The Italian Way of Food

Ever since Italy became an integral part of the Grand Tour in the last century, northern races have had a love-hate relationship with it. The noise, the chaos, the wild gesticulations and the emotional candour are all aspects of life that have been bridled in the north. And yet there lingers among the northerners a desire to know it; the same fascination that makes people stop to look at the scene of an accident.

Italy as the antithesis of the northern cold both in climactic and emotional terms is a well-worked theme. E. M. Forster used it as a backdrop to turn his quintessentially English heroes and heroines into people who connected with their emotions; today the Tuscany of the colour supplements represents holidays, sun, food and wine, and perhaps a dabble of culture. It is a place where repressions and emotional control take second place to an appetite for life.
There is no doubt that Italy, and especially southern Italy, is an unrelenting assault on the senses. Arrive by air in Rome and once outside the airport it begins: the heat makes the tarmac shimmer and the skin tingle; the air is heavy with the smell of oleander, black tobacco and diesel; background noise seems twenty decibels higher than usual; colour and light assail the eyes. It is in many ways a land of sensual excess.

It is also a land of spectacle. The backdrop provided by nature is endlessly surprising and varied, and against this natural beauty Italians play out their lives in a kind of boisterous, chaotic street theatre. The bustle, the loud speech, the large gestures all make sense when the whole is viewed for what it is: a theatre of life where every action is performed for public appreciation.

All of which explains why in Italy a meal is never simply the intake of calories, but is rather a celebration of appetite. It’s not just the effort in the preparation that’s appreciated, but also the gathering of the ingredients. My friends there think nothing of walking for four to five hours in the mountains to gather a few skinny little wild asparagus stalks which will, at best, be enough to flavour an omelette. At a dinner party in mid-August our host had driven to Caserta, an eighty-mile round trip, to buy buffalo-milk mozzarella. Not because it wasn’t available in the local supermarket – it was – but simply because the mozzarellas from Caserta tasted better.

More than anything, what is appreciated is purity in the raw ingredients. By this I mean that their provenance should be known – it’s what Italians call ‘genuino’ or unadulterated. Let me illustrate this point better by describing a lunch we went to a few weeks ago at the house of my friend the poet, Gerardo Vacana. ‘Just a simple, light lunch,’ he promised, ‘nothing too heavy.’

We began lightly enough with fresh mozzarella, prosciutto from his own pig, fresh bread, and olives from his own trees that he’d brined himself. Simple, pure and easy on the digestion. We drank his own cabernet and poured his own olive oil on our bread.

Next came home-made sagne – a kind of tagliatelle common to our region – in a light chicken broth. This too was light and digestible. The chicken, of course, came from the coop in the garden. After this came the home-made ravioli, each one painstakingly filled with ricotta and home-grown spinach, covered in the lightest of sauces made with cream, butter and parmesan. Then in quick succession came the chicken that had made the broth, served with potatoes and re-fried turnip greens, then the roast beef course and lastly two desserts. By five o’clock we sipped our coffees, and gratefully accepted a glass of nocino, a home-made liqueur based on walnuts which has the remarkable property of aiding the digestion of such Pantagruellian feasts. There is only one thing you can do after such a meal, and that’s take a short siesta that allows you to get up sufficiently rested in time for dinner.

The obvious question is how come Italians are not all hideously obese, if this is how they eat? The answer is that most of the time that’s not how they eat. If you call on anyone unexpectedly at lunch-time, likely as not you’ll find them eating a salad with maybe a slice of cheese. The kind of liver-crippling lunch that I’ve described is not daily fare, it’s for guests. In a way it’s as much a part of the daily theatre as anything else. The abundance and the effort made in the prepartion and gathering of the ingredients is all part of the theatre of food. It’s a show-case designed to both honour and impress the guest with quality, and above all with quantity.

