Food and Community
Food and wine writer Marc Millon considers the role of food and drink in strengthening community relations.
What is food without community? Eating is a social act. We share food with family, with friends, sometimes with strangers. Food is more than mere sustenance: it brings us together around the table, fuels conversation, and nourishes the soul as much as the body.
The food we eat connects us to a wider community, to where the food we are enjoying has come from, and to those who created or brought it to us: the producers, the farmers, the fishermen, the market gardeners and a host more. The act of acquiring provisions can bring us into the community when we visit farmers markets, or have a chat with the butcher, or discuss the ripeness or maturity of a favourite cheese.
It seems that we do indeed like to know where our food comes from, and as precisely as possible. Better still if we can grow, catch or forage it for ourselves. Restaurants and pubs now proudly boast that they source their ingredients from within as small a radius as possible. The provenance of ingredients, even the names of farms are proclaimed on the menus and web sites of cafés, pubs and restaurants. Such knowledge adds to the enjoyment of the foods we consume because it takes us to the origin, connects us with places, with people, with community.
Of course not everyone cares about such things. The vast majority still shop in supermarkets; the sale of ready-meals is apparently on the up-and-up; for many who buy foods wrapped in plastic there is a vast disconnect between what is consumed and where it has come from (in many cases, we would not want to know where it has come from!); and eating is becoming less a communal act than a solitary scoff, often in front of the telly or the laptop.
The community aspects of food and eating, therefore, are something to be cherished, not taken for granted. I have on many occasions attended Terra Madre, the gathering of food communities from around the world, organised by Slow Food. This remarkable bi-annual event brings together people from 130 countries to discuss, to share, to show, to sell, to eat and drink, break bread and share wine, all in the simple belief that food should be ‘good, clean, and fair’. There are farmers, fishermen, cheesemakers, fruit growers, bakers, beekeepers, beer makers, cider makers, picklers, distillers, wine makers, foragers, chefs, communicators, educators, young and old. It is an overwhelming and inspiring experience: the colourful national costumes and dress; the cacophony of languages, many never heard before; the produce, flavours, ingredients never imagined or tasted! Terra Madre is a truly beautiful thing to witness, for somehow, everyone manages to communicate, to connect through an understanding and a sharing of that most basic element that we all require: food. Indeed, it is a reminder that food and the myriad communities to which it is linked are fundamental to our existence, to our very humanity.
An appreciation of the fundamental value of food and community is central to all that the Oxford Cultural Collective stands for.
Through our gastronomy field trips to Piedmont and to Devon, students have gained an understanding of the deep and vital roots that collectively shape a region’s gastronomic culture. It’s a culture that is defined by many factors, including terroir, artisan craftsmanship, a quest for and a dedication to quality, as well as a commitment to sustainability and localism. Perhaps most important of all is the passion and dedication of individuals – food and drink producers; fishermen; cheesemakers; winemakers; chefs; retailers; food writers; and intelligent consumers who know, value and appreciate the difference between the industrially produced and the artisan, and who are prepared to pay for local quality. Collectively such individuals form the heart of a vital community around which excellence can thrive. Whether in Piedmont or in Devon, such factors ensure that food culture remains vibrant, exciting, delicious, and, rather than locked in a straitjacket of centuries-old tradition, is still evolving, defining and re-defining itself.
Marc Millon is a food, wine and travel author, a lecturer on gastronomy, and a patron of the Oxford Cultural Collective.