Sunday, 4 September 2011

The joy of real food

It's late on Sunday afternoon: in the oven, a leg of lamb is roasting away, in olive oil, rosemary and garlic. A culinary cliché, chef Rowley Leigh argued recently in the FT, but there are reasons for clichés - and often because they work.

Potatoes are being par-boiled and will finish off in the juices while the meat is resting, along with some similarly par-boiled florets of cauliflower and a small tin of cannelloni beans.

The smell as I sit writing is wonderful, with the promise of magnificent tastes to come.

But this, to me, is not simply good eating in the taste stakes, but there's nothing unhealthy about it either.

I noticed this morning that the media is getting excited again about fat people - more to the point, the obesity epidemic. It helps that Jamie Oliver was involved in the story, thus giving a celebrity angle.

As so often before, the subject allowed space for a rush of bigotry as well as some staggering displays of ignorance in the online comments sections of at least one publication - and experience says that it will not have been unique.

Condemning the overweight has not only taken on the scale of a national obsession, it seems to be the one remaining bigotry that you're allowed. People who would object to racism or sexism or myriad other isms suddenly seem liberated from such squeamishness when the subject of fatties raises it's heavy head, and freely burst out into tirades of nastiness.

But the same people are staggeringly ignorant too. They seem to think that weight is a simple issue: in effect, that it's just a matter of calories in and calories out. That the overweight are simply lazy and greedy.

Well, it isn't that simple. As more and more researchers are discovering.

In fact, it's more complicated than anyone really knows.

We know now that telling people to cut all fat is unhealthy and counterproductive. We know now that the advice to fill up with complex carbohydrates like potatoes and bad and pasta is flawed and actually helped people to pack weight on.

The French, as so often, provide an interesting comparison and some probable pointers. They don't have the same widespread problem - and yet neither are they a nation of gym bunnies. But they do walk more and aren't so obsessed with taking the car on even the shortest journey.

They sit down to eat properly - they don't eat lunch at their desks or dinner in front of the TV, which probably doesn't do much for the digestion.

Although some changes have occurred, they still, by and large, eat proper food - far less processed and fast food. And in one intriguing piece of observation, it's apparently been noted that even with eating at McDonalds, the French actually sit down and eat properly.

They don't have the snacking culture that we do.

Generally speaking, their food is a great deal better than ours - bread is just one example of an area where we fill our food full of rubbish.

There are also question marks over artificial sweeteners - just as there are over artificial fats.

But one thing that struck me about the level of debate is how much there is also an assumption that healthy eating means eating 'health food'. We seem to have reached a point where many people would not consider the meal I described above as 'healthy'.

Now I'm not suggesting that we want to start thinking of food in such terms - quite the contrary. A bit of real joy in eating would be a move in the right direction.

There is a nasty puritanism to those who rant, from the anonymous safety of their keyboards, where their own bodies cannot be judged, about the bad fat people. Similarly, there is an unpleasant puritanism and life-denying joylessness to ideas that to eat healthily, you have to forego anything that's actually nice and take on the attributes of an aesthetic.

The absurdity of thinking that the alternative to a diet of junk food is, say, 'whole foods' and no fats (say bye bye to that mashed potato with butter and cream) seems to be a perfect illustration of just how messed up the food culture in the UK is.

Before the lamb went into the oven, there was plenty of other culinary activity of a distinctly joyful type.

As planned, it was time for chutney: I opted for a pear one from Lynda Brown's The Preserving Book, using pears, a couple of onions, three tomatoes, some sultanas (instead of raisins), ground ginger, chilli flakes (instead of cayenne pepper, which I didn't have in), demerara sugar and, instead of cider vinegar, the remains of a bottle of Breton cider.

The only other change I made to the recipe was to skin the tomatoes first.

It took well over the two and a half hours to cook, but the smell was stunning and it developed to a really rich, dark hue. Now it's all packed into a jar and has been put away to mature for that festival at the end of the year.

With that done, it was onto the blackcurrant jam. A simple matter of the fruit, washed, with a little water, the juice of a lemon and some sugar, all brought to a bubble and then cooked vigorously for a good 10 minutes.

It was another lovely smell - and the taste is fine too. Blackcurrants have naturally high levels of pectin, so a jam sets really easily, while the lemon juice ensures that it's not too sweet.

Now I don't know about you, but that sounds a pretty healthy day's cooking to me.

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