Urban Food in Utrecht – Food Confessions

I’ve just spent the last 4 days in Utrecht, Holland in a series of meetings and conferences, considering and discussing the development of urban agriculture.  Others will be able to offer you fuller reports over the next few weeks, but for the blog post, I want to confess two interlinked failings. 

The first is that  I love a bit of gastronomy.  A bit of fine dining is a treat that I can’t pass by, I do have limits I can’t go to those places where your credit card actually smokes as you pass through the door but maybe those places where it does get a bit warm.  A well-presented plate of food, the clink of good tableware and the agony of a carefully constructed menu all hold a deep appeal.  But it is more than that, it is the idea that gastronomy can make a difference to wider food culture – that the lovingly sourced, utterly delicious morsel I’m about to eat might, just might, make a change to the food system. Of course, there are dangers in this thought, that vanity, fashion and elitism might swamp the message, what begins as discerning might degenerate into being dogmatic or just fussy, or that indulgence might become self-indulgence drawing our eyes away from the fundamental injustices that leave people malnourished and hungry or both.
My second failing was to be a bit star struck.  We were discussing an exciting gardening project run by a housing corporation in Utrecht which was encouraging social cohesion and inclusion through supporting local people to tend a small garden.  The ladies who tended these plots were present and clearly quite excited by our presence, and it wasn’t at a level that was really justified by the gathering of academics and NGO activists I saw around me.  Apparently, there was a celebrity in our midst – but just who was it.  As we walked along to the next garden, one of the men walking in front of me said to the other sincerely – ’So are you a famous Chef then’ to which the other guy replied, equally sincerely ‘Yes, quite famous’.  So it was him, there in front of me.  I wanted to say ‘Quite famous, quite famous – he runs one of the BEST RESTAURANTS IN THE WORLD’.  But sadly I was star struck and confined myself to friendly smiles as we went from garden to garden. Thinking to myself all the time wow this is the guy who was one of the founders of Noma.
The next day Claus Meyer was the keynote speaker at the Day of Urban Agriculture.  Like all performances, like a meal – you really have to be there enjoy it fully.  A written description of the main points or the key slides doesn’t do justice to the commitment, humour and humanity of his vision of what gastronomy can do.  But I did sneak this little audio clip out of the auditorium.
Of course it is easy to point to the limitations of Noma, it might be just another form of puritanism, it might not have had the impact on ordinary eating claimed, and it may all collapse into a heap of unrealised plans, but Claus certainly made a good case for his food and the cuisine he was part of instigating.
Sadly, I won’t be signing up to the waiting list for Noma.  Just as I don’t anticipate seeing the inside of many tyre endorsed restaurants but next time I notice that the ingredients are foraged, or someone is trying to create a sustainable cuisine based in their area, I’ll know that Noma and the ideas of Claus and his colleagues might have had a hand in it.
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