Red Terroir

There’s an odd idea – started who-knows-when but currently perpetuated by the incurable romantics of the locavore movement – that cuisines (regional, national, local) are (and, more dogmatically, should be) products entirely of place, sprung fully-formed from their unique surrounds, an expression of soil and flesh and air – of what is called terroir. This idea, originally applied to the particular makeup of wines, has been taken to its logical conclusion, with extremely impressive results, by restaurants such as Noma and its imitators, or closer to home, the Sportsman in Kent. In these kitchens, localism is treated less as an ethical imperative and more as an aesthetic challenge – an attempt to create masterpieces with a severely limited palette – and as such operates above (or at least separately to) anything as parochial as ‘a cuisine’; they aren’t what I’m thinking of here. The problem is in attempts to define and identify the ‘real’ or folk cuisines of countries, counties, regions, where such localism is either ignorant, or worryingly reactionary.
The problems here, I think, stem from a simple lack of historical perspective. There is a tendency to look on the peasant traditions of various countries (though especially Mediterranean Europe) as historical artefacts, still living in some parts but essentially static – we see what, say, the Sicilian farmer has for lunch, and assume that it is the same lunch he has had for centuries, torn from the harsh earth by his own sun-dried hand; then, lamenting the loss of our own peasant tradition, we try to recreate it, with our British vegetables, our British wildlife, our British climate. Some of this is admirable – there are many odd herbs and wild greens, old forgotten dishes, which deserve rediscovery – but some of it is just stupid. It leads to otherwise-respectable chefs espousing the virtues of rapeseed oil (a mass-produced, violently yellow vegetable oil with a marked aroma of cat’s piss – when it has any at all) and worse, taking the moral high ground in doing so. Local here is seen as intrinsically better, and the implication is that rapeseed is what the wise old Italian would be eating, were he to find himself transplanted to East Anglia. Well, probably, but only if it was all he could afford. There is a deliberate refusal here to acknowledge food as a global trade, and one with a very long history.
Take that olive oil. The best and most abundant producer of olive oil is Spain, and has been since Roman times; it was shipped to Rome because they liked it, and because the whole of the Empire was their locale. They could afford to source the best, and to move it around their whole territory – the Empire, in fact, was responsible for an astonishing movement of ingredients, without many of which our ‘British’ cuisine would be bereft. We all know that we have the Americas to thank for the potato, now seen as a very British provider of stodge – but imagine culinary life without asparagus, cabbage, carrots, onions, even, all picked up from around the Med and taken to the corners of Empire; Celtic Britain must have been either a prelapsarian paradise of now-lost abundance, or a flavourless pit. Take away the rabbit too (introduced and bred for eating by the Normans) and the English country kitchen is looking pretty poor. (Conversely – and this is odd because we think of Mediterranean cooking, if anything, as having deeper roots than our own – imagine the food of Southern Italy before Columbus. No chilli, no peppers, no tomato…) Perhaps I’m being deliberately obtuse to make a point. Of course our peasant tradition isn’t meant to be pre-Roman; we’re thinking of the sturdy medieval peasant of Merrie England, and his diet of beef, cheese, pickles and beer – except the beer would have been short-lived, one-dimensional ale, because the hops which flavour and preserve it hadn’t yet made it across the channel. And, of course, he couldn’t afford beef.
Meanwhile, the feudal aristocracy, taking full advantage of the reopened spice routes, were enjoying a systematic derangement of their cuisine, marked by a wild use of sugar, dried fruit, and what are now mainly dessert spices in dishes which have in them something of Morocco and something of a creative child in a gigantic sweetshop. Although the cooks calmed down eventually, a lot of this stuck, particularly in festive food, with traditional pickles, pies and cakes packed with dates, currants, ginger, cinnamon and pepper. Never being grown here, unlike the fully naturalised alliums and brassicas, these spices perhaps retained some of their exoticism; nevertheless, they form an important part of our national palate, a taste for contrast and spice which in ‘modern traditional British’ cuisine is all too often expressed only by semi-ironic curried dishes. Much, in fact, of what is thought of, both affectionately and disparagingly, as good old-fashioned British food – plainly boiled and roasted meats, dauntingly bland nursery puddings, as well as those bastardised curries – we owe to the Victorians, with their mix of an austere, Protestant Christianity and a general cultural inclination towards greyness. Looked at over a longer period of time, our cuisine becomes more interesting – if it can be seen coherently at all.
I’m focussing on Britain, but the same could be said of almost any world cuisine. Even insular, chauvinist France has the sun-drunk Italianisms of Nice, the borrowed luxury of vienoisserie; much more obvious are the rich collisions of Europe, Asia and Africa you find in Sicily and Turkey, where trade, migration and invasion have all played their part. The point, really, returning to that (very French) idea of terroir, is that we have a mistaken tendency to think of cuisines as inherently rural, of dishes as springing somehow from the soil and the quality of the light, passed down through generations – and we think of the rural in turn as essentially conservative, static or at least very slow and resistant to change. This is perfectly natural. Food (forgive me for stating the obvious) comes from the land – but the ability and the motivation to move it, to share it, comes from the city, crowded, mutable, filled with a thousand influences. Food, once you have more than a couple of pigs to rub together, is commerce, and commerce is movement, exchange, growth. It is the slow sea-change of North Atlantic cod into the rich baccala of the Mediterranean, the trip back of salted anchovies fermented into a splash of Worcester sauce, with its baggage of Empire, its echoes of the fish sauces of Asia as well as the garum of the Romans; it is the burgeoning spice trade that opened up the new world.
So? I’m not sure really. Just that I think it’s easy for chefs to become too chauvinist, too inward-looking; by all means, use foraged this and local that (I certainly do), but remember that great cuisines come just as much from diners and bars, little dockside cafes, as they do from grand country estates and secretive rural ritual – and please stop putting rapeseed oil on everything.

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