On the Ball: the Revival of Polish Food

posted by Geoff Andrews at Sunday, December 09, 2012

Football and Polish food have always gone together for me. I first went to Patio, London’s best value Polish restaurant, in the mid-1990s following Queens Park Rangers matches and have been going on and off since then. Whereas QPR’s fortunes during this time have swung from the sublime to the ridiculous - normally the latter – Patio’s menu has been extraordinarily consistent. The old favourites, Bigos, Golabki (stuffed cabbage rolls), Pierogi, and Blinis are still there. Plus vodka and pancakes of course. While QPR has been turning itself into a ‘boutique’ club, Patio has maintained its atmospheric, slightly cramped, old drawing room, complete with piano. Its clientele are generally loyalists and an eclectic mix of artists and locals, who are used to Polish hospitality rather than the global-speak of modern service culture. As England’s match with Poland was being called off last week I found myself in Patio again; its Shepherd’s Bush Green venue now not only convenient for QPR but also for the bus back to Oxford. While QPR season-tickets have escalated, even the price – three courses for £16.50 – seems hardly to have risen at all.

One of Fabio Capello’s lasting legacies to the English football team was to arrange their accommodation and training base in Krakow for Euro 2012. Since his departure before the tournament began, his decision was initially the subject of some criticism as it placed the squad some distance from their group matches in Ukraine. However, could it just be that Capello, a known connoisseur of fine cheeses, and with an eye to art and architecture, was attracted by Poland’s cultural renaissance, including its culinary pleasures?

The Polish national team may not have lived up to expectations at Euro 2012 but Polish cuisine has been undergoing something of a revival since the end of communism in 1989 and now deserves wider recognition. ‘Hearty and wholesome’ is a frequent, perhaps overly stereotypical, description of the stews, soups and dumplings, and this can sometimes overshadow some of the exceptional produce now beginning to be recognised – such as its beer and bread. Poland’s recent history explains much about its recent resurgence, though as I found when I was travelling for my Slow Food book, many of its food stories have very deep roots and have shown remarkable durability. This was also apparent during the Polish Culinary Paths tour in Warsaw I attended last autumn, organised by the Adam Mickiewicza Institute, which was founded to promote Polish culture and international exchange.

Milk Bars

If 1989 was the moment when farmers and food producers could see a way out of austerity, state control and rationing, it is also revealing that in the case of Poland not all communist era food disappeared. Unlike some eastern European countries (Romania comes to mind) whose food traditions under communism had almost been obliterated, the memory of Polish food was never completely lost. The continuing popularity of the milk (mleczny) bars has surprised many. Conceived originally as cheap wholesome food for workers, as communist city canteens during meat rationing in the 1960s, the Milk Bars have managed to survive, some would say reinvent themselves, in the post-communist era of fast food and global restaurants. In Warsaw alone, there are still around ten milk bars. In the Bambino milk bar in the financial district, in a street more renowned for Sushi and expensive ‘global’ restaurants, queues form early for lunch. The clientele here are in fact are a wide social mix of professional people, students and workers, not put off by the austere conditions of simple formica tables. At one corner is an official from the US embassy, at others students and apparently homeless people. There are no waiters; food is ordered at the counter and then brisk no-nonsense kitchen staff call out when it is ready for collection. The food on offer here consists of traditional home-cooked Polish food; soups, pierogi (dumplings) and stews for around 4-8 euros for a full meal. Though meat is now an option in some places, there is no alcohol and often plastic cutlery.

In Praga, a working class district of Warsaw situated on the banks of River Vistula, which was a very poor and occasionally dangerous place under communism, the Milk Bar remains virtually unchanged and a meal here costs next to nothing. Nearby is Praga’s old market, once the scene for black market food exchanges where aspects of Poland’s rich culinary tradition would be sustained by grandmothers dishing up ‘illegal’ helpings of local meat dishes. Milk Bars are still subsidised by the state and accept food tokens for those without work or on low incomes. They remain popular with students, elderly people and people living on the margins but their appeal is clearly wider and has been increased during times of economic hardship. In a country which initially welcomed the novelty of fast food, they offer evidence that there is a cheaper healthier option. This is fast ‘slow food’.

