Commonplace, Vol 1, Issue 7

In which the writer has another go, mostly accidentally, at supply lines

Hello! I seem to have come close to actually writing out everything that was in my head, and didn’t write much at all for a few days there, which is a change from the previous six weeks or so. But in that time I’ve been thinking about food - because when am I ever not - and some of that is going to spill over into text here.

The spice jars I ordered arrived, and they are in some odd way extremely pleasing.

The food planning books this week were rather different - still some stuff from the Kanz (the 14th century Egyptian book, not “cans”; the two words are identical in my particular Hiberno-English accent/dialect), but also a chunk of stuff from Nigella Lawson’s Feast.

By and large, I am not a fan of modern TV chef culture. Part of this is because non-fiction TV (or video) isn’t a medium I’m comfortable with; I find it slow and often irritating, and want to tell the presenter to write it down so that I can process it at a less-than-glacial speed. But there’s also a degree to which the personality of the cook overrides the food they’re working on - which I realise is why many people like specific cooking programs - and some of them are just irritating people. Gordon Ramsay is the major offender here; while I’m sure some of his attitude is put on for TV, what comes across is that the man is a grade A ass, and I refuse to spend my limited store of attention on someone like that.

I do, however, like Nigella Lawson and Nigel Slater, although I’ve come to both more through their books than their TV appearances. Oddly, both come across very differently in writing - Lawson is more distracted, a little more anxious, and Slater more melancholic - but they’re both people who are interested in the food itself and how it all works more than they are in making noise or in presentation.

Anyway. We have a good few of Lawson’s books, and they’re almost all excellent (with the exception of Forever Summer, which we got rid of; you can tell her heart wasn’t in it). A chunk of this week’s menu (or inspiration for it) came from Feast, including an absolutely stellar keema, which I put together on Sunday evening. Notes for the next repeat of same are that I’ll serve a green salad alongside, and maybe learn to make naan bread. Interestingly, I often don’t follow Lawson’s recipes, but end up using them as springboards or inspiration for stuff I half-invent. I don’t even remember if there was a lasagne in Feast, but it was definitely due to leafing through the book that it appeared on the week’s list of dinners.

My main Slater book is Notes from the Larder, which is absolutely full of food wisdom, often in the form of Slater going to the fridge and seeing what’s there that he can put together. It’s in the form of a sort of food almanac; it runs from January through December, with each entry dated. Not every date has an entry, and in reality it was put together over about three years, not one, but everything he’s cooking is in line with seasonal availability and the mood of the season. I’ve cooked little enough from it as is, but that’s not the point of the book.

One of the things I’ve picked up from Lawson recently is about the use of dried and fresh herbs. Because I live in Ireland, and until recently was working full-time (and will be again, once we’re past this particular stage of weird and into whatever comes next), I haven’t done a lot with fresh herbs. I have a planter in the back garden which contains parsley, sage, oregano and mint, and that’s pretty much it; I buy growing parsley and basil when I can, and other fresh herbs in packets as required by recipes. What Lawson is saying, though, in a few places, is that if you can use the dried form of the herb early in the cooking, and add the fresh one later on, you get a much more complex depth of flavour.

This backs up a thought I’ve been having a bit: adding more than one variety of an ingredient improves a dish. This can be really simple; put two kinds of lettuce in your green salad. Or it can be as complex as having five or six different forms of paprika/cayenne/chili in a spicy dish, but either works. Different kinds of tomato (fresh, maybe more than one variety, plus canned and sundried) can make a huge difference, and even if none of the tomatoes are particularly good, as happens in Ireland in April, having several kinds makes up for it.

But there’s a problem with this, too: unless you have grown your own, the variety of a particular vegetable you have access to can be really limited. There are maybe three kinds of lettuce available on supermarket shelves; you’ll get one in a Centra or Spar. There are six kinds of tomato in Aldi right now, which is great, but there’s only one kind of cucumber, and one kind of cabbage. If you wanted to try different varieties of apple for something, you might be in quite genuine difficulty - Bramleys, the Irish “cooking apples”, aren’t always available, there are no other kinds of sour apple sold, and the sweeter eating apples, in all their three varieties, one of which is always from New Zealand, don’t actually work for cooking in the same way.

Various ethnic shops can extend the range a bit - Polish shops will net you a few more varieties of apple and several kinds of cucumber. Asian shops will have different salad greens, and often four or five different onions. The Moldova shops in Dublin, which cover a broad range of East European cultures, have an occasionally startling variety cabbages. But if you’re in a part of the world that doesn’t have many ethnic shops, or they’re only able to get hold of canned goods (many of the Brazilian shops in Dublin seem to be in this situation a lot of the time), then you’re reliant on the local shops, and if your local shop is a Spar or Centra or other more-convenience-shop-than-not, you’re really limited.

