A couple of days ago I was invited to the book launch of The Sweet Spud by Zuzana Klímová in Belfast. I admit that one of my motivators for coming to this event was that it was held at the Brewbot where they serve craft beers… I am in the lucky position where I have had very few health issues in my life and can eat just about anything without suffering from any food intolerances or allergies. Saying that, I have always eaten well, real food made from scratch. My parents didn’t have much money when I was young, but the one thing my mother would never scrimp on was food. She always ensured we had a variety of healthy food made from scratch with the best possible ingredients and I carried that on into my own adulthood, hence I wasn’t really on the market for a vegan, gluten and sugar free cook book.
Meeting Zuzana and reading her book I realise that not everybody is as lucky as me. She had suffered from childhood with Irritable Bowel Disease which eventually, after years of mistreatment by the medical profession flared up into an ulcerative colitis. Originally from Prague, she came to Belfast in 2002 and found a health professional who got her on the way to a healthier diet. However as she found omitting so many things from her diet, she literally had to re-learn how to cook, which, after many years of experimenting and learning from others, gave birth to this little book.
In the first part of the book she describes her own journey and why you may want to or need to follow her path. Her explanations are well researched and she never goes into a preachy style, saying everyone should avoid gluten, or dairy etc. It does tell you though how to restore balance to your digestive system, so that being healthy you can enjoy the odd bit of organic meat or fish or free range egg. As long as everything is in moderation. The second part of the book gives the recipes, many surrounding sweet potato of course as the title suggests, some tips on fermenting foods to improve the gut flora, gluten free bread alternatives, soups, dips and so on.
It is a nicely presented book, which won’t take too much space amongst your cookery books on your kitchen shelf. The only criticism I might have is that it uses mostly imported ingredients. Coconut in various forms features a lot, the sweet potato doesn’t really like the Irish climate, yacon, cocoa, goji berries, avocado are all imported. This not only adds to their carbon footprint, but also makes them fickle to currency exchange, trade agreements and potential future price hikes (especially with the dipping Pound at the moment) and shortages. I will use this book though in the future, as we often get helpers and visitors with dietary restrictions and I can dip into this book for some inspiration.
To give you an idea of my own personal food philosophy, below is a talk I gave this summer at the Sunflower Fest.
We have all heard the latest food fads or government advice on what to eat and what not to eat. Don’t eat bacon, it will give you cancer. Goji berries are the new superfood. Cut out fats or carbohydrates to loose weight. Eat oily fish for omega 3 fatty acids, but not too often as it may contain contaminants. Turmeric heals almost everything. Bananas prevent cancer, heart disease and other diseases. Some food choices are based on ethical or religious grounds. The reason you are always tired might stem from a gluten intolerance. Some people don’t want to kill sentient beings and become vegetarian. Others take this further: if I eat eggs or milk, it requires males to be born as well, which go into the food chain, hence they become vegans. Some religions forbid the consumption of meat or certain types of meat, or indeed certain plants. Vegetarianism can also be a political choice, arguing that meat production requires more land per calorie than the equivalent in plant matter. I’m not going into any of those arguments right now, because we can be standing here arguing about it all day, but the fact is they are all driven by out intellect.
With such an array of different choices and conflicting advice, it’s hard to know what we should and shouldn’t eat. The choices in our supermarkets keep growing too. Not only do we get more and more exotic ingredients from all over the world, but various vegetables or fruits are available throughout the year, regardless of the season.
I grew up during a time when strawberries were only available in shops for maybe 4 weeks a year, usually the same time as asparagus. We bought apples and pears in autumn. I remember when the first courgettes turned up on our local market. We thought they were some kind of exotic cucumber. To this day, people in rural areas of Southern Europe are far more connected to their food and eat mainly local and seasonal. An Italian Mama will not serve you a fresh tomato salad in the middle of winter. In the village where we lived in Italy there is a shop specialising in citrus fruit from Sicily. It is only open from November to May, the citrus season. The rest of the year the shop is simply closed!
