Sud de France by Caroline Conran (TLS)


The Languedoc, or langue d’oc, the land and language of Occitan, is hemmed in by the Pyrenees in the south-west, the Rhône in the east and the Mediterranean sea.  The rich mixture of influences heard in the region’s language is echoed in its culinary traditions, as portrayed in Sud de France, Caroline Conran’s eminently readable cookbook.  The region’s food, she explains, is determined by location: spanning mountain, river and sea, strung between neighbouring Provence and Catalonia, there is the Catalan pan amb tomát and salt cod;  fromage de brebis from the mountains, Roquefort from the caves; octopus, lobster, mussels;  salt from the Camargue.  Olive oil and lard are combined in cooking.   Practices of home charcuterie, hunting and foraging are widespread.

The recipes are preceded by a compelling seventy page essay on “The Tastes of Languedoc”.  With knowledge of produits du terroir, la cueillette and la chasse, Conran expounds the varieties of garlic, onions and the best cheeses of the region.  She describes hunting wild boar and picking mushrooms, and how to prepare snails:  purge for two to three days, feeding on “bunches of thyme or dill, to perfume their flesh”, fast for two to three weeks, cook, soak in brine, gut.  She initiates the reader into “pig-killing day” or the more poetic “les noces du cochon”, when the family pig is slaughtered and butchered.  “Charcuterie is essential to everyday life in the midi” and Conran herself doesn’t falter: “There is something thrilling about making your own sausages” even if it comes to “wrestling with a funnel and a wooden spoon”.  At moments her enthusiasm wavers: “One taste I have very nearly acquired is […] for feche” (salted pig’s liver), and as to le sac d’os, the Languedocien answer to haggis, “I have never seen it or tried it, and probably that is a good decision.”

Sud de France is as much a guide to the region as it is a cookbook.  It contains an index, a glossary, a table of the names of wild herbs in French, Latin and English and details of the regional markets and food festivals.  Engaging and erudite, Conran revivifies the sort of cookery once championed by Elizabeth David, not haute cuisine but the food of wayside inns and provincial homes.

SUD DE FRANCE by Caroline Conran

The food and cooking of Languedoc

330 pp.  Prospect Books.

978 1 903018 90 3

This review was published in the TLS November 30th 2012.


Notes: On Forage, Mushrooms and the Noma Cookbook

We do not stop the world when we eat; 
we go into it a little more deeply.
Olafur Eliasson (Noma)

Allow me a paintbrush, a palette…a pile of artistic licence to tell of some friends of mine and their wild ways.  Boys they are, a huddle of them, bare’ approachable and and not easy to handle.  They can’t be tethered down and one won’t find them for looking.   But, one might come across them…
On the foreshore by night fighting the tide for a last Sea-bass; atop a tree, gathering Plums to pot a Pigeon in; plucking a Greylag large to feed a crowd.  Adventurous with tastes, unperturbed by roadkill, they’ll be smoking Mackerel in a filing-cabinet-cum-smoker; cooking Mullet in milk for fishcakes; stewing Cockles in a split can of cider on an open fire; barbecuing Samphire.  How very nineteenth century lyrical said a friend as I rhapsodised about baskets of Ceps, and indeed, these are the Huck Finn’s of today, the unassuming artistes of forage.
Dried Chanterelles
Last I called by, Muntjac was roasting in the oven, surfaces brimming with mushrooms gathered, some dried, a hoard: Shaggy Parasols; Chanterelles, orange and sweet-apricot-scented; something blue.  Another fellow appeared a basket in his hand large to gather wood, in it full – Penny-Buns, Ceps, plentiful as a baker’s.
We ate then Parasol:
The cap cut into long, thick strips, doused long in egg and salt and pepper breadcrumbs, fried quick and served slathered unashamedly in mayonnaise.  A dream.
Parasol Mushrooms in Bowl of Apples

The Ceps so plentiful I took some home.
This weekend, another scene: ‘midst fashionistas, florists and folklorists, stepping the streets of London town…  On gathering my basket and boots to return home, risen at dawn to the cockney cries of Columbia Road Flower Market, pressed into my hands was a copy of Noma, Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine by René Redzepi.  I have long hankered after this book and was delighted to be given it.  (Thanks Laur!) It is indeed an extraordinary book, but with over half of the pages covered in photos worthy of the wall, it is not a manual.  The recipes themselves, so daunting that I’m glad I didn’t turn to it to cook my Ceps, relying instead on friendly advice and Elizabeth David (see below).
Indeed, I now understand that the book is less a cookbook and more a book to wander through, wonder at, that tells of the story behind the Michelin starred Copenhagen restaurant Noma.  No longer silent, secret, unassuming; at Noma forage is ostentatious, it’s an artform plucked or peacocking, it is the very edgiest of foodthinking, where food overlaps with artthought and critical theory.  But on closer inspection, I am also ready to bow to this.  Of René’s moment of illumination, he writes:
I realized that we had to exploit the seasons in a better way, so that you could only get a particular dish here and now.  We should explore the extremes of nature, seek out the thousand or more species of edible fungi, the many wild plants, roots and seashore plants. […] The guests dining at Noma should feel a sensation of time and place in their very bones.
Ingredients were thus combined not only with those of same season, but those of their natural habitat.  If venison was on the menu, the meat should be served with snails, pine shoots and mushrooms.  Thus recipes such as: Bouillon of Steamed Birchwood, Chanterelles and Fresh  Hazelnut; Stone Crab and Beach Mustard, Cockle Gel or simply Snails and Moss.  And abruptly, the nineteenth century lyricists and the uber modern restaurant look no longer askance upon one another, artistes the both.
Not Ceps and Poached Truffle Meringue (à la Noma) but Cèpes à la Bordelaise (Elizabeth David) with Brown Rice Risotto.
In her French Provincial Cooking, Elizabeth David quotes the recipe of Alcide Bontou (refer to the book to read more).  I shall do likewise:
“Choose 12 firm cèpes, small rather than large, and with dark heads; remove the stalks and peel them, but only wipe the heads; make incisions on the underside of the heads with the point of a knife.  Put a glass of olive oil in a frying-pan; when it is hot, put in the heads of the cèpes; turn them over when they have browned on one side.  Season with salt and pepper.
Chop the stalks with four cloves of garlic and some parsley.  Throw this mixture over the cèpes.  Let them all sauter in the pan for 3 or 4 minutes.
You may add a tablespoon of soft white breadcrumbs.  Serve.”
I made a pseudo-risotto with Short Grain Brown Rice, butter, Shallots, Bay-Leaves, White Wine and Wighton, a local creamy but hard cheese.  And served the Ceps on top.  Divine.
Another great friend, longdeserving of a blog post dedicated to her green fingers, her inexhaustible creative energy and her kitchen concoctions, whose latest addition to the home is a goat in the back garden (soon I hope we’ll be on milk and cheese)… makes a Puffpall Pâté of such flavour it is also worthy of Michelin stars.
Puffball Pâté
I haven’t the exact recipe, and I rather doubt there is one.  Try:
Chop and very gently fry up Puffballs with Garlic and Cumin in Butter.  Blend the lot adding Salt and Pepper or a touch of Soy Sauce.  Spread on bread for a deeply mushroom flavour edged with garlic and cumin.  You could also try adding cream, cream-cheese.
If you do attempt this let me know!