It’s hard to avoid the assault on the senses and on the stomach. There is such enthusiasm, such verve when it comes to eating and partying that the visitor is swept along with it. The word ‘no’ simply disappears from the vocab, and every preferred good feelings of appetite is greeted with a ‘yes’. The Latin tag ‘semel non satis est’ – once is not enough – was never so apt. The word ‘diet’, too, is rarely heard. There is a well-established principle in Italian life: no pain, no pain.

As Italian food is increasingly found on menus in Ireland the question arises, how much of this culinary tradition can we import? Despite the often asserted claims that good Italian food can be got here in Ireland, I am becoming increasingly convinced that the best we can hope for is a pale imitation. Not because the skills don’t exist – they clearly do – but rather because of the igredients. Tomatoes from under glass do not taste the same as unsprayed, unforced Italian tomatoes freshly picked from a hot Apennine hill-side. Hot-house basil is not in the same league as the herb form Genova; fruits straight from the trees have an intensity of flavour unmatched by those that are picked immature and then shipped in nitrogen half-way around the globe. And bread: until we learn to buy daily from bakeries that make bread for immediate consumption as opposed to bread designed to stay soft for five days we’ll never know the joys of the real baker’s art.

But this apart, Italian cooking is more an attitude to food than a set of recipes. It involves a willingness to source the best ingredients even if it’s inconvenient, acceptance of the fact that good food cannot be prepared in a hurry, but above all else, an understanding that a well-prepared meal is a thing of joy; a celebration of being alive.

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The Typical Italian Sunday Lunch for Old Philadelphian

Sunday morning in Gallinaro, my village in Italy, is a time to see and be seen. People who live in the townland, but not in the village proper, come to the center either for mass, the market, or just to go to the bar. By ten o’clock the center is buzzing, parking places are hard to find and the Bar del Centro is packed with men. The women, of course, are cooking. At midday the town begins to empty and at ten past it is deserted. Everyone has gone home to that great institution, Sunday lunch. The roads still have cars on them up to about one o’clock, but after that every car has turned into a house or restaurant and the Italian nation eats.
I have just been looking at a photograph; it was taken at my cousin’s house in Italy a month ago at Sunday lunch. We were eating indoors to be out of the heat, the shutters were closed and a few shafts of sunlights burst in through the cracks. The effect is like a Caravaggio, light and shade on the many faces around a large and groaning table. It’s a picture of a very typical Italian Sunday; four generations of Tullios sharing a meal in famiglia. A huge bowl of steaming rigatoni sits centre stage, bottles of local wine and mineral water in clumps along the length of the table. What the photograph fails to capture is, of course, the noise. The conversation is loud – everyone wants to be heard; the children shout, the adults talk simultaneously, outside the shrill song of the cicadas.

Liliana, my cousin’s wife serves the rigatoni – a large cut pasta typical of Lazio – onto plastic plates. We all have plastic cups, but the cutlery is steel. This is increasingly common in Italy during the summer since everyone is on holiday and no one feels like doing the washing up. Gigino, my cousin, opens two bottles of red and two of white and leaves them on the table before sitting and starting his rigatoni. I pour some red. It’s slightly fizzy – petillant – and smells strongly of grapes. It’s made entirely from cabernet franc and is almost purple-black. Unpasteurized and unfiltered this is just fermented grape juice – no stabilizers, no additives, no nothing. Gigino adds Gassosa, a bit like 7Up, to his. The sound level abates as forks start to convey pasta to mouths. Liliana looks around the table. We all nod: the pasta is good. She relaxes and immediately offers seconds. Gigino says he shouldn’t as he’s trying to lose weight – he accepts only one more plateful and so do I. Now we start to tear at the bread and mop up the sugo from the bottom of the plate. More wine to wash it down.

