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In defence of Food

Saturday, July 23rd, 2016

I write my contribution for this year’s August edition of the Cambridge Magazine from a terrace in Italy, enjoying a glass of superb local red wine while looking out over emerald green hill tops bathed in the golden glow of the setting sun. I am back in Le Marche, the unspoilt part of Italy which is the base for all our culinary trips, savouring a few inspirational days ahead of a week cooking Italian food, shopping at markets and enjoying wine tastings with guests.

We arrived to a home made lunch of pasta with wild boar ragú, fresh bread and braised greens from the garden. Dessert was apricots and white peaches. Three generations tucked in, with the youngest, 14 month old Anna, hoovering up every single morsel offered to her, including an entire bowl of freshly grated Parmesan cheese which clearly presented itself as a new pleasure. The contents were allowed to spill over the table, onto clothes and into the eyes and nose of the enthusiastic toddler. In fact, the mess was positively encouraged on account of supporting love of food and general dexterity! A relaxed, stress free and unpretentious attitude to the delights of the table.

When we dream of the perfect meal, the perfect family life – isn’t it just this, the simple connection with local food, eating what is in season and the coming together of families across generations to share a meal, which so entices us? In Italy, children eat with the adults and what the adults eat. The concept of placing a toddler in a high chair, and leaving her to eat a “kid’s meal” while parents are busy doing other things in the background would be utterly abhorrent to most southern Europeans. How can we possibly give children the gift of appreciating good food, understanding how to eat sensibly and acquiring the confidence to communicate in a wider social context if we don’t have daily family meals? Labelling this as “good table manners” sounds terribly outdated, as if referring merely to the ability to pick up and use the right piece of cutlery on the off chance of encountering a formally set table. But to me “good table manners” incorporates so much more – an open and curious mind to trying new food, being able to join in a conversation with adults and learning about their daily lives as well as sharing one’s own experiences. But first and foremost, it is about welcoming meal times as the main time to eat – as opposed to grazing through the day and eating ready meals as and when it suits. In addition, I also happen to think that it is a good feeling – if not an absolute necessity for life – to know how to tackle a formally laid table.

Our interest in cookery programs, cookery books and all things food, has lately taken a shift towards extreme “health”, excluding almost everything that we recognise as real food. In the name of eating healthily, young, thin, beautiful women with absolutely no formal cooking or nutritional training dominate the food pages of glossy magazines. What they promote is neither healthy nor real food. It is a diet underpinned by fear of food. The notion that all animal protein, fat, dairy and gluten as well as the act of heating/cooking food is bad for us is just plain ignorant. Accidentally discovering how to improve the energy output of food by cooking it was probably the single most important step on our evolutionary journey from primates to humans. Compare the huge trunk of a primate to our body shape, and you are looking at the result of sufficiently upping the calorific load of food to eliminate the need for all our daily energy to go to our guts, digesting raw food with poor energy output, and allowing our brains to develop instead. Brains need fat. With the risk of offending, I wonder if this lack of nourishment to the brain is what propels the brigade of deliberately under-weight women towards a diet of denial and exclusion.

It is not just plain bonkers, lacking any form of scientific – or gastronomical – knowledge to advocate such a diet; it is potentially disastrous for those already prone towards an eating disorder. Because let’s be honest here, that is what is masquerading as an interest in “clean” and “pure” food. There is nothing unclean about real ingredients as long as they are sourced from healthy animals and sustainable crops. What we should move away from is mass produced meals where animals are reared in the most cruel of fashions and where chemicals are vital for producing ingredients on a scale which allows us to buy larger quantities of cheap food so that global, commodity driven food corporations and supermarkets can increase their profits.

I completely respect keeping a vegan diet for moral reasons, in protest against cruelty to animals, but can we please stop pretending that the current exclusion diets are a manifestation of a genuine interest in cooking and eating. A healthy diet is certainly one which features a lot of plant based ingredients, fibre, fresh vegetables and fruit – but it should also include sustainable fish, meat, cereal and full fat dairy. Vilifying almost everything we recognise as real food, claiming that it damages our health, is irresponsible and ignorant. Good food is not killing us – processed food full of sugar, growth hormones, antibiotics, additives and preservatives is.

To readers who recognise the title of this piece as borrowed from the eminent American food writer Michael Pollan, you most likely already agree with the above. To those who don’t, but who wish to regain a balanced and sane approach to cooking and eating, I warmly recommend reading Mr Pollan’s superb book of the same title.