Back in 1989 the great American writer and farmer, Wendell Berry, polished off a little essay entitled “The Pleasures of Eating”. It was in this brief and thoughtful piece that Berry first coined the line that has come to be most closely associated with his work: “Eating is an agricultural act”, wrote the farmer from Kentucky, and when he drew up a set of seven rules to help people to “eat responsibly”, the third rule went like this: “Learn the origins of the food you buy, and buy the food that is produced closest to your home. The idea that every locality should be, as much as possible, the source of its own food makes several kinds of sense. The locally produced food supply is the most secure, the freshest, and the easiest for local consumers to know about and to influence”.
I like that phrase, “several kinds of sense”, but have always been a little surprised that Berry didn’t specifically say that eating locally produced food is, of course, the best food for our health. And I was thinking about Mr Berry as I travelled around the country recently, for I reckon old Wendell would have had a happy time accompanying me as I went to Donegal, to Tipp’, and twice to County Laois, once for Electric Picnic, and recently to attend the party for the opening of the farm shop at Jim and Bernadine Mulhall’s Coolanowle organic farm.
I think, for example, that it would have been rather nice to present Wendell with some EP lunch in the form of a hamburger, that most reviled, industrialised and anti-local foodstuff. Except that amongst the burgers at EP, the burgers from Orla Clancy’s Clanwood Farm consisted of this: organic Offaly beef from Clanwood farm; organic Offaly bread rolls from Coolfinn Bakery; organic Offaly cheese from Mossfield Farm, and organic Offaly salad leaves from Lough Boora farm.
It was the hamburger, made into the quintessential local foodstuff, at the local festival.
On my next trip to Laois, we had a great dinner in a marquee at Cooleanowle Farm where the Mulhall family spit-roasted one of their own organic pigs, and served the sweet, delicious pork with local potatoes, local salad leaves, Bernadine’s fresh breads, local rhubarb and apple crumble, and sublime seasonal berries with home made custard. Gorgeous food, all from the farm and its neighborhood.
And I had a similar experience in Tipperary, at the Tipp’ Long Table dinner, as dozens of us enjoyed Tipperary foods – mushrooms from Munster Mushrooms in a gorgeous soup with a lovage cappucino; Martin O’Dwyer’s rack of lamb from Cashel; Crowe’s Farm belly of pork from Dundrum; O’Brien’s apples from Cahir in a sorbet; Pat Whelan’s beef from Clonmel; Cashel Blue cheese from Fethard; Summer berries from Con Traas’s farm between Cahir and Clonmel.
And had Wendell journeyed with us up to the Inisowen peninsula in Donegal, he would have enjoyed Greencastle gurnard and langoustines, Edenmore Farm beef and lamb, Braemar Farm ice creams and Whiteoaks kerr’s pink potatoes at Harry’s in Brigend, or maybe some Kettyle beef and Buncrana fish and Greenhill Farm organic vegetables in The Beach House at Buncrana.
When Wendell Berry was writing his essay, my wife and I were just setting off to write about Irish food. Back in 1989, what was considered posh and serious in Irish restaurant cooking was to offer foreign-produced, imported foods – French foie gras; Serrano ham; Japanese beef; Italian oils. What we had ourselves wasn’t considered serious, never mind being world-class in terms of quality.
Twenty years on, and serious Irish restaurants – not to mention serious music festivals – are judged not just by what local foods they have, but by how local are the local foods? All from one county? Great! All from one peninsula? Fantastic! All from one farm? Bring it on.
Of course, this sea change is good for local economies. But it seems to me that it may be even better for our health. None of the foods I ate on my travels had any additives or any nonsense. They were pure, local, seasonal, natural Irish foods, with virtually no food miles under their belts. It goes without saying, of course, that everything I ate was world-class delicious. But the foods were also world-class health foods, whether it was a locally produced and cooked organic burger, or a slice of Tipperary blue cheese.
It not only makes sense, it makes several kinds of sense. And there is one further health element invloved in supporting your local heroes and county champions: mental health. “The knowledge of the good health of the garden relieves and frees and comforts the eater. The same goes for eating meat. The thought of the good pasture and of the calf contentedly grazing flavours the steak”, writes Berry in a particularly beautiful line, to which he might have added the fact that the good pasture also gives the beef the good Omega 3s and 6s you need for your body. Berry concludes: “The pleasure of eating, then, may be the best available standard of our health”. Nice to know that, throughout Ireland, thanks to our good farmers and artisans,we have a world-class standard of health care.