Slow and Local

Last weekend I was fortunate to find myself in a somewhat more upmarket shopping precinct than I usually frequent. Finding our destination closed, I steered my friend into a nearby, legendary food provedore.

Barely had we found the extra-virgin olive oil, then we were offered a complimentary cup of coffee. That the extra ten minutes spent in the store would, of course, give me more time to look on the shelves and more temptation to buy.

Perusing the shelves I was struck by how far this food had travelled. Sure, a massive blackboard proudly proclaimed just one local ingredient: “Manjimup truffles $2,500 per kg”. Well I guess we’d all write that on our blackboard if we had the chance.

The shelves displayed beautifully packaged pastes and potions from Christine Manfield but everything else seemed to be from very far away, as in organic “ketchup” from Spain, organic biscuits from the UK, bottled pears from Italy and so it went.

So for days now I’ve been pondering this slow dilemma: can we justify our desire for high quality food, especially organic, when it is shipped from afar? Organic food may be better for one’s health, it certainly makes consumers feel better about themselves, but what about the carbon foot print?

The obvious response is “Oh but it isn’t available here” and that is often the case. “Boutique” products cannot be mass-produced. However, if as it appears, there is a market for such foods, why isn’t more of it produced here in Australia?

Having struggled for accreditation, with the additional workload and costs and a marketplace  demanding cheap food, organic farmers  are finally in a position where their products are in demand. However, being smaller producers they may not have the resources needed to add value to their produce.

So who will give small, sustainable farmers support? Clearly not our authorities.  Australia’s Risk Assessment Appeals Panel thinks we should be importing apples from China, and now New Zealand too. Here in WA we’ve seen the go ahead given for GM canola trials, though as yet we still can’t prevent GM crops contaminating non-GM crops.

On the other hand we could consider the words of Joel Salatin, who features so prominently in Food Inc. Salatin’s farm aims to provide clean food and educate consumers and food producers.  Visitors are invited to:

Experience the satisfaction of knowing your food and your farmer, building community.  We are your clean meat connection.

When asked what he will do when demand exceeds supply, Salatin is unequivocal – he cannot do what he does on a large scale. He can only provide for his immediate area while encouraging and assisting farmers elsewhere to give it a go.

Salatin will be running workshops in Australia later this year, November for the ACT. A good chance to hear a universal message – slow down, smell the roses and eat local.

Dr Felicity Newman is a member of the Centre for Everyday Life at Murdoch University

Farmers’ Markets or a Warm Bed?

Though the mornings are getting warmer, Sunday mornings offer something of a quandary for this foodie. How should slow weekend days begin? A sleep-in followed by a leisurely breakfast in bed, perusing the papers? Or will culinary considerations rule? Early though it may be, a trip to my nearest farmers’ market is sure to at least provide good fair-trade coffee and an organic egg and bacon roll. Yes the bacon is free-range; the roll is made from organic ingredients, as are the blanched spinach and array of sauces. I must weigh up my need for the luxury of a late start against the need to express my eco-friendly, slow identity. Joking aside, should a trip to the FM be a compulsory element of a slow weekend?

We need to consider what is at stake, not steak, though no doubt that will also be free-range. Artisanal foods – boutique foods made on a small scale – are the antidote to the mass consumption offered by supermarkets and fast food outlets. They are more expensive, reflecting the smaller scale of production and increased cost of high quality ingredients. If we want to continue to see these products on sale; those of us who can afford them should support these local producers.

Surely the most important consideration is of ”food miles.” Those of us concerned with reducing food miles are becoming known as “locavores”, add that to your wardrobe of identity formulations. Locavores recognize that the further food travels the greater its carbon footprint. Importing foods from afar is wasteful from the point of view of fuel costs in transport and also the extra packaging that may be involved. However, there are some products which are clearly associated with a particular country or region. If we forgo these luxuries what happens to the struggling farmers in that area?

If we buy locally from food producers we meet we can be assured of fair trade, we can assume no child exploitation has been involved. Young Bluey helping on the farm is not experiencing the life of African children sold into slavery for the hazardous job of picking cocoa beans.

Then there’s the experience. If speed is your thing the supermarket makes sense, while the Farmer’s Market offers a community experience during which you forage for hidden gems all the while expressing your eco-consciousness as you stuff organic goodies in your sustainable shopping bags.

Farmer’s markets are spreading, no doubt aided by the messages delivered by the likes of Maggie Beer, the ever effusive Costa and of course Stephanie Alexander whose Kitchen Garden Project continues to spread and to inspire, showing children how to grow fruit and vegetables and encouraging their pleasure and wonder in that process. Those who take in the message will face the weekend challenge in years to come. Let’s hope the egg and bacon sandwiches continue to thrill.

Dr Felicity Newman is a member of the Centre for Everyday Life at Murdoch University

Everything New..

This week in the Food Studies class I teach, the topic turned to food miles. Having newly learnt that much of our food comes from very far away, students have written guiltily and at length, of the scourge of the carbon footprint as another new manifestation of the problems of life in the 21st century, as though food has never travelled before.

When I tell them globalisation began with Colombus they look startled, as young people who have perhaps never learnt of him, or indeed any other historical figure, might.

Eminent anthropologist, Sidney Mintz argues in his monograph Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History, that it all began with the sugar trade. You only have to consider the great sugar producing nations to see the truth of this. Not only did sugar travel across the world, so did the plants themselves and the labourers, and with horrifying consequences.

The Caribbean was largely repopulated by slaves from Africa while indigenous populations were eradicated.   And what of us? Australia’s history of “blackbirding ” of Pacific Islanders to cut sugar cane in Queensland is no less shameful.

This history is of course rarely considered as we tuck into ginger cake, lamingtons or banana bread. These traditional afternoon tea delights are redolent of our British origins. It’s just that we forget how closely tied those origins are to our colonial past.

My grandmother and my mother grew up in the cold, working class, north of England and their dietary preferences reflected those origins. Friday night dinners shared with Nana would inevitably end with “pudding”. This pudding might emerge from any number of strange, but available, ingredients, custard and jam being amongst them. But always desiccated coconut, which I have since grown to loath, my admiration for the origins of that archetypal Aussie sweet, the mighty lamington, not withstanding.

However desiccated coconut, bananas and ginger (powdered, preserved in syrup or candied) have long been staple treats of the British diet. Of course they speak to us of Empire – of the days when Britannia ruled the wave and her British (and Australian) subjects could enjoy the fruits of empire: tea and sugar being foremost amongst them.

We might think those retro sticky date puddings (there’s another one – no date palms in the Old Dart) are very last decade but as sure as winter follows autumn these sweet delights will grace menus this winter, yet again. What of the health messages, the diabetes epidemic, the obesity epidemic? They didn’t emerge from a culture which makes its own puds on special occasions. They are more likely to result from an assault on the freezer compartment of your supermarket, while a homemade pudding offers the enjoyment of shared activity, sense of accomplishment and real flavour.

Less of Sara Lee and more of Margaret Fulton I say. What was that Noel Coward said, something about everything old being new again?

Dr Felicity Newman is a member of the Centre for Everyday Life at Murdoch University