by SUZANNE WYNN
The quality of food should be judged by three criteria. It must taste good; it must be good for our health and the health of the biosphere; and it must be produced with respect to those who share this planet with us.
Suzanne teaches seasonal cookery using ingredients local to her home in Somerset. As the former Chair of Slow Food UK’s Ark of Taste commission, she championed artisan producers whose traditional foods are threatened by modern production and distribution methods. To be alerted to new posts in the Food Culture section as well as more of her views on food and cooking follow Suzanne on Twitter @RealFoodSuzie.
For most people, good food is simply what they personally get pleasure from eating. In fact, they probably don’t care whether you agree that it is good. Taste is subjective and individual. So much so that we often give up any attempt to analyse and describe it. To do so is often considered pretentious or, a word I hate but hear too often, “elitist”.
Yet I maintain that because taste is the criteria by which most people will judge whether food is good, and more importantly, something on which they are happy to spend their money, we must get to grips with understanding this aspect of food. In their drive to increase yields and extend growing seasons many producers forget that it must taste good too. There has been some recognition of this in supermarket ranges such as “Taste the Difference” and in labels promising that varieties have been “grown for flavour”, although in many cases these turn out to be empty promises.
In Britain, we have developed some understanding of taste in connection with wine. We may, for example, have a reasonable idea of the tastes we might expect from different grape varieties. Less likely, is the ability to differentiate between the same grape grown in different soils, although most can at least hazard a guess between southern and northern hemispheres. The fact that we do not even have an English word for terroir – a sense of place that you can actually taste, highlights our lack of experience when dealing with taste.
Lessons learnt from drinking wine have been adapted to most other drinks, at least those that aspire to be sold above the basic level of mere alcohol. Look at any bottle of craft beer and you are likely to find some tasting notes. The principles can be successfully translated to any food. Italians have recently been fighting against allowing the use of powdered milk in cheese, arguing that cheese should express the terroir and so should use only milk from cows that have grazed in the area of origin. This might appear to be just a typically European protectionist approach, but in my view the protectionism is faulty only where true links to terroir cannot be made. This year I had the pleasure of attending a tasting event hosted by the Pasture Fed Livestock Association that attempted to describe the difference that breed and grazing can bring to the flavour of mutton. The PFLA clearly understand the importance of taste in marketing food and highlighted the ridiculous discrepancy that exists between the choice of wines stocked in supermarkets and the lack of choice of lamb.
Good for you and the planet
However important taste is, at least in determining which foods people are likely to buy, few people would suggest that we eat only whatever takes our fancy. We recognize that we eat to live and that to live well we have to eat well – in the sense that we require a healthy diet that is nutritionally well-balanced. Which foods are considered healthy is a minefield, with medical opinion changing almost daily. Thankfully Colin Tudge has written a substantial introduction to the subject of nutrition so I don’t need to say much. What I would like to reiterate is Colin’s mantra “not much meat, plenty of vegetables and maximum variety”. I am especially passionate about the variety bit because despite the apparent choice on offer in supermarkets, our diets actually tend to be very limited and the lack of biodiversity in our food production is harmful not only to our health but also to the health of the planet. This link between human health and the health of the planet is the fundamental second criteria by which I would judge food to be Good. Carlo Petrini, the founder of Slow Food, would describe it as “Clean”. Colin Tudge adds the rider “without wrecking the planet” to his assertion that it ought to be possible to feed everyone well.
Producing food that does not damage the biosphere is the key concern of the organic movement, although I would like to point out that this came about as a reaction to modern commercial farming practices and that before the Second World War most farmers farmed “organically” although without the need for certification. Working in tune with nature would be another way of putting it. When we work with nature rather than thinking we know better, the food produced tends to be more nutritious and more flavoursome. As a cook, seasonality is very important to me but as a gardener it is just the natural scheme of things. I remember reading an article in which the writer extolled the skills of someone who was “growing entirely seasonal vegetables”. Perhaps they should have been more impressed by someone who had managed to grow “unseasonal vegetables”! Whilst there are methods that extend the natural seasons without damaging the biosphere, I have yet to taste anything that tastes as good as when it is grown in its natural environment.
So, my guiding principles with regard to health are to eat a wide variety of fresh, seasonal and unprocessed foods. Of course, to do so we need to learn how to cook them – more of which in the third part of the Food Culture section.
Respect for those sharing our planet
If respecting nature is the second criterion for producing good food, then respect for those sharing our planet has to follow close behind. In Britain, our record for caring about animal welfare is actually pretty good. That is not to say that everything produced here is exemplary in that regard or could not be improved – unfortunately we do have a tendency to say that we want better animal welfare standards and then prove unwilling to pay for them. However, I think the bigger problem is that we have become so divorced from how our food is produced that we are just ignorant of the true costs of cheap food. It is not only the animals that we farm for food that we need to show respect, but also the people involved in farming.
Therefore, the third and final element in defining quality food is that it should be “fairly” produced. The Fair Trade label has brought wide recognition of the problem although its application is quite narrow. For a start, it relates only to certain parts of the world, which leads to one of two very erroneous assumptions: that all other production is unfair, or, equally erroneous, that where the Fair Trade label does not operate everything is hunky-dory. “Fair” in its widest sense means that all those involved in producing food receive a fair return for doing so. That certainly isn’t the case for many farmers in this country, an issue that is very central to the Campaign for Real Farming. The Campaign places great importance upon the issue of Food Security. We believe that it is fair to use our own land, and labour, to produce much of our own food. If every country does this, there is enough farmland to produce food for everyone who is, or is ever likely to be, born. But if we start believing that food production is somehow beneath us and that our GDP would be better served by turning our resources over to some other business, then the whole world is in trouble. I see it as our moral duty to retain the wherewithal to feed our own population but that does not mean that we can only eat what we produce. It makes sense to trade what we can produce well and in return import those things we can’t produce.
So, when it comes to, say, coffee or chocolate, we will need to import, but looking for a Fair Trade label is too simplistic a way of doing this. The label works well at the lowest end of production but there are many small producers, in countries not covered by Fair Trade agreements, who produce tasty, clean and fair coffee or chocolate; it just takes more effort to research, but is usually well worth the trouble.
In summary, Good Food has three key elements – it tastes good, is good for our health and the health of the planet, and is produced with respect to those who share our planet. In practice finding food that meets all these elements is a challenge. Rarely does an ingredient score a perfect 10/10 against all three measurements and it is necessary to decide how much you personally are prepared to sacrifice in one area to offset another. The choice between what we fancy eating and what is healthy is a dilemma that most of us grapple with frequently! We understand that food produced organically but then flown half way around the world cannot be good for our planet, nor, probably, as good for our health as that grown locally but without organic certification. But it is a lack of knowledge that prevents us giving much thought to our food choices, hence the role of labels like Soil Association certified or Fair Trade.
What The College of Real Farming and Food Culture provides is the opportunity to plug those gaps in our knowledge. I can promise you that the effort will be rewarded – for the greatest eating pleasure comes, for me, when I eat food whose provenance I fully understand.
Suzanne Wynn, November 2016