Public appetite for real food

The first all-Ireland farmers' market conference took place yesterday

The first all-Ireland farmers' market conference took place yesterday. Food writer John McKennasays markets feed a demand for healthy food.

'Americans don't eat food. They eat food products."

The brilliant American writer Michael Pollan made that statement during the course of a lecture at the Slow Food Terra Madre congress, in Turin last October.

Even as I scribbled it in my notebook, it gave me a shiver.


Here we all were, thousands of us, at the bi-annual Slow Food bash which is a celebration of global food bio-diversity, and Pollan was telling us that, because the United States' food economy is utterly dependent on corn - and on only six cultivars of corn - something simple happens when you allow a single food to dominate a food culture: "Corn is making us sick."

I was already familiar with this argument from Pollan's classic book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, in my opinion the most important book written on the politics and business of food in the last decade, but hearing it expressed so brutally still came as a shock.

So, I did what every food lover does when confronted with something shocking: I went to the food market at the Congress, and bought some northern Indian basmati rice, some Italian bottarga, and some eye-wipingly strong hootch from a nice man from Peru.

Then I had some fine Irish raw-milk farmhouse cheese and a glass of English ale. I felt a whole lot better.

Food and health are not just bedfellows. They are one and the same thing. Michael Pollan's stark assertion of what happens to the health element when you get the food element wrong is not just shocking, it is also blindingly obvious.

I got my own taste of the food-health synthesis back in the early 1990s, shopping at the Dublin Food Co-Op on Pearse Street. Chatting to shoppers and stallholders, you quickly realised some of the shoppers were there looking for real foods to cure themselves or a relative following illness.

They wanted those freshly dug organic carrots. They wanted wholefoods. They wanted sourdough breads and artisan cheeses made with raw milk.

By getting up early on a Saturday morning to get the best produce, they were saying, simply "we want real food". They wanted the curative power of good food.

Back in those days, the Food Co-op was one of the very few alternatives to the blandness of food retailing that has become so evident in the past 10 years. But today it has been joined, with a rush, by dozens of farmers' markets throughout the country.

Now, anyone interested in food, or economics, should warmly welcome markets. They are a dynamic force in any economy, because they are a meshwork of producers and people working together, quickly able to fulfil the needs of their customers.

At their best, food markets are a one-stop solution shop to many of our food ills. They have local foods that have travelled very few miles. They sustain bio-diversity. They retain food spending power within an area. They are environmentally sustainable. They are mighty fun.

This combination of reasons explains why 10,000 people will turn up at the People's Park in Dún Laoghaire on a fine Sunday for their local CoCo market.

Yet, for some reason, food markets draw the ire of very many people, who denounce both the markets, and more especially the customers who use them, as mere baubles for the bourgeoisie.

As someone who has written about food markets from the beginning - I wrote the first articles on major markets such as Temple Bar and Midleton on the Weekend pages of this very newspaper - and who uses markets on a weekly basis, I think the critics are missing the plot.

People don't use markets as an opportunity to show off their spending power. They use them, I would suggest, for health just as much as pleasure, and they don't differentiate between these two objectives.

Farmers' markets are not playgrounds for dilettantes. They are part of a food counter culture.

This counter culture has its author heroes, such as Michael Pollan, Joanna Blythman, Felicity Lawrence or Peter Singer, the philosopher, who has defined the debate on animal rights.

When the writer Jonathan Harvey tells us, in his book We Want Real Food, that Western European countries are "50 years into a mass experiment in human nutrition, we're all eating basic foods that have been stripped of the antioxidants, trace elements and minerals and essential fatty acids that once promoted good health," then we believe Harvey.

And we respond in a simple way: we go to the market to get organic, local, artisan foods, the foods that we believe will maintain, if not improve, our health.

We don't believe the nutritionists who tell us everything is fine. We don't trust mass-produced foods, the battery chicken-Corn Flakes-Coca-Cola culture that assails us, and our children, every day of the week. BSE and bird flu don't surprise us one bit when they happen, because we know the commercialised food culture is always working on the edge of disaster.

And we have our food heroes, the individuals whose produce we snap up at whatever markets we attend. Dan Ahern for chickens. Jens Krumpe for dry-aged beef. Fingal Ferguson for pork. Stephane Griesbach for fish. Sheridan's for cheeses. Jane Russell for sausages. Willie Scannell for spuds. David Llewellyn for apple juice. Gary Crocker for eggs.

The list could go on and on, and goes on for page after page of the new Bridgestone Irish Food Guide, which has grown to 536 pages, largely thanks to the growth in markets and producers.

While personal health is a paramount element, it is only one reason why those 10,000 people are at the People's Park on a Sunday.

Environmental health and agricultural sustainability are other reasons why we use markets: we want a fit, clean planet for our children. Far from being dilettantes, shoppers at food markets are highly conscientious.

They can see the big picture wherein a healthy planet with a healthy agriculture sustains healthy people. When we read the findings of the geologist and nutritionist David Thomas, quoted in Jonathan Harvey's book, that "you'd have needed to eat 10 tomatoes in 1991 to get the amount of copper a single tomato would have supplied in 1940", then we know that allowing intensive, chemicalised, monoculture agriculture to dictate what we eat will not sustain us.

The Bridgestone Irish Food Guide is published by Estragon Press at €15. See: