The Real Food Companion by Matthew Evans
Recipes and food philosophy from the Gourmet Farmer
By Kerry Scambler
You could fill a large library with the thousands of books on cooking, gardening, preserving, organic and environmental advice – and many carry genuine words of wisdom and great recipes.
But whether your better food choices are motivated by mainly selfish reasons (health and flavour), by being kinder to the animals that feed us, by your children's wellbeing, the bigger planetary picture, or all these reasons and more, then make The Real Food Companion by Matthew Evans your bible.
With an election campaign in full swing in Australia, the mere mention of the overused and under-delivered word sustainability is likely to bring instant twitches to your face, trying to stifle the impending yawn in anticipation of the endless waffle and procrastination that washes over us. But pick up this book (carefully, it’s a weighty 5kg) and turn to the prologue and you’ll quickly realise what this is really about.
In this poignant and heartfelt message to his (then) unborn son, Matthew wonders what the world might be like when his child can read his book, and even further into his future. Will salinity, climate change, bio-diversity and other global problems be overwhelming or will the current efforts of dedicated individuals to bring change be enough?
He then shares some wise advice on what to take through life: a good sense of humour, a good heart and a good knowledge of food. And to help his son with the latter, Matthew has condensed what he knows about food into this book – and at over 560 pages, that’s quite a bit of knowledge.
But first, who is Matthew Evans to be providing us with this weighty tome about real food? Obviously there’s no need to introduce him to the many fan(atical) viewers of his TV show Gourmet Farmer, aired on Australian television channel SBS early in 2010 and hopefully to return later this year in series two. Nor to the many readers of the Sydney Morning Herald and his sometimes stinging reviews of restaurants.
In a nutshell, he’s a former chef turned 'feared' food critic who decided to go to the source of real, good, food. And I, one amongst many, applaud and heartily thank him for it.
The intention of The Real Food Companion is to help us to know how our food is made and grown and instil the food philosophy of ideally being one degree separated from source of your produce. In other words, if you can’t make it or grow it yourself, know the person who has. In the case of meat if you don’t know the producer personally, be best friends with your butcher if he does. The same goes for the fisherman, dairy producer and baker.
With every purchase we make, we each hold the power to make good choices over bad or hurried ones. If we could just manage to do the former, it could ultimately make our world better when we leave it.
Of course, we’re not perfect and sometimes we are tired, rushed or have no idea or inspiration of what to place on the table tonight, so we can make poor decisions. But, if we make good choices most of the time, not only will our taste buds and health thank us, we’ll be part of the change that’s already gaining momentum to claim back good food and heartfelt, flavoursome cooking.
But we have to beware the 'robbers of our palates' who according to Evans are those who focus only on efficiency, transportability and profitability (and researching and writing endless papers on these topics alone). Characteristics like: consistency of physical appearance over flavour; the ability to endure travelling long distances and arrive looking the part; surviving weeks or months refrigerated; animals treated without common decency – these are what we’re fighting if we’re going to campaign for real food.
Thankfully farmers' markets around the country are enjoying ever-increasing popularity and people are starting to feel more connected to what they eat. When you meet the producer, the person who has toiled to bring you this fresh produce usually straight off the ute, personally I think you gain more respect for the product as well.
During a recent regular Saturday ‘shed’ gathering with friends, as it often does the conversation turned from politics to gardening and deep discussion over which spuds we were all going to plant this year. Comments were made from former interstate residents about their arrival in Tasmania to find that the usual single box at the supermarket with a sign simply stating ‘potatoes’ have been replaced by four or five boxes with different names, all apparently with various talents in the kitchen.
Probably the most famous (and we believe the most delicious) spud of course being the South Arm pinkeye potato – a fact readily acknowledged by Evans in the chapter on root vegetables. Here he talks about a local farmer (and friend of said shed attendees above) Ian Grubb and his method of growing spuds simply for the best eating – not for how long they store or how well they transport. It’s the eating that’s the priority. And of course, as South Arm is where said shed gathering is based, it means that these are always on the planting list.
Since starting our own vegie gardens, one of the things I keep re-discovering and rejoicing in is that great, fresh produce doesn’t need much else, if anything, added. Carrots freshly pulled, peas straight from the vine, simply have an abundance of their own flavour – they taste like something and are wonderful eaten straight from the ground. Parsnip have their own special flavour and don't get me onto home-grown strawberries... All strikingly different to the supermarket versions which may look lovely but are simply bland, bland, bland and require all sorts of added herbs and spices, sauces and dips to bring some taste to the plate.
Then there’s what Evans calls ‘Frankenfoods’. I love the term. It’s things like orange juice with calcium, milk with fish oil: what seem to me to be weird concoctions aimed squarely at people who think they don’t have time to drink the plain, natural, original ingredients. It’s the quick fix we think: ‘I can get all those goodies in my cereal/shake etc, why waste time getting real fresh food, cooking it and actually tasting it?’ Why? Think flavour, simplicity, health, family food gatherings and the connection and joy a combination of these brings....
But onto the book. The Real Food Companion is divided into logical chapters on dairy; grains, pulses and flour; poultry and eggs; meat; seafood; vegetables; fruit; wild food; nuts, olives and oils and sweet foods. Each chapter then goes through the options, issues, common questions and of course, some wonderful recipes.
All the sections are useful but I found seafood section very interesting. After all there are a number of issues we see in the media these days about wild catch, by catch, threatened species, aquaculture, heavy metals, etc. What I personally appreciate about all issues raised is that there are facts stated, issues discussed, but you’re once never told what to think. Evans leaves it to each of us to judge for ourselves and perhaps even do more research, just to be sure.
I was also struck by the simplicity of the recipes – generally there’s no great long lists of ingredients and difficult instructions to follow. They are true to the book’s message that when something is fresh and cared for, you don’t need to create a whole swag of flavour-enhancing cover-ups. For a basic hand in the kitchen like myself, it’s all great news and there are many already on the menu for coming months.
Another result of having this book on hand in our home is the planning of not the second but our third caged vegie garden – even bigger than the others – because we want to increase the range of what we grow, eat, store and share. The last is a great delight as well, but not with the birds and possums (hence the cage).
Matthew Evans, you’ve certainly helped me make more right choices than wrong since I first lifted this book. I'm not sure my butcher was initially over the moon about some of the questions I’ve started asking, but he too understands and appreciates that things are changing and real food is becoming more important to many people.
This weighty book will be read and re-read in our household, discovering new things each time. Matthew Evans’ book really is my Real Food Companion for life – a better life all round that is.
The Real Food Companion by Matthew Evans is published by Murdoch Books (hb, 576 pp, Sydney 2010.) It retails for RRP A$89.95.
- Huon and Channel (TAS)
- Southern Tasmania (TAS)
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