Friday 27 April 2012

Ask the Fellows Who Grow the Beans

"Leaves are easy," Josiah tells me. "It's the staples we need to look at." I'm putting together a story on the Urban Food Landscape for the upcoming Transition Free Press. There are all manner of innovative veg growing enterprises in the cities: inner city and peri-urban farms (including Norwich FarmShare which he has helped set up), Abundance projects, collectives like Growing Communities in Hackney, Transition allotments and school gardens. We're growing chard and lettuce in cracks and crevices, burying potatoes in barrrels, filling salvaged basins and gutters with seedlings in our back yards. But what about the big stuff? Our daily bread.


6am. A lovely day outside and the jackdaws are already in the fields. The house is surrounded by ploughed and greening earth - barley, sugar beet, rape, potatoes and peas, the occasional flash of borage blue or flax, and the spears of asparagus in May. I've been having a conversation with Josiah about these arable fields for several years now. The vast "agri-desert" of East Anglia that most people do not even notice as they walk, cycle or drive by and Lord Deben, erstwhle Minister of the Environment, wants to turn into the GM Bread Basket of England. When we began Roots Shoots and Seeds we wanted to look at our relationship with these invisible fields, ask questions that no one asks, even though we are entirely dependent on what happens with their boundaries. And that's where I'm starting with this post: with One Day (Tuesday) in my Life as a Low Carbon Cook.

It's a massive subject, as Jasmijn mapped out so clearly, and clearly contentious. I could go in any direction as a long-time food writer: from being a food fashion editor at ELLE magazine in the 80s to a Transition activist and blogger today. I could talk distribution hubs, slaughterhouses, Monsanto and Cargill. I could talk oysters in Paris, fugu fish in New York, baby eels in Madrid. I could tell you about any number of conversation (and arguments) I have had with hedgecutters, scientists, gamekeepers, shopkeepers, beekeepers. bakers, farmers, radical growers, happy hoarders, city chefs and local fisherman. I could show you the hell of the feedlots outside Yuma and a paradise moment eating sea urchins on a Greek island.

And yet, to address this topic squarely, honestly, it has to start with the food we hold in our hands right now and the territory outside the window. How we can put these two artifcially disconnected things together. If we are going to be resilient as communities we need to relocalise and shorten our supply chains in a world which is skewed to favour big industrial farming and the global food machine. We're going to have to wean ourselves off those pesticides and fertilisers from fossil fuels, replenish the soil and think hard about water and diversity. That's the big picture.

We are also going to have to radically change our diet. As all resilience food writers will tell you, from Michael Pollan to Colin Tudge, this means less meat and dairy, more plants. Almost no fish if you care about oceans. That's the small one. And this is the journey I have been on as a Transition cook and writer, as part of a pioneer project called the Low Carbon Cookbook. And it begins here in these barley fields outside the small brewing seatown of Southwold. Because when you look at civilisations you are looking at the cultivation of grasses, the agriculture that keeps them alive. Maize and millet, rice and wheat. We look fondly at leaves and we argue fiercely about animals, but actually we should be considering these crops, in whose praise we once sung hymns and danced at every part of the growing year.

Millet and Rice

9am. Walking with Dano and Mark toward the tumulus, past wheat fields and pig fields. Starting the day in a wild way. When you focus on the wild you're looking at the cracks and edges of things in England because that is where most of life is thriving. Your eyes scan hedgerows, the reedbed, the copse, the speedwells and poppies that grow amongst Demeter's grains. As Transition medicine and plant people, we're looking to rebalance the domestic and the culitivated, finding the true form of all living things - including our human bodies. So we start by looking at the memory of this land, its shifting patterns, at the mesh of fields and commons through time. We're not looking at land use, or environment or diet, we're looking at earth and food, looking for a narrative that grabs the imagination, pulls you closer to people and the plants. Less mind, more heart.

In Suffolk several Transition initiatives are going locavore in September, following in the tracks of the Fife and Cornwall diets. If you eat bread, meat and fish and cheese you could eat like a king within a 30 mile radius. But this is hard going if you are a gluten-free fellow who doesn't eat animals. That's when you see our dependence on imported food. And you start looking at those fields with some kind of respect, wondering what other crops they could support. Can we grow lentils, soya, chickpeas, all the mainstay staples of the vegetarian larder? (very hard in this climate). Looking at my breakfast I know we can grow millet (though mostly for caged birds in the UK), but not rice. "Wet rice emits more methane than cattle", Josiah has informed me. So I've learned to let go of Basmati, along with rainforest palm oil and soya, tropical fruit and all processed food. I eat brown rice from Italy and a lot of tahini and winter cabbage.

You might think this is depriviation, but it isn't: writers and cooks love challenges. We love being resourceful and witty, coming up with creative solutions. If we want to restore and rebalance the world, we have to do it by sparking interest, waking everyone up. Facts and scientific method are useful and call us to account, but they don't inspire us to explore. Everything is material for a story to a writer, all ingredients are a dish to a cook. Show them a cupboard or a situation, and they are already imagining what inventive and delicious things they can do with it. A cook is not a chef, a conjuror entertaining the masses on television with their smart and sexy sleights of hand, or cooking up fairy feasts for the elite. A cook is someone who alchemises the rough and ready and makes life worth living, finds meaning at every turn, every day. Somehow to downshift we have to unleash our creativity. We have to learn to love the territory, get to have a relationship with those fields. We have to immerse outselves in these grains and pulses and find out their story. Put our lives in play.

Field Beans

1pm Lunch of left-over black eye peas (USA) and rice, spring greens and harissa, after bean planting today in the garden: black beans known as Cherokee Trail of Tears, runner beans, French beans, wrinkly peas, Dunwich broad beans, all from seeds I found at the Walberswick Seed Swap.

