Anna Colquhoun : Culinary Anthropologist

Pics of Anna-3Photo courtesy of Mia Kristensen

The need to understand the full sweep and complexity of where we come from, why we do what we do and most importantly in Anna Colquhoun‘s case, what lies beneath our food practices is something that has always tickled her curiosity. Perhaps it was seeded in her very early on by a father who took her to his allotment to see vegetables grow and who made his own bread and yogurt and by a mother who went to culinary school and would go through phases of cooking delicious French food amongst other cooking traditions. From planting to eating, it was all there. That need to understand and comprehend the world she lives in led Anna to take a degree in anthropology followed by a ten year stint in an NGO, Link, where she had a career in international development. Until one fine day in 2006, she decided to take a chance on her long love of cooking. She took a sabbatical to do the 6 month professional culinary programme which used to run at Tante Marie’s Cooking School and which was conveniently located in San Francisco, CA, where her husband’s job had taken him.

In MoroccoShe followed that by a series of apprenticeships. At the San Francisco Baking Institute, she learnt to make bread. But the most memorable stage was her four month stay at Alice Waters’ legendary Chez Panisse. This was indeed a very formative apprenticeship as Anna learnt how to prepare the fresh seasonal ingredients that were brought in daily and make everything from scratch – pizza, pasta, sausages, preserves and more. Every day, vegetables were smelled, tasted and experimented with to give them their full flavour before being served in the menu du jour. Alice Waters is an advocate of sustainably and locally produced food. The organic locally produced revolution that has since taken the world by storm and originated in the Slow Food movement had its silent start in Chez Panisse’s kitchen in the 70s. And now, Alice Waters is Vice President of Slow Food International in America. In fact, as Anna acknowledges, Alice Waters was also avant garde in more than one respect since there was none of the hierarchical nonsense that typically prevails in many chef’s kitchen these days. At Chez Panisse, everybody worked harmoniously together.

SmghanaborderThat year of cooking had whetted Anna’s appetite and her taste buds were ready for more. So, she followed her sabbatical by a year of culinary travels around the world starting with, where else?, France, driving across central Europe crossing Poland, Hungary, Romania, Turkey, then in southern Europe through Greece, Croatia and Italy before heading back to London for a quick refuel and vaccines and back down the west African coast from Morocco to Mauritania, Mali, Senegal and Burkina Faso. The finishing line being Christmas in Ghana with friends at The Green Turtle Lodge, a guesthouse that a couple she knows run.

Eat Slow Britain was born in Greece, where my wife and I met the food anthropologist and writer Anna Colquhoun. She was travelling slowly through Europe with our books, wandering from one meal to another, chasing perfect Slow meals. Her insatiable appetite for authenticity has spilt over into this remarkable book. It celebrates the very best of food and the best of the people who grow it and serve it. Food matters, and how it is grown and made available matters even more. Alastair Sawday

If there was any incentive that in life you should follow your instincts, Anna’s inspirational travel would be one. Apart from meeting amazingly warm people and eating her way through gorgeous food, Anna had a decisive encounter in one of the stops that punctuated her journey. While in Greece, Anna and her partner, who had joined her on her world tour, stopped at the Esperides Spa Hotel where they bumped into Alastair Sawday and his wife who were vacationing there. They got along well and Anna told them of their travel adventures. Alastair Sawday suggested that she write a book about food in Britain in the same spirit as the tour she was taking globally. And it was decided that upon her return to London, she would contact him. From their fruitful collaboration, Eat Slow Britain originated, a book made in partnership with The Soil Association and published by Alastair Sawday.

GoSlowEngland_COVER_ARTWORKIn it, Anna encounters pig farmers, fishmongers, artisan cheese makers and interviews them about their trade. Some of them have been around for quite a few decades and some are trying their chance at new businesses. Some are new, some have taken over from their parents’ businesses with a view to rejuvenate them and some want to go the organic way. But all take a great sense of pride in shaping a new Britain away from mass produced and homogenised foods presented in supermarkets. Though it’s an uphill battle and is far from having been won, especially in inner cities where children cannot distinguish a cucumber from a courgette let alone from a leek. Alas, since we are in good old Britain, food is also a class issue. Though there are initiatives to remedy it such as Root Camp founded by Cassia Kidron. Root Camp is a hands-on cookery school that offers teenagers the possibility to experience and understand where food comes from in camps all around the UK.

Secret KitchenDuring her travelling year, Anna also came up with the idea of hosting what she has since called The Secret Kitchen.  She got the idea in Berkeley, CA where she attended A Secret Cafe, one night. When she first started this concept in London only James Ramsden’s Secret Larder Super Club and Kirsten Rodgers, aka MsMarmiteLover, were around. Now it has become more common and more commercial altogether. In Anna’s supper club, twenty guests or so meet over a convivial dinner and learn about the stories behind the food served that night. Anthropology being dear to Anna’s heart, it was all too normal that she would find a way to integrate her passion in her new found love of cooking. Anna doesn’t aspire to be the next much talked about chef, she just wants to share her love of food and tell people the stories behind the food they put in their mouth. Typically, she serves a surprise menu: Mexican, Persian, Moroccan, Senegalese and Nordic cuisine have already been celebrated. The next Secret Kitchens are on May 16 and July 11. If you hurry, you may be able to join her for a night full of surprises for your taste buds.

When I met Anna, she was busy preparing the menu with Mia Kristensen for her New Nordic Spring Class taking place on Saturday, May 9th and Sunday, May 10th. Chef René Redzepi from the world’s best restaurant Noma in Denmark has spearheaded a revolution in Nordic cuisine. Anna has collaborated with Mia and her company CPH Good Food for several years now. They present a sampling of what New Nordic cuisine is about: a fresh and light twist on an ancient food tradition. Over the years, Anna has done workshops on how to make preserves, patisserie, pig cookery etc. Her most popular workshop is the artisan bread which I will be sure to join one of these days.

at RiverfordAnna has literally her hand in more than one pot. On top of hosting The Secret Kitchen most months and running many workshops each year, Anna contributes to BBC Radio 4’s The Kitchen Cabinet.  To be more precise, it is from her idea that the successful culinary panel show originated: food experts answer questions from audiences around the UK. Each episode of the show is recorded on location. Anna also has an ongoing collaboration with Riverford. She runs cooking classes for their customers and writes some of the kits and cookbooks they publish. Riverford is an organic farm that has a well established reputation and that has launched an organic vegetable box scheme across country with seasonal fruits, vegetables, milk and meat ordered on line and delivered to your doorstep. As part of Eat Slow Britain, Anna had interviewed Riverford’s founder, Guy Watson and kept in touch with him. So, when she heard that they were looking for professional cooks around the country to be ambassadors for them by running local small events, she offered to help.

IMG_3407b-1024x768As if this wasn’t enough, Anna is soon to complete her MA in the Anthropology of Food at the School of Oriental and African Studies, researching and writing about the social, cultural, political and economic dimensions to food. She would like, now, to pursue this with a PhD which will take her to Croatian Istria, supposedly the gastronomic centre on that side of the Adriatic. According to Anna, Istria is promoting its culinary tradition and practice as heritage food. In doing so, they attract the interest of food conscious tourists. But why did this modern culinary phenomenon take off in in this particular region and why are some specific dishes chosen over other ones and who stands to gain ? That is what Anna wants to study.

Anna has more than one trick up her sleeve. From publishing a book with Alastair Sawday after a fortuitous encounter on holiday to launching The Secret Kitchen, a new concept in London at the time, she has always blazed her own trail so I wouldn’t be surprised that she will be somewhere new we don’t expect her before too long.

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