Last Tuesday (13th May), the world of urban agriculture crept a few inches further into the public conscience during the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Food and Drink Awards. Up against stiff competition in a genre which has been booming in recent years, Jojo Tulloh’s The Modern Peasant: Adventures in City Food nabbed first prize in the Food Book category.
In a work which criss-crosses London in search of artisan producers, growers, beehives and foraging grounds, Tulloh makes the firm point that the idyllic, bucolic lifestyle that so many of us leave the city in search of can be achieved (to a certain degree) within the confines of an urban environment. This is not to say that she sets about trying to paint London as a high-tech farmyard. She instead weaves her way through skill-themed chapters, teasing out producers who are already bringing this lifestyle to London. Most importantly, she makes the case that there need not be a glaring rift between the food we eat and where it comes from – and that the stranglehold of the supermarket is not the only way forward.
The book itself is a well-balanced split between food guide, cookbook and DIY manual, aimed at both encouraging the reader to get more hands-on with what they put on their plate, and also opening their eyes to the multitude of small foodie businesses which have popped up around London in recent years. The ultimate goal is promoting an attitude towards eating that is more appreciative of the work that goes into our food, and therefore less wasteful of what we have.
Some of the more interesting stories come from her time spent with the urban producers the book seeks to highlight and draw on. Chapters are titled along the lines of Baked, Fermented, Planted, Foraged & Pickled, Preserved and Smoked, giving the reader a (not so cryptic) clue as to what they entail. Within each, Tulloh takes us to the experts, foraging on Hampstead Heath and snooping her way around sourdough bakeries all with the end goal of showing the reader how these techniques and many others may be incorporated relatively easily into the modern lifestyle. The ‘Tips’ section at the end of each chapter is an excellent example of this, showcasing simple recipes for everyday products such as bread, yoghurt and cheese.
While the book could easily slip into a rose-tinted ideal of London meets The Good Life, Tulloh remains realistic about the message she is trying to put across. The book is not a manual on farmers’ markets for the uninitiated or coffee grinding for the capital’s endless hordes of hipsters. Its aim, in a quiet, un-illustrated kind of way, is getting people to think about where food comes from, how it is made, and what we can do to turn the tide. Rather than focussing on the monopoly of multinational food corporations and the never-ending rise of the supermarket, it is a positive appraisal on what has been done so far, and what we as individuals can do within our urban confines.
For those drawn to the make-your-own attitude explored by Jojo, we’ve come up with a shortlist of other books worth looking into. From cheese to chickens, here are a few guides on getting back to basics and shrugging off the clutches of convenience store sandwiches…
The Great British Farmhouse Cookbook (Quadrille, £20)
Anything produced by Yeo Valley (those of milk and yoghurt fame) is sure to have a cracking section on making your own dairy products. Sure enough, expect a focus on yoghurts, cheeses and other milky goodness.
Ginger Pig Farmhouse Cook Book (Mitchell Beazley, £25)
This book doesn’t stop at butchery. Sections explore various methods of preserving, ranging from smoking to curing and everything in between. For anyone who has dreamt of home-made chorizo, or even just a better understanding of the meat we eat, this book will have you building cold-smokers and dreaming of purpose-build cool rooms in no time.
The Hedgerow Cookbook (Pavilion, £16.99)
Berries, flowers, nuts and fruits, no rock is left unturned in this exploration of jams, preserves, chutneys and much more.