Food is important, and on that I’m sure we’d all agree. It’s at the heart of cultures the world over because it’s so important in our lives.
We spend a lot of time thinking about, shopping for, making and talking about food. You may have bookshelves groaning under the weight of cookbooks, and you might watch hours of food programmes on TV, so I’ll bet you’re not short of images of delicious food, recipes and inspiration.
Despite all this information though, and the beautiful cookbooks, if you’re reading this, you’re probably also worried about food. You keep hearing about our massive food footprint and it’s likely that you, like most of us, face two opposite problems. Either too much abstract information, or overly simplified calls to action.
Much of what you’ve been reading concerning sustainable food speaks of statistics, statistics, and yet more statistics. Scientific data and ‘facts’. Graphs with cow and plant symbols and kilograms of methane per kilogram of food. Invisible gases which only the experts understand.
At the other end of the spectrum, you may see food reduced to a single tick box at the end of a long list of ‘to dos’ for living a green and sustainable life. We used to see the advice ‘Eat Local and Seasonal’. The advice hasn’t entirely gone away, but now the words ‘Eat Less Meat’ have risen to the top of the pile for a quick takeaway on sustainable eating. Life is supposedly simple.
But I’ve been wondering, where are the words about the farmers who grow our food? Of their farms, and the landscape in which they produce that food? Of animals, pasture and cornfield - the stuff of our childhood learn-to-read books? We can find them, but other voices speak louder.
To top it all, everything you read might seem dismal, as if eating all the good food you like must come to an end. But I feel this viewpoint arises from a mindset that’s stuck in the worst of the present. Quite the opposite of being stuck in the past. Yet far from it. The past has much to show us about the potential future of food.
The worst of the present is the industrialised farming of animals and crops alike. It’s the reporting on this worst present which has pushed out of our minds ways of producing food which have a long history. Many of those ways continue to this day. You might just be unaware of them because popular opinion has pushed this knowledge out into the sidelines.
This book is not all about statistics. You might breathe a sigh of relief!
What This Book is About
This book is for green-living enthusiasts, like me, who need to hear a different story. The tired of statistics, the curious: those who want more than a single tick box. And also the nature enthusiast (or the would-be nature enthusiast), because nature is an important part of the story.
This is a journey around the English West Midlands where I live, through distinctive landscapes that produce distinctive food. Food from the small farm on which my husband grew up features, as do some of his family reminiscences I’ve heard over the years.
Even if you don’t live anywhere near here, this can be your journey too, as much of what we come across should ring bells with you, wherever you are. And the takeaways you can use in your kitchen too.
This is the antithesis of the planetary diet of which we hear so much now. You may have heard of this. It’s a diet proposed in a report by the Eat-Lancet Commission in 2019. The authors of the report say that we must drastically reduce the amount of meat, particularly red meat (for instance, beef, lamb or venison), dairy, eggs and starchy vegetables that we eat. Their aim is to protect our health and the environment.
This report promotes a diet which you would eat no matter where you live. You could live in the desert, the tundra, a wet Welsh hillside or a hot, dry Mediterranean island; you would all eat a similar amount of each food group, and they guide your food by a reference diet which details the exact number of grams per day of each food type.
This book doesn’t give you one diet to follow, measured exactly down to grams of one food group or another. It is, instead, about the foodscape outside your front door, which may be quite unlike the foodscape outside many other people’s front door. Understanding it is the foundation of sustainable eating, and yet, eating that doesn’t feel like following school rules.
It’s also a story of ancient food that lies under the ground. Archaeologists unearth food remains from the ground every day around me, where developers build supermarkets, housing estates and road-widening schemes at a pace.
This is stuff that I deal with every day at work as an archaeologist, working in commercial archaeology. Here we have the principle that the polluter pays, so should planners say so, developers have to bring in people like us to dig up remains under the ground before they start their development. They pay, we dig. We’re unearthing the rubbish left behind by people like you and me through the ages: their food waste, their cookware, tableware, and farm waste. Their farming ways, too, are etched into the ground.
