A popular pub sign sometimes reads… ‘because a good story never started with a salad’. While there are sure to be a number of capable writers able to start a good story with a salad, most would be inclined to believe in the ‘pub-ism’. However, food tells its own story. What a person cooks, what a person likes when eating out, tells you not only where they have been but also where they want to go. This is visible on social media, what they present to you when you visit and where they want to eat. But food has its own story, one that we ourselves should pay more attention to. Here are a few little food stories, their meaning will become clear at the end.
At a recent dinner at a friend’s house, the topic of conversation switched to recipes. This is of course the normal starter conversation once food has been served, with attendees at a dinner automatically showering the chef with praise and asking what exactly has gone into such a divine creation. We were no different in our praise and our hosts were more than happy to share. This however did lead to a wider conversation on food and cooking in general.
The couple we were visiting had used a stock made out of bones, which they had made themselves. Somewhat wistfully, I tried to remember the last time I had made a stock; too long ago was the answer, sadly. Part of me was mildly surprised that they made a stock in the first place. As I imagine most of my peers would have no idea how to make a stock, let alone the time to make one, or maybe not even sure what one was. My surprise was misplaced. I later learned they had to be careful about resources and what went in their food for various health reasons. This meant no stock cubes.
Top to tail.
On a recent trip to Barcelona we were dining in Barceloneta at Bar Jai-ca, on a friends’ recommendation. With a mix of languages between us, none of which were Spanish (or Catalan), we were confident enough to tackle the Spanish menu. Desperate to prove we were not your usual English-speaking travellers we bumbled our way through ordering, much to the entertainment of the waiter who patiently accepted our attempts. It must have worked, as food did in fact arrive, and most of it was stuff we recognised and expected. Most of it.
One dish, which turned out to be the one we had gambled on, was not familiar. It had come from the specials menu (which was only in Spanish) and had been listed as the ‘house special’. It was offal, not awful, but offal and it was surprisingly tasty to all but one at the table. If we were honest, if we had known, we may not have ordered it. However with it in front of us, we adopted the ‘when in Rome’ mentality and cleaned the plate. I mused as we finished our beers and settled the bill, that even though I know exactly where I could buy all sorts of offal, I haven’t the foggiest how one would go about cooking it.
One of my side gigs, to my side gig, is taking tourists through the fair city of Vienna. On our four and bit hour tour, we embark on a culinary journey, grazing our way through the city. This takes us from Austrian cuisine to Middle Eastern via the Balkans while taking a few of the less touristy districts and markets.
As we tour, I explain the appeal. As mentioned above at one of them I could buy any part of an animal needed. I point out the stand where I buy meat, where I buy spices and where I buy my vegetables. I explain how, since moving near this market, I have become better at cooking seasonally. Although almost everything is on offer at the market, vegetables come and go with the seasons. So when pumpkins pop up, I suddenly want to cook pumpkin. Irrelevant of the fact that I can never remember seeing pumpkin in the supermarkets of my native Britain. I did not know what to cook with it (asides from soup, which my Mother always used to make around Halloween, always well disguised and never named pumpkin soup), hanging in the markets gave me the urge to cook pumpkin. So pumpkin, I now cook.
The booking was made on a Thursday. Opportunistic would be an understatement. It was a fantastic call. Seeing that the Sunday was going to be great weather, unseasonable good for the 31st of March, a friend of my girlfriends had managed to book a Grillplatz by the Donau. These spots notoriously get fully booked as soon as the booking system opens, but obviously very few people expect it to be nice enough in March.
Wanting to offer something to the table, but not being in a ‘meat’ mood (apparently we are Flexitarian) we decided to go seasonal. Taking advantage of an early night, nice morning and the season, we headed to the hills behind the flat to collect some wild garlic. With canvas bags we breathed in the smell of garlic and went off road to start, my girlfriend plucking with speed and finesse, but careful to not strip too much from one spot. I, while also careful, plucked with the speed of a snail, surreptitiously checking every leaf with the paranoia of someone who was not brought up doing this particular activity, and has the fear of picking the poisonous Lily of the Valley. It was even too early for them. But I was the same while foraging for mushrooms in the mountains of Carinthia.
Having collected the garlic, we took it home and made a wild garlic pesto that was, in hindsight, too garlicky for most. However, it was irrelevant as the mood by the river was jubilant. Everyone was breathing a sigh of relief that winter was over, spring and therefore summer was coming.
It was sadly a false dawn. The two months that followed rained almost solidly.
As millions take to the streets demanding governments and large corporations take more responsibility for the climate, the sceptic in me cannot help but ask what each individual is doing (asides from marching of course). 28% of the agricultural land globally goes to producing food that is then wasted, this involves wasting water, natural resources and fills up land fill sites.
The saying goes, ‘speak with your feet’. Meaning that, while you can march, these corporations and governments only really look at money. If we as consumers start being more responsible with our eating habits, then the power would shift somewhat away. In the first story we learn not to waste, using leftovers from a previous meal to make something for the next, even if it is just using the bones from a roast for a stock. In the second, we learn to use every part of an animal. It is all very well being a carnivore and slating vegetarians, but you do not have a leg to stand on if you do not eat top to tail, and that means eating the offal. In the third, we learn to be seasonal. Anything that is not seasonal will have a larger carbon footprint than something that has been produced nearby. In the fourth, that there is plenty on our doorstep that we can use, but it is about knowing what it is an educating yourselves on it.
This is the key. Educating ourselves. I am fortunate enough to have been brought up by a mother who is a great cook. She instilled in me a desire to cook. This means I know how to make a stock. I can call her up and ask her what to make with leftovers, she knows. I am also fortunate to live in a city with a great work life balance. This meaning that I can not only shop at a market, but also only have to shop when I know I am cooking.
The above is an idealistic view, I am by no means perfect, some weeks I do not have time to make a stock from leftovers, but if we all attempt to pick something feasible (here are some tips), within our life, whether that be asking for a doggy bag from a restaurant, using more apps like ‘To Good to Go‘ or other food sharing devices, then maybe this will be just as effective as marching in the streets. In essence we must go back to be regional foragers. Frugal in our use of products, in order to secure the future of our planet.
Picture credits: William Stafford