Britain’s foodie explosion of the past two decades has seen many trends come and go – molecular gastronomy, street food, slow food, ‘healthy’ fast food, plain old ‘food’ food – that it’s almost impossible to keep up. Do we like GM food, or do we not? Celebrity chefs – annoying or enlightening? And is it true that cooking has been transformed from a nightly post-commute burden to a creative and engaging activity?
Throughout, there has been a consistent demand for simple, unadulterated food which nourishes the body and mind. After the BSE scare of the late 1980s, the continuing debate about genetically modified foods, the fear of e-numbers, and the contamination of basic natural ingredients, people are rightly more cautious about where their food comes from. In the decades following the Second World War, food that came hand-in-hand with technology – tinned ham, frozen vegetables, powdered foods – were seen as labour-saving conveniences of the newly-moneyed middle class. Only through bitter experience did we learn about the dangers and disappointments of processed foods.
Now, retailers and manufacturers are desperate to convince us of the authenticity and goodness of their produce. Innocent marketed their smoothies as providing one, and sometimes two, of your five-a-day. In a world where people are increasingly aware of the need to eat right, this is both a positive step and a clever business ploy. Subway – ‘Eat Fresh’ – ate up the market-share of traditional fast-food giants such as McDonalds and Burger King, proving that there is a market for fast food that at least appears healthy.
Packaging is an essential component of this makeover. Once a bland, practical instrument, sparsely labelled with long-lists of obscure ingredients hiding beneath a gigantic logo, food packaging has become personalised. Turn over your six-pack of finest sausages and you’ll find mock-handwriting describing the all-natural processes behind the sausages – the farm, the farmer, and his assurance of the quality of his produce. Tesco’s recently began placing pictures of their farmers on cartons of milk. Why? To make people feel more connected to their food. You can’t trust an anonymous bottle of liquid, but you can trust Terry from Dorset.
The real problem is that we don’t stop to think about the origins of our food. We rush around our steel-and-glass cities, too busy to think of the basic essentials of life, while businesses, big and small, source our food and prepare it for us. Half the time, we have no idea where it has come from. And it’s difficult, because sourcing and preparing food takes time and care. And many people simply do not have the time or energy to invest in this.
There are two solutions. Either, as is already happening, businesses will begin to market their products towards the increasing number of people who want truly good food, sustainably sourced and nutritionally balanced. While this is a step in the right direction, the problem is that it is still notoriously difficult to know with confidence where your food has come from. Supermarkets dress up their less appealing food with misleading packaging and tempting prices. Tesco’s sells six eggs in a bright and attractive carton which says, ‘Six Big and Fresh Eggs’. You’re given every reason to think that these are good eggs, and only when you look closely do you realise that despite the happy packaging the eggs are from caged hens. Similarly, most farmers in the UK inject their cows with hormones to make them produce more milk. When the cows produce the milk, the farmers take it away from their calves and feed them instead with a watered-down substitute. Surely, the milk is the calf’s birthright?
Growing your own food is another solution. Cheap, easy and good fun, harvesting your own crop is increasingly being encouraged across our society. With a global food crisis unfolding day by day, it’s becoming a matter of duty. Of course, there is a limit to how much can be done – I’m not about to smuggle a cow into my back garden anytime soon – but as all the best chefs will tell you, a little can go a long way when it comes to food.
Allotments around the country are being cleared and used for crops. Tomatoes, potatoes, carrots and herbs all take minimal effort to maintain and grow, and when it’s coming from your own back garden vegetables tend to be fresher. Not only that, but you’ll enjoy a much deeper connection with your food.
Best of all, there is no danger of this being another fad – people have been growing their own food since, ooh, the dawn of agriculture itself. We can obsess about celebrity chefs, slurp down über-expensive smoothies and debate which country’s restaurants are the best, but all of our best ingredients have to be grown with care, whether in industrial-size farms or in our back gardens. Natural food – really, genuinely natural food – is here, has always been here, and is here to stay.