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Focus October 2019

The feedbag generation

Inexorable compromise between taste and convenience.

Labour-saving long-life ingredients have taken a lengthy evolutionary path. In Italy this began in Turin as long ago as 1856, when Francesco Cirio (the very same who founded the well-known eponymous brand) used the method invented by Nicolas Appert in 1795 to make tinned peas. Following scant success, he relocated to Castellammare di Stabia where he began preserving peeled tomatoes, forever changing the way this mainstay of home cooking was used. Soon housewives reaped the benefits of tinned pre-cooked beans and chickpeas, followed by a plethora of ready-made sauces in jars, tins or cardboard packs. Freezing brought a great leap forward, initially with such basic ingredients as vegetables, fish, crustaceans, meats and much more, and subsequently with a limitless variety of ready meals to heat (in a pan or microwave oven) and serve. Hugely convenient; hugely successful. Yet these handy replacements hardly compare with their fresh counterparts.
Finally, the new century has supplied kitchens with fresh products packed in pouches using the ‘modified atmosphere’ technique, which are all the rage in supermarkets. Modified Atmosphere Packaging (MAP) is a technology which uses gases such as nitrogen, oxygen and carbon dioxide to preserve ingredients leaving their nutritional value, appearance and flavour practically unchanged. Its advantages are enormous: fresh food storage reduces food waste. The only major hurdle is that at least for now, this technique generates considerable plastic waste. The success of what are technically termed ‘fourth-range products’, such as bagged pre-cut salads, pre-made minestrone etc, has caused them to exceed the space assigned to fresh produce in many shops. They are very expensive (sometimes costing 4-5 times more than loose produce) and often insipid, but simply emptying a pouch into a tureen is frightfully convenient. Modern kitchens witness the repeated washing and draining of lettuce with increasing rarity. Remember the grated parmesan rinds once available in shops? They were cheap and useful but they tasted, unsurprisingly, of rind. Now, in many areas the consumption of grated bagged cheese has outstripped that of intact pieces intended for grating.
Today, high-quality PDO-certified cheeses, even highly aged ones, are industrially packed in pouches: they are long-lasting and emancipate us from using a cheese grater, cleaning it, and perhaps injuring ourselves with it (but an excellent grana, freshly grated, is peerless). And then there is the vast category of cured meats. Lovely colours, delicate fragrances, flawlessly cut and arranged in alluring tray packs; an impressive selection of origins, curing methods and ageing times. One might argue that a good ham, freshly sliced, is incomparable. True! But it is just as true that the very same ham, eaten just hours later or the following day, is no longer the same: oxidation will irrevocably alter its colour and flavour. These reasons for successful pre-packaging have likewise contributed to the disappearance of traditional food shops, out-competed by the dizzying array of supermarket products. A one-way street? Most assuredly. We will increasingly move towards better, more affordable products, hopefully with more eco-friendly, less detrimental packaging. We are facing an acceptable compromise between flavour and convenience, at least on average, among general consumers. Discerning Academicians will doubtless know how to proceed.

 Paolo Petroni
President of the Academy