Friday 19 February 2010

Future food, future skills

For my final foodie post this week before handing the baton to Elena, I’ve been thinking about the food of the future and the skills we’ll need to rediscover or adapt for the way we want to live today.

My first pic is of some bantam eggs, bought in the market last week. These are a seasonal treat: they start laying when the days begin to get lighter, so that’s an encouraging sign for Spring. They will lay right up until the autumn, but they tend to get broody by late Spring - which is whey they are often used to hatch pheasant eggs. The problem with bantams, I found when we kept them in the Waveney Valley, was that they liked to nest in the hedgerow instead of their cosy little hen-house. I would find little heaps of eggs days later; and if I wasn’t quick enough, I would find a clutch of chicks cheep-cheeping under a hen bristling like a ferocious tea-cosy.

I won’t be keeping bantams in the city, although my neighbours at my last place kept some in an Egloo. No foxes can get in here, but the garden is too small. I wonder if there is scope for a co-operative group keeping hens and sharing the chores? Those bantam eggs are delicious and they are hardy little birds.

My second pic is of some of the tomatoes I grew on the allotment and at home last summer. I was trialling several different sorts for taste and blight-resistance. All tasted good; some were outstanding. But at the end of summer I couldn’t find ways to preserve them. Like Erik, I didn’t want to make chutney. I was able to ripen them all very slowly on the kitchen windowsill (third pic) and ate the very last ones just after Christmas. What I’d really like to be able to do is to dry them or to make some sort of bottled preserve of them. I don’t know how to do this safely.

Looking through some cookery books on country skills, I see that there are some things that I don’t want to learn: how to make rook pie with figgy pastry (Farmer’s Weekly 1940s) or sheep’s head broth (Jane Grigson’s English Food).

It’s very useful to know how to prepare a pheasant. I do know how to do that. My mama took the view that everyone needs to be able to do the squelchy stuff and it has been very handy. Baking bread: I can do that. Jams and jellies: I can do those. Brewing wine and beer: I’ve made some totally undrinkable stuff in the past; I’ve also had lethal country potions made by elderly neighbours – might be worth learning how to make those!

Foraging: I can do easy things like finding blackberries and field mushrooms; but I’ve no idea what wild garlic looks like, nor the wild ransomes that Nigel Slater raves about. I’d like to know where to look for the really good mushrooms (though I bet that most foragers wouldn’t be willing to show me).

I’d like to know how to dry fruit - I’m very scared of bottling and pressure-cookers. I’d like to learn how to make butter and cheese; even milk a cow or a sheep. Does anyone know where there are courses locally? It would be great if we in Transition Norwich could get together to share these skills, maybe with other Transitioners who are already doing these things.

My final book choices: Darina Allen’s Forgotten Skills of Cooking, just published. Full of practical advice on a huge array of country kitchen skills, from her first-hand experience of growing up in Ireland. I’m going to review this for the March bulletin.

And the last word goes to Marwood Yeatman’s extraordinary The Last Food of England: English Food, its Past, Present and Future (published in 2007). I keep dipping into it for more stories from the author’s recent travels around the country, in search of the traditional foods that he feared had gone for ever. He says: “They were not hidden; they presented themselves. All I had to do was to stay away from the food giants, make an appropriate purchase, and be careful not to ruin it when I got home.” His food story begins where fashion, globalisation and science stop.

Pix: Bantams' eggs; tomatoes from allotment and home; tomatoes ripening on kitchen windowsill

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