So even Prince Charles’ carrots, surely some of the finest in the land, can’t withstand the rigours of the modern food distribution system. The produce of Highgrove has been rejected by Sainsbury’s on the grounds that it was found to be rotten on delivery. As the head of the Soil Association Patrick Holden explained, this was because, instead of being picked and sent straight to market as one might expect, the carrots had been subjected to a mad delivery merry-go-round involving hundreds of miles travelling to and from Sainsbury’s central packing plant at Peterborough, and then months of cold storage before they arrived on the supermarket shelves. That’s modern food logistics for you. It’s supposed to be streamlined and efficient, but in truth it is simply barking mad.
News that the French have applied to have their cuisine protected by Unesco ‘heritage’ status raises some fascinating issues. Apart from the inevitable ‘mine’s better than yours’ sniping it is likely to cause in certain circles, there is no question that French Cuisine is unique in Europe for its ‘verticality’ – that is, its range from the very highest culinary refinement to the local tradition of ‘terroir’ and provincial cookery.
But whatever its merits, the question of how to protect French cuisine from the creeping influence of industrialised commercialism is already dividing the nation, with some arguing that gastronomy, like language, must be allowed to evolve naturally, otherwise it risks becoming petrified, resulting in the very opposite of what those arguing for its protection want to achieve.
This dilemma goes to the heart of every food culture, including our own. How does one set about preserving local food identity and tradition without turning them into artificial museum pieces? I would argue that the answer lies, not in preservation per se, but in renewed cultural recognition of the true value of local food – a value that we so often only recognise when we have lost it. Only if such cultures are truly popular (that is to say, alive and evolving) do they stand any chance of survival in the modern world.
Well, the reviews have started rolling in, and what they seem to be picking up on so far under titles such as ‘Our Recipe for Disaster’ (The Observer) and ‘Unappetising Truths about the Food Industry’ (The Telegraph) is that the way we eat now is damaging our bodies and destroying the planet. Too true. But Hungry City is not just a book about how we are all going to hell in a handcart – it is also a practical attempt to find a way out of the mess. I do understand that when you confront the realities of modern food delivery for the first time, it can be pretty shocking. But we need to get beyond the shock, and start taking action. That is the real message of Hungry City – that food is not just a question of what we eat, but something that shapes every aspect of our world. By recognising its importance, we can change a lot of things for the better. For me, that is a very positive thought.
It’s been a long time coming, but at 7.00 pm on the 5th June, Hungry City finally saw the light of day. It was an emotional moment for me, arriving at La Fromagerie, Patricia Michelson’s wonderful political cheese shop in Marylebone, to see rows of bright new copies propped up by the window, waiting to be adopted by their new owners and taken home to read.
That was my last moment of calm: the rest of the evening passed in a whirlwind blur, trying (and failing) to speak to everyone, get through my speech without blubbing (which I nearly managed) and thank my wonderful editor Poppy Hampson (below, on the left) for all her amazing work on HC.
La Fromagerie did us proud with their customary panache, plying us with bucketsful of prosecco and some delicious nibbles (my favourite was a squidgy hot cheese bun), and a jolly good time was had by all.
I am reliably informed that book launches are very like weddings for those at their centre…I wish I could have had the evening several times over, in order to experience it properly. But it did feel wonderful to celebrate the arrival of Hungry City in such a fantastic place and in the company of so many great friends who have contributed so much to the book. The hard work of writing is over – now let the dialogue begin!!
ps…if you are a food-lover yet to discover the delights of La Fromagerie, you are in for a real treat! Just check out the cows on their website! La Fromagerie.
It’s moments until midnight, and in HC world, that’s countdown to blast-off. In a mere matter of moments, Hungry City is going to be officially ‘published’. Of course I’ve had a copy of it for a few weeks now, and apparently people who ordered it on Amazon took unexpected delivery of their tomes yesterday – and my friend Lulu even emailed me yesterday to say she had seen (and bought) a rogue copy in her local Waterstone’s. That was enough to send me scuttling to WHQ in Piccadilly for my first official sighting, only to be disappointed – apparently the flagship store doesn’t haul out its wares prematurely. But I must admit that as a first-time author, I can’t wait to see a copy of HC out there ‘for real’ (hopefully with lots of people pawing it). The mere idea gives me goose-bumps. I realise that this may seem a tad OTT to some of you, for which I can only apologise. When you’ve spent the best part of seven years slaving over something like this, you tend to succumb to the odd excess of emotion. I just hope – really hope – that people will like it.
Not my title, but that of a discussion I facilitated tonight at the Science Museum Dana Centre on the subject of sustainable/ethical food. With the UN Rome summit on the global food crisis taking place on the very same day, it couldn’t have been more timely – indeed, it was almost too timely, since one of our star speakers, Tim Lang, was detained by Newsnight in another part of the building and only made the debate with minutes to spare.What became clear during the evening was that the food debate, so long a discussion held solely among consenting academics, really has gone public.
What was less clear was precisely what the answers might be to all the VERY BIG questions people are now starting to ask. But there was a consensus of sorts in the room tonight – that, although the way forward may not be clear, it is becoming increasingly obvious that food is an issue we all need to address with extreme urgency – and one that, above all, we need to address together.