The same may happen where you live. Whether archaeologists in hi-vis jackets and hard hats descend upon those sites regularly, though, depends on the country in which you live.
Talk to anyone on our team (particularly the hard-hat and hi-vis wearing bunch) and if we’ve stayed in one place for long enough, we gain something akin to a bird’s-eye view of all the activities going on over time. It’s a bird’s-eye view of farmsteads appearing, disappearing, and moving around in the landscape; of the pattern of cornfield, woodland, pasture, haymeadows; of drovers walking animals along droveways across ridgeways to distant farms and cattle markets; of barns, dovecotes and windmills; of orchards and hop yards.
It’s all part of the story, and it shows us why our local food cultures are what they are. For they’ve often developed over hundreds, and even thousands of years in sympathy with the local landscape. There’s wisdom in those cultures. Wisdom that well-meaning individuals, corporations, researchers and think tanks encourage us to reject.
Over the past few years or more, it seems as if we’ve been in a frenzy over the question of what makes sustainable food, and over time I’ve realised that perspectives, information, and words from my 9-5 work have a bearing on all this. This is where it started; when I thought about writing a book because I felt we need another angle on what is sustainable food. One that we see from the ground up, and with time perspective too.
It’s not what I thought I would do - take my work home with me and into blog and social media posts. I was writing about frugal ways with old wool (for knitters), or plastic-free shopping, 1970s style: a trip down memory lane, shopping with my nan. And, so this book was born.
These are my perspectives based on a landscape that I know well. I’m not a farmer (few of us are), but I’ve spent many years in a peculiar job, producing data on the lives of farmers and the food they’ve produced from the ground beneath their feet. And it is that ground beneath our feet from which we’ve become very disconnected. It’s no surprise - seeing as many of us now live in cities and on suburban housing estates. Most of us have never spent our days producing food.
Few of us have grown up in the country among farming families. I didn’t either. I grew up on a 1970s housing estate on the edge of town. I lived on the edge: the edge of town and country, and of two different food-producing landscapes. Behind my house was more 1970s housing estate, but at the top of the road there was a gate that led into fields of corn.
I remember little about those fields of corn, apart from a brief foray into them with my friend and her dog, for which we were ticked off for trespassing and flattening tracks through the corn. One of our mums had to apologise to the farmer, whilst we hung our heads and pretended the dog took us there. Now, more housing estate, and further away, a university science park have encroached upon these fields. This was not my playground, although later my attention turned very much to crops.
My playground was meant to be the housing estate where I lived, but I had a tendency to sneak off in a different direction from the tarmacked roads and flat cornfields, and across a main road where the land rose up into the forest.
Uphill I would go through a craggy landscape of woodland and small paddocks where sheep were grazing. Cycling uphill on a shopper-style bike that only had three-speed Sturmey-Archer gears was my challenge. It wasn’t the best bike for this, but I would grit my teeth, get so far then collapse over the handlebars to catch my breath. There would nearly always be a couple of sheep perched atop a crag, munching grass and looking down on me with disdain. I would get back on my bike and keep going to where the land plateaued. Cycling along, buffeted by the wind, I was happy enough, surrounded by a landscape of sheep, cows and a few fields growing cereals. It’s still like that today.
On the way back downhill, I would dive into the woods for a wander. This was woodland with public access, so at least I wasn’t trespassing here. Back at home, my mum would interrogate me, asking ‘Where have you been?’ I would mumble something like ‘Oh, not far. Only just up the road.’ But, I’m sure the bits of bracken falling out of my sleeve cuffs, and the acorns and pine cones in my pockets from my woodland visits were a real giveaway. I was meant to stay closer to home but I preferred the steep climb, the windswept plateau, and manure smells, to the flat wheat and barley fields.
This was further east than I live now, on the edge of Charnwood Forest in Leicestershire. I doubt I thought much about my forest playground as a food-producing landscape, or understood why my house stood at the junction of two justifiably different farmscapes. My house stood on flat fertile soil that can produce grain well, but in front of the house was a great slab of volcanic rock, with craggy edges, that formed the ‘forest’.
