‘Whenever you buy one product rather than another, you are voting for the success of some manufacturer. And, in this type of voting, every man votes only on those matters which he is qualified to judge: on his own preferences, interests, and needs. No one has the power to decide for others or to substitute his judgment for theirs; no one has the power to appoint himself “the voice of the public” and to leave the public voiceless and disfranchised.’ Ann Raynd
Purchasing goods and products are part of 21st Century life. There is no getting away from that. Our diets are more dependent on the things that we buy than any other area of our lives and a Paleo way of eating is no exception. It would be amazing to be self-sufficient in food but through necessity or desire nearly all of us rely on the marketplace. Upon visiting Paleo f(x) in Austin this year, the products, goods and services (if we include restaurants or menu options) that have sprung up in response to the Ancestral Health scene are both exciting and inspiring, many of them being young companies less than two years old. In the UK we are beginning to see similar developments and I love to see this. I don’t have an issue with this at all. We are 21st Century people, many of who have to live in cities – probably the most alien environment we can imagine for our cavemen ancestors – and must adapt the best we can using evolutionary principles as a template. I was excited to see news of the forthcoming ‘Paleo Power’ Tuesday event, featuring Charles and Julie Mayfield and Robb Wolf. Read about it here. As consumers, demanding and choosing the best products, goods and services that we can find and voting with our money is of paramount importance to our health and wellbeing.
In view of all this, it was exciting to hear about the recent openings of the Pure Taste restaurant in London (having finally secured new premises) and also the Paleo Restaurant in Leamington Spa. Following in the footsteps of Sauvage in Berlin*, let’s hope that these restaurants are the first of many to respond to increasing demand for real food in the UK. This recent flurry of activity in the Paleo-restaurant scene had me thinking about how much our own habits have changed over these last few years. Since adopting the Paleo lifestyle, eating out is something that we do far less often. When talking to other Paleo devotees I often hear the same thing. ‘It is so hard to find anywhere, so we end up staying in.’ or ‘What’s the point when we can eat at home and know exactly what we are eating?’ Of course this makes perfect sense and we often abandon plans to venture out even on special occasions, opting to stay at home and cook ourselves, very happy with the hounds and a Norcal M (what’s not to like with that?).
I wonder to myself if this is a bad thing or a good thing? Does it matter? Do we really need it? To the extent that it was always something that we enjoyed I suppose it does. However, the thing that we have replaced it with (cooking fantastic Paleo food in the comfort of our own home) makes up for it tenfold. I would rather be at home eating real food than in the average overpriced restaurant eating food whose providence is (at best) a mystery. We are also lucky to have wonderful friends who share or accommodate our food choices and no restaurant experience comes close to sharing food with them. In addition to this – and this is no exaggeration – Paleo has changed me to such an extent that I am no longer able to compare the person who sat in restaurants five years ago with the person I am now. Those people are like chalk and cheese (we often joke about it when referring to past events – ‘BP’: Before Paleo), so to say that I miss being able to eat out a lot wouldn’t even make sense. It would be like saying that I miss eating bread or pasta – it’s just not on the radar any more. Weird eh?
Often we pop into a local bookshop or cafe for excellent coffee (when you do have something to eat or drink out, it has to be really good) and sometimes on these occasions, Richard will have a slice of ‘gluten-free’ cake. The whole ‘gluten-free’ market seems to be taking off in our local town. I think this is fairly positive in the sense that it acknowledges food sensitivities and gives people more of a choice. However, on closer inspection, many gluten-free ‘products’ have a range of weird ingredients including grains, lots of sugar, vegetable or seed oils and assorted flavour-enhancers and additives. Certainly, replacing bread and pasta with gluten-free alternatives makes no sense to me – just scrap them and eat real food instead. But sometimes, Richard just feels like a slice of cake… I have taken to carrying a small bottle of coconut milk for my coffee (or drinking it black) if we do go out. Alternatives to dairy are inevitably soy-based and almond milk has all sorts of strange additives. This is greeted with some strange looks but most places are perfectly fine and interested in what I eat/don’t eat.
However, as I look across the counter and shelves groaning under the weight of cupcakes, brownies, biscuits and muffins, sometimes I do wish that there was something that I could have along with my coffee. This is about choice – first and foremost – and for people who follow Paleo/Primal ways of eating the choice is zero in the majority of establishments. This is not to say that such things should form a regular way of eating, just that as a treat to go with my coffee I may want to be able to select something made of real food and containing only a handful of good quality ingredients. I get quite angry about this but I realise that it is not the fault of the cafes – it is up to us to demand more, to tell them why we can’t eat anything in the entire place, to suggest alternatives (even if it means handing them a leaflet!) and to generally get them to think about how much more we would frequent them and spend money if they actually had anything we could eat. Perhaps we British are not very good at that but I’m a firm believer that if we create the demand, the market will follow.
