According to Jay Rayner, the doctrine of local food is dead. And as The Observer’s restaurant critic, he should know. With stints writing for range of publications – try GQ, Esquire and Granta for size – his latest offering, A Greedy Man in a Hungry World – how (almost) everything you thought you knew about food is wrong, challenges the foodie assumptions we Brits like to hold dear.
“The reality is that we live in a world of seven billion people, which over the next few decades is set to rise to north of nine billion people,” the critic explains. “I argue against the idea that farmer’s markets, locality and seasonality are good and that food miles are bad.”
“We are somehow going to have to produce up to fifty per cent more food from the same amount of land. If we are looking for a truly sustainable way to feed ourselves, the answer doesn’t always lie in buying local, expensive organic products.”
But we’ve been led to believe that seasonal is best?
“But food miles can be a red herring. It is far more important to determine how you produce your food rather than where. For instance buying lamb from New Zealand can have a smaller carbon footprint than buying British lamb, due to the way the lamb producers farm there and simply because of the amount of land they have compared to England. Plus some people have even raised the question – what is the morality of the rich buying food which uses more costly land, to produce even less food? Buying a £14 chicken from a farmer’s market is no more of a threat to Tesco’s than buying a Chanel handbag is a threat to Primark.”
But doesn’t everyone love strolling around a farmer’s market on a Sunday morning?
“Don’t get me wrong – I am one of the affluent, middle classes. I have a food market at the end of my road and I love going there to chat to the food producers but does it give us a realistic, long term method of eating? No it doesn’t.”
So supermarkets aren’t the devil incarnate then?
“No, and there is a chapter in my new book called Why Supermarkets Aren’t Evil. There is a social good and equality to supermarkets. Having said that there is also a chapter called “Why Supermarkets Are Evil”! Basically I am fed up of the food Taliban telling us how to eat!”
But I suppose you want us all to buy British…?
“Well, the way we eat in Britain is changing. Self sufficiency – i.e. – how much of the food we actually eat we grow ourselves – is changing. It used to be 70 per cent – it’s now below 60. We need to get our self sufficiency back up. With the rising, affluent middle classes in India and China now being prepared to pay more for food, we are all going to be fighting for the same stuff. We need to pay just a little bit more for food than we currently do.
OK, so prices may rise. Do you think we Brits have different assumptions about food and our local produce dependant on where we are in the nation?
“I’m looking forward to speaking to a Yorkshire audience at the Harrogate Food Festival as I find that people who live in more rural areas are easier to win over – they get it. The hardest crowds are those in inner-city London and people in my own borough of Lambeth. City folk tend to mythologise agriculture in a way that real country people don’t. They think it’s all girls in dirndl skirts and all the men have mutton chops!”
Characteristically outspoken, Rayner is taking his latest book to Harrogate to invert all we’ve been led to believe (including the myth of Northern men and their mutton chops!?) Because if the way we eat is set to change, you can guarantee Rayner will be at the forefront of the movement.