The Omnivore’s Heritage: Abundance and diversity
Summer has certainly arrived in London, and from a food perspective it’s a great time to be eating! Sure, we can get everything we want, all the time in London, but trust me, eating food when it is ripe and ready in season is infinitely better. All year round we taste the ghosts of flavour in our cold storage and glasshouse fruit and veg…
The shops and markets are heaving with beautiful, ripe produce: such beautiful shapes, colours, textures and flavours. Heavy, juice-laden fruit, redolent with mesmerising fragrances: peaches, plums, pears and from further afield, the heavenly aroma of a south asian mango. The blushed violet artichokes from the South of France sit next to shiny black aubergines, brightly verdant courgettes and heavenly devil-red tomatoes. The summer is all about abundance and diversity. Yet the impression of diversity is often an illusion in the modern world. The industrialisation of food has meant that man has selected and bred produce to suit the factory, industrial processes and the profit margin: not our health, not our nutrition and definitely not our senses.
Processed food is inherently lacking in diversity: artificially created foods from a base set of ingredients which contain very little in terms of nutrition. Refined wheat flour, refined sugars, the disgrace of chemically processed vegetable fats, and untold ingredients invented in the lab to make all of this more palatable and less perishable (just ask Joanna Blythman, or read ‘Swallow This’ ). I have been reading huge amounts about nutrition lately and as I absorb and internalise, I have been doing a lot of thinking and talking. We have to let go of much perceived wisdom when it comes to our eating habits: what we think is healthy and what isn’t. It doesn’t help that government advice is at best poorly delivered and doesn’t incentivise people to eat healthily (e.g. the ‘five a day’ message), and at worst is frankly out of date and completely wrong (e.g. the ‘fat is bad’ message).
The title of this post is a homage to my man, Michael Pollan: I am a huge fan and loved his book ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma’. As omnivores we have the privilege of having almost infinite possibilities when eating. In recent times we (or rather, the food industry) have decided more often than not to discard our ancient wisdom, our cultural scaffolding: ideas and laws we followed due to wisdom accrued over millennia. Many of our culinary traditions are not mere anachronisms: they enabled us to survive and often on very little, based on what was immediately available. The endless creativity of man meant that this food was often delicious as well as optimally nutritious. For example, many lentils on their own are an incomplete food as they lack the full complement of amino acids: but when paired with rice, the lacking methionine is provided and so we can grow new tissue and repair ourselves!
So what should we be eating given the choice we have? Well, completely answering this requires a book, but here are some thoughts: take them or leave them. Firstly, we should ignore or certainly take the government’s nutritional advice with a pinch of salt: over the last decades people have just got bigger and more ill doing ‘low fat’, instead ingesting processed, sugary ‘food’. Fats do not make you fat! The recent announcements by Theresa May to stem the tide are too little, too late, watered down and not compulsory.
We should seek foods that are natural as much as possible: this means avoiding refined carbohydrates, and avoiding artificial fats like margarines and vegetable oils which are really bad for us and cause inflammation in our bodies. When eating flesh we should look at what the animal we are eating ate (thanks again, Michael Pollan!)
I disagree with food fads and the demonisation of a particular food (see ‘clean eating’) or worse still a whole food group (like carbs or fats). We should seek a balance rather than having people wandering around with Orthorexia.
Perhaps most importantly of all, we should always be seeking a large diversity in the food we eat. We eat with all our senses: let them seek out the most varied and interesting range of foods. Seek the biggest assault on your senses: a range of bright colours, smells, textures and flavours. This approach should yield high nutrient densities of the most diverse types too.
Tim Spector’s wonderful book ‘The Diet Myth’ highlights the importance of our microbiome, the trillions of bacteria in our gut. It is a highly complex universe which is not just involved with digestion, it’s the sole centre for production of vital chemicals like serotonin and is also part of our immune system, amongst other things. We are just beginning to understand that when our gut flora is lacking: due to a bad diet, antibiotics, pesticides and other factors, it can impact so many things. Tim showed that identical twins can react completely differently to the same large number of calories: the twin with the healthy gut putting on a little weight in stark contrast to the one with the poor gut flora, accruing many more kilos and the showing the early signs of type 2 diabetes! One of the key ways we can ensure an optimal microbe population is to eat a large diversity of natural, nutritionally-dense foods.
I think a sandwich is an example of a nutritionally poor meal. It is largely composed of processed bread: most of its calories come from the bread which is of low nutritional value and refined (of varying degrees depending on the type of bread). After this we have a small amount of filling, which if you are lucky may contain some nutrition but is often still very processed. Contrast this with an amazing salad containing the same number of calories, with say, roasted peppers, different types of veg, seeds and nuts, maybe some fish, cheese or organic meat and a generous dressing of extra virgin olive oil: just think how much more nutrition is contained in the second meal! Of course, the occasional sandwich is fine: my last point being that we live in the real world and we will always be attracted to less nutritive, convenience foods and treats. The point is to minimise them and not make them the foundation of our dietary intake!
I strongly believe the only way to reverse current food trends and their resultant non-communicable diseases is via education, giving children (and adults) the opportunity to experience different foods: to smell, touch and taste, real, nutritionally dense foods. Through this process we can help to illicit an ‘hedonic shift’: the change of perception of what foods we find pleasurable (thanks Bee Wilson – First Bite). This is the only way to change habits: not to be on a ‘diet’, not to feel that we are denying ourselves.
Let’s celebrate summer and real food with a cracker of a summer dish: Piedmontese Peppers.
We have some intense flavours and this is a dish which completely resonates with my views on nutrition. It tastes incredible: intense sun-drenched flavours that mingle together in extra virgin olive oil. This combination of roasted vegetables, garlic, anchovies, basil and huge amounts of olive oil couldn’t be healthier and will leave you feeling full, paired with some protein to accompany it (e.g. pan fried fish). A cheeky slice of bread will die to mop up the the juices too!
I absolutely love this dish: it’s dead easy, and you can pretty much make it up as you go along and will taste better the next day.
3 peppers (a mix of colours, not green)
Tomatoes (enough to fill the peppers, maybe 4 medium or a handful of red peppers: I was lucky enough to use some wonderful heritage tomatoes!)
2-3 cloves of garlic, sliced lengthwise
6 anchovies (leave out if you are vegetarian)
A few basil leaves
Lots of extra virgin olive oil!
Preheat your oven to 180C.
Cut the peppers in half lengthwise and remove the stalks and the white pith. Place these natural bowls into an oven dish. If the tomatoes are cherries, halve them, or if larger cut them into smaller bite size portions.
Now artfully arrange the tomatoes inside our peppers and tuck in the cloves of garlic here and there. Do the same with the anchovies: I prefer to chop them up before adding. Now fill the peppers up with olive oil – I like to fill them half full. Season well with salt and pepper.
Place them in the oven for a good 40-45 minutes, or when the edges of the peppers start to caramelise and catch a little and look collapsed: If they need more time, leave them. Serve them up, spoon the escaped golden nectar back into their cups, taste and re-season if required. Chop up the basil leaves and tuck them into the peppers. I think these are better served at room temperature the next day. Enjoy!