Telling Tales

This week, I’m cutting two stories for the delicious. magazine July podcast, and pondering on the nature of journalism in 2017. In many ways, it’s the same as it ever was; you find a story, and record the people with the tale to tell. Recording might be short hand (never did that), a camera or recording device of some sort, or notes in scrawly hand that you can barely read when you get home. You listen/read back and revisit your experience, painting pictures with words, sounds, images until you’ve reconstructed what you saw. Of course you go for balance, audience relevance and ethics, but basically that’s it. That’s how storytelling works.

Castellucio after the earthquakes. Photo by Tamsen Courtenay

So yesterday, I was editing the story of Sara, a Italian lentil producer from Castellucio, whose family survived the three enormous earthquakes this year and last which reduced her agriturismo and farming business to rubble. She told me, through a local English interpreter, a once tough journalist called Tam whose nerves were also shattered by her own experience of the quakes, how terrified she had been. Not just for her 12 and 15 year old children, her sheep in the fields, the farm that had been in the family for generations, but by the terror of the tremors that her eight and eleven year selves have never forgotten. And as I tried to keep the feel of the shot nerves in Tam’s calm and measured translation and Sara’s relentless optimism (‘there is no option’), I cut and cut away to try to fit it all into the five minutes I can give to the piece.

Now, I’m lucky.  I’ve got a fabulous editorial and digital team at delicious. with old school ethics and big heart, and listeners who care enough to listen, and in the brave new world of podcasts, I can give people like Sara and Tam a further 15 minutes in Extra Portion which follows the monthly magazine podcast. But can 15 minutes to tell the story of a woman with ‘the heart of a lion’ as Tam calls her, ever be enough? Perhaps, if the rubble is cleared and the roads are opened as result of someone hearing the podcast.

This week, Extra Portion gave extra space to debate whether the Dartmoor Hill Pony Association should create a market for pony meat to add value to animals who are mostly culled at under a year. Charlotte from the DHPA tells me that the podcast has done more in a week to get people interested in the meat than they’ve been able to do in months.  The Telegraph, The Mail and Horse and Hounds have all been in touch as a result, and want to give the story more space. Which is probably a good thing. 

As I leave Sara’s story, I begin to edit the next for the July pod, a heart warming story about San Patrignano, the world’s most successful rehabilitation community whose secret can be found in the work ethic behind its award winning cheeses. I listen to Anna, Sasha and Daniel tell me their survival stories and I hear the back stories that they only half-told me.  I look at the timeline on my laptop and begin to cut.

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The Power of the Podcast

It’s been a while, I know. I blame WordPress for locking me out, but really it’s just that I’ve been busy. Since my last post in July when I was knee-deep in my next book, ‘Taste and the TV Chef’ (Bloomsbury Academic, 2018), I’ve become a full time podcast producer, with the most glorious portfolio a food journalist and food media academic could wish for.

It started with an interview for the book with former BBC Worldwide man, Seamus Geoghegan who is now boss at EyetoEye Media which publishes, among other food titles, the UK’s biggest food magazine, delicious. I’d subscribed my parents to the magazine for years as a regular Christmas present and have loved watching it develop its amazing recipes, articles by some of the best food writers in the UK and its passion for produce, waste, sustainability and conservation issues into a tasty, relevant and important read. In a world in which magazines need to think beyond the book shelves, delicious. was already producing a monthly podcast as well as a world online for the discerning food lover. With a gap opening for a new podcast producer, Seamus spotted my broadcast quality mic on my iPhone, asked me if I could edit, and whether I could be tempted away from pure academia back into the warm embrace of food journalism. Well, after spending my ‘mothering years’ teaching students how to change the world through the power of audio (and TV) and in my final 20,000 words on how Food TV had taught us to eat,  I bit off his hand and joined the message makers again.

Eight months later, I’ve interviewed Raymond Blanc on sustainability, Philip Lymbery of Compassion in World Farming on ending factory farming and Michel Roux Junior, Peter Gordon, Rick Stein, Ken Hom and Marco Pierre White on how modern food culture was created in the UK.  I’m currently cutting a story on the lentil producer whose world was rocked, quite literally, by the earthquakes in le Marche region of Italy, and am taking the temperature of the delicious. community on the place of Dartmoor Hill pony meat on the dinner plate.  And the food, food, FOOD! I’ve interviewed cooks and chefs from all over the UK – and the world – who are some of the most creative people I’ve ever met. My hope is that you can smell it through your ears as you sit back and relax on your way to work or wherever you listen to your podcasts.

