Eating to Extinction by Dan Saladino

Eating to Extinction

What’s the USP? A global investigation into some of the world’s rarest foods in danger of disappearing from our diets, and how saving them could be part of the solution to fixing what the author says is a ‘food system that is contributing to the destruction of our planet’.

Who wrote it? Journalist and broadcaster Dan Saladino will be a familiar name to regular listeners of Radio 4’s The Food Programme  for which he is a producer and presenter. Eating to Extinction is his first book.

Why should I read it? By relating the history of and telling the stories behind 34 foods in danger of extinction (a small sample of what Saladino says are one million plant and animal species under threat)  including Kavilca Wheat from Anatolia; Geechee Red Pea from Georgia, USA;  Middle White Pig from the Wye Valley and Kyinja Banana from Uganda), Saladino amply demonstrates his point that the current monoculture and resultant lack of biodiversity that defines the current global food system is unsustainable as it means, among many other things, crops are ‘at greater risk of succumbing to diseases, pests and climate extremes’. Saladino also considers the cultural impact of losing the heritage behind these foods, what he calls the ‘wisdom of generations of unknown cooks and farmers’.

Is it just going to leave me feeling depressed and anxious about food security? It’s unquestionably an eye opening read, but it’s not all bad news. In Australia for example, murnong, ‘a radish-like root with a crisp bite and the taste of sweet coconut’ that has been in sharp decline since the mid-19th century as the aboriginal population who farmed it has been decimated, is making a slow comeback. It is being grown in aboriginal  community gardens and influential chef Ben Shewry has put it on his menu.

Should I buy it? Eating to Extinction is an important book that documents a turning point in our global food systems. Although Eating to Extinction is a work of some substance and heft (it runs to 450 pages including detailed notes), it’s not written in an academic style and is highly readable. Each chapter is a discreet entity making the book ideal for dipping in and out of, consuming it all in one go might be a little too alarming.

As an individual, the astonishing stats dotted throughout (did you know for example that more than half of all seafood consumed by humans is provided by aquaculture i.e. farmed fish?) might well inspire you to do your bit to help battle monoculture and adopt a more diverse diet that incorporates rare breed meat, wild seafood and heritage varieties of vegetables and grains and even for age for wild foods like seaweed, plants, herbs and flowers.

The good news is that, according to Saladino, it seems the major food producers appear to have begun to recognise how destructive the monoculture they’ve propagated really is. The then head of diary giant Danone told the 2019 Climate Action Summit that, ‘We thought with science we could change the cycle of life and it’s rules…We’ve been killing life and now we need to restore it’.

Cookbook Review Rating: Five stars

Buy this book: 
Eating to Extinction: The World’s Rarest Foods and Why We Need to Save Them
£25, Johnathan Cape

This book has been shortlisted for the Andre Simon Food Award. Read more here.

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First Catch Your Gingerbread by Sam Bilton

First Catch Your Gingerbread

What’s the USP? Everything you always wanted to know about gingerbread, but were afraid to ask, including the history of gingerbread from ancient times to present day, plus gingerbread and ginger cake recipes. It is part of Prospect Books’ series ‘The English Kitchen’ that looks at dishes and their place in history and which has previously included books on quince, soup and trifle.

Who’s the author? Sam Bilton is a food historian and writer and is probably best known for her historically-themed supper club Repast. She’s also worked on projects with English Hertiage and the National Trust. This is her debut book.

Is it good bedtime reading? The first 80 pages are given over to the scholarly ‘The Story of Gingerbread’ that begins with its pre-history in the ‘reverence given by ancient civilisations to the medicinal properties of spices’ and continues with it’s medieval incarnation (including an appearance in The Canterbury Tales as ‘gyngebreed’) and includes the importance of treacle in the history of gingerbread, how the recipe migrated from England to America and the difference between the two varieties, historical gingerbread moulds and other related creations, and it’s more modern incarnations and enduring appeal.

Will I have trouble finding ingredients? You will find virtually everything you need in the supermarket. However, you will probably need an online supplier for grains of paradise (a West African spice that looks like black peppercorns but is in fact a member of the ginger family) if you want to make Små Pepparkakor, the ‘intensly crisp, aramatic small gingerbreads’ from Sweden, and for long pepper to make Dulcia Piperata (Roman Peppered Honey Cake). There are savoury recipes in the book too so you’ll want to visit your fishmonger for the langoustine and crayfish for an unusual stew that includes gingerbread crumbs.

What’s the faff factor? Some recipes will take a little bit of planning, for example a game terrine or chocolate stuffed lebkuchen (a spiced shocolate cake), both of which are two-day processes, although neither are particularly complicated. But generally speaking, the recipes are very approachable, especially for home bakers with some experience.

How often will I cook from the book? If you have a sweet tooth and are a keen baker, the book is a treasure trove of interesting, unusual and, most importantly, delicious recipes that you’ll want to work your way through. The inclusion of savoury recipes makes it useful for when you want something just a little bit different for a dinner party or even just a family meal.

Killer recipes? Ormskirk gingerbread; Elisenlebkuchen (chocolate-glazed spice and nut biscuits from Germany); Indian gingerbread; Ginger scotch rabbit; baked Camembert with gingerbread; carrot and ginger roulade with honeyed ricotta;

What will I love? This is quite obviously a labour of love. Bilton has unearthed a fascinating history behind an everyday cake shop favourite and curated a selection of appealing recipes that you’d struggle to find anywhere else.

Should I buy it? For keen bakers and lovers of food history, it’s a no-brainer.

Cuisine: International
Suitable for: Bakers/beginners/confident cooks
Cookbook Review Rating: Four stars

Buy this book
First Catch Your Gingerbread By Sam Bilton
£15, Prospect Books

Also available at Amazon
First Catch Your Gingerbread (English Kitchen)