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25 February 2010

Ballymaloe Cookery School - Food Writing Course

There is great pleasure to be had in introducing food lovers to the extraordinarily rich trove of great writing which underlies the business of cooking and eating. In our one-day course at Ballymaloe Cookery School we are hoping to introduce the class to the great prose stylists who realised that writing about food is the most important thing anyone can do. We are also hoping to show them just how to make a food book, and how to blog!

21 February 2010

Ceci N'Est Pas Un Critique

I have several reasons to be grateful to Luc Dubanchet:

1. Two of his photographs look directly down at me from the wall above my computer, and they always make me smile.

2. He once took a photograph of me in which I somehow didn't look like a blithering eejit.

3. He introduced me to the sublime jazz piano music of Tord Gustafson.

4. He was the bloke who helped me to understand why French gastronomy was in dire trouble.

M. Dubanchet rides a Vespa around Montmartre in Paris where he lives, wears a scarf even when it isn't cold, and is extremely funny. Or, he is funny so long as you don't persist in the chauvinistic belief that French gastronomy is the greatest in the world, and that French cooking has nothing to learn from anyone. I was once at a festival where M. Dubanchet and the wonderful chef, Gilles Choukroun, reduced several members of the audience to states of utter, steaming rage by their assertions that French cooking had totally lost its way: the anger was scary to behold.
This week, in Deauville, Mr Dubanchet and his crew from Omnivore, his punky magazine, will once again annoy a lot of people in France at their annual festival, when they will do a lot of funky cooking and question a great many so-called truths about French cooking.
When Mike Steinberger of the FT asked Luc what he thought of the Guide Michelin, for instance, Luc replied: “A dead weight. It is stupid to give stars – we are not in school”.
More significantly, Mr Dubanchet precisely points out why France has been left behind by other countries where the cookery is more dynamic: “People didn't really cook; they just practised a cuisine”.
Now, it takes a French intellectual to make such a fine distinction. On the one hand there is cooking – inquisitive, dynamic, creative, cultural. And on the other hand, there are those who practice a cuisine: stolid; staid; uncreative; repetitious; unimaginative.
So, the next time you find yourself in some boring “French” restaurant that tries to impress you with foie gras and lobster, yell out: “Stop practising! Show me some cooking!”.

07 February 2010

What shall we tell the children?

The Irish Times Healthplus February 2010

John McKenna

What Will We Tell The Children?

“Parental Advisory: Explicit Content”.
That’s the sticker on the cover of the sort of cds my kids seem to love buying and listening to, the ones where some rapper mouths off with the sweary language and the street bravado.
It’s also the sticker that is completely ignored, for trying to stop your kids listening to music that boasts bad language is like trying to stop the tides: you won’t manage to do it, and any effort is pointless.
But I wonder if a new book, aimed at the younger reader, shouldn’t be something that should most certainly carry a “Parental Advisory: Explicit Content” sticker?
The book, unfortunately, has the sort of title that will likely put any child off even before they open it. “The Omnivore’s Dilemma: The Secrets Behind What You Eat”, is by Michael Pollan, the distinguished American writer and professor, and has been adapted, from his original 2006 book, for the younger reader by Richie Chevat.
It is a mark of the stature the book has acquired since its publication that such an edition should exist – I have never known a book about food to be adapted for children before – and I should confess that I personally believe the book to be the finest text on food and politics published in the last couple of decades.
Mr Chevat’s adaptation is masterly, but it needs that Parental Advisory for a simple reason: let kids read the book, and it will freak them out. Chevat has maintained the original premise of the book – let’s look at these four different meals, from a dinner of McDonald’s burgers and fries eaten in a car, to a meal where everything has been grown, sourced and hunted by the author – and let’s look at the systems that produce them.
But what he has done is to simplify the narrative and the discoveries of the book, and to thereby sharpen their impact.
In the new edition, the kids are told that “It’s time to become a food detective!” and they are advised to “delve behind the scenes of your dinner” and to “go undercover at the supermarket”, and “by the time you’ve digested the last page you’ll have put together the fascinating (and sometimes disturbing) puzzle of what’s on your plate and how it got there”.
The problem is, the disturbing bit is very, very disturbing indeed. Even the simple stuff makes you shake your head about what we eat and what on earth it does to our bodies and our healthfulness after we have eaten it.
It didn’t surprise me much to learn that thirteen elements of a McDonald’s Chicken McNugget are derived from corn, but what astonished me was the fact that there are 38 ingredients in a Chicken McNugget. 38 ingredients! What are they all doing? And what are they doing to me if I eat one of those things? And when I learn that McDonald’s sold 4.8 billion individual nuggets in 2004, should I laugh? Or just weep?
It’s also shocking to see simple charts and graphs that point out that in the period since 1971, the number of kids in America who are obese has tripled. In the same period, the number of calories from High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) that an average American eats has risen from 3 calories to 200 calories per day.
Later in the book, as Pollan goes pig hunting in California, our young food detectives get a taste of gun play and hunting – real detective stuff! But, again, whilst there is drama in the hunt, it is a prelude to the disgust, the shame and the regret a novice feels after a kill: the animal’s stench; the realization that you have caused a creature’s death; the confusion of emotions.
“I suspect that reading this book will complicate your eating life. Writing it certainly complicated mine”, admits the author. So, the big question is whether letting kids look behind the curtain of what the food industry produces for them to eat is cathartic, but necessary. Or is the reality of how so much of our food is messed-up and mucked-up simply too much for young minds to bear? Will every teenage girl who reads the book become a vegetarian? Will every adolescent boy refuse to eat a piece of chicken or drink a can of Coke?
Strangely, after wandering through the darkness of industrial food, Pollan writes that, “It’s amazing how knowing the story behind your food can make it taste better”. His experiences have made him cautious about what he buys and where he buys it, and they have driven him away from industrial food and the places that sell it.
“I call shopping and eating this way ‘voting with your fork’” he writes, and the book ends with a powerful call for consumers to be extra conscientious when you are buying what you are going to eat.
And that message seems to me to be a particularly powerful one to lay before young people, even with all the bad news they will discover in “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”.
Kids are idealistic, and don’t want to live in a world that demands the constant forgetting that adults are so adept at.
The food they eat today, and the food they will eat for the rest of their lives can be something that enriches every part of their life, their health, and the life of the planet. Or it can diminish them, and their planet and, most especially, their health.
So, empower those cranky adolescents in your life by giving them a pressie of Michael Pollan’s masterpiece. Stick a “Parental Advisory: Explicit Content” sticker on the cover and – who knows? – they might even read it.