In the cookbook we have this game called Six Ingredients. Imagine you can only live on what grows in England but are allowed six ingredients from overseas. What would they be? Tough call for lovers of chocolate and tea, raisins and durum wheat. We reckoned that between us we could share our spices by post. Was that cheating? Or was that simply a sign of how things might go?

This is my choice: olive oil, lemons, black pepper, rice, red lentils and a bean. Not sure whether that's a pinto, black, aduki, black eye pea or lima yet. You could substitue hemp, sunflower or rape for the olive, suggested my fellow cooks, and chillis for the pepper, and then have oranges and noodles. Yes, I say but some things you just have to have in life. Olive oil is one of them.

In the last year and a half we have discussed a hundred ingredients, we have looked at growing patterns, raw food and freegansim, we've lit rocket stoves, cooked together, swapped plants, read books, watched documentaries, and immersed ourselves in the living fabric of food, and reported all our findings. Our main task is to bring awareness in an area where there is a lot of denial. Most people live their lives entirely disconnected from food production, from these fields. Our task is to reconnect, investigate, make conscious, reduce carbon emission in all aspects of our meals - transport, packaging, waste. But most of all to change what and how we eat. How do you wean yourself away from a highly processed, ready-cooked, addictive diet, from a culture built on bourgeois cuisine, that makes feast food an every day occurance and turns organic "peasant" food into something that is weird and elitist? How do you eat ethically, ecologically, economically, with heart, in sych with all creatures, all life on earth?

In Transition Norwich we started by mapping: Norwich FarmShare began with a plan called Can Norwich Feed Itself? The Low Carbon Cookbook began with Deconstruct the Dish, an exercise which places attention on the material, engaging the imagination, our ability to cross-reference and make different pathways, to ask ourselves questions.

This is how it goes: everyone sits down at a table with a large sheet of paper (two people to one piece). You draw a circle and put all the ingredients of the dish inside. Then you take each ingredient and write everything you know about it alongside. You ask yourself and/or your drawing partner: Where did I buy this? Which land did it come from? How did it get here? What people were involved? What’s my relationship with them? When did I first eat this dish? Then you share what you discovered with everyone in the room.

The dish I brought was Fava, which means bean in Greek. It's made with yellow split peas, traditionally served with eggs, red onion and olives. Beans are the big story. Right now we're working with field beans: one kind of bean that grows brilliantly in these fields and makes one of the best hummus I have ever tasted. Soon to be available in food stores in Norwich, thanks to Josiah and Nick Saltmarsh of Provenance and East Anglia Food Link.


4pm Going out into the garden to pick the salad, for tonight's Cookbook meeting. I'm pretty sure Erik will bring leaves from among the 76 plants he grows in his permaculture garden in Hethersett - sorrel, land cress, lovage, early lettuce (maybe), salad burnet (for sure), so I'm collecting some perky wild leaves to add to the base mix - dandelion, cleavers, daisy, chickweed, yarrow, mugwort, hawthorn, with some flowers - violet, primrose, rosemary and alexanders. I'm walking past my donated strawberries and cherry and apple trees now coming into blossom, the three greengages, blackcurrant and gooseberry bushes in flower, rhubarb coming up. Apart from oranges and lemons, I only eat seasonal fruit, so Im looking at those trees with joyful anticipation.

Back in the kitchen I cook up lentils (Canada) for a salad, and quinoa (Bolivia), flavoured with orange and cinnamon, wild garlic leaves and some seeds I've sprouted in a jar. Quinoa is a quandary crop. Hailed as a modern superfood, it is an ace staple due to its protein content and is a great gluten-free substitute for cous cous and bulgar wheat. But the new global demand for it is destroying the fragile soils of the altiplano and the people who grow it are are going hungry. Forced away from their native food and eating white bread, they are going the way of all people who eat a Western diet. I eat it now very rarely and buy Fairtrade. Polenta has become a stand-by.

11pm Returning from Norwich the fields are dark and still. The cat is out hunting rabbits, the owls are hooting one to another in the oak trees. Bilions of stars are sparkling over our heads. We had a good time at the cookbook meeting. Erik didn't bring his leaves, but a delicious home-grown apple, rhubarb and pumpkin crumble, sweetened with Norwich Community Bees honey. Our main focus was on how much KW energy goes into making a vegetable stew cooked in three ways - hay box, on the hob and pressure cooked - and into baking bread and boiling water. Nick had been trying everything out in his boat in the river outside the house. We exchanged facts about gas and electrity and swapped stories about cooking under pressure in the community kitchens of Norwich FoodCycle and Sustainable Bungay's Happy Mondays! And then we talked plants: achocha and chia, goji berry and blue honeysuckle, and all the wild things you can forage right now. And quinoa seeds, which Erik is going to send me in the post. Yes!

"Does it grow OK here?" I ask. It grows fine, says Erik, but it's tricky to harvest and you have to wash it or it tastes of soap.

Outside in the tiny yard stand trays of broad beans planted by Sophie's Spanish flatmates who have come to the city in search of work. A memory of their homeland. Plants that have been growing quietly for a million Spring nights. Plants that keep us all rooted in a rocky time.

Looking over the barley field (Mark Watson); roadkill pheasant on the Poetry Paper; still from Power of Community; with Dano and Whitney and wild salad, filming for the Journal of Wild Culture; postcard for Great British Beans (Josiah Meldrum); mapping the dish by Elena Judd (Norwich FarmShare) and Gemma Sayers (Transition Ipswich/Oak Tree Low Carbon Farm); cape gooseberries and Tierney, head grower at Norwich FarmShare, among the brassicas (by kind permission of Tony Buckingham, copyright )

Article originally published in the Social Reporting project during a week focussed on Diet and the Envrionment

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