Over the course of nine days, Bristol has been transformed into a hive of food activity thanks to the brilliant Food Connections festival. Through an impressive 130 events across the city, the festival has showcased the projects, businesses, organisations and individuals who are working to change both the way we eat and the way we think about food. Through the inclusive nature of the festival, which celebrated Bristol’s diverse communities and food cultures, the organisers have certainly succeeded in creating something unique.

Bristol’s status as a sustainable food capital was in no doubt as influential figures from the food movement descended upon the city. Last Friday, four exciting chefs took to College Green to create a delicious banquet using ingredients sourced from Slow Food’s Ark of Taste. The Ark was created as a way of drawing attention to and preserving ingredients and food products from around the globe that are at risk of extinction, from fruits and vegetables to cheeses, breads and meat.

Thomasina Miers, founder of the Wahaca chain of Mexican restaurants, opened the evening with delicious canapés sourced on her travels through Mexico. Home to about 11% of the earth’s species, Mexico is listed as one of the world’s megadiverse countries. This high level of biodiversity is responsible for Mexico’s wealth of ingredients, including its striking varieties of corn, often unheard of in Britain. One variety was served in the form of blue corn tostadas topped with crushed Chicatanas ants – the contents of the unusual powder only revealed once the tostadas were devoured!

Showcasing the best that Northern Ireland has to offer, Paula McIntyre created a dish using eel from the only sustainable eel fishery in the world, accompanied by dulse seaweed – found in abundance along the Irish coast – and soda bread with creamy butter.

Eco-chef Tom Hunt was responsible for the main course, cooking a Tamworth pig from nose to tail, with potluck platters served to each table. Our selection included pork belly, pulled shoulder, chorizo sausages and pork loin with fermented rhubarb, but the tastiest by far were the stuffed trotters.

The pork came from Buttle Farm, which is home to six different native rare breeds. Despite a taste test at Bristol University, which judged the Tamworth to be the best tasting of all native breeds, it is still listed as ‘at risk’ by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust. As consumers become more concerned about where their food comes from, there is an opportunity for these more unusual products to gain the attention that they deserve, something that Buttle Farm points out on its website:

“These breeds may have fallen from favour once, but interest in them has now turned full circle. People today are interested in both the quality and the provenance of their meat – its breed, how it was raised and fed, the ‘food miles’ and last but not least, the flavour and texture of the meat.”

During the main course, Tom drew attention to the connection between farmers and their animals by sharing some of his experiences of working with Robert Buttle, who raised the pig that we were eating. He talked about the care that was put into rearing the animal, all the way from birth through to butchery, which was carried out on the farm itself with some assistance from Tom.

The highlight of the evening for many of the guests was Giorgio Locatelli’s pistachio and ricotta tart, using Bronte pistachios from Sicily. Giorgio shared his fascination with this Italian island and highlighted the importance of the Ark of Taste in allowing producers and farmers to tell the story of their products and provide a market platform. Similarly, the Protected Designation of Origin label gives farmers and producers a way to assure consumers that these are not only of the highest quality but that they are unique. If the pistachio trees of Bronte were planted elsewhere, they would not be same; it is the rich soil from Mount Etna and the surrounding landscape that makes them so distinct.

All profits from the evening were donated to the 10,000 Gardens in Africa project, a Slow Food initiative that is creating 10,000 food gardens in African schools and communities to raise awareness of the importance of biodiversity and to train the next generation to become custodians of their land.

Biodiversity was certainly the theme of the evening, with each of the chefs offering a different perspective, whether relating to the landscape, flavour or the history of their chosen ingredients. Preserving biodiversity is undoubtedly important for our food security, allowing our ecosystems to become more resilient and adaptable in the face of climate change. The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that in the last century, around three quarters of genetic diversity in agricultural crops has been lost. By narrowing this pool, we leave ourselves open to greater risk of crop failure from environmental shocks, such as drought.

Over all, the events of the evening, the stories shared and the dishes consumed showed us how every ingredient is a powerful symbol representing place, community and heritage. The better we preserve these diverse products, the more interesting our diet and our lives will be!

Photograph: Ellen Freytag

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