I interviewed Nigella a while back. In her kitchen. I know! And as we sat at the mottled zinc table she says in her latest book is the ‘nexus of my life now’, we talked about, among other things, brown food.
You can hear the full interview about her latest book, At My Table on the delicious. podcast Extra Portion, but here’s a little snippet to wet your whistle. Brown, we agreed, is an old fashioned, pre-Instagram colour, but it’s the colour of most of my favourite autumnal food, and certainly the roasts and stews of Nigella’s and my grandmothers’ best-remembered dishes. Home cooking, she said, is often all about the brown, from her family’s barley soup to her chicken fricassee.
What a joy! As she told me how she was often moved to tears when she hears about one of her cakes becoming a milestone in someone else’s family, I counted the autumn and winter recipes I would make from her books without a single pomegranate to be seen. And as I pondered on what I would cook for a post Yom Kippur feast (some of you will spot the deliberate errors) on Saturday night, I remembered a particularly gorgeous brown dish from her book Feast.
Now in proper Jewish households (unlike my mash up family and friends of non-observant Jews and ritual-happy goys), no-one cooks during the Day of Atonement. But slow-cooking could hardly be called work, and so Nigella’s Paschal lamb, roasted languorously with white beans, garlic, carrot and white wine seemed a perfect choice. Wrong time of year perhaps for an Easter lamb? Paschal, shmascal, as my husband would say. The story of Jewish ritual is always the same; ‘They chucked us out; we survived; let’s eat.’
On the Saturday morning before Yom Kippur, I picked up my Southdown lamb shoulder, fresh from Lew Howard, my family butcher in Ringmer (who you can also hear on the delicious. podcast) and who had personally checked on its welfare at the Goodwood Estate Home Farm, as he does with all the farms he buys from. Pasture-fed on the chalk ground of the South Downs, and winner of two Gold Stars at the Great Taste Awards, it fell off the bone after three hours at 150 degrees, with beetroot and sweet potato instead of carrot, and red wine instead of white (there was already a bottle open) adding autumnal tones to the richness of its brown.
At dusk, we burned our scribbled atonements (or the failings we weren’t prepared to take into the next year) in a Buddhist Puja ceremony, and broke the fast that I’d failed to do, but in which my newly single friend had found the mental space to reflect on the year that’s been. The light was dim, candlelit in a nod to the proper Jewish tradition, flickering against my brown and beetroot-red lamb shoulder. My grandmother would have been pleased. My husband’s grandmother would have been even happier. And I think Nigella would have approved.
Now I love Nigella as much as the next person, and as ‘her biographer’, (as the Sunday Times calls me) I do have a particular interest. But I’m more interested in the effect her glamour and the way she ‘performs’ it has on her audience and readers (and my social media following when I haven’t even yet released what she said to me). As a media academic for eight years, I’ve written and presented copiously on the subject of Nigella, or ‘Nigellisima; a study of glamour, performativity and embodiment’, as my co-authors, Lorna Stevens and Bernadette Capellini titled a paper we published, as the performedversion of the food writer, Nigella Lawson. Here’s the link and abstract if you’re interested.
THE DARTMOOR INN
I’ve just been chatting to a cow. Not any old cow, and not any old chat either; the pasture-fed Red Ruby Devon at South Yeo Farm West, Debbie Kingsley and Andrew Hubbard’s 108 acre farm just outside Okehampton, are part of the conversation about how good old fashioned farming and its relationship with new food culture could (just about) save the planet.
The cow (I didn’t catch her name) is one of the native breed cattle which farmers hope to become central to Britain’s high welfare meat after Brexit. With new trade relationships, including cheaper meats from America where, shall we say, they’re not quite on the same page, the promotion of higher welfare British meat will be an interesting argument; it’s more expensive but totally traceable to farmers who understand why feeding cows nothing but good old grass is best for the planet. The future of meat eating has to be about quality not quantity according to experts like Tim Lang who has just put the full stop on the Lancet report on the future of food, but the supermarkets are still mightier than Tim’s pen. In the meantime, it’s down to chefs to lure us to the debate over a plate of beef short ribs.
I was at the Dartmoor Inn, a gorgeous16th-century coaching inn on the north-western edge of Dartmoor National Park for lunch with Catherine Broomfield, breed secretary of the Devon Cattle Breeders Society who had taken me to meet Debbie’s and Andrew’s Red Rubies that morning for the delicious. podcast. We were joined by chef Philip Burgess who talked us through the short ribs in front of us. Served with caramelized walnuts on a red wine sauce and clotted cream mash, they had been cut from a Red Ruby rib eye and slow roasted for four hours that morning. The Red Ruby Devon beef had come from Meeth Farm, but most importantly for the chef, it was his butcher, Philip Warren, who had sourced it. `I work closely with Philip who I’ve known for 35 years,’ he told me, ‘and I trust him completely. It’s all native breed raised in the south west and hung very well. We use every bit – the sirloins, the rib eye, fillet, rump steak.. and brisket which we slow roast on Sundays. That’s really beautiful’. At £14.95 the short ribs are an affordable treat. ‘I don’t make as much money as some,’ Philip told me, ‘but I can sleep at night.’
