Sunday, 16 October 2011

Getting passionate with Raymond Blanc

Another Saturday, another glorious autumn morning travelling north. Although these are long days, I enjoy the journeys, as they give me time to think and write, with the catharsis of football as the filling in the middle of this particular sandwich.

It's been a funny old week for various reasons, but a major highlight was meeting Raymond Blanc on Thursday evening.

He was taking part in a conversation at the Arts Theatre - a 'conversation', that is, pretty much in name only. Because as soon as broadcaster Fiona Lindsay asked him a single question, he would be off on a train of memories, anecdote and opinions.

Blanc is an endearing character; utterly charming (it seems genetic with French men) and self deprecating, with the enthusiasm of a child and a tendency to get giggly.

All of which seems at odds with the culinary genius - and the passion. Because while he can tease and cajole and amuse, he is utterly passionate about the state of food in Britain, and there's no fooling around when he hits his straps on that subject.

I'm familiar with Blanc's essential food philosophy - but to hear him expound it himself, and to be one of those to whom he was using the opportunity to direct a specific clarion call for action, is quite different. The fervour is almost evangelical.

I had the opportunity for a brief chat afterwards - as he signed a book for me, explaining briefly how A Taste of My Life had impacted on my own life, with its comments on how we need to rediscover our capacity to really taste food, and also about learning to smell and even listen when you're cooking.

His response was to emphasise, with more of that passion, the vital importance of our sensual selves when we're preparing and eating food.

It was a most enjoyable evening - but it doesn't stand in some sort of splendid isolation.

The end of the week saw an announcement from health secretary Andrew Lansley that the way to solve the UK's obesity epidemic is if we all just ate about 80 calories less a day, cutting a few billion off our collective daily intake.

There are times I want to tear my hair out. Such an analysis is simplistic in the extreme - and indeed, it actually helps to promote one of the biggest fallacies of the last few decades: that of calories in, calories out.

At it's simplest, it seems that one of the biggest issues is the nature of the calories you take in - not the number. In other words, where you get those calories from.

For many years, the basic - 'official', if you will - mantra of dieting was that you should cut out as much fat as possible and fill up instead with complex (starchy) carbohydrates like potatoes, bread, pasta, rice etc.

There's just one little problem. Calories consumed that way are more likely to make you put weight on than lose it. As a simple example: distance runners 'carbo load' before a run - that big bowl of pasta is designed to get them through a very great deal of physical activity: not half an hour in the gym.

And saturated fat, as we've mentioned before, has the advantage of making us feel sated sooner than that bowl of pasta.

This was the point at which another celebrity chef, Jamie Oliver, waded in to the argument, slamming the health secretary's comments.

He wants more concrete action - possibly even a 'fat tax', just as Denmark has just created.

I have a number of problems with this. First, since fat is not the chief problem, why tax it - and indeed, why send out the signal, yet again, that it is the central problem?

Lansley may himself entirely believe that calorie intake is the key - there are plenty in the medical profession who still hold to such simplistic views and most health advice from professionals and scientists still tallies with this approach.

Perhaps that's because they imagine that we're not intelligent enough to deal with an issue that is multi-faceted in its complexity.

Exercise is an issue - but not in the sense that we all need to become gym bunnies. I find myself a little shocked by how many people of all ages I see in London getting on a bus to go just one or two stops - and these are not people with any obvious physical disability that prevents them walking those few hundred metres.

Similarly, as a nation we're wedded to the car in a way that sees us turn the ignition key simply to nip around the corner for the paper or a pint of milk - or ferry the children to school.

But we also snack more than, say, the French, while we eat poorly in terms of sitting down with a proper meal. Instead of doing so, many of us prefer to eat while we do something 'more important', such as work or watching TV.

Convenience food is a serious issue - stuffed with additives and rubbish, plus sugar and salt in substantial amounts. I read somewhere recently that some foodstuffs have MSG added in vastly larger quantities than it's used in soy sauce, and that in such amounts, it apparently 'switches off' the body's capacity to announce that it's sated.

Then there are all those man-made fats: liquid oils turned into solid spreads by hydrogenation and marketed so often as 'healthy' alternatives to natural fats. For the most part, they're more expensive too - which might tell you something.

These are just a few things that spring straight to mind. The point is that we don't know the exact reasons that some people get fat and others don't. But we continue to behave as though we do - even when what we think we do know is deeply flawed itself.

Because the authorities - political and medical - have both, in general, fallen for and continued to feed us the same bad advice for so long, I'm far from convinced that either is capable, at present, of producing an answer.

But for the former particularly, with its record of friendship with big business - in this case, particularly the vast food manufacturers and retailers, and even, as I've illustrated previously, its willingness to promote such corporate bodies - one is highly dubious of motives.

Does anything need to be done? Surely what we eat is a matter of personal choice?

Well yes - up to a point. But that's a little more difficult to argue when we're talking about children who are fed rubbish.

There's also the point that, if rising obesity creates problems for the state - and not just via the health system - than it is surely a matter for the state.

But it might also need to involve a level playing field of some sort - and when it comes to food in the UK, there isn't one. Corporations can pour billions into advertising their products; into offering 'free' toys to entice children (to nag their parents to buy).

Big producers can afford to do deals with supermarkets to give their products prominence or put them on special offers.

Successive governments have helped to exacerbate the problem by supporting and helping to promote the bad advice that some in the medical world have also pushed.

And all the time, the great, supermarket-inspired belief that food should be cheap, cheaper and cheaper again, coupled with the con that convenience food is cheaper than fresh ingredients and the time it takes to make those into a meal. It's so absurd that it could have come straight out of a play by √Čugene Ionesco.

And there, always at the back of this, of all these things, is Blanc's oft-stated belief that we British have lost our culinary heritage, our relationship with the seasons, with the land - with our land - with our families and with that very sensual, celebratory pleasure of food itself: that we are foundering around in a culinary sea.

Can we do anything about it? Should we do anything about it? And if so, then what?

Perhaps it says everything that it takes a Frenchman to have even pinpointed the heart of the matter. And perhaps that also suggests the solution.

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