Praga was the home of some of Warsaw’s major vodka distilleries, though little is left of that trade now. One of these, Koneser, has been converted into a major cultural venue, which includes an art gallery, concert venue and bar, where you can still taste a variety of vodkas along with Flaczki (tripe stew), herring and sausages. Some are hoping Praga, with its converted warehouses and vibrant creative heart, can be the Brooklyn of Warsaw. This mix of tradition and innovation has become to characterise Polish cities in recent years, providing a hope for a more sustainable type of tourism at the same time as promoting the countries rich culture. Food reflects this trajectory perfectly. .

The Warsaw Ghetto.

From the top of the Palace of Culture and Science, Warsaw’s tallest – and one of its ugliest – building, which was a ‘gift’ from Stalin to the people of Poland and is still reminiscent to some Poles of the period of Soviet domination, you can make out the remnants of the old Warsaw Ghetto. This was constructed by the Nazis in 1940 and housed together 400,000 people almost a third of the population of Warsaw, under appalling conditions of repression, disease and starvation. From there, the majority were sent to perish in Treblinka Concentration Camp. The film The Pianist reminds us of the resistance and the extreme hardship of life in the Ghetto and the importance of Jewish culture at its most desperate time. Despite the horrors and tragedy of that time, the importance of Jewish culture in Warsaw has remained and celebrated in an annual Festival of Jewish Culture in the city. It is also evident in the food revival, in which the revival of Jewish cuisine has been led by Malfa Kafka’s Tel Aviv restaurant.

Many Polish food stories have fascinating histories which should enhance the potential for its future revival. In 2007, Jacek Szklarek told me the story of the Oscypek cheese producers from the Tatra mountains who, in order to avoid export restrictions, had to smuggle their cheese under bus seats on their way to Slow Food’s Salone del Gusto. Along our journey from Warsaw to Krakow we also dropped in on one of the few traditional mead producers. At Terra Madre 2012 I encountered Jacek, tasted more Oscypek (served with cranberry sauce) and toasted Jaros Maciej’s mead at the stall presided over by his son. I also discovered for the first time the Lisiecka sausage, made from tender pork cuts and full of flavour (with slight pepper/garlic aromas) and which, like many other traditional Polish products, was often clandestinely produced under communism.

Polish food is clearly not looking back, however. Three days in Warsaw made it apparent that polish chefs and producers have embraced new ideas, evident in new restaurants and bars like Tamka 43. For nouvelle cuisine Polish-style, and a menu which is postmodern in the extreme, you will have to visit Wojciech Amaro’s Atelier Amaro. It had only been open a few months when we visited but his revolutionary idea of re-imagining classic dishes with a modern twist had already made a big impact, winning Poland’s first Michelin Star. He offered us 5 moments, (including Venison and wild berry; wild Salmon and blackcurrant) and much philosophy. On reflection, I think however that the traditionalists win the day and would expect to see more interest from food critics in the history of Polish food over the next few years.

Mercatino del Gusto

posted by Geoff Andrews at Monday, August 20, 2012

The Mercatino del Gusto is an annual 4 day event held in Maglie, Salento, in Italy's heel, organised by Slow Food Puglia. This year was its 13th edition and a testimony to the commitment and imagination of Michele Bruno and his colleagues. I was speaking about my Slow Food book in a late night session under the theme Un Sorso di Cultura ('A Drop of Culture), a mixture of words, jazz and cocktails, which also included Slow Food's Antonello del Vecchio. This was the perfect combination and the evening was enhanced by the presence of Gustosofo ('philosopher of taste') Michele Di Carlo, who introduced his original Puglia Colada, and the actor Maurizio Ciccolella, who was presiding.

The discussion was engaging and convivial. I earlier wrote something in English, reprinted below, which compared Slow Food principles to the Olympic ideals and included some of the themes of the discussion. Thanks to Fabio Massimo Conte for all the photos

The London Olympics has been very exciting. I was very proud, as an adopted Londoner, to see the Opening Ceremony last Friday night. This ceremony presented ‘Britain’s story’. It was a story told through our social history, popular culture, music and humour. A very British sense of humour, involving the Queen and James Bond. For me the real brilliance of Danny Boyle’s direction was that he wanted to tell the world the story of Britain through the people. These included some ‘forgotten’ stories. He wanted it to be a ‘history from below’, involving important traditions, and one which reflected the diversity of its people. This was a history which did not defer to corporate sponsorship and big business.

