Sunday, November 09, 2008

Interview with D who knows a lot about food, in so many ways

I decided it was time to give my long-suffering partner a rest from my pregnancy whims and fancies, and at the same time visit an old friend D and his partner in Launceston, Tasmania. I first visited Tassie, as it’s known here in Australia, 10 years ago and have been back 3 times now. It’s one of the most beautiful and dramatic places on earth, without being too rugged or inaccessible, and it has what I think is the best produce in Australia. Its cheese, wines, oysters, berries, and apples are wonderful and plentiful.
D and I met at university many years ago and have stayed in touch; partly I think because of our common interest in all things food - its production, recipes and the anthropological and social role it plays in our lives. We also both grew up with mothers who shunned processed food, making their own yoghurt, bread, sweets and cheese, ensuring our palates crave simplicity, freshness and authenticity in food.
I love to discuss food with D as I know he will always have interesting and sometimes provocative opinions on it. He initially studied biology at university, which means his production of food is incredibly well informed. He is very environmentally conscious and wastes little. D’s arts studies as a mature-age student means he’s also trained to look at life from a sociological and anthropological viewpoint.
D’s current lifestyle involves a home with a large kitchen garden in Tasmania, most recently combined with a job which enabled him to travel, sampling many different food cultures. D takes none of this for granted as you will see from this interview-which is a little dated now as it was done in mid-winter. It’s a long interview, but so rich in content and interesting I have really struggled to edit it at all (hence the late publication).
If you like what D has to say, check out his blog at

What have you been making lately?
Yoghurt, bread, cottage cheese, labneh (middle-eastern yoghurt cheese), curing olives, sprouts, my partner makes amazing green tea ice-cream and wonderful quince paste. None of these things are difficult at all, yet all require patience.

What food are you growing at the moment?
We’re very fortunate to have a large suburban veggie garden in Launceston and are revelling in it after our smaller inner-urban garden beds in Melbourne. Broadbeans are a regular in our winter veggie garden. They help replenish the soil’s nitrogen content and they taste brilliant. When you grow your own you can enjoy the young bean pods whole as well as the more traditional mature bean seeds. I’ve planted out the bed that had tomatoes in it over summer as tomatoes are heavy feeders and the soil will benefit from the nitrogen. We’ve got an enormous amount of self seeded coriander and dill, as well as two rhubarb plants that are doing famously. Our artichokes are getting bigger and better every time I see them, and I can’t wait to see the first flower buds forming in spring. We’ve got silverbeet (always) and rainbow chard, as well as two varieties of broccoli, the early variety was just forming heads when I left home. I also recently planted out about 25 cloves of local organic garlic I bought from the green grocer – splendid tightly held purple cloves. I hope mine grow as well as the heads I’ve torn them from – I’m hopeful as their stalks were about 15 cm high at the time I departed. We’ve also got a few celery plants, and they’ve been a revelation. They’ve been really easy to grow and the stems are incredibly delicious: crispy and brightly flavoured. A huge favourite, especially used alongside the celery for hearty ribolitta over winter, are our cavelo nero (black Tuscan Kale) plants. Not only do they taste brilliant, rich and loamy like I hope our soil will be one day, they look brilliant. Radish, chervil, various lettuce, sorrel and Italian parsley fills some of the gaps. I haven’t had much luck with chervil to date, but am pleased that the seeds have germinated this time, so I’m hopeful we’ll be adding it to our winter salads soon. I’ve also planted some horseradish in a large pot as an experiment. It can be a terrible weed, hence the pot, but I’m curious to see if I can make some horseradish from its roots.
Outside the veggie garden we’ve also got two young grape vines and some young fruit trees: two apples, two pears, nectarine, quince, peach, apricot, orange, kaffir lime, a black fig, lemon and apple.

