THERE are times - after shopping at a farmers' market, or eating unexpectedly well at an outlet where once upon a time this would have been impossible, say a petrol station selling bacon sarnies and proper powerful espresso – when it seems that we have become a good food nation. We eat well with friends, in pubs, in informal pop-up restaurants, at the many food festivals that have made culinary life so exciting. We eat better here than in France, we tell each other. Then there are times when I realise that, in spite of the excellent local produce all around us, the gourmet side of things is only a thin veneer. I might be queuing up at a supermarket, my own trolley laden with special offer wines, cheap washing powder and loo paper, to find that the expensively dressed mother and her pair of equally expensively dressed kids in front of me have a load of ready meals, including the biggest cop out of all to my mind, frozen roast potatoes. The total soars. She has spent nearly £100, on things that are full of fat and salt and sugar, on meals that will probably only last a week, that will produce no useful leftovers to kick-start the next meal, that will fill the recycling bins to overflowing (if she has time for sorting the plastic from the foil from the cardboard, she obviously doesn't have time for cooking). Worst of all, she'll be educating her children's palates to appreciate only the overseasoned, overfatty, oversalted produce of mass-production. How will they realise the subtle deliciousness of a roast free-range chicken, the crisp yet floury interiors of a freshly roast potato?
I am probably assuaging my own feelings of guilt when I spend lavishly on the free-range chicken, when I roast potatoes in an expensive oil. I defend myself by saying that at least I will be able to transform that chicken into another three meals, and that the expensive oil is better for you than a cheap one. And I am not feeding a hungry family in a hurry. But when there is then a general outcry about the cost of living, I wonder what sort of living is being talked about. All right, it's easy for someone with time, a continuing enjoyment of food and the enthusiasm to cook it, and an income that isn't stretched to cover all the essentials a young family seems to need. Our largest outlay is on fuel – the staggering rise in the cost of this is eating into everyone's budgets, or almost everyone's. Still, I do think it makes better sense to expend fuel on cooking a proper meal than on heating up a whole lot of foil dishes.
But it's the possibility of cheese as a palate educator that really interests me. My daughter tells me that I shouldn't waste my money on buying what she calls 'good' cheese for my grandchildren. They'll eat any old rubbish, is her way of telling me not to take too much trouble. It's no trouble, although it might be more expensive. She herself was raised on truckles of Montgomery's cheddar, one of our National Cheese Treasures, which we had sent up to Cumbria when our local supermarket no longer stocked a proper West Country farmhouse cheddar. It worked out cheaper, including the postage, as a good cheese keeps better than a poor one, suffocated as it so often is in tight plastic. Bob Farrand's admirable piece of invective (Blackmore Vale Magazine 2/11/2012) about the low standards of Christmas cheese selections, as offered by the supermarkets in the next few weeks is fully called for. Bob knows what he is talking about – he's a member of the Guild of Fine Food and organiser of The Great Taste Awards and World Cheese Awards – and he's shocked by the vapid range of mass produced cheeses passed off as Christmas treats. He points out, in this area which is home to superb Cheddars, only two were proper farmhouse Cheddars, and two were 'unbearably sweet'. His heart-wrenching cry of 'Rarely has anyone been asked to taste 14 cheddars of such uncompromising sadness' really reached home to me. I was a cheese judge earlier in my food writing career, and it struck me how different the cheeses I was asked to judge were from the excellent cheeses being produced all round the country, often to be found only in the more discerning cheese shops. This is another supermarket black mark, but it is also the fault of consumers. If we don't educate our children to know the difference, they will perpetuate the crime of tolerating blandness and, that dreaded word, consistency. For this is what the supermarkets want – a consistently dull product, that behaves itself in the warehouse, that tastes the same week in and week out. This approach nearly scuppered our fine British cheeses once and for all – we almost lost Mrs Kirkham's Lancashire cheese, Mrs Appleby's superlative Cheshire, clothbound and round and therefore not fitting into the square holes in warehouses, and many another.
If it hadn't been for cheese heroes, like Major Patrick Rance, who ran an idiosyncratic little shop at Streatley-on-Thames stocking all the cheeses he could still find that were hand made and unpasteurised, or a disciple of his, Randolph Hodgson, who fought the battle against the demise of unpasteurised cheese via his headquarters at Neal's Yard Dairy in Covent Garden, traditional cheeses would have been lost, and fine new ones never invented. So I feed my grandchildren good cheese when they come here, some Flower Marie from my home patch in Sussex, so that they can spot a properly good soft goats cheese, lovely nutty Cheddar from Westcombe, perhaps a new cheese I've just been introduced to and that I would like their opinion on. It's the kind of education that many of us obtained by trips abroad. We are lucky enough to be able to learn about great taste on our own doorsteps now, because a bit of research will reveal that we are, honestly, a nation of good food.
Simone Sekers© 2012.