Courtesy of parents who both cooked with interest and enthusiasm and who were prepared to share the kitchen with me; a maternal grandmother who was an excellent traditional English cook; a childhood spent in the Middle East against the back ground of peasant cooking and as part of a multi-ethnic community; and the influence, over the years, of close friends from Chinese, Indian and Laotian heritage, I have had a life long passion for what I call good food.
Good food in my terms is all about real – real ingredients, the things that my great grandmother, or her equivalent amongst my friends, would recognise as food – cooked by real people, that is in my home, the home of family or friends, or in a good restaurant where the food is cooked not merely assembled. Personally I tend to be drawn towards simple food, rich in vegetables; much of what I have cooked over the years draws heavily on the peasant traditions that have fed generations world wide, flavoured for me particularly by English, Italian, Chinese, Indian, South East Asian and Lebanese approaches to food.
I have grown up in a changing world where increasingly people are disconnected from the origins of their food, both in terms of the actual ingredients and of the cultural traditions and methods used in preparation. Most of us have small busy families who often are removed from their families of birth, living in large cities and raising children with the support of day care and baby sitters when both parents have to work or where the family only has one resident parent. This sort of life style makes learning to cook and to appreciate where your food is coming from a much more complicated process than when food was sourced locally from the environment surrounding you and you learned to cook by being a part of the family kitchen from a very young age working alongside your mother, grandmother, aunties, neighbours – and yes the list is female dominated because in many cultures it was the women who prepared the family food while men provided the ingredients, both working together to put food on the table.
My life has been spent predominantly based in smaller communities although I was born in the heart of industrial Britain in Birmingham. We moved to the Middle East when I was a small child and since then I have mainly lived in villages and small towns; today I live in the Australian island state of Tasmania in a small town outside of the state capital, Hobart. I have been privileged to be able to maintain a connection with where food comes from throughout my life. My dad liked to garden as his choice of recreation and his gardening was the vegetable garden so for most of my life there were vegetables to be picked or, as I got older, collected from Mum and Dad’s. Home grown is so completely different from commercially sourced even if you are fortunate enough to be able to access farmers markets or the like with fresh produce. Having spent sometime involved in a commercial market garden I know better than to consider supermarket vegetables to be ‘fresh’. For me there are few tastes more wonderful than a vegetable soup made from ingredients picked minutes ago from the garden. Equally if you have had the experience of pulling a fish from the sea and having it cooking on the BBQ within the hour you will know how special the flavours and textures can be.
Over the years I have picked oranges, pistachios, apples, apricots, quince, lemons, plums, raspberries, wild strawberries and blackberries, blueberries and many more fruits. I know that fruit is seasonal and grows on trees, bushes or vines but I have also worked at markets in Tasmania selling fruit and vegetables and frequently been asked “So is everything here locally grown?” When you are looking at pineapples, bananas, and mangos you realise that there is a real disconnect out there – too many people do not understand the relationship between climate and food production, a scary fact in a world faced with climate change! None of those fruits could be commercially grown in Tasmania at this point in time but our cool climate fruits such as raspberries and blueberries are under threat from rising temperatures while we are now seeing commercial avocados coming from the north of the state. One wonderful experience that I had with my children when they were growing up was a visit to Tropical Fruit World in northern New South Wales where they have over 500 species of tropical fruits growing on the one property. A visit there was a spectacular contrast to the typical visit to one of the theme parks, the kids had a ball, we tasted fruits we had never met before, learned about the research being done into the benefits of tropical fruits, toured the park, fed the wildlife, bought fruit in the market and ate in their restaurant, all for a great deal less than entry to a theme park. Sugar cane was a new experience for my kids but one I remember from my childhood.
I have collected cow’s milk direct from the dairy; seen cheese being made; milked goats and made butter; raised chickens, plucked and gutted them; caught and prepared fish; collected and cooked shellfish; found free range eggs; cooked farm raised, locally killed mutton and beef; and grown and harvested a wide variety of vegetables. I know real food when I see it and I understand where it comes from. It saddens me when I see how little the people around me know about their food and gives me great joy when I can provide an opportunity to grow someones appreciation – the ten year old recently who, running her hands through flour, said “So this is what flour feels like!”. My children have cooked with me since they were big enough to stand on a chair beside me chopping mushrooms as two year olds; many of the dishes that you meet on this blog will have been cooked by one of them including the poached eggs on smashed avocado with yogurt cheese, pine nuts, cucumber and tomato pictured above that was a breakfast created by my younger daughter. I believe that for our health, happiness and continued existence we need to reconnect with real food on the table!