 -The Noma cookbook is indeed a gift, only on the verge of my foray into it, I hope to write more anon.
 -Writing at first light, I espy another forager: a grey squirrel feasting on the last of the overripe Bullace.

Simple French Cooking for English Homes by Xavier Marcel Boulestin



Marcel Boulestin does not skimp on the preface, peppered with idiosyncratic literary quotations, which demonstrate his own background as a journalist and translator. He appears to believe that food should be common parlance of the cultured, not shut behind scullery doors. Indeed, the preface is followed by a collection of Remarks, one of which, endorsing food’s place in conversation, I particularly liked:

Do not be afraid to talk about food. Food which is worth eating is worth discussing. And there is the occult power of words which somehow will develop its qualities.

A brief glossary, further quotes, including brilliant Brillat-Savarin on hospitality, and then we are thrown into the recipes. It is always a pleasure to decipher the French terminology, much like one might rifle through the pages of a Menu, sat at a brasserie in France. The translations given might even serve to illuminate what that incomprehensible plat du jour indeed was! A chapter on Soups, including a Pot au Feu, is followed by one on Sauces – a favoured French skill – and then Eggs; Fish; Meat; Pastries and Sweets; and a delightful final chapter Sundries in which Marcel Boulestin amasses the remainder of what he considers vital French food: Gherkins are here placed alongside Pineapple Wine and the extraordinary, and quite delicious-sounding Crème de Camembert, in which the cheese is steeped in White wine, left over night, beat with butter, reshaped and topped with breadcrumbs.

Unlike cookbooks of today, rich with lifestyle, colloquialisms and sumptuous photography, those of yesteryear such as this Simple French Cooking…, published in 1923, were manuals in the strictest sense of the term. Marcel Boulestin does not take any knowledge, or common-sense it seems, for granted. To the point that the poached egg recipe is followed by one for Oeufs Pochés Béarnaise – Poach your eggs and put them on a stiff béarnaise sauce, for Oeufs Pochés Sauce Tomate – Poach your eggs and cover them with tomato sauce. And, indeed, for Oeufs Pochés au Maïs – Poach your eggs and put them on a dish of sweetcorn. But, perhaps this is where the charm of this cookbook lies. Rife with idiosyncratic whim, it serves also as an efficient culinary reference… particularly astute at capturing those French meals of days yonder. Although not as rich in anecdote as the books of Elizabeth David, the writing is lucid, the tone eloquent and Marcel Boulestin succinctly renders French food accessible to the English cook.

The main chapters are followed by A Week’s Menu, subtitled Showing how to use up everything. Monday, for example, demands:
Luncheon – Soft roes omelette, Grilled cutlets, French beans, Potatoes boulangère, Cheese and fruit.
Dinner – Vegetable soup; Cold roast pork périgourdine; Fried potatoes; Salad of peppers and cauliflowers; Compote of apples.

Then follows an explanation of how each meal leads to the next. I was quite drawn into the subsequent Menu for a Late Supper (After and Informal Party) in which Marcel Boulestin delights with his statement:

Nothing better, say at 3 o’clock in the morning, than a boiling hot soupe au choux and cold meat […] one of those little white or pink wines from Anjou or Touraine […] strong black coffee…
This is more suitable, though, he determines, for Chelsea than for Bayswater – unless the inhabitants of this “highly desirable district” happen to feel, for once, “delightfully bohemian”.

Nor does Marcel Boulestin fail to include a note on wine and a lengthy index. Indeed, the book seems to successfully compile the sum of French living in the English home. And, once again, Quadrille Press has rendered what was ancient novel, the quixotic quirky. The book is hardbound in yellow, with gold-edged pages, looks great on the shelf and would also be a charming gift, particularly for the Francophile cook. Whether I shall use it to refer to, I don’t know. A manual it may be, but it really wins over for its dated charm, for the nostalgia it awakens and for the echo of France it invokes.

By X. Marcel Boulestin
Introduction by Jill Norman
First Published in 1923
Published by Quadrille Publishing, Classic Voices in Food, 2011
ISBN – 978-1-84400-981-7
My thanks to Quadrille for the review copy of this book.

Tea and Saki

If one’s soul was really enslaved at one’s mistress’s feet, 
how could one talk coherently about weakened tea?

Stopping for tea, an afternoon last week… and tea it was, leaf-tea in cups and saucers, bread, butter and that blackcurrant jam, radishes and salt, à la façon française… recalled a story by Saki, entitled: Tea.

Proposing marriage, even to a nice girl like Joan, was a rather irksome business

But as James Cushat-Prinkly sets out one afternoon to fulfil his duty, he realises with distaste that his arrival coincides with the hour of afternoon tea.

Joan would be seated at a low table, spread with an array of silver kettles and cream-jugs and delicate porcelain tea-cups, behind which her voice would tinkle pleasantly in a series of little friendly questions about weak or strong tea, how much, if any, sugar, milk, cream and so-forth.

He takes a detour via a distant cousin Rhoda, who happens to be having a picnic-meal of bread and butter and caviare, red-pepper and lemon, and tea.  Based on this, and amusing conversation, Cushat-Prinkly’s marriage proposal is instantly transferred to this cousin.

Only to find, coming into the drawing-room, once married:

Rhoda was seated at a low table, behind a service of dainty porcelain and gleaming silver.  There was a pleasant tinkling note in her voice as she handed him a cup.  ‘You like it weaker than that, don’t you?  Shall I put some more hot water to it?’

Tea,  by Saki
In 76 Short Stories, Collins, London 1956

The art, or otherwise, of food writing.

A steaming Summer’s eve’, once again running late, I joined a friend, wine-buff, entrepreneur and surreptitious reader of food-literature in his London backyard over a chilli-mackerel-couscous, and there was asparagus too and feta and a bottle of something French and White…  As conversation veered and the light waned he scurried away, returning, dragging from pouches and pockets, from hidden nooks, beloved bindings of food-writing.  Like a collector who comes upon some other, not rival, morelike apprentice, with whom they can gush unguarded as to their too-oft’-solitary passion, I was passed first, ‘midst murmurings, Brillat-Savarin’s The Physiology of Taste or Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy, then Alexandre Dumas’ Encyclopedia of Food and Nigel Slater’s Kitchen Diaries

Watching this friend, erudite and articulate, bringing food-writing into his conversation as he might 15th Century Italian literature, awoke a long-nurtured query: Do food and thought illuminate or interfere with one another?
I am since compelled to think upon the art (or otherwise) of Food Writing.  For therein lies the dilemma: is such writing worthy of consideration as an art, or, dealing with the pleasures, the mere sustenance of the body, as opposed to the perturbations of the mind, is it rather one of the cruder written forms, certainly not to be mistaken for an art?

It is said that Jorge Luis Borges offered only a bowl of rice at his dinner parties, for fear that the food might otherwise interfere with the conversation; his guests were there to converse about matters of the mind, and not the baser ones of the bowl.  Indeed, only recently, in the Guardian Review the writer Vendela Vida is quoted as saying: “Being married to another writer is easy.  You share a love of books and an understanding that you don’t want to linger over dinner.”  However, in another vein, one cannot forget the oft’-quoted fact that a Madeleine sufficed to spawn the seven volumes of Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu.  In this case the Madeleine is synonymous with illumination.  And yet, as the foodwriter A.J. Liebling reminds us below, Prousts’ inspiration was not an elaborate banquet of gushing iridescent scents nor was it the most hearty of feasts, it was a measly biscuit.

