I was recently asked if I wouldn’t mind providing a review for Eat Slow Britain: Special places to eat, inspirational chefs, gifted organic producers by Alastair Sawday with Anna Colquhoun. I am not a reviewer, so apologies in advance, but here are my observations which I hope are thought constructive.
Eat Slow Britain is neither a cook book nor a food journal, it is more of a culinary travel guide or a reference on where to eat or buy seasonal produce in Britain. It does not focus on Michelin star restaurants. Rather it recommends and celebrates several dozens of places that abide by the slow food principles of ‘good, clean and fair’ food.
Slow food originated in Italy in 1986 to challenge the rise of fast food culture, standardised restaurant menus and supermarket dominance. Since then Slow Food has developed into a powerful campaign. It is one that not only protects local food producers, but the communities they sustain. Slow Food supports food that is natural, fresh and flavoursome and produced without harming the environment, animal welfare or human health. It also demands that there should be fair pay and conditions for all involved.
Back to the book - All the named restaurants, pubs and hotels claim to create dishes using seasonal, locally sourced ingredients without chemicals. Some ingredients are even foraged, such as mushrooms, nettles and wild garlic.
Generally I do not count myself amongst those with wide knowledge of the British restaurant scene. I don’t ‘eat out’ for a number of reasons, but to name one. In my experience, despite a restaurant’s reputation for ‘good food’ made with local, seasonal vegetables, the chefs and cooks in places I have been somehow always seem to lack the imagination to create innovative vegetables based dishes. To this day I remain the standard frustrated vegetarian, faced with a generic choice of bland lasagne, pasta in tomato sauce, mushroom risotto or salad. Perhaps it doesn’t have to be like this. Flicking through this book I did come across a couple of recipes that appealed to me, and that suggested some eateries have more imagination. Examples of good fare include stuffed courgette flowers with chickpea, walnut and sage fritter, and falafels with harissa and zhoug paste. Eat Slow Britain scores in this regard. However, I had to look carefully to find these examples amongst the more commonly meat-based dishes on display. For me, it would have been good if there was a clearer indication of which establishments were vegetarian friendly. A symbol indicating if the place to eat or producer recommended catered for different dietary needs such as allergies, vegan, vegetarian and wheat free would have made the book much more user friendly.
In Britain, many people have not heard of slow food. Much work to promote the movement Slow Food U.K has yet to be done. And those that have heard of Slow food tend to perceive it as something accessible only to a certain strata of society. This unfortunate tendency towards exclusiveness is perpetuated by the fact that many of the restaurants selected for this publication are based in idyllic rural settings, therefore quite far from the concrete jungles and council estates, and by extension where many urban dwellers don’t often enough tread. I cannot help but feel that much work has yet to be done to appeal and include excluded communities. Nevertheless, people are still waking up to the bombardment of supermarket ready made meals, take-away culture and are beginning to protest in their own way. Some shops at farmers markets, some subscribe to the vegetable box scheme, some grow their own produce at their allotment plot or in their back garden, and therefore try to cook their own (and are too participants in a Slow Food movement albeit without realising).
A real bonus of this book is where it does not just focus on eateries. I was especially won over by the spotlight on 43 producers who demonstrate that they put energy, enthusiasm and have principles into growing and rearing animals. All allotmenteers recognise hard work and dedication needed to produce! Thus, as well as artisan cheese makers, chocolatiers, master bakers, and brewers, there are also flour mills, farms and vineyards to admire. Some of these - such as Pillars of Hercules in Fife, which I have been to a number of times - have farm shops, cafes or teas-shops. The people who are featured in the book seem to put their principles before profit. I admire this. It is this that has earned many of them accreditation from the Soil Association.
Given the focus on Soil Association accredited food producers, some who otherwise obey many of the Slow Food principles go unmentioned. As someone who is aware of, and sympathetic with, the organic arguments that surround food production in Britain, it would nonetheless have been good to have seen some additional mention of other types of affordable, local, seasonable produce: for some, the organic-mark remains an indication of something beyond the budget. There are many un praised people buying affordable, seasonal and local ingredients. In their own way they also contribute to the slow movement.
Given the emphasis on restaurants, if I had not been given this book, chances are I would not have bought it for myself; but I certainly would have been happy to borrow it from the library! I would have enjoyed flicking through it at a gastro pub, hotel, farm shop or tea-shop (of the type mentioned). For those who do eat out regularly then I am sure you will find this an excellent guide. That is, providing you are not looking to eat out in the West of Scotland (where I am based, and which seems to be overlooked).
Whilst I know this wasn’t the emphasis of the book, personally I would have liked more of a focus on British slow groups. To my knowledge there are over 50 proactive slow groups that promote local food initiatives. These include taste education schemes, demonstrations on how food is produced, focus on ‘carbon related’ events, and visits to orchards, dairy farms and chicken farms. Eat Slow Britain is not completely without examples, and I was extremely interested in reading about the Better Food Company, Growing Communities and the Magdalen project for their inclusion of the local communities. It would also have been interesting to have read more about the Ark of Taste initiative that aims to protect fruit and vegetables under extinction such as Lyth Valley Damson and Formby Asparagus as well as artisanal foods such as the three Counties Perry Eat Slow Britain – as a movement and idea, distinct from this book - is also about the cherishing of regional fruit and vegetables.
As final observations, Eat Slow Britain (the book!) also includes an essay by Eric Schlosser. Schlosser is author of Fast Food Nation. Undoubtedly very useful, Eat Slow Britain also includes a list of websites that might provide the uninitiated an excellent introduction to the wide and active world of Slow food concerns on-line. Included are the fifediet.co.uk, tracingpaper.org.uk and eattheseasons.co.uk. I often use these in my sidebar and blogs. Lastly, I love how the book itself is published. It was created at an eco-office and is printed on FSC-certified paper. The lay out, illustrations and colour photography captivates the stories well. The template is generally an excellent one. I look forward to seeing the follow up publication on websites and blogs!