“The Omnivore’s Dilemma – The Secrets Behind What You Eat” is published by Dial Books.

Tom and Me

No More Mister Nice Guy

The well-known wine writer and television celebrity Tom Doorley had a pot shot at me in The Daily Mail this week. The Irish Independent asked if I would like to reply to Tom's criticisms. One rarely gets a right of reply – especially via a different newspaper – so here is what I came up with in defence of what we have written in the new Bridgestone irish Food Guide. I'm still slightly amazed at being allowed to discuss these issues in the mainstream media.
The following is the complete text, which was slightly edited for Saturday's Irish Independent Weekender.

There was a time when you could have summarized the business of writing about food in one single, simple word: nice.

Nice people wrote about nice things to shop for and to cook and to eat, and they wrote about nice wines to drink, and they wrote about nice restaurants where nice people served you nice things.

Everything in this world was, basically, nice. It was a world where criticism didn’t exist – though there might, occasionally, be a disappointing cheese soufflé in a restaurant or, let’s be honest, a recipe for battenburg cake that was less precise than one might like.

No matter. One shook off these crushing disappointments because everything else was, well, nice. And so there was no need to use harsh, critical terms when writing about food, terms like “cloying”, or “irritating”, or “ludicrous”, or “bizarre”, or “daft”, or “bunkum”, or “deeply insulting” or “crazy” or “elitist”.

And there certainly was no need, in this nice world, to suggest that anyone else’s opinions were so odious, so Godawful, that expressing them meant that “the people of Ireland are owed an apology”.

Blimey! This is modern food writing? What happened to that nice, decorous world? Isn’t this the strange cheffy world where macho fools like Gordon Ramsay and Marco Pierre White trade not just insults but actual punches?

No, this is modern Irish food writing, and all the terms above were used by celebrity television restaurant reviewer Tom Doorley, in a recent newspaper article where Tom took me to task for what I had written in the introduction to the new, ninth edition of “The Bridgestone Irish Food Guide”.

Before we get on to what provoked Tom’s ire, you are probably wondering how I am feeling after that verbal assault with all those toxic terms. Hurt? Humbled? Chastened? Apologetic? To tell the truth, after I had finished reading Tom’s piece, the famous retort of Denis Healey, the former U.K. Labour Party minister, came to mind.

Healey was once subjected to a verbal barrage by Sir Geoffrey Howe, of the U.K. Conservative Party, in the House of Commons. After Howe, a bespectacled, owlish barrister, had finished and sat down, Healey stood up and said he felt like he had “been mauled by a dead sheep”.

That’s pretty much how I feel. So I guess I’ll get over it. But, let’s not rule out counselling, just yet.

What provoked Tom’s ire was a paragraph in the introduction to the new Bridgestone Guide. Having asserted that modern international supermarket chains exercise power without responsibility, and that such a thing is “the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages” (thank you, Rudyard Kipling), I went on to say that there has to be “the realization that buying imported food in a foreign-owned supermarket in Ireland is, quite simply, a traitorous action”.