The Proust madeleine phenomenon is now as firmly rooted in folklore as Newton’s apple or Watt’s stem kettle. The man ate a tea biscuit, the taste evoked memories, he wrote a book….In the light of what Proust wrote with so mild a stimulus, it is the world’s loss that he did not have a heartier appetite. On a dozen Gardiners Island oysters, a bowl of clam chowder, a pack of steamers, some bay scallops, three sautéed soft-shelled crabs, a few ears of fresh-picked corn, a thin swordfish steak of generous are, a pair of lobsters and a Long Island duck, he might have written a masterpiece.

In one case food is spurned for the sake of the higher arts, in another a mere biscuit spawns one of the last century’s most scholarly opus.

Despite Brillat-Savarin’s book being subtitled Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy, food, gastronomy even, is commonly considered to belong on more Imminent plains.   Indeed, food, related to the body, to ingestion, digestion and excretion is almost immeasurably base; to be condemned by the human-being striving for the skies, the cerebral, the ethereal.  It would appear that even the most gastronomic of feasts, a banquet, a table lain with the heavy, the buttery, the rich and the meatladen, despite provoking rapture, gustative euphoria even, amongst the banqueters, causes the blood to settle to the stomach in digestion and matters of the mind to be left aside.  Oh!  But I sense same epicureans, same bacchanalians, those of wide-girths and oak-pannelled libraries, those who break the fast with Oysters and Champagne, who take tea of Cod-Cheek and Cucumber Sandwiches at four in the afternoon, I sense them scowling at any suggestion that food and literary erudition are not of one and the same ilk.  For both are indeed contained in some bracket of high-living, of the cultural pleasures of life.  Yes, doubtless, one can enjoy good books and enjoy good food.  Perhaps then I should better define the query.  Can one enjoy good food, linger over dinner, and write good books?  More to the point, can one enjoy good food and write learnedly about it?

I have already mentioned the nineteenth-century French novelist, Alexandre Dumas, who is little known for his food writing which culminates in Le grand dictionannire de la cuisine, where with a certain arrogance and a literary turn-of-phrase Dumas explores an A-Z of foods and culinary forms including quite the most extortionate of feasts such that called to be lengthily read out over dinner that evening in a London backyard.  A writer I haven’t yet mentioned, who writes exceptionally about food but also drives us to thought is Elizabeth David, whose literary meanderings between the tastes and food havens of the continent have stood the test of time and are remembered as much for their prosaic prowess as for their culinary erudition.
There are others, but they are rare quite as, I have come to notice, mealtimes are rarities in novels:

A favoured contemporary criticism of novels is that writers create unreal worlds in which no mobile phone rings, no email buzzes up on a screen, protagonists rarely tweet, nor do they spend hours deluding themselves as to their worth on Facebook.  Indeed, the world of literature rarely endorses the menial, the day-to-day, and, often as not, a meal is ne’er eaten.  Perhaps for this reason alone I cannot forget being enthralled by Charles Arrowby in Iris Murdoch’s The Sea The Sea, protagonist who notes down the meals of which he partakes in his diary – substantial mutterings as to the qualities of his tinned anchovies or otherwise.  Nor that third chapter of Ulysees, in which Leopold Bloom appears:

Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls.  He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liver slices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencod’s roes.  Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.

In investigating that most ritualistic of dishes, the Ortolan Bunting, I happened upon the tale Le Duc de l’Omelette by Edgar Allen-Poe.  An extraordinary tale, in which Duke Omelette’s vanity is wounded when the dish is not prepared as should be.

As an aside, and so that the same does not occur for you, I shall elaborate here on the etiquette of eating an Ortolan Bunting:

The Ortolan Bunting, Emberiza Hortulana, is fattened to four times its own size, then drowned in burning Armagnac for eight minutes. To eat the tiny bird, one covers one’s head with a linen shroud, to keep in the aroma and to hide the appalling act from God.  The head dangling from between the lips, one gorges on the whole bird, lungs, heart and bones.

Despite the extant foody members of the literati, or vice-versa, food-writing, as per the likely ordering of a bookshop, is low down the literary hierarchy.  In parentheses, I cannot fail to notice that whilst “bookish” suggest highbrow and even charmingly raffish, the term “foody” has a vaguely illiterate nuance about it. While Travel-Writing, which gained in reputation with the erudite travelogues of Patrick Leigh Fermor, the haunting writings of W. G. Sebald walking the length of the Norfolk coast in The Rings of Saturn and Rebecca West’s magnum opus Black Lamb, Grey Falcon, charting the contemporary history of the Balkans, is recognised to having some literary substance.  Food writing is denigrated to the “Cookery” section.  The odd book with an auto-biographical lend, such as Nigel Slater’s Toast might make it across to the Biography section.  But, in the majority of cases it is considered a lesser-form it is the chick-lit or worse of the Bookshop.

All this to simply interpolate whether in fact food-writing, now being revived and employed by the very best, could perhaps offer a framework, a sort-of straight-jacket in which the most elaborate literary fictions, the most marvellous concoctions of words could come to life.   I understand food to be one of our most vital acts of communion, a meeting of the outer world with the inner.  Quotidian it may be, mundane even, and the fact that we cannot do without seemingly renders it of the least profound of acts, but the very same reasoning recognises food as a subject that both reflects our interior psychological states and, more generally, contemporary society and politics.  As yet burgeoning, the art of food-writing is a literary art striving to find its form…

And of course, if good dinner-party conversation does not arise, a hindrance Borges is not so mindful of, good food offers a handy cue.

Small Adventures in Cooking by James Ramsden


James Ramsden’s Small Adventures in Cooking is exactly that. It is a mini-voyage of culinary exploration, via Corner Shops and Cheap Cuts, Emulsions and Macerations. Small they may be, but our adventurer is intrepid, unflawed by the likes of Ox cheek or Duck Rilletes, unflailing faced with the Korean fermented cabbage dish, Kimchi, or soused Mackerel. Convivial and colourful from the outset, the reader is swiftly drawn in, to venture alongside Ramsden in this culinary foray.

Separated into eight unorthodox sections, Ramsden writes food as he thinks it: from Va Va Voyages, capturing the exotic and quick to cook, to Corner Shop Capers, a eulogy to the quirky ingredients available in city corner-shops, including Soviet Salmon Soup and a Pitta Pizza topped with the unlikely Tinned Fried Onions(!). Morning Missions is dedicated to breakfasting, suggesting Home-Made Baked Beans, Huevos Rancheros and Chilli Hot Chocolate as additions to the breakfast table. Being a devotee to the art of breaking the fast myself, this quite won me over. Exploring the Cheap Cuts; Formal Forays and Feeding the Flocks are self-explanatory. The latter I found vaguely disappointing, although the food is fun – kebabs, fondues – it has the feel of pub platters. That said, the Goat Curry had me swooning, as Ramsden writes: “Curry is a great party-dish”, to be stacked on rice and served with a multitude of chutneys, raitas and home-made breads. And, I cannot but triumph a cookery book that includes a chapter on Preserves for the Pantry, particularly one that suggests how to use them, saving each of us from that tendency of filling the pantry, only to find same preserves festering on the top shelves years later. Finally, in Surfing the Stumbling Blocks he tackles those notions that tend to terrorise the novice cook: from Shortcrust Pastry to Hollandaise, he smartly renders the seemingly impossible, possible.