Slow Food shares many Olympian ideals. Instead of the ‘best, strongest and fastest’, it celebrates ’good, clean and fair’, but the principles are very similar. Above all they are defined by fairness and internationalism and a desire to bring together specialists and experts, from around the world, who provide us with pleasure and enjoyment.

Slow Food hosts its own ‘Olympic’ events, many of which I have been lucky to visit over the last few years. These include: Terra Madre, Salone del Gusto, Slow Fish, Cheese, Salina Isola Slow, (where I met Michele Bruno for the first time). Mercatino del Gusto, is obviously another ‘Olympic’ Slow Food event. I am very pleased to be here. These ‘Olympic Slow Food’ events are also built on the stories of ordinary people: the producers, farmers, chefs and those who work on the land. In these Slow Food stories, the farmers are the ‘rock stars’.

I wrote my book after visiting ten countries and hearing many different stories. Sometimes in very unlikely places. I remember the jam producers in a remote part of Transylvania (Romania), who were trying to recover their food traditions, in very difficult circumstances, after communism. In the home of fast food, the USA, I discovered many committed young activists determined to change their food culture. Meeting them and visiting small producers in remote parts of Wisconsin and Ohio changed my view of the USA. Slow Food Nation in San Francisco was the biggest Olympic Slow Food event outside Italy.

In Italy, of course, you have extraordinarily diverse food cultures. In Britain people talk about ‘Italian food’. But there is no such thing. The regional differences are profound. They tell many different stories. I have been to the Nebrodi mountains in Sicily to meet and taste the ‘suino nero’. I lived for a while in Bologna and was able to buy prosciutto and parmigiano from a different producer every day. I lived for a while in Bra, Piemonte, Slow Food’s ‘Olympic village’, where the 150 employees work in the offices. I particularly remember the long slow lunches with friends from Slow Food editore that lasted 3-4 hours. (In England people eat sandwiches next to the computer). I have been to the South, to Naples and to Bari and Matera. This is my first time in Salento. I know that the hospitality of the South is unique and I have enjoyed hearing about the food stories. Most British people go to Tuscany and Umbria. (They don’t know what they are missing!)

My book has the title ‘Slow Food: una storia tra politica e piacere’. I have described the pleasures, but we also need to understand the politics of food. In fact, Slow Food’s greatest argument is that we cannot separate politics and pleasure in the case of food. There are many dangers at the present time of austerity that the simple pleasures of food, namely the chance to taste local produce, and with respect to the environment, is under threat. The easy solution will be to increase cheap, unhealthy food. This is bad for the environment and bad for social justice. Fast Life has many contradictions. The Olympics after all is sponsored by McDonald’s and Coca Cola. We live at a time of growing hunger but also rising obesity.

Therefore I applaud Slow Food for defending the ‘right to pleasure’. Everybody should have the right to enjoy quality food, and farmers and local producers must have the right to earn a living. We need to see food as something which ‘unites’ rather than divides. Slow Food is a very necessary movement to bring about change, by bringing people together at events like this. I argue in my book that it is a political movement – with a difference. It is an unusual movement, which includes the gastronome as a political subject, and a lot of political debates at the dinner table. It has its own language – ‘co-producers’, ‘virtual globalisation’ and ‘convivia’ and ‘presidia’.

However, for me the most important dimension of Slow Food is the way it tells the story of food through the knowledge of ordinary people. It celebrates the producers and the grandmothers. There are so many more stories that need to be told. I have heard many new stories at Mercatino del Gusto; pane di Altamura, Caciocavallo, the olive oil, and almonds and wine. We have some interesting food stories from Britain to tell you about. (You may be surprised). I was very proud last Friday to hear some of the ‘forgotten’ British stories being told through culture and music. You should be very proud to tell visitors about your extraordinary food stories.