I’ve been trying to determine if this paucity of variety happened at other points in history as well. This is a little stymied by the fact that recipes almost never call for differing varieties of a thing; they just say “cabbage” or “onions”, so I need to look to other sources. However, al-Warraq and the Kanz (10th century Baghdad; 14th century Cairo) do both make it clear that there are preferred varieties of particular vegetables and fruits. Mostly they’re geographical, wanting them from Iraq or Lebanon, but sometimes they’ll call for “small green apples” or the like. These Arabic books are far more loquacious than the European works, so this level of detail is available.

We know that there were many, many varieties of almost every vegetable and fruit available in the early 20th century, because we can look at still extant seed catalogues. We also know of the availability of a good few varieties up to the second World War, looking at some of the literature around the Dig for Victory movement. There’s a good deal of stuff written about British agriculture during that era, too, because of the letters and diaries written by the Land Girls.

As a counter, I know that in the early 1890s, peas - the vegetable, not any given varietal - were unknown in the Aran Islands. Eoin Mac Neill was learning Irish there, and in a letter that’s now in the National Library archives, where I read it, he asked his brother to send him a packet of 'American Wonder' peas, because he wanted to give his host family some to plant. They 'haven't a ghost of a notion' what peas were, he wrote. So it wasn’t all a glorious variation of produce.

Going back through the Early Modern era, we can see plenty of variety of fruit in paintings (indeed, some of these are being carefully identified now by very dedicated and patient scholars), and depending on where you define '“Early Modern” and “Renaissance”, we can get back to the 1400s that way and see more. And archaeobotanical work shows a variety of different vegetables in many early medieval digs - and to be honest, if you can pick out differing varieties from the seeds and pollen that the archaeobotanists have to work with, there’s a wide variation.

So, as in almost every other regard when it comes to food, we find that the late 20th and early 21st century, our “normal”, is anomalous - unless you compare it to marginal regions like the Irish Islands, or to famine conditions. Having many different apples, or carrots, or cabbages, has been the case throughout history, even in one place, and I think it’s fair to say there was considerable geographic variation as well. And it’s the complex of industrialisation, globalisation, etc, that supplies supermarkets which is to blame.

I didn’t set out to whale on supermarket supply lines in every issue of this newsletter, I swear. But they seem to be at the root of everything that’s currently problematic in food in the West. One of our local supermarkets (Supervalu; probably only the third biggest in the village, which has between five and seven, depending on where you draw the line beyond which is “convenience store”) has a repeating announcement at the moment about social distancing, not bulk buying, etc. One of the phrases is “our supply lines are strong”, which amuses me every time I hear it. I want to know how someone can measure the strength of a supply line.

To be fair, Supervalu has no empty areas on its shelves, and hasn’t since the very early days of the lockdown when they, along with everyone else, ran out of flour. Tesco is apparently still having issues getting flour into its shops, about a month after everyone else solved that. And Supervalu is not a multinational, although they do seem to be the victor of the Irish supermarket wars, with the only other survivor around here being Dunnes Stores. The tendency toward monopoly is remarkably strong among supermarket chains, it seems, and they’re cannibalistic along the way.

I don’t know if this tendency to absorb other businesses improves the supply lines or not - I suspect that it doesn’t. I can’t see an organisation the size of a supermarket chain taking the time to maintain relations with multiple suppliers of, say, cabbage - they want cabbage and a good bit of other produce from one supplier, as long as that supplier isn’t making too much profit from the producer-to-wholesaler bit of the chain. If there’s more profit to be had there, the supermarket chain can cut out the middleman and handle things directly - but that’s only going to happen if the business has already been optimised as much as possible, which again probably precludes multiple sorts of cabbage.

Elsewhere in the Irish Food world, Darina Allen has in her own words gone “back to basics”, since the cookery school she runs - which under normal circumstances employs 55 people - has had to close. Darina Allen was Ireland’s celebrity chef long before that was a term, I reckon; I remember seeing her on TV when I was quite small.

However, Ms Allen said the business had managed to retain 29 of its 55 staff by expanding an existing Ballymaloe shop into a food only outlet and establishing a local version of online platform, NeighbourFood for locals to purchase locally produced food.
“I started off making pots of jam for a farm shop and it is funny how it has come back almost full circle,” Ms Allen said.

I’m interested in NeighbourFood, because it sounds vaguely like an app I was suggesting in Gentle Decline a couple of weeks ago, to establish short local supply lines via the medium of the internet and local employment. It doesn’t by default have the delivery component I was thinking of, but it provides a channel for producers to sell directly to consumers via a sort of click-and-collect setup (and some areas in the UK do have delivery). None of the existing markets will be within our travel range for a few weeks yet, but the concept is there. It’s not a new pandemic-handling tool, either, just an existing setup which is useful in these conditions.

I’ve joined the nearest market on that, for when it’s in reach again, and I’ll see how it works and report back. If there’s anything else you think I should look at, or want me to discuss, hit reply!

This issue has been brought to you by getting to play in a D&D game, more flatbread, long rambles through newly discovered fields, and the start of a few new projects in or near the concept of food and domestic history. Eat well, and I shall write again soon.

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