More on Food—from Suzanne

Suzanne Wynn joins Colin to write about food from a cook’s perspective. In this introduction she provides an insight into how her food philosophy evolved and explains why eating seasonally is more important than ever.

Cooking Skills

People often ask if my mother was a good cook and, to be honest, I have to say no.  Yet despite the absence of a maternal culinary role model, I am now hoping that others will want to learn more about what is often referred to as Grandmother’s Cooking.

Realising that this term could now be applied to me was something of a shock, but the key tenets are there – chiefly, cooking from scratch using ingredients that your grandmother would have recognized.  Of course, my mother had no alternative than to cook this way.  There were no ready meals and, although the first supermarkets were being opened, their format was more reminiscent of a department store food hall – you queued separately to be served in each department.  Eating out in a restaurant was something only for very special occasions.  The “lady of the house” didn’t usually go out to work, at least not once she had children.  Her whole time was devoted to keeping house including shopping daily (cars were still rare) and cooking at the very least the evening meal, but often also a cooked breakfast and, as many working people returned home for lunch, that meal too.  Our lives are so different today that you can be forgiven for wondering what on earth we could learn from Grandmother’s Cooking.

Yet, I frequently appreciate the value of having learned to cook in the way that I did.  Which was, incidentally, mainly self-taught, but against the background outlined above.  During the Covid lockdowns, people found themselves having to cook for their family three times a day without the respite of a single meal out.  I had hopes that this might prove to be a silver lining to an undeniably very dark grey cloud. Many people did make a radical overhaul of their lives, others a more minor shift towards working more from home, but it seems that, at least with regards cooking three times a day, most couldn’t wait to “get back to normal”.

I haven’t given up hope that the pandemic might have provided the trigger for the significant change to our cooking and eating that is needed to support regenerative agriculture.  It is still relatively early days.  During lockdown, 26% reported eating together as a family more often and there was plenty of anecdotal evidence that this was beneficial for children.  A hybrid home/office work pattern may yet enable more family meals. However, I don’t underestimate the size of the challenge for those who did not already have a ready repertoire of family meals that they can comfortably make.  This is an advantage that years of Grandmother’s Cooking has developed in me.

Nowadays, many of those who say they enjoy cooking treat it more as a hobby than a basic life skill.  They will happily eat preprepared meals most of the time and then bake a cake at the weekend.  There are often calls for cooking to be reintroduced to the school curriculum.  I’m unconvinced about the merits of this.  It did nothing to inspire me to cook, the best I can say is that perhaps it gave me some of the confidence to teach myself.  However, there has never been more available for anyone who wants to learn, you can search the internet and see tutorials for pretty much anything.  My impetus to learn came from buying my first house at the age of only 19 and having absolutely no money for food.  For the first year we didn’t even have a kitchen, just a two-ring camping gas stove.  Students, and those living in bedsits, always used to cook for themselves in similar circumstances, but then there weren’t many takeaway alternatives!  Perhaps the current financial situation will provide further impetus to the trigger started by the pandemic?  My advice would be not to become despondent, and instead have confidence that you can, and will manage.

Ingredients

What about the “ingredients that your grandmother would have recognized”?  In some regards we are more fortunate with the availability of ingredients now.  Who wants to return to the days when olive oil was sold in small bottles at the chemists, as famously described by Elizabeth David?  However, all too often the illusion of choice is exactly that – just an illusion and one that has come at considerable cost.  The supermarket dominance of our food system has led to most foods being produced to suit their requirements, of which flavour comes pretty low on their list of priorities.  I remember someone who was considering attending my cookery course asking whether most of the ingredients were easily available in supermarkets.  I explained that my courses appealed more to those who were eager to find the best sources of ingredients, which were rarely supermarkets.  Recently I spoke with one of those participants, now sadly aged and unwell.  She told me that although she was grateful to those who now did her shopping, she found little inspiration in the ingredients they acquired.  Fruit that was sold as “ripe and ready to eat” was nothing of the sort and rarely actually achieved such a state.  She was suspicious of how everything had been produced, finding the labels deliberately misleading. As for choice, she had been used to growing produce on her allotment and picking wild fungi, so supermarket selections just didn’t cut it. 

