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Seasonal produce: Think local, eat global

Our obsession with seasonal produce excludes the ethnic cuisine that's become the backbone of modern British food, argues Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

Tuesday 07 December 2010 01:00 GMT
(Peter Forsberg/Alamy)

I was lying in perfumed bath water, blissful, listening to the always warming Radio 4 Food Programme, this one on their annual awards to remarkable food producers and makers, a hearty celebration. One thought spoilt the pleasure. All but one of the champions were white Britons – most of them men. The takeaway prize went to Mr Dutchy's in Northampton, an outlet for authentic Caribbean grub, and the runner-up was Tiffins in Bristol, which sells freshly made Gujarati food. Yeah! Look at previous winners and you realise this is the only category where immigrant foods sneak in. We are told by politicians and businesses that Britain's favourite food is spicy and that the "ethnic" food industry contributes billions to the GDP. But it must still know its place, give way, when it comes to real prestige and respect.

In some ways, this is the glass filling up. Britons have come a long way from the decades after the war and until the Eighties, when few natives could cook or cared to. As I describe in my memoir The Settler's Cookbook, in 1972, aubergines, chillies, fresh ginger, sweet potatoes and turmeric were so hard to find, you had to infiltrate secret networks of small suppliers to get tiny amounts at inflated prices. For my first wedding, in June that year, my mother sold a gold chain to buy saffron from a Kashmiri for biryani. In those days, ordinary British people gorged on junk, tinned or pre-packaged food, and the weekend treat was the cheap Chinese or Indian eatery round the corner, not too many steps away from the favourite pub.

They didn't know it then, but incomers – Italians, Asians, and Chinese originally – successfully reawakened the dull palate of the nation. It was one way of earning a living, however tough, and an irresistible offering. Food is the first gift migrants bring and Britannia, with her ample lap, readily accepted the gifts and still does. But a hierarchy emerged early on. Italian cooking, being European, was deemed more high class than the other two. It has held on to its status and in the past decades became the mark of purity and refinement, the most civilised way to eat. Objectively, the range of tastes is smaller and fewer skills need to be mastered than in Indian or Chinese preparations, but that's not the point.

With subsequent arrivals, new food tastes and textures were added to the array – Iranian, Lebanese, Syrian, Thai, Vietnamese, Somali, now Polish fare. In the early years of New Labour, when immigration was talked up as an enormous benefit and the country was projected as open, full of possibilities and infinitely variable, international and fusion cuisine was invited to the top table and appreciated by fine (white) chefs, diners and food critics. The sophisticated Cinnamon Club was opened by Iqbal Wahhab – whose parents are Bangladeshi. Its chef Vivek Singh created original, intricate, audacious Indian dishes to match the best of French cooks. Others broke through the snob ceiling and with panache, restaurants such as London's Tamarind and Chutney Mary, which excited customers though contemporising and extemporising, respecting and playing with various traditions of the subcontinent. High-end Chinese restaurants were also refusing to stay within old confines. Non-European food was embraced as essentially and proudly British.

The new millennium and 11 September led the country into a darker, murky mood. It became anxious about globalisation, mass movements of the people, the ever-expanding definition of collective identity, disordered and disconnected urban life, the dying planet, and power moving eastwards. Food is located in domestic and foreign politics, society, economics and culture. Most Britons have become vociferously anti-immigrant and are still coping with post-devolution fragmentation. Each UK nation is engaged in fervent revivalism, digging back to whenever the imagined pure age was. Television costume dramas have always been popular, but now the population is turned on by Victorian Farm and Who Do You Think You Are?, which transport viewers back to when life was simpler, perhaps before pesky immigrants came and wrecked it all.

Admittedly such nostalgia is afflicting other nations in flux too. The People's Earth Summit in Johannesburg in 2002 came out with a mission statement: "Local communities must have the right to determine their economic paths and protect their cultural and environmental heritage". Middle England would heartily agree.

Food archaeology and food reclamation are, in part, understandable. Reacting against industrial farming, eco-destruction, overwhelming new technology, the soulless life, people are looking for safety and intimate comforts, innocence. So they go back to the soil, grow their own food – like Jamie Oliver, Nigel Slater and Rick Stein – use local produce, forage, win accolades. These can be necessary forms of resistance as the amoral might of globalised business and power spreads. However, my fear is that "son of the soil" poetry is also a cry for cultural homogeneity and deep conservatism, of old citizens claiming more entitlements than new citizens, and rejecting modernity, in particular the promiscuity and ethnic mélange of modernity. It is back to basics, to ploughman's lunches and market economies, a refuge for Britons who have not felt this angry and disenfranchised for a long time.

Some of the citations on The Food Programme were revealing. The market in Stroud is "a working-class hub". Darts Farm's shop in Topsham, Devon takes you fishing, then cooks it and serves you fruit and veg from its own farms. Black or Asian Britons are not seen in the fishing industry, in animal husbandry or farming. They obviously can't develop their own organic rice paddy fields or grow okra and aubergines. (And oh, the threat to the planet with all those air miles involved in the food they cook!) They don't go shooting, fishing and hunting. They don't make an infinite variety of cheeses. They can't compete with the new-to-old trend and have to retreat back to becoming servicers of coarse appetites, nothing more. Localism and back-to-earth have been revitalised for our times but it is important to understand not everyone is welcome.