Going back into the past, because of the terrain and not-so-fertile soils, it stayed a wild landscape. It was more hunting ground than farmland for much longer than anywhere else. Its past and present is of deer park and pasture: the wool from sheep financing the cottage industry of weavers, whose cottages are still in the villages today.
If you live around here, you can get your free-range milk and meat from local farmshops, or visit an alpaca farm.
Maybe you have memories like this too. You had time, you could wander and observe, but for many of us, unless we go to work on the land, we find ourselves drawn away. Our time is taken up with getting to work, working to earn a living, and all the myriad of responsibilities that take up that time. It’s easy to lose touch. You find that food (in your mind) doesn’t come from the land or the sea. It comes from the supermarket, which we whizz around, dodging other people’s shopping trolleys, navigating the checkout. We have detached ourselves.
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This is what this book is about: ways to reconnect. At the end of each chapter are takeaways which you can put into action at home. They will change your mindset. For changing your mindset is at the at the heart of making change. Reject black and white thinking. There is no one magic trick or hack that will help us solve all our food-related problems.
You might wonder, is this just chocolate-box England? A rose-tinted past to which we cannot return? Or are our modern ways leading us to a point of no return? I can’t pretend to know all the answers, but they’re questions worth asking.
Above all, you may ask, WHAT ABOUT THE METHANE? Read Chapter Six for a dig beneath the surface of the most influential statistics circulating in the media to get an idea of why all is not as it might seem.
We travel round my local landscape in a roughly clockwise direction, through the seasons, coming across different farmscapes and different challenges for producing food. Hence, different food cultures.
We start by going Into the Hills in Chapter One, in south Shropshire on a cold, chilly January day. We find out why much of this landscape has always remained under permanent pasture, and we discover the food at the heart of farming there.
At Easter, in Chapter Two, we move round and stay in the hills. We visit Red Rock Farm: a small farm where my husband grew up. We’re still with the animals, and we hear much about why those red rocks and the lie of the land have shaped the farming and food produce there for aeons. Hear why you could buy from and support hill farmers who are custodians of rare breeds and some of the most wildlife-friendly countryside of the British Isles.
In Chapter Three, we move round onto flatter land: land of Cow and Corn. We go back in time. We find ancient food under the ground. We eavesdrop on people drying their grain ready for storage. They work with the principle that diversity wins in a world of uncertain weather, and where it’s a challenge to keep up soil fertility in an area where poor soils are common. Adapt to rustic, but diverse, food that is closer to a long-lived pattern of eating.
The weather is warming up. Spring is here, and in Chapter Four, we’re in the cornfields; The Breadbasket of the West Midlands, moving through a landscape of windmills, barns and corn dryers. We find out why this is a small area of hard-pressed land, and why ancient and heirloom grains are creeping back into fields and into our kitchens.
It’s high summer, cooling into autumn. In Chapter Five, Terroir: Vegetables, Cider and Beer we visit an area where small market garden smallholdings and orchards, now morphed into larger market garden farms, used to dominate. We come across an area famed for its diverse, artisan food and drink; for local varieties and the ‘terroir’. All this talk of ‘better’ food. It begs the question, is better food affordable?
At the end of each chapter you’ll discover ways to reconnect. These are ways that I realise I’ve gone through over recent years. The final chapter brings these ways together, to help you decide what to do in a way that feels right for you and where you live. These are just prompts to set your mind working. In the end, we all need to adapt any advice we see to our own situations. You can make your roadmap to eating well without trashing the planet, but still respecting the lives of animals (farm animals and wild animals).
You will also find recipes, with tips on introducing more sustainable ingredients into your food, which you can do gradually. Before long, you will find this is an automatic thought pattern.
This is a short book because I doubt that you want to read the equivalent of a PhD in gaseous chemistry, or that you’re particularly attracted to a greenhouse gas emission diet. To feel rooted and grounded in the food belonging to the landscape and culture in which you live. This is a mindset in which to immerse yourself in.