Friday, 10 June 2011

Really Slow Food

There's been a thread running through my recent reading material addressing the consumption of food: essentially, how people make food choices in ways that add meaning to their lives. The Slow Food Movement, which began in Italy, is one such approach. The movement aims to preserve local culinary traditions and produce, by celebrating the process of preparing and eating food.

I can get behind any movement that encourages drinking wine in a Mediterranean climate. And I support the principle of preserving diversity and local wisdom. However, the movement is drifting towards the aspirational lifestyle. It's in danger of creating a stereotype - the cucina paisan, where a rosy-cheeked daughter of the soil, up to her elbows in flour and a sense of well-being, provides nourishing food for loved ones.

The reality is not quite like that. Providing food for loved ones can feel like a Sisyphean task - no sooner is one meal is cooked and eaten then it's time to start preparing the next one. The reality is less aspirational, and rarely ends with a luxurious dinner party in an olive grove. On a good night, it might end with us eating on the slightly chicken poop-y picnic table under the apple tree, wearing two extra sweaters to combat the fresco part of our al fresco dining.

So I'm championing a new movement, based on my experience cooking in the country. I'm calling it Really Slow Food. I want to recognise our abilities as hunters, stock persons, foragers and growers, and to quantify our skills and our hours in the field as a valid part of eating. Our time in the kitchen is the final stage of a journey to turn raw ingredients into something ready to cook.

Sadly, real life gets in the way of all aspirations. I've included my own personal struggle with the interruptions of daily life that impede my ability to get a meal on the table. Please feel free to add your own in the comments section.

Some aspects of Really Slow Food:

1) Most of the ingredients are still in their original form

Often, the main part of our meal is still hanging un-butchered in the chiller, or un-harvested in the ground. It might take me an hour to butcher an entire roe deer, so I can have some of the leg meat for tonight's stew.

2) Sometimes, I have to wait for the ingredients to be ready

During my last cake-baking session I ran out of eggs and had to wait until my hens laid two more, so I could finish what I started. As much as I would love some french beans to go with a fish pie, they aren't ready to pick yet.

The garden is growing, but only a few salad crops are ready

3) When the ingredients are ready, I have to fend off the wildlife to get them

That cherry tree in the foreground of the photo? Every year the blackbirds beat me to the ripe fruit. This year, I'm going to make mesh sleeves for individual branches to keep the birds away. It will take me some time to make the sleeves and the fruit is getting ripe quickly. I estimate that I have a week to get the job done, or my pies will be cherry-less.


4) I'm preparing food for more than one species at every mealtime


There are lots of mouths to feed. The lambs need milk four times a day. The working dogs need extra feeds and table scraps, which I cook alongside our own meals. I have a bowl for chickens' food and a bowl for compost; both get filled as I peel vegetables and pick over carcases, or find I have pastry left over from making a pie.

What really slows down my cooking is the general benign chaos of my life. Here are a few examples from the past week. There are the physical impediments, like dogs wrestling -

Lily and Quincy

Every dog owner knows that dogs prefer to wrestle where they can be most inconvenient to you. Every dog knows that wrestling in the kitchen means a chance to pick up any food that drops on the floor. If you're a labrador, everything is edible.

There are also interruptions, mostly from visitors coming to the door. It's a small village and everyone knows your schedule, more or less. Anyone who knows me knows that I get a lot of my cooking done on my days off, so they can find me in my kitchen. Underkeeper Pete brings me interesting things he catches in his traps -


So besides dogs wrestling, there's now a dead weasel in the kitchen. Hygiene is apparently an optional part of the Really Slow Food movement.

The dead stuff usually stays outside, and I go look at it there. Ian, our work experience student, proudly showed off the first fox he shot. Pete stopped by for a second opinion on what killed a pregnant fallow doe he found -


Probably a pair of running dogs. Something has killed alpaca cria nearby and it's possibly the same culprits. (I expect there will be heated exchanges and recriminations at the next village hall meeting).

Not everything the boys bring me is dead. Sometimes just very close to it, like this kit -


Mike found it in the road with no obvious injuries, just cold and unresponsive. I gave it some warm milk with a syringe, and put it out back in a box of lint next to the dryer. The dryer was on and the shed was warm. The kit recovered within half an hour but I burned a batch of scones, distracted by my impromptu vet duties.

Sometimes it's slow food because I have to make it twice. I had just made a bowl of pasta for lunch when the estate office rang. There was an injured deer in the gardens, could someone please come down and "deal with it". I left my lunch on the sideboard, picked up a gun, and met Mike in the garden. It was a ten minute job, which was long enough for the dogs to help themselves to my lunch.

