It’s an indication of our interest in food as entertainment and our focus on food as culture, that if I started the adage "Tell me what you eat … ," most Australians, I’d wager, could chime in and finish it with me, " … and I’ll tell you who you are." The phrase was coined by gastronome par excellence Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin in 1825 but it has been reinvigorated in recent years via a global television audience.
I’d also wager that Australians five generations ago didn’t know this popular phrase.
In Australia, five generations before me lived on the land, and were nourished by the produce of their own labour, growing and raising close to all they consumed. What they cooked they cooked from scratch, mostly out of necessity. Although there were few luxuries, food, was still the focal point of celebration, much of which took place in the home.
Not only are we now increasingly reliant on eating out, restaurants have become embedded in our social landscape.
This increase in eating outside the home has not been all positive. Australians have become high consumers of "fast food" and we’ve suffered the flavour and health consequences. Change, however, is again afoot.
There is a massive groundswell of cultural interest in food that embraces locally grown ingredients and supports the retention of artisanal skills and produce diversity. As we start a new decade, there is a new connection with where and how our food is grown and made.
Our changing attitudes to food start with growing our own food — at home in the backyard, in pots on the balcony and most recently in community gardens. We see this new connection to food too when we shop at farmers’ markets and then experiment with cooking with local food and farm to table dining. Eating in restaurants that support local ingredients and artisanal produce can also revitalise our relationship to the produce we consume. Like the generations of farmers before us, urban cooks are now embracing using the best of what’s fresh and in season — and then returning to home preserving to store the excess.
This change is heralded by an increasing number of chefs who are basing their menus around local ingredients. Celebrity TV Ready Steady Cook chef Jared Ingersoll is "passionate about supporting local farmers and artisan producers". "A big motivator was watching the erosion of our food culture," he said recently. It is seven years since he started the Danks Street Depot in Sydney, and Jared laments that he has seen many small producers go out of business, or suffer ill health from financial stress in that period. He says that while "we hear romantic stories of beef in Argentina and olive oil from Spain," when we turn to imported produce, we are neglecting the quality and skills that are available on our doorstep.
The movement to showcase produce is being spearheaded by chefs. 2010 SMH Chef of the Year, Peter Gilmore from Quay, is at the forefront of retaining produce diversity as he searches the world for rare seed stock to grow food for his restaurant.
Likewise, 2009 Chef of the Year, Justin North from Becasse, highlights farmers and artisanal producers at a monthly lunch forum. Becasse lists its suppliers on the restaurant’s website.
Bells at Killcare also demonstrates a commendable commitment to the fresh and the local. Chef Stefano Manfredi picks much of what he cooks straight from the organic kitchen garden behind the restaurant. And in the new year, chef Ron O’Bryan is returning to St Kilda, to a new restaurant where he hopes to source plenty of produce for the kitchen from the nearby St Kilda community garden and local home growers.
It’s hard to tell whether the chefs are hearing us, or we’re hearing them. Somebody is listening, that much is certain. Our cultural food curiosity has extended beyond the glitz of the celebrity chef and discovered a solid foundation in investigating the origin of the food we eat.
For many home cooks, shopping for food has metamorphosed from a dash to the supermarket into a leisurely weekend outing at the farmers’ market, one which brings the opportunity for conversations direct with the growers. We learn more about the provenance of our meals by this kind of direct contact with the source.
Like all of the cultural arts, food is influenced by cycles of fashion. Yet our return to the produce of the moment, to cook with what’s fresh, in season and local, stands above the trends.
While the optimisation of freshness and flavour is paramount to epicures and so-called "serious cooks", the uptake of fresh, seasonal, and local produce is not just for the hedonists.
Our new fresh food culture parallels other shifts in society — like our increased concern about sustainability. These issues may be a side plate to flavour, but eating local and fresh also ticks the boxes next to health, environmental and financial advantages. Produce is cheapest when most plentiful in peak season. Buying local lowers transport miles. Fresh food reduces packaging needs as well as energy costs for processing. Small acreage growers, community gardens and home growing help retain diversity of seed stock — and buying direct from farmers allows them the opportunity for a better financial return for their labour. Fresh food in season is proven to be better for our health. It’s hard to argue with, isn’t it?
If we’re embracing local and fresh food now, what does the future hold for foodies? The future lies with the next generation, with our children, many of whom have not learned to cook in their homes. With thanks to our changing food culture, school kitchen garden programs, as well as a nod to popular TV food shows, children want to learn to cook. They are increasingly asking for specific local and artisanal ingredients. And some of them are even "playing Masterchef" at home. "Tell me what you eat … "