you read about in the food porn magazines, you’d better get a better paid job – but it might come as a surprise that the best way of all is to forget about restaurants, because you so often come home thinking to yourself ‘I could have cooked that better for a third of the price’ – and remind yourself that the other 2/3 of the price of a meal out is to pay for the owner’s Porsche and all those well trained staff fussing over you.

Anyway, that’s the conclusion that Madame and me reached when we first moved in together and, every day, passed a classical French restaurant that boasted the sort of dishes I had to look up in my (then new) copy of French Provincial Cooking. Since then, the skills and the knowledge have grown and now growing our own vegetables and cooking all our own food has become a way of life, and when I don’t know how to do something, one of the boys will know exactly how. I have still never tried to cook calves brains, however, and it’s not a bridge I want to cross. I will have a go at most things and occasionally come well and truly unstuck – like I did with the andouillette I bought in a French motorway service station and which tasted and smelt of colon; oh and a raw seafood salad in southeast France that gave me toxic shock and my first encounter with complete fasting as a cure.

What this means, of course, is that the greatest challenges of the present anthropocene age are a bit less frightening to us than they might otherwise be. For instance it wouldn’t break my heart if I never ate another fillet steak because I can’t remember the last time I tasted one. Very occasionally we share a single sirloin steak but circumstances have taught us how to get the best out of the cheapest cuts.

What has changed irrevocably for us is that once we decided that wherever possible we would only eat locally farmed, organic produce our food bill increased and even the cheaper cuts of meat got a whole lot more expensive. That’s the downside I suppose, but the upside is that the flavour really is better. Less can be more it seems – for instance, if you’re a cook, you will almost certainly recall trying to brown chunks of meat before casseroling them – and watching glumly as a copious amount of added water seeps out and broil the chunks to an unsavoury looking grey colour. Supermarket pre-packed meat is especially prone to this and it’s because the processors are allowed to inject up to 10% water into their products – allegedly to make them more acceptable to the customer. So already 10% of your cheap meat is water, and it gets worse when you start to add in the environmental costs of intensive farming which have often been subsidised by the government – i.e. by the taxpayers, you and me. In fact if the environmental costs were added to the total the ‘expensive’ meat would almost certainly be cheaper than the cheap meat from the supermarkets and if you only eat meat occasionally you get the best of all possible worlds, while the world gets the best of all possible inhabitants.

Compare this kind of adulterated industrial meat with the locally produced pork shoulder we bought on Wednesday for a dish including shallots and cider. Browning the meat was a total dream – no fuss and lovely results. The meat in the finished dish hadn’t shrunk to half its original size so we could have probably bought less; bringing the price down again. You just have to be careful how you buy food. Our chosen suppliers get only one chance and if they try it on we don’t go back. We do the research, visit the websites and make some exploratory purchases because not everything with a locally produced label is perfect. Cheese is a particular example and although our local supplier of blue cheese is brilliant, ironically the Cheddar cheeses are very variable and some of them taste extremely mass produced in spite of their price – and Cheddar is only twenty miles away!

But we don’t cook simply in order to help the earth or save loads of money; we cook since we’re greedy and love eating good things – and this is the only way we can do it; the way we’ve had to do it all our lives, because the wealthy parents and highly paid jobs seem to have passed us by. The lifestyle changes that we need to embrace seem to us to be a far better way of being human than the stressful, dog eat dog, and endless slavery of vulture capitalism. Buying locally means we get to know the producers and we are becoming part of a whole new community of shared values. Come on in – the water’s lovely!

More sourdough experiments, bread and butter pudding and Cornish pasties – well, it was raining outside.

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