Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Food: much more than what's on your plate

We all have our likes and dislikes when it comes to food. Some hate broccoli. Others loathe olives. There are even people who don't like chocolate. (I know. If I hadn't personally met one of these people, I wouldn't believe this could be true either.)

This photo of my stash shows that I'm obviously not of their strange tribe.

What I'm also beginning to realise is that many of us also have our own philosophies when it comes to food. We've all heard of people who only eat food that's seasonal, local or organic. We know people who choose to be vegetarians or vegans. Perhaps none of these labels applies to you but I'll bet that as you learn more about food, cooking and what you like and dislike; you too will develop a philosophy of your own.
I certainly think this is happening to me...

From the moment we are first introduced to solid food as babies, we begin to make our way through a world of flavours, discovering what it is that we do and don't like.

I was a pretty easy child to feed. The only things I didn't like were dried fruits (which meant my mother's fruitcakes and currant scones were and still are off the menu) and vinegar on chips (we didn't eat chips that often when I was a child and I still remember one occasion in a neighbour's house being so excited that she was making us chips and then bursting into tears when she served them already doused in vinegar!).

The food I ate as a child came mostly from my family's farm and was what I would consider traditionally Irish. Beef stew, bacon and cabbage, lamb chops in gravy,steak, roast chicken, roast legs of lamb (for special occasions) and Dingle mutton pies... All were served with potatoes and vegetables (onions, cabbages, carrots, parsnips, broccoli, cauliflower, etc) from the farm.

We also had neighbours who were fishermen and would share their surplus catch with us. This meant that at certain times of year, it was common for us to have salmon, mackerel and haddock for our dinner.

Before you think we were ahead of our time eating organically and seasonally, I have to say this diet was supplemented with foods my parents considered modern such as Angel Delight (a Sunday treat) and a lemon meringue pie that came in powdered form and had to be reconstituted with water (!).
My attitude to food began to change when I started to work as a waitress during the school holidays. Slowly, I became aware of the endless possibility offered by food and the importance of using the best quality ingredients. I also began to gain a new respect for traditional Irish foods and recipes. (So often, people think that Ireland has no cuisine of its own but this isn't true. I once worked with a chef who used to serve a version of Irish stew that contained seaweed as a thickening agent and that came from a 9th century recipe used by Irish monks.)

One particular encounter with a chef changed my attitude to food drastically. Although she worked in a kitchen that served meat and fish, she was a committed vegetarian. She was passionate about her beliefs and never missed an opportunity to try to convince people to follow her example. (Just in case you're wondering: she wasn't preachy when she did this. She was actually quite funny about it.)

I had been moving away from meat for a while by that stage. As a university student, I could rarely afford to buy meat in the shops so finances dictated that my diet was dominated by vegetables. There were occasional meat fests though such as when my dad would send up steaks for me and my friends or when a friend's mum would arrive with a chicken for us to roast for dinner. At that time, I regarded meat as a luxury. What little of it I ate was organically produced and was shared with friends for a special occasion. Happy times!

By the time I was 19 however, I had become a vegetarian. My father was not pleased but I vowed not to eat any meat or fish- not even his steak - ever again.

I held firm until I moved to France aged 21. I'd lived in Normandy previously as a student, where I'd been shocked to see French students eating lasagne and burgers from vending machines (I'm still horrified at the thought of that! I'd had such high expectations of the French and their cuisine.)

This time, I was living in a small village in the mountains near Toulouse where I was teaching English in the local secondary school. As a foreigner, I was a great novelty in the village and as a result, I was invited to dinner very often. I was delighted by this but there was one aspect that began to bother me: the inevitable reaction I would get as soon as I mentioned my vegetarian diet. Their faces would fall and I would see them mentally wishing they could retract their invitations.

I can't remember how long this went on for but after a while, I started to reassess my priorities. After all, food is about more than what you eat. The social aspect of sharing it with others is important too and I didn't want to miss out on that. So I decided to compromise and eat fish. This was something the French seemed to be able to understand and we all got along much better after that - apart from a few pangs of conscience on my part.

