When no corner of the world has been left unexplored, and imports come with the stigma of food miles, native rare breeds and heritage fruit and vegetables have become the new exotica. But, as broadcaster and greengrocer Charlie Hicks puts it, since “there’s often a very good reason they stopped growing them in the first place” is there anything more to this new-found love of the old than nostalgia, novelty and scarcity value?
It’s certainly not difficult to work out why einkorn wheat vanished from British tables long ago. Even Michael Marriage of Doves Farm, who recently started growing the crop with his wife Clare, tells me: “You get a pretty pathetic yield, the heads are tiny, and you get pretty small grain.” Plus, each tiny einkorn seed is encased in a hard shell and needs de-hulling.
However, wait until you taste it. My breadmaking skills are strictly elementary, but even the quick, simple recipe on the side of the flour packet resulted in a very tasty loaf with an almost cake-like, soft, close-crumb texture and hints of corn and nuts.
Taste is also on the side of Bath soft cheese, its creaminess infused with a mushroomy earthiness and a hint of acidity. Praised by Lord Nelson’s father at the dawn of the 19th century and then lost early in the 20th, it has been revived for the 21st – first at Kelston, Somerset, by Graham Padfield, using a recipe found in an 1895 cookbook.
But while flavour may make many revived foods desirable, when it comes to breeds of plant and animal, it is biodiversity that makes them invaluable. Marriage looks with fear at the way in which industrial agriculture is narrowing the gene pool by reducing the varieties cultivated to a handful of top performers, controlled by a few large conglomerates. What’s more, he says: “Modern varieties are like highly trained athletes. They go very well but they’re very highly tuned, and therefore if something goes wrong then they fail quickly. Whereas these old varieties are more like a donkey – more resilient but may not go quite as fast.” We discard these hardy plodders at our peril.
Padfield is preserving something quite different: the tradition of produce with a distinct geographical identity, from “a single farm, a single herd, one cheesemaker”. As the current horsemeat saga shows, the value of the kind of direct relationship between producer and consumer this enables is not just aesthetic or romantic.
It’s also vital for maintaining a vibrant agricultural sector. Padfield used to just fill up tankers with his milk and wave it goodbye. But producing crops and animals purely as sellable commodities no longer has the same appeal to farmers and certainly not to their children. It was partly to make the family business attractive enough for his son Hugh to take it on that Padfield revived the once ubiquitous practice of cheesemaking on the site of a dairy.
The least important feature of food traditions is that they are old. Live traditions are like ongoing stories, not tired tales being constantly rehashed, and schemes such as the European Protected Designation of Origin don’t always add the best versions to the canon. For instance, “traditional stilton was a raw-milk cheese up until the late 80s,” says Dominic Coyte of Neal’s Yard Dairy. But when the Stilton Cheesemakers’ Association got PDO protection in 1996, they stipulated that it be made with pasteurised milk. Hence the irony that the raw-milk stichelton, first produced by traditional methods in 2006, is arguably the most authentic stilton available, but it cannot carry the name.
So the revival and conservation of old crops, breeds and production methods need not be backward-looking. All it requires is “to recognise that there is a value to bring forward,” as chef Giorgio Locatelli puts it. “That is not concentrating on the past.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010
Seit 1996 bin ich freier Mitarbeiter der Salzgitter-Zeitung, als Experte für das Geschehen im hiesigen Kreisfußball. Daneben sind meine Kolumnen seit 2005 fester Bestandteil im Lokalteil der Salzgitter-Zeitung. Zusammen mit Frau und Tochter sowie zwei gefräßigen wie faulen Stubentigern versuche ich das zu meistern, was das Leben, das Universum und der ganze Rest an Absurditäten für uns bereithalten.