The introduction sets the tone for the book: “Surely the kitchen should be a place of comfort and reassurance, not terror and torment”. A voice at once personable and exuberant accompanies the reader; hip without being daunting, it offers guidance without preaching. The recipes are succinct but comprehensive, couched in tips and tales, ever reminding the reader that cooking is a joyous experiment, recipes are: “a guide, not a gospel”. Intrinsic to this is the very malleability of the recipes, all to be “tweaked”, “tarted”, the leftovers used “tomorrow”, spawning same flexibility in the novice-cook. This is surely one of the hardest kitchen arts for the unexperienced, unadventurous soul, so Ramsden reminds us: “Trust your instincts”, “Have an amenable agenda” and “Make your itinerary flexible”.

One of the most pertinent mantras of the book: “Keep your ear to the ground” encourages the reader to “Be Chatty” recalling the fact that cooking is a communal act, which commences with the sourcing of the produce and culminates in that most profound and joyous of communions, the sharing of food. Talk to the shopkeepers, he writes, “as well as making for great entertainment, such discussions are inspiring reminders that there are very few absolutes in cooking”. In this tone, Ramsden recalls an encounter with a “bonkers Polish man” who introduced him to an apparently tasty Tinned Sorrel Soup with a Boiled Egg. He takes this interaction one step further by inviting responses to his recipes via Twitter and Email, insinuating that cookery is an art to be explored and above all to be shared

Much as one might pretend otherwise, a cookery book is no longer simply a manual, it has a secondary function: it must induce pleasurable browsing, preferably with a glass of wine in the hand whilst dreaming-up next week’s banquets. This is a beautiful book, quite the sort to curl up on the sofa with. And, a stencilled card and gaudy orange binding, sumptuous photos and near-scrawling notes on carnet-like pages, it proves a hip addition to the kitchen shelf!

Aimed at an audience of twenty or thirty-somethings, the book is far from highbrow, it does not indulge in the literary meanderings of an Elizabeth David, nor for that matter is it a scientific tome. So intent is the writer on keeping the kitchen a light-hearted place, a gentle colloquialism verges on (and happily fails to fall into) the Jamie Oliver tendency of catchphrasing: expressions such as “you get the idea” might put some off, and the book would perhaps be unsuited to the culinary snob.

I say this, and yet, written with such flair, so abounding in joy, and such an utter pleasure to read, I wouldn’t hesitate to pass it on to any of my entourage.

A cook-book that combines a boy-next-door charm and lack of pretension, with an erudite wealth of culinary knowledge, an evident depth of research and recipes destined to please multiple pallets on myriad occasions, with his Small Adventures in Cooking, James Ramsden heralds an exciting new generation of cookery writing.

Small Adventures in Cooking by James Ramsden
New Voices in Food, Quadrille Publishing, London 2011, 191 pages. 
ISBN: 9781844009572

Wild Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz


“This book is my song of praise and devotion to fermentation. For me fermentation is a health regimen, a gourmet art, a multicultural adventure, a form of activism, and a spiritual path, all rolled into one.” (Sandor Katz, Wild Fermentation, p.1)

In Wild Fermentation Sandor Katz, or Sandorkraut as he is nicknamed, brings fermentation out from the mouldering cupboards of pungent Northern Eastern European cuisine to present it as the edgiest of today’s food thinking. As to whether the “wild” in the title designates the binding’s whacky fluorescents, assimilates the thinking to that of wild food, acknowledges the unconventional, even anti-conventional mindset from which the book is written or searches to highlight the experimental methods and DIY aspect of fermentation… I don’t know. We could assume it is a sort of all-encompassing wildness, or perhaps merely wild as opposed to straight.

For Katz, a self-proclaimed “fermentation fetishist”, fermentation is an integral part of a movement, a lifestyle, a sort of ecosystem even. He lives in a queer community, a “rural homestead” built from wood salvaged from a coca-cola bottling factory, rearing goats and chickens, powered on solar energy.

Bound within this thinking Katz does not let his vision remain in specific potted form but always draws it out to explore larger issues such as community, harmonious living, sustainability, mortality. Drawing widely from scientific sources, in the first chapter Sandor Katz outlines the health benefits of fermented foods. Although he flirts with complex formulae and equations he lets the facts surface to show that: fermentation preserves food, breaks down nutrients into more digestible forms and removes toxins from foods… on a primary level, the living cultures contained in fermented foods ease digestion and facilitate the assimilation of nutrients (7). And this is it: the consumption of live foods offers a spiritual and practical interaction, interdependence with what we eat.

We can move then from the near passive consuming of long dead food, to a creative, transformative action. An invitation to commune, to communicate with our living entourage – his is a (brave) positive reading of contagion (contact, Latin : con-tagere, touch with) as a form of life-giving communion as opposed to the foreboding it evokes in this double-glazed anti-bacterial fear era. Katz calls for co-existence with bacteria and creating what he calls microbiodiversity. His thinking encourages a shift in the mindset, on one level dispelling the contemporary hygiene frenzy myths, pointing out that certain bacteria are very important for the functioning of the immune system and also provide competition for heavier more potent bacteria, and on another proclaiming a possible and positive interconnection with the surrounding life forces. From decomposition and decay to life, reproduction and transformation…

“Your environment becomes you, as you invite the microbial populations you share the Earth with to enter your environment and your intestinal ecology”(12).

In the following chapter Katz sketches out an anthropology of fermented foods, recalling the meads that wizened the oracles’ tongues, remarking on the sacred qualities pertaining to these foods and dating fermentation to pre-arable farming times, even questioning as to whether it were not the discovery of fermented grains itself that caused nomadic peoples to settle, in order to enjoy the elixirs of the harvested crops.(16) He then looks at fermentation as a means of revolt amidst a mainstream culture of mass produced, plastic packaged foods. With sections entitled : Cultural homogenization; Fermented stimulants and the rise of globalization; Resisting the commodification of culture, he outlines how “we can merge appetite with activism and choose to involve ourselves in food as cocreators”(27).

I say all this…. and yet this is far from being very mental post-modern theorising, it is, believe it or not, a highly practical guide to home fermentation. The following chapters and the bulk of the book is made up of recipes. Recipes, yes steeped in anecdote and dilemma – the raw cheese question for example, but very clear, accessible, easy to follow recipes. Some of the foods we know well: yogurts and cheeses, sauerkraut, sourdoughs, miso, beers, wines and meads, and then many others exotic, unheard of and to experiment with. The concoctions are wicked. And, for Katz, fermentation is not a science confined to a laboratory, the methods are simple, the apparatus readily available. Water, sea-salt, a vessel and off you go! He will suggest alternatives for any hard to find equipment, such as a balloon in place of an airlock stopper, and let you know where you can pick up crocks and other items. He has tried all the recipes himself, so abounds in tips for taste, ideas for what to do with the foods when they are ready, (he even gives his email address for fermentation troubleshooting!) and his documentation of his own outrageous experimenting permits us too to experiment (outrageously). This year we have made batches of ginger beer, and have bubbling pots of lacto-fermenting cucumbers and green beans sitting on a shelf on the kitchen. Today, forced to pull our carrots early because of the fly, we have attempted a sort of carrot kimchi and we look forward to soon starting on sauerkraut, borsht and perhaps some miso pickles.