'Foodies' and 'Fine Dining' Won't Hold Back Food Revolution

posted by Geoff Andrews at Friday, April 06, 2012

Interest in the sociology of food has increased substantially in recent years, with sociologists investigating the social meanings attached to the presentation of food, analysing the social construction of ‘taste’, studying food and health inequalities, or assessing the impact of fast food and the shifting trajectories in consumption. More recently, ‘globalisation’ has become a focus, bringing with it threats to the survival of local food traditions and cultures, the imposition of standardised fare and service and assumptions about what constitutes ‘fine dining’. Christel Lane’s research into the haute cuisine culture of Michelin-starred restaurants has revealed some of the contemporary social markers and assumptions which continue to drive perceptions of taste and dining protocol. Her research, which involved interviews with chefs and restaurateurs, has made important connections between food, identity and cultural history, as well as revealing tensions between business models and aesthetic concerns.

In an earlier study in the 1970s, Pierre Bourdieu found that assumptions about food were responsible for aspects of ‘distinction’ in the French social structure. He concluded that taste was a marker of class and went on to distinguish between what he called a ‘taste of necessity’ and a ‘taste of luxury’, where most emphasis is on the presentation of food and stylistic nuances, which had the effect of denying the ‘natural’ enjoyment of food while ‘reaffirming’ its ‘sublimated’, and ‘disinterested’ pleasures. He also found that there were further class distinctions between ‘working class conviviality’, prevalent in the local café amongst workers, and the more ‘refined’ atmosphere of formal dining where the bourgeoisie would eat in isolation.

Since Bourdieu’s research, social and class divisions around food have been reflected in new ways. There are many positive aspects of globalisation, for example the learning of a variety of tastes and cuisines, but one of the negative consequences of globalisation has been to make local food knowledge, traditions and artisanal skills seem redundant, while the power of chain restaurants, fast food outlets and supermarkets have reduced the ‘dining’ experience to a drab set of rituals. Attaching the cringe-making label ‘Foodies’ to people who have an interest in and knowledge of the pleasures of food only serves to reinforce artificial status divisions and assume that gastronomic pleasure is something that is achieved through an imaginary certificate of etiquette, while remaining anathema to the rest. The proliferation of food programmes on mainstream TV only partly redresses this; while this has heralded the rise of the gastronome as a political subject at the forefront of important causes – in the cases of Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall - much of it is little better than food pornography.

The reassertion of a ‘service ethic’ is another insidious feature of globalisation and also serves to condition behaviour and rituals in restaurants. A reading of most amateur restaurant reviews finds them more akin to a management training questionnaire, with marks given for numbers of visits to the table, regular enquiries of well-being and promptness of attention, notably on getting the check to the table before it has been requested. In fact this further reflects the commodification and standardisation of the restaurant experience. In this context, the widely admired waiters of Balthazar, a bustling Manhattan bistro, appear as counter-cultural, complimented (in the words of one reviewer) for their ‘civil inattention’ in not grabbing your plate before you have finished, and free of ‘the quirks or games that people are often forced to play in the theatre of fine dining’. Other counter-cultural alternatives to the new global orthodoxies (though in fact rooted in ancient regional food traditions) are the ‘eclectic’ waiters I remember from living in Piedmont, in northern Italy. Their ‘surliness’ or grumpiness (one regularly used to fall asleep between the ordering of ‘secondi’ and ‘dolci’) never detracted from their knowledge of local food and wines.

However, these divisions and social distinctions are now facing rapidly growing new challenges. The markers of elitism and the assumptions of ‘fine dining’ are being disrupted. Gastronomic pleasure is effectively being democratised (and in many cases revived) through the range of local food and farmers’ markets and cooperatives, and a vibrant street food culture in London and elsewhere. That is street food which is both simple and sophisticated and which has done much to challenge perceptions of taste, pleasure and affordability. The plethora of food co-ops, food clubs and community supported agriculture schemes – whereby local consumers pay a set fee to farms for whatever food is seasonal – have demonstrated that even in austere times, it is possible to eat well without the impositions of corporate chains or the pretensions of haute cuisine. Consumers are being re-connected with producers and we can now say that grassroots food movements have become one of the strongest political and ideological forces in modern times.

Open University Ends Tesco Deal

posted by Geoff Andrews at Thursday, February 02, 2012

Following the news that the OU will end its partnership with the Tesco Clubcard Rewards scheme, here is my original article in Times Higher Education (2 March 2007), warning against the scheme.