I look around the table. All the men are at one end, the women and children at the other. No one seems to find this odd. The women put the plates into refuse sacks and Liliana arrives with a large platter of roasts; chicken and rabbit. The chicken is good, but the rabbit is spectacular. I shout across the table to Liliana – I want to know how she did this. She shouts back: “Piece it first, put it in a pressure cooker with some water, garlic and rosemary. No salt. After ten minutes throw away the water, add salt, garlic and rosemary again and some more water. Cook for an hour, then brown the pieces in a frying pan with olive oil or roast in an oven till brown.”

I pick another piece off the platter with my fingers and put it on my plate. What looks like an eye stares at me. Sure enough, I’ve picked up half a beautifully roasted rabbit head. I may be a carnivore but my sensibilities don’t run to this. I stare at it. Gigino picks it off my plate. “Take another bit, this is the head, it’s for the dog.” He throws it outside onto the terrazza for Noelle. I eat some chicken. Chicken in our village have long thin legs; they walk about and forage, lay eggs that taste wonderful and taste good when cooked. Roasted peppers and aubergines are on the table, a large salad with rocket, marrow flowers dipped in batter and fried, and roast potatoes.

Plain ice-cream follows, but Liliana pours wild strawberry liqueur over it, tiny wild strawberries forming a pile on top of the ice-cream, while the pink liqueur runs into the plate. We finish with fresh figs, coffee and nocino, a walnut digestive liqueur. As the leaden Atlantic skies presage months of winter, memories such as this keep the summer sunshine alive.

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Italian Pizza Made Perfect

I’ll admit it before I begin: I have deep prejudices about pizzas. For one I like them best when they’re Italian – but then I would say that, wouldn’t I? I feel about deep-pan pizzas as I do about instant coffee – perfectly agreeable, but not to be confused with the real thing.
I’m not even happy with a well-made Italian-style pizza unless it comes out of a wood-fired brick-domed oven. That’s how prejudiced I am. It starts, like any bias, in the home. In my kitchen I make my own dough and use a wood-fired oven to cook the pizzas. Consequently I measure others against my own.

Cooking in a wood-fired oven with no thermostat needs getting used to. I test the temperature with a piece of newspaper. If it goes brown and wrinkles up, then the temperature is right. If it bursts into flames, then it’s too hot. I copy the Neapolitan technique of the double firing; that is first put in the base with the tomato sauce and a sprinkling of olive oil, then when the base has nearly cooked, add the mozzarella and the rest of the filling and put it back in the oven. This way the base gets cooked without burning the mozzarella.

The quest for the perfect pizza has lead me to try different yeasts and different flours. Finding specialty flours took a bit a time, but when I found Shackleton’s Mill on the Liffey all my problems were solved.

Apart from finding the strong flour I wanted, I had a beautiful autumnal drive through the strawberry beds. The mill stands on the banks of the Liffey, a huge, rambling six-storey building dating from the Napoleonic wars. It’s full of trap-doors and ladders; wooden floors, walls, ceilings, doors and walkways from one level to the next.

The Shackleton family have been milling since the 1770’s, and the Anna Liffey Mill has been in the family since 1859. Two pelton turbines drive the millstones and the more modern steel rollers, while a third provides emergency power. Milling is one of those rare industries where low-tech, in the shape of water power, far from being a handicap becomes a major plus for the range of wholemeal flours produced here.

Michael Higgins, their technical expert listened to my needs and gave me bags of strong white flour for pizza and durum wheat semolina for making pasta. Strong flour is literally just that. When you stretch the dough it doesn’t break; it’s strong and elastic. If you’ve ever seen pizza chefs throwing the dough about, twirling it and spinning it, and you want to try for the same effect yourself, then you’ll need the strong flour.

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What Does “Organic” Really Mean ?

What does the word ‘organic’ conjure up for you when you see it on a label? Do you see horse-drawn ploughs tilling the earth in some idyllic pastoral scene? Does it make you think that whatever foodstuff you’re buying is produced in a vaguely defined way redolent of seventeenth-century farming practices? That’s what the marketeers would like you to think. They’d like you to associate that word ‘organic’ with wholesomeness, purity and with the naturalness of times past.
But is that necessarily the truth? And more importantly, is the price you pay in any way related to the quality of what you buy?

