lost arts

making food happen


Trigrad, Bulgaria

Trigrad, Bulgaria

If you go to the ‘supermarket’ in the little Bulgarian village of Trigrad you will find crisps, biscuits, imported chocolate and, if the season is right, a few bunches of grapes. There is homemade pizza that can be heated to take away, a counter of cured meat, some cheese and, in the morning, bread.

The whole thing is about the size of a London corner shop and the range of food fits on four shelves that run round two of the walls.

You’d be wrong to think the inhabitants were short of things to eat though. Wander around this sprawling village in the Rhodope mountains, not far from the border with Greece, and you will see food growing everywhere.

 

Trigrad tomatoesborlotti beans

 

Trigrad turkeys

We visited in early September: there were tomatoes sprouting out of old oil cans, borlotti beans ripening on canes, watermelons dangling in front gardens and even a few turkeys scratching in someone’s yard.

On the lower slopes of the mountains there were rows and rows of brightly painted beehives, and everywhere trees laden with fruit: pears, apples and wild plums.

Trigrad beehives

Trigrad pears

There are no fancy hotels in Trigrad but you can stay in a family guest house. Ours looked down over the town with its jumble of red roofs, tiny mosque and even tinier church.

Trigrad church

Every evening our landlady Nadia and her husband Vincy invited all eight of us into their dining room, where Nadia served a three-course meal prepared entirely from scratch in an ordinary domestic kitchen. Meanwhile Vincy plied us with rakia, a clear spirit made from plums that goes surprisingly well with just about anything, particularly by the time you get on to your third glass.

The couple took huge pride in what they gave us. Through our Bulgarian-speaking friends Nadia told us how the trout she was cooking had been caught only hours before in a river just ten minutes’ walk away.

Trigrad river

Vincy explained that the rakia had been made by a friend of his. As I understood it, this meant it was not the absolute best we could have (that would be Vincy’s own) but it did come a close second.

In Trigrad it seemed as if not just the growing but also the preparing of food was woven tightly into everyday life. At the start of one of our walks we passed a woman carrying a plate piled with slices of warm cake: she insisted that we all took a piece. We saw another woman roasting peppers in her garden. They may have been the very ones Nadia served us that night, dripping with garlic and olive oil, meltingly soft and tasting of smoke and sunshine.

Trigrad peppers

What struck me forcibly in contrast with England was the range of food-related skills on display. It seems it is normal in Trigrad to be able to build a beehive, harvest honey, pickle vegetables, distil spirits, construct a barbecue and produce three meals a day for a roomful of complete strangers – and that’s just what we saw in one very short stay.

I don’t know whether the inhabitants of Trigrad wish their local store carried a wider range of food. I’m guessing some of the women we saw harvesting squashes might wish they didn’t always have to go out in the blistering midday sun.  I didn’t see many young people either, so I’m not trying to say this was some kind of romantic rural idyll.

But I did see enough to realise that these people have something many of us in the UK have lost. It’s a kind of confidence around food and growing, and a pleasure in eating that seems devoid of the self-consciousness and class assumptions that often accompany conversations about food over here.

With even supermarket bosses admitting that food prices are likely to rise substantially in the near future, it’s a confidence we urgently need to recover.

I often go on about Incredible Edible Todmorden, the brilliant project that is trying to give everyone in the west Yorkshire town of Todmorden access to good local food. On one of my visits recently, a resident told me about the difference that joining a growing project at her son’s school had made in her life.

‘The idea of growing something used to seem like an enormously daunting scary world of otherness that was nothing to do with me and I couldn’t possibly learn that – it was for other people,’ she said.

‘But I’ve found that it is such a simple but satisfying experience and the feeling is growing in me that if everything goes tits up and we can’t get any food anywhere then I have the means with which to provide food for myself and my son.

‘I am starting to get to the stage where I’m learning more every year that I’ll be able to make food happen.’

I love that phrase of hers – ‘able to make food happen’. The residents of Trigrad seem able to make food happen almost without thinking.

The residents of Todmorden and other Incredible Edible projects around the country offer hope to those of us who find it more daunting.

Todmorden police station

Todmorden police station

lost arts

There’s a lovely corner of the  Incredible Edible Todmorden website that’s given over to interviews with older residents of the town. In it they reminisce about the role of food and growing in their lives. There are memories of being in the Land Army, of brewing wine from potatoes, and even of keeping fish in huge printers’ ink tins in the cellar.

WW1 Land Girl with a pig. Picture from The National Archives UK

Barbara Diggle’s interview contains an astonishing account of how her granny used to buy a sheep’s head from the butcher every week and use every single part of it to feed the family. To me it almost sounds that something that took place on another planet.

If there was an invalid in the family or anybody just weak, we used to poach the brains … in milk and butter and they were served on toast and that was a delicacy. Now the tongue was cooked slowly in the side oven over the coal fire, no gas used, and it would be cooked slow over night and if it took a bit longer it didn’t matter, it was in another half day until it was cooked and then we would skin it whilst it was still warm because you can’t skin a tongue when it has gone cold; it sticks like glue. Then of course we would round it and put its head to a saucer with a plate on the top and a flat iron on top of that and that would shape it and it would press it overnight. Then if anybody came to tea we could slice it off and put it between thin bread and butter. The meat dropped off the bones then and there was plenty of tender meat on the face. She put the bones into another big pan that sat on the fire and she put onions, carrots, that she had grown in the garden, swede or something like that, turnip if we had it but she always had plenty of pulses. The fat that she had rendered off the joint as well or off the heads or anything, feet, you know would be clarified and that was used to seal the pots of the fruit.

I was stunned by the image of this woman labouring to make the most of every scrap of the sheep’s head, a part of the animal that I think most of us would struggle to have in our kitchens at all today. It seems this granny never wasted a single thing. She could make puddings from dock leaves, and her delicious Christmas lunch appears to have been conjured from little more than some breadcrumbs, dripping and root vegetables.

It would be silly to romanticise the kind of poverty that gave rise to such frugality but it isn’t just this woman’s economies that are striking, it’s also her consummate skill as a cook and a grower. I found myself asking what had happened to the arts that Barbara’s granny knew, arts of pickling, preserving and being able to create a meal out of whatever foodstuffs were to hand.

The history section of Todmorden’s website paints a picture of interaction across the generations that ensured skills were handed down almost unconsciously. There are memories of helping dad on the allotment, gathering watercress from the streams for mum, and of whole families working together to slaughter a pig and preserve the meat.

It’s all such a contrast with today. If you talk to people involved in Incredible Edible Todmorden now, they will often comment on how people simply don’t have the skills their recent forbears took for granted. Obviously this is not a problem that’s confined to Todmorden. Activities that were once second nature, such as making jams and pickles, are now shrouded in mystery everywhere. It’s common to talk of a ‘lost generation’, a group who somehow never acquired the skills of feeding themselves by growing veg or cooking from scratch.

Nobody seems able to explain quite how we got to this position. Just how and why were these essential skills lost? When did we decide to place some of the most important decisions we ever make – what to put on our plates – in the hands of a few multinational corporations?

I’ve had various suggestions made to me. It was the supermarkets – they  brainwashed us into thinking that everything can be available all the time for everyone. It was US television suggesting fridge grazing is better than shared mealtimes. It was the convenience foods of the seventies, when nobody understood the dangers of additives. Each of these might be a contributing factor, but none really seems to explain the whole of it.

I’d love to hear what others think. Do you also notice a loss of cooking and growing skills? And if so, how do you explain it? Did your parents teach you about food and gardening? Did your grandparents? Do leave your thoughts in the comments.