The 12 days of Christmas give me plenty of time for reflection, commencing with the joyous occupation of reading the new cookery and food books I have received, and culminating in the Oxford Real Farming conference. This year I reflected on how our Food Culture, and in particular our meal structure, evolves.
January is also a time of resolutions, most of which have been broken before the month is out. Some of the loudest clamour over the past few years has come from vegans, who have renamed the month Veganuary. Having observed how often vegan, and vegetarian, options aim to replicate meat, I noted how strongly embedded our single course “meat and two veg” culture is. Leaving aside those who have opted to go cold turkey on meat, there are far more people looking to reduce their meat consumption without cutting it out altogether. Reducing meat consumption correlates with increasing our vegetable consumption, important for our health wherever you stand on the meat issue. Whatever change you seek to make, if it is to stick, you need to understand how the status quo came about. This means understanding our food culture and in particular the way a meal is structured. Although our mealtimes, and structures, have changed over the years, these have usually been in response to other changes in our life, for example the invention of electric light lengthening our day or industrialization leading to people moving to, and working in cities. Now, against a backdrop of climate change, attempts to reduce our meat consumption are likely to fail if they ignore our food culture.
You often learn most about your own food culture when seeing it through other eyes. When I chaired Slow Food UK’s Ark of Taste, nominating UK foods to an Italian committee taught me a lot about our differing food cultures, and the history behind their development.
I learnt a lesson about the fundamental importance of our meal structure when I was accompanying a group of Italian students from Slow Food’s University of Gastronomic Science to meet producers around the UK. We visited a smokery on the Somerset levels where smoked eel was the endangered food (sadly now so endangered that they have ceased selling it). However, at that time it was still on the menu, and I advised that it could be chosen either as a starter or main course in their three-course lunch. Whilst a three-course menu in the UK is automatically assumed to consist of starter, main course, and dessert, in Italy three courses gets you only as far as our “main course”. Hardly anyone had ordered a dessert, they were instead selecting one starter followed by another (often soup) then a main course. The poor waitresses were totally lost about what portion size of eel was required! It reminded me of how deeply embedded “meat and two veg” is in our Food Culture and, I would venture to suggest, the next most important course is the dessert. Think about how school meals today still usually consist of these two courses, even if we are more conscious about the healthiness of the dessert!
The topic of meal structure was recently raised by a friend who lives in Italy. She wanted to know how many antipasti dishes constituted the ideal number as she often feels full before she reaches the secondo (main course). I would happily forgo the secondo to enjoy more antipasti, but this, we agreed, was probably because we rarely have them at home. Whilst accompanying vegetables are usually offered with the secondo, they do often feel like an after-thought and, depending on which region of Italy you are in, the antipasti often offers a more interesting selection of vegetables.
Another new book last Christmas was Claudia Roden’s Med. The veteran food writer discusses the structure of a meal and in particular highlights how restaurants here have embraced “sharing dishes,” where three or more small dishes are put on the table at once for all to share. This structure, she feels, makes it much easier to serve little, or no, meat.
Yet I feel that it is a structure that is a long way from being embedded in our daily meals. It seems to be waning in popularity already, perhaps Covid has made us wary of sharing? Whilst talking of menu structures when eating out, we should also mention the “Tasting Menu.” It gives the chef the opportunity to show off, but for me rarely satisfies. And my husband hates tasting menus so much that we now avoid anywhere that serves them. We find that whilst we may have eaten many tasty morsels, we often feel like we are still waiting for the main event.
Rather than radically alter our main course, I would suggest that we can begin to change our balance between meat and vegetables by adding a vegetable starter or salad course before our “mains.” This seems to me a gentler way for our food culture to evolve.
I really baulked at some of Claudia’s other suggestions designed to move us all to a Mediterranean diet. For example, that “we may not all have the privilege of making food that is ´from the landscape to the plate´, but the majority of Mediterranean ingredients are readily available to us. They may not all be as good as those grown and ripened in the sun, but we can get the best out of them.” This runs completely contrary to my principles. I read a book such as hers to get inspiration from a culture that I usually regard as being all about “eating the landscape” and then apply it to the foods produced here! Claudia’s observation that the cooking of the South of France has become the most popular all over the country cemented my fears – I had always viewed “French” food as the epitome of regional cooking.
Another aspect of our food culture is that we are very open to outside influences. Largely I regard this as a positive attribute, and it should make change easier. Sometimes though, it means that we lack clarity about what is actually important to us, and some would even say that it indicates that we do not really have a food culture to speak of. I think all we need to do is speak of it a little more often!