We are what we eat

 

IRISH FOOD:In a funny and irreverent new book, Philip Boucher-Hayes and Suzanne Campbell look at our speedy transition from a country of farmers and consumers of local produce, to a place where many of us are unaware of the origins of what we eat, writes ANNA CAREY

SOMETHING STRANGE HAS been happening in my kitchen over the past few weeks. The bread-maker has been rumbling away regularly (in fact, I can hear it going as I write). I’ve made not one but two lemon drizzle cakes. I’ve made several curries from scratch, rather than lazily using a jar of sauce. And I’ve been buying vegetables in a local grocer rather than the supermarket.

What triggered this flurry of domestic activity? I’ve never been a particularly devoted foodie. But ever since I read Basket Case, the excellent new book by RTÉ journalists Philip Boucher-Hayes and Suzanne Campbell, I’ve been paying more attention to what I eat and where I buy it. Basket Case examines Ireland’s relationship to food and agriculture, and looks at our speedy transition from a country of farmers and consumers of local produce to a place where many of us are blissfully ignorant of the origins of what we eat. It also shows how the way we shop is affecting the way food is produced and sold.

But, as its authors are keen to stress, they’re not trying to harangue their readers into going back to nature. “We didn’t want to write a utopian manifesto about skipping down to the farmers’ market with your hemp bag,” says Boucher-Hayes, as we sit around the table in his and Campbell’s airy kitchen with their cute baby daughter Anna, drinking tea and eating delicious (home-made) flapjacks. Instead, they wanted to write, as Campbell puts it, “an exploration of what has happened to Ireland in the last 10 years through the prism of food”.

The book is a result of what Campbell calls “a very long conversation about where food comes from, how is it produced, who produces it and what they charge for it.” The couple have been having this conversation for more than a decade. While travelling in Asia in the late 1990s, they witnessed the consequences of a currency crash that left thousands of people unable to afford rice. They also saw the side-effects of the catastrophic destruction of the forests in Sumatra and Borneo by loggers.

“We started to see the links between what was happening here and the production of food,” says Boucher-Hayes. “The reason the forests were being destroyed wasn’t just for the hardwood, but to create palm oil as an export crop for the very food products that we eat in the west. It’s in so many processed foods. There are really fragile relationships between food and the environment, and we want to examine how people live through food.”

Historically, the vast majority of the world’s population had a basic relationship with food: we just needed to get enough of it, which was often easier said than done. It wasn’t until after the second World War that, in western Europe at least, food shortages became a thing of the past. By the 1990s, we were splashing cash on everything from lunchtime paninis to expensive restaurants. “It was another consumer product,” says Campbell. “You bought food like you bought clothes. But our grandparents were obsessed with having enough food to feed their families.”

Our grandparents also knew where their food came from. Often, it came from their own animals and crops. We were a nation of farmers, and Boucher-Hayes and Campbell write eloquently about urban Ireland’s abandonment of its rustic roots. They believe those roots are something we should try to remember. “The question of leaving agriculture behind us is both our story and everybody’s story,” says Boucher-Hayes, who grew up in Kildare. “We’re both from farming backgrounds, but we and our families sought the opportunity, as so many people do, to go to Dublin and do the things you can’t do in the country.”

But that didn’t mean they immediately forgot where they came from. Campbell, who grew up in Bray but whose parents were both from farming families in Northern Ireland, says her father continued to grow vegetables in the family garden. This was common among his generation.

“Those men, like my dad, had just come off a farm, and they had grown up milking cattle and growing stuff,” she says. “But to their children, our generation, it’s completely alien. And the next generation down, the grandchildren of the men and women who came from the country in the 1950s and 1960s, are walking around Dundrum with orange faces and Ugg boots. To them, farming is a completely foreign world. The memory has gone so quickly.”

Of course, not everyone has rural relatives. As a fourth-generation (at least) north Dubliner with just one non-Dublin grandparent, my own culchie roots are buried pretty deep. But as Boucher-Hayes and Campbell point out, city folk used to have a much closer relationship with the realities of food production, too. “Dublin has forgotten how agricultural the city was until relatively recently,” says Boucher-Hayes. “My father, before he moved to Kildare, lived in Leeson Street, and the man who lived in the mews at the back of their house kept pigs. You used to see cattle being driven up Leeson Street to Prussia Street, over to the cattle market in Stoneybatter.”

Even in urban areas, food was relatively local. “The butcher your grandparents got their meat from probably sold meat that had been killed out the back,” says Campbell. “The cattle were driven on the hoof to the back of that butcher, or to a local slaughterhouse. Food was entirely local – people got their veg from the big horticultural area in north Dublin, and if you were on the south side you got what was grown in north Wicklow.”

These days, much of that land has been given over to housing developments, and high prices have made buying land for farming almost impossible for the average farmer. Small mixed farms are already a thing of the past in Ireland, and Campbell and Boucher-Hayes believe that the country will probably go the same way as the UK. “The farms that survive will get bigger,” says Campbell. “You’ll need 1,000 milking cows to make a living.” These days, farming is a minority activity in Ireland, employing just 40,000 people, and as farms become bigger, this number is expected to shrink.