Taste is by its nature profoundly personal. Our language is littered with phrases like ‘one man’s meat is another man’s poison’, so finding absolute truths in matters of taste is no easy task. Yet there are certain givens that are hard to deny. If you’ve ever eaten a tomato straight off the vine, you’ll know that it has a very different taste from one that’s been on a supermarket shelf for a week or so.

Wine growers have known for millennia that vines do best in certain soils. The French use the word ‘terroir’ to describe the flavor that a particular soil imparts to a vine. It’s a given that the soil in which a vine is planted has a major effect of the resultant fruit. And that’s the simple truth at the root of the organic movement. If you treat your soil properly, you’ll reap a healthier and tastier harvest.

That’s why you’ll find ‘The Soil Association’ as the arbiter of who gets to put their logo and the word ‘organic’ on their products. The first job of a prospective organic grower is to get their soil purified from chemical contaminants, and only then can they start to grow organic produce. The question is, of course, why isn’t every grower doing this?

The answer to that lies in the ‘cheap food’ policies that have been pursued by governments over the past 100 years. There has been a continual drive to provide cheaper and cheaper food to the consumer. That very policy has resulted in some of the more extraordinary food scandals. Take beef production. Once cattle were kept in fields where they grazed on grass. We milked the cows and raised the bullocks for beef in a system that had served mankind for millennia.

Then the push started to find ways of producing cheaper beef. We started to keep them in sheds on slats rather than in fields because they put on weight faster. Then we looked for cheaper feed stuffs. That move led to feed stuffs that contained just about everything from chicken droppings to waste parts of other cattle. Should we really be surprised to find out that this system resulted in BSE and CJD?

Today in America there are cattle batteries run on the same system as our chicken batteries, where up to 30,000 animals are raised and slaughtered in batches. Bigger numbers mean larger savings on management and feed costs, but there is a downside. Put any organism – be it a cow or a lettuce – in a vast monoculture and you’re subject to disaster from disease. A sick cow in a field may infect one or two others in the same field, but a sick cow in 30,000 head feedlot becomes catastrophic. The only insurance policy against this is huge amounts of antibiotics for animals and chemical pesticides and herbicides for plants.

It’s the intensive farming methods that end up causing us problems. They do produce cheap food, but there are hidden costs which we’re not taking cognizance of. Farmed salmon has made affordable salmon available to everyone, but the effects on marine ecology have been pervasive. And here, as in other cases, putting huge numbers of fish in confined cages results in build-ups of parasites, which can only be controlled through chemical management. So to have cheap food available to us, the consumers, has meant that we are forced to eat along with our cheap food all the chemical additives that went into its production.

It’s easy to get into an ‘organic panic’ over this. I know people who eat only organic food, dress their children in organic clothes and give them organic toys to play with. There’s a sense that the word is being over-used by the marketing men, because when it’s displayed prominently on a product it tends to help sales. It made me wonder what else could be marketed as ‘organic’. Organic houses? Organic cars? Organic water?

Actually, it’s worth looking at water closely. If you’re an organic vegetable grower in Ireland you’re not allowed to use tap water to irrigate your plants. That may seem a trifle extreme, until you discover just what goes into our tap water. Irish tap water contains fluoride. Every country in Europe has banned its use in water supplies and only a few water companies in England still use it, but 450 water schemes in Ireland use it to supply 2.7 million people, despite the fact that it failed a formal EU vote on safety in 2001. The Soil Association rightly believes that the fluoride in the water will become assimilated by the plants, and subsequently assimilated by you when you eat those plants. So tap water isn’t good enough for organic lettuces, but it’s good enough for this country’s children.

Putting it simply then, the economic argument is this. If you want cheap food in the supermarkets, then it has be produced by industrial methods. The trade off is that you have to put up with a lot of extraneous chemicals as part of your diet. If you want food free of herbicides, pesticides and antibiotics, then you have to pay more for the higher labor content in its production.

