Monday 5th February
Agriculture and Brexit
It was an ambitious task to cover agriculture and Brexit in one day. As usual, we were only just able to scratch the surface of a hugely complex issue to which no one has the answer.
There are over 500 million farms in the world, most of them very small and run by women. In the UK, many farms are losing money, however they continue due to being stuck on the agricultural treadmill (when farmers have borrowed funds to buy land and equipment, so must continue working the land in order to have some chance of paying the money back). Farming in the UK is hugely misunderstood, largely due to conflicting information in the media. Some recognise the difficulties involved and the struggle to make ends meet, while others believe that agriculture is booming and that money is being thrown at already-affluent farmers. This is where the importance of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) comes in.
The CAP was brought in five years after the formation of the European Economic Community in 1957, in order to provide agricultural subsidies. At the moment, subsidies are based on how much land you own, as well as how difficult the land is to work, which has caused controversy as it tends to benefit wealthy landowners as opposed to working farmers. The CAP also supports development within rural communities.
In Scotland, less favoured land is worth more in terms of subsidies, but less in terms of profit from farming. UK CAP money from the European Union (EU) is divided up at Westminster, with the amount that reaches Scotland determined by the Barnett formula (the method the Treasury use to control the amount of public spending in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), rather than according to how much Scottish land should receive from CAP dependent on how hard the land is to work.
Leaving Brexit means leaving the CAP, which of course leaves uncertainty, but also a potential opportunity to improve the current system. New Zealand has been put forward as an example of how the UK might fare after leaving the CAP, as the country removed agricultural subsidies in 1984. Since 1992, there have been no restrictions on exports and there have been tariffs on imports. As a result, larger farms bought smaller farms, and there was diversification into other agricultural products and tourism. The switch from sheep to dairy farming caused a rise in pollution levels. However, New Zealand became much more competitive in the world food market. Likewise, after the Brexit vote, the weaker pound meant exports from the UK rose, particularly of agricultural products. Although this may give us some idea of what might happen post-Brexit, it would be unwise to compare 1980s New Zealand to the UK today as a starting point.
In the afternoon, Allan Bowie, former President of the National Farmers Union of Scotland, and Dr Isabel Fletcher, senior research fellow at Edinburgh Law School, came in to offer us more of an insight into farming and Brexit.
Allan introduced himself as a farmer and consumer. He believed that 80 per cent of people don’t understand the true cost of food, and these are the people that we need to get through to when addressing the future of farming in the UK.
He told us that he is still farming because he believes that changes can be made to the system. If more sustainable systems are used, farmers can provide a link between the environment and health, producing healthy food in an environmentally-friendly way. He suggested displacing French cheese with cheeses made in the UK, having more local abattoirs, and perhaps returning to eating more seasonally. He believed that, although it is encouraging that consumers are engaging more with the debate around plastic pollution, an issue like whether we need plastic wrap on cucumbers is taking over from the point about whether we actually need access to cucumbers all year round in the first place.
When discussing the loss of migrant workers on farms that will likely come with Brexit, Allan stressed the skill that is needed to pick, in particular, soft fruits. He argued that calling this work ‘non-skilled’ makes it sound less important, and that consumers need to understand the value of this work in ensuring a good-quality product and as little waste as possible. He pointed out that this does mean paying more for Scottish produce.
Isabel Fletcher then spoke to us about food policy in relation to Brexit. She outlined the key food policy actors: the state and public sector, the private sector, civil society, and the public; and the various levels of the food policy system: cities, UK devolved administrations, national government departments and agencies (e.g. the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), and the Food Standards Agency), the EU, and international bodies (e.g. the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, the World Trade Organisation, and the World Bank).
Growth of trans-national corporations, trade liberalisation, improvement of food processing technology, and cheap transport has led to what is known as the nutrition transition, to high-sugar and high-fat diets. Farmers have, until recently, been encouraged to use new technology to increase productivity, and DEFRA have been keen to keep food prices down. For consumers, price, convenience and special offers are of highest importance when buying food.
CAP subsidies favour the production of beef, dairy and sugar beet, rather than fruit and vegetables, as the policy was brought in after the Second World War in line with what the health advice was at the time for the population. However, putting subsidies on healthy foods isn’t necessarily the answer. For example, a subsidy on apples might not result in an increase in the production of apples to be sold as the raw fruit, but as a sweetener in processed foods.
Some suggested CAP reforms include making payments subject to the farms aiming to improve biodiversity and soil health; capping payments for landowners that have large farms they don’t work; and co-operation with farmers to shorten supply chains.
Disappointingly, food was hardly mentioned during the referendum. The claim that the NHS would receive £350 million per week after Brexit overshadowed the debate about where we might get our food from and who would be around to pick it, cook it and serve it. At the moment, it is still unclear how exactly the UK food system will be affected by Brexit. 31 per cent of imported food comes from the EU, 60 per cent of exports go to the EU, and one-third of the food manufacturing workforce is made up of migrant workers. This is why it is so crucial for our food system to get a good Brexit deal.