Unlike freezing, dehydrating, jam making and sterilising, fermentation conserves food at no energy cost, it is therefore a highly efficient manner of preserving. Out in the wild west of Ireland where the winter garden production is sparse we hope to somewhat sustain ourselves on this suddenly seemingly (wow!) fastfood, as after weeks, months of fermenting, transforming, ageing, renewing, our pots and crocks can be pulled out of the cupboard and placed on the table ready to eat… In Wild Fermentation we enter into a lucid food process, a recipe book which is less about quantities and ingredients, but about concepts, methods and practice. Encouraging a slight deviation in one’s mindset one can begin to observe, to learn by trial and error, to test according to our singular tastes, to experiment with what is growing around us, our climate and living conditions.

In a system so keen to dis-able, to render ignorant and dependent, Katz opens the other door: enabling, empowering, giving knowledge. Is this not the first true step of revolution?

“Come participate in a cultural revolution! Wild fermentation is a way of incorporating the wild into your body, becoming one with the natural world. Wild foods possess a great, unmediated life force which can help us adapt to shifting conditions and lower our susceptibility to disease. These microorganisms are everywhere and the techniques for fermenting with them are simple and flexible.”

The numbers in brackets are page numbers. For online information you can see Sandor Ellix Katz’s wild fermentation website:

See also The Art of Lacto-Fermentation

Wild Fermentation is published by Chelsea Green Publishing, 2003 ISBN: 9781931498234

Winter Roots and Spring Shoots



Wearied of frostbitten greens, sprouts and mincemeat, pickles and preserves, the temptation is to plunge, without a glance backward, into the onset of Spring.  I would first like to offer one last eulogy to winter vegetables, to three of the less common and more remarkable tubers, hoarded in the dank depths of the vegetable underworld.
These, beside their ruddy counterparts, are the rockstars of the roots: sultry, elegant, with extravagant tastes, ebullient spirits…  But this isn’t about their looks.  Stubby, grubby and hairy, they are the sweetest, the most delicate flavoured, most exotic of the roots.
JERUSALEM ARTICHOKEHelianthus tuberosus
Towering eight-feet-high in triffid-esque arrogance, the stalks nodding with yellow flowerheads at the height of Summer, the Jerusalem Artichoke, also known as the Sunchoke, is related to the Sunflower.  Indeed, the name Jerusalem is thought to come from a confusion with the original name, originating in Peru, the Girasol. They are one of the most labour-free plants to grow, and if a few tubers are left in the ground when harvesting, will provide a crop the following year.  Unfortunately, the Jerusalem Artichoke is famed for being the cause of foul wind and tortuous flatulence – I have yet to hear of a sure-fire remedy.  But their sweet, delicate flavour, reminiscent of artichokes, keeps me growing and eating them.  As for the baneful after-effects I have a couple of suggestions.  Don’t eat Jerusalem Artichokes in large quantities and try and combine them with herbs and spices that ease digestion such as fennel, bay and cumin.  I also take the time to first peel and blanche the vegetables in acidulated water (add vinegar or lemon-juice), which is then discarded, in an attempt to lessen the effects. 
You can roast, soup and mash Jerusalem artichokes, or eat them raw as, somewhat surprisingly, you can most roots… Their reputation has taken a recent upturn and they are to be found, in the form of diaphanous Soufflés and Veloutés, in the very highest realms of haute cuisine.
Jerusalem Artichoke Purée
Purée Jerusalem Artichokes for a jazzed-up variation on mashed potatoes.  Peel, then boil in acidulated water with a potato.  When beginning to fall apart, drain and blend with butter and black pepper.
Jerusalem Artichoke Salad
For the sassiest raw Winter salad.  Slice very thinly, cover immediately with lemon juice to prevent discolouring.  Add walnut oil and toss with toasted walnuts.  Sprinkle with chives or an available green.
SALSIFY- Tragopogon porrifolius
Salsify, or Scorzanera – the two varieties vary only slightly – can be planted in Autumn for a Winter harvest.  A showering grass-like fountain above ground, Salsify tapers to a long hairy root.  It is related to the Jerusalem Artichoke but, fortunately, did not inherit the side effects.  Its taste is light and difficult to define, somewhere between oysters, chestnut and coconut.  It can be put in gratin, and the Irish chef Dennis Cotter, of Café Paradiso renown, braises it with star anise…  I think, as with all these delicate roots, it’s best as it is.
Salsify as it is
Boil unpeeled for twenty to thirty minutes in acidulated water (it exudes a sticky, milky sap and discolours).  Once cooked slip off the skin and add a squeeze of lemon juice or Umeboshi seasoning for a breathtaking combination.  A nut-oil or a knob of butter gives a gentler flavour.  Serve warm with salt and pepper to taste. 
OCA – Oxalis tuberosa
Oca, long unknown, has likewise recently hit the headlines of haute cuisine.  The tubers are planted like potatoes in Spring and grow slowly to be harvested in the depths of Winter.  A shrub of shamrock shaped leaves and pretty yellow flowers, it originates in Latin America.  The leaves and flowers are edible and make pretty additions to Summer salads, but the plant is high in oxalic-acid so beware of gorging!
Oca on the table
Like a lemon-scented new potato in the depths of December, the tuber is a welcome addition to the Winter table.  Serve as new potatoes for that Summer zing, roast in their skins with garlic and rosemary for a taste of Italy, or cook up with cinnamon, ground ginger and orange rind for a festive feel.
The lengthening days herald Spring and the first new shoots.  Young, green, tender, these first greens are the best to be had.  Purging and purifying after the heavy winter vittles, their appearance, like that of the first blossom, is joy!   Surely the best way to salute the arrival of these greens is to gather a handful of each and, keeping the Nettles aside, to throw them together as a bright salad.  Chop up the Nettles very finely to break the stinging needles, mix with garlic, olive oil and vinegar, for a simple Nettle vinaigrette to pour over the salad. 
NETTLE – Urtica dioica
High in protein, Iron and Vitamin C, Nettles are a sturdy and popular spring green.    They appear early, and their young tops are the best parts to use.  As well as eating them fresh, they can be picked and dried for teas or frozen as greens for stir-frys, tarts and soups.
Nettle Pesto
Chop 500g fresh Nettles finely.  Add to this 250g of Pine nuts toasted and crushed (lay in a tea towel and roll over with a rolling pin), the same of coarsely grated parmesan, a lot of finely chopped garlic (for garlic lovers as much as a whole head) and coarse sea-salt to taste.   Mix lightly with a favourite olive oil, until it reaches a chunky, thick consistency.    Serve the pesto with pasta, spread on bread, add to courgette soup.  Freeze or pot and pasteurise.
The recipe can be done with a blender, but the oil tends to emulsify and create a brown sludge.  Chopping all the ingredients separately by hand creates a vibrant green pesto of myriad textures. 
Vegans can replace the parmesan with sunflower seeds.
Those nettle-venturers who are not yet convinced aficionados might want to supplement half the nettles with a more docile green, such as rocket, basil or sorrel…
SORREL – Rumex acetosa
One of my favourite wild greens, Common Sorrel is much like French Sorrel in appearance and flavour.  It is perennial and grows vivaciously all over the UK and Ireland.  A Rumex, it is related to the dreaded dock, and forms a similar seed-head in Summer.  Like Oca, it is high in oxalic acid, giving it a sour, lemony bite.  The wild version is much stronger in taste than the French, cultivated variety.  Like all the other greens it can be eaten raw in salad, chopped into a vinaigrette, wilted, steamed or stir fryed – although the flavour remains good when cooked, it does lose its emerald green colour to become a sludgy khaki.  If you don’t mind the colour, then just use sorrel in the following recipe for a really sharp flavour, otherwise mix sorrel with other greens, such as young spinach or sea-beet.
Sorrel tart
On a blind-baked pastry case layer buttered softened onions, wilted sorrel and chunks of blue cheese. (In Norfolk Mrs Temple’s “Binham Blue” is a particularly good local alternative to Stilton).  Whisk 4 eggs (duck eggs are very good in this wild and rich tart), mix with a small pot of Crème Fraiche and a dollop of milk.  Pour the egg mix up to the edges of the tart and cook for about twenty to thirty minutes at 180C, or until the egg is cooked.  The quiche should be starting to brown on top and risen in the middle.
DANDELION – Taraxacum officianalis
The name comes from the French “dents-de-lion” (lion’s teeth) due to the toothed leaves.  The French actually call the plant “pissenlit” (wet-the-bed), as it is a well-known diuretic.  As well as a diuretic, Dandelion is a versatile detox.  In tea or tincture it is good for the liver and kidneys, as well as for the bladder and it is used by those suffering from anaemia.  It can be eaten raw, picked green or blanched (grown in the dark – easy to do at home, under a bucket, as rhubarb, endive…), and again, stir-fryed, steamed, added to soups, casseroles or stir-frys.
A favourite memory of feasting on dandelions was in France, where they are quite a common form of sustenance.  As the first swallows sailed in to announce Spring we picked great handfuls of dandelions and served them as they were, the leaves and the flowers, bathed in vinaigrette, tossed only with a few compulsory lardons and a baguette, spread on a table in the sun on the side of a village road.
Dandelion Salad
Use the youngest and most vibrant dandelion leaves.  Cut out the stalks of any larger ones as they can be bitter.  Toss in vinaigrette.  Add lardons if desired.  Finish with a mass of flowerheads.  Serve when the swallows arrive for a glorious sun-shone spring salad.
SEA BEET – Beta vulgaris
Growing on the edge of the marshes, and along the coast, Sea Beet is a staple spring green.  Recognised by its thick, fleshy leaves, shaped as arrowheads in a rosette, it can grow into a large shrub.  Although it is apparent year round, in Spring it provides an early source of substantial greens.  It has a good texture and rich flavour and is used like spinach in a variety of recipes.   Blanche it, steam it, stir fry, wilt or fill tarts with it.  Or serve with fish or shellfish to continue the coastal theme.
Stir-fryed Sea-Beet.
Stir fry young sea-beet leaves with onions, garlic and caraway seeds in olive oil.  At the last minute douse with Tamari and Balsamic Vinegar.  Serve on its own or on the top of Puy Lentils with a spoonful of yogurt.

