Food is a gift of nature and human hands, not just a commodity

You can look at food in two ways. On the one hand, it is a substance, a product, stuff that we buy and eat. What matters is what nutrients it contains, what it costs, how it tastes, and maybe other things that can easily be measured, such as its carbon footprint. But food is also a process, a tangible point in an infinite web of relationships. It is what connects us to the soil, the natural world, our fellows, ancestors and future generations. It is a gift made by many hands and it contains our history and culture in every bite.

Both views are true, of course, but food-as-story is being squeezed out by a narrative that is all about the numbers. This is the basis for industrialization and extreme processing which finds its logical conclusion in synthetic foods such as lab-grown meat. The latest arrival on the scene is ‘farm-free foods‘, produced in a vat of bacteria and claimed to be more efficient than photosynthesis. It’s hard to argue with anything that reduces the human footprint on the planet and frees up land for nature, but let us look first at what we would be giving up if our three meals a day came from a factory.

One of my favourite jobs last year was writing the introduction for a book on artisan food, Gather & Nourish, from new imprint Canopy Press. It contains portraits of 13 businesses, including cheese, chocolate, vegetables, bread, gin and ale, each one explaining in their own words and photographs how they have come up with their particular responses to the challenge of feeding people. Their stories make a powerful case for seeing food as a central part of what it is to be human, as the source not just of nutrition but of mental satisfaction and spiritual meaning too.

Processing apples. © Willy’s Ltd

Take for instance William Chase of Willy’s ACV, who makes apple cider vinegar in Herefordshire. Originally a potato farmer, he moved into crisps and then set up a distillery before taking over an old orchard and stumbling upon a new project. In his words:

“While the distillery sales continued to grow nicely, an awareness that people were searching for an altogether more mindful approach to life…meant that I started seeing the apple crop around the farm in a new light. Here in the orchards was the means to make one of nature’s most potent, natural remedies: apple cider vinegar… I leave the cider vinegar raw and unfiltered, so the amazing ‘mother culture’ – a colony of probiotic bacteria that forms at the final fermentation stage – is alive and full of goodness…”

A small team of people handles the whole process from production to sales, and they even design their own packaging. Waste apple pulp goes to their own anaerobic digester and is returned to the land; packaging is glass, paper, cardboard and recyclable aluminium. Thus they produce an authentic product with minimal environmental impact and have built up a loyal customer following. What really comes through though is the satisfaction of what Chase calls ‘integrating tradition with innovation’, through a deep knowledge of his trees and methods.

The joy of making things

This is a theme that runs through the book: the joy of making things with our hands, of learning and inventing, and thus of making a bridge between the products of nature and human society. It’s the same with The Ethical Dairy’s cheese, fermented with bacteria unique to the farm, or the Bermondsey Street Bees foraging in the gardens of London, or Welsh business Chuckling Goat who make kefir products to benefit gut and skin health, and who rejected automation in favour of creating ‘a lot of high-quality local jobs’.

Kefir. Photo by Caitlin Tyler © Chuckling Goat

It takes great dedication to produce food this way, of course. High environmental standards have to be balanced with modern requirements such as hygienic packaging and maybe transportation to distant markets for sale. The weather can make things difficult and technological challenges abound. But you get the impression that facing these difficulties is central to the process of craft food and the inevitable compromises are conscious and creative decisions, rather than mere fudges. As Alan Davies of the Authentic Bread Company puts it:

“You will have to make great sacrifices, and take great risks, but the ultimate reward can be a flourishing business that represents your dedication to your beliefs and processes.”

It’s easy to dismiss artisan food as a middle class fad. But that is to miss the point. The real question is why good food should be the preserve of the well off and why many people are on incomes so low that they cannot choose how they eat. It’s true that artisan food is likely to be a minority interest for quite some time, but the principles that are illustrated in this book – environmental responsibility, rewarding work, authenticity – should be part of any food system. It’s also important to note that growing and making food by hand lends itself to community groups, schools and of course the home, and can be a catalyst for social change.

How artisan food is a force for change

An example at the end of the book illustrates the power of food business to change the world. Toast Ale is a social enterprise that turns waste bread into beer, using one-third less grain than conventional beer. Founder Tristram Stuart, who wrote a book on food waste in 2009, believes in tackling big problems with an upbeat approach: “Think of how many friends we could make with the 1.3 billion tonnes of food we waste every year if, instead of wasting it, we share it and build companionship with it.” Companionship, that is, in the original sense of the word, meaning the sharing of bread.

Toast Ale is also a certified B Corporation, which means that it has signed up to high standards of social and environmental performance, and belongs to a growing community of businesses that are setting out to change things in the UK, including vegetable distributor Abel & Cole, Divine chocolate and Danone yogurt. Business has a vital role to play in shaping the food system and by engaging constructively with it, not just as customers but also as enquiring food citizens, we can all be part of that.

Gather & Nourish is a beautiful gift book, but it is also a political document. This is how food can be, and one of the reasons that it isn’t affordable for all is that highly processed food grown with high inputs is artificially cheap. Who pays for the environmental damage it causes, the human health problems, the discontent of a low-paid and deskilled workforce and the cultural degradation that comes with rural depopulation? We all do, at the till and in our taxes.

Most of us are not going to start our own food businesses. But we can turn our hands to many of the activities in this book, such as growing vegetables, baking bread and even making cheese and kefir, and we can make more conscious decisions about the food we buy and eat. If we do, we will experience for ourselves the power of food to change lives and society, grounding us in nature and community.

Gather & Nourish: Artisan food – the search for well-being and sustainability in the modern world can be ordered online here at £19.99

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