I know you also like the work of Michael Pollan. Tell me about your general attitude towards food.
I guess I share with Michael Pollan a distrust of processed food, a belief that good nutrition naturally grows from a strong and sensitive relationship with food rather than obsessing about specific ingredients and nutrients, a barely suppressed despair about the way we interact with our environment and what this may mean for the future, and a distrust of the line that is so often drawn between nature and culture. Food is one of life’s necessities and as it’s at the heart of life and the nature/culture debate it’s unsurprising that we both give it special significance. I’m not the pedant he is when it comes to investigating all aspects of it – even though I love to read the results of such pedantry. What I truly believe is that if you keep it simple, and play an active role in the production and/or preparation of the food you eat you’re in for a rich, and I suspect healthy and ethically sound, life.

Has a training in biology influenced the way you produce and eat food?
While I don’t often think about it, my excitement about making vinegar, yoghurt and bread – which is really enjoying the actions of bacteria and fungi - or observing the biological processes at play in the garden are clearly linked to my early interest in science and nature. Nevertheless, I’d have to say my interest in food, gardens and the poetry of domestic life is equally influenced by my humanities studies (in cultural studies, art history, and studies in religion)

Are there any plants that we don't use as food that you think should or could be eaten? if so, how should they be prepared?
There are a huge number of people/cultures and academics around the world that can answer this question for me. As multicultural as Australia is, the number of plant varieties that it eats is quite small – both in comparison to many other parts of the world and what has been consumed in the past. We can thank industrial agriculture for that as much as our British heritage. Just open a seed catalogue from someone like Eden Seeds, Diggers or the Lost Seed Company and marvel at the variety, despair at what we’ve lost and then act.

Your current job involves a lot of travel. What interesting food or ways of cooking have you discovered on your travels?
I always favour the low-end of the food market, although I find this less easy in China due to language difficulties. Thankfully I usually travel with a Chinese colleague who is a great food-lover and this makes things very very enjoyable. The huge array of foods in China has been a revelation – each province, even each city in a province, offers different, often vastly different, food.

Some of the best food I’ve eaten was in Xian – and, more than anywhere else, I was awakened to the fact that eating food is eating a place’s history. At the end of the Silk Road you’re eating the legacy of the Muslim traders who traveled that route: cumin and chilli encrusted breads, dense, drizzled with oil and grilled over hot coals. Delicately spiced lamb dumplings, steamed and, somehow miraculously, filled with a light broth. Glutinous rice dessert with red bean paste, drenched in a rose-water infused syrup. You can’t beat it – inexpensive, unpretentious and exquisite. Likewise the firey food of Sichuan, or the lovely simple food of Shandong province: steamed fish with a little chilli and spring onion; roughly chopped tomatoes braised with beaten eggs and broccoli steamed and served with a touch of salt and garlic – almost Mediterranean in its simplicity.

Do you think we have much to learn from the food culture of other countries?
Nearly everywhere I’ve traveled has a lively street food culture with the exception of Singapore and parts of the Middle East, both of which still sell street-style food, but rarely if ever on the street. I get so enthralled, and jealous, when walking through the streets of Malaysia and China in particular. There is such a wide range of very inexpensive and fresh foods available. Furthermore it provides the opportunity for those with very limited capital to establish a small business. The globalization of fast food culture is quite depressing – seeing the same bland processed food products around the world. Especially despairing is seeing these brands being positioned as luxury restaurants, when the quality and nutritional value is so lacking, especially in comparison to the marvellous, inexpensive and often far more healthy local food on offer.

Australia can seem so terribly dull upon returning – I have a beautiful life at home, and I’m sure many others do to, but I am sometimes saddened by the British and American influence of staying in. Europe, the Middle East and all of Asia have such a vibrant and accessible public life, and food has such a big part to play in this.

I also admire the way these cultures use absolutely everything from the animals they slaughter. While I can’t abide offal, eyes, duckheads, and more, I think that it’s great that others do. On the flipside, I am concerned about the huge waste that occurs too – hospitality is such a big part of business and community. To show hospitality means putting on a great meal – a really great meal, far bigger than anyone could hope to eat. To eat all your food is an insult, as it suggests you weren’t given enough. To compensate people put on enormous banquets, and so much food is wasted. I have to say I prefer the “eat your broccoli or you won’t get dessert” approach.

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