So customers of the UK's largest supermarket are to be encour-aged to become students of the UK's largest higher education institution. A deal has been struck to give Tesco shoppers the opportunity to study at the Open University at discount prices.

Depending on how much they spend when they visit a store, they will be able to exchange the Clubcard points they earn at the checkout for full or part payment towards their course. It gives a whole new take on the now familiar description of students as "customers".

But the announcement of such an arrangement has serious implications for the OU and it has opened up a heated debate among the university's academics. Many fear that by seeking to extend education to new cohorts of people in this manner, the university will end up dumbing down its educational resources.

Brenda Gourley, OU vice-chancellor, has no such doubts about the merits of the deal. She sees it as being "true" to the university's original mission - "to be open to people, places, methods and ideas". Writing in the OU's Open House magazine, she describes the Tesco tie-in as an "innovative partnership... in order to extend our reach to new students, while students themselves will be able to take OU courses without running up large debts".

And, of course, Tesco welcomes the deal, declaring to its customers that "you can now pick up the gift of learning along with your weekly shop". The supermarket chain also informs its customers of the OU's academic reputation and its high ranking for teaching quality. Both parties stress the ways in which their organisations help to extend each other's opportunities and reach new markets. Listening to the two marketing departments, it is not always easy to discern which is the voice of the university and which the grocer.

But the way that Tesco, like all major food retailers, conducts its business makes me uneasy about the alliance. In the opinion of many campaigners, the chain hardly reaches the top of the supermarket ethical league table. There are concerns about the true social and environmental cost of its business from the "food miles" associated with its many foreign products to the livelihoods of small farmers blighted by the driving down of product prices. And despite its claims of greater "fair trade", only a tiny proportion of the supermarket's products are "fair trade accredited".

A report by the charity Oxfam in 2004 criticised the major global food retailers, including Tesco, for relying on suppliers who use cheap, seasonal labour.

The chain rejects such criticisms as inaccurate and out of date and insists that it maintains high ethical standards. But Tesco's 30 per cent share of the grocery market has raised further concerns. With a new Tesco Express opening almost every day, there are wider costs for independent shops and services and for the diverse character of local communities, with several ongoing local campaigns against the chain's increasing influence in the high street.

Supporters of the deal, who have attempted to reconcile "widening participation", "value for money" and "market innovation", ignore crucial differences between the two institutions that reflect wider differences between the purposes of education and those of big business. One myth held by education leaders is that this gulf can be overcome by glossy packaging.

While Tesco reaches its customers through the power of the market, the OU's reputation for extending opportunity has come from a long tradition of independent learning that respects the diversity, rather than the homogeneity, of the population. Its idea of equality is in no way reducible to the flexibility and innovations of the market. The OU's founding ideals centre on the social benefits of education and the value of learning for its own sake.

The OU, indeed, is a unique academic community, relying on the commitment and experience of thousands of part-time tutors. In many ways, it has always had an "ethical" commitment to higher education, whether through offering a quality alternative to education on the cheap, or actively challenging discrimination and elitism.

This ethical position has distinguished the OU from the mainstream and allowed it to develop an alternative kind of educational philosophy, based on distance learning for adults from a diversity of backgrounds.

The image of the bearded, sandal-wearing academic on late-night TV may be past its sell-by date. However, the idea of students buying their degrees at a Tesco checkout (two for the price of one?) is only another utopia.

In fact, far from being a modern, cutting-edge initiative, a deal between the OU and Tesco fails to recognise the major shift going on among the new more ethically minded consumers; surely a more appropriate focus for the UK's ground-breaking university?

A Sicilian Renaissance?

posted by Geoff Andrews at Saturday, January 14, 2012

14 January

The Sicily Unpacked series on BBC2 has already quite an impact judging by the reviews and comments on twitter. It has been important in opening up new generations to the wonders of the island’s unique art and architecture food, history and culture and Andrew Graham-Dixon and Giorgio Locatelli are a good combination. As we found when we made the BBC Radio 4 series last spring, the story of Sicily also offers another way of looking at the history of Italy and will hopefully change some existing perceptions of the island, as well as the need to recognise that Italy doesn’t start and end with Tuscany and Umbria.

