When Raymond Blanc was seven his papa came in from the family garden one day with a handful earth and told him to look at it very carefully, sniff it, and then — yes — taste it. It was the lesson of a lifetime the celebrated chef and restaurateur tells NP editor Jim Manson.
The discreet charm of the private members club where I am about to meet Raymond Blanc is eluding me. For the life of me, I can’t find a way in. Then a large porticoed door (so obvious really) opens and a raffish thespian type emerges from it onto Portman Square. I’m in.
“I think he is in the drawing room Sir,” the receptionist informs me casually when I announce my appointment. I set off amidst an untamed profusion of gilt and marble in search of the celebrated chef and restaurateur who I spot on a sofa talking animatedly into his phone.
Blanc waves me over. “Bonjour, bonjour.” For an awkward couple of minutes there ensues a one-way conversation in French which, thankfully, then starts to rearrange itself into English, apart for the occasional bon or voila. Then as I set up the voice recorder Blanc skims over my interview questions. Actually, ‘interview’ doesn’t properly describe what takes place next because before I can get my first question out Blanc leans over to me, slaps his hand on my shoulder, and announces “okay, now I’m going to tell you something”. He’s still telling me something an hour and twenty minutes later.
Hard to swallow
Best known for his multi-award winning Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons restaurant and hotel —along with the Brasserie Blanc and Maison Blanc chains — Raymond Blanc’s public profile rose again last year with the screening of BBC 2’s series The Restaurant, in which he and his team of judges assess the progress of a string of rookie restaurateurs (some more hapless than others). Less well known is his indomitable personal effort get the British to take their food culture seriously again — the behind-the-scenes meetings with government and regulators, the campaigning speeches, and, of course, the interviews.
Blanc is adamant that the separation of food from the rest of our culture — “the most grievous mistake we have made in 50 years” — stems from the decline and fall of home cooking. “Fifty years ago we used to cook in this country. We thought it was a birthright, something that would always be with us. Then something happened along the way. We started to think that there were far more important goals … to make money, to create a culture of winning — and thinking there are no costs to the choices we are making. But of course there is a tremendous cost to the environment, to our health, to our families and the type of society we create to live in.”
Blanc doesn’t use the word society lightly. He is not only frustrated professionally at the way the British swallowed the bait of convenience culture, allowing themselves to be trampled over by multinational food corporations and global agribusiness, he is personally saddened by it. For Blanc the loss of food a culture in Britain has gone hand in hand in had with the disappearance other long-cherished aspects of British life.
“I arrived in a country which was very thoughtful, where people were rather pleasant and kind to each other. I remember people saying to me “hello love” and I thought, well, I seem to be very popular round here! At heart British people are so lovely, but more and more I see a country where you are just as likely to be shown the finger in the street as smiled at. And I think it’s because we are obsessed with winning and having more. We’re living in a bubble of greed. And in the process we’ve created a society that is dysfunctional.”
Storing up problems
Blanc clearly isn’t laying all the blame for this on our changing attitude to food but he’s convinced food is a big factor. “You know, we talk a lot about food in this country. We watch a lot of television programmes about food, Yet we are cooking the least in the whole of Europe. And look what’s happening in the process. We are creating a mega problem of obesity and a generation of people who are plagued with all sorts of health problems which translates into billions of pounds the state cannot afford!”
But before British consumers can be re-connnected with their food culture, he says, they need to regain their knowledge of its three basic elements — farming, nutrition and cooking. On the subject of cooking he has a very simple theory as to why so few people do it these days. “Cooking is an effort. That’s the problem. Growing food, it’s an effort. To make a little kitchen garden, however small it is, is still an effort.”
Blanc is clearly exasperated by the ‘can’t cook, won’t cook’ brigade. “You know, when I hear someone say “I’m a philistine, I cannot cook” I just think what a bourgeois statement! It’s a statement that tells you “actually I just don’t want to bother”! It’s somebody saying “oh, we have far too many important things to do”. But cooking food is one of the most wonderful and creative things we can do in life! When we pluck food from the sea, or pull it from the earth, and then we cook it with fire, we’re working with the elements — it’s such a basic instinct.”