Pasture-fed for its whole 26 to 29-month life, the Red Ruby Devon is about as far removed from the factory-farmed beasts grown on animal feed that is pushing so much wildlife to the verge of extinction, as Philip Lymbery warns in his book DeadZone; Where the Wild Things Were. ‘The consumer is often very educated now,’ said Catherine Broomfield, ‘but the issue is about getting the message through to those who don’t understand that low impact farming is also often the cheapest and most nutritious way of feeding the family.’ You won’t get short ribs in the supermarket though, and while chefs like Philip are the way in for foodies to find out just how to get the best meat on the table, Catherine says that a trip to the butcher can be a game changer – not just for the family finances, but for the planet. ‘Some of the cheapest cuts on an animal are those that do the hardest work – such as the leg,’ she reminded me. ‘That will be the tastiest cut – just like these short ribs. But you need to know how to cook them and we need to get those kitchen skills back. If you get some vegetables in a big pot with a cheaper cut of quality beef such as skirt, you can produce enough for two family meals. It’s less expensive than buying packaged meals.’
She thinks that we can be ‘really good citizens of our planet’ if we make the smallest effort and go to the butcher or the greengrocer instead of the supermarket. ‘Often the most expensive way to feed the family is to buy packaged food from supermarkets and then waste most of the weekly shop. The butcher is often not only cheaper, but will advise on how to cook the meat to get the best out of it. Butchers are a massive link in the chain, and they’re under threat. When they’re gone, we’ll miss them.’
‘I feel for the first time in decades that young people, the so-called ‘Millenials’ are interested in food in a way that is truly extraordinary. They are very knowledgeable, increasingly they want to eat the right thing and are prepared to spend a greater proportion of their income on sustainably produced food, to eat more in seasonally and to target their diet to help the great transformation that’s necessary.‘
Patrick Holden, panellist at Borough Market’s Borough Talks, September 13 2017
It was a sobering event at Borough Market last night, the final panel discussion in the summer series on everything from the influence of social media on the food we eat to its impact on the future of the planet. Professor Tim Lang, moderator for the talk entitled: ‘Sustainable sustenance: reducing the impact of food production’ seemed to think he was in his lecture theatre at City University, London’s Centre for Food Policy which he founded in 1994, demanding of the panel and the audience as if we were his students, ‘What’s the problem?’ His stellar cast included Patrick Holden, founder of the Sustainable Food Trust, Donald Hyslop, head of regeneration and community partnerships at the Tate Modern, Carolyn Steel, author of ‘Hungry City’ (surely the best book on the subject), Richard Swannell, development director of WRAP and sustainable chef, Robin Gill.
The problems came thick and fast: waste, income, politics, Brexit… The complexity of the story of modern food, how we ate ourselves into a state where Tim Lang believes that we have 20-30 years left to save the planet (Philip Lymbery, author of ‘Dead Zone’ and CEO of Compassion in World Farming says 60, so I’m with him) will be available to listen to very soon via the Borough Market podcast (which I should be producing if I weren’t writing this blog).
But I’m an optimist, and I clung to (and tweeted) Tim Lang’s proclamation that it’s the restaurateurs who are the ‘key shapers in the future of sustainable food’. This blog is about those key shapers, the game changers who are changing the story of how we eat and Michael Bremner is one of them. A Great British Menu winner (and a friend of Robin Gill who was on last night’s panel) Bremner is the man behind Brighton’s most celebrated and multi-awarded restaurant, 64 degrees. It’s one of the safe spaces where Millenials (and the rest of us) know we can trust that the food comes from the best possible sources. When I was there last for a late lunch, a bent old farmer carried in a box of vegetables, and was hurriedly met by a team of virile young kitchen porters like something out of a Richard Curtis movie. Who needs a back door, anyway? The message was clear; the beetroot on our plates was local, seasonal and supporting a grower who was part of a community of good folk who do good things for the planet.
Bremner’s new restaurant, Murmur is a simpler beast, for now at least. At only six weeks old, it’s still playing sandpits on the beach while 64 degrees checks itself in the mirror and prepares to entertain this weekend’s silk purses. Bremner told me he prefers to play with the baby at the moment; ‘People come to 64 degrees to celebrate something. They’ve read about what we do and will complain if we don’t do exactly what they expect. At Murmur, they’re more low key, and while at 64 degrees, there’s multiple sittings, people might stay all evening here. We can do things more simply at Murmur. I love the technical food that we do at 64 degrees, but Murmur clears my mind.’
Bremner has been on the beach before at Due South, the first of Brighton’s new wave restaurants to attract the attention of the broadsheets back in the early 2000s, and perhaps that’s why he chose to open Murmur at the end of the summer season. In the brief respite before the weekenders return in force around Valentine’s, he’s doing what he loves best; concentrating on what his guys at Brighton and Newhaven Fish Sales are offering as he plans his menu. If they tell him about a surplus of weeverfish, he’s on it, creating new tastes and combinations to put on the plates.