Strong stuff, and deliberately, and consciously, so. So, let me explain what lies behind such a provocative statement. A few years back I spoke to a group of farmers and food producers in Northern Ireland. A lot of them were beef producers – strong farmers – and they were the most despairing men I have ever met in all my life. Why? Because they were being paid 28 pence a pound less for their beef than their counterparts in Scotland and the U. K. by one of the enormously powerful supermarket chains which dominate food retailing in these island. These proud men could assert, truthfully, that they had the better product. No matter: their superior food earned them less, and it was destroying them.

Closer to home, I was part of a delegation that spoke to the Oireachtas Committee deliberating on whether we needed a Groceries Order to prevent below-cost selling. I said we did. To my surprise, the delegation from the Dublin-Meath Growers, who also spoke, said that we didn’t. They had a great relationship with a supermarket chain that accounted for 100% of their business, they said, and they were totally happy and everything was hunky dory. No need for any manner of regulation. The Oireachtas Committee agreed.

In mid 2009, having invested €5 million euro in a new processing plant, the Dublin-Meath Growers lost their contract. From 100% to 0%, just like that. “Competitive Tendering” is, I think, the term they use. I would have another term for this sort of thing, but as it’s one of those rude terms only food writers use, it’s not printable in a family newspaper.

And then one Saturday morning, I was shopping in Ardkeen Stores, just on the outskirts of Waterford, a single independent supermarket owned by the Jephson family. I spent €130, and €120 of that went on food produced by individuals in counties Waterford and Cork. The remaining tenner went to Galway and Monaghan, as it was spent on a duck confit made for Sheridan’s of Galway by Silverhill Foods of Monaghan.

And just as I was finishing the book, queues of shoppers from down south started clogging up the roads into Newry. Their Xmas spend, the biggest splurge on food and drink that is made by every household annually, was leaving the country. At a time when their own economy was nosediving, these good people reckoned it was none of their business to contribute to that economy with their euros. And I thought that such behaviour was, frankly, traitorous.

People like Tom Doorley tell me such an idea is “bizarre”, not to mention “deeply insulting”. And I can see their point. We live in a globalised world with globalised trade, and we ourselves have a food economy focused on exporting in order to earn money.

So, what goes around, comes around and it was foodstuffs, after all, that begat the very idea of trade between the countries of the world. You can’t grow the cabernet sauvignon grapes for your claret in London, and you can’t produce bananas in Hanover, never mind Termonfeckin. So, let’s just accept the way things are. We not only live in a globalised world, we live in a world of globalised free-market economies, and the free market sorts things out, so there is no need for regulation, stuff like Groceries Orders.

Fair enough, except that this belief is just that: a belief. This belief is, fundamentally, based on faith, a faith that says that the globalised free market economy is in everyone’s best interests.

Believing this is simply expressing a faith, much as one might express Christianity or Islam. And like religious faith – which is based on a belief in things unknown and unseen – such a belief is utterly naïve.

Successful cultures and successful economies are based on food security, and on local food economies. Local food defines who we are – just ask any Italian, who will assert that the reason why his region is better than the next region is because their food products are better.

Many writers have sought to answer the question as to why the local food of a country is so important, not just to an economy, but to an entire culture. The great writer Michael Pollan proposed this as a reply to those who say that the food we buy can come from anywhere:

“I’m thinking of the sense of security that comes from knowing that your community, or country, can feed itself; the beauty of an agricultural landscape; the outlook and kinds of local knowledge that farmers bring to a community; the satisfactions of buying food from a farmer you know rather than the supermarket; the locally inflected flavour of a raw-milk cheese or honey. All those things – all those pastoral values – globalization proposes to sacrifice in the name of efficiency and economic growth”.

So, do I owe the people of Ireland an apology? I don’t think so, but I do think that the 1 person in every 4 of Ireland’s population who made a shopping trip to Northern Ireland last year owes an apology to our farmers, our marketeers, our specialist food producers, and all those who toil to put the Culture into our agriCulture.

But finally, let me agree with one part of Tom’s argument. Tom brands me an ‘elitist”. I am. I want the best, for everyone.

In Your Market

What might you find that is good for dinner on a visit to a local farmers’ market? Well, at Mahon Point market in Cork last week, my son Sam and I bought a pair of lovely organic chickens from east Cork, and some excellent haddock from West Cork, which I chose instead of some very fine looking plaice, but only after a lot of head-scratching. We got lovely apples, leeks and turnips from David Barry of Ballintubber Farm, and some organic spuds from All Organic. Salad leaves are scarce, of course, so we got sprouted seeds from Supersprouts, and a North Cork pesto from Conall Breheny. From Gubbeen Farm we got a ham hock and some belly pork as well as their amazing white pudding. Cheeses made from summer pasture milk that are matured are at their peak now, so look out for Coolea, Mount Callan, St Gall or Glebe Brethan. And having had a late breakfast with a sausage sandwich from O’Flynn’s of Tallow and a cup of Cork Coffee roasters best, we took away an early lunch of a piping hot handmade pizza with West Cork pepperoni, from a new arrival I’d never come across before, Il Volcano, made in front of our eyes.