One of the many kitchen crafts I took up over the lockdown was learning about yoghurt making. I discovered an entire branch of cultured milk products known as mesophilic, which are capable of turning milk into a drinkable texture at room temperature overnight. While not as thick as traditional Greek style yoghurt, they are delicious and easy to drink several pints of during the day. I particularly love kefir, the sharp sour sometimes fizzy milk made possible by the strange grains of bacteria and yeast which multiply endlessly with each new batch. In learning about all the unusual varieties and types of starter culture I found myself online talking with Finns, Swedes, Russians, Poles and Americans about how best to start, make and maintain cultures. It’s been one of the joys of the digital world that someone out there is also interested in what eccentric practice you’re into, but it made me think deeply about the unusual paradox involved in this phenomenon. I’m hardly the first person to make use of the rich seams of knowledge available online, it was one of the original utopian aims of the networked era, that we’ll all find ourselves in digital tribes, happily trading ideas and making peace. Many self-declared localists and environmentalists find themselves in similar positions, swapping seed knowledge and compost tips from other sides of the world. You might consider this an unassailable good, but there are downsides to this phenomenon.
The world of mass consumption that we have all been born into is profoundly hostile to the small, the local and the particular. Selling a speciality product to your local community has a ceiling of circulation and only someone committed to keeping their business small would be happy to see little to no growth in their market. No, the logic of the global market is to expand to encompass as many potential buyers as possible. The notion of reducing friction in trade really means trying to get everyone everywhere to consume the same things. Britain was ripe for this sort of intervention after the Second World War, with the depressing monotonous drudgery of rationing leading to an explosion of new and exotic foods. My great-aunt can still recall eating a banana for the first time; every child in school was to receive one. The children crowded around the only boy who had ever eaten one before, the local greengrocer’s son, as he held court on how to peel this funny looking fruit. Fast forward to today and we can purchase basically any cuisine from anywhere on earth – Thai curry pastes, Egyptian falafel, tinned borscht, live kimchi, seal oil capsules, Japanese seaweeds, heritage maize and coconut oil. The more of these one buys, the more cosmopolitan and enlightened one becomes. Only backwards proles still cling to their local foods. One response to this orgy of globalised diets has been the neo-traditionalist and locavore idea: that one should eat foods grown within one’s own bioregion, foods that are suitable for the soils and climate of one’s local area. This too has created a certain social capital amongst the eco-conscious middle class. Making bread has become a powerful signifier of how much time and care you have to spend on food. People who work night shifts or who struggle with feeding and clothing multiple children on their own are not going to pore obsessively over forums for feeding rye starters or how best to achieve the perfect crust. Food is always embedded in the social and the political.
None of this is to say that eating locally or taking time to make bread is actually a bad thing to do, it’s clearly not. From a historical and a future perspective it seems the only sane thing to do. It’s the daily take-out, Just Eat, frozen food world of today that is abnormal and needs to be changed. The paradox that I have come up against though is this – to become local one still needs to be global. Fermented foods are the best example:
Every part of the world, in every cuisine and diet, one finds fermented food. It is a prehistoric technology that dates back at least to the early Holocene, where Scandinavian foragers fermented fish in earthen pits. Fermentation is a symbiotic relationship between humans, food and microbes, allowing the microscopic critters to go to work on our harvest in order that it be made safe to eat and that it might be preserved against decay. The examples are boundless – burying cassavas, brining olives, fermenting cocoa and coffee beans, salted vegetables, fizzy bubbling milks and strong mouldy cheeses. The list goes on. However, the last few hundred years since the Industrial Revolution have profoundly changed our relationship to food. We in Britain first stopped making foods at home. The kitchen was transformed from a place of production to one of algorithmic heating, assembling and following instructions. The knowledge of how to preserve foods was lost as we incorporated fridges and freezers in place of larders and cellars. In an incomplete and patchwork fashion, the global local has been forced to discard precious centuries of food security and skill. Today we are looking to reclaim this heritage, but we’ve been discovering since the 1960’s that our food knowledge has been scattered to the four winds, held in trust by emigres, old cookbooks, maverick kitchen scientists, hidden rural corners which have resisted change. It’s as if we bleached and sanitised an old growth forest, and we’re picking our way through the ruins looking for the surviving signs of life. Sometimes I show a recipe to a grandparent and they frown and say “oh yes, that’s how we used to do it, before we got the fridge”.
The renaissance of fermented foods, certainly due in no small part to that eccentric food renegade, Sandor Katz, has seen our supermarkets stock up on kombucha, kefir, sourdough and kimchi. This is neo-traditionalism in action. Foods which should have a regional and familial diversity have been cookie-cut into Platonic forms. Sourdough bread, which should be a widely varied staple, has become standardised by the Acme Company and Steve Sullivan’s Bay Area ‘Bread Revolution’. This hybrid approach to baking ‘artisan’ loaves, deliberately mixed Italian, Austrian and French bread-making traditions to produce the rustic, chewy bread everyone associates with ‘traditional bread’. Here lies the paradox again, the new traditional loaf is anything but, it relies on the globalisation of techniques, methods which were perfected in small communities, and now mass marketed. It has become true of almost all recovered traditional foods. If I was a pure locavore, I would have to eat buttermilk, not kefir, I would have to painstakingly research English and county bread styles. This would be a shame and a puritanical denial of reality. But the problem is that we live, as always, on the accumulated knowledge of the past, without replenishing it. All these wonderful and healthy traditional foods only exist at all because of small local scale interactions, like mini petri dishes of culture, mostly separated from one another, with some slow crossovers. Today we allow all information, all culture and all food to flow freely around the world. I don’t believe that this will ultimately foster the necessary conditions for healthy local growth. Take one hundred carefully cultivated sourdough cultures from around the world, each with a delicate ecosystem of particular bacteria, and mix them all together. The strongest will dominate, the majority will perish. This seems an apt metaphor for how we think about foods today, especially the ‘traditional’ ones.
Don’t take this as a chastisement or even a repudiation of all the hard won food knowledge that we have wrested back from our globalised corporate world. The efforts to track down and preserve traditional foods is a humbling and powerful form of resistance. My goal here is to look to the future. I want my grandchildren to visit other places and countries and see different, unknown foods. I want them to feel like the world isn’t one giant airport lounge with sourdough and avocado toast on every menu. I want them to be excited and enthralled by a world of such diversity in cuisine that it makes their heads spin. I recently moved my family to a small village, away from the city. Here we can buy eggs, honey, cheese and meat all produced within a few miles of the corner shop, all made to recipes and with flavours unique to this area. We’re well on our way.
Teaser photo credit: By by flowerguy – https://www.flickr.com/photos/fguy/1995634579/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3220802