This article was published in Permaculture Magazine, (PM 67 Spring 2011).

The Art of Lacto-fermentation

It first occurred with samphire.  This only-locally-known marshplucked food became haute-cuisine overnight. In fact, timbales lain with samphire sprigs in chic London restaurants are now so commonplace they are nearly passé.  Then nettles: not just in soups, but in gnocchi, in vinaigrettes, and before long, the likes of sautéed foie-gras and roasted veal sweetbreads were being served on a bed of wilted Dorset nettles.  Then game: woodcock on toast, head still on, beak spiking through body, became the sexiest starter.  Now, with the latest rustic DIY trends, nudging into foodspeak is lacto-fermentation.  It may sound horribly Heston Blumenthal, but lacto-fermentation is not only simple, but a highly nutritious, tasty, ethical and low-energy way of preserving vegetables and dealing with autumnal garden gluts.
Fermentation heralds from ancient traditions the world over, and, used in the production of alcohols, sourdoughs, yogurts, cheeses, miso and a host of lesser known foods, it remains a fairly common part of our everyday diet.  As to the lacto-fermentation of vegetables, it is best-known in Europe in the too-often-dismissed form of sauerkraut.  Before you turn your gaze away in festering disgust, I beg you to look again on this sour cabbage, which has too long mouldered in the cupboards of pungent Northern European cuisine. Today, nutritionally, ethically and ecologically, lacto-fermentation is proving to be the edgiest in food thinking. 
Lacto-fermentation preserves vegetables in an environment of living cultures.  These good bacteria are known as lactobacilli, they break the vegetables’ nutrients into more digestible forms, thus facilitating their assimilation, remove toxins and increase (yup!) vitamin levels, all whilst conserving the vegetables in a raw state.  And, you can try this at home!
The lacto-fermenters of this world suggest that a diet in which everything is bacteria free and pasteurised starves our intestinal flora of the necessary nourishment, making us more susceptible to disease.  Acknowledging that certain bacteria are very important for the functioning of the immune system and also provide competition for heavier, more potent bacteria, we can begin to dispel these current hygiene frenzy myths.  Indeed, barrels of sauerkraut onboard ships saved sailors from the recurrent sea-disease, scurvy.  And, the process of lacto-fermentation, as opposed to pickling and pasteurizing, by using living cultures keeps vegetables crunchy, sharp and alive over the winter months.  What offers more delight than, in deep winter when barely a leek is standing in the garden, levering the lid of one of your fermented pots to let the smell of sparky summer vegetables pervade the room.
When fermenting, I refer to two excellent writers, perfect opposites, they are perfect complements.  The first is highly practical Scandinavian Annelies Schöneck, hers is a deep technical knowledge, and she tends to offer an introduction reminiscent of science lessons, followed by step by step fermentation recipes.  She has at least a couple of books that have been translated into English: Making Sauerkraut and Pickled Vegetables at Home: Creative Recipes for LacticFermented Food to improve your health and The cultured cabbage.  Vaguely retro, you might just spot their faded covers on the bookshelves of your local charity shop.
At the other extreme is a startling book by Sandor Ellix Katz, called Wild Fermentation.  Quite as wild as the title suggests, Katz looks at fermentation as a means of revolt amidst a mainstream culture of mass produced, plastic packaged foods.  With sections entitled:  Cultural homogenization; Fermented stimulants and the rise of globalization; Resisting the commodification of culture; his book outlines how “we can merge appetite with activism and choose to involve ourselves in food as cocreators”.  Wild Fermentation is an extraordinary, lucid food process, a recipe book which is less about quantities and ingredients, but about concepts, methods and practice. 
Katz’s lesson is important, that the consumption of live foods offers a spiritual and practical interaction, interdependence and interconnection with the surrounding life forces.  Lacto-fermentation shifts the food process from the near passive consuming of long dead food, to a creative, transformative action, from one of decomposition and decay to one of life, reproduction and transformation.
On a more practical level, lacto-fermentation manages to preserve vegetables without the use of freezers, canners, without pasteurizing or heating, simply by placing them in conditions that encourage the production of lactic-acid bacteria (lactobacilli), this natural preservative that inhibits the production of other bacteria.  These conditions are Anaerobic and demand Pressure, a Catalyst and Salt.  As with all food, the best results will be obtained with the best ingredients, so a wild sea-salt (such as Sel de Guérande) a pure unfiltered water or natural spring water and of course the freshest vegetables. 
The catalyst is usually already present in vegetables, for example in the organisms on the cabbage leaves.  However, to ensure a good outcome, I tend to use a supplementary catalyst.  This can be blackcurrant (or gooseberry, raspberry or similar) leaves, which are high in lactic acid bacteria, and have their own sweet, subtle yet unmistakeable flavour.   Whey can also be used, I make it straining yogurt or separating milk.
Although there are beautiful ceramic crocks made for the purpose, with a water airlock system, these are expensive (keep an eye open in flea markets).  Kilner jars are likewise good fermentation apparatus, and can be found cheap on markets, however, do get hold of new rubber seals…
Otherwise, a bucket will do.
For a one gallon bucket of sauerkraut:
Roughly 5lb cabbage, 3tbsp sea salt, ¼ pt whey and/or 12 blackcurrant leaves.