For Blanc, the age-old act of cooking helps to bind families and communities together. “You know, food connects with every molecule of our culture. And for me a family is a molecule of society, and if you create a kinder family, a family that spends time together and cooks maybe just once or twice a week — not every day because we are all busy — I think we will all happier.”
The key to getting Britons back in the kitchen lies with education, says Blanc, and the best way to capture someone’s interest, and imagination, is when they are young. “Get your children to be little farmers. Show your child a brown seed and tell him, or her, this tiny thing holds a little miracle of life. Then give that child some easy herbs to grow, ones where we will see some results quickly, and get him to look after, and nurture, that plant. Almost any parent can give their child that fantastic experience. It will be something that will stay with your kids for life.”
No free lunches at maman Blanc
And that, very clearly, was the experience of the young Raymond, brought up in rural eastern France, on the edge of the great forests of the Jura. The Blanc family came from a working class background, but like most households in rural France at the time, had a large garden. Apart from a tiny patch of lawn — “mostly buttercups and dandelions” — the whole garden was turned over to food production, with a rich diversity of crops harvested right through the year.
“There was never a free lunch at maman Blanc. In the garden my father would do the seeding, but the rest I had to do — removing the stones, aerating the ground, taking out the weeds, watering the bloody plants. It was a bloody nightmare because while I was doing this my friends were out playing football! But, my God, the lessons I learned.”
Raymond’s father also helpfully equipped him with a horticultural calendar. “So I was out in all the different seasons getting the mushrooms, the wild asparagus, the snails, the frogs. Actually, I realise now that we were so blessed back then. Because even at the age of 14 we were still in the forest, hunting, foraging and just being friends.” The wild harvesting and foraging had financial benefits too, Blanc concedes “ I would sell all the produce of my harvest from the forest by the road, or at the market. The restaurants paid the best, by the way.” Good training for a young entrepreneur in making.
This idyllic, if strenuous, childhood also taught Blanc a sense of the “nobiity” of food and of the countryside in which it was grown. “When I was a boy we only ate regional food. I think I had my first peach when I was about 14 years old. You ate apples, pears and plums because that was what grew around you. It was always local produce so there was a deep sense of the region. And that gave people a huge pride in where they came from.
Blanc was also given a memorable early initiation into the almost immeasurable importance of the soil beneath our feet. “One day, when I was seven, my papa came back to the house from the garden with a handful of earth. He made me smell it, look at it, and, yes, taste it! It’s not actually that nice. But it did give me a real appreciation of the colour and composition of our soil, of the clay and iron and organic content and so on. It taught me to respect the soil.”
It’s little wonder Blanc is so angry that this fragile foundation of all life on our planet has for so long been treated for so long like, well, dirt. “You cannot pour pesticides, and fertilizer and nitrates and sulphur dioxide onto your earth, because you will burn your earth. And every year you need more of the stuff, most of which in any case escapes into the air, or pollutes aquifers and rivers and then the sea. It’s madness. You can’t grow the food you need to sustain people and then kill humanity at the same time!”
In what Blanc calls the “age of no responsibility” food production has, he says, been turned into a branch of industrial chemistry. “The food chain starts with the big techocrats with their colourings and additives and fake textures, twisting our food for their own gain. Then you have the big retailers and the packagers. And next of course the marketers, with their beautiful pictures of cows grazing in fields and Beethoven’s Pastoral playing in the background. My God they made it look good, and my God they sold it to us.
“And for all this time who have been the poor little bastards getting the raw deal? The consumer and the farmer. Those guys were right at the end of the food chain when they should have been right at the front of the food chain. And that isn’t sustainable. And that it was we are discovering now.”
While he is talking, Blanc is constantly making notes and drawing diagrams to reinforce his points. Now I see has scribbled the shape of an apple. “Here is an illustration, a perfect symbol, of what has happened. It’s an apple that’s been grown in, let’s say, China. It’s been grown completely intensively. It’s been covered with the highest level of pesticide residues, it has a huge carbon footprint.