We know of course that Britain has long had a fascination with Italy. This reached its peak in the expeditions of the Victorian and Edwardian travellers, writers and artists, among them John Ruskin, George Gissing, the Brownings, Norman Douglas and Edward Lear, as they set sail in pursuit of culture and civilisation. As John Pemble’s book The Mediterranean Passion - a remarkable and scholarly tour de force which beautifully captures this moment – makes clear, this fascination extended well beyond the now familiar terrain of Chiantishire, whose beautiful landscapes have seen such rises in holiday homes and tourism that it has become synonymous with the British-Italian experience. The current desire to reproduce this ‘Italian lifestyle’ at home, (even without the weather and under the misguided view that Italians habitually dip their bread into bowls of balsamic vinegar and olive oil), has survived even the vulgarity of Silvio Berlusconi. Believing, rightly, that ‘Italy is not Berlusconi’, Brits have continued to travel to Italy to be civilised and enlightened by its sheer capacity for the good life.

Sicily Unpacked will revive interest in the Mediterranean. A destination for many of the earlier travellers, Sicily has been overlooked for too long and when it does get mentioned, is often reduced to romanticised accounts of its Mafia – the Cosa Nostra. Yet this island of five million inhabitants is the most varied of all the Italian ‘regions’. The birthplace of some Italy’s greatest literary figures, it derives its rich cultural traditions from the legacies of the many different conquests and occupying powers over centuries.

And it is food, and not the Mafia, which best captures the essence of Sicilian identity. The conquests of Sicily by Greek, Romans, Normans, Arabic, French and Spanish invaders among them, have left behind an extraordinary variety of influences and ingredients, made richer by the warmer climate. The daily reality of extreme poverty has also left its mark in the range of ancient, cheap and delicious street food, such as Panelle – chick pea fritters - which still thrives in the centre of Palermo. An island disposed to insularity, fatalism and prejudice from the north – represented today by the Northern League – has shown a remarkable resilience in preserving its identity.

This was apparent to us when making the BBC radio series last spring. Arriving at the port of Trapani, on the west coast, we found ourselves walking through back streets more reminiscent of North Africa than Western Europe. At the Cantina Siciliana, owned by a long-standing communist, Pino Maggioni, couscous was on the menu, indicative of the Arabic influence. Yet we were told that this couscous, served with fish or pork, differed from the couscous in Marsala, only a few kilometres away, where the tradition was to serve a larger grain couscous, and served with snails. ‘Local food’ takes on a whole new dimension in Sicily.

More Arabic influences were to be found in the Vucciria market in Palermo; wild fennel, crucial to the delicious but complex dish pasta con le sarde; aubergines, crucial for caponata, one of Sicily’s best known dishes, and one of the examples of the sweet and sour combination in Sicilian cuisine. Sicily is rightly renowned for the richness of its pastries and desserts like Cannoli and Cassata, and these also owe much to the Arabic influence which brought sugar cane in the ninth century.

The Spanish influence was featured strongly in Sicily Unpacked and notably in the chocolate shops of Modica, a baroque town in the south of the island, synonymous in recent years for the quality and quantity of its chocolate producers, which have expanded dramatically in recent years. Like Sicily Unpacked we also visited the Antica Dolceria Bonajuto, the town’s oldest chocolate producer, and wondered if the revival and recognition of traditional methods of making chocolate, based on the Aztec tradition, offered another version of globalisation.

One of the virtues of Sicily Unpacked has been to challenge the view that Sicily can be reduced to the mafia. It is also true that you cannot explain Sicily – and above all its food – without understanding the way the mafia has controlled food production and distribution for so many years, with significant effect on exports and the making unnecessary detours for food distributors. The Vucciria, for example, has been controlled for many years by mafia extortion rackets.

Yet, here too, there are signs of a renaissance. One of the most optimistic developments in Sicily in recent years has been the passion and commitment of anti-mafia activists. Foremost has been the association Addio Pizzo which plastered the centre of Palermo with stickers calling on people of Palermo to preserve their dignity and refuse the pizzo (protection money) and Libera Terra, an association which promotes the use of land confiscated by the mafia for the production of wine and olive oil.

The key to understanding the Sicilian Mafia is the mentality which has roots in Sicilian culture. The importance of belonging, of the first loyalty to family, of honour and are deeply rooted Sicilian values, reflected in the absence of a strong sense of state and civic traditions which are the result of centuries of conquest and domination. The mafia has cultivated its own negative interpretation of this; presenting itself as the only option for security and career hope for young people, in a land often perceived as fatalistic.

