The Waterford Festival of Food was a great success once again this year. Thankfully the elements also cooperated and it certainly lent an added dimension to the colour and fun of it all. It was particularly great to see families and ordinary people enjoying what, for too long during the crazy years, was considered special or elite. I have always been an admirer and supporter honest artisan food producers. However, I also believe that our grandparents and ancestors would have snorted with derision at our previous notions of grandeur when it came to artisan food. The artisan producer’s passion is to produce first class foodstuffs with a necessary, but usually secondary profit pillar. However, it would have to be said that several generations ago they were doing, as a matter of course and survival, what we hold up today as excellence and sophistication. Oh how they would roll in the aisles to see the gourmets and gourmands pontificate about vintage, hand reared, hand made, home produced, organic and natural. Also the high end marketing of such foods to those with disposable income, a more discerning palate and supposed good taste (socially speaking) would, no doubt have left our forefathers absolutely baffled. Isn’t it funny how progress can turn things upside down? Most produce sold and consumed in Ireland up to the middle of the last century was in fact artisan and entire meals, menus and diets were composed of such foods. They just didn’t have fanciful titles on any of it.
I also find the term ‘foodie’, both absurd and ridiculous. Trying to distinguish yourself or a group on the grounds of liking food is almost laughable. Surely we are all ‘foodies’ insomuch that none of us can survive without it. Personally I blame the marketers, who, while doing a superb job throughout the boom times, have backed themselves into a tight corner right now as the ‘foodies’ are hit by the downturn just like the rest of us. The reality is that the majority of people involved in today’s artisan food industry are the most down to earth, hard working people you could meet. I know several producers and I can vouch for the fact that they are grafters with a passion for animals, the land and the environment. They are also keen on tradition and, thank God, are keeping some of those rare and beautiful skills alive; ensuring they are not lost forever. It could almost be a heritage project as much as it is about the food. Not many of them are Rolls Royce driving millionaires. They are very aware of the customer’s need for value in today’s market and they try to deliver that value as best they can.
Due to the marketers’ focus on the ‘foodies’ as their target they have often missed out on a whole range of other consumers and those consumers meanwhile have written off artisan as being ‘too expensive’. Result; everyone is losing out! I’d love to see the artisan sector, particularly the local producers, grow and become much more accessible. Good food is for everyone, not just those with disposable income and aspirations to climb the social ladder. If only we could adopt the attitude of the French or other European countries. On the Continent it is perfectly normal for ordinary families to divide their food shopping between local producers and the supermarket, with the balance often tipped in favour of the local producer. In rural France you can buy from various farm gates or at the wonderful, regular and abundant local markets. While the European experience may be a little far off, we have to start somewhere and that’s why the food festivals are so important.
While cost is, without a doubt, a major factor, others include taste, nutrition and the environment. For example it just makes more sense to buy a local cheese rather than an imported one. The local cheese has travelled a much shorter distance from producer to retailer (or market stall), it usually involves less robust packaging, it has more than likely been produced with local milk from local cows that have eaten local grass. It supports local industry at every turn and it is ‘real’ cheese. I say ‘real’ as opposed to some of that overly processed, vacuum packed imported stuff that often reminds me of a block of Post It notes and tastes similar.
While the current difficulties with air travel are posing horrendous problems for thousands of people worldwide, we might just find that if it continues for any length of time it could offer something positive for food producers. If the shops can’t fly goods in from abroad they might just have to turn to local producers. Or if the shops continue to wait for supplies from abroad, there is a greater case for attending one of the weekend markets. If we could increase the domestic market for locally produced foodstuffs just think of the positive spin offs. Increased demand would certainly affect the price and create local jobs. By supporting the local producers they, in turn, get to increase their turnover and profits allowing investment and experimentation with more varieties of product and even diversification. Inevitably this leads to greater choice for the consumer. So, in a nutshell, by buying a local product a very positive cycle is created which ultimately leads back to benefiting the customer. In essence, if you do have to pay a few cent more for the product you could look at it as an investment into your own future market choice. Before you reel at such unchecked altruism in the middle of a recession, I would also urge you to compare and contrast the products from a taste and nutrition point of view. In some cases you will even find the local product to be less expensive.
Producing food is part of our heritage and there is something intrinsically good about buying foodstuffs directly from the producer. Let’s wrestle our heritage and our traditions back from the ‘foodies’ and open ourselves up to the wonderful world of food that our ancestors enjoyed without any of the fuss or the labels.