Food, Festivals & Feelings

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This blog is based on my recent meeting with Grace Dent, award-winning restaurant critic, journalist, author and broadcaster, for my Big Table podcast, which you can download here.

Grace Dent is a well-known and hugely respected columnist, broadcaster and author.  Restaurant critic for The Guardian, Grace is a regular critic on Masterchef UK, Masterchef: The Professionals, and Celebrity Masterchef.  From 2011 to 2017 she wrote “Grace and Flavour”, a restaurant column for the London Evening Standard and was a columnist for The Independent. In November 2017, Grace won ‘Reviewer of the Year’ at the London Restaurant Festival. Since 2016, she has presented The Untold on BBC Radio 4.

Credit: Neil White

The great and the good were at Abergavenny Food Festival last weekend to celebrate its 20th Anniversary.  I was there to attend the Great Debate on veganism, deliver a rant on the horrific CO2 gassing of pigs, as well as give my keynote talk on The Moral Maze of Milk.  Midst the speaking, the energy, music and artisan food, I was also there to record a podcast about the rising popularity of food festivals and to find out what Britain’s foodies are thinking.

My initial meeting was with Grace Dent, The Guardian’s newest food critic, who took the time out from her first visit to Abergavenny, to share her insights, her growing support for veganism (not always popular in the food world) and her thoughts on sustainable food. I asked her what her initial impressions had been of this now famous food festival: ‘The moment they asked me, I was just really proud. I wanted to come here and see what was going on. I’m crazily surprised by how big it is. Stalls everywhere, market places, local produce, suppliers, farmers, talks… It’s wonderful. So much work has gone into this, they should be really proud’.

I discussed with her, my perception that underneath all the hustle and bustle of the festival, I felt a sense that food is rocketing to the forefront of the sustainability discussion. Grace agreed, ‘I read about sustainability and chefs, their aims and their intentions to be sustainable, to work without waste, to know the provenance of their food and to be a force for good. I hear about that every day. I think that no good restaurant in 2018 worth its salt, or who wants a place at the table with the big boys, is going to say, ‘I don’t care about any of that’. ‘It’s definitely a buzzword. It’s a thing that everybody wants to be seen to be doing their part’.

We continue our discussion and I share that for me, sustainability means a whole range of things coming together. Animal welfare, environmental protection, producing great quality food without chemicals and fertilisers and all of those things. Yet the sad fact is that the majority of farm animals in Britain, and across the world, are reared in factory farms.  I ask her what is her sense of the rising tide, or otherwise, of interest in animal welfare among chefs in the restaurant trade? I think that we are at a very, very interesting time with regards to, not just chefs, people in general and their attitudes which they possibly didn’t have before. An awakening in what is actually going on. A feeling that they don’t want to be part of it anymore. I mean, I wrote a piece for Observer Food Monthly, where I kind of – cards on the table – I admitted that I don’t really like eating meat. I was taken aback by how many people who work in food, who work in restaurants, who cook, just said, ‘Good on you, I feel the same’. What’s interesting is that all of us who have a voice in food, we all want to stay at the table, we all want to have an opinion, we all want to be asked and booked to come and talk about food, so we’re all scared to say we don’t like eating meat. Because by being honest, you may well turn the public against you. You may well find you’re no longer asked to be on BBC1, you may find that you’re not asked to be on Great British Menu because this tag of vegan animal-loving, bothered-about-welfare, it might mark you out as something kind of limited. Too political. Boring. Whatever.’

‘Vegan Great Debate at the Farmyard’ – Credit: Neil White

We talk about the rise of social media and its huge role in exposing the realities of what’s happening in factory farms and how this has been at the heart of this surge of acceptance of things which have previously been taboo. Yet, the reality is that most animals are still factory farmed, as we mentioned earlier, and that we all eat too much meat as a generality. I ask Grace what is her message to people? What does she say to people who want to get more involved with the sustainability of food, and particularly when it comes to animals? ‘I’ve got to say this with the caveat that all of this gets me into a lot of trouble, because we are at a very interesting time in history. It’s also quite volatile. So, everything I say, there’ll be people listening to this absolutely furious. I think that people need to be re-educated on just the basic ideas, like that they need lots of meat for protein, and that they couldn’t possibly eat or exist or survive if they’re not eating lots of steak or what is more likely to be like processed ham. That is, they seem to think that they’re getting some magical life giving force from that, and that they can’t get that from vegetables.

‘People say to me all the time ‘what do you eat?’ And it’s very difficult to go ‘I never stop eating’ but then when you say, well I have some lovely carrots with orange on them with pepper and maybe a bit of honey, and I might have that with some couscous, and I might make a slaw, and I might make – and right away you can see them going, ‘but that’s not a dinner.’ And it’s really frustrating, because I’ve never felt better’.

Do listen to the podcast to hear more of our fascinating conversation!

A like mind. Grace Dent, thank you.

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