JOANNA'S FOOD: family cooking, from scratch, every day

Friday, October 10, 2008

Suivant les marchés - or the 100-mile diet?

Here's a thought from Jane Grigson, a challenge to the fashionably dominant idea of localism:

Suivant les marchés, that current phrase of the good restauratuer, that guarantee of honest cookery ...

The market is no small concept. In the Middle Ages our northern ships were taking salt cod down to the Mediterranean and Portugal, bringing back wheat, spices and dried fruit - dried fruit in such quantities that the people who produced it wondered what on earth we did with it in the north. I think everyone would agree that Portuguese and Mediterranean cooks do far better things with salt cod than Scandinavians, and that the British know far more about using currants and raisins than the Greeks.

Food and ideas about cooking it have been passing from one part of the world to another ever since the neolithic revolution began in the Middle East. They were part of the spread of civilization though, since people will change their tastes in painting and architecture much faster than their tastes in food, knowledge of what was eaten is far sparser than knowledge of the houses that were lived in or the clothes that were worn. Cookery books were few before the 17th century - and how close is the general diet at any period to the cookery books published? Change owed more to the movement of people, of armies, merchants, chefs, wealthy landed travellers, than to books. Before canals, the railway, good roads, most places ate what could be produced within a 30-mile radius. Ports did better of course, if they were on a big trade route. For most people food was essentially regional food and not always enough of it either. Even in good areas, peasants ate a meagre diet, since most of what they produced went for sale at local markets. Only wealthy men could buy special seeds to grow exotic vegetables, or employ gardeners who understood how to grow fine fruit unfamiliar to the place they lived in, or afford chefs trained elsewhere to provide variety and elegance at mealtimes.

Actually, it's more than one thought, as I've given you more than I planned ... but such interesting ideas, worth pondering.

How lucky we are. Long may it last.

* this comes from the introduction to The Observer Guide to European Cookery, published in 1981. It's not a great book by Jane Grigson's standards, in fact, I think the introduction is the best bit.


Sophie said...

Definitely worth pondering. I like Rose Prince's take on this - much as she advocates using british ingredients, she also comments that the English Table "has always been thieving".

There are some things that we just can't get in the UK that I couldn't stand forever being without in the kitchen (lemons for example)

Joanna said...

Yes, I agree, especially about the lemons. I think we have to get back to the idea of buying in only a few choice ingredients, not being so greedy for everything. Then it wouldn't need to be airfreighted, which seems to me the worst of all worlds (and worst for the world)


PS the Rose Prince book - good? I see her in the Saturday Telegraph sometimes, and find her impressive ... but I wonder if the book is a re-write of some of the best English cookery writers who are my most-consulted ... would value your view

TopVeg said...

Yes - quite right! Long may it last...