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‘Why the provenance of our food is still so important’ by Tony Naylor

The devil is in the detail, says Tony Naylor, as he urges us to pay attention to the food we eat and the journey it’s taken to get to us

If you care about the food you eat – and as an olive reader, clearly you do – then, in 2017, dismay comes with the territory. Because where once we foodists were winning the battle to encourage an honest debate about food, our forces are now in chaotic retreat.


About a decade ago, food lovers began to examine food production with a refreshing intensity. A new language of craft skills and provenance was formulated to identify food that was distinctive in its quality. More broadly, there was a surge of interest in food producers and the stories behind their products.

Today the idea of rigorously investigating the food we eat is mired in snobbery and propaganda. The concept of artisan food is increasingly seen as a joke, often by self-aware foodies.

The obvious culprits are major corporations that have shamelessly adopted the language of artisan food production (natural, sustainable, handmade, ethical), and emptied it of meaning. Given how those positive signifiers are impossible to define objectively, this was always likely – this woolly philosophy invited abuse.

Nonetheless, the way, for instance, mainstream lagers now market themselves as defenders of brewing tradition is galling. As is the way large retailers have invented fictitious bucolic farms as brand names for their products. Huge restaurant chains, which for years resisted positive change, now boast of using British ingredients.

Such claims to virtue can be indistinguishable from those of the most conscientious artisan producers. Did we foodies get angry about that? Yes, for a while at least, but now we seem to have given up – indeed, we seem unable to talk about these issues and of exemplary food producers unselfconsciously.

Restaurants used to mention their best suppliers on their menus, but few do now. On Twitter, foodies ridicule the concept of artisan food. Why? Because we’re embarrassed – less scrupulous brands have poisoned our language.

Talking about artisan food in 2017 sounds ridiculous. Moreover, we foodies are also ashamed of the snobbery and patronising attitudes that have flourished around what was originally a celebration of good produce. By LOLing about ‘single-estate, air-dried, locally foraged, 120-hour sourdough’ we try to differentiate ourselves from them; you know, those really irritating foodies.

Too often the artisan food movement has been dominated by laughable voices. The cliché of a former City high-flier who’s downsized to a smallholding to make expensive cheese and lecture the public about the evils of processed foods isn’t inaccurate. Rather than promoting good food as a pleasurable voluntary lifestyle choice (one only possible if you’re in a position to spend more on food), zealots have positioned it as a moral crusade, and people bridle at that.

Most of us aren’t that militant. Most of us eat processed food and shop in supermarkets. If you love crisps (who doesn’t?), you know how compelling the work of industrial food scientists can be. Supermarkets (choice, convenience, affordability), have been a huge liberation.

But whatever the weaknesses or follies of the artisan food movement, what’s happening now – this backlash against any attempt at field-to-fork transparency – is retrograde.

It’s important that we keep a keen interest in how our food is produced, from manufactured storecupboard essentials to luxuries in a way that, rather than creating a hierarchy of good/ bad foods (eg. craft bakery cookies good; factory-produced biscuits bad), accepts that, actually, most of us enjoy both.

Not only is information about the food we eat power (how else can we make informed decisions?), but unless we know how our food is made, it’s impossible to evaluate it – in terms of both value-for-money and its production. We live in an era of cheap, abundant food. Do we appreciate that?

How many of us give a thought to UK dairy farmers when buying a pint of milk? Or know anything about the cereal we pour it on? We’re an island nation that disdains seafood and is largely blasé about the rigours of fishing. Now even foodies shy away from discussing the inspiring or troublesome details behind the foods we love (the bakers up at 3am; the rare-breed farmers struggling to stay in profit), lest it ruin our appetites. Or, worse, it makes us sound pretentious. To me, that wilful ignorance is depressing and dangerous.

Ultimately, if Britain is to have a healthy relationship with food, in all spheres from nutrition to food waste, we need a fresh conversation in a new, conciliatory language. One that can express the romance in niche producers seeking to create exceptional products (we O nerds love all that, right?), but which also interrogates, without preaching, the mass-market food we all eat. Exposing bad practice where it exists, but also the fascinating stories behind many commercial foods. Forget artisan food. We need an open, engaged debate about all food if we’re to treasure it as we should.

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Image credit: Getty