Our new BBC2 series ‘Our Food’ begins Wednesday, read all out about it here…

On Wednesday the new series ‘Our Food’ begins on BBC2, 8pm…

You might enjoy the trailer, here it is, or I do really recommend the clip where I burp the dead turkey, which you can see here.

Here’s my article in yesterday’s Telegraph telling you what it’s all about…

I’m a townie.  I live in a flat; I have no garden; my hands are rarely muddy.  Today there are millions of people like me.  And yet, if you look at the whole sweep of history, we’re the anomalies.   It’s only been in the later twentieth century that people have become so distant from food production that they hardly realize milk comes from cows.

But it’s quite clear that many people aren’t entirely comfortable that their food is produced by machines, in factories, on the other side of the world.  You have only to switch on the TV or visit a new restaurant to find a chef expounding the importance of eating local, seasonal, traditional food.  That’s why the new BBC2 series ‘Our Food’ will interest everyone who’s interested in British food – which turn has shaped Britain’s landscapes.

Any social historian knows that what a person eats can tell you an awful lot about who they really are.  I first really came to ponder this when I found myself living at Hampton Court Palace (where I work as a curator), in an apartment next door to the Tudor cooks who operate the palace’s Great Kitchen.  Each Bank Holiday weekend, a group of food archaeologists called ‘Historia’ move in and don their authentic Tudor outfits to prepare a daily Tudor dinner for our visitors.  (Sometimes, I must admit, I would also hear the Tudor cooks singing their Tudor songs at night as they quaffed their Tudor ale.)

From them I learned that in sixteenth-century England, only the high in status and deep of pocket ate roast meat.  It was vastly expensive: you needed a deer park, a lot of fuel, and lots of servants to turn the spit over the fire.  But the pleasure of a soft melting mouth-full of roast meat was so powerful that it still survives in our language today: we talk about a ‘Sunday roast’ even when referring to meat that technically has been baked in an oven.  On the other hand, those lower down the Tudor chain ate an awful lot of pottage, the kind of perpetual soup cooked over the fire in an iron pot (hence its name).  Pottage could be kept bubbling away for day after day, topped up with whatever vegetables or peas were to scavenged locally.  That’s why the song goes ‘pease pudding hot, pease pudding cold, pease pudding in the pot [sometimes literally] nine days old’.  The advantage of cooking food into sludge is that it makes it microbiologically safe, and the low cooking temperature optimizes fuel consumption.  Like driving your car at 60 miles an hour on the motorway, cooking your peasant’s pottage at ‘a slow burp’ is very efficient.

And yet I might as well be speaking a foreign language to anyone who eats microwave meals or dines out every night without a thought for the resources involved.  Our new series will appeal to anyone who, like me, feels a bit divorced from, yet still interested in, what’s on his or her plate.  It celebrates all those people who still – yes, even today – beaver away to produce food that’s rooted in Britain’s various counties and landscapes.  During the course of filming, I ate oysters straight out of the salty sea, milked a cow for the first time in my life and saw the awesome sight of a great big turkey beating its wings as it died for the cause of my Christmas dinner.  Not bad for someone who usually hunts and gathers via Ocado.

In ‘Our Food’, Our Leader, Giles Coren, is usually to be seen sailing a boat (or sometimes driving a train) through a region, while his troops pick out products that interest them.  In Norfolk, where we start, James Wong grows some mint, Alys Fowler samples samphire, and Alex Langlands (fortunate man) gets to grips with turnips.  And I begin to master the difficult skill of herding turkeys.  Historically, turkeys did particularly well in Norfolk as they gleaned the leftover grain from the flat arable fields.  Once fattened, sixteenth-century turkeys were sent off on a route march to the markets of London, walking three or four miles a day.  (Sadly we failed to prove, as we’d read, that they wore little leather shoes to protect their feet.  If anyone has evidence of this, I beg you to write and tell me.)  Of course the march of the turkeys was replaced in due course by the railway, but if you want a fit and flavoursome Christmas bird, don’t choose some bland, white, mass-produced species that can hardly waddle along under the weight of its massive breast – you need the traditional, active ‘Norfolk Black’, strong enough to walk to London, and the type of turkey closest to those introduced from Mexico into the England of Henry VIII.

What does the future hold for the British stomach?  In one sense, the business of ‘dressing victuals’, as the Tudors described it, has gone global, and your food is as likely to have been prepared in Bolivia as it is in Bolton.  And yet, if you care to take the trouble, you can buy British and eat British and be British from the inside out.  We can support the heroic horticulturalists and cheese-makers and butchers in each county, and help maintain the types of farming that make the landscape of Kent different from Norfolk, and Wales different from Scotland.  It’s exactly this variety – in scenery, in history, and, in you’re lucky, in the local eateries – that makes Britain great.  Our Food starts on BBC Two at 8pm on Wednesday.

And my views on oysters from the Radio Times…

The Neanderthal man who discovered that oysters are edible must have been pretty hungry or pretty brave.  It takes some courage to put that blob of grey gloop into your mouth for the first time. Ever since then, though, oysters have been staples of the British diet. It’s only in recent decades that their production and consumption has declined to the point that they’ve become a rare and luxurious treat.

Before ‘Our Food’ sent me to Kent to learn more about them, oysters and I were not particularly friendly. They’d always given me the nasty sensation of swallowing pound coins: expensive, cold, possibly dangerous to my health.

However, Richard Green of the Whitstable Oyster Company took me in a boat on a sunny day to eat them straight from the sea.  This was last October, and you’ll notice that yes, there was an ‘r’ in the month.  You don’t want to eat oysters in the summer – not because
they’re poisonous then, just not as nice.

The Native oysters Richard sells in his restaurant in Whitstable today epitomise the local, traceable, traditional British food that’s so much in vogue.

The emphasis, though, is on their rarity and high quality. 150 years ago, it was all about quantity.  Victorian Londoners could buy oysters at every street corner, and they were cheap as chips.  At Hampton Court Palace, where I work as a curator, we often find their discarded shells used as sound insulation between the floorboards; Dr Johnson even fed
oysters to his cat.

At the high point of Whitstable’s fishing industry, around 1860, fifty million oysters were sent to London annually.  But over-fishing and climate change caused a sad decline, reversed only in the last twenty years.

And the taste?  Creamy, almost sweet, I have to admit Whitstable oysters are delicious. After about fifteen I did feel slightly queasy – but let’s blame quantity rather than quality for that.

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