Thursday, 6 June 2013

The Modern Peasant - Jojo Tulloh

The Modern Peasant - Adventures in City  Food
Jojo Tulloh

'The Modern Peasant' didn't hook me, it was the subtitle 'Adventures in City Food' that did.  Rooted in this maddening, chaotic, fascinating city of London, it pays to have an adventurous spirit, not least where food is concerned.  It's not the  multiplicity of cuisines on offer in this cosmopolitan metropolis that the author, JojoTulloh, finds so enthralling.  It's the new wave of small urban producers that interest her.  Buying food from them, growing some of her own and making simple food from scratch - "rediscovering an earlier tradition of cookery" - has reconnected her to the source of food.  She sees the word "peasant" not as a negative term but as a description of a person producing high quality food.  Whether they are doing so for pleasure, profit or out of necessity - these are her 'Modern Peasants'.

Like Jojo, I have revelled in the emergence of bakers, brewers, bee-keepers and butchers.  I am ever-delighte to discover cheese makers and ice cream makers tucked into unlikely arches and forgotten corners of the city.  Whenever I can I will inveigle my way behind the scenes .  It's no wonder, then, I seized on The Modern Peasant.

The book starts with a "pilgrimage" to Italy's Apulia region, specifically, to the farmhouse where foodwriter Patience Gray spent the last 35 years of her life.  It was here, with her lover, the sculpture Norman Mommens, that Gray lived off the land and wrote her autobiographical cookbook Honey from a Weed.  If you don't know this book, Jojo Tulloh's introduction will make you want to delve into its pages.  The book and the visit made Tulloh look at her own life and how she procured her food.  She returned to London "determined to eat more weeds (Patience's universal panacea), get bees and seek out those who could teach me their hard-earned skills."

Tulloh makes the case that by producing some of our food ourselves, witnessing the labour that goes into its production or buying direct from the producer, we will appreciate it more and waste less.  For chapters headed Baked, Fermented, Planted, Foraged and Pickled, Preserved, Foraged & Smoked she spent time with producers.  In a bakery she takes us from the description of a container of dough bubbling "like the sac in a bullfrog's throat" to a succinct explanation of autolysis.  She forages on Hampstead Heath with "someone who knows" and enjoys the thrift of making jams and pickles for a well-stocked larder.  Many of these chapters end with some excellent 'Tips", techniques and a few simple recipes.  She shows just how easy and satisfying it is to make your own bread, yoghurt, ricotta or ginger beer.

Like all of us who are fortunate enough to 'borrow' a little piece of land on which to grow crops, Jojo Tulloh values it beyond measure.  In a section titled The Practical Peasant's Year, she makes the point that "To grow something is to become aware of the elements.  Earth, air, sun and fire become part of your consciousness".  That's not to say she is blindly romantic about it.  Time spent on the allotment is "not the most logical or effective use of my time" but "there is a deep calm and concentrated peace that comes from the monotony of task performed outside".  Even when growing feels like a battle "there is a strength there that can be gained and is almost as worthwhile as the produce you take home".

Returning to Patience Gray, The Modern Peasant ends on a few of the foodwriter's recipes and acknowledges that food is not the only important thing in life but it is a daily necessity that shouldn't be made light of.

My enjoyment of this book was helped along by a peppering of great quotes, particularly those taken from William Cobbett's Cottage Economy.  Reading, learning, growing and making has "added another layer" to Jojo Tulloh's life.  I have to say I feel the same way and this book gives voice to that feeling.  It's an interesting and inspiring read and one I am likely to return to in future for reference.

The Modern Peasant - Adventures in City Food
Jojo Tulloh
Illustrated by Lynn Hatzius

Book courtesy of Chatto & Windus