And if I wasn’t enjoying myself enough, the podcast was even nominated for the Fortnum and Mason Food Award for Best Food Programme against BBC Radio 4’s The Food Programme, The Kitchen Cabinet and BBC Ulster’s The Foodie! Of course we didn’t win; how could a woman and laptop who records her links under a duvet win against the might of the BBC?  But how thrilling to be nominated! You can hear the entire back catalogue here

And then.. and THEN… I suggested to Borough Market, where lots of the delicious. stories begin and end, that they produce a podcast. And they said yes!  So I began to tell the stories behind the stalls of London’s most famous market, as well as capture the fabulous Borough Talks, a series of panel discussions about all aspects of food from food media to cook books. You can hear the back catalogue here

And as my mantra has always been ‘if you don’t ask, you don’t get’, I suggested to CEO of Compassion in World Farming, Philip Lymbery when I interviewed him about his book ‘Dead Zone: Where the Wild Things Were’ that I produce a podcast for them too. Check out Stop the Machine, a podcast dedicated to Philip’s promotional tour for his book this month and the CIWF and WWF conference in October.

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The Eternal Diet

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Rome, the city where civilisation was born, where the past is its present and its future and where the people who live here tear their hair out with the frustration of living a city of ruins. Ok, that’s harsh, but after five days of working with some of the best cooks and chefs in the city and with Gustolab, the only food studies institute in Italy to host scores of international students, mostly from American universities, the reality of life in Rome is a story which isn’t on the tourist trail.

A Roman Holiday is about the legacy of the Roman Empire rather than the bad tempered cabbies and the plumbers who don’t turn up on time. It’s not about the mass unemployment or the misogyny, it’s about the food. For most tourists, it’s the sublime slices of pizza or fresh pasta with truffle oil, or for the foodies, the trip to Eataly or Volpetti for the real taste of Italy.

For Gustolab’s food students, it’s the story of the Mediterranean Diet, the diet that never changes, that’s as good today as it ever was, the diet that Nonna made. It’s the UNESCO stamped example of intangible cultural heritage that if only people would eat, the world would be better, faster, stronger.  But it’s the harder bit that’s often left out of the story, although not at Gustolab. Italy, particularly southern Italy has one of the fastest growing obesity rates among its children in the world. Yet the south is where the Mediterranean Diet was crowned king.  My very first book ‘The Mediterranean Health Diet’ (with Rowena Goldman, Headline, 1993) followed a series we made for Channel Four’s ‘Food File’, the first prime-time TV show to discuss the politics of food. Among our consultants were Geoffrey Canon, co-author with Caroline Walker of ‘Food Scandal: What’s Wrong with the British Diet and How to Put it Right’ (Ebury Press, 1985) and Tim Lang who would go on to advise Jamie Oliver and become Professor of Food Policy at City University London’s Centre for Food Policy. When the British Government decided that the Mediterranean Diet would save the NHS from buckling under the weight of rising obesity rates back in 1992, Rowena and I headed for Acciaroli in Campania, and the village that the experts had concluded was the healthiest in the world.

It was simple; the people who lived on this hilltop village pressed their own olive oil, made their own red wine and ate the fit chickens which had spent their happy lives running up and down the hillside. Olive farming was better for the physique than any yoga class, and long tables set for the community of 300 were the stuff of Jamie Oliver’s dreams. Cooking from scratch ingredients that you grew yourself and ate together, preferably under a balmy evening sky, has been proved again and again to stave off everything from Alzheimers to… well, death – at least from heart disease and most cancers.

Twenty three years on, Campania is still on the Gustolab students’ itinerary. Apparently Cilento, the national park which is basking in the glory of the successful storytelling around The Mediterranean Diet has changed since the days when we were there, and as I sit writing in Rome pondering whether to hop on a train down to see what has happened to its fortunes and its rising levels of obesity, I Google instead and find that the mythologising is still in full flow; The Italian town where residents live to 100 – and scientists want to know why says the Independent in March this year. Could a HERB be the secret to living to 100? Diet rich in rosemary linked to good health and long life expectancy in Italian village  asks the Mail, using the same press release.  If you want to live forever, move to this Italian town says the New York Post.

Più cambia, tanto più è la stessa cosa as they might say in Rome. But while the Eternal City pumps the Eternal Diet as part of its cultural heritage, it’s up to people like Gustolab’s director, Dr Sonia Massari to keep it real, as far as her international students are concerned anyway. Click here to hear a brief excerpt of my interview with her this week.

Meanwhile, the Mediterranean Diet in Rome, at least, is safe in the hands of Michelin starred chef at Glass Hosterian and Romeo Chef and Baker, Cristina Bowerman. Here she sums up the diet that hasn’t changed for 3000 years, that has had more statistics and graphics thrown at it than a library of universities, and which she explains is still the best in the world.

 

 

 

 

Tangible Memories

I’m listening to a lot of BBC Food Programme podcasts at the moment as I prepare to hunker down and write my book for Bloomsbury Academic this summer. And as I listen to stories of Syrian food and make copious notes, I remember how much I learned from the Syrians on my own doorstep. And I didn’t even post the links here. So as I read, listen and cram, I’m revisiting my blog here with purpose. So let’s start with the sometimes great, often clunky, always heartwarming series I did earlier this year for Radio Reverb.