How often have you opened a newspaper to be told that we eat too much of something which is bad for our health? Stop putting so much salt on your food! Eat less fat! Don’t put sugar in your coffee! And look where it has got us – Scotland has some of the worst rates for diet-related cancer and heart problems in Europe and our rate of longevity has stalled. Indeed in some areas it has actually decreased.
As a chef I spent 10 years of my life working in Spain. In that country there is much less government involvement about what the population eats. Spaniards love their cured meats, cheese and churros, and few meals are complete without a glass or two of wine.
Yet last year researchers at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation found that by 2040 Spain will surpass Japan in life expectancy, edging it out with an average of 85.8 years, compared with 85.7 years.
On 5 October, as part of the Edinburgh Spanish Film Festival there will be a food-themed evening. Starting with Chef’s Diaries: Scotland, the audience will see the acclaimed Roca brothers travelling through Scotland sampling our produce. They own the three Michelin star restaurant, El Celler de Can Roca near Barcelona, where I was lucky enough to work with them for three years. I was privileged to accompany them during some of the filming, introducing them to, amongst other things, our seaweeds, game, cheeses and herbs, by which they were more than pleasantly surprised. At the end of their tour they announced that Scotland’s gastronomy was a “raw diamond”.
So why, as a nation, can we have all this natural potential to create the most amazing food yet rarely rise to the level of gastronomy of other countries? Basically, it’s our relationship with food that is the problem. We rely too heavily on processed and pre-prepared foods that are quick and easy, denying us the pleasure of cooking as well as losing that knowledge to pass down to future generations. It’s easy to grab a sandwich or bung a supermarket curry in the microwave, but that’s not something that is widely embraced in Spain.
Making food from scratch is not only cheaper and healthier, but you learn to respect and understand the ingredients. A meal isn’t just about filling an empty stomach but should be an experience to savour and enjoy. We have forgotten how to enjoy food and the industrialisation of our food is destroying our culinary history.
In Spain, like so many Mediterranean countries, meals are rarely eaten alone. They have the bonus of good weather which means setting up a table outside so 20 people can sit around and lunch or supper becomes a regular social occasion. I can’t remember in all the time I spent in Spain of one person telling me about eating a meal from a tray in front of the television.
They don’t flinch from a dish they haven’t tried before, but approach it with gusto, whereas we Scots tend to know what we like and that’s what we eat. We are often wary about the unknown when it is on a plate in front of us.
I am currently studying for a Masters in Gastronomy at QMU whilst also running my own business (www.almadining.com just so you know). I am incredibly proud of the produce we have and realise that there is so much potential for us to learn and mature gastronomically.
To do this we must be introspective and realise where we have to improve, as much as it’s true that our produce has so much to offer, from our shellfish, which is arguably some of the best in the world, to an amazing array of food that can be foraged for nothing that we have all but forgotten about.
It is also true that very few of us here in Scotland eat it. The Scottish larder is exceptional and I was privileged to be able to show it to the Roca brothers.
Details of all films and events at the Edinburgh Spanish Film Festival, which starts on 4 October can be found at www.edinburghspanishfilmfestival.com. There will be Spanish wines and tapas created by Michael Innes following the screening of Chef’s Diaries: Scotland on 5 October