There appear to be only two black farmers in this country, and no Asians: Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones, born in Jamaica, and David Mwanaka, originally a journalist from Zimbabwe, now planting and ploughing on leased land in Enfield. They have entered hitherto closed worlds and therefore, I surmise, both have had to be careful about how they speak and act. Emmanuel-Jones was one of nine children brought up in Small Heath, Birmingham. In Devon, where he lives, they still call him "coloured", which, he says, he doesn't mind because they don't know it is offensive. He is enthused by the move to sourced, organic, healthy grub. Mwanaka, an exquisitely polite man, also tries hard not to make trouble, to belong, even though he has been questioned three times by the police when he was out in the fields – once, four squad cars turned up and he had to get the white farmer next door to vouch for him.

I asked Mwanaka if he took his produce – white maize, pumpkins and mustard greens – to farmers' markets. Only once, he says, when Liberal Democrat MP Simon Hughes met him and was encouraging. This farmer prefers to sell and deliver independently through his website and word of mouth. With his background, he knows the conflicts and passions that are aroused by land and farming rights – there is something of a parable here. Under racist laws in what was Rhodesia, blacks worked on white-owned farms. Since independence, reclaiming the land has led to brutal violence and shameful politics. Now, here too, farming his own land is a struggle. "Farmers are Mr White or Mr Jones. I am new to the circle and they are surprised. It's not racism, I don't think. Just they are not expecting it." He tells me that an agricultural college with one black student couldn't find a placement with any white farmer and so will be going to Mwanaka's farm, hopefully without being arrested.

The irony is that countless exploited, transient gastbinders picking fruit and vegetables are an indispensable and invisible part of British farming. Being in charge is something else. How many other Third World immigrants have farming in their DNA? How come they are not part of the organic, local developments? Because they cannot be allowed to be. This is more than economic activity – it is an emotionally charged drama about who can and who cannot ever root down in the soil of the land.

Unlike here, in the US there is a robust debate going on about the deeper meanings of what seem to be wholly benign and life-affirming ventures, such as localism, slow food and self-sufficiency. Jody Bottum, for example, a well-regarded culture critic and editor, wrote that localism is a rejection of "rootless cosmopolitans" made up by Jews and others, an acceptable way to exclude, if you like; only these intruders want a slice of that home-made cake made from home-grown wheat: "Successful localisms attract immigrants, and the presence of immigrants undermines the localism." There's a history here, Bottum says. Look at the rural romantics G K Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc and their attitudes to "wandering" Jews.

The inwardness can develop into serious paranoia and a new form of tribalism. In Oregon a restaurant owner actually had a punch-up with his competitors for an award because they used pigs from Kansas and Ohio. Academic Mark Wetherington believes that what may be quaint and endearing is, in fact, symptomatic of bleaker tendencies: "Localism and racism dovetailed with a Republican ideology founded on Jeffersonian notions of an economically independent yeomanry sharing common interests." The plain old folk of the old southern states and the shooting, hunting Sarah Palin have a lot in common. Caleb Stegall, an attorney and writer from Kansas, believes localist fervour is a "political and social breakout", a way of manifesting feelings of dispossession anger, alienation and desperation – dangerous stuff.

David Mwanaka fears the new economic climate will encourage this localist nationalism in Britain: "People say they must look after themselves and their families, 'my life, my pain, my everything'. They divorce themselves from the international community." I fear he is right. Just listen to callers to radio programmes on ring-fenced international aid and immigration. He also points out the deep hypocrisy of the buy-local lobby. "They don't want Kenyan beans to waste air miles, but are happy to send out planes of British exports to Africa, spending air miles."

Some acquaintances who moved out of London to a small place in Devon are having to come to terms with the bullish stallkeepers in the local market, the xenophobia that is disguised as eco-honour: "We asked if they had fresh coriander anywhere and this chap let rip – 'foreign muck' and all that, 'not local'. 'Why don't you eat English?' he shouted. The butcher says he is proud to be serving his own people and that the Indian takeaway needs to be closed down because it is not organic and doesn't fit into the village any more."

In the Eighties, market towns were dying. Now, many have found new purpose and confidence, and who would begrudge them that? Long ago, farmers brought their wares to sell and now they are doing so again, bypassing supermarkets, helping to nurture folk longing for the good, uncontaminated life. Flight from cities is causing a boom in property prices. It is as much a flight away from the cacophony of many cultures as it is towards simplicity and "hearts of oak" sentiments.

Dan Saladino, a producer on The Food Programme, is vastly knowledgeable about the politics, psychology and philosophy of what and how people eat. He feels that there is a tremendous sense in Britain of a loss of culture, a break in family continuity, regional and particular identities. The surging interest and commitment to rediscovering old cooking arts – such as cheese making – is a poignant way of filling that sense of emptiness, that hunger. I can understand that. But not the rejection of those who never can share that ancestry. Saladino avoids this pessimism of the nervous immigrant – by making connections. The sandwich may, he says, be an old British invention, but today is ubiquitous and given millions of fillings. So the newly found pride does not necessarily mean rejection of the foreigner. I so hope he is right.

Enterprising and imaginative black and Asian individuals are also helping to modernise localism. Like farmer Emmanuel-Jones, for example, challenging the hegemonic rural culture: "It was always a struggle to be seen and heard by the mainstream. Outsiders bring about change. You can push forward because you ask the question: 'Why do things have to be like that?'" Or Iqbal Wahhab, who had the chutzpah to open one of the most successful British food restaurants in London, all organic and locally sourced. Critics were sniffy at first (how does a Bangladeshi think he can do our food better than we can? How dare he?), but Roast fills up every day and is in Borough Market, where the whole world is milling about buying and selling. It would be harder to promote that internationalism today in most of the Shires, the Highlands of Scotland and valleys of Wales, where the making of authentic foods, now richly rewarded, has become a metaphor for paradise regained, grabbed back from interlopers, purified and rarefied once more. Think about that the next time you buy some personally made quince jelly in the Christmas market, in that cute market town with those beautiful thatched cottages.

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