Is it possible to invent a meaningful food culture for a place that doesn’t have one? Radio presenter and food consultant Simon Preston has based his BBC Radio 4 series “The Town is the Menu” on this very question. In the five-episode run, Preston travels to small markets across the UK, where generations have abandoned eel, renounced mutton, given up kippers in favour of egg and chips, beef burgers, even sushi.
In Barnard Castle, a town in Teesdale, in England’s north, Preston interviewed local historians, antiquiers and chefs about the area’s natural assets – the biggest juniper forest in England, for instance. Then they collaborated on a meal that the most famous native, Richard III, might have dined on: venison and pheasant with juniper berries; potato mash with wild garlic; and wild boar sausage with local honey (though the boar was impossible to source, so they substituted pork).
Will it stick, this idea of eating not just locally but patriotically? Or are we all doomed to be taken over by Big Food?
In Canada, the “regional cuisine” trend has come and gone – and come again. In the 1980s, proper dining rooms in genteel communities touted Atlantic salmon, Alberta beef, Ontario lamb and quixotic sides like fiddleheads and, yes, juniper berries. Those rooms did not age especially well and some faded away, leaving Tex Mex, Japanese and Ethiopian to serve the yuppies.
With the newly branded “hipsters” ruling the restaurant scene, peameal-bacon sliders and elk steaks have suddenly risen to the top of the menu. A year ago, Mark Pupo, food editor of Toronto Life magazine, heralded a “new Canadian” cuisine imagined by a cohort of chefs “devoted to Canadian ingredients like spruce tips, red fife wheat, lake trout, small-batch birch syrup and wild leeks”. Their hero, he claims, is the Danish chef René Redzepi of the renowned Copenhagen restaurant Noma, itself famous for reviving northern European cuisine.
“The story behind our dinner plate,” says Pupo, “is loaded with philosophical import.”
But whose benefit is this for? Is it for us, or the tourists?
In the book City Branding, Richard Tellström warns that tourists, often armed with dubious research, seek out food experiences that match their romanticised perception of the region. And restaurants deliver, regardless of the truth behind the ideal. “A restaurant in Sweden which is located in a traditional northern farming district is often visited by guests who consider this part of Sweden to be arctic and alpine, and therefore accept reindeer as local meat, which historically it has not been,” Tellström writes. “However the restaurant does not argue… and instead offers a variety of reindeer dishes on the menu.”
But what of authenticity? It is noble in theory and gratifying in practice, but it can also be wildly impractical. In the US, where farm-to-table, organic markets and the “locavore” movement have all taken hold, it is increasingly controversial to eat foreign. And yet, as much as eating regional decreases dependence on imported produce and oil, reduces threat of contamination, et cetera, research suggests that food shipped between continents by sea have less effect on the environment than food transported between cities by van. Furthermore, write Pamela Goyan Kittler and Kathryn Sucher in the book Food and Culture, “Goods shipped in very large trucks produce less damage to the environment than those brought to market by dozens of smaller trucks.”
Not to mention the damage to your purse. Would the folks of Barnard Castle be able to afford venison and pheasant with juniper berries as a rule, when the game is sold by a local farmer at several times the price of their imported lamb mince?
If you had to create a defining dish for the town you live in, what would it look like? Could it catch on? And would it make sense to anyone besides an elite few?