Monday, 26 November 2007
I have recently been dipping into this book of essays about food. I best know the author of Snail Eggs and Samphire, Derek Cooper, as the presenter of The Food Programme on Radio Four, so I was pleased when a collection of his writing was published in 2000. I have been reading a little at a time, every few days or so.
This week's piece, "Defying Nature", is a plea for fresh food and a balanced diet. Cooper was writing about a retired GP in Perthshire, Dr Walter Yellowlees, who deplored the poor diet he had seen during his years as a local doctor: "tinned meat, tinned vegetables, very seldom any salads; masses of white bread, scones, biscuits, cakes, sweet drinks, packeted milk puddings, margarine instead of butter, and, in place of porridge, the ubiquitous packeted sweetened breakfast foods." I'd have to admit that sounds a pretty fair representation of the contents of our larder during my Perthshire childhood, though biscuits and cakes were in short supply. Yellowlees recalled that his elderly patients remembered a time when they had fresh local food, before farmhouses became holiday homes. There were, during my childhood, occasional visits to people who still lived as they had grown up, in rural farmhouses where food was freshly prepared (and the baking was legendary). One of my happiest holidays was to a cottage (admittedly even then a holiday let) next to a family of smallholders. I went morning and evening to watch the cow being milked, and my fascination with the process was only outdone by that of the farm cat, who knew she would soon be given a saucer of warm creamy milk, her reward for being a trusted mouser.
Cooper's writing throughout the book is a plea for good food, lovingly and carefully produced. We are benefiting these days from a resurgence of interest in real food and his book discusses everything from the revival of interest in cheese production to how museums present the history of our food, by way of herring fishing in the Hebrides and backgarden egg production (a subject after my own heart).
A radio programme this week suggested that in Britain we read huge numbers of books on cooking, while rarely venturing into the kitchen ourselves. Perhaps we would do better to read more books that, while they celebrate the best in food, also document the addition of water to meat and bacon, the move from eating butter to margarine, the loss of regional recipes, the depletion of our fishing stocks. If we were better informed about what we eat, more people might decide that they would rather prepare it for themselves. I have admitted on this blog that I don't cook - well, I don't, largely because I live with people who do it better than me, and enjoy it more. I'm more enthusiastic about growing food for someone else to prepare. My red Russian kale is a thing of great beauty. And the joy with which a gone-to-seed lettuce is received by the Bluebells is a delight.