The scandal over horsemeat getting into the food-chain has been growing apace this week – here Martin Hesp considers what the Westcountry has to offer as an alternative to mass-produced foodstuffs.
For countless centuries mankind had a simple system when it came to the all-important subject of food supply – people grew stuff and either consumed it themselves, or sold or bartered it to others in their neighbourhood. Then came the Industrial Revolution when vast hordes started living in cities, and the rest is a long and sometimes sorry history. One that has ended in horse meat passed off as beef.
It's not only been a matter of ever lengthening and complex food supply chains, something else strange and perhaps inexplicable has happened when it comes to the vital fuel we put in our bodies. For some reason, millions of people seem to want their food to be, to some extent at least, prepared for them. Which means there have been two massive dislocations in the link between source and plate…
One that is simply related to the fact that the consumers shopping in large outlets will often have no idea where a certain item comes from or how it was produced. The other arises through the impossibility of knowing exactly what has gone into a pre-prepared or processed portion.
That's all bad news because it means vast swathes of the population are, daily, shoving stuff into their bodies with little real understanding of what it is – all they really have to go on is hope and blind trust. The good news is that we don't have to consume that way – especially not here in the West Country. Did you know, for instance, that every single postal district in the South West now has a farm-shop? I didn't, until the Taste of the West organisation told me so. And it is a fact worth knowing because you cannot get closer to the source of your food than buying it direct from the person who produced it.
This renaissance in farm-shops is, albeit slowly, taking us all the way back to the good old days when folk knew – and presumably trusted – the person who grew the ingredients they were feeding their families. Here's another thing I learned in researching this article: an awful lot of people love their local farm shop. I put a message out on Twitter that I was looking for recommendations for such establishments and within five minutes I was so inundated with suggestions I had to ask tweeters to stop.
Top of that list was Piper's Farm (near Cullompton, Mid Devon) which has won many awards and is something of an innovator in the farm-shop movement having designed what really is a system, or blueprint, for a new way of providing food. But as soon as you mention farm shops or more specialist food outlets or farmers' markets you will raise a chorus that cries the word "niche" and grumbles that such places cater only for a wealthy middle class and not the masses who must always seek the inexpensive option.
Peter Greig, founder and co-owner of Piper's Farm, doesn't agree. He told me the farm shop movement should not be regarded as a niche market in any way: "The way I see it is that there's a whole globalised system of meat production and it has gone a long way from commonsense – whereas what we have done is gone back to embrace traditional systems of family farming and local food supply. We're not reinventing anything – we've simply hung on to values which are timeless," added Mr Greig. "It makes sense to grow animals in a sustainable system that works in the local environment – which is why we only produce Red Ruby beef cattle. They are indigenous to this area and make maximum use of vegetation in a harsh landscape. They turn that into wholesome meat and we sell that directly to people."
What did Mr Greig think of the horse meat food debacle?
"This will follow exactly the same pattern as E.coli, mad-cow disease and the rest. All of them drive consumers to make slightly different shopping decisions – and, yes, then people do drift back to the supermarkets. The lid has been taken off modern food production," Mr Greig went on.
"We have absolute control over all the meat, but at the same time we're taking money out of the high street and putting it in to those local family farming businesses who work with us."