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.

 

 

 

 

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When we come home again to Wales

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There’s something about a birthday these days that has me rummaging through memories for something I can’t quite put my finger on. Whispers of questions, dreamy, hazy smells of something important that I can’t quite remember have been making me itchy for a while, and I’ve had a yearning to go back to Wales, land of my mothers and my fathers, for months now.

I’m Welsh. 100%. I’ve never had a Welsh accent, and apart from a Diolch and a few Gwlads, I’ve never spoken the language. We travelled the world, as Army families do, and a boarding school in Bath was more home than Abergavenny ever was over those interminable, friendless summers of my teens. I couldn’t wait to get out of Wales and continue to travel, and so I did and do, determined never to spend another summer in Wales.

Travelling has made me adventurous about how we live too. I could as easily live in rural Sussex as an ashram in India, a Victorian semi in Brighton or a top floor flat in Sydney overlooking Circular Quay. Home now is where my husband lays any one of his Fedoras and where the kids and dogs come back to after they’ve been wandering. I am a rootless romantic, always up for the next adventure, and I like it that way.

So why was I cruising with my girls through the Gower this week – or Gwyr, as I deliberately chose to spell it on Facebook? Why was I sitting on the beaches of my childhood in Port Eynon and looking down over the cliffs of Rhossilli at a sweeping sandy bay whose limp waves whisper some of those questions I can’t quite hear?

I knew it would be food that I was looking for; it always is. The last time I went chasing a whisp of a memory was after my father died two years ago. We spent his last days rearranging the family photo album of our Malay days in the ’60s, and I promised him I’d spend my 50th there with the family, sniffing our way back to the hawkers’ stalls of my early youth and finding the secret of our Malay curry. As I rediscovered the particular mix of spices that makes Malaysian food Malay, I remembered how important detail had been to my parents who had spent the rest of their lives making and remaking that curry until it was perfect, not for the Malays, but for them. It was, quite rightly, my father’s last supper.

And so as Auntie Eirwen and cousin Claire, four months younger and my playmate in my mother’s hometown of Llanelli sit down to talk food, we are propelled back to the ‘70s and Nana’s Sunday lunch of roast pork, apple sauce and mushy peas and the best gravy I’ve ever tasted. ‘Batchelors’, says Eirwen. Batchelor’s dried peas’. ‘She used to soak them’, chimes Claire. ‘Overnight in the net. And she always added sugar. ‘And butter’ adds Eirwen. ‘Just before serving them, she’d cut the net and add butter. Right at the end’. I am astonished at how much detail they remember.

gower 106Uncle John, Auntie Eirwen, Simon and Claire lived five minutes or so up the road from my Nana and Grandad who lived in the house where my mother was born. They still do. Separated by a wall from the Felinfoel brewery, the smells of my childhood were a mix of ale and roast pork, scrambled now as weekday teas blur into Sunday lunches. I remember almost nothing about those days other than those smells. Almost every memory is second hand.

‘Milk-fed pork’, says Eirwen. ‘She bought it in the butcher’s at Felinfoel.’ Hang on a minute; my dumpy, pinny-clad nana who fed the family while never leaving the kitchen, Margretta Williams who answered to ‘Get’ and called me ‘bach’, was buying milk fed pork like someone out of a Hugh Fernley Whittingstall series? I think I may have missed something. ‘She was a very slow cook but and you had to wait,’ explains Eirwen. ‘But what you had was excellent. She wasn’t one of these who would cook for you in ten minutes.’ Claire reminds me of her chips, crinkle cut, washed, dried, deep fried and then dried and deep fried again. ‘They were superb’.

Eirwen and Claire chat about Nana’s pikelets, gower 092served straight from the bakestone and crunchy with sugar and butter, one after the other for what seemed hours as we sat around the table playing cards. We never helped her. It was what Nana did, not us.

Audio: Eirwen makes pikelets, just like Nana did, for me and the girls. it’s the first time they’ve ever tasted them, and for me, it’s the taste I was looking for, that took me home to Wales.