Chop or grate cabbage.  Pack it into bucket layering it with salt, blackcurrant leaves or whey and other ingredients of your choosing (chopped apples, turnip, horseradish, rocket, caraway seeds, juniper…), pushing down with your fists, kitchen implement or feet as you go.  This (pressure) and the salt will help force water from cabbage, to create the brine in which the cabbage will ferment.  Once bucket is full put a snugly fitting plate on top and weigh it down with a clean weight (i.e. a large stone you have washed).  Cover the whole thing with a cloth.  Leave for three or so days at warmish room temperature to get fermentation going, then move to cooler place and allow to ferment slowly.  Don’t be afraid to check on it regularly, touching, tasting, noticing changes in consistency… mould may appear on the top, scrape it off, the kraut underneath will be fine, the white substance is lactobacilli… Leave at least three weeks, before digging in… Sauerkraut improves with age! 
For a jar of lacto-fermented French beans:
Chop young French beans (roughly 1lb) and push into jar (1 pt), layering with salt (1/2tbsp), blackcurrant leaves (or spoonful of whey) and flavourings of choice (onion, garlic, dill heads, mustard seed, tomatoes…)  Put on pressure and add more beans until jar is full and can take no more, cover with water, pressure again and fix lid.  3 days room temp, might start bubbling, then move to cool dark place for at least three weeks.  Store until needed, open and enjoy!
Other vegetables
This recipe for beans will suit most vegetables, some (such as cabbage, beetroot) will produce their own liquid under pressure, and you probably won’t need to add any water.  Always make sure the top layer of vegetables remains under the water, you can use a weight of sorts, as this creates the necessary anaerobic conditions.  The amount of salt will affect the speed of fermentation and the length of time the vegetables will remain preserved for, I estimate between ½ – 1 tbsp per pint jar of vegetables.
Lacto-fermentation is experimental, success or failure is bound up in a symphony of tiny details.  A serious stench will warn you if things have gone bad.  Keep an eye on the developments, test according to your singular tastes, and this curiosity will in its turn allow you to adventure further… Once you have the basics you can experiment, last summer, as well as the staple sauerkrauts and French beans, we had buckets of cucumbers bubbling all over, a pile of delicious carrot kimchi (using chillies, ginger and spices), jars of broad beans (ours were foul, as was our kale!), lacto-fermented beetroot, courgettes, seaweed…
Serve these bright crunchy veggies simply with rice, mix into a potato salad, for breakfast with kippers, amuse-bouche or as a tangy side. You can use the remaining juice as a starter for your next batch of lacto-fermented veggies, or drink it for a serious health-boost. 
Fermentation is not only a highly practical skill in this peak-oil era, but is a domain for the curious and those keen to approach food in a more ethical manner.  Encouraging a slight deviation in one’s mindset one can begin to experiment with what is growing around us, our climate and living conditions.  So, why not reconsider that sour cabbage and join in this latest food frenzy!
“Come participate in a cultural revolution! Wild fermentation is a way of incorporating the wild into your body, becoming one with the natural world. Wild foods possess a great, unmediated life force which can help us adapt to shifting conditions and lower our susceptibility to disease.  These microorganisms are everywhere and the techniques for fermenting with them are simple and flexible.”
Sandor Ellix Katz, Wild Fermentation

This article featured in Permaculture Magazine, (PM 64 Summer 2010)
Wild Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz is published by Chelsea Green Publishing, 2003 ISBN: 9781931498234
For online information and fermentation troubleshooting, see Sandor Ellix Katz’s wild fermentation website: 
The sauerkraut recipe I give here is adapted from his online recipe and my own experience.

Hunger – a response.

In Harry Johnstone’s article, Hunger is presented as a moral dilemma, a dilemma at once contemporary and ancient, one of myriad shapes and inextricable causes. Indeed, Hunger is donned a persuasive personality, polymorphous, it is seemingly godlike, in-conquerable, infallible, immortal…

Johnstone aptly finds fault with a number of methods proposed to flay the beast: he picks apart the arguments of a number of theorists, vilifies the current leftist thinking, questions where on earth to start… his points are valid, and valuable, but he fails to propose his own theory, neither as to cause nor solution, and in its absence lies a hollow account, reeking more of resignation than resolution.

In the article Johnstone fails to engage with the role the West has in perpetrating hunger, as well as glossing over the link between the agricultural industry and food insecurity, both factors I consider fundamental as to the roots of hunger the world over. I believe that there are solutions to world hunger, but that these solutions dramatically jeopardise our own lifestyle, and we therefore refuse to consider them.

It is very easy to be self-righteous. Mine is a gut response to Johnstone’s article, which stems from the conviction that we are the perpetrators of hunger. I am convinced of our own hypocrisy, not just that of our government, not just the big players, but our own – yours, mine. It is sad to acknowledge our own error, and yet even in acknowledging this, yup, acknowledging this, the smug smile is still shaping on my face, for acknowledging my own error, mine and yours, I am in the “know”…

On debilitation:

The ‘trap’ of hunger and poverty means most of these people have to undergo an enormous struggle to break from this cycle of perpetual hunger. If they are severely undernourished, their cognitive and physical capacity is affected, making it much harder for them to develop the skills needed to overcome hunger. Almost every factor confronts these people: their natural environment, their social and political environments, and the economic structures functioning around them. Their struggle becomes one of mental endurance as well as sustenance.

I fear this “trap” is of our own making.

