Independent choice: kitchen culture
Pick of the week Walking and Eating in Tuscany and Umbria
Saturday 12 April 1997
I once tried shopping in a remote Lincolnshire village surrounded by vast acres of prime soil all bursting with veggies. The local shop had some spindly blotched carrots that could have seen service in The Hand of Dracula and some pensionable onions. The vitamin-filled fresh local produce was all destined for distant supermarkets. So I need no convincing that the most important food issue, the fundamental quality of what we eat, is raised by Kate de Selincourt's Local Harvest: Delicious Ways to save the Planet (Lawrence & Wishart, pounds 11.99).
Her book exposes horrors such as supermarket Chicken Kiev: "made largely from reconstituted, mashed chicken skin with fragments of muscle meat" and the dishonest labelling which permits Danish bacon to appear as "British", or the RSPCA's Freedom Foods guidelines, which allow sows to be kept in savagely cruel farrowing crates and battery hens to be debeaked. This book passionately argues that eating local organically farmed produce is tastier, kinder and healthier.
How could one not agree? But the quality of documentation is poor, sometimes irresponsibly so: the claimed statistical connection between the incidence of breast cancer and the use of the pesticide lindane will arouse much concern, yet no citations are given. And she does not really tackle the related problems of delivery and cost of organic produce. Those who need cheap fresh food most, poor inner-city families, cannot afford the price, the transport or the time needed to purchase it. It looks as if the main beneficiaries of organic farming are represented by the Volvos full of Pick-Your-Own hurtling round country lanes. Still, we must never underestimate the power of gesture, as the popularity of Swampy demonstrates. The most fashionable claim you can make in current foodie circles is to know a teenager up a tree.
The ever-popular Tuscan Peasant category is represented by Walking and Eating in Tuscany and Umbria (Penguin, pounds 8.99), which combines the pleasurable genres of travel and food writing. James Lasdun and Pia Davis ventured off the beaten track to hoof it through Chiantishire. The book suggests more than 30 fairly undemanding walks, with eating places, around Florence, Lucca, Siena and other staging-posts on the art trail. I was glad to see a recommendation for Florence's Mercato Centrale - a wonderful culinary shopping scenario, as deserving of attention as the Duomo. The book is a treat for the armchair gourmet - how can one resist the cloisters of Monte Oliveto, which sport a medieval fresco by the little-known artist and badger-lover, Il Sodoma? The monks are renowned for their olive oil.
Here all roads lead to obscure rustic alberghi which would otherwise go undiscovered and the authors have a New York toughness in assessing food standards and prices. I started this book with extreme anti-pseud prejudice, but it ended up as my favourite. I was won over by mouthwatering details: little Pienza cheeses rolled in herbs and crushed peppers, pigeon- stock sauces flavoured with truffles - and by the refreshing emphasis on taking buses.
I turned in some dread to the scholarly offering. The Official Foodie Handbook once nailed the scholar-cook to the wall, as one whose days were spent transcribing phrases such as "splatte thatte pyke" from dusty manuscripts while existing on a diet of dyed kippers and biscuits. Happily, John Evelyn, Cook (Prospect Books, pounds 25.50) is the work of the late, lamented, and utterly credible, Christopher Driver.
It contains more than 300 recipes from Evelyn's 17th-century manuscript "receipt" book, lucidly edited, to which Driver has added a loving glossary which includes an intriguing contribution from Elizabeth David on cantimplora, an early device for cooling wine. But Evelyn was no Pepys; he was a dry stylist and this book is a case where the modern editor was a better writer than his source.
Historically inclined foodies will also enjoy Christina Hardyment's Behind the Scenes: Domestic Arrangements in Historic Houses (The National Trust, pounds 24.99). This is the forgotten aspect of Country House cuisine, its below- stairs preparation. The book is meticulously researched, focusing on the kitchen and commissariat staff. It is lavishly illustrated, though the photographs show the preternaturally clean and tidy domestic scenarios of National Trust kitchens. Couldn't they have dirtied them up a bit? But if you want to know exactly how a Victorian dairy operated, Hardyment will tell you - and she has probably crawled inside the churns. Mrs Bridges with balls.
Finally, the latest and most gruesome example of Dinner-Party Chic, Last Dinner on the Titanic, Menus and Recipes from the Great Liner by Rick Archbold and Dana McCauley (Weidenfeld, pounds 9.99). Not only the recipes that were served to the doomed passengers, but "suggestions on setting the mood, decorating the table and presenting each dish" to evoke the ambience. Highly topical: one for Tory tables.
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