MSc Gastronomy Week 1
Monday 11th September: The Origins of ‘Food’: Procurement Through The Ages
Today, we looked into food procurement, considering the current trend for ‘wild’ foods and what actually makes a food ‘wild’. Have we completely lost the knowledge that our ancestors had about wild foods, or would you feel comfortable about being able to feed yourself if you were dropped in the middle of dense woodland with nothing but the clothes on your back? The Hadza in Tanzania are one of the last remaining hunter-gatherer tribes in the world, where it is believed that they have lived for 40,000 years. It seems possible that they are some of the few people who have a true knowledge of the natural world that they live in, and who can be said to really know where their food comes from. For most of us, our food comes from the supermarket, clean and ready-packed, where ‘wild’ or ‘exotic’ mushrooms are sold to us in a plastic tray, behind a layer of film. Surely this goes against everything that the word ‘wild’ means, doesn’t it?
We were re-connected with the land at lunchtime, when we were presented with a plethora of dishes made from food foraged by a few members of the class over the weekend. We were treated to, amongst other tasty delights: polenta with mushrooms, mushroom and pearl barley risotto, pickled mushrooms, elderberry and apple tart, fir focaccia and rosehip cake.
Just before lunch, the wonderful Fi Martynoga had spoken to us about a variety of local wild foods, sharing a wealth of information about different ways in which they can be prepared and cooked, as well as the historical uses for these plants. We sampled bannocks made with flour from a now-rare heritage wheat, a tea made from dried rosehips, and another from dried elderflowers. In the afternoon, Fi took us on a hunt around the university grounds, where we found a surprising amount of edible plants. Brambles became our snack of choice throughout the foraging trip, and we came away with bags of elderberries to share around the class. For me, one of the most interesting finds was the barberry, which I had no idea grew in the UK, having only bought the dried fruit for use in Middle Eastern grain salads. If you know what you’re looking for, there’s an awful lot out there.
There are plenty of foraging courses on offer in the UK, and it’s great to go out with an expert to identify edibles and to make you aware of what not to eat! As wonderful as many books on the topic can be, in my mind there’s no substitute for getting out there to see first-hand what is on offer, and then making your own notes, drawings and taking photographs to help you remember what to pick next time. Fellow Gastronomy student, Amy, offers courses near Edinburgh. Wild Food UK offers courses around the country, one of which I participated in last month, which was an extremely enjoyable and informative day, with a fabulous foraged lunch prepared for us at the end.
Tuesday 12th September: Soil
Tuesday was soil day. A whole day immersed in the world of soil, which left us feeling more than just a little concerned about the future of our planet. Some pretty shocking statistics from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation were thrown at us:
Half of the topsoil on the planet has been lost in the last 150 years
The majority of the world’s soil resources are in only fair, poor or very poor condition
Lack of soil nutrients is the greatest obstacle to improving food production
We may only have around 60 years of harvests left in the soil
It’s baffling that this isn’t headline news. So much emphasis has been put on climate change with very little talk that soil science could really be the area of investigation to provide answers to rises in greenhouse gases, as well as the global food shortage. Factors such as deforestation, urbanisation, overgrazing, and a growing population are all having a damaging effect on soil quality.
One example that explains one of the ways in which human activity is destroying the soil is ‘The Great Dustbowl’ in mid-west America in the 1930s. Previously, the land had been used for grazing, with bison eating the top of the grasses, leaving the roots in the soil to grow back. When farmers moved there in the 1920s, the deep-ploughed the land, removing the native vegetation, the roots of which were holding the soil together. When drought hit the region, the soil simply blew away. Once this soil has been destroyed, there is no going back, and it then takes over 500 years for another inch of topsoil to be formed.
What is our hope for the future then? Thankfully, after being bombarded with these frankly rather depressing facts, Dr Kenneth Loades from The James Hutton Institute told us about their research into soil management, providing ways in which farmers can improve the quality of their soil to increase their crop yield. He said that better farming is the way forward, so that there actually isn’t a need to distinguish between conventional and organic foods. Studies have suggested that our food is now far less nutrient-rich than in the past, requiring us to eat four to five times as many vegetables now as in 1940 to obtain the same amount of nutrients. Maybe with an improvement in farming methods, we may have to spend more on better food, but we will be getting a lot more from it nutritionally.
As Dr Kenneth Loades said to us, “Soil isn’t sexy”, which maybe is why we take less notice of it than we do the stars in the sky, but if we can value it as more than just the dirt under our feet we might be able to keep producing food for more than another sixty years.
There are other things you can do to help! Grow you own at home or on an allotment, or use Organic September to encourage you to start ordering organic veg boxes. Find out more on the Soil Association website.