“Now if you choose that Chinese apple over an English apple, or a French apple, you are making a political choice, a socioeconomic choice; you’re making a farming choice, a commercial choice and you are completely undermining your own region’s chance to grow that apple. So you, personally, are promoting the decay of your own environment. That’s what’s been happening. But I think things are changing, Consumers are starting to ask questions. I really think they want again to make good choices again.”
Blanc says he is happy that a “reckoning” finally is taking place. “There has been too much immorality, too much just grabbing of everything we wanted. If you do that for long enough you are bound to hit a wall. And suddenly we are facing several different gobal crises — financial, environmental, farming, humanitarian — that we simply cannot ignore. And we know it.”
So what does he think are the most realistic options for effectively tackling the the farming crisis? “Well, okay, will it the great boys of Monsanto and Bayer who are so ready with their magic box of tools to grow carrots in the desert. With half of the world hungry of course these guys see an amazing opportunity. They will be pretty determined that the future will be a transgenic one. Then you have what the French call intelligent farming. But I’m not so sure about it — it seems too loose, too vague a term. Or will the future be organic?”
Organic? It’s a no-brainer
But can the organic sector square up to the power of the GM lobby and win the day? Is organic really in with a serious chance of becoming the dominant form of agriculture in the next 10-20 years? “I think all you have to do is look at the wider cost-benefits of organic. For example, you’re not having to deal with the pesticide run-off and river pollution and the incredible mess that intensive farming has made. And as soon as you start factoring in the health of the nation — well, then, I’m sorry, but it’s a no-brainer.”
Long-term no-brainer it may be but, insists Blanc, organic still has improve its act if it is to convince the policy makers — and for that matter consumers — it really is a viable alternative. “Organic has always attracted this label of elitist. You know, it’s something for the bourgeoisie that no-one else can afford. A few years back organic farming in this country was mainly being done on smallholdings by people who really didn’t know what they were doing, They had lost their own craft, because they had become dependent on chemicals. Now they are recovering that craft and I am very positive about the future. But organic produce is still variable and certainly in the past it was sometimes pretty awful. And of course, organic growers just weren’t producing enough. Labour costs were so high, the transport costs were high, the yields were low — and that made it completely unacceptable. But look at somewhere like Austria — where I think organic accounts for 15 or 16% or total food sales, the price difference really starts to fall. That’s where we need to be moving to.
“So once you start upscaling production, and you are properly reconnected with your craft of growing without pesticides, then the premium you pay drops from 50% or whatever it is now, to more like 10-15%.
On a more immediate front, Blanc wants to see some action — by Government, if no-one else is willing — to end the blizzard of logos and claims on food labels. He says food information is “a complete mess” and it’s consumers who are the losers. “There are nine different organic certifiers and 17 food assurance schemes. And it’s not just organic certifiers and the Red Tractor, LEAF scheme, Freedom Food, RSPB and so on. You even have the retailers creating their own organic brands and ‘marks’, like M&S. Who can understand all that? It’s total bullshit.”
Despite the continuing best efforts of Big Food — and their bullshitting mates in high places — to prolong to the status quo, Blanc senses real change in the air. “I really think we’re entering a very exciting time. I think the whole food world is going to change. Okay, yes, we had to wait for a full-blown crisis to come along before we realised things couldn’t go on as they had done. But we’re actually seeing a reappraisal of the wisdom of long-term gain. Short-term gain can only create damage whereas long-term gain is intelligent rather than clever. So actually I think there is a fantastic opportunity here to invest in technologies and an agriculture that will lead to a capitalism that is kinder and has a human face.”
Silence. Have we finished? I’m not sure. But outside the weather has brightened and our corner of the Drawing Room is suddenly bathed in morning sunlight. The glow of optimism perhaps.
“Bon. Very good.” We’re done.
As we shake hands Blanc catches sight of my questions. “Ah! I’m so sorry. I completely forgot them. You know, it’s funny, but I always seem to do that.”