Yet, as we know there is a more positive, genuine interpretation of Sicilian hospitality and friendship which Sicily Unpacked captures well. It has also has made a very interesting connection between art and food. A similar connection could be made between literature and food. The complex nature of Sicilian identity is central in the work of some of its greatest writers, notably Leonardo Sciascia, Luigi Pirandello and often food seems to reflect wider cultural and political questions. There is a famous scene in Lampedusa’s The Leopard, where the pleasure of eating Sicilian food survived the attempted imposition of a ‘national’ diet in the moment of unification.

For Andrea Camilleri’s Sicilian detective, Inspector Montalbano – recently introduced to the BBC – food is also crucial. His loyalty to the Trattoria Calogero, his uncompromising lunch rituals and knowledge of the tastes and flavours of his island, notably in the province of Agrigento and the shadow of the Valley of the Temples, is crucial to the way he lives and works.
Sicilian food has not only survived but is now beginning to prosper in the era of globalisation, which is normally characterised by the imposition of drab standardised fare. Instead its extraordinarily rich history, encompassing such a variety of wonderful flavours, has finally found its moment.

Violent Consumerism in Junk Food Britain

posted by Geoff Andrews at Friday, August 26, 2011

26 August

The recent UK riots – ok English riots – have brought many responses and much analysis. I have been unconvinced by much of the debate. The right favours knee-jerk responses which seem to have been reflected in some absurd prison sentences unlikely to solve the problem. They refuse to even countenance the point that there may be some underlying causes. The left, on the other hand, has fared little better, with familiar and tired phrases, notably claiming to discover hidden political radicalism waiting to get out – according to this view ‘everything is political’. Fake sociologists and cultural populists, with their privileged keys to the explanation of what is really happening, always step forward in these discussions.

In fact analogies with the riots of 1981 seem misplaced – then the infamous ‘sus’ law, and overt as well as institutionalised racism of the police was much more evident in many cities. Nor do comparisons with student demonstrations or anti-global protests hold up. In fact, the riots were a kind of endorsement of materialism and individualism; a kind of repressed hedonism. The riots were really a form of violent consumerism, as Mary Riddell argued in the Telegraph. The controversial footballer Joey Barton, in his twitter comments about materialism, makes more sense than many of the experts in the media. After all, it is the big global corporate chains which have ripped the heart out of inner cities and towns across the country. Junk food has had a particularly pernicious effect, not only for their effects on spiralling obesity levels, but the ways in which they help destroy any civic sense of community.

The domination of corporate chains on British high streets is far more evident than in other European cities. It was noticeable that the ‘clean-up’ campaigns were organised by local citizens and mainly independent shops. In Birmingham, for example, it was independent coffee bars like the Six-Eight café rather than the chains which took civic responsibility seriously. The chains have no significant local identity and their power is partly evoked through their indifference to diversity and tradition. As George Ritzer, the author The McDonaldization of Society argued, this kind of globalisation amounts to ‘ a world of increasing homogeneity, a world in which virtually anywhere one turns one finds very familiar forms of nothing’. ‘Nothingness’ is an apt description for the centre of many towns and cities in the age of globalisation.

Of course cities are places of great diversity, but we should not confuse – as many of the cultural populists do, hiding behind the veneer of post-radical chic - the diversity and vibrancy of popular culture with the dominance of global brands. There is a lot of creativity in urban places which allows culture to thrive despite the monopoly of the chains, but the damage of the global corporations is now sadly evident.

As Eric Schlosser reminded us in Fast Food Nation, the impact of fast food is far-reaching, entering ‘every nook and cranny of American society’. It has become a way of living and its effects on environment and urban life are profound. It is interesting that a debate on taxing junk food is finally taking off in Britain at this time: in the US, similar arguments for a ‘soda tax’ have already been heard in many states. Junk food chains and corporate brands more widely carry huge symbolic significance for new generations. More optimistically - and maybe this is entering the political realm- perhaps the ‘Murdoch’ effect can now extend to a wider critique of corporate domination. Let the real debate begin.

