The extraordinary stories behind our ordinary foods

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Originally published here and written by Rebecca Roberts

 London’s Borough Market is the perfect place to learn the stories behind our foods as it entices hungry consumers with gastronomic delights ranging from ethically sourced potted pigeon and fresh oysters to artisan chocolates and natural wines. The popularity of the market indicates that our premium food choices are increasingly determined not just by price but also by quality, locality, health and environmental impact.

But what about our everyday staples? Do we apply the same demand for quality, ethics and provenance to these ‘ordinary’ foods?

TOAST, a food events company, is aiming to change the way people think about food’. It chose Borough Market as the location for its three-part event in March called ‘Milk Tea Bread’. The event celebrated the science, politics and history behind our staple foods. Over three weeks, TOAST invited farmers, bakers, entrepreneurs, journalists, campaign directors and historians to reflect on our attitudes towards our ordinary cuppa, daily loaf and carton of milk.

Legacy of celebration and controversy

Bee Wilson, author of Consider The Fork, opened the milk debate with the comment: “I can think of few other foods that most of us consume every day that are the subject of such huge oppositions and controversies.”

These controversies often have a long history. There are startling connections between theswill milk scandal of the 1850s – when dairy cows were fed residual swill from distilleries, resulting in the deaths of 8,000 children – and current debates over health and welfare crises in our modern, intensive dairy farming system. Reflecting on the recent dairy crisis, Steve Hook from Hook & Son questioned why raw, unpasteurised milk costs eight to ten times more than bottled, supermarket milk, priced as low as 20p a litre. This discrepancy is due to milk commodity prices being undermined by global dairy market volatility, quota regulations and supermarket competition; all resulting in a price that does not truly reflect the value and diversity of the practices, people, environments and knowledge required to produce this nutritious staple.

Now, let us brew over tea. We drink 175 million cups of it every day in Britain. It is the most consumed drink next to water. Yet, when considering tea, the question we predominantly ask is ‘How do you take yours?’ Jane Pettigrew, historian and author of 15 books on tea, helped us to think a little further than our teabags and discover a rich history of how tea fundamentally changed the dynamics of slavery and rural labour, and was the foundation ofpolitical protests against taxation. Again, the past intersects with the present: Sarah Roberts of the Ethical Tea Partnership spoke of the importance of sustainable tea production in relation to worker’s rights and wages, trade, climate change, gender equality and ethics.

Old habits die hard

When it comes to the production and consumption of milk, tea and bread, we can get locked into powerful narratives that influence our policies, research and consumer habits. A particularly important one is the increasingly visible disparity between the ‘wholesome’ and ‘pure’ image of our staple foods and the darker reality of their production.

Bread is a case in point. From a humble foundation of four essential ingredients rose a rich variety of heritage wheats, diverse breads and local bakeries. As Mark Riddaway writes for the ‘Edible Histories’ section of Borough Market’s Market Life magazine:

“The history of bread is the history of humanity. It’s the story of 1,000 generations of people from every corner of the globe, from Stone Age foragers in the Middle East to the skilled artisans of Bread Ahead who work their weird alchemy at Borough Market every day.”

Despite this, 80% of our supermarket loaves in Britain are made by the industrial Chorleywood process, a ‘no time method’ of baking that reduces fermentation time to three hours through the use of low-protein flours, additives and enzymes. Borne out of a post-war rejection of dense, brown loaves and demand for ‘unadulterated’ white bread, this industrial process gives the illusion of freshness and purity by using a cocktail of 30 artificial ingredients including sodium and calcium acetates (preservatives), lecithin (emulsifier), L-cysteine hydrochloride (bleaching agent) and phospholipase A2 (increasing volume and softness). Aidan Chapman from Bread Ahead concludes that, despite a newfound demand for wholemeal bread, “the soul of bread has been ripped away”. We are locked into the legacy of an industrial baking system that blurs the definitions of what makes bread ‘real’ and ‘wholesome’.

Revitalising legacy and supporting our staples

We need to start celebrating the quality of real bread, milk and tea, which our modern food system has largely taken away from us. TOAST has suggested several routes to do this:

Revisit taste – Celebrate the aromas, textures and tastes that our milk, tea and bread have to offer. Panellist Lee-Anna Rennie, the Dairy Co-Ordinator of the School of Artisan Food, spoke of consumers’ experiences of blind milk tastings at her dairy consultancy. We have forgotten what it is like to taste real, raw milk – the way it coats your mouth; the sweet and sour flavours; the creaminess. Attendees at the TOAST event became taste investigators themselves, sampling a range of treats including loose leaf teas from East Teas, raw yoghurt from Hook & Son and sourdough from Olivier’s Bakery.

Cook, both at home and in classes A vital factor in educating consumers and promoting demand for real, artisan staple foods, is getting people making food themselves. Aidan Chapman from the Bread Ahead bakery explains how, by involving people ‘hands-on’ in baking bread, consumers become part of the gastronomic story and gain a knowledge and understanding of the processes that go into the production of real bread. They are more likely to support local bakeries instead of buying supermarket bread. They also realise how simple and satisfying it is to bake your own bread; it is the original ‘no time method’.

Transparency through honest labelling and cross-sector collaboration – This is of paramount importance. Sarah Roberts of the Ethical Tea Partnership (ETP) argued for the need to collaborate across sectors in order to increase the transparency and traceability of our staple foods. ETP is part of the Tea 2030 initiative, a partnership between ETP, Rainforest Alliance, Unilever, Fairtrade and other organisations, which is working to build a sustainable, ethical tea industry. It can also be as simple as using a transparent teapot or infuser, which Teapigs famously uses to show the quality of its loose-leaf, single origin teas. Chris Young of the Real Bread Campaign highlighted the Honest Crust labelling scheme, which identifies ‘real’ bread made without the use of processing aids or artificial additives.

Support for research – The bulk of R&D funding in food production goes to pharmaceutical companies and agribusinesses rather than independent food producers or traders. This can have an impact on the viability and availability of artisan and other non-industrial products, which can be seen in the issues around the production of raw milk and food safety. With a lack of well-documented research into the benefits of raw milk, fears around its safetydominate debates on the production and sale of raw milk. There needs to be more support for vigorous research into the environmental, societal and health benefits of raw milk, as well as ‘real’ bread, loose leaf teas and other staple products. Until this happens, consumers will continue to be spoon-fed information that is dictated by those most disconnected from the real, wholesome products themselves.

The history of bread, tea and milk can be found online at Borough Market’s magazine Market Life. The full milk and tea debates are also showing on the Borough Market YouTube Channel, the bread debate is coming soon.

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