It’s been an exciting last week for me: I’ve celebrated a couple of birthdays and while I’m writing this I’m lucky enough to be travelling around Vietnam. One of my main reasons for travelling, which is probably not surprising, is to taste the food and flavours of different countries.
However travelling, particularly where vast swathes of the population live in considerably poorer (monetarily) conditions, is also a good way to get a few things in perspective. It’s easy to get caught up in your own world so looking outside from time to time is a very healthy thing.
The other reason I’m feeling a bit reflective is in relation to the birthdays I mentioned. In the last week I officially left my thirties and it’s also the second birthday of my business. As Food At Heart reaches its toddler stage and I’m moving into a new and exciting phase of life, I wanted to share some of my tasting thoughts from the last couple of years.
1. The more I taste, the more I taste – and the more I want to taste
The plain truth is I love cooking and eating, and Food At Heart was born out of this love. I’ve believed for a long time that cooking is an important part of eating well and healthily, but it’s also something that’s pleasurable. I cook, among other reasons, for creative expression, stress relief and the joy of learning something new. And yes, sometimes it is also to put some food on the table at the end of a day, but even in these small moments there’s the chance to try a new ingredient or create something different with what’s in the cupboard.
I’ve mentioned before that I’ve had a few problems with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), particularly over the last 3 years, so for a period of time my eating pleasure was seriously challenged. Every meal and mouthful was a mini-battle as I didn’t know how my body would react. It was a long slow road back to some kind of normality around what and how to eat. I didn’t realise at the time that this was ultimately what would lead me to start my own business. The need to slow down and get better at listening to my body was what finally gave me the push to start Food At Heart.
I always knew that I wanted to work in food, but hadn’t been quite brave enough to take the leap. I think partly I was scared that turning something that has always been a deep passion into a profession might damage my love for it. Of course my relationship with food and cooking is a little different now that it’s something that fills my head and heart full time, but this is no bad thing. What I hadn’t expected was to fall in love even more with tasting and flavour.
One of the ingredients that really brings this life for me is good chocolate. Tasting and learning so much more about this an amazing food has advanced my palate in leaps and bounds. And I still get excited by that first mouthful of beautiful rich dark chocolate as it reveals new layers to me. I think I actually get even more pleasure tasting food that I did before – and I’ve learned to truly savour rather than just eat food. While I can’t say I’m always happy to have tummy troubles, I am very grateful that it has given me this new and deeper appreciation for the food I taste.
2. We sometimes attach too much importance to food – and sometimes too little
This might sound a bit odd coming from someone who has chosen to work in around and food full time, but I think we can sometimes put food on a strange pedestal. Food is a beautiful thing to be treasured and enjoyed, but ideas of what food we ‘should’ eat and how it should look (i.e. Instagram-ready) can put some people off cooking. But everyday food and cooking shouldn’t be about perfection; it should be much more about nourishment, enjoyment, and a little spattering of fun.
However, on the flip side to food adulation, one of the things I still feel a little sad about is that we don’t always care enough about where our food comes from. We’re so used to having everything on tap, in large amounts, whatever the season – and trusting too much in the supermarkets to make choices for us (who funnily enough don’t always have our best interests at heart). Over consumption and mass produced food isn’t good for our bodies and isn’t good for the planet (and if you want to know more about some of the surprising stuff that’s going into our food, I’d point you towards Joanna Blythman’s excellent book, Swallow This).
A good place to start with a bit more consideration for food is eating seasonally when you can, especially as it’s also often cheaper. It’s also helpful to think about where your food comes from, whether that means buying better quality meat or supporting local small producers. In fact, sometimes smaller makers and creators are even producing food to organic or better standards, but can’t afford certification; it just takes a few questions to find out. An added bonus is that it can also be a lovely way to build some local connections. Focus on a few areas that are most important to you, but a little care goes a long way.
3. The people who produce or make good food are special people
In the years leading up to launching Food At Heart, I spent a lot of time talking with people in various food businesses. I’ve had a few unrealised plans for various businesses, from running a cafe to making healthy cakes, but none of them felt quite right. It was very valuable learning from other people and hearing their stories. I think the main thing that struck me was the passion and hard work that goes into producing food. I’m still inspired by people who manage to get a product off the ground, particularly as I now understand firsthand how challenging it is to start and run a business.
But it’s not just about new businesses; I have huge admiration for makers who have honed their craft over many years. You just need to look at some of the UK’s regional cheese producers to taste the benefits of this hard work. It’s also why I use the brand like Pump St chocolate in my chocolate workshops. Even just listening to BBC Radio 4’s Food and Farming Awards gives me excited goosebumps. You need commitment, love and a fair bit of sweat to grow, produce or make really good quality food. And these are exactly the people we should be supporting so that they can continue doing it.
4. The best food is made with love and care
One of my favourite stories of the last few years was Valentina Harris recounting a room of exploding tomato sauce jars. She bottled up the latest season’s batch around the time of the end of her marriage and all the love, pain and sorrow was poured into those jars. Valentina woke up in the middle of the night to what sounded like a bomb; on investigating she discovered the bottling room covered in shards of glass and dripping sauce where the jars had released the emotions. I don’t think there’s a more powerful example of what goes into our food when we cook.
This is why I still think the best food is food that’s made with love. This could be the love of the person who is cooking or love of the maker for their produce. There is something special and just a bit different in the taste and experience when a little love is involved. There’s even the love for yourself when you choose ingredients that make you feel good and are ones you genuinely enjoy.
Some of my favourite meals have been cooked at home by people who care about me. Admittedly one was a delicious lemony risotto made by my brother who happens to also be a chef, but it was still special because he made it in my kitchen and I don’t often get to eat his food.
My mum is an amazing cook and I’m sure one of the reasons I felt so secure growing up is that she provided beautiful food for us every day. She is one of the biggest inspirations behind Food At Heart and why I think I understood the importance of food made with love from such an early age. And this is exactly the love that I’ve have tried to infuse throughout my business and hope to keep sharing with abundance in the years ahead.
5. Don’t forget to breathe
One area I’ve had to really work on over the last few years is remembering to breathe. I’m still a bit guilty of thinking there are two of me and 48 hours in a day to get things done. But rushing around and trying to fit in too much doesn’t give you a chance to pause and experience. And it certainly doesn’t leave any space for new ideas to bubble up. Although I’ve got much better, I’m constantly reminded that taking a breath is important.
Being in Vietnam has been rather revealing for me as people are generally pretty relaxed. When I start to feel myself getting a bit anxious about missing taxis or confusion with a bill, I can see this instantly reflected back. As one security guard helpfully pointed out after we were having some problems with a taxi journey, there was no need to worry as there are many, many taxis in Saigon. Yep, good point well made! And breathe.
What I hadn’t realised at the beginning of my Food At Heart adventure is just how important breathing is to taste. One of the things I’ve started doing, and also include in The Joy Of Eating programme, is taking a bit of a pause before starting to eat. We so often leap into our meals and then pile food on our fork before we’ve finished what’s in our mouths. It’s a small but powerful thing to just stop for a few breaths before eating. Give it a go and see what you think.
All of this is a good reminder to just take it a bit more easy at times. As I move into my new decade this is still one of the biggest focus areas; remembering to take a few breaths, some pause moments and enjoying the journey as much as whatever the final destination is. It’s been a really fun couple of years and I can’t wait to see what happens next!
Just one final thing:
a big thank you to my husband, family, friends, Food At Heart readers
and people who have come to my events over the last 2 years.