This past weekend I journeyed to the rural areas of Nottinghamshire, to the rather lovely Welbeck Estate, to attend the School of Artisan Food ‘Food for Thought’ lectures. It was a truly fantastic weekend of scholarship, writing and thinking about food.
The whole two days seemed to hang together very loosely – there was no wider theme that really connected the speakers and so we journeyed from the horrors of the food industry to the tiny Cookhouse, to the Grand Tour. It was all fantastic, capturing my enthusiasm for food talk and writing once again. We were also superbly well fed!
Joanna Blythman started us off, talking about what the food industry doesn’t tell us. Her new book, Swallow This: Serving Up the Food Industry’s Darkest Secrets explores this in more detail. She spoke in (rather horrifying) detail about how ‘natural flavourings’ like ‘rosemary extract’ aren’t really related to the rosemary plant at all. If you’re even slightly skeptical about how the food industry works, read her book. On Sunday, in an unexpectedly related talk, James Whetlor talked about his business Cabrito Goat Meat. James and his partner started Cabrito in Devon, as a solution to using the billy kids that otherwise form a waste product from the goat milk industry. The idea was to supply goat meat for people to eat. As their business has grown, they have looked to expand into supermarkets and James spoke with frank honesty about the difficulty of doing this as a small producer. He talked about how the food industry and the supermarkets work to shape choice, by limiting what they will and will not buy from suppliers. It was totally gripping and engaging.
Bee Wilson spoke about how we learn to eat, the possibilities for teaching our palate’s to like various foods, including vegetables, and how (ideally) the best way to teach children to eat is to allow them to choose from a range of foods (without getting anxious about their nutritional intake). Her new book, First Bite, discusses this in more detail. I spoke to her afterwards because it struck me as an interesting tension that manifests in schools where, because of the unknown (by parents of what children at at school and by teachers/dining hall supervisors of what children eat at home), children lose this ability to choose. In schools, children are encouraged to eat all the food they are given, to ensure they are not hungry. There is little opportunity for the kind of agency Wilson talked about around the school dining table.
One of the reasons I signed up to the talks was to hear Jeanette Orrey speak. Jeanette is the ‘original’ dinner lady, the one who is largely credited for telling Jamie Oliver about the state of school food, and who has worked tirelessly to change school food in the last 16-odd years. She provided some interesting statistics, particularly on the growing problem of hunger in schools, and she urged the audience not to think that school food had been ‘fixed’. Orrey argued that there are still head teachers who do not think school food should be their problem, that there is still tension between the DfE and the DoH about who is responsible for food in schools, and there is an ever growing issue around summer hunger too. She also talked about the tension that exists between what policymakers envision, and what schools can do at the grassroots level (which is what my thesis was all about).
I loved hearing from the chefs too. Over the weekend, we heard from Olia Hercules on fermentation (her rather exquisite book is only £5.99 on Amazon at the moment); Jeremy Lee on the evolution of British food and this new culture developing around feasting and sharing; and Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich from Honey & Co. I was interested in the way Sarit and Itamar talked about writing their cookbooks, about how channeling the personal is so important, how their cookbooks are about food they want to eat and cook, and how you can read their cookbooks like any other book.
I particularly loved listening to Anna Hedworth talk about starting Cook House, up in Newcastle (how much do you love her logo?!) and her work putting on events for the National Trust in the Farne Islands (working in foreign kitchens, some without running water). Her pictures were exquisite and made me desperately want to run some supper clubs like we used to do in Johannesburg.
The weekend ended with two history talks – one on The Grand Tour by Andrew Graham-Dixon and the other by historian Ivan Day. Ivan’s talk was particularly interesting. He talked about food as art as largesse. My understanding of his talk was that in the event of wealthier people having large events, with large displays of food (often created as works of art), the food was later given to those less well-off to have and eat. So architectural displays of food were later dissembled by the poor. This is food as art but also food as art as largesse… Ivan had a fascinating collection of photographs of tables laid with plenty. These tables were then picked at by the wealthy before being given to poor people. In other places, who scenes were constructed from food (as part of a wider celebration of a birth or a marriage of the landed gentry), and then people could destroy them and claim the food. At food festivals in Europe, people were given roasted meats for free as part of the wider celebration. An interesting idea of redistribution of wealth I think.
All in all, I had a fantastic weekend, talking and thinking about food. I’m hoping, now that I have been there, to return to The School of Artisan Food for another course. And I will definitely be back next year for this lecture series!