On the western side of a Mount Karaca in South Eastern Turkey grows a small insignificant looking grass. The seeds have a tough outer casing and, unlike its domestic cousin, they shatter and fall when ripe. This unassuming grass is known as Einkorn and without it we would have never developed domesticated wheat. With no wheat, my day could not start with toast and Weetabix. The Italians would have no pasta; the Indian subcontinent would have no chapattis. The French would never have had baguettes or croissants and Lord Sandwich would never have had a bread based snack named after him.
Nearly all our food has a deep rich history, follow it back and tales of discovery, bloodshed, mythology and even worship will be revealed. Food is a gift from antiquity; it symbolizes man’s achievements and our long standing fascination and manipulation of nature.
Whenever I find myself in a supermarket I keep these thoughts in the back of my mind. I think of ancient farmers and how much hard work they’ve put into creating all the ingredients we now take for granted. I often wonder what they would make of all the new products which now adorn our shelves. They would no doubt be amazed by the shear abundance but, would they even recognise half of it as food? Would they see crispy pancakes as a vindication of their knowledge and skills being passed down from generation to generation? Like an ancient brought forward in time, I recently witnessed a young Spanish student seem baffled by a processed cheese food slice in a sandwich. He had no real frame of reference for the item and only really accepted it as food as it was placed in a lunch box. Presumably if he’d seen it on a table he would sooner use it as a coaster and rest a glass on it than put it in his mouth. There seems little connection the cheese food slice and the Arabic nomad who found his milk separated into curds and whey when he carried it in an animal’s stomach. I wonder if this wandering herdsman would be proud his discovery had led to its creation along with cheese strings, squeezy cheese and dunkers!
With the invention of ever increasing numbers of these new foods our food habits have changed enormously from that of our forbearers. We’ve gone from eating three meals prepared from fresh ingredients a day, to a diet consisting largely of ready meals and fast food high in fat, salt and sugar. The average family now spend more on takeaway food than they do on fresh vegetables. Nowadays, rather than considered the norm, cooking meals from scratch can be seen as an oddity.
Perhaps the worst change of all is the class divide which has arisen. Those at the less privileged end of the class spectrum have found their cooking skills eroded. Cooking with raw ingredients can be intimidating. Without the confidence or know-how, meals can be overcooked, burnt or the flavour may be ruined by too much of a particular spice or condiment (too much chilli, salt, pepper etc). The alternative? You rely on unhealthy alternatives such as processed food or takeaways, as it, at least guarantees a meal.
It should not be that an every day healthy option, containing fresh vegetables or lean meat is considered ‘posh’ or aspirational! However, the championing of healthy options by TV chefs from society’s small, privileged elite doesn’t go anyway to solve this it merely reaffirms this culinary class divide.
There were times when things were quite the reverse. The upper classes in Tudor times lived off fatty cuts of meat and white bread. Whereas the poor lived of a diet consisting of whole grains (mainly brown bread and barley) with very little meat and an abundance of fresh vegetables. So how has it gone so wrong? Do we really want food need to be fashionable? Do we really want to see a society so polarised you either chomping organic vegetables in your vintage tweed or chew chicken nuggets in a tracksuit?
The Turkish hill farmers who gave us domesticated wheat or the Arabic merchants who discovered cheese making didn’t do so just to feed ex-Etonians! I think we have a duty to the generations of everyday people who spent time and effort cultivating our food to bring it back to the people. Healthy isn’t posh, it’s just food!!!
Pic: © Roger Wright