Thursday, May 11, 2017

Put your money where your mouth is

This article was published in the May 2017 issue of Cibus magazine, Malta. Click here to view the online issue.

Where do the fields of gastronomy, craft and sustainability meet?

‘Plate of food,’ answers award-winning chef and champion of the ‘farm-to-table’ movement, Dan Barber. Dan is renowned for his ethos of sustainable agriculture and cuisine, which runs through all of his writing and is the foundation upon which his restaurants are built. In his vision, our culture of cooking and eating must be totally transformed – moving away from the traditional ‘meat & 2 veg’ model that we’ve inherited, but that is no longer viable, and towards what he calls ‘the third plate’- a way of eating which seamlessly connects responsible farming and growing with delicious food. The third plate is basically a better way of eating – whichever way you look at it.

Less than two years ago, I embarked upon a journey of inquiry into food: both its immediate effects on my own body but also the economic and environmental implications of everything I bought and ate, where it came from and where it was going. The further I ventured down this path, the more determined I was to strip away the layers of the primordial act of eating. Eating, this thing we enjoy so much, the thing we must all do to survive, is our most basic and candid interaction with the Earth, the ground beneath us. It’s the stuff we’re made from and the stuff we return to. It’s something worth caring about – something worth investigating.

The simple act of eating has developed into a complex industrial and economic process. While we still enjoy the celebration of food around a dinner table, the fundamental link between us and the crops – or indeed the creatures – we consume has largely been cut. We stroll up and down supermarket aisles, where a million people, production lines and layers of plastic stand in between us and our most basic necessity. At best, eating could be a grateful reception of whatever the land can provide. But above all it is now a commercial transaction – which by default means that we have expectations about what our food should look like, taste like, and how much of it should be available.

In the supermarkets that satisfy these vast and immediate expectations, ease and convenience are championed over quality and nourishment. Ready-made ingredients and meals, pre-packaged fruit and veg in uniform colours and shapes – they’re all so far removed from the reality of nature, that they negate any need to question their origins. It’s hard to believe that packets upon packets of standardised and carefully selected carrots or mushrooms actually grew from the soil. Similarly, meat – any cut, from any animal, and processed in a multitude of ways – is conveniently wrapped in plastic and available at all times. This veil of abundance hides the realities of a mass production process that is catastrophic for people, animals and the environment. It’s a process that’s wasteful and damaging, threatening our natural resources and degrading our soils. Once we uncover these realities, it becomes glaringly obvious that we need to transform the way we eat – starting with our own personal choices.

There’s something beautiful about the first taste of artichokes in spring; strawberries in summer. It marks the time, just like autumn’s falling leaves or the sudden wind and rain in September. It connects us to something bigger than ourselves: an ancient order that rules over all living things. The Earth’s ticking clock; a rhyme and reason that, given patience and respect, goes on providing. We’re pushing it to its limits, and nowhere is it more evident than in the field of agriculture and food production. The once simple, beautiful and human act of eating has been adulterated by commercial gain.

Brands do seem to be catching on to this, however: These days, we see ‘organic’ labels printed on everything from avocados to eggs to tinned beans, as public awareness has grown, and fashion’s caught on. But sustainable eating, and Dan Barber’s third plate, doesn’t mean passive acceptance of what the packaging will have us believe – even if it’s labelled ‘organic’. It’s more than the label. It’s more than the transaction. It’s a new way of eating; a new way of looking at food. It’s about stripping away those layers, getting closer to our food and the hands through which it’s passed. It’s about bringing back an attitude of curiosity and gratitude, even of the most humble crop – one that gives us life and health. It’s about respect for and contemplating death, which meat-eating necessitates. It’s about being more accountable for our actions and their impact. 

Luckily, there are organisations and farms fighting for a better food system. I’m on a veg scheme with London’s Growing Communities, and am glad to learn that Malta’s got an equivalent – The Veg Box. Organisations like these provide local, organic and seasonal fruit and veg all year round. They ensure that farmers are paid fairly, bolster communities by promoting local food growing, and support sustainable farming practices that protect our soils (and our bodies!). It thrills me to open the bag each week and find a vegetable I’ve never seen before, still stained with soil, and have to figure out what to pair it with. I now feel I can whip up a delicious meal with any weird and wonderful crop that turns up. It feels right to know that my money is being spent ethically, on quality ingredients, and on a transparent process that I understand fully. Most of all, I love the new connection I’ve attained with nature – feeling the seasons as they pass me by, and appreciating the gifts that each one brings with curiosity and joy.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017


She had her place outside the station. She told me her name was Jo, and I knew it was true 'cause I'd once heard one of her friends call to her from across the street.

The friend was equally as ragged, pale-faced and skinny as Jo was. Once, I’d seen the friend sitting, legs sprawled out right on the trodden ground, shrieking with joy at a puppy jumping up and down beside her. She had a half bottle of drink tucked under one armpit, and looked like pure joy; like a child unaware of her surroundings, shielded from the suspicious glances of passers-by.

I’d never seen Jo look that happy. She seemed to lose a day of life with each repetition of the same six words; ‘spare a bit of change please’. Not even as a question either - she’d repeat it like a mantra upon which her survival rested.

She might have looked a bit like me once. Mousy hair, average build, light eyes. She might have passed people like her on the street and shuddered with fear at the prospect of an existence so raw. She might’ve had a great appetite for food, a thirst for living, for being alive. Now she sat sullen, in her spot outside the station, and when food came it was joyless, and when life came – a glimmer of hope – it was fleeting.

When I talked to her one day, her speech jarred me. In my mind, she'd been muted by the six words I had heard so many times. They rung inside my head as I ascended the station steps each evening, knowing I’d find her in her usual place. Maybe I finally approached her after all that time just because I wanted to see if she could talk. And when she did, I was shaken into the reality of a real person reduced to a shadow.

She said she needed money to sleep somewhere that night. I said I could give her some. She said things were stressful, and that if she could rustle up enough for a flat, maybe things would get better. I knew I couldn’t save her. She knew that too, but it didn't stop her from asking. No trace of gratitude; at first I was shocked, almost hurt, by her nagging pursuit of more, of whatever she could get from me - the intrigued stranger.

But there is no place for courtesy in a loveless world, one where you take whatever you can, one where exhausting, persistent hardship requires you to grasp at anything and everything.

I was a friendly face when she told me her name and showed me the scars on her arms. One face in a sea of faces, or half faces, as they cowered away each day in their hundreds. I knew she wouldn't remember mine.