Joanna Blythman Food Journalist

At Daylesford we believe in going back to ancient traditions in our approach to food. We farm our land organically, in harmony with the seasons and the environment.  In our organic farmshops and cafés, you will find food that has been hand-made on our farm using traditional, time-tested artisanal skills – no unnecessary chemicals, flavour enhancers, preservatives or GM so commonly found in processed food. 

The UK’s leading investigative journalist Joanna Blythman has a similar philosophy: that honest, simple food made by traditional means is far more appetising – not to mention more healthy – than industrially processed, modern manufactured food products.

I am delighted that Joanna has agreed to be our guest blogger and share an extract from her must-read latest book Swallow This. This piece of writing beautifully illustrates how food from the past can be more relevant than ever today.

“On the morning of 1 January 2014, I found myself standing in a blissfully quiet Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, looking at Floris Claesz. van Dijck’s inimitable painting, Still Life with Cheese. A table is draped in a damask cloth with a remarkably life-like meal set out upon it. Rough-hewn cheese, stacked in rugged halves, forms the centre point. Bowls spilling over with apples, pears and grapes flank the cheese. In the foreground, next to crusty bread rolls, lies a half-eaten pear on a pewter plate, some cracked nutshells, and a curling ribbon of fruit skin. A paring knife rests on the cheese plate behind a half drunk glass of wine or water, as if the person who was eating this simple yet generous meal had just left the table for a few minutes to do something else.

Van Dijck was a celebrated ‘alte meister’ of the Dutch Still Life school that flourished in Europe’s Low Countries in the 1600s, which was renowned, amongst other things, for its meticulous depiction of food. Throughout theNetherlands and Belgium, and in many of the world’s most distinguished museums, you can view paintings by van Dijck and other Old Masters, showing pomegranates, lobsters, cooked hams, quinces, steaks, fish smoked and raw, cherries, loaves, game birds, raised pies, crabs, lemons, and many other ingredients from the larder of that period.

The eerie thing about these works of art is just how real and present the food seems. Looking at Still Life with Cheese made me hungry. I wanted to pick away at that bunch of grapes, slice myself a wedge of cheese, and maybe tear off a chunk of the bread, before the invisible diner returned.

This painting is dated as circa 1615, but it had a potent contemporaneous effect on me. The food looks so honestly good, so wholesome in a sound, intrinsic way, that it put me in mind to visit one of Amsterdam’s cheese shops, then drop by one of the greengrocer’s stores that are still found in the city’s high-density residential areas, to put together my own little table-top feast.

A thought hit me then on that rainy reflective day that has not left me since. Even though it was painted four centuries ago, the food so carefully reproduced by van Dijck is food that I can still strongly relate to. I can instantly understand what it is. I can visualise where it came from, how it was made, grown, farmed or fished. That familiarity sharpens my appetite.

The same cannot be said for the burgeoning portfolio of modern manufactured food products that increasingly occupy the foreground of our diets. Presented with contemporary shopping trolleys filled with elaborate edible constructions, van Dijck, his contemporaries, and followers, would experience considerable difficulty finding something they recognised as food. ‘What’s this then?’ they might ask, as they rummaged through the low-fat spread and Coco Pops®, perplexed. And being so scrupulous in their faithful reproduction of natural detail, I could see them scoffing at the blatant disparity, so evident to the artist’s eye, between the eye-grabbing visuals on the packaging, and the drab, washed-out contents. I doubt that the appearance of many modern manufactured foods would spur them to put oil to canvas. There is so little beauty in ingredients that have been designed by food technologists and industrially processed out of their natural state.

Yet the pace of food engineering innovation means that newer, more complex creations with ever more opaque modes of production are streaming onto the market every day. As I put the finishing touches to my book Swallow This, a dossier for a new line of dairy proteins drops into my mailbox. Alongside a photo of a rustic-looking, golden pan loaf, the explanation reads:

Many bakers are now turning to permeates, a rather new ingredient in the food ingredients market. Permeate is a co-product of the production of whey protein concentrate (WPC), whey protein isolate (WPI), ultrafiltered milk, milk protein concentrate (MPC), or milk protein isolate (MPI).

Permeate, apparently, ‘contributes to the browning of baked goods’ and produces bread that ‘retains its softness for a longer period of time and extends shelf life’. How clever. But I for one would prefer that my bread was browned solely from the application of heat. I’m prepared to accept that it will stale over a natural course of time, rather than eat something that owes its existence to ingredients and technologies I am not privy to, cannot interrogate, and so can never truly understand. Am I about to hand over all control of bread, or anything else I eat, to the chemical industry’s food engineers? Not without a fight.

For most of the world’s history, populations around the globe have shared a common vision and understanding of food, despite their diverse cultures and geographies. From the Ancient Greeks to the Victorians, civilisations down the ages would be able to identify every ingredient in van Dijck’s Still Life with Cheese, and the food so beautifully depicted in this painting still speaks clearly to me. But if we laid out a more contemporary artwork, let’s call it Still Life with Processed Food, none of us, past or present, would really be any the wiser. Manufactured food relies on words to identify itself; real food needs no explanation. It is instantly accessible to everyone, everywhere, any time.”

This is an extract from Swallow This: Serving Up The Food Industry’s Darkest Secrets, by Joanna Blythman; published by 4th Estate, at £14.99.