So, you might begin your day at the farmers market, basket over one arm bursting with locally grown tomatoes and silverbeet, sweet potatoes and coriander, some recently slaughtered pork chops and a wheel of quark. You will know the names of many of the growers and producers and your conscience will be pure in the knowledge that the carbon footprint is small, barely legible. Then that night you may be whisked off to dine in a restaurant where plates arrive bearing lamb fillets with coffee foam and pumpkin paper; pork belly with wattle crumbs and garlic milk; carrot sponge with walnuts; nitro pavlova with guava: presentations causing breathless admiration but with only a passing resemblance to something you might eat.
It’s confusing times in food. On the one hand there has never been so much focus on connecting us to the source of our comestibles: the land upon which it is grown, the seasons in which it shines, the purity of its growth in the desired absence of chemical intervention. School community gardens become more commonplace, whereby children are shown what to pick then how to prepare and cook vegetables and fruit and herbs they themselves have sown.
Farmers markets proliferate, have become a regular weekly shopping event in most communities, urban or regional. There are food movements and organisations that seek to support the growers and producers and promote them under banners at festivals and expos and shows and in competitions.
Television programs further the education and feed the obsession; cookbook sales continue, despite the faltering, flagging publishing industry, to flourish.
On the other hand is that (blessedly) small and rarefied sector of culinary experimentalism and exploration which has given rise to food so artificially concocted that it threatens to lose, and sometimes succeeds in losing, what is intrinsic, which is its very edibility. At this same end of the spectrum has more recently been added another trend which could be seen as a way of bringing the two extremes together. Its proponents are principally Scandinavian and the focus is on foraging locally for wild produce that is then transformed into meals.
A 12-seater restaurant in Sweden is run by young chef Magnus Nilsson who plunders from a nearby forest fiddlehead fern and yarrow, fifteen types of mushrooms, cloudberries and wild greens. His diners can expect to be served dishes such as wild trout roe in a crust of dried pig blood; shavings of old sow; marrow with dices of raw heart and grated winter carrots; fermented lingonberries with thick cream. There is a three-month waiting list for a table: the mind boggles.
At the number-one restaurant in the world, Denmark’s Noma, chef/owner Rene Redzepi’s food is all foraged locally. He refers to his cooking as being about ‘time and place’ and it reflects social, cultural, economic and even political concerns. (Isn’t all this taking food terribly, terribly seriously?) Closer to home, Melbourne’s Ben Shewry of Attica restaurant rises early in the morning to collect his day’s ingredients; his dish of potatoes roasted in their own soil has become notorious.
One beauty of trends is that, ultimately, they are replaced with others, leaving a legacy of something solid, enduring, practical and wise, with the silliness – those froths and foams – simply blown away. Somewhere between the two extremes of current food consciousness there will be a middle ground, one hopes, whereupon real concerns like obesity and food security and starvation are sensibly and responsibly addressed but whereupon also, at times, we may dine out on some chef’s fantasy we will talk about for weeks to come.