Tuesday, 19 December 2006

Eat To Live: Saving food traditions


As environmentalists rush to save the earth fearful for the future of large swathes of it, foodies rush to save national cuisines whose traditions they think have already disappeared.

Italian Carlo Petrini founded Slow Food in 1986 to protect our food heritage. He was galvanized to do so by the affront of a McDonald's restaurant opening in Rome's historic Piazza di Spagna. He realized traditional dishes, produce, livestock were all vanishing, under the assault of fast food convenience, the power of supermarkets and the might of the industrial agribusiness.

Another Italian, Egeria di Nallo, head of political science at the University of Bologna, has made her own quiet and influential contribution to the preservation of food customs. She has created a network of women throughout Italy, proud home cooks every one, who will conjure up a meal of traditional dishes in their own kitchens for eight or so international members of Home Food, as the organization is called.

Once a month, these self-styled 'Cesarine' -- loosely 'empresses' of the kitchen, passionate about good cooking -- produce a meal for 8 or so paying guests who have registered in response to the monthly newsletter. They have been vetted for their cooking skills and divided, without apparently raising any hackles, into four social categories -- popular, middle class and two levels of the aristocracy. Whichever social spectrum the guests choose to dine in, each enables people to experience real Italian cooking in the homes of the cooks themselves.

Professor di Nallo, despondent at the lack of authentic Italian food in restaurants, launched the growing group two years ago. Now she has more than 50 Cesarine ready at their chopping boards. On different menus across Italy this coming January are regional specialties from the goose meat salami of Lombardy, to presnitz -- pasta filled with walnuts, almonds, sultanas and pine nuts -- from the Italy-Austria border, and Rome's aniseed dougnuts, all made with devotion and expertise by these proud amateurs.

It's not only in Europe that the call is out to protect food heritages. But it isn't working so effectively elsewhere. Last year, Mexico applied to UNESCO, the cultural arm of the U.N. for formal recognition of its food traditions. It wanted them acknowledged as part of their country's cultural heritage. But they were turned down.

Now the French are knocking at UNESCO's door with the same intent. L'Institut Européen d'Histoire et des Cultures de l'Alimentation, an institute of food history and culture has joined with Tours University to gather up food professionals, writers, even the ex-minister of culture, to get behind a push to have France's gastronomic heritage recognized by UNESCO.

Perhaps they believe in a French kind of way that their classic cuisine stands a better chance to get the juices of those whose decision it will be flowing more readily than they did when Mexico's gastronomy was up for review.

At any rate, it is interesting that the movement to protect food as a cultural heritage is growing. And it's coming to a high end restaurant menu near you.

Increasingly, chefs are writing the provenance of their prime ingredients next to their dishes. At the Blue Duck Tavern in Washington D.C., there is even a separate column, with the name of each producer in capital letters. Nora Pouillon, at Restaurant Nora in the nation's capital, uses her menu "as a message board. If there is a campaign around a certain topic, such s fish that is nearly extinct, I note it on the menu so that the customers can learn."

It's almost impossible to order a plain ol' pork chop in an up-market eatery these days. The cut will be touted as coming from an acorn-fed Berkshire pig, a traditional breed with a better pedigree than you or me. And demand for a proper heritage turkey has been so great this year, it's far too late to think of ordering one now (though you could try at http://www.localharvest.org). Smaller than the supermarket balloon, it will have scampered around the thistly fields for between 24 and 30 weeks, instead of the 18 weeks it takes a flavorless White Breasted Tom to reach its requisite 32 pounds sale-weight.

These aspirations to save our food heritage shouldn't be sneered at as the stuff of the privileged classes. Our food is far too cheap. It prices hard-working small farmers around the globe out of the market. The pleasure in eating food that has been thoughtfully raised is immediate in the mouth. It's all about taste. And the well-being of the animal and the earth that raises the produce. Since we don't need to eat a lump of protein every day, it shouldn't necessarily make our weekly shopping a more expensive venture. We are paying a high price for convenience shopping and convenience eating.

Instead of satisfying that meat urge with a quick-to-throw-on-the-plate steak or chicken breast, take a little more time to put together this slow-braise casserole adapted from Nigel Slater. It will give you more than one meal with far cheaper meat.

--Italian-style slow-cooked aromatic lamb

--Serves 4 with left-overs

--1 pound dried cannellini or navy beans

--8 lamb shoulder or neck chops

--2 medium red onions, peeled and cut into eighths

--4 carrots, cut into thick chunks on the diagonal

--4 stalks of celery, cut on the diagonal into thick slices

--6 cloves garlic, peeled and bashed with the side of a knife

--2 small dried red chilies

--1 bottle quaffable red wine

--1 ½ pints chicken stock

--2 oranges

--4 large portobello mushrooms

--2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

--4 bay leaves and a small tied bunch of fresh thyme

--olive oil

--salt to taste

--Soak the beans overnight.

--Also overnight, marinade the lamb in a glass or china bowl with the next seven ingredients plus several long curls of scrubbed orange peel taken off with a potato peeler and then the oranges sliced into eighths.

--Next day, bring the beans to a boil covered with fresh water and boil for 10 minutes, then cover and turn off heat.

--Coat the bottom of a heavy bottomed pan with oil, dry off the chops and brown them both sides in batches and set aside in a heavy bottom lidded casserole.

--Drain off the marinade and fry everything left, together with the mushrooms, for around 10 minutes till softened. Add to the casserole.

--Pour enough of the marinade into the sauté pan to scrape up any frying residue and pour over the meat.

--Bring the rest of the marinade to a boil in the pan, then add to the casserole with all remaining ingredients including the drained beans, cover with greaseproof parchment paper and the lid and leave to simmer gently for about 1 ½ hours.

--If you allow 2 days for this, you can refrigerate it and spring off the fat. And the dish will develop more flavor.

Copyright 2006 by United Press International. All Rights Reserved.

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