Hugh's Fish Fight. The Gastronome (Re-) Enters Politics

posted by Geoff Andrews at Sunday, May 01, 2011

1 May 2011

Hugh’s Fish Fight, recently screened on Channel Four, is another highly publicised campaign led by a well-known TV food personality. Following Jamie Oliver’s earlier programmes on school dinners and battery chickens (something which had also engaged Hugh F-W) this has also had significant effect on public debate, raising awareness of the state of the fishing industry, the plight of endangered fish species and the health of the oceans, the conditions of fisherfolk and EU food policy. The campaign made clear once again the power of the media to evoke images and put important questions onto the agenda. And once again, it is food that drives public debate, a unique domain which connects political economy and the environment, the local and global, diet, nutrition and questions of biodiversity, like no other.

Increasingly, food is at the centre of many different questions. Yet we also need to recognise the role of the gastronome in articulating the multi-varied concerns of producers and consumers and the consequences of a cheap food economy. We take, of course, the modern meaning of the gastronome, freed from ‘elitist’ connotations or the narrow concerns of gourmets. Carlo Petrini, founder of Slow Food, puts it well. ‘I am a gastronome. No, not the glutton with no sense of restraint whose enjoyment of food is greater the more plentiful and forbidden it is. No, not a fool who is given to the pleasures of the table and indifferent to how the food got there. I like to imagine the hands of the people who grew it, transported it, processed it, and cooked it before it was served to me’.

Perhaps Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is the nearest UK equivalent to Petrini, (a modern mixture of Jean-Anthelme Brillat Savarin and William Morris). There is a similar passion for food and the continuing optimism that by heightening public awareness and changing our attitudes to the way food is produced and consumed we can resolve many related concerns of modern living.

This creativity, imagination and vision, has been rarely apparent of course in the lack-lustre election campaigns currently on offer from all political parties, nor from the insular concerns of many of them. Food, for many on left or right, has become a kind of no-go area. It seems to carry many taboos. For many on the left, unable to distinguish between luxury and pleasure, quality food inevitably implies ‘elitist’ associations. In the US, writers and activists like Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan have long addressed these questions and have argued intelligently and passionately for the democratisation of food for the future health of the nation. Their argument is that everyone has a right to quality food, which is the underlying principle of Hugh F-W’s and Jamie Oliver’s campaigns.

Meanwhile, on the right of the political spectrum there is a reluctance to break with the power of big corporate monopolies, as has been made clear in the involvement of McDonald’s and others in the writing of the government’s health policy. Despite the growing criticism of Health Secretary Andrew Lansley, this has not translated into much political opposition: he has received one of his biggest grillings from Sheila Dillon on BBC Radio 4’s The Food Programme. Right and left seem to have little to say about the effects of the big supermarket monopolies and remain wary of upsetting voter fears by talking up good food at times of austerity.

Fortunately, campaigners like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, have the imagination and vision beyond the narrow time-frames and often parochial preoccupations of Westminster (and Edinburgh and Cardiff). The Fish Fight is a very good example of how gastronomes – a term still regarded with contempt over here – can intervene effectively and call to account those who exercise power over our palates – Tesco’s, Big Salmon factories, and politicians included. This is a very creative campaign against over-fishing, engaging the public in on-line petitions and cajoling them to become more discerning consumers in questioning fishmongers and supermarkets, forming effective alliances with movements like Greenpeace to force Tesco and Morrisons to change their practices and by drawing on the knowledge of marine biologists, as well as local fishermen, to highlight the cause of endangered fish species. Hugh’s Fish Fight, as the website makes clear, is a powerful campaigning lobby which has complimented other campaigns from concerns over blue-fin tuna to the absurdity of EU fishing bans, notably those expressed in very evocative ways by Charles Clover’s book The End of the Line, later made into a successful documentary film. Hugh’s Fish Fight is a campaign which has extended far outside the living room.

Yet it is also about seeking out practical alternatives, introducing more people to the delights and health benefits of sardines, mackerel, sprats, herring and anchovies, as alternatives to over fished salmon, tuna and cod. The programmes are good on response and impact; a testament to the possibility of policy being influenced by popular movements. Hugh F-W does this well, making the link between simple gastronomic pleasures and ecological responsibility, in ways well beyond the imagination of politicians.