As we’ve distanced ourselves from the production of our food, we’ve also forgotten how to buy it. In fact, if Basket Case has a villain, it’s the big supermarkets who increasingly dominate the world of food retail. Boucher-Hayes and Campbell paint a depressingly accurate picture of Irish main streets, in which independent food shops have been driven out of business by the vast supermarkets that tend to open just outside the town, drastically reducing foot traffic. (Enniscorthy in Co Wexford, where supermarkets are integrated into the town centre, is a rare exception – local shops are thriving.)

If the trend continues, supermarkets such as Tesco (the third-largest retailer in the world) will ultimately have total control over all food sold. “In the UK they’ve already realised these big stores hold the bargaining chips over what we eat in the future,” says Campbell. “What if they all decide to charge us €50 for a chicken? In 50 years’ time, there could be nothing we could do.” As a result, the UK has appointed an ombudsman to look over supermarket expansion, and our own Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment is currently consulting on the issue.

This is important for many reasons, not least because the dominance of supermarkets doesn’t just affect independent retailers (50 per cent of which went under or were bought out during the boom years). It affects the quality of the food itself.

“As consumers, we’re now trained to judge by our eyes rather than by how things taste,” says Boucher-Hayes, and the manipulated demand for perfect fruit and pristine meat increasingly dictates what farmers produce. “The more stuff is bred for visual appeal, the more flavour it seems to lose,” says Campbell. “Nearly all the strawberries in supermarkets are Elektra, which are bred for long shelf life and good colour, but they taste like ice cubes.”

This desire for perfect, convenient food also encourages the purchase of processed food. Michael Pollan, the food writer and academic, coined the term Standard American Diet: Cereals Refined And Processed (Sad Crap) to describe what’s sold in the central aisles of supermarkets. “If you think about how supermarkets are laid out, you can get everything you need to live on for a week by shopping around the margins – the veg, the dairy, the meat,” says Boucher-Hayes.

The vast majority of the food in the middle is processed – and when you compare the ingredients in a shop-bought cake or loaf of bread (preservatives, emulsifiers, dried egg) to a home-made version (mostly flour, with some water, salt and yeast for the bread; and sugar, eggs and butter for the cake), you realise quite how processed and overpriced even basic foodstuffs are. Boucher-Hayes tells of a colleague who decided to make the processed food she usually ate from scratch. “She didn’t change her diet or her calorie intake – she could have a pizza, for example, but she’d have to make the dough herself. And she lost a stone in a month.”

There’s nothing even vaguely preachy about Boucher-Hayes and Campbell – they and their book are funny and irreverent, and they freely admit that they go to supermarkets sometimes. They worry that the recent vogue for allotments and vegetable patches might just be a fad that will fade away as the economy improves, although Boucher-Hayes points out that the experience of seeing your veg patch devoured by slugs can force you to realise how tough it is for farmers when their crops fail.

In general, though, the couple are optimistic about the future of food in Ireland. “The signs are quite healthy,” says Boucher-Hayes. “There’s an upturn in the amount of people applying to get into agricultural college. The industry can and – fingers crossed – will sustain itself into the next generation. But it’s not an ordinary industry – it does need more support. And at so many different levels, we’ve turned our backs on it.”

But if we do start paying a bit more attention to food, the benefits can be enormous – from the clear conscience that comes from buying carrots straight from the farmer (Carlow farmers’ market is, apparently, especially good value), to making lovely fresh bread, and cakes that don’t taste like sawdust.

“In my experience, getting informed about what you’re eating isn’t drudgery,” says Boucher-Hayes. “In fact, I’ve found it to be fun, enjoyable and enlightening. It’s not just a middle-class luxury. The things people buy when they consider themselves both time- and cash-poor are things they could save money on if they made them. It’s not half as much hassle as people think.”

Basket Case by Philip Boucher-Hayes and Suzanne Campbell is published by Gill Macmillan, €16.99

WHAT CAN YOU DO?
Both authors are reluctant to give advice (“I’d be loath to suggest that anyone should
take to the streets over anything we’ve written,” says Boucher-Hayes). But here are a few tips:

Suzanne Campbell: “Shop local. Then you know when you buy meat that the animal was probably killed within two counties of the butcher’s shop. Try and get Irish veg, and remember that if you get red peppers in November, they will have been imported from somewhere. Not all sellers at a farmers’ market are actually farmers – plenty of them are traders selling imported produce, so it’s worth asking them about this. You will always buy a particular amount of stuff from around the world, but
just try to keep it small, and don’t hand over all your power to massive, multinational groups.”

Philip Boucher-Hayes:“You can educate yourself. We tried to do this item by item – we didn’t try to change our shopping trolley overnight. But we experimented with things. We tried different products – we discovered perfectly ethical products that tasted like crap – but gradually we transformed our weekly shop. It’s still not perfect, there are things we have to change. But, if you try this piecemeal
approach, you will change what you buy.”