He and his GBM mates have a whatsapp group and are always sharing their ideas. He says they’re on the same page as far as sustainability is concerned. ‘I see it as our responsibility to source properly’, he told me. ‘If we’re not going to do it, who will?’ His whole team at 64 degrees and Murmur researches produce. ‘We read a lot’, he said. Local, though, is not the most important item on his check list. As with most great chefs, he will source from Scotland if it means the hand-dived scallops are better than in Sussex. Happily, most of his fish is local, and my roast lamb rump with fregola, basil puree and pickled and charred courgette ribbons was from Saddlescombe Farm. Sussex is not short of excellent produce. Or restaurants serving it.
But the pressure from the customer is a concern, and however committed Bremner and his team are to leading the defence of the planet through cool, fabulous food, it’s hard to change people’s minds. He told me about a trial he’d recently done at Murmur. ‘I asked the staff to taste the difference between plaice and lemon sole. Both fish are local, but my guys at BNFS said that the plaice was the better fish for now – more of it and just as good as the sole, and £5 cheaper.’ The team agreed that it was a good option and Bremner asked them to push it. ‘But people wanted the sole’ he said. ‘We want them to taste the new things that we’ve found, but you can’t force the direction.’
Bremner is relaxed in his new pad on the beach and is not about to push the (occasionally unattainable) bar as he did with 64 degrees. ‘I mean how many more awards ceremonies do we really need in Brighton?’ he laughed. If Patrick Holden and Tim Lang are right about the new generation of young people seeking out the sustainable good guys, the stars and rosettes are the wrong colour, anyway. It’s the Instagram Clarendon that will make the waves for Bremner on the beach.
Isaac @: cool food to save the planet
It was a birthday party to remember; Issac@, Brighton’s cool, youthful pop-up turned Good Food Guide destination was celebrating its first Big Year last night with the influencers who helped to put it on the map. The team’s combined age can’t be more than the oldest blogger in the room, but boy, do they know what to do with a goosefoot.
For me, it’s less about the delicate balance of flavours of the brill, desiree potato and parsley sitting prettily on the plate, but the palpable passion of the guys who put it there. Local sourcing is Isaac@’s trademark, with food miles listed alongside the menu in a twine-tied scroll; the apples are not just from Ringmer (9.8 miles from the table), but Isaac’s mum’s garden. The lamb from Pevensey Marshes grazed happily for six months, tramping the fields and fertilising it naturally, adding to a rich habitat for flora, fauna, butterflies and bees.
And that, for me, is the point of Isaac@. It’s not alone; as Brighton’s culinary star shines ever brighter, so does Britain’s high welfare food culture. It’s one of the many new restaurants which sells local, responsibly sourced and often plant-based dishes as cool food. While Isaac and his butcher, Trevor Morton at Westdene will be making their choices based primarily on quality and flavour, this is how change will happen, how factory farming will belong to junk food culture and how a new generation of chefs and their foodie followers will continue to bump overfishing of the seas and massive deforestation for intensively reared animal feed off the menu. As CEO of Compassion in World Farming, Philip Lymbery warns in his book ‘Dead Zone: Where the Wild Things Were’, the plundering of the earth’s natural resources for factory farmed animal feed is already decimating wildlife all over the world.
MEP Anje Hazekamp from the Party of The Animals told Compassion in World Farming’s roundtable discussion on factory farming at the European Parliament earlier this week, ‘The knife and fork are the most important weapons in the flight against climate change’. Her colleague, MEP Florent Marcellesi added that we need to create a new narrative about what we eat if we are to encourage people to eat responsibly. How Isaac’s lamb lives and eats on Pevensey Marshes has a direct impact on how we can save the planet. Eating higher welfare (and more expensive) meat less often that tastes as extraordinary as Isaac’s chump served last night with the sweetest turnip and punchy jus that took me right back to the Sunday roasts of my teens, is what Hazekamp and Marcellesi believe could save the planet. Subscribe to StoptheMachine, the podcast I produce for Philip Lymbery at Compassion, to hear more about Philip’s campaign, and the next episode from that roundtable when it comes out later this month.
Back at the restaurant, the food influencers were tucking into their crab with charred cucumber. They may not even have checked the food miles (9.2) or the responsible small boat fishing at MCB Seafoods, but they know that Isaac and his team did. Like the better supermarkets, restaurants are becoming a safe space for those who care about the planet. And as Alex, the sommelier at Isaac@, surely, with Isaac, a contender for Young British Foodie, talked us through wines perfectly matched with the evening’s South Coast taster menu, it occurred to me that this is what pairing is really all about. These are the cool young people creating that new narrative so vital to the future of the planet. And in this new blog, I’ll be meeting as many as I can find as part of my work with delicious. magazine, to trace the stories on the end of the fork back to the fields of green.
Do follow me here, on Twitter (@gillysmith) and Instagram (foodgillysmith) as we explore and celebrate the partnerships between the restaurants and producers which could save the planet. We’ll meet the fishermen, the farmers and the butchers who are all part of this revolution in food, and the chefs whose pretty, instagrammable plates are persuading us what good food can be.