I wonder about this woman who took such pride in detail I never noticed. I remember stories my mother had told me about her mother and her mother. And her mother. All from Llanelli, born and bred. Nana was brought up by her grandmother while her own very young mother, widowed when Nana was only four, went out to work. Nana would have been taught to cook by her grandmother, to buy well and to work with very little to go a long way. My mother had told me of the fish she would buy during the war from the fishwives who came door to door. She would stuff it with a single tomato and flavour it with herbs from the garden. ‘It was superb’, my mother would tell me.

Eirwen tells me more about the Penclawdd cockle sellersCockle-Women who came to the door with their wicker baskets draped with white cloths. ‘That was our Saturday dinner;’ she says in that lovely Lanelli lilt. ‘Bacon, egg and cockles’. Now almost 80, Eirwen is the keeper of the stories and tells me about Lanelli in the 1950s and the Italian ice creams and coffee of the Italian coal miners who brought the smells from home. ‘I’d have a knickerbocker glory’ she remembers. But only once a year because it was half a crown. It was so dear’.

As she makes me her own pikelets the next day, crunchy with sugar and butter, and shows me the family history Uncle John had been working on just before he died two years ago,  I realise that no-one from this side of the family has ever moved. We look back through census record dating back to 1830, each family Llanelli born and bred.

The grass which has always been greener somewhere else for my family has always been home for my mother’s family and has drawn me back to find roots I never thought I’d need. Those hazy whispers of memories, a scrambled mix of Nana’s roast, Felinfoel ales and pikelets are like something out of the Bisto ad, luring me back to my family’s home of almost 300 years.

As the girls and I head back to Sussex where the Fedoras hang, we listen to Cerys Matthews sing songs from my past.

Sosban Fach, yn berwi ar y tân,
Sosban fawr yn berwi ar y llawr,
A’r gath wedi scrapo Joni bach

I sing along, hazy words fading in and out of memory, like the smells of pikelets and Felinfoel ale understanding nothing. And every word.

Audio: A whimsical adventure in sound as I came home again to Wales

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 Audio:Tania Swistun from one of the oldest cockles and laverbread stalls in the country tells how she has been at the family stall in Swansea Market since she was baby – in a box under the counter.

Tania Swistun

 

Magenet

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Eat, Pray, Love, Write

So I’m waiting for the kids to emerge from Saturday morning pictures, just as kids should, and I’m writing this on my iPhone and marvelling at 21st century comms. They’ll be in with Selena Gomez and chums for another two hours and there’s nothing to do other than read ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ and wonder how come someone else wrote my story.

From the breakdown in a relationship to the hedonistic freedom of newly single life (although in London rather than Rome) to an ashram – and spookily, that exact same roof scene – the flagellation over the monkey mind, and then to Skyros (my Bali of 1994) for the final permission to love again, ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ is my (and probably 10 million other women’s) story. Mine would probably be called ‘Drink, Pray, Love’ though.  Yes, there’s a bit of envy as I read Liz Gilbert’s observations of so many of the exact same things as I went through in so many of the same places, and for the same reasons. I too met Texan Richard, although he had a different name and nationality, but Swiss Philippe did the same pushing and prodding, just as thousands of Texan Richards/Swiss Philippes have done and will do with newly single woman in search of everything. I too sat on a metaphorical beach afterwards, spending time with medicine men with no teeth and wisdom and compassion to burn. I too turned down the perfect man while he waited patiently until I ran out of reasons to make myself unhappy.

Why I didn’t push to write what I wanted to write back in 1995 instead of extracting only the tantric sex bits that the publisher was interested in is part of my story too. That brief window of opportunity, which only the very few  stop to look through, takes a long old time to clear, and I wasn’t anywhere near a new view back then. What amazes me about Liz Gilbert is that she was, armed with a few books, gurus and a hell of a lot more time that most of us will ever have. Oh, and an advance from the Gods. But hats off to her; the act of writing is often what speeds the process, and the weaving together of her story no doubt wove her together faster than any meditation could. Yes, I wish I’d done it, both for me and for my bank account, but instead I shall dream of going back to Bali one day where I too first spotted perfection.

One of the smiley Wayans who played host to me and my backpack in 1985 told me that God had taken a while to create the perfect human being. When he baked his first batch, he left it in the oven too long and the humans came out burnt. He tried again. This time, they were pale and undercooked. The third time, he got it and presented the world with the golden, smiling Balinese.