Enrooting out the problem

Features Food and Drink

When, in November 2014, disgruntled French farmers dumped manure and sprayed slurry in towns and cities throughout the not-really-hexagonal-shaped nation, they appeared to have catastrophically misinterpreted the revolutionary slogan ‘make the streets run red with blood’. As a new brown, white and blue flag was raised above the excrement covered boulevards, the confused onlookers probably stood around asking questions like “quoi?” and “what’s with all the faeces?” I wonder if they’ll be able to use the story to make a hit musical and award winning Hollywood movie.

Admittedly, as a demonstration against the field of problems which now affect agriculture across swathes of Europe, the protest may have been rather effective. Sorry for all the bull(and sheep and horse and pig and goat)shit. Increasingly, small-scale farmers find it difficult to break even, let alone turn a profit, due to a series of problematic problems: falling milk prices, cuts in government and EU subsidies and the Tesco-isation of the green and pleasant land. Fortunately, the National Farmers Union in Britain haven’t shown the same proclivity for poo in their remonstrations as their colleagues across the Channel. More like lobbying governmental institutions and attempting to raise awareness with the general public and that.

These and a range of food-based anecdotes were on the menu during an intersation/ converview™ (get in touch if you’re interested in purchasing the trademark) with Charlie Buchanan-Smith, the press officer of the Enroot Collective. Enroot describes itself (on its website, at least) as ‘a nomadic, grassroots venture’, which aspires to counter the ‘ever-increasing disconnect between the food people eat and the farmers who produce it’, in a bid to save the ‘generations of knowledge embodied in any one farm or farmer’. This is possible, in Charlie’s words, by “raising awareness of how good local food can be”. As the old proverb goes, the way to a man’s sense of connection with local agriculture is through his stomach. Right?

To do this, Enroot travelled around the UK during the summer, holding dinner events at various farms. With a livestock trailer full of culinary equipment and an enormous marquee dating from the Second World War, the collective aimed to host events for thirty people at a time, showcasing a best of local produce. After setting up their pop-up kitchen in the farmyard, the small team had a week to make contact with producers in the surrounding area, source enough food for the meal and design a menu.

The project was not without its difficulties. “Apart from the power from a couple of generators,” Charlie explained, “We didn’t have electricity”. That meant that all the cooking had been done over an open fire. This was no barbecue either: rather than a few chipolatas, the team were roasting half a lamb (which took six hours on its own), or salted trout, which was wrapped in foil and buried underneath the fire. In the Cotswolds, the dining marquee was blown over in a storm and ripped down the middle, while, in their last dinner, a temperamental generator stopped working, leaving the dessert barely set in the fridge.

In spite of challenges, the events were overwhelmingly successful. As the guests tasted the quality of food that could be prepared using only local sources, they realised, in Charlie’s words, “this is damn cool”. The collective were encouraged to launch more events.

A butchery course which was organised in early January by Charlie and his brother, a co-founder of Enroot, was a first step. The pair want to show consumers the origins of their meat; Charlie pointed out that “unless meat has a cellophane wrapper, you don’t think you can eat it.” As someone whose love of meat is matched only by an infatuation with cellophane, I can only agree. After a demonstration by a butcher, the students were encouraged to prepare cuts of the pork themselves and to take home the results (up to half a pig, depending on which cuts they had selected). Quite some party bag, eh. Maybe more like a party sack. By understanding the process by which meat is produced, Charlie and his brother hope that students will learn to value meat more. This is so important, according to Charlie, because of the environmental impact of intense meat farming: “We eat far too much meat now,” he suggests.

A story which Charlie told about a dairy farmer whom he met encapsulates, I think, what Enroot is trying to stop. Starting work when he was sixteen, the farmer, over fifty years later, has had only one full week of holiday – for his honeymoon. Apparently, he even felt guilty about taking that week off. A sharp fall in the price of milk, however, now makes dairy farming in the UK incredibly unprofitable; it costs approximately 30 pence to produce a litre of milk, for which farmers are paid about 23 pence. If this kind of practice is not reversed, then small-scale farmers will be driven out of business and we’ll see the cows come home for the very last time.