I want to tell you a story. It is the story of how we became so disconnected from the food we eat, and it is a story which began a great many years ago.
Once upon a time we all shared the land and the fruits it produced. We were hunter-gatherers back then, and we worked cooperatively to hunt, collect and share the food we ate. The concept of land ownership did not exist. Indeed, the notion that any of us should have rights of ownership over any part of this planet, when we are all just temporary residents, would have seemed absurd.
But then, after a few thousand years, things began to change.
We gradually learned how to tame the land and to cultivate crops and rear animals. Even then, the land remained common, and people continued to work together and to share the fruits of their labour. Everyone knew where their food had come from. Most of it they would have grown or reared themselves, the rest would have been produced by a near neighbour.
But then a greedy minority decided they wanted more than the rest.
Sometimes surreptitiously, and sometimes using brute force, that minority began gradually to fence off some of that common land and to claim it as theirs alone.
By the thirteenth century this process of land appropriation had gathered such momentum, creating a landed nobility, that the king of the day, Henry III, legalised it in a document which became known as the Statute of Merton.
Over the next six centuries many more pieces of legislation, called Enclosure Acts, followed, each of which further legitimised the appropriation of common land by the nobility. Hunting grounds and profitable farms arose on the stolen land, and these required fewer people to work on them. The common land continued to shrink, and the poor folk who continued to try to scrape a living there were referred to, disparagingly, as “commoners”.
The enclosure acts were accompanied by other legislation – for example anti-poaching laws and laws criminalising the collecting of firewood – which placed more pressure on the poor commoners, who were already struggling to eke out a living from the remaining common land. Theirs had become a mean, subsistence-level existence, but now it was becoming impossible.
So, gradually, the poor began to migrate to the towns and cities to look for work. As the industrial revolution took hold, they became factory fodder, working in often appalling conditions for pitiful wages and from those wages having to buy the food they once produced themselves.
By the time the last of the enclosure acts came into force in the late 19th century, millions of acres of once common land had become privately owned, concentrated in the hands of a few wealthy farmers and landed aristocracy.
The common land stolen in this way had been “legitimised” through the drawing up of title deeds, and it has been handed down ever since from generation to generation of rich families in the form of inherited wealth.
We do still have some small pockets of common land in the UK, but of the rest over 90% is concentrated in the hands of just 0.3% of the population.
The rest of us – 99.7% of the population – are huddled together on the remaining land. For this privilege we pay billions of pounds a year in the form of Council tax, whilst the big landowners with their stolen inherited estates receive billions of pounds each year in the form of subsidies from the EU and the British government.
That, then, is the story of how we became alienated from the land, a consequence of which is our alienation from the source of the food we eat.
Today, in our urbanised lives, less than 4% of us attempt to grow any of the food we eat. Vast, mechanised farms predominate the agricultural economy. Almost all of us shop in supermarkets. Some of us rely almost entirely on take-away foods and ready meals. Many children have little idea of where their food comes from. Malnutrition is on the rise, not because of a lack of food but because of the lack of good, fresh food in our diets. The provision of the food we eat has been largely outsourced to vast corporations. They process that food before it reaches us, often adding chemicals and cheap bulking agents to it, and even genetically altering it.
Where once we had a modicum of self-sufficiency now we are almost helpless in our dependence on supermarkets, take away foods and ready meals: inevitable consequences of a centuries-long process of theft and forced alienation from the land and the soil.
How can we reconnect with what has been taken from us, when a tiny but powerful minority now own all the key resources? I don’t have the answer, but perhaps we should look for clues back in the timeline of this story of greed and loss.
Growing and producing our own food, even if we only do it in modest quantities, echoes what we once were. Before they were broken, the original commoners were poor, but they at least had the pride and strength that comes from self-sufficiency and cooperation. Growing our own food, and encouraging others to do the same, is a political act, a small act of dissent and defiance, and a first step on the long road to reclaiming the food we eat.
I am one of the 99.7%, but also one of the tiny proportion that does grow a small amount of food. Particularly abundant in my garden this year has been the pear harvest and I’ve used some of our crop of Conference pears to make this lovely dessert.
Pear and star anise is a marriage of flavours made in heaven. In this recipe they create a beautifully balanced, light, refreshing sorbet.
The pear wafers aren’t difficult to make and they do add a touch of refinement.
pear and star anise sorbet with pear wafers
1 kg ripe conference pears
6 star anise
juice of one lemon
240 ml maple syrup
for the pear wafers
1 firm pear, sliced very thinly (use a mandolin if available)
2 tbsp maple syrup
1. Peel, core and chop the pears. Place in a pan and stir in the lemon juice. Add the star anise and maple syrup and place over a medium heat. Once the mixture begins to simmer, reduce the heat to low. Simmer gently for 20 minutes or until the pear has become soft. Remove from the heat and leave to cool to room temperature.
2. Remove the star anise from the pan, then pour the pears and cooking syrup into a blender and process until smooth. Pour into an ice cream maker and churn. Once it is starting to set, tip the sorbet into a freezer proof container. Cover the container with a lid and freeze for at least 4 hours.
3. For the pear wafers, pre-heat the oven to 130°C (250°F, gas mark ½). Brush the pear slices very lightly on each side with the maple syrup. Place on baking sheet lined with baking parchment. Place the tray in the pre-heated oven and roast the pear slices for 45 minutes, carefully turning them over half way through the cooking time. Remove from the oven and immediately place the pear wafers on a wire rack to cool.
4. Remove the sorbet from the freezer and leave to stand at room temperature for 10 minutes before serving. Serve a scoop or two of sorbet with a pear wafer.