Nov 20 2008

Carlo Petrini’s in Devon

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I’ve been pondering lately the complicated relationship the British seem to have with their food these days. Contradictions abound. On the one hand we treat food as fantastic entertainment; our TV screens host a plethora of food programmes. We lap up Raymond Blanc’s “Restaurant”, Gordon Ramsey’s food nightmares and marathon cookalongs; all entertaining stuff. But loads of us still don’t or won’t cook at home; too busy, too expensive; too boring. Or is it? Is Jamie Oliver right? As a nation, are we losing the skill?

There seems to be a rumour about that good food is a luxury; it’s for the middle classes, the wealthy, for “toffs”, not for everyone. Is this true? Do we really believe eating is self-indulgent, good food unnecessary, that we can survive on basics, chemicals even, masquerading expensively, as the real thing, and feel good about it? Do some of us perhaps still have just the ghost of a memory of rationing all those years ago, a whiff of a hand-me-down rather than actual memory which tells us to make do or do without? Maybe we even drag with us some internalised abstract legacy from the 19th century about the evils of self indulgence; some of that parsimony still lurking in our social subconscious.
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And now we are left with a huge contradiction as we grapple with these internalised values. Our supermarket shelves groan with food. We can have whatever we fancy, in theory, all the year round; in theory because we must pay for this privilege both in money and damage to the environment. We all need to eat to stay alive and yet, still we do not feel able to allow food, the very source of life, to be a pleasure. Parsimony has been replaced in part by the belief that eating is a tiresome chore. As a nation we are inclined to snatch something on the hoof instead of sitting round a table. And we throw millions of tons of the stuff away everyday. We live, or have done until the events of the last few weeks, in a world of excesses. Since then our norm has been shaken to the roots.
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Is change on the way and if it is can we make it work for us? Is it time to reassess, to start to think a little laterally, to look around the world to see if there is anything out there we can do for ourselves to help us through these turbulent times? Could we, for example, take a lesson perhaps from the Slow Food Movement?

Over the last few years the Slow Food movement has, slowly and steadfastly, taken hold worldwide. In 1986 when Carlo Petrini witnessed McDonald’s appear on the Spanish Steps in Rome he knew he could not just stand by and do nothing. Slow Food was born. One man’s inspiration is proving to be a grassroots movement that can and does bring real change to the way we are beginning to think about the sustainability of our planet as a whole, our relationship with it and with each other. This inspiring man came to the UK on November 19th, came to Devon to speak in the Great Hall at Dartington. His overwhelming message was that sustainable responsible world farming is the way for the future. He spoke for over an hour through his brilliant interpreter: his message “I am strongly convinced that the world economic crisis will lead to more respect for the rural economy, agriculture and farming”
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At the recent Slow Food Terra Madre event of Oct 24-27, 6000 delegates from 153 countries from all over the world came together in Turin to discuss, to celebrate, to develop food production ; the cooking, the sharing, the selling, the writing, the thinking behind real traditional food. As Marc Millon, Slow Food guru and writer, present at the huge gathering, put it so eloquently:” We were linked, as much as anything with this vast and diverse gathering, by a system of beliefs and values about the worth of rural activities and local food production, protection of the earth, and the value of real food, traditional food, simply to make our lives, as well as our livelihoods, better”.
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Some of the worlds most influential food figures, lobbyists and politicians, attended this years Terra Madre. The iconic chef Alice Waters was there, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Dr Vandana Shiva. All shared the view that co-ordinated global action is needed to ensure the future world’s food supply. Dr Shiva received a standing ovation for her angry and political attack on a world that bails out corrupt bankers yet balks at the challenge of eradicating hunger and poverty and giving rights to those who produce our food. ” we cannot accept that the destiny of humanity is the continuation of poverty: we want something else for future generations”.

We may feel powerless to change the world but we have the potential if we can find the will. Here in the West country we are surrounded by local food producers of every sort; we have farmers, fishermen, growers, manufacturers, distributors, who hold, with integrity, the core belief that sustainably produced food is the right of every man, woman and child on the planet. Let us join them, change our attitudes and rediscover the pleasure and fun of sharing our resources.
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Financial sustainability is crucial to a healthy economy but it is not everything. There is more to life than simply money, economics, financial survival. There is so much we can do for each other with very little cost: we can share knowledge, give time, companionship, watch out for one another. And we can use food, the staple of our very existence as the lynch pin of this sharing. Good, clean, fair food is for us all and, in sharing, neighbourhoods, communities, countries come together with friendship across the world. The Terra Madre in Turin proved it.
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Sally Vincent:
Western Morning News
October 10th 2008

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Nov 09 2008

To Make Lasagne

Like so many classic Italian dishes, lasagne varies from region to region. Internationally, of course, it has developed another identity altogether as a readymade dish available everywhere which, like Pizza, bears little resemblance to its country of origin.
We are most accustomed to a variation made up of a meat and tomato sauce, a simplified ragu, layered with a cheese sauce and sheets of easy-cook pasta. It does take time to prepare so it’s worth doubling up on the quantities for a big group of friends or for portions in the freezer.
500gms lasagne
750 ml Bechamel sauce….homemade or good quality ready made
150 gms grated parmesan cheese
Ragu; see below
The Ragu
200gms minced beef or mixed pork and beef
55gms chopped prosciutto or streaky bacon
1 chopped onion, carrot, celery stalk
3 tablespoons tomato puree
A glass of red wine
A little beef or chicken stock
Butter and oil for frying
Salt and pepper
Melt butter with a little oil in a heavy flat pan; the oil stops the butter burning. Fry the vegetables and bacon gently till soft. Add the meat and brown a further ten minutes. Stir in the wine and allow it to bubble to allow the alcohol to evaporate. Stir in tomato puree and a little stock to loosen the ragu to a sauce like consistency. Simmer for 1 ½ hours adding more stock if it becomes dry. Add salt and freshly ground black pepper.
To assemble the dish:
First carefully read the instructions for the lasagne: some need cooking in boiling water before assembly and some are ready cooked and can go in straight from the packet!
Spread a layer of béchamel sauce on the bottom of a large flat gratin dish. Follow with a single layer of lasagne. Nest some of the Ragu, then more lasagne and so on. Finish with Bechamel and a thick layer of the cheese. Bake in a hot oven for thirty minutes until golden on top. Remove from the oven and allow to set for ten minutes before serving.
In his wonderful book, Complete Italian Food, Antonio Carluccio adds fried courgette, aubergine, spinach balls and porcini between each layer of lasagne and ragu; a truly sumptuous version!

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