A small heresy for Lent: avoid cod, eat beef

Emily Green suggests six things concerned consumers should deny themselves
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Indy Lifestyle Online
For the 46 days preceding Easter, starting on Wednesday, devout Roman Catholics will turn to salt cod and dry cakes as they forsake the pleasures of meat, poultry, eggs, alcohol and fat, to commemorate Christ's fast in the wilderness. Is this practice beneficial, either to our bodies, or our souls? Perhaps. I myself say: Have you roast beef. Have your roast chicken. Have your darkest, richest, butteriest chocolate cake. Have a perfectly poured pint of bitter, or a bottle of great claret.Buy the ingredients from a shopkeeper who knows and cares about what he or she sells. If you can, buy organic. Because far greater tenacity will be required, and a greater good achieved, to give up the following, perhaps for Lent, ideally as long as it takes to preserve the best of our food culture, and fend off the all-too-efficient merchants busily debasing it.

Cod

Yes. The time-honoured Lenten staple, including salt cod and dried cod. Not that it is a bad thing. It is delicious. It is just that the North Sea cod are facing what fishing industry analysts call a "recruitment failure": ie, stocks are dwindling dangerously. Last November, Michael Holden, who spent 40 years' studying the fishing industry, and who was one of the architects of the Common Fisheries policy, called for the urgent decommissioning of half of Europe's fishing fleets. Cod would, he warned, soon be extinct if we failed to conserve remaining stocks. Fishing industry representatives say a scare could drive the price down, encouraging fishermen to land larger catches. Possibly. Myself, I am sticking to herring until the cod's future is secured.

Bottled water

We each use about 4.35 litres of water a day for drinking and cooking. The soft drinks industry would like to sell us a fair wack of that, and it is making serious inroads. According to the UK's Soft Drinks Association, we drank 350 million litres of bottled water in 1989. By 1994, consumption had risen to 690 million litres. Received wisdom seems to have it that it is better for us than tap water, although the law prevents the bottled water industry from making health claims. The British Soft Drinks Association says: "It doesn't have fat. It doesn't have cholesterol. Or sugar. It appeals to the health-conscious and it offers consistency." Gosh, no kidding. What its promoters do not stress is that it puts thundering lorry-loads of bottles on our over-stressed roads, and makes it somewhat common to drink from the public water supply.

Margarine

The dairy shelves of supermarkets do not necessarily contain dairy products. Leading supermarkets now stock as much, if not more, margarine than butter. This seems a curious balance in the third largest dairy-producing country in Europe. I asked Joanna Blythman, author of The Food We Eat (Michael Joseph, pounds 7.99) how margarines are made.

"The majority are made with hydrogenated fats," she says. "The hardening process requires a brutal process which converts the natural fats of vegetable oil into trans-fatty acids, which research is indicating our bodies find difficult to compute."

Here is her description of what goes into a typical vat of marg: "The oils are generally cheap commodity oils such as palm, rape seed, sunflower, cottonseed and grapeseed, which have been industrially refined ... liquid oils are hydrogenated, then blended with water. Because fat and oil do not usually blend, emulsifiers have to be added to bind them ... To add flavour and also to stabilise the spread, some whey left over from milk is added. A preservative such as potassium sorbate is included to give a longer shelf life ... the flavour is 'corrected' with lactic acid, milk sugar, artificial flavourings and sometimes salt. The hue is 'improved' by the addition of colourings. Artificial vitamins are often added to restore some of those lost in processing. " Pass the butter, please.

Supermarkets

Presently there are 360 branches of Sainsbury, 541 of Tesco, 113 of Waitrose, 207 Asda, and 284 Marks & Spencer food halls in the UK. The Co-op is not sure how many of its 4,000-plus outlets are supermarkets, but there are at least 118 in the South-east. This brings us to 1,299, excluding most of the smaller chains. There are no figures available as to failures of small shops due to the opening of supermarkets, but most of us have witnessed it. For the sake of argument, let's estimate that the opening of each superstore has spelled the closure of five specialist shops - a greengrocer, a butcher, a fishmonger, a bakery, a delicatessen. That is a loss of an estimated 6,495 shops across the UK, and three times that in the number of on-the-floor specialists - butchers, fruiterers, etc - who have been replaced by low-paid stock boys. It is no wonder we are prey to food scares. We no longer have a bond of trust with the people selling it to us. Our river beds are filled up with abandoned trolleys, plastic carrier bags dangle from the trees. Our fruit and vegetables have no season. Resisting supermarkets during Lent will not necessarily save the high street, but, as they say, every little helps.

Imported lagers

According to the Campaign for Real Ale, the British drink something like 36.5 million barrels of beer a year, or about 10.5 billion pints. Almost a billion of these pints are imported, one of the highest rates of consumption of imported beers in Europe. Our choice of domestic beers breaks down as follows: Scottish Courage has 25 to 30 per cent of the market, Bass 24 per cent, Carlsberg Tetley 16 per cent, Whitbread 14 per cent, and regional family breweries about 15 per cent. Another 1 per cent of the market belongs to newish micro-breweries. Camra's Iain Loe names as among the best regional breweries: Adnam's in Suffolk; Fuller's and Young's in London; Timothy Taylor in Yorkshire; Joseph Holt and Robinson's in Manchester; Pottage in Somerset; Brains from Cardiff; Belhaven, Caledonian and Maclay's in Scotland. "But even the nationals are producing some good quality bottled beers," says Mr Loe, "such as Director's from Scottish Courage." So this importing of beer is a case of coals to Newcastle.

Over-packaged goods

There is nothing beautiful about the proportion of plastic to yoghurt in a single serving pots, even when held by those Muller yoghurt girls, Naomi Campbell and Joanna Lumley. According to a government White Paper, "Making Waste Work", 20 per cent of our household rubbish is packaging. Friends of the Earth quote the same paper as reporting that we generate 20 million tonnes of waste each year in the UK. That is four million tonnes of packaging, most of which is employed purely as point-of-sale teasers, or to buffer foods for the long journeys involved in supermarket distribution systems. The packaging industry has pegged us as prize dunces: we pay for their rubbish, then we pay to dispose of it.

But these things you can eat with a clear conscience...

Meat and poultry

Consumption of meat needn't be obscene. Looked at rationally, it is an integral part of our food culture, and cannot be whimsically removed. Yet the vegetarians have a point. If we consume meat rashly and carelessly, we will be doing to farm culture what we are doing to our own: trashing it. The moral is, eat the veal, but ensure it is reared to the highest standards. Eat the chicken, but not exclusively in a tandoori take-away. Fry the livers. Roast the bird. Make stock from the bones. While good meat is not necessarily labelled organic, a Soil Association or Q Guild stamp will guarantee top animal husbandry. You will be part of the process that has been going on for thousands of years - milk from the cow, whey to the pig, cheese to the farmer.

Farmhouse cheese

The preserving of summer milk for winter cheese is human ingenuity at its best. The results are, arguably, better than fresh milk. Seek out a perfect cheddar in a supermarket: you won't find it. This requires the knowledge and commitment that only shops such as Iain Mellis in Edinburgh and Neal's Yard Dairy in London provide.

Home cooking

Not some anxiety-inducing party piece from Delia, but cooking at home. This takes careful shopping. Perversely, we view it as a chore, while the Italians view it as a pleasure. No wonder they eat well, and we eat badly. Try, if only for Lent, to view careful shopping as an adventure, cooking as a luxury, and eating as a pleasure.

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