BBC Radio 4’s The Food Programme is a feast for the ears and has become somewhat of an institution since its inception in 1979. Anna Turns caught up with series producer, Dan Saladino.
Brexit was a prominent issue and one that The Food Programme investigated in the days immediately after the referendum. Why?
Food is a lens for most of our lives, from global to domestic issues. You can use food as a way to tell most stories around the world. Brexit brings into sharp focus the fact that we will never run out of stories because three times a day all of us will feed ourselves in some shape or form and that will have an impact on the environment, on our health, on our economy. Political decisions will need to be made in the post-Brexit era so there will be no shortage of stories. It’s a big shift and we feel that The Food Programme will become increasingly important in the coming years because of this momentous event.
Who has the power to make the most change in today’s food industry – policymakers, producers or consumers?
I think it is all of them. Clearly the framework is set by government, but throughout its history, The Food Programme has celebrated what can happen at an individual or grass roots level. The Food Programme is full of stories of people who have questioned the status quo and come up with a way of farming and food production to become significant players. For example, in 2005, our Food and Farming Awards recognised Guy Watson, founder of Riverford Organic Farmers, for developing a model that engages huge numbers of people. Globally there is huge potential, for example with The Food Assembly or the Slow Food Movement which again connects the producers and people in the supply chain to make an impact. Once these networks start forming, people can connect with shared values and shared ideas – that is the exciting thing about the future.
If you could change one thing in the food industry today, what would that be?
Coming from a programme maker’s point of view, it would be transparency – the opportunity to improve things in terms of the quality of food, nutrition and the impact of food production on the environment. Information is power, it means we are better equipped to make decisions as consumers. It is my job to try to get that information to our audience. I would like to have greater levels of transparency within the food industry, both in terms of what happens in the supply chain and in terms of sourcing ingredients.
Do you think people are more or less engaged with food now compared to 50 years ago?
I think there are contradictory trends unfolding. I am constantly amazed by how many food books are published and the amount of food TV programming. There’s a big appetite – no pun intended – for that kind of storytelling. Yet at the same time, when it comes to consumer behaviour, we are told that price is everything and value dictates how we choose to shop and eat. We are still living in a country in which the price of food is one of the most dominant factors that decides how we shop and eat. Perhaps that is the result of an increasingly divided economy and we are seeing a split personality between value and price compared with the vibrant young generation who are setting up food businesses and doing incredible things.
Who is your food hero?
My heros are the pioneers of the post-war era who reignited the flame – Joyce Molyneux in Dartmouth who cooked with George Perry-Smith at the Hole in the Wall in Bath. It wasn’t easy to set up that type of restaurant in terms of sourcing ingredients and expectations of customers, so you have to pay respect to that generation who did incredible things to revive an interest in food. Randolph Hodgson of Neal’s Yard Dairy also understood the importance of having a food culture and succeeded in reinventing something that was in decline in the 1970’s.
Which particular food or drink couldn’t you live without?
My love for coffee probably goes back to my Sicilian upbringing… partly out of habit and necessity and pleasure, it’s the one drink that I would find life difficult without. Cheese is one pleasure that would be hard not to have – once you start to understand the wonderment of the art of cheesemaking and how such a simple set of ingredients can manifest themselves in so many different ways, it’s mind-blowing.
The Food Programme has an audience of more than 1.8 million, why does food translate so well to the airwaves?
A lot of what you get in book form and on television is about what happens on the plate – kitchens, ingredients, recipes. The Food Programme is different in that the starting point is the art of storytelling around food – it is a universal subject and so many aspects of life can be explored through it. Radio allows us to have direct communication with a member of the audience, and we strive for good journalism, whether it is the latest scientific thinking about nutrition or international stories such as the crisis in Syria. We see food stories everywhere and in everything.
How do you feel about the distinct lack of a dedicated BBC Food Correspondent?
The Food Programme began in 1979 with the founding presenter Derek Cooper’s frustration that food wasn’t being taken seriously journalistically. That problem continues to this day, which is why I don’t think there are enough correspondents or specialist journalists who can tell stories that we need to know about our food. Possibly that’s a cultural reflection of our relationship with food in Britain and a suspicion that taking food seriously is elitist. It has got to stay accessible and that’s a challenge for the programme as well. So yes, it is really undervalued in journalism in the UK. It’s just food, as they say.
The Food Assembly is a proud winner of the ‘Best British Food Initiative’ at BBC’s Farming and Food Awards. Listen to The Food Programme on BBC Radio 4, Sundays at 12.32pm and Mondays at 3.30pm.