Finally, there are what I call Random Acts of Husband. These are unpredictable but inevitable events, most often involving expenditure and/or a trip to the emergency room. Thankfully last week it was the former. "Hey honey - Come out and see what I just bought!" -


An old Land Rover. I took it for a test drive while a joint of venison was roasting in the oven. It handles like a supermarket shopping trolley, but it pulls like a team of oxen. Perfect for towing trailers. And, as far as mid-life crises go, it was cheaper than a Porsche or a mistress (Mike says he can't fit his fishing rods in a Porsche. I said the same probably applies to a mistress). The license plate was oddly appropriate too -


This isn't a lifestyle anyone would aspire to, but I wouldn't change these interruptions for anything. They enrich my time in the kitchen. They are the umami of my day.

When my cooking and baking were done, and I earned a reprieve from the kitchen, I sat outside by the vegetable patch with a cup of tea and willed the plants to grow faster. I heard a chirruping racket coming from the starling nest under the eaves of the house. Every few minutes, a starling parent arrived with a beakful of whatnot, eliciting a riot of noise from hungry chicks. One parent would leave empty, and the other would arrive full. The chicks never seemed sated.

I think I know how those starling parents feel.

16 comments:

  1. Well said! overly beautifying the process of growing/making one's own food doesn't really help, nor do it justice. Sure, a lot of people enjoy it, like you, but we have to recognise that sometimes (often?) it's hard, repetitive work, with lots of interruptions.
    PS your writing in the post is giving me shades of Louise Dickinson Rich, when she described her kitchen and the various dog/husband/gun obstacles to her cooking.

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  2. I love it, Jen. Consider me a founding member of RSF.

    All those hours in the woods during the typical deer season? Kitchen prep.

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  3. "Every dog owner knows that dogs prefer to wrestle where they can be most inconvenient to you. Every dog knows that wrestling in the kitchen means a chance to pick up any food that drops on the floor. If you're a labrador, everything is edible"

    We have a Lab and a Golden Retriever. If it's not moving, it's edible.

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  4. That looked like a good old fashioned game of Bite Your Face. My dogs used to play that one. I miss them being in the way.

    Really Slow Food also includes the yogurt or buttermilk you have to wait for at least six hours before it's done.

    Really Slow Food includes waiting for the bees to make honey. Not sure I'm going to get any this year.

    Really Slow Food includes waiting for the first of any fruit from trees you planted only two winters ago.

    Of course, I'm waiting for my pullets to be old enough to even lay. That's slow.

    Really Slow Food includes the you have to replant because the slugs ate the first batch.

    And Really Slow Food has to include grinding your own flour, which we just started doing. We made the mistake of starting at nine o'clock at night, and Steve didn't get the pizza dough finished until after eleven. Good thing it was going to sit overnight anyway.

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  5. martha in mobile11 June 2011 05:06

    Great post! While I appreciate the appreciation of what goes into preparing meals, Slow Food teeters on the edge of being the prerogative of the elite. Perhaps the perfect apron would make me less cynical?

    I saw my chickens doing a funny hopping dance yesterday; I was less amused when I realized they were harvesting blueberries. Waiting until next year's crop will be Slow, indeed.

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  6. "This isn't a lifestyle anyone would aspire to, but I wouldn't change these interruptions for anything." AMEN!
    I have spent a lot of time thinking about my food, and where it comes from, and trying to raise more of my own, and buy local, and all that is good and healthy. But sometimes, darn it, I just want "fast food:" a big bowl of Lucky Charms with soy milk.

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  7. Thanks for making me laugh out loud. It started with waiting for your hens to lay so you could finish the cake and really got going with the half dead rabbit being brought to your door and causing burnt scones. Then hubby brings home old Land Rover with lab license plate (better or was it cheaper than a mistress). Thank goodness for the ability to laugh and thank you for the smiles.

    Slow food? I make HUGE pots of soups and stews when the garden just won't quit and freeze the results for FAST, garden fresh meals in December. Since I am a teacher and free(er) in the summers, this works just fine.
    Pat

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  8. I love this, it is so good to see other people acknowledging the sheer amount of work involved in being even partly self sufficient - sometimes I just get totally overwhelmed and think - why don't we just give up and go to the supermarket, and then we would have time to do the things that other people do ... But the results are so wonderful when they come, and the taste is so different, that then I get enthused again. My naughty dog helped herself to roast chicken off the counter - we had left it there after the meal to cool off - they didn't eat it all, but it was so well pawed that no one fancied the remains that were guiltily abandoned on the floor. And butter is a fatal temptation - only safe in a metal lidded dish!

