Earlier this week I had the pleasure of attending an evening in conversation with Alice Waters. Chef proprietor of Chez Panisse, author, and founder of the inspirational Edible Schoolyard Project, Ms Waters is a pioneer and champion of the slow food movement and well worth looking up if you’ve not yet had the pleasure.
Not surprisingly, Alice’s presentation was centred around food; how we use it to express ourselves and our culture, and to communicate our values, passions and ideas. She spoke of terroir and produce, of connection and communication, and of how good, honest cooking makes for a more wholesome, satisfying life. Everything she said made so much sense - an admittedly biased take as many of the ideas she was instilling are ones in which I already believe - but to have them expressed so succinctly and with such passion was truly refreshing.
There was much talk of education and she had plenty of important ideas to impress, but the concept that resonated most was that of “fast food culture” and how our attitudes towards food impact all facets of life, becoming a reflection of our values and in turn driving our behaviour. At present we are a consumerist society on high demand. We want it all, and we want it now. We don’t stop to think about the true costs involved; of the time, effort and resources invested in bringing food to our table, or of the impact mass production is having on our health and on that of our planet. We don’t care, and that makes me sad.
Of all the “fast food values” that make me cringe the one I perhaps despise the most is cheapness. We devalue the role of producers and farmers in our society, ignore their responsibility in being the keepers of our earth, and cheapen the quality of all that we consume. We put cost above all else and focus on speed and quantity to the detriment of quality, nutrition and flavour.
I realise now how fortunate I was growing up in a family with interests in nature. My childhood was filled with the joys of foraging and collecting eggs, of picking fruit and pulling up vegetables and knowing the perils of a stray fox, or a hot and dry summer. We were by no means farmers or in anyway dependent on the food we produced, we just grew our own because it tasted good, was something fun to do in our spare time, and gave a real sense of achievement when we actually managed to pull it off. To me, this inherent appreciation of nature was such basic, fundamental knowledge I still find myself taken aback by how little some people know. Even as kids we understood where our milk, eggs and meat came from, what proper fruit and vegetables actually tasted like, and why it’s worth waiting ten months of the year to enjoy something when it’s properly in season.
I know this sounds preachy and I don’t mean it to be - each to their own and all that - it’s just my hope that one day more people will care. Yes, our food system is broken and yes, we need to be having these discussions, but I’ll leave that to the amazing and inspiring people like Ms Alexander and Ms Waters. There were so many important issues raised that night but the message I took from it all was that when we have these discussions we’re not just talking about food. For something so integral to our daily life (and at its core fundamental to our existence) our attitudes and activities around food really do flow in to all other aspects of life. And as nauseatingly philosophical as what I’m about to say will sound, I for one am choosing the slow life. To value the soil, the people, and good quality, and to lead a life filled with richness, diversity and respect. There’s nothing profound about my decision. I’m not trying to be virtuous or doing it because I truly believe that my choices will help drive change. I just like things that take time.
BUTTERMILK RHUBARB PIE (Adapted from Heritage by Sean Brock*)
For the cornmeal crust:
- 125 g plain flour
- 50 g fine polenta
- ¼ tsp salt
- 100 g butter
- 60 ml ice-cold water
For the filling:
- 250 g sugar
- 35 g flour
- ½ tsp salt
- 3 eggs
- 70 g butter, melted
- Zest & juice of half a lemon
- 180 ml buttermilk
- 1 vanilla bean
- 8 Tbsp rhubarb ginger jam (see below)*
To make the pastry, combine all of the dry ingredients in a large bowl and rub in the butter using your fingertips until you have pea-sized crumbs. Add the water and mix briefly, until everything just comes together, then press the dough into a disc, cover in cling film and refrigerate for at least one hour or as long as overnight. Roll out the pastry on a lightly-floured surface until 3-mm thick and use to line a well-greased, 23-cm pie dish. Trim the overhang, crimp the edges and then place in the freezer until ready to fill.
To prepare the filling, place the sugar, flour and salt in a medium bowl and whisk to combine. Add the eggs, lemon zest and lemon juice and bring together into a smooth paste before whisking in the buttermilk, followed by the seeds scraped from the vanilla pod.
Preheat your oven to 170°C and position a rack in the centre. Remove the pie case from the freezer and place on a rimmed baking sheet. Spread the base with rhubarb ginger jam and then gently pour in the filling. Bake the pie for 50-60 minutes, until the custard is just set and no longer jiggles in the middle. Cool to room temperature then refrigerate for at least two hours before serving. The pie should be served at room temperature, and will keep for three days if refrigerated.
RHUBARB GINGER JAM
- 700 g rhubarb, trimmed, washed and cut into 2-cm dice
- 1 Granny Smith apple, peeled and finely diced
- 2-3 knobs of ginger, peeled and cut into chunks
- The juice of 1 lemon
- 400 g sugar
Combine the rhubarb, apple, ginger and lemon in a large saucepan. Cover and cook over medium heat for around 15 minutes until the rhubarb is soft. Remove the lid and add the sugar slowly, allowing the rhubarb to return to a boil between each addition. After the last of the sugar has dissolved bring to boil and then simmer for 20-30 minutes until it reaches a jam-like consistency. Pour into hot, sterilised jars and seal.
** Sean Brock is an executive chef from West Virginia with a passion for preserving and restoring heirloom ingredients. His first book, Heritage, was published by Artisan Books, a division of Workman Publishing Company, Inc., in 2014.
** While a nice excuse to use this delicious jam I think next time I'll go for something a little punchier, perhaps poached sour cherries or a handful of prunes soaked in Armagnac.