My year of eating dangerously
SOME people get their kicks from extreme sports. Tom Parker Bowles opted for extreme food.Depressed by the bland samey-ness of the fare found in many supermarkets, he set off on a trip around the world to find the kind of local food that would fire his imagination and set his tastebuds a-tingling.
SOME people get their kicks from extreme sports. Tom Parker Bowles opted for extreme food.
Depressed by the bland samey-ness of the fare found in many supermarkets, he set off on a trip around the world to find the kind of local food that would fire his imagination and set his tastebuds a-tingling.
What he discovered, and indeed swallowed, wasn't everybody's cup of tea, but it did confirm his belief that Britons have much to gain if we reacquaint ourselves with local produce. For regional food offers variety, quality, and provides a link with our heritage.
So there he was eyeing water beetles in Laos and barnacles in Spain. There was seahorse satay. China offered millipede skewers. In Japan, the world's most poisonous fish awaited him. Sicily had the shadow of the Mafia hanging over it, and boiled octopus on the table.
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Bee pupae are quite nice, he reports. Tom's a confessed fan of all things spicy, so a chilli-eating competition in New Mexico was right up his street - though hot sauces with names like Colon Cleanser might make the rest of us think twice.
His quest wasn't confined to foreign parts. In England's West Country, for example, he found elvers - young eels that go down well when cooked, seasoned, and served with fried bacon. He didn't actually partake, though, as they're too precious to the local economy: they can fetch £400 a kilo.
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The result of his odyssey is The Year of Eating Dangerously - an antidote to the blandness that so irked him.
“Although it sounds rather sensationalist, it was more trying, through all these weird foods, first of all to say they're not all weird in context, and secondly to see the good in all cuisines - which was very easy to do wherever I went,” he explains.
“In the places I visited, the local cuisine was alive and thriving. I wanted it to be a celebration of all the places I went to, as well as a trip through them.”
So, what was the best and worst to pass between his lips?
“There was a particularly good bowl of noodle soup on some roadside stall in Laos” - the communist state in southeast Asia, squeezed between Vietnam and Thailand - “that cost about 20p. I quite like simple things like that.”
And the yuckiest?
“I wouldn't eat the silkworm pupae again in Korea. They were pretty rank.” They brought to mind freshly-dug graves. “I wouldn't eat dog again. There's not a lot else. There were things I didn't hate but which I probably wouldn't rush back to try.”
The trip changed the way he viewed food.
“By the end, I could pretty much eat anything. It was about stripping about the western preconceptions about what a bug meant to us, and trying it for its taste. It's pretty easy even to eat raw tripe, once you've got used to it! It's another piece of meat.”
He doesn't think it was so risky, either. As he says in his book: “A Big Mac and large fries is far more dangerous to your health than dog stew or snake soup. Yet it's the idea of the latter two that disgusts us, rather than the taste itself.”
Tom, son of the Duchess of Cornwall, is a food critic for a national newspaper and a style magazine. Things edible occupy his thoughts, and often his dreams. “I've always been greedy! I can't remember a time when I wasn't interested in food. It was made all the more passionate after going to prep school” - in Oxfordshire - “when I was eight and the food was really bad there.
“Having had eight years of delicious, home-cooked, local, seasonal food from our own garden and farm, it was a bit of a shock. And then, after that, I just became more and more obsessed with it.”
His father, Andrew, loved growing vegetables, and his appreciation of food has also come from his mother, Camilla. “She didn't cook cakes, or anything like that, but she was a good cook.”
The Duchess of Cornwall still has a home in Wiltshire and her son says a weekend visit is a delight. His mother will cook the food he likes - he has a penchant for roasts - and he speaks highly of her personal qualities: she's amusing, kind, and takes life in her stride.
Tom, 32 a week before Christmas, became a committed culinary evangelist after eating a couple of supermarket ready-meals.
“I realised more and more that people would happily buy that stuff. And I understand. I work from home, so I've got the luxury of being able to cook when I want.” (He and wife Sara, fashion features editor at Harper's Bazaar magazine, married just over a year ago and live in a flat in Notting Hill. Tom confirms he can happily spend all morning planning and cooking lunch.) “But ready-meals are just so bland. They're anti-food! And, after a while, they all seem to taste the same.”
He's into his stride now. “Food is more than just filling your belly at lunch or dinner; it's enmeshed in politics, in the economics of the country. All this cheap food will, in the long term, be very expensive to us, as obesity goes up and the whole National Health system feels the strain of bad eating.”
