Great British Food 2009

Men of cheeseBorn in France but educated in England, Robert Pouget has always lived with one foot in France and the other in England. After a two year stint in the French Army, he worked initially as an illustrator in Paris and then as an art director with a London advertising agency. He was successfully involved in publishing, the rag trade and furniture design before he set up a production company making vegetarian food for London delis and cafes.

In 1985 he took over the cheese stall on Oxford’s famous Covered Market, where he sold both his vegetarian products and a selection of farmhouse cheeses. Then in 1995 he developed and produced Oxford Blue and later a wash rind cheese, Oxford Isis. In 2001 along with his son William he opened a vegetarian production kitchen in Oxford. Now Robert is convinced that, with the combined effects of climate change and rapidly increasing world population the future lies in vegetarianism.

Whats your background?
I was brought up in the 50’s in the family chateau¬† with its adjacent farm at the time managed by a tenant farmer and his wife. It was a mixed arable and dairy farm, half a dozen cows milked by hand by the farmer’s wife. I don’t know what breed they were. I don’t even know if they were a breed at all, but I do recall that each cow had a name and a personality and kept their calves to suckle naturally. There was a small dairy which I’m sure would be condemned today where the farmer’s wife made fresh cream cheese and a type of Gaeron, laced with garlic, from the surplus milk. She sold her cheese at the local market together with eggs from her chickens and ducks. Chicken, geese and ducks foraged for themselves and once a week the farmer would grab a chicken and cut its head off. It would be gutted, plucked and cooked for supper. At the back of the farm was an old moat that had degenerated into a large duck pond, fed with fresh water by a spring further up, it was well stocked with carp and other fish. In a small paddock behind one of the barns there resided a coupe of pigs which were fed a mixture of watered barley and slops. When a pig was slaughtered, which only happened about once a year, every part of the carcass was used. As it couldn’t be consumed immediately and there was no refrigeration, traditional methods of preservation were used. Hams were cured, saucissons were hung to dry, pates and terrines were cooked. These products whose raison d’etre was to preserve meat have now¬† become end products in themselves, many laced with preservatives and antioxidants.

Why did you go into the food industry?
You could say I’ve seen food production when it was at its most natural and I feel that over the past 30 or 40 years we have developed a food culture which is getting further away from its roots with dramatic consequences for the environment and animal welfare – I want to reverse this trend.

Are you passionate about food?
You often hear foodies and producers say they are passionate about food. “I’m passionate about cheese”, or “passionate about bread”. It implies deep commitment and interest in the product, a bit of one upmanship on the ordinary punter.”You may like cheese but I’m passionate about it”. Well I’m not passionate about food, or cheese for that matter. I do however love good food, but like many people, I’d reckon I’d love any food if I was hungry enough. And herein lies the problem. We are a nation that has been taught, nay brainwashed, into thinking that good basic food isn’t good enough. It has got to be special, exciting, sexy even. We are sold this image of food by the media and ‘celebrity’ chefs, the glove puppets of the food industry, producing tantalising dishes using ingredients with no regard for production methods or their consequences.

Where do you think the problem lies?
There is a deep cynicism in the way food is glamourised. In Britain and now throughout Europe most people don’t cook – most don’t know how. They’ll gladly spend hours watching some overpaid celebrity chef magic up mouth watering dishes, but the vast majority plump for buying an industrially produced version, packaged in plastic and designed for the microwave. you don’t have to be a cynic to get the idea that there is an unholy alliance between the media and the supermarkets governing the distribution of food in this country.

Do you think its going to change?
I see the eventual demise of the large out of town supermarkets. There are two main factors which will influence this; one is climate change and the other is in the inexorable increase in the world’s population. Climate change will result in reduced production as whole areas of the world are removed from agriculture altogether. Conversely, the population explosion will result in vastly increased demand on the world’s resources. There are signs that this is already happening. Food commodity prices have been increasing rapidly and as demand exceeds supply, the cost of basic ingredients will continue to soar. This will mean that processed foods and the ready made meals we currently take for granted will become too expensive to make commercial sense. Meat will become an expensive luxury which leads me onto the thought that vegetarianism is the trend of the future.

So what’s the future for the food industry?
In a decade the cost of meat, plus the environmental cost of packaging and distribution will hit supermarkets hard. I also believe, supermarket fatigue will set in and the rebirth of small and specialist shops is on the cards. Already the early signs are there with the increase in the artisan makers, excellent farm shops, deli’s and farmer’s markets. This trend will only get bigger, allowing producers to throw off the shackles of the large supermarkets and thrive.

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