From Plant To Plate: The stories of how food reaches us

Published 22 May 2018

The stories of how food reaches us are not always told, but they add a richness all of their own. Writer Anna Sulan Masing and Emma Underwood, general manager of restaurant Where The Light Gets In, recount two very different aspects of the journey.

Many hands make light work.

But maybe they become too light. In the rush of the everyday, in the heat of kitchen and the service of hospitality it can be easy to forget the effort, the time and the energy that goes into the small things. From the producers and the suppliers, the KPs and managers, to the builders and artisans – this industry is built from the work of many people and their stories.

We wanted to take a moment to celebrate and to talk about the blood, sweat and tears that goes into the plates of food and glasses of wine that are served – the hands that make the work light, beautiful and a pleasure. People are the biggest asset of this industry and there are many in the journey from plant to plate.

Pepper, people and farms

A simple crack of pepper is loaded with others’ stories.

Sarawak, a strip of land up the north side of the Borneo island, takes great pride in its pepper – a smoky, woody scent and near black that I can recognize almost anywhere. Not many people have heard of Sarawak, where the population is mainly made up of Ibans (which is what I am), a Dayak (indigenous) tribe that was nicknamed by the West in colonial times as ‘headhunters of Borneo’. It is a land of jungle, rivers, mosquitos and wonderful food, but its pepper has found its way on to the menus of The Clove Club and Sketch, and into Christmas markets in Lyon, France.

The elevation of this pepper to Michelin-starred menus reminds me how mundane pepper is generally thought of. It is often paired on tables with salt, to applied by the guest to suit their palate, it is in recipes “to taste”, it such a personal ingredient and so common. Yet, it is not talked about in the hallow voices of provenance in the same way as heritage tomatoes or racks of lamb.  

There is a small pepper farm by the town Lubok Antu, in Sarawak, 280km from the capital of Kuching, on the border of Kalamantan (Indonesia). Lubok means river pool, Antu means ghost, and so this town has a spiritual guardian looking over the pooled bend in the river by the main bazaar.

The farm is run by Idah Lagn, 32, and her mother, 58. It is their second farm, three years old with 100 trees. The first farm was planted five years ago when Idah’s father died and is still going, but is less productive. On both farms they also grow a number of other crops – corn, rambutan, longbean, yam, rice – for family consumption. Idah’s husband works in the oil and gas industry, offshore in Brunei.

The Lagn family live in a longhouse, which is a typical Iban village. It is not unlike Britain’s terraced houses with each family’s ‘flat’ sharing a wall with the other, creating a long ‘house’ with a communal verandah across the front. This longhouse is made up of 35 doors (families).

They chose to plant pepper because it is physically less taxing than other crops and it was selling at a good price of $30 (Malaysian Ringgt) per kilo. This price fluctuates a lot depending on demand and is currently at $11 per kilo (Nov 2017); in June it was at $19. It is hard to plan life like this.

Pepper is a delicate plant and needs constant attention. With Idah looking after her four children and the family home, responsibility for the farm, 10 minutes’ drive away, falls to Idah’s mother. She works seven days a week, starting at 5.30am – breakfast, feed the chickens, farm, lunch break, then farm till 5pm. Currently she is planting padi, both wet and hill rice – this is particularly hard, physical work, but it means the family can be self sufficient, important when pepper fluctuates so much.

Pepper can be ready to harvest every six months and the family harvest two or three times a year. The trees are planted at different times of the year, to give the ability for a continuous harvest. Once harvested, the berries are then dried on the verandah for three to four days, until almost black. Wholesalers come to longhouse to pick up the pepper and won’t buy any less than 10 kilos at a time, so Idah usually waits until they have at least 30 kilos to sell.

After being shown the farm, I sit and talk with Idah, her mother and a few of the other people in the longhouse over sweet black tea and freshly picked, cooked corn. We talk about the current government, how much the area has changed and whether I look more Iban or western. Same conversations as in London.

As I leave, Idah’s mother tells me she is looking forward to a holiday in two months, her first in a long time. She’s going to the capital, Kuching, to do some shopping, see friends and eat good food. She also tells me that “Dayak women, are superwomen”. She’s not wrong.

Ingredients, the small things, have always travelled – Cinnamon sticks on the silk road, Scottish langoustines to French restaurants, and coffee from Ethiopia now grown across the equatorial belt. Each has their own tale, their set of many hands lovingly nurturing the produce. Taking time to know and appriate the complex lives of food will help us think of bigger issue around sourcing and sustainability. 

Barrels, bowls and bales

Sitting in the pub late one Sunday afternoon a series of texts come through from my boss (Sam Buckley, owner of Where The Light Gets In). He is a rare texter, always preferring face-to-face communication, so my initial reaction is one of concern. A stream of photographs fill my screen, all of one dish of river trout, Jerusalem artichoke and Dale End WHAT THAT? with the most minute differences in their plating. 

‘D’yer like these?’ he asks. A conversation enfolds between us, analysing the plates in our usual obsessively thorough detail: how does it represent the restaurant? does it truly reflect our style? How will our guests eat it? And, most importantly, does it tell the story? 

At Where The Light Gets In we serve our dishes without menus. This is hardly something radical, restaurants all over the world serve their tasting menus blind, but our decision is guided by our desire to properly fulfil our role as conduits of the wonderful produce we use. Rather than words on a piece of paper, our plates of food are served by the chef that created it. They accompany each dish with a story: explaining where the produce is from and how it has been reared, farmed, grown, foraged or fished. As the food we serve has taken so much effort to be produced, it is vital to us that we represent this to our guests. 

A restaurant doesn’t just have to be a business, just somewhere to have a bite to eat, or something to drink. It can be a community in its own right, a micro-society of people that have occupied themselves with creation and production, in order to make the few hours the guest spends within its walls as special as possible.

At Where The Light Gets In we are surrounded by a constellation of farmers, architects, foragers, carpenters, ceramicists, photographers, butchers, wine makers and many more, all of whom play a vital role in our guests’ plates of food. The community that we have created is represented in every dish we serve and is carefully considered from the development stage onwards. For example, a forthcoming pork dish is to feature an accompaniment of warm cider. The cider has been chosen to represent Sam’s partner’s upbringing in the South of France, evoking fond memories for the both of them that can be transmitted to the guests. It will be served in a bowl especially made by the ceramicist Joe Hartley, who recently visited South Korea with Sam on a cultural exchange with a Master ceramicist. This piece has been created in response to their visit.

As our learning comes from our wider community, it is then transmitted within our own smaller community. When each new dish goes on a menu we all discuss every aspect of it together at the start of service, thus creating and interpreting our own story to pass further on to our community of diners. 

Perhaps all of the stories behind a dish will be relayed to the guest, but maybe they won’t. We are always careful to adapt to each guest’s specific level of interest and tailor our stories accordingly – maybe table 1 was particularly interested in how our wild mussels were caught, so the chef taking the river trout dish will know to talk about the fishing methods behind it. Several series of narratives will always run behind our menu – for example the hay that the mutton we served was fed on, was used to make a smoked oil to season a scallop dish, and to make a sweet syrup for a juice accompanying a dessert – meaning that there are myriad of tales and stories to tell. 

Our restaurant is therefore not just concerned with the business of consumption, but of the transferal of knowledge, the sharing of ideas and hopefully a raising of consciousness. At Where The Light Gets In we are nothing but vessels for the incredible produce that comes through our doors, we are committed to thoroughly telling their stories.

Emma Underwood

This article was first published in Issue 14 of CODE Quarterly.

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