Page last updated at 10:59 GMT, Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Feasting on the festive spirit

Raymond Blanc (Image: BBC)
Raymond Blanc

For many families, Christmas brings everyone together around one table to share the delights of a festive feast. In this week's Green Room, Michelin-starred chef and long-standing food campaigner Raymond Blanc urges us to embrace the seasonal spirit at every mealtime throughout the year.

Christmas dinner (Image: Science Photo Library)
The Christmas feast is a good time to step back and take a look at our food supply chain and the state of our farming
I'm a good French Republican, but at this time of year I become slightly monarchist, pleased that Cromwell's ban on Christmas was lifted with the Restoration.

Of course the clergy complain that Christmas has been robbed of its religious meaning - it's their metier - but for me, the season of Christmas has a meaning that goes beyond and deeper than that assigned to it by any particular religion.

Christmas has always been able to change people. Think about the British and German troops facing each other across their trenches in World War I, and how even this hideous carnage was calmed for a few hours on Christmas Eve 1914.

The festival has value for this alone but, in addition, it is an excuse for a feast.

A celebration at this time of year seems almost to be part of humankind's genetic code.

Even before the pagan Saturnalia, indeed as soon as human beings became pastoralists, midwinter was the time when livestock that could not be over-wintered was killed and feasted upon.

A time of feasts makes us more generous, even when it is not normally in our nature to be so; that is the essential truth Dickens captured in the character of Ebenezer Scrooge.

Health and happiness

Religious or not, Christmas-tide (all 12 days of it) is heavily charged with emotion.

Norfolk black turkey (Getty Images)
Food that has been grown for its quality, not its quantity, is in the end better for our enjoyment, our families and better for the environment

It is a time to connect with our families, a time when we recollect, honour and cherish our roots.

Of course, we take everything to excess; we eat too much and drink too much, but we also revel in companionship and the third legacy of the French trilogy, fraternity, even if we sometimes feel by Boxing Day or Twelfth Night (in the worst case) that we have also had a touch too much extended family contact.

So lucky us; we celebrate the time of year with a long meal that has a roast at its centre.

Every family has its own rules for the meal, but it always hooks into some tradition; the great thing now, something of which we can be proud, is that our traditional feasting is at last beginning to reconnect with our traditional agriculture.

Here in the UK and in France, the roast course is now usually a goose, a chapon or even a turkey.

Even if we weren't plunging headlong into a recession, we must admit that most of us would still buy a cheaper turkey, rather than a Kelly bronze, or a Norfolk black turkey.

But it is to our credit that we have revived these heirloom birds, these traditional breeds; and that, almost universally, they are reared and slaughtered in humane conditions.

It is no small thing, after all, that these birds are now available once again. If turkeys did have a vote as to whether we celebrate Christmas, they'd certainly be happier that some of them were at least being reared in accordance with higher animal welfare standards.

Food for thought

The Christmas feast is a good time to step back and take a look at our food supply chain and the state of our farming.

Christmas presents (Image: PA)
Understanding the importance of good food is a great gift

It's the one time of year when, even if we don't splash out on an organic turkey, we do ungrudgingly spend a little more than usual on our food.

If only it were possible for us to adopt this attitude for the rest of the year, what a difference it would make to our agriculture, to our regions, to our farmers and to our well-being.

Merely by dint of the fact that we allow ourselves a few food "luxuries" in our Christmas shopping, we trade up from our normal diet, and we try to buy food of a better quality than what we consume the rest of the year.

Admitting this to ourselves is the first step in improving our diet - and our relationship to the sources of our food.

Yes, we can tell the difference. Food that has been grown for its quality, not its quantity, is in the end better for our enjoyment, our families and better for the environment. I don't need to argue this - deep down, we all know it's true.

I have little time for those who patronise the poor by saying that they can't actually afford better food.

We can all afford better food - it is a question of priorities. Sadly, we in Britain choose to spend a lower proportion of our disposable income on our food than do other people in Europe.

Every British government since World War II has colluded in this skewed value system by pursuing a policy of cheap food.

We don't need cheap food any more than we need junk food. We need good, wholesome, nutritious, interesting food, sold at a realistic price, and grown in a way that does not damage the environment but enhances it.

And if that means saving a bit of money by spending less on the tinsel, why, what better time than Christmas to learn that lesson and teach it to our children?

Bon appetit et Joyeux Noel!

Raymond Blanc is proprietor of Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons, Oxfordshire, UK

The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website

Do you agree with Raymond Blanc? Do we pay more attention to food at Christmas time? Should we care more and pay more for the food we put on the table? Will your New Year's resolution be to pay more attention to what you put in your mouth?