The notion that “these people” could ever possibly overcome this hunger seems to me implausible, implausible, for example, as the notion of their overcoming Western supremacy, implausible as long as we in the West continue to live as we do. As long as the capitalist/consumerist world governs our lifestyle, as long as we continue to abide by its ways, as long as we continue to over-consume, to buy cheap food, cheap clothes, to import from abroad, to fly and to drive… basically, as long as we continue to live unsustainably, depleting world resources… As long as we, in the West, define our greed as “need” and demand that all food be cheap and that all food be available all year round, as long as we remain totally out of touch with the food and agricultural industries, we are contributing to food insecurity in the poorer countries.

As an early parenthesis, it is interesting to note that our own food security is less sure/secure than we suppose. It has become apparent that it is in fact an utter myth, we are totally dependent on imports from these same countries, imports and also/thus oil, a non-renewable. Food insecurity is worldwide.

Until we ourselves are self-sufficient, community-sufficient, truly in-dependent of the poorer and coincidentally food insecure countries, these countries will be dependent on our “aid”, and (interestingly) the people of these countries will thus (through same dependence) remain dis-empowered. We can thus recognise the flaws in the kindly-meant notion of “capacity-building”, this supposed “enabling”/“empowering” is never quite strong enough to overrule the disabling/dis-empowering taking place at the same time, meaning that these people are never able to develop the skills needed to overcome hunger.

Hypocrisy: our open-handed gesture of aid follows on neatly from a back-handed one of debilitation. The cycle continues.

Something in it rather reminds me of the farming industry in the UK – a topic I am considering at present. A farmer turns and tills and ploughs and reaps and starves his soil over years, until today the soil is dead, bereft of any nutrients, of any lifeform. So, the farmer fertilises his soil (with potash, nitrogen and phosphorus, from fossil fuels btw) and the cycle continues. Were the farmer to farm holistically, to look after his soil in the first place, the soil would remain alive and be able to provide its own potash, nitrogen and phosphorus, creating a sustainable ecosystem within the fields. Instead he causes the destruction with one hand and with the other seeks to fix it.

It is important to recognise the profound connect between the modernisation of the agricultural industry and the rise in food insecurity. It was thought that the modernisation, industrialisation and globalisation of agriculture would provide more access and availability of food worldwide. However, we failed to consider the secondary effects – the social, health and environmental consequences of this industrialisation. In particular the impoverishment of the same landscape we depend upon to grow food and provide nutrition.

[To go down the route of genetic engineering in a hope to provide more food for more people would not only further the disconnect between people and planet/palate but risk even more severe secondary affects… must we trundle on repeating our mistakes? It is too late to alter the roots of this hunger? As Johnstone himself asks: do we really want to?]

As a pertinent aside let me sum up the points made in Timothy Wise’s article ‘The True Cost of Cheap Food’, which I have been reading alongside Johnstone’s:

The demand for cheap food has impoverished farmers all over the world, rid them of an income, impeded them from investing in their own farmland, put them out of work. The globalised food trade has meant that countries have stopped producing their own food because they can source it cheaper elsewhere, this creates enormous food dependency, and in turn food insecurity. When prices rise and supplies are short > food crisis. i.e .what happened in the Phillipines: no longer producing enough rice to feed own population, unable to source it because governments of other countries concerned with feeding their own first = food crisis. On top of all this, globalisation of trade brings with it globalised market failure.

Wise does not offer theory, but facts, and to my mind, by offering an understanding of the situation and the role we play as collaborators, he also offers us a means to change the situation. (This is what I understand by empowerment!)

On balance:

Humans have never conquered hunger. Look back through the records of ancient Rome, China, the Mayans – all were beset by food crises that lead to famine and starvation. But today, as rich countries’ supermarket shopping aisles are stuffed with thousands of foodstuffs, a phantasmagoria of branded edible products, and our race has hopped on the moon, and we have instantaneous satellite communication technology, how can we still have failed to master hunger?

In the pre-pre-globalised world, in a time long past, population was dependent on resources. In each locality, settled, separate, independent and unmoving as it was, the population was a part of the ecosystem, working with it, in times of abundance the population grew, of scarcity, the population diminished. In many places it seems the population remained steady over very long periods of time.

And in those where the population grew inproportionately, too often alongside technology, the civilisation collapsed (Mayan collapse hypothesis etc). Trade, technology and the globalised world have yet again shifted this balance, it has gone skewy.

If populations were still contained, if food were a merely localised entity, the ratio of food to population would be and would remain coherent. Today, existing on a massive, indeed global scale in multiple forms, the food industry, like hunger appears to have taken on a life of its own. It is an issue that Johnstone appears to highlight, one cannot grasp Hunger, nor its causes, the theories are as numerous as they are cerebral. Yet, until the question is palpable, grasp-able and practical it is un-solvable. It is my opinion that agriculture and food have to be returned to a practical and practicable, local level before the question can be grasped. To do this, before imposing it elsewhere, we have to call into question our own practices.

On moral:

Our political, economic and ethical systems incentivise technological development and individual wealth over genuine human equality. If we really wanted to address people’s hunger, we would change these systems, and the systems of thought that underpin them. Hunger is becoming one of the great moral failures of the 21st century.

Referring to “the systems of thought that underpin our political, economic and ethical systems” Johnstone is speaking abstractly. But, I sense a nuance of something emerging, a nuance of something angry and idealist, is he perhaps blaming the thought-structure of the Capitalist system?

I am convinced that hunger, in its myriad forms, is the result of our own blind greed. Were it to be plotted on a graph, I am sure there would be a direct correlation between obesity in the developed world and malnutrition in the developing. [Not to ignore that hunger is present in the developed world as the developing]. Are we that ignorant to not realise that by participating in the food industry as it is we are collaborating in world hunger? We ease our moral conscience with gimmicky good deeds, we smile self-righteously, we totally ignore that we – you, me, are the cause. We go as far (for example) as persuading ourselves that by eating Kenyan green beans we are providing employment for Kenyans, it is therefore morally correct. I am not convinced. This attitude does not reflect the multiple and intricate effects of this sort of detached consuming – the workload, the treatment, the minimal wage of the Kenyan bean-grower; the environmental effect of the pesticides and fertilisers used – loss of topsoil, erosion of landscape, poisoning of air and rivers (fortunately not in our back garden); not to mention the effect of these hazardous products on the workers themselves; the carbon footprint of farming, fertilising, packaging, importing, chilling the beans… We choose to be ignorant, it is so much more comfortable.

If the West were to release their hold, if they were to relax their control, if the West were to let go of their power… Inconceivable, and, as with Iraq, Afghanistan, it’s too late, we’re implicated, we’re in too deep. But that is how I see the situation, to tell the truth, right now I see development as a total farce, a psychology of power employed by the West to keep what it wants for itself and to keep those in poorer countries providing for us, impoverished and dependent on our aid – not unlike the days of the immensely rich and powerful Church attended by the poor.

I find our methods to put an end to hunger unconvincing. Until we as a group of united nations consider how much we really want justice and equity, how much we are willing to forsake, the wealth/lifestyle distinction between “us” and “them” will remain, and hunger will persist.

The information quoted is taken from Harry Johnstone’s article.
‘Hunger’ by Harry Johnstone is published on

‘The True Cost of Cheap Food’ by Timothy A. Wise appeared in Resurgence Magazine no.259 March/April 2010.