Wednesday, September 10, 2008

London, an eye opener!

I seem to always start these entries with “it’s been so long since I have updated this”! I feel like I have left you hanging, not sneaking you the naughty taste of the cookies, after you have spent all afternoon bathing in scent of their baking.

Well the truth is, I have been eating all the cookies without you!
No, really, I have!
Cookies in London, Iceland and Paris!

But now it’s time to share. Today it’s London!

So as you know, I went to London, to ease the pain of being apart from Anthony whilst he was in Nice working. In fact, this unexpected, “something to do” week, ended up being a very liberating and purposeful time spent browsing the offers of a city that is struggling with it’s food image.
I have noticed, since I last stepped foot in London (in ’99), that things have indeed improved significantly on the food front. Prior to going there this time, I had been spoon-fed a range of ideals, opinions and suggestions from all the English buddies I work alongside at the Bakery. They proudly suggested their favourite tea-totalling spots, and creative hangouts.

Religiously I missioned my way around them all. Ottolenghi, Hummingbird Bakery, Acorn House, Wholefood Supermarket, Flatwhite, Chegworth Valley Farm Shop, and there are still a few I will get to next visit.
It was true, some of them were amazing takes on how to present the sustainable living model of using organic produce, but on the whole I felt sad. I don’t know if what I expected was a little warped (maybe I am spoilt in Tasmania!).

In France, the idea of organic has never really taken off, and England (as compared with France) is leading the way in that battle for sure, so I was excited to re-immerse myself in easy access sustainable products.

But after a week there, with all these labels singing ‘organic, sustainable’, in chain whole food supermarkets, it made me reassess the whole idea of why I choose organic produce (besides the obvious health and environmental benefits).

Why? Why do I, and others, feel so compelled to jump on the organic bandwagon as it passes? Just like everything else, it is a fad, and it will pass.

On the contrary, I realize, that this is one fad that is necessary now, and has got a happy, healthy ending for everyone in the world, and the more that jump on board, the better we will all be.

But how did we get here…? How did food become a marketable fashion, and why doesn’t France (of all the fashionable countries in the world) feel obliged to make a big deal of it like everyone else is?

Well, if my feeling of London was anything to go by, I am happy France is exactly where it’s at regarding their attitude to food. The English food scene, to me, felt like I am sure it would in a number of other big westernized cities around the world. I felt a bit like I was pulling a big doona up over my body, keeping me safe and comfortable on top, whilst underneath, I was lying on a cardboard box on the street. Kind of a false sense of security, that allows complacency in the end.

This complacency is a supreme trust that the multinational companies (who are making a fortune from the latest fads) are telling us the truth about the food we are eating. It is this complacency that has led us to diabolical situation we are in with industrial agriculture, the exact reason we are all thinking we should now eat organically grown. My question for you is, can we afford to be complacent anymore? Wasn’t it only 36 years ago (not even a human life time) we were being told DDT (a crop pesticide that was linked with asthma, diabetes and various types of cancer) was safe?

Don’t get me wrong there are many people and companies out there, who really are trying to do the right thing, and the good ones are the ones that educate you at the same time.

In London I found a few amazing restaurants and cafes, highlighting seasonal, and not just organic, but local food too. One restaurant I found serves nothing that isn’t farmed within the limits of the M25, the large freeway that encircles the city.

In it’s entirety though, every high street looked the same, chain stores, fashion or food, lining both sides of the street. In some ways I had been craving this lick of home, where I could understand everything and it was familiar, but a recent bout of clarity made me question whether I am actually understanding everything afterall!

If organics and sustainable agriculture becomes a chain, a product that we can package and label and create something familiar from, no matter where in the world you find it, then we might just have missed the point!

This is where, upon my return to France, it all fell into perspective for me.

Call me slow, ignorant, or just not seeing the positives due to a bout of familiarity homesickness, but I really hadn’t seen it before.

Paris, and from my (to date) limited travel in France, really has something special in the way of culture, and understanding of food and what it represents.

I know, I can hear you say – “of course” that’s what it’s famous for. Well, yes, but when I got here, with all my grandiose dreams of Parisian life, and the food etc etc. It was indeed amazing, but not as amazing as I really believed it would be (they eat a lot of hot chips and steak here – hardly culinary brilliance!). But I had been over criticizing this place.

I think, for a while there, I was actually convinced that Paris (and that’s the only place in France I can talk about with conviction) wasn’t much more of a foodie location than say, Melbourne. I mean I know Australia is only the young cousin of Europe, but I thought we had done a pretty good job of catching up.
Now I have realized, and this is the revelation you’ve been waiting for, is that culture matters more in food than any of the labels we, in the western world, can stick on an over packaged item.

If you travel all over the world, and the organic produce (packaged or not) looks the same from one place to the next, you have to start to question why?
Culture isn’t that transportable actually. An engrained belief or learning is hard to teach without looking like your preaching (hence all the religious battles in the world). So even though Australia seems to have caught up, maybe we shouldn’t have been focusing on catching up, but just creating our own local food culture.