When you walk into a supermarket and find a chicken on sale for less than the price of a pint of beer, you may wonder how we got to this point of insanity. Surely a chicken for $3.99 must ring alarm bells. What could it have been fed on that cost so little? I spoke to a gamekeeper recently who told me it costs between $16 and $18 to raise a pheasant for a shoot. The reason why you can buy them in a poulterer’s shop for $5 is that it’s been subsidized by a shooter who paid for the privilege of shooting it. But the figure does correlate with what you’d pay for an organic chicken.

There’s no getting away from it. Food that complies with the definition of ‘organic’ does cost more than food produced with the help of petrochemicals. Growing organically is more labor intensive, and you get to pay for that. But what you’re also getting is certainly more flavor and possibly more vitamins and trace elements – and no chemical residues.

Where you need to be careful is in recognizing when the word ‘organic’ is used simply as a marketing ploy. Like any food descriptions it’s subject to strict EU labeling rules, but the big agribusinesses are constantly pushing to get more liberal interpretations.

There’s no doubt that as a nation we’re becoming increasingly concerned about what we eat, and it’s right that we are. The same market forces that brought you the cheap food policy are now pushing for genetically modified crops to be used in Ireland. Just as before the battle cry is that GM means greater yields and cheaper food, so the arguments in its flavor are similar to those used to back-up intensive farming methods.

But there’s an emotional side to this as well, one that strikes to the very essence of who we are and what we want from the world around us. Wouldn’t you prefer to see cows and sheep in fields, hens pecking under orchards, and vegetables grown in a natural way? What kind of world would it be if all the fish in the sea were in cages, animals could be found only in feedlots and vegetables only in hydroponic poly tunnels?

It is the business of big business to get bigger, it’s the nature of the beast. We’ve already turned over most of our food production to their hands. There are virtually no small bakeries left serving local communities, our milk comes from huge co-ops and real eggs are illegal. Small, independent butchers are finding life almost impossible under the new regulations, which seem designed to enshrine in law that all our food is processed by multinational conglomerates. But each time you buy an organic product, you’re helping to keep small producers in business, people who care about food and its production.

Try the Taste Test.

Try a frozen 1,600 gr. chicken and a free-range organic one. The cheap chicken will cost around $4-$5, it will have pale, watery flesh and little taste. The legs will be short and fat.
An organic chicken at about $15 will have darker flesh, more flavor, less water content and will have longer, thinner legs that it will actually have walked about on.

Apple Juice
A litre of apple juice from the supermarket will cost about $1.50. Try it side by side with an organic apple juice, like the excellent Irish made Karmine. At $3 it’s twice the price, but once you’ve tasted it you won’t want to drink the other kind again.

Try a salad of Mark Michel’s organic rocket, and then one with rocket from a Dutch greenhouse.

Here’s an example when the word ‘organic’ doesn’t do anything for me; ‘Organic’ farmed salmon. Farmed salmon is the antithesis of everything that I believe organic should mean. Wild salmon is truly organic, farmed salmon is an abomination.

The difference between battery eggs and free range organic eggs is huge, although both kinds come from a battery. Real eggs from hens that wander about pecking in fields cannot be sold legally. If you can get these eggs, you’ll be eating eggs just like those your grandparents so fondly remember.

Although organic lamb can be found, it is expensive. A leg of organic lamb can cost as much as $60, while a leg of frozen New Lamb in Lidl costs $10. Lamb is one of the few meats that I’m prepared to eat even if it’s not organic, since most lambs are still raised on pasture.

Because pig rearing is so intensive, pigs tend to be dosed with more than their fair share of antibiotics and as a result it’s a meat I rarely eat. Organic pork is a treat, although just like other organic meats it is expensive.

If there’s a moral to all of this it’s that you should think about what you eat. Ludwig Feuerbach once famously said ‘you are what you eat’, and if that’s true you should try to avoid foods that have been produced chemically, unnaturally and intensively. Bon appetit.