Things slid in Britain, he argues, following the industrialisation of the countryside, the drift of the population from rural areas to the cities, and the effects of two world wars in relatively quick succession. Much of the rural labour force was co-opted into the war effort, “moved together to make edible fodder rather than artisan food, and people got more and more used to convenience food.
The supermarkets grow ever more powerful, he claims - to the detriment of regional fare. “The supermarkets are anti-local. Supermarkets like centralisation - one big plant - so that apples grown in Norfolk are taken all the way down to Milton Keynes to be processed and then sent up to Scotland. They want one easy system. “What some supermarkets have done is sort of artificially fix the market: they lock farmers into these low prices. 'If we don't buy it, no-one else will.' “
Happily, he thinks we're at the point where the tide is turning. Thanks to the efforts of passionate foodies such as Jamie Oliver, “great producers”, and enthusiastic food writers and chefs, we're beginning to appreciate afresh British food.
“At the moment it's still slightly a middle-class issue, with farmers' markets. What really has to be done is a complete revolution; everyone deserves good, fresh food. That's happening slowly and it's very important. That's why, for me, we've always got to be supporting our farmers.”
Good food does cost money, he accepts. “Slowly-reared pigs and cows do cost more because they take longer to come to the finishing stage. Intensive farming I don't agree with, with broiler chickens and thousands and thousands of them kept. I believe in this slightly old-fashioned way of doing it. It doesn't have to be organic - just respect the Earth and respect your animals.”
It sounds as if he has much in common with the man he refers to as “Sir”: his stepfather, His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales.
“Yes. He knows a lot more than me, but I agree with everything he says about food, and I've learned a lot from him.”
So how do we attract more converts?
“To start with, try to eat less of these very, very processed foods, and rediscover the kitchen. It's a very basic thing: just start with chopping up some tomatoes. That's, again, why someone like Jamie Oliver is so important: because the key is to get people young. You've got to get children to understand, so the next generation will grow up as food-lovers.”
Tom learned some cookery skills on a course during his last year at Eton, the combination of “food and a pretty teacher” too tempting to ignore!
Should cookery lessons be made compulsory for all students?
“I don't think forcing anyone to do anything is the best idea, but I do think it's important to do at least a couple of years of domestic science or cookery, to learn the basics. It's as an important part of the curriculum as anything else. It just seems to have died out.”
So what we should do is identify seasonal foods local to use, source quality ingredients, and learn to cook it well?
“Exactly - and it's also about getting enjoyment out of food wherever you are. You've got in your area some of the best food in the whole of England. I had a girlfriend who was at UEA” - the university at Norwich - “and so I came up a lot. The Cromer crab is just wonderful. Each county has its own speciality and things that work there; we just need a re-finding-out of these specialities.”
It's still tough to put into practice, though, surely? Most people are fighting to pay the bills, and popping a ready-meal in the microwave for three minutes at 700 watts is about all most of us can cope with.
“I understand it. It's just a question of finding out about the farmers around you and buying from them - shortening the supply chain. Then you'll know exactly where your food comes from and you can talk to the farmer about it.”
Tom's also convinced the process of eating properly - selecting the ingredients, taking care and pride in its preparation, and then sharing the eating of it with friends or family - is good for our mental state as well as our physical condition.
“Oh, it's most important. It strengthens families; it brings people together. The centre of a happy life, I think, is a happy kitchen.”
TOM'S research took him on a 12-month, 20,000-air-mile hop across four continents. It also put two inches on his waistline. But it was a worthwhile trip.
“My palate had been teased, tantalised, befouled, astounded, thrilled, delighted and disgusted. Rarely bored though, in the way one of those supermarket meals can only do,” he concludes.
He's optimistic there will come a time when food is a national debate in the UK, “not just on BBC2 and Channel 4 but in the streets, shopfronts and sitting rooms. I dream of the day when each village has a total belief in the inherent superiority of their own regional recipes . . .”
The Year of Eating Dangerously is published by Ebury at £14.99. ISBN 0091904900
TOM Parker Bowles' visit to Essex on November 2 marks the launch of a new food book club.
Members of the public can dine on recipes chosen by a different writer each month while listening to the author. There's also a question-and-answer session over coffee, and the price includes a signed copy of the book.
To book tickets for Tom's visit, call Kate Livingstone at The Food Company (lunch, £30) on 01206 214000 or Baumanns Brasserie (dinner, £35) on 01376 561453.
The Food Book Club has been started by Julie Millar, who recently moved to the area after working in food marketing in London.
The Food Company, at Marks Tey, is a restaurant and foodstore. Baumanns Brasserie, a 16th century building in Coggeshall, is owned by master chef Mark Baumann, well known for his appearances in TV series such as Baumann goes to Market.