We have seen a return to home delivery, no longer the local delivery rounds of our grandmother’s era, but an availability of specialist produce from around the country.  I rely on these quite heavily.  We also grow a lot of our own food, favouring heritage varieties from a time when flavour was what it was all about.

However, the most important aspect of “ingredients that you grandmother would have recognised” is the intrinsic link with the land.  We are what we eat and that in turn means that we are a product of where we live.  I believe strongly in the influence of terroir and that the food we produce should work with the natural landscape.  Whilst terroir varies at a very localized level, we can also observe it at work at the wider national level.  Britain is ideally suited to growing grass, which we need animals to convert into food for us.  This means that pasture fed meat will remain an important food here, probably even in quantities that we can export.  We need to consume meat with respect for the animals, allowing nothing to be wasted.

There should be no separation between food production and wildlife, the two must exist hand-in-hand.  This means that not only must farmers farm with wildlife in mind but also that wildlife is, in itself, part of the food chain.  When we harvest food from the wild, in addition to giving us the widest possible variety of nutrients in our diet, we learn more about the delicate balance required for man to co-exist with nature.  As an island nation, our seas are an obvious source of wild food, but also an environment that is incredibly important to the health of the planet and so must be managed sensitively.

Seasonality

Seasonality used to be something I took for granted, after all it is much harder to produce something out of season than in it!  Now I sometimes encounter a backlash against it.  How dare I suggest that we might enjoy strawberries more if we ate them in June than December?!

One of the earliest cookery books I owned was The Reader’s Digest Cookery Year.  Books were expensive, and we didn’t have the internet to search for recipes, so I worked my way through this book pretty much cover to cover.  It was arranged by month, beginning with a list of ingredients in season, and followed by recipe suggestions for that month.  Those who read my Food Culture section of The Campaign for Real Farming will recognize the format.  Instinctively, as I learnt to cook, I stored my favourite recipes in this way, knowing that I would enjoy encountering them again as the seasons came around.  Nature provides not just variety but also delivers each food in prime condition.  Yes, back in Victorian times, we learned how to grow all sorts of exotic (foreign) foods here, but most relied on our then abundant coal.  Nowadays, to produce foods out of season usually requires expensive electricity, sometimes produced from renewable sources but more often not.  Our understanding of when foods are in their natural season has suffered as we strive to make all things available from the UK instead of importing.  Let’s consider apples as an example.  The British Apples and Pears Board states proudly that there is a British apple “in season” every month of the year.  “In season” here means the month when they have chosen to release them from their chilled store in which the levels of nitrogen, oxygen and carbon dioxide have been carefully managed.  About half of British growers have invested in renewable energy but that still leaves half being powered by fossil fuels and either way the costs are going up.  Using grandmother’s storage methods (i.e., in unheated rooms of the house or a shed) you could be eating British apples from late July until March (cookers only by this time, eating apples perhaps until the end of January).  Simple cold storage, without the control of gasses, can extend the season by a month or two.   When an apple is removed from a controlled environment to sit in your fruit bowl the ripening process is sped up so that the fruit goes from rock hard to over-ripe in days, a phenomenon that many will have experienced.  No wonder people get confused.  We know that agriculture is a significant contributor to climate change, so why aren’t more people eating food grown within its natural season?

Deciding what to eat is easy once you are in tune with the seasons and things that are in season at the same time tend to complement one another.  If I read a recipe that includes ingredients from different seasons it jars immediately.  One example that I frequently see is nuts.  The oils in nuts turn rancid quite rapidly an so they have a short shelf life. We should enjoy them in the autumn, and they will last for most of the winter, but when they feature in spring and summer recipes that means importing them from the other side of the world with who knows what environmental consequences?

My blog 

Cooking from scratch, using ingredients your grandmother would have recognized, now appears more forward than backward looking.  My articles on this blog will use Grandmother’s Cooking as a guide but updating it by looking at the current issues that might affect your buying choices.  They will also include a recipe that I hope will inspire you.  You can also find me on Twitter @RealFoodSuzie

Blog articles from Suzanne

Finding your rhythm

Cooking becomes much easier when you find your rhythm.  Your life might be quite different to mine, so you will need to work out how you can apply Grandmother’s Cooking principals to meet your own needs.  Let me tell you more about the rhythms that work in my kitchen. I have worked from home for … Read more