Currently, many of the foods favoured in the UK are those that are imported or hard to grow here. We’d probably be better off if we valued the produce we grow in our country. In Denmark, they have done an amazing job of promoting Nordic cuisine, to boost production and consumption of traditional foods. Perhaps Brexit could offer an opportunity to do the same here.
Tuesday 6th February
Communicating through Manners and Space
Restaurant day. A day I’d been looking forward to since I started the course. After all, who wouldn’t enjoy a day of eating, drinking and restaurant-hopping. It’s probably what most people think I do when I tell them I’m studying Gastronomy. Now to actually do it.
Of course, as a group of gastronomers, we have eaten together a fair amount since September. However, this time, it wasn’t really about the food. We were encouraged to analyse the space, not the cuisine. As part of the communications module, we were thinking about what the space says, taking into consideration some of the principles of gastrophysics, which takes a multisensory approach to food. Charles Spence describes it as “the everything else”. Your experience of a meal is not just affected by the taste, smell and appearance of the food, but also the smell, appearance and sounds of the environment, as well as the lighting, tables, chairs and cutlery. Not to mention the people you are with, what mood you’re in, and what the service is like.
We began the day in Ostara Café, run by MSc Gastronomy alumni, David McVey, and his partner. The focus is on supporting small, local producers and suppliers, and offering organic and sustainable produce. They aim to create a community space, with a relaxed, natural feel.
Entering through the tiny door, we were warmly greeted with coffee and homemade scones with cream and jam. Ostara, the Germanic goddess of spring, has inspired the décor, with a floral design on the menus, the mugs, the lights and the paintings on the walls, as well as flowers in glass bottles on the tables. The local produce is on display, with the teas, beers, soft drinks and homemade cakes on the counters. A coat stand by the door, the mismatched furniture and crockery, board games and magazines are all chosen to give that homely feel.
Next, we headed on to Restaurant Martin Wishart, a Michelin-starred restaurant serving classic French dishes using Scottish produce. We entered a very clean and ordered space, where our coats were taken, and we split into two groups to have a wine tasting and a tour of the kitchens. It is a rather retro-looking space, with textured wallpaper, wood-clad pillars and a Bridget-Riley-esque striped carpet. Tables are covered in white tablecloths and glistening wine glasses.
In the same way that the floral design was used in Ostara Café, circles seem to be the theme here, seen in the choice of tables, bowls, plates, ceiling lights, vases and wallpaper. Likewise, reflection is used to extend and brighten the space and give that pure, fresh look, with mirrors all around the room, silver bowls by the windows, and exquisitely-polished tableware.
We started with a wine tasting, in which we sampled two of the wines that they pair with lunch; a Spanish white from the Navarre region and a French red from the Loire Valley. The sommelier moved clockwise around the table, pouring the wine for the women first and then going back to serve the men.
From front of house to back of house.
Head chef, Joe, showed us around the kitchens. All shiny surfaces and steam, accents of copper and the chefs dressed in classic white, there was as much a sense of choreography here as in the restaurant. Everything seems to be well-timed and organised. Joe stressed that taste of the dish is priority, with the presentation coming afterwards.
Back in the restaurant, Martin Wishart spoke to us about his story. He explained that the front of house is an extension of the kitchen, communicating the ingredients and producers to the consumers. He described his restaurant as “clean, simple and elegant”, and said that they don’t use too many extra items on the tables, or “props” as he called them, in order not to distract from the food.
It was now time for service to start and our meal to begin.
As we’d been encouraged to scrutinise “the everything else”, I found myself analysing the tableware more than usual. I noticed how weighty the cutlery was, after reading Charles Spence’s books about gastrophysics, noting his observation that heavy cutlery enhances the taste and experience of the meal. Many of the plates were textured, to add another dimension to the dish, by bringing in another sense. I was interested to see that one dessert was served on a round, black plate, after reading that a dish tastes sweetest on a round, white plate. Over-analysis of crockery means eating out is never going to be the same again.
Our final stop of the day (if you don’t include the two further venues we explored after the school day finished), was Quay Commons. Described on their website as “a casual and modern gathering space, bakery and café”, Quay Commons is owned by Dale Mailley and Edward Murray, who also run Gardener’s Cottage.
A relaxed, cool and industrial space, there are tables for meeting and eating, a small shop along one wall, and a counter displaying baked goods. The bakery is visible from the communal space, as an open kitchen might be in a modern restaurant. As well as the bakery, there is an on-site butchery, both of which provide for Gardener’s Cottage and Quay Commons. Local produce is hugely important, as at Ostara Café and Restaurant Martin Wishart.
It’s an interesting experiment to try when you next go to a restaurant. Enjoy the food, but take a bit more time to notice what else is going on around you. How much of the experience is determined by the food, and how much by the environment?