Farm to table. It's an well-worn phrase on city restaurant menus, but what does it really mean?
Many would say it means using seasonal ingredients, with the fewest delays and distance possible between farm and plate, and a high degree of transparency in this process. Others would say it means local farmers deliver directly to restaurants. In rare cases, it means that some items on the menu are actually grown in the restaurant's own kitchen garden. But that's pretty uncommon.
The appeal of farm to table is obvious - the food is fresh, local, and has maximum flavour because it's at its seasonal peak. I would argue almost all our food should be 'farm to table. The disadvantages of our current food supply are that we don't know exactly where our food comes from, how long it took to get to us, or what was done to it along the way.
As New York chef Pichet Ont says:
"Food travels a lot. The shrimp that you eat could have been caught a whole year ago and traveled around the world before it gets to your plate. I just don’t think that that’s what we should do. We should strive for a model where food travels a lot less."
Amen to that sentiment.
Two weeks back, in stunning Guizhou once again, I had a revelation. After eating four very special home-cooked meals in four different Miao homes, and watching the preparation of these meals, I realised that here was the fundamental essence of farm to table.
The farm-to-table distance was less than fifty metres, the farmer was also the cook, and every single thing on the plate had been grown, raised or made by the person cooking the food. It was magic. It's also how Miao people eat every single day.
Here's how they do it:
Miao villages are almost always on steep hills (Guizhou is all steep hills). Rows of homes are interwoven with terraced rice paddies and vegetable plots. Fish are grown in the rice paddies and chickens wander freely eating insects.
Every family raises one pig, on household scraps and dried corn. Aside from New Year, when fresh pork is eaten, the remainder of the meat is preserved to make la rou, or smoked bacon, to add a depth of flavour to dishes.
And every family grows their own rice supply for the year. Here: three generations of one family plant spring rice seedlings. Rice is also used to make rice flour, fermented rice, and rice wine.
Anything that can't be used fresh is dried or preserved - chilies, scallion roots (see below), summer green vegetables, pork, air-dried chicken, dried and salted rice paddy or river fish.
What this means for a Miao family is an abundance of home-grown fresh foods in spring, summer and autumn, supplemented with dried and preserved foods in winter.
Here's a typical Miao farm to table feast (and one I enjoyed enormously!):
|Potato shreds stir-fried with garlic, scallions, and green chilies.|
|Chinese purple yam flavoured with pork and scallions|
|Chinese ingenuity at its best - washed and air-dried scallion roots, tossed with a little rice wine vinegar (home made)|
|Green beans, scallion tips, garlic|
|White corn, green chilies, pork, cherry tomatoes|
|The knock-out dish - sweet, fiery green chilies charred in a hot wok.|
|Home made tofu, scallions, red chilies. So full of flavour - the tofu and been partially fermented.|
|Rice paddy fish - crisp fried (also seen in image at top)|