This is Saint Affrique, the vegetarian-phobic but lovely French village that was my home in 1999/2000:
There were occasional hiccups though. One weekend, my friend Claudine invited me to spend a few days at her husband's parents' farm in the countryside. The place was a revelation to me. These people were living the self-sustainable dream. Everything that was served at their table was made on their farm. They grew their own fruits and vegetables. They made their own cheese, butter and yoghurts. They made their own wines and liqueurs (including a walnut drink that I savour the memory of to this day). They also slaughtered their own meat.

In fact, they were so excited to have me to stay with them for the weekend that they had slaughtered a goose, a goose that was to be served that evening along with homemade foie gras. What could I do? They had gone to so much effort on my behalf and they were so excited about sharing the fruits of their labours with me that I simply had to tuck in.

Another event that was to have a huge impact on my relationship with food was moving in with my boyfriend. I once interviewed Myrtle Allen of Ballymaloe about her life in food and one of her comments has stayed with me since. She said that had she not married a man who had high standards when it came to the food he ate, she might never have become a good cook. This might not sound like the most feminist thing to say but I think there is some truth in her comment. I enjoyed cooking and experimenting with recipes long before I moved in with my boyfriend but having someone to cook for - especially someone who appreciates good food - makes you try harder. As a single girl, particularly when I lived on my own, my evening meals would often consist of easy-to-cook pasta dishes rotated throughout the week. Now, I try to have much more variety.

Meeting other people who are interested in food, reading food blogs and talking to the foodies who write them, dining in great restaurants and experimenting with cookbooks has shaped my attitude to food too.

I'm currently reading four books that are chiming with the way I now think about food.

The Flavour Thesaurus by Niki Segnit, which I've written about previously, is feeding the experimental cook inside me. Her musings on flavours that go together (liver and apple or chocolate and bacon) are encouraging me to throw caution to the wind and take a more intuitive approach to cooking.

The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan is a real eye opener. Although it focusses on farmers and food producers in America, what it has to say about modern industrial farming practices should terrify us all. Although I am only one third of the way through it, I am already much more aware of what I eat, where it comes from and - most especially - the tricks employed by food companies to make you think that what you are eating is natural/healthy/artisan/etc. It makes me all the more convinced that here in Ireland we should focus on developing a food culture that is natural and wholesome and grown, raised and produced with minimal interference.

The third book on my bedside table is Healing with Whole Foods by Paul Pitchford. I was ill for a while last year and although I always tried to eat healthily, I now have an even greater awareness of just how important the food we eat is. This book is a treasure trove of ancient wisdom and I'm learning a huge amount about food and how it can be used to not only keep you happy but healthy too.

Finally, there's The French Menu Cookbook by Richard Olney. This book is all about seasonal food cooked simply and eaten with friends, which - to be honest - has to be the best way of eating, doesn't it?

It was my birthday last weekend and I went to Killarney to celebrate. At one stage, I was sipping prosecco and perusing a menu in a restaurant (it was a GREAT birthday!), when I realised that my attitude to food had changed. I was very aware of ingredients and of the implications of descriptions such as 'corn-fed' actually meant. I was looking for seasonality. I no longer felt as strongly about vegetarianism as I once did (now I believe that what's important is that the meat we eat should be from animals raised in a natural and ethical way. I rarely eat meat myself as my body appears to have developed an aversion to it but I am not opposed to eating it on principle).

Most importantly of all, I was glad to be sharing good food with someone I loved.

Food is certainly about what is on your plate but it's about much more than that. It's about the memories you have of childhood and the associations you create with certain flavours (though I no longer hate the taste of vinegar on chips, it will always taste of disappointed tears to me). It's also about the people you meet and what they teach you. Late last year, an Israeli friend of mine cooked me nettle soup with nettles she'd collected from her garden. A keen forager with an interest in the medicinal qualities of plants; I can tell I've got a lot to learn from her.

Food: it's a lifelong journey.


  1. Interesting read and held my attention through to the end. You reminded me that as a child I used to love vinegar sandwiches!!! Yes, a slice of bread and lashings of vinegar (didn't have chips that often either). One of my brothers used to eat ketchup sandwiches and my neighbour used to eat butter and sugar ones. So yes, it's a very individual thing.

  2. Gimme the recipe,
    Vinegar sandwiches! Certainly an individual thing. I also used to go through phases with food. I remember there was a time as a 14 year old when I would only have spaghetti hoops for supper. It lasted about 6 months. I never eat them now.