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Food for the Philly Millennium

Some years ago when I was still a restaurateur, I had a chef called Humphrey Weightman, a talented cook and a musician. He was the first man to introduce me to the concept of letting flavors speak for themselves and concentrating on simplicity. He took no short cuts in anything that he did and I remember the day he said to me ‘You know, one day restaurants like this will be museums of food.’

Now that’s an interesting thought. We have museums of Art and Natural History, Music Halls of Fame, museums of 20th century ephemera, museums of tribal artifacts, but nowhere is there a museum of food. And that’s odd, because food is something we not only need to survive, but that we enjoy on a daily basis. There are places like Strokestown that have re-created nineteenth century kitchens, and Hampton Court with its sixteenth century kitchens, but although close, it’s not quite the same thing. Faux medieval banquets with serving wenches is more Hollywood than history, but if nothing else they show that somewhere there’s an interest in how we used to eat. What ideas we do have about the eating habits of history come for the most part from movies. Charles Laughton as Henry VIII throwing bones over his shoulder to the dogs, medieval knights in John Boorman’s ‘Excalibur’ carousing at the table, our early ancestors grunting round their cave entrances in 2,000,000 BC – all images that we take in and presume to be accurate.

Even archaeologists devote effort to establishing the diets of our forebears. From around 50,000 BC and possibly earlier the diet certainly consisted of berries, nuts, the odd cereal like barley and, of course, meat. There’s always been an understanding that our diet is inextricably linked with our attitude to life. I always liked the story of King Leonidas of the Spartans, the man who fought the battle of Thermopolae, going on a state visit to Athens. He instructed his men that they were not to eat any of that decadent Athenian food and eat only their staple diet of barley porridge. Decadent people, decadent food; Spartan ideals, Spartan food.

For most of human history diet has been based on one simple precept: eat whatever is available. In times of famine all culinary taboos disappear. People have turned to eating dogs and rats, and even cannibalism was not unknown. The urge to survive has always taken precedence over habits and taboos. But perhaps the most important correlation between food and man is that whenever food is abundant population grows. Around 10,000 BC we find the first evidence of agriculture in the Sumeria and in Mesopotamia. Learning how to grow crops of particular varieties rather than gathering them meant abundance, and with that came not only larger populations, but an increase in leisure time for a few. These lucky few, who did not spend their days labouring in the fields, had the time to devote to intellectual pursuits, like the study of the heavens and to art and philosophy. The beginnings of what we call culture was inextricably linked to freedom from the drudgery of finding food. Whenever new crops were found with larger yields, population grew alongside. Wheat is a good example. Constant refinement and careful breeding meant strains with bigger, fatter seeds could be grown. River deltas and plains where these new crops could be grown successfully became centres of dense population. Countries like Egypt were able to support an immensely complex society on the wealth that this crop generated, supplying corn to most of the Roman Empire.

As European man explored the globe in the middle of this millennium there was a two-way traffic in crop varieties. Settlers in the Americas took high-yielding wheat varieties with them and indigenous American plants, like the potato, came back to Europe. How that one plant affected Ireland is a story we all know, but once again its introduction meant Ireland’s population grew steadily until the blight of the 1840s. The continuing exploration of the globe meant that Arabian coffee beans could be grown in South America and American rubber trees could be planted in the Far East. Bread fruit was considered to be the miracle crop, the same crop that drove the men of The Bounty to mutiny. Man suddenly had access to all the earth’s natural produce and could decide where he might like to transplant it. These major transpositions of crops have fuelled the relentless increase in human population up to today’s 6 billion.