This is where my analogy of the comfy doona on the cardboard box comes in.

After all these years of food abuse in industrial agriculture, where we have been wringing the life out of something like corn, until it resembles nothing like a corn cob, we have made organics fashionable, and people are starting to support such produce.

As an aside, did you know that dextrose and high-fructose syrup– that random word you see on the ingredients list of all manner of processed foods – is actually some form of corn, which arguably acts as pure fat in your body upon consumption!

I am happy that we are all starting to get it, and support organics, because every time you choose that over processed piece of meat from the meat case, you are only confirming that the marketing department of the industrial agriculture company is doing a good job.

I have often wondered why they don’t put a picture on the label of the real cow that is in the plastic wrapper before you, instead of happy cow standing in the sun in the paddock? I guess the 3-foot of shit it’s standing in doesn’t look that appetizing when you are about to chow down on the steak. It goes to show though, they too aren’t proud of what their doing!

Why is it though, that the majority of us didn’t get it, until the marketing departments told us to. Of course there were the crusading few that started the demand, and the big, money making, enterprises saw that there was a buck in it, but why isn’t eating well something we want to do naturally, like the French?

The French have all manner of pastries and temptations that they could be wrapping their mouths around every lunchtime, but they don’t. Mega-mart type stores are a relatively new invention over here. I can also honestly say, that I could count on one hand the number of people I see drinking soft drinks as a beverage of choice, sparkling water is the go for most.

So if we continue this phase of labeling something sustainable, organic and that means healthy and good for the earth, without actually LEARNING the truth for ourselves, how are we ever going to break the cycle of just believing what we are told?

Choosing healthy options, and treating treats as just that, is a lesson that is engrained in you in France, according to Mirelle Guilliano, the author of “Why French Women Don’t Get Fat”. I work with a few women in their 50s and 60s, who are living proof of that school of thought. Their resistance to treats, although they are working in a bakery surrounded by buttery goodness, is remarkable and something I can say I am not gifted at. Yet I grew up with all the fresh produce one could want, in an environment conducive to exercise and healthy living, so how did I miss out on the sweets “shut-off valve”?

Well maybe it’s about hands-on learning? Being responsible for your food choices, knowing your farmer and where a carrot comes from, and that they shouldn’t all look the same!

Give a kid a choice in the battle for a healthy body, and, be honest, what would you have chosen as a kid – crudités of carrot with home-made hummus, or a Uncle Toby’s muesli bar?

Me, I would have gone for the muesli bar, because it’s muesli, healthy and sweeter than the carrot. Until I was old enough to find out for myself, I had no idea that these well-marketed bars of health, were in fact, full of sugar, and marginally better for you than a Tim Tam. I don’t even know if my mum knew, but that is fine, because the TV tells us they are good for us, and we believed them. It’s hard not to catch on to something being rammed down your throat at a precisely selected TV time slot or on a convenient banner space right outside school. That was how WE (as a general city dwelling population in Australia) learnt about food.

I can’t say unquestionably that city dwelling French children learn more about their food sources and consequently better habits, than Australian kids, but from what I have read of Guiliano, and from discussions with other not-fat French women, culture prevents them from listening too hard to the marketing campaigns!

The mega marts are creeping in, but oh so slowly. Their sugary promotions are tempting but the French are doing a fabulous job of resisting them. Yes there is McDonalds and Starbucks, but they aren’t EVERYWHERE you look. Even the billboard advertising in the metro system is mostly for art exhibitions and fashion, than emblazoned with Coca Cola and the like.

So, it’s great to go and buy some organic produce from your local whole foods store or organic market, but I urge you, to not just do it because you were told to in a marketing campaign. Take it on to learn about the people that got your food to your table. Question the storeowner as to why the organic meat is a little more expensive than the non-organic stuff. Why is better to try a different grain than the stock standard wheat for your cake or bread? Why buy local milk?

Don’t feel overwhelmed, just start to question a few of the marketing campaigns that made you choose that packet mix (full of dextrose!) and pre-packed meat with a faceless farmer. You might even start to enjoy the process of getting to know Farmer Joe! Let alone work out why your child has an attention and hyperactivity problem!

In the meantime, bon appétit!


The Borough Market outing and consequent feast!

we started at 9am, and it finished at 12am. A feast of fresh local produce, and a Croatian Brodet (fish stew) for the troops!
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The Buying of the Borough Market Feast

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The Cooking of the Borough Market Feast

The cooking
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Local spots from the gals at work

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Monmouth Coffee House

The Hummingbird Bakery - famous for its cupcakes

The Hummingbird Bakery
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Ottolenghi - Notting Hill





Ottolenghi, Notting Hill.
I particularly like how the barista can interact with the customers through his own little window and the customers are all dining as a family (doesn't suit everyone though!)
The display of food is something I really like, as it is creating visual interest through different levels, and colour.
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more Ottolenghi

more ottolenghi!
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