Where am I going with all this? For 5 years while living in Italy, we lived on virtually no money. We ate what we grew on our land and what we foraged. I became very good on the foraging, looking over peoples shoulders, researching on line and in books and finally developing an instinct on what might or might not be edible. There were 2 things I discovered while living like this:
Whatever nature produces at any particular time of year in any particular climate, is exactly what your body needs at that time and place. Spring is the traditional time that the subsistence farmer has his so-called ‘hunger gap’. His crops haven’s started yielding yet and at the same time his stores of preserves from the previous year are starting to run low. This is the time that nature produces an abundance of fresh, succulent leaves. Many of them have medicinal properties as cleansers, giving the whole body a thorough spring clean, from liver to kidneys, bladder, prostate, spleen and blood. In summer the days are longer and we tend to live more active outdoor lives. It’s then we have an abundance of field crops, fresh fruit and berries that don’t store well, etc, giving us all the easily accessible energy to keep us going. Autumn is when the starchy root and nut crops ripen, most of them storable, as well as more storable fruit, such as apples and pears. All these carbohydrates give our bodies some sustenance to prepare for the lean winter months, where we also need more energy to generate heat, but more slow release energy. Come spring, the body needs cleansing again after eating mostly starchy food over the winter and so the cycle begins again. Our problem is we have become detached from the cycles of nature, whether it is that we sit in an air-conditioned/central-heated office rather than in the great outdoors or whether we fall for the trap that we insist on eating strawberries or fresh tomatoes at Christmas time or indeed eat tons of processed food.
Wild foods are the real nutritional powerhouses. All cultivated plants were bred by our ancestors to be bigger, more uniform, ripen at roughly the same time, easier to harvest, prettier looking, sweeter tasting, etc. What we lost in the process is actual nutritional value. If you have ever tasted a wild strawberry compared to a cultivated one. In size the wild one is perhaps a tenth of the cultivated, but the flavour of the wild one is at least ten time that of the cultivated one and the same applies to the nutritional value. In other words all we have gained is water. If you ever get to taste a wild lettuce, you will find it very bitter, depending on the particular species. We have weaned ourselves off those bitter flavours, but you can get used to it again. Bitter flavoured leaves are usually the ones good for the liver and waterworks, cleansing our body of toxins and other unwanted substances. And concentrations of vitamins and minerals are much higher than in their cultivated cousins. All cultivated plants have their origins in some wild plant. Take Swiss chard or beetroot compared to sea beet, which grows abundantly around our coasts and can be harvested almost all year. For free!!!
There was a Japanese guy called Masanobu Fukuoka, who is credited with the ‘invention’ of Natural Farming’. He had an acre and a half where he grew rice and barley on a no-till bases and some 15 acres of fruit orchard. Amongst his fruit orchard he scattered seed bombs, balls made from clay, compost and a relatively random mix of seeds. He let nature decide which places were the best for which vegetable or herb to grow. These plants would then run to seed, happily cross breeding at the same time, and sow themselves out again wherever they found a suitable spot. These vegetables grown by this method/philosophy, reverted back towards their wild cousins, in that they were a bit more bitter again, but their nutrient values went up at the same time.
His take on food, as well as farming, was that nature should be our guide and human opinions, even science should be ignored. According to him a natural diet defines itself according to the local environment and the needs and physical constitution of each person. Animals know instinctively what constitutes a complete diet for them. When people became isolated from nature they lost that instinctive ability and came to rely on intellect to figure out what they should eat. Today there are diets based on philosophy, religious beliefs, theories of human evolution, ethical considerations and any number of things.
Many people rely on Western nutritional science, which more or less promotes the idea that good health is maintained through a well balanced diet of a set amount of protein, starch, fat, minerals and vitamins. It does not take into account that each person is different, that they live in different climates and that food naturally is only available during certain seasons. Following this scientific diet means that a full array of foods must always be available. To provide foods out of season we either need to grow it under artificial conditions or it needs to be shipped from a long distance. Either way, the flavours will be watered down and nutritional value is diminished, meaning we have to take vitamin supplements and add hp sauce to our food to make it taste of something
To conclude, to get back to a wholesome natural diet we must start rediscovering our instincts, our intuition. Observe what happens in nature, try growing some of your own food and see what works. All these so-called super foods have a native equivalent. Bananas? I have stopped eating bananas ever since I have eaten fresh seasonal bananas in India, different varieties of them, different colours and just so much more tasty than those tasteless things you buy in a supermarket here and no doubt richer in nutrient. Check out farmer’s markets, which should only sell local and seasonal produce. Look out for seasonal cycles. And spend time out in nature to get feel for her again.