I try to buy from a local butcher (who farms his own meat and buys the rest from the local market) where possible. If not, then I choose free-range in a supermarket over cheap meat. I don't necessarily have meat every day but aim for the best quality available when I do. I use a slow cooker too as that seems to nake several meals in one go saving on cooking, gas, time. These are potted up and frozen for an easy meal another day.
Kath, Shropshire

Does more expensive/organic/traditional breed actually translate to better tasting? I recently watched Rick Stein squirm with embarrassment when he and a taste panel unanimously voted a supermarket turkey to be better than a free range organic bird in a blind taste test. Let's not forget that most modern food animals started as traditional breeds, but have been selectively bred for hundreds of years to improve their quality and taste.
John Ledger, Darwen, UK

Joyeux Noël to all of you - over here our poultry is more expensive than the UK but it is traceable - the packaging carries the name/number of the grower and it is killed at a greater age - 56 -81 days rather than the 36 days of much cheaper UK poultry. Veg from the local market reduces food miles and helps local employment - a better balance all round without costing the earth. Merle Drury
Merle Drury, Doué la Fontaine, France

I began shopping at farmers' markets for organic dairy and produce here in the US and found my grocery bill dropped by more than half. The meat is a little more pricey because I buy kosher organic but it is well worth it. I have found that many people would rather purchase non-essential items like DVDs and computer games than buy quality food while crying broke. I find the options are simply: (a) take my money to farmers markets and kosher shops for quality food and health leading to happier times or (b) purchase "conventionally grown" (US English for "pesticides included") meat and produce which leads to seeing physicians too often in a country where health insurance is not provided to everyone. It's a no brainer! Prevention is always cheaper than cure.
Annzella W., Los Angeles, CA USA

I agree with Raymond. I'm originally from Singapore where there is a wide variety of good food available. I've lived and work in the UK for past 3 years, mostly living with students as student accommodation is what I can afford. I've noticed is not so much that people can't afford to eat good wholesome food (the amount of money spent on alcohol and convenience foods is staggering), but perhaps they don't know how to cook and prepare food from scratch. We need to teach people to cook simple, wholesome meals, and encourage them to be creative. We also need to help people rediscover the joy of eating together, of developing friendships and relationships over meals. We are, after all, what we eat. And if we share the same food we become tied to each other in a rather concrete way.
Adriel Yap, Durham

Apart from a few food facists, F.W. beware :), I have always thought the British (I am one) have a tendancy to spend more on the presentation, ie plates, cutlery, dining room decor etc. than they do on the food and preparation. Just go into any store selling both. Here in NZ, I am sorry to say, the average spend on food is only 10-12% of income. Must be one of the lowest.
Andrew McGhie, Motueka, N.Z.

Accurate sentiments from Raymond, I earn £19000 a year and for me food is an important part of my life. We eat three times a day, and without healthy food we cannot live a long and healthy life. I love to eat good food I almost exclusively buy wholesome, organic and local food, i try to know where my food has come from, and if I do buy imported food, I try to buy fairtrade and non airfreighted stuff. Supporting the vibrant countryside we all like to look at, as well as the ability to feed ourselves' is an important aim. I only spend £40 a week on my food. Is this really unattainable for most working people?
Baz, UK


I totally agree. Some people argue that free range, organic meat would be too expensive to eat every day, and that is correct. We afford it by eating less meat, so when we come to eat meat it's the best quality available. Eating a balance of fresh veggie, sustainable fish and free range organic meat meals may be a little more pricey over the month, but it certainly isn't unattainable and is worth that LITTLE extra in our opinion. My Wife is a Teacher and I am an IT desktop engineer and we have two small children, we're certainly not millionaires, but it's very important that we have the best and most wholesome diet as possible. Eating processed food and cheap meat products just isn't an option for our family. It's bad for your health, your families health and for the environment. It's a no brainer isn't it?
Kevin Bray, Billericay, Essex

I agree 100% we need more organic , free range farmers, and all farmers to improve wealth fair standards we need to push supermarkets, goverments to help our farmers and encourage them to help wildlife thrive on their land by financal incentives
carl holmes, wirral

I agree with Raymond utterly. Many folks have the money for CDs, DVDs, clothes etc. but won't spend a few pennies more on good food. I usually find the difference between ordinary meat and free-range/organic can be as little as 20p a kilo. Also, many people who say they can't afford good food are often overweight.
FW, Bath, Somerset

He does not know what he is talking about it. British governments have not pursued cheap food policies other than post war years where clearly there was a desire to feed the populace (the ground nut fiasco - we cannot all eat Fois Gras Raymond). However after the EU was joined this was (and was accepted as) the start of expensive food, it guarantees the prices of often sub standard food versus the rest of the world
Jack Kilms, Turin

Print Sponsor

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific