Introduction

Introduction

By
Gill Meller
Contains
0 recipes
Published by
Quadrille Publishing
ISBN
978 184949 713 8
Photographer
Andrew Montgomery

I’ve always liked the word ‘gather’. It feels hopeful; natural and very human. It’s a word that embodies many of the simple things we do every day. As people, we gather in one way or another all the time. It’s what we do.

Our early ancestors were known as ‘hunter-gatherers’. They thrived on food from the landscapes that surrounded them: nuts and fruits from the ancient woodlands; fish, seafood and sea weeds from the coastline; plants and herbs from the hedgerows and riverbanks; and meat from the forests and fields.

Each landscape provided them with the diverse range of foods they needed to develop strong, healthy family groups. Our early understanding of wild foods (both plants and animals) led to their cultivation and domestication and the growth of agricultural societies as we know them today. Inspite of this, I think we all still harbour that primitive characteristic to gather, as well as a deep connection to the landscapes we live in.

The reality is, we all have to eat. Few of us can go around picking berries and tracking deer. Between checking emails and doing the school run there’s no time. That said, we still gather – we still make a considered motion to collect and assemble ingredients: a loaf of bread; fruit from the greengrocer; cheese; a jar of honey. We lift them in our arms and take them home. In many cases we present them to someone and share them.

The way we gather has evolved, and perhaps inevitably our modern ways have meant we’ve lost a handle on where our food comes from. And our modern way of eating can mean that, quite often, we don’t spend enough time together enjoying a meal.

This multilayered word, ‘gather’, with all its significance and implications, has helped me find a way to make the most of the food that I eat with my family and friends. It’s given me a path to tread that makes sense to me as a cook, and it’s given me a genuine appreciation for the happiness that sharing food with other people can bring.

My own gatherings release me, for a time, from the four walls of my kitchen. They take me beyond the door of the supermarket, and away from the noise of the cities and towns. I go out into the light and air of the landscapes that surround me, because I believe that sometimes the best way to get great ingredients is by going directly to the source.

I’ve always been fascinated by the language of our food-producing landscapes through the year. The stop and start of the land’s seasonal output intrigues me. The pace of change, the aesthetic of time, of weather and of light. The flood, the ebb, the disparity in the garden from dawn to dusk. The clarity of frost, the haze of the high-summer harvest, the bleak beauty of February in contrast to the breathtaking panoply of autumn’s hues. Every time, every year. It’s my clock to cook by. For me, landscapes can evoke memories and awaken the senses in the same way food can. A field of barley reminds me of malt, and my father’s tobacco. The heady air of wild garlic in a spring woodland goes hand in hand with the prickly sting of green-barbed nettles, and I recall the endless potions, lotions and concoctions I used to simmer up over campfires as a child. Whether or not these early experiments with fire and food formed the bedrock for my love of seasonal cooking is hard to say, but they certainly helped me develop my curiosity about what landscapes could offer at particular times of year.

I remember, one autumn day when I was nine or ten years old, my friend and I picked a couple of handfuls of field mushrooms. We climbed up an old beech tree and made a small fire in the hollow where the big limbs met the trunk. We cooked the mushrooms, smoky and blistered, and we ate them in the branches of the tree. We had no idea whether they were edible! When I eat mushrooms nowadays I always remember this. I am thankful to be alive, but even more thankful for the memory and the connection with the landscape that I made that day.

The majority of our modern landscapes are now managed, and many far more intensively than they should be. But happily there are still places where the ingredients haven’t changed much at all. Over the years and throughout my culinary career, I’ve been fortunate enough to meet and work with many food producers. There are few simpler, more honest ways to support oneself than working with raw and real ingredients in an ethical and sustainable way. These heroes of food production have a perceptive understanding of the environment and a direct responsibility to care for and nurture their landscape and its nature, in all its splendid degrees, in both a respectful and a considered way. They know that we are all the benefactors.

These remarkable people are as much a part of the evening supper I enjoy to cook and eat, as they are part of their own ever-changing seasonal landscape. The fisherman, the sheep farmer, the gardener… these individuals are the soul and sap of any industrious kitchen, the blood and bones behind all those prime cuts in the butchers shop and the colour and crunch behind the salads, herbs and vegetables I’ve just picked up for the weekend.

This book isn’t just about the provenance of ingredients. It’s not necessarily about the people who grow, catch, farm, harvest or collect them either. It’s not even about the landscapes. It is, more or less, a collection of simple recipes I love to cook, centred on a group of seasonal ingredients of which I’m particularly fond. Through these ingredients I hope to give every home cook an idea of context; a sense of the productive and beautiful places these foods come from. I’m sure many of them are ingredients you spend time preparing in your kitchen, too.

Alongside this, my book is very much about that moment of pleasure when we first taste a dish. That fraction of time given over to the appreciation of all that makes a mouthful of food a joy. It should be this way; joy is, after all, the single most wonderful thing about eating, as pure an emotion as love or fear: the fragility of a perfectly cooked piece of fish as it flakes in the mouth, or the crispness of a fried potato, spiked by the hard edge of rosemary’s perfume; the clean, glassy crunch of a fresh lettuce leaf, a lick of lemony acidity its only foil. All these gorgeous textures, tastes and smells are owed in part to the cook’s careful and sure hand, but also to the journey the ingredient has made before it hits the plate or the pan or the hot embers of a barbecue.

For me, this way of thinking makes the whole experience of cooking all the more rewarding. In many respects, the act of cooking is simply a culmination, an ingredient’s ‘last dance’, so to speak. Take a bacon sandwich, for example. Turn the clock back four seasons, to the beginning of the journey, and what you’ve eaten would look very different indeed. It would look like a freshly sown field of wheat and a newly farrowed pink piglet.

If you have an opportunity, go back to the beginning occasionally. Try stopping at a farm gate once in a while, or chatting to the fishermen at the harbourside. Go to a ‘pick-your-own’ cooperative in June or July. You’ll find you nearly always end up with the freshest and most delicious ingredients to cook with; you may even meet the producers themselves. What’s more, you’ll be able to support them directly and see where your food comes from. I’d also implore you to have a go at gathering a little of your food for free, straight from the hedgerow or the seashore. A simple walk with a basket in hand may well turn out to be a productive adventure, giving you the basis of a satisfying supper.

My respect for and appreciation of good fresh, seasonal ingredients and where they come from have shaped and honed the way I cook. They have taught me to rely more and more on the natural qualities they possess, and helped me to define a style of cooking that is both simple and, for the most part, quick. Mine is an approach that doesn’t call for complex processes or tricky techniques. More often than not, my recipes contain just three or four main ingredients combined in such a way as to complement each other without compromise. My ideas are conceived out of a love for simple, but not always typical, combinations. The role of each element within the dish is usually quite obvious, but in many cases will also bring a subtlety and delicacy.

Over the last two decades, I’ve discovered that cooking with the seasons is not only the best way to enjoy great ingredients in their prime, but also the most creative way to embrace them. It locks me into the patterns of a year like nothing else. I’ve learned to make the most of what I have in the moment, and to anticipate the new with reverence and desire. In a sense, then, Gather has become a philosophy for a more mindful way to cook and to eat.

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