But as Thomas Malthus observed in 1798, whereas human population growth is geometric, increases in food production have always been arithmetic. In short he believed that increases in food production would inevitably be followed by a growing population, which would in turn need more food. Up until now food supplies have kept up with demand, but the pressure is constant. Despite what many of us believe, our grip on this planet is not so strong. Two weeks of extra monsoon rains can leave huge numbers of people flooded, homeless, hungry and in many cases dead. Climatic zones are also constantly changing. Areas like southern Arizona once had enough rainfall for a wheat crop and supported a population of Pueblo Indians. Around 1880 the rainfall began to drop off to today’s arid levels, leaving them with no further crops, and consequently no further livelihood. In Russia the steppes have been warm enough for wheat production and for many centuries produced enough to feed the nation. Changes in climate means that that’s no longer the case, and Russia now imports its grain.

So with this backdrop we can look into our next millennium with some apprehension. Gradual shifts in weather patterns that created the Sahara desert means there will be changes. The Sahelian belt will get wetter while areas around the densely populated 40th parallel will get drier. This will bring a big shift in the economics of food production, with exporting countries becoming importers and vice-versa. In millennia gone by these weather shifts were easier to deal with: whole populations would simply move to more acceptable climactic conditions – an option in today’s regulated and frontier-policed world that is no longer available. Major movements of people in search of better living conditions have traditionally resulted in war with the people who already inhabit those areas. The prospects for peace in an increasingly over-populated world aren’t great.

Governments and their researchers are constantly looking for ways to increase food supplies with less effort and greater profit. Genetically modified food research is simply a logical extension of that search. In countries where there’s an abundance of food we can afford to say that we don’t want it, just as we can afford to say we’ll be Vegans, Janes or plain vegetarians. But for most of mankind, diet is simply what the indigenous technology and climate can provide; choice doesn’t come into it. In the affluent first-world countries the shift towards leaving food production to specialists, while the majority of the population do other useful work, has been dramatic. By far the largest section of these societies has nothing to do with the production of food and is far removed from a knowledge of how it’s done. The distancing of the majority of people from the primary production of food has resulted in economic growth and a technological explosion, but it has left our diet at the mercy of people who are beyond our control.

A trend that’s easy to see is how in increasing numbers we get our food. We buy it packaged in supermarkets. I know farmers with dairy herds who buy their milk in cartons, so pervasive is this trend. The only certainty is that this trend will not only continue, but will take on new twists and turns. Already cling-wrapped meat that we buy in a supermarket is unrecognizable as being a body part of an animal, further distancing the consumer from the production. Chickens are increasingly being sold in pieces with names that distance them from the anatomy – like buffalo wings, drumsticks and even stranger, nuggets. What part of the hen do the nuggets come from? In the name of choice we’re offered pre-cooked foods, but no choice in what chemicals may be added to these foods to allow them to live for days on a shelf. Big business controls food production and distribution and that trend will continue. EU laws have made it increasingly hard for small producers to distribute, further forcing the market into the hands of a few major players. Have you tried to buy a farm egg or cheese made from unpasteurized milk lately?

By choosing the freedom of easy shopping and per-prepared foods we lose the freedom to decide what we actually ingest into our bodies. No one ever asked us did we want to eat beef that had been fed on human excrement or chickens that had been fed on pig’s entrails, because the final consumer has no say in the matter. We entrust that regulation to our representatives, and they do what big business requires of them. Which is why there’s still an ongoing attempt to foist GM foods on us. The food industry is increasingly globalized and just like other multi-national conglomerates it will remain largely beyond the control of individual countries. Food scares and unnatural ingredients are the price we pay for our convenience, and they will continue into the new millennium with even greater frequency.

Unless you’re prepared to grow all your own food and devote yourself to that and nothing else, then more of what we’ve already got is the best you can hope for. It’s possible that if governments abandon their cheap food policies we could put the production of food back into the hands of individuals with ethics rather than conglomerates without – but I won’t be holding my breath for that. I’d guess that the chains of distribution and the sales outlets already in place are too ingrained to change now. Take a good look at whatever natural foods you may have in your larder; they may well be the ingredients for a museum in the coming millennium.

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