Eating out for dinner is a whole other ball game. Since the rise of the gastro-pub (don’t get me started on that), even a pub meal can set you back £12-£20 for a main course. Dinner for two with wine needs to be seriously special for us to spend that amount of money. When we first started our Paleo adventure, we tended to eat out more than we do now – looking for the best option on the menu and asking for extra vegetables and meat instead of carbs. One of the things that you realise pretty quickly is that often restaurants do this begrudgingly – carbs are cheap and make that plate look full. Ask for the carbs to be taken away, including that bread basket (which is usually met with complete perplexity) and suddenly your £20 meal starts to look a bit thin on the ground and lacking in real food.
I remember eating in a local café for lunch and ordering a goat’s cheese salad (before I gave up dairy). It included bread, so I explained that I ate no grains at all and asked for a little extra cheese and salad instead. The plate came back with a pile of oat cakes on the side. When I sent it back again there seemed to be some exasperation in the kitchen (it was an open kitchen and we were sitting in front of it). The dish was returned with a sliver of extra goat’s cheese (which obviously costs more money than carbs) and a chasm of space on the plate. The £8 that they were demanding for this was looking more and more like a massive rip-off. Even the waitress looked ashamed. This is depressing for the customer and embarrassing for the restaurant. In addition to this sort of fiasco, the list of questions about what is and is not in the food becomes tedious. Is it any wonder that we end up staying at home? When did it become so hard to go out and eat nothing but real food?
Some places have certainly cottoned-on to the fact that gluten-free is a growing trend and inevitably seek to exploit it. On a recent work lunch, Richard was dismayed to find out that the regular burger and fries was £6.95 (served with bun, fries and a small side salad), while a gluten-free ‘skinny burger’ was £9.95 (served with no bun and the same small side salad). As the fries were cooked in vegetable oil, Richard chose a baked potato instead. Unfortunately as the butter was not gluten-free (what?!) the potato had to be eaten dry (there were no other natural sauces available). What exactly was the extra £3 for? Did the baked potato cost £3 more than the fries? What is going on here? On a visit to London, I tried a ‘real’ burger chain that also gave the ‘skinny’ option. With the addition of bacon and avocado, it made a good meal for a not an unreasonable price. The beef is grain finished though which is a shame. Richard also tried a steak restaurant in Soho that serves meat from its own herd. Sadly it is finished on barley and molasses. Encouraging restaurants to use 100% pasture-raised meat is of paramount importance, not only from an ethical and environmental perspective but also because it tastes so good. Again, this is something that we – as consumers – need to demand. Asking questions is often the first step in doing this and opens a dialogue in which there is opportunity to voice our preferences. It’s so wonderful to see Chalk Valley Burgers serving only 100% pasture-fed beef, buffalo and lamb in their restaurant near Portsmouth. Check out their great website!
Sometimes, just sometimes, we are completely surprised and stumble across a place that goes out of their way to accommodate our strange eating habits. A couple of months ago, we were celebrating Richard’s birthday and as a very special treat, decided to check out a restaurant that had been recommended to us by various people – St John’s Place in Hay on Wye. Our local butcher George’s supplies the meat and we were told that Julia (the chef and owner) favours nose-to-tail eating with an emphasis on seasonal, locally sourced food. This sounded promising and we called to book a table and ask for a few adaptations to the menu. To our surprise, Julia was more than helpful and willing to take a list of foods that we did and didn’t eat. When we arrived on the evening, she had put together a Paleo menu just for us. We didn’t ask for this and to be honest, we were blown away. You can see a picture of the menu below.
The restaurant is tucked away in the old chapel and meeting rooms on Lion Street and mixes contemporary décor with traditional surroundings, the highlight of which is the assortment of amazing puppets by Circo Gringo that adorn the space. What followed was definitely one of the best meals we have had– and certainly the best since adopting Paleo. I ate the Salt duck followed by the Monkfish, while Richard had the Squid followed by the Lamb rump. The food was so fresh and simple, so wonderfully flavoured and so beautifully presented (sadly our pictures don’t do it justice) that it was a joy. Richard even had two slices of cake as it was so delicious and the service was impeccable. Our mark of whether a restaurant is good (apart from the quality of the service which is of great importance to us) is always asking the question ‘Could we have done better at home?’ Sadly and all too frequently that answer is ‘Yes’ but not at St John.
As we ate and drank, we said to ourselves how wonderful it was to be out eating real food. Apart from Julia’s talent as a chef, it took a willingness to accommodate and an eagerness to work creatively within boundaries. As with all creative people, from chefs to artists, restrictions are a challenge and can be a spur to produce their best work. We may not be able to travel to Paleo restaurants but we can begin changing things by starting with our local area. Just as our great experience at St John’s place showed us, there may be one or two places that are willing to give us a choice. It starts small but if we ask loud enough, we may be heard. Demanding real food, breaking the rules, finding producers, cafes, restaurants that are willing to listen to us, supporting those that offer us the choices that we need; these are the ways that we can change the game and bring Paleo to the wider audience that it deserves. Don’t be voiceless and disfranchised – speak up and ask for what you want. Here’s to eating out again…
* After I wrote this article, our friends told us about Hu Kitchen in NYC – just check out their menu! Apparently it was fantastic so be sure to visit if you are in the city.