    Pomona x

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  9. here! here! I have people at market comment on how idyllic our lives must be.Yes I may look all happy and cheery at market with a table full of our bounty- but it took weeks of hard work to get it there. Raising animals/ growing produce and general farm stuff is never ever ending. It is hard, constant work that never quits. Sometimes at the end of the day my partner and I turn to each other, exhausted and say "will it ever end?". I feel like it is the impossible some days and then trying to raise three children on top of that is exhausting. Would I change it? No, but I would add some more hours to the day OR pause time so I could take a brief nap and not feel guilty. Real Really Slow Food not fantasy food. A heritage turkey takes 28 weeks to mature, not to mention countless days of making sure they don't kill themselves (which they sure try to...), 1 day to slaughter, another to truck to market and that happens all before you cook the darn thing- can't get any slower then that. I am a Slow Food member and was sent to Terra Madre last year as a delegate and I do get the elitist ere, there needs to be more people like us telling it like it is.It is not a pity party though just better understanding. woo! Thanks for the rant- it has been a long week and for the majority of it we have been without electricity- glad is nearly over. Good post- got me thinking!

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  10. Sign me up!

    The fishing rods and the mistress just made me splutter my coffee all over my dogs! (Both are lurchers so same principles on edibility apply as for labs and retrievers. But if it's moving it might be food too. One is a Staffie X lurcher, so gives everything a lick just to be sure.)

    There have been so many times I've wanted to squeeze a chicken because I need another egg, but I aspire to say to the children that the yogurt is still in the sheep, rather than just that it's still milk in the bottle in the fridge...

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  11. And then you have to wait for the wind to shift to the south so you can get the boat out to the lobster pots. And there will be no bluefish until the water gets just a little warmer.

    Slowest of all is getting my gun skills up to snuff in the hopes of getting a deer. I am definitely living RSF.

    Love the Rover. Slick younger sibling to our 1970 Series II (which just got a crack in its frame, but that's a story for another day).

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  12. I wish I'd read this yesterday, after I spent hours in the garden on an unseasonably raw day, half-sick, but Doing What I Needed to Do So We Might Eat Good Things in Several Months.

    Might have cheered me up to now I wasn't alone.

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  13. This is altogether too familiar. I am renown in my family for burning toast at least once a week, and I have boiled eggs for a very looong time because I ran out to the garden to get some herbs and got distracted by something - weeding, chickens in garden, etc. I leave most baking to my husband as he is better at keeping track. I am best at meals that need constant attention, or those where the cooking time is flexible. And I am very happy to have summers off so I can put in the hours it takes from field to table.
    A very fun post, thank you.

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  14. Jen says: Having trouble signing in (hence anon)Those were some great additions to the RSF!

    Tovar - I like the updated definition of stalking as 'kitchen prep'.

    Adalynfarm - With a goldie AND a lab, I bet you haven't had to sweep food crumbs from your kitchen floor in years.

    Paula - The bite your face game is hugely popular with my pack. Why chew a toy when you can chew on your friend?

    There should be special dispensation for the patience and foresight of anyone starting down the path of beekeeping and fruit trees. Setting up something that could take years to provide is a selfless act.

    Martha - Try this one: http://sewliberated.com/products/emmeline-apron-sewing-pattern

    DhimC - Oh we need our fast food fixes too. The problem is that we have 2 take outs near(ish) us, no fast food outlets and no restaurants. Pubs only serve food between 12-2 and 7-9p. But not every day. And only if you can get a table. And we can't get Lucky charms in England. It's quicker to kill and butcher a deer sometimes!

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  15. SUH - Making in bulk and freezing is a godsend. What did women do before freezers? Can everything I suppose.

    Pomona - It's heartening to hear it's not just my dogs that go counter-surfing (as my aunt calls it) and steal butter. And I have the 'why don't I just go to the supermarket?' conversation with myself, usually when I'm tired and overwhelmed, and hungry. That's when I wish we had a pizza delivery guy. Or a chef.

    HKS - A great comment. And I'm watching your heritage turkeys with interest. We were only talking about a few for Christmas yesterday, and will have to get on with it soon as they do take time to mature (not like chickens).

    Hazel - Your 'yogurt is still in the sheep' saying is funny and apt!

    Tamar - You can head up the fishing division of RSF. I didn't even think of those considerations, like fishing vs catching. I trust your flock(?) of oysters is growing on nicely? As a fellow Land Rover caretaker, I'm sorry to hear about your busted frame - is it fixable?

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  16. Jen, I don't know what a group of oysters is. We tend to call them a crop, and they're doing just fine, with 100,000 more coming next week.

    As for the Rover, we're about to find out whether it's fixable. It will involve some very significant welding, if it is. Keep your fingers crossed.

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