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Feature - Issue #1

Food Identity

More than any other food, vegetables connect us to the seasons and to where we live, and are unique to each region and nation. For a local voice and a global statement on diversity, vegetables are the food of choice.

In a world that now relies on long distance journeys for much of our food, chefs are at the heart of both the issues and solutions that we all face in being a food secure and resilient planet.

With so much of a nation’s identity connected to the food that it grows and eats, chefs the world over are clamouring to serve authentic food from regions and cultures that are sometimes thousands of miles away from where they are actually serving the food.

People dining out have never been so spoilt, or been able to experience such a variety of authentic cooking styles and ingredients. But knowing where you are in the world, by identifying with and understanding the local produce from the country you are living in is an important step to generating a more localised and secure food system for that region. The focus on a biodiverse, local food system is vital for the future of humanity on a global scale.

Every region, country and continent has specific produce that allows the people, cultures and communities to identify with who they are and how they connect to the planet. With so many different climates, soils, minerals and microbiomes, our planet is abundantly rich in edible foods that not only provide us with sustenance and vitality, but also allow us to know ourselves, to know what makes us human and celebrate in the knowledge that through food we connect to the earth and all of its beauty.

What better then than to use food to identify with not only who we are but where we are in the world. Knowing oneself and culture through food is to deeply connect to ancestral customs and generational knowledge. So now more than ever it is important to highlight ingredients, support them, love them, and nurture their diversity.

Many different ingredients go into making one dish, and hundreds of different ingredients go into designing a menu. Chefs use thousands of different ingredients in countless kitchens all over the world, but it is with growing realisation that I know it is only when you begin to focus on vegetables that you get the best understanding of seasonality, soil health, the skill of the grower or producer, and where you are in the world.

How better to know where you are than to be delicately brushing off the soil from the base of a porcini mushroom or to be tasting a peppery olive oil or podding dragon’s eye borlotti beans, surely you’re in Tuscany, Italy. Freshly milled teff flour injera pancakes will place you in Ethiopia, and huge, sweet, freshly harvested globe artichokes weighing up to 500 grams will put you in the growing region of northern France. The sandy loamy soil that produces the world’s most delicate potato, the Jersey Royal, means you must be in southern England, and a myriad of coloured sweet corn, deeply nutritious and with amazing varieties of flavour would mean you are in Urubamba, Peru.

FoodSpace Ireland challenge themselves to source as much produce as possible, for each kitchen, from within a 50-mile radius. (Photograph courtesy of FoodSpace Ireland).

Many chefs place the importance of their culinary knowledge and career squarely on their knowledge of how to prepare, cook and serve meat and fish, but in this quest they leave behind the nuance that vegetables give us, the subtleties and connections to the land that are created by hard-working growers, and how nature and the season play an important role in flavour, texture and aroma.

As a chef, when visiting a region or country, I don’t ask to be taken to the meat or fish market, I find my way to the vegetable market because this is truly where the character of the nation resides. The colours, the textures, the aromas, the hardened fingers of the farmers proudly showing for sale their amazing produce. I look for the ingredients I’ve never seen before, the heritage varieties and local regional vegetables and fruits that change so dramatically due to the climate, season and soil type. Show me a vegetable market and I’ll show you the food of the region, I’ll tell you where you are in the world and which season you are in.

Vegetables are very region specific and are sometimes only available in a specific area of a country. Their flavours are so connected to the soil that they grow in, and soil can change from field to field. Some of my most memorable food experiences have started with me pulling up or trimming off a vegetable from where it has grown.

I’ll never forget an early morning visit to an asparagus farm: it was the beginning of April in Somerset, south west England, and a ground mist was sitting in the grooves between the P asparagus beds. I was there to help with the morning’s harvest, to trim the delicate fingers that overnight had forced their way up through the soil. The spears grew out as if from the mist. Light green fingers, with slight purple colouring at the tips with a glistening morning dew on their crowns, these asparagus were truly beautiful. Their season is short, probably only eight weeks long, and the excitement ofthe first season’s pick is magical. The local climate makes these asparagus stems develop slowly, producing deep, full flavours, with delicate sweetness and a fine texture. The character develops from the previous year when the plant builds up and stores its reserves of carbohydrates.

Farmer Wisdom, showing Arthur his produce, in his garden in Vanderbijlpark, South Africa. (Photograph courtesy of Alexi Wolf).

Photograph courtesy of Forest/Sabrina Dallot-Seguro.

‘What better then than to use food to identify with not only who we are but where we are in the world.’

Photograph courtesy of Jessica Lindgren.

With a gently curved knife blade I set to picking a handful at a time, with the smell of earth and a touch of mist, the freshly cut spears filled my senses, they smelled like iron and butter, like grass and sunshine. I knew when picking the asparagus that there was nowhere else in the world I could have had this experience. For lunch, I cooked them in a large pot of salted water for only a few minutes and served it with a touch of butter. It was delicious.

A few miles up the road and a few months later the sun shone on fields of Somerset strawberries, the mid-summer sun ripening the bright glossy red fruits. The smell was sweet and heartwarming. England is famous for its strawberries and Somerset produces some of the country’s best for good reason: the climate is perfect, with cooler evenings but long hot sunny days, combined with great soil and just the right amount of rain to make these strawberries sweet with a touch of sour. They are firm to the bite but with soft textures, and have a winning aroma: bright, vibrant and deeply sensuous, delicate but robust. How better to identify with your region than with such beautiful ingredients? There aren’t any mango trees, or pomegranates or papaya in England, but there are delicious gooseberries on the next farm. There are no bananas or oranges in the UK, but the red and black currants are super sweet and really good for you and just next door.

Photograph courtesy of Forest/Sabrina Dallot-Seguro.

‘What better way to tell stories on a plate than with local produce, the local voice and a global statement on diversity.’

And I have fond memories of visiting the Tusky Triangle, a 23 sq km (9 sq miles) triangle in West Yorkshire that produces the world’s finest forced rhubarb. Although a native to Siberia, rhubarb has been thriving in the wet cold winters of Yorkshire for hundreds of years.Having had their roots subjected to the winter’s frost, the rhubarb is moved into sheds and grown in warmth and darkness where the carbohydrates are turned into glucose and create the most delicately sweet and sour tender stems. I listened closely while sitting in one of the sheds and I could hear the rhubarb growing, an experience like no other.There are no guavas there.

So what better way to tell stories on a plate than with local produce, the local voice and a global statement on diversity. A corn cob beautifully cooked in Peru, A smokey pumpkin in California, A sweet tart cherry from southern France, a crisp pungent apple from the west of England, a soft delicate basil leaf from northern Italy, a sunshine-filled orange from southern Spain. All distinct ingredients and all ready to tell stories of where they are from and identify with the people who eat, live and grow food there.

I use vegetables to tell my stories: spring recipes are full of hope, summer recipes are full of happiness, autumn recipes are full of knowledge and winter recipes are sustaining and energy-giving. Vegetables are vital for us to connect to where we live and remind themselves of who we are, where we are, and what season it is.

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