I have just seen Jamie Oliver’s TED talk video. Love or hate his style, Jamie is just about the only celeb voice consistently banging on about the junk that’s in a lot of kids’ diets these days, whether they’re eating at home, school or on the street. His crusade to get us to feed our kids healthily has now extended to America. His TED talk showed a clip of what looks like five-year olds in class unable to name correctly, or recognise at all, basic fruit and veg like potatoes and tomatoes (let alone an artichoke). Scary stuff. They looked as if they’d never seen a raw ingredient.
A few weeks ago, my son started receiving a portion of fruit or vegetables in a small plastic container, once a week, at school break. The initiative is part sponsored by the European Union. Malta has high child obesity rates ranking pretty much alongside the US rates. The veg in schools initiative is therefore laudable, but has its problems. I saw one of the offerings as he brought it home, part eaten. It was watery lettuce, cucumber and a bland, anaemic tomato. Kids can like salad, but usually it has to appeal to them. This was rabbit food at its worst and I could barely eat it.
The art of veggie shopping in Malta
Having Jamie’s TED talk and my family’s health at the forefront of my mind, I ended up scrutinising more carefully than usual my shopping basket of goods in the supermarket today. I don’t mean I paused over the low-fat, but high-sugar yoghurt (health-con) products, but I made a point of taking a long hard look at the labeling of the fruit and veg. A recipe on my menu plan for the weekend required ‘snow peas’ – not in season right now, if ever, in Malta. There were some on display though, cellophane wrapped, and stating that they were from Guatemala.
Far too many food miles to contemplate that purchase. Similarly, though I love pineapple and mango, I gave them a miss too and opted for what’s local, in season, plentiful and therefore cheap. At present, that means strawberries! I usually reckon on strawberry season in March, but with growing under plastic and our exceptionally mild winter, they are in the shops now – and they are huge, sweet and just five, reasonably sized ones can provide a child’s Vitamin C quota for the day (according to nutritionist Natalie Savona. See below).
Pick ‘n’ Mix, Squash ‘n’ Squeeze those veggies
In Malta, a good deal of our fruit and veg comes loose, definitely on the veggie carts, and even in supermarkets. That’s a good start to cooking from scratch with raw ingredients. The loose goods are generally local if they are common fruit and veg – or from Sicily.
You can of course get most things, like those snow peas, from anywhere in the world, but why bother? Only around three per cent of Malta’s population is in agriculture, but they work hard and eke out a fairly good spread of raw ingredients. Broccoli, spinach and artichokes are some tempting veg that is in season at the moment. I know that the impoverished soil here might mean that some farmers spray a lot of chemicals around, but who knows what is on most of the imported fruit and veg, unless is says ‘organic’, which itself has been in dispute as the manna from heaven. Wash, scrub and peel things, I say, when in doubt.
Like most canny shoppers in continental Europe, the Maltese housewife (and I use that term because many women do describe themselves here as that) touches and squeezes the produce and digs deep the in plastic tray to find the best of the tomatoes or whatever. There’s a lot of pecking and picking over goods, and the barging aside of other shoppers (as I witness on my local veggie cart days). The economical shoppers go out of their way to ask for any veg that’s almost past its best. I often see people buy a load of wilting this or that to pop in a ‘brodo’ or stew. These are people who use every last sad veg from the bottom of the fridge, and why not? In these times, we have a thing or two to learn from them.
Maltese-descent Celeb Nutritionists
As an afterword, it’s worth noting that the Islands have two Maltese-descent UK celebrity nutrionists to their name. Natalie Savona, an academic and practitioner who has written for and broadcasted extensively in national UK media; and Dr John Briffa who had a long-running column in the UK Observer and has an active blog.
Now, I’m off to work out how to dissect those massive globe artichokes I bought on whim, and see if I can learn what to do with them! They were going like hot cakes on the veg cart yesterday. Damn, I should have called upon the collective wisdom of my fellow ‘housewife’ shoppers to ask their advice…