Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little”.

Edmund Burke. 1729-97

When a sanguine publisher suggested I write a fashionably contextualised book based on East Anglian cuisine with the focus on ingredients, terroir and regenerative farming, trepidation quietly unfolded. The publisher’s unorthodox working title duly arrived, along with an optimistic list of preferred inclusions.


The desired checklist proceeded as follows; one hundred classic recipes, forty thousand words, the garnering of ten regional chefs, with their hearts set on the ingredients of the East of England and their minds on the indispensability of home cooks. A commissioned photographer to quarter the counties of East Anglia along with studio shots of each dish in progress. The instruction to encompass everything from our soil and its attendant ingredients to assorted stalwart fishermen, determined farmers, optimistic winemakers and rugged growers. An examination of our adherence to foreign cuisines (often at the expense of our own) and instruction to follow the convoluted food journey and unwind the vice-like grip exerted by our contemporary food systems. From farm to fork, as the trendy moniker goes, with no holds barred.

No pressure there then. Finally, almost as an afterthought, came the chilling prompt ‘and don’t forget to include climate change’.

Little did I know how much that closing epithet was to govern my schedule as I gazed at the Apollo 17 photo of our vulnerable earth, an image which had up until now merely served as a chic screen saver on my Mac.

What surrounded this inventory was the unsettling realisation that not only were there far too many unedited recipes in circulation already (hello social media) there were just too many damned cookery books as well. Last year alone, around 5000 new recipe books hit the UK market, with Jamie, the nation’s favourite rascal, heading up this extraordinary total.

Over and above this tally, not lacking in irony, was the UK’s increasing fascination with the ready-meal, now sitting somewhere north of £6 bn per annum. Meanwhile, our burgeoning take-away dependency had reached a further £12 bn and our national diet was now averaging around 65% of ultra-processed food per capita. Much of this in thrall to the chemical industry rather than the farmer or the cook. By way of a conspicuous example, the UK alone eats more crisps than the rest of Europe put together.

We appear to be surrounding ourselves with mediated food posing as a tribute band, and the conclusion is inevitable – we are buying far more cookbooks than we’re actually putting into service at home.

So, if aspects of climate change are in the mix, why chop down any more trees just for paper? Simply forego the book, snaffle a few shares in Deliveroo, Domino’s and Walkers crisps, and plan a never-ending holiday under the increasing sunshine.

But I was shaken from my reverie during a recent documentary, A Life on Our Planet (2020) starring that hardy annual, David Attenborough. David declares solemnly that this is his ‘witness statement’ in which he refers to a lifetime presenting wild diversity, now much of it engulfed by the devastating changes across the natural world.

Our ex-Beatle, and God’s vegetarian soothsayer on this Earth, Paul McCartney, once remarked that “if abattoirs had glass walls, everyone would be a vegetarian”.  A similar nerve was touched during David’s elegiac recollection of his years spent in wild nature. That ‘wild’ now disappearing at an alarming rate, although it’s now all in transparently plain sight.

One aspect of his plea was for a more sustainable way of life, with the focus squarely on the modus operandi of our present food supply. Citing the worldwide grazing of cattle and sheep, meat production gobbles up around 70% of all agricultural land and contributes 25% of all greenhouse gases. A figure commensurate with emissions from the world’s entire transport systems.

David’s suggestion is stark – ‘we must change our diet’. Not unsurprisingly he asserts that we need to reduce the area we farm by moving towards a reduced dependency on meat. He has changed his own diet accordingly.

Our present food system, evidently the greatest cause of environmental destruction across the world, must be revised if we, and our ever-growing population, are to survive.

On David’s cue, providence next led me to Kip Anderson’s disarming movie Cowspiricy. The Sustainability Secret (2014). Kip focuses on the leading causes of both emissions and habitat loss – deforestation, pollution, water consumption, species extinction, anti-biotic resistance, soil erosion and dying oceans. The whole kit and caboodle. No surprises in this movie, we’re back to animal husbandry again. Kip’s response, he’s now a vegan.

The way we eat as a global community dictates a long overdue conversation to which we must all contribute, yet it remains politically moot. In my experience, significant political changes in our world rarely tumble from the top down, so as Edward Burke urges – it looks like it’s our turn to engage.

And that engagement unavoidably asks questions of what we have for supper tonight along with the cookbook we use in its preparation. Not just a thoughtful re-examination of the recipes we select, but the very ingredients we choose to assemble the dish.

Profligacy in our choice of ingredients, cynically encouraged by the monoculture of our supermarkets, is fueled by an unsustainable increase in grazing animals worldwide (coupled with rapidly diminishing fish stocks) and the eye-watering fact that we now consume more than  3 million chickens every single day in the UK.

I am not a vegetarian, but in the light of empirical evidence I continue to decrease the amount of meat in our kitchen. Lest we forget, China, Italy, India and Greece, amongst others, have been eating exciting and healthy food, with proportionately less meat, for millennia. It’s no big drama to join them. Michael Pollan’s best seller In Defence of Food (2008) opens with – “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants”. As 21st century strap lines go, he’s touched upon the leading edge of the debate from the outset.

To my surprise, a gentle drift from meat-centred meals within our family has become effortlessly tolerable, bordering on inspiring. On many occasions it has simply passed without question. So far, so good, Arcadian recovery was looking safe in my kitchen.

With one significant exception that is.

As an art student in London, growing up during the afterglow of the Summer of Love, I trawled London’s (then) fashion centre, Carnaby Street, window shopping for clothes I had only ever seen on rock stars, footballers and eccentric weather forecasters. One visit, transfixed by outfits my parents would never agree to purchase, I noticed that an anarchic restaurant had popped up at number 22.

Its self-deprecating name was Cranks.

A little too preoccupied with velvet trousers and silk shirts, curiosity had yet to drive me to its wholesome treasures. When I did eventually part the beaded doorway, with Mary, a fellow student and staunch vegetarian – who could meanwhile knock seven bells out of bare marble whilst emulating the then fashionable Barbara Hepworth – we were met with the stifling bouquet of bubbling lentil stew mingled with a whiff of colonic ventilation. Surrounded by a festival of stripped pine furniture,  with cazuelas of mung beans and brown rice plonked onto our beeswaxed table by way of amuse bouche, the earnest waiting staff (doubtless all woodland schooled) handed us a London roof tile with a chalked menu. With their aggregate fashion statement best described as tie-dye and hessian weave, it felt like we had entered a hand-crocheted Narnia never to be released. I imagined that even the fair-trade air fresheners had formerly contracted halitosis.

Our tentative order appeared all too predictable, prompting the waiter’s weary observation that we  “wouldn’t be needing additional vegetables with that”. Bread of course would be supplied as, we later discovered, we were sitting in the epicentre of the early sourdough insurrection. Softly-softly, as unhurriedly as his sandal encased socks would allow him, he carried our order of what was later to become known as Cranks ‘signature dish’ to the pine-clad kitchen.

One Nut Roast, to share, no sides’.

Whether memory has deserted me or the experience has been knowingly wiped, the taste of my first nut roast has strangely faded. Proust was clearly awakened by more delicate gastronomy.

Cranks was the name appended to that little group of worthy wholemeal restaurants (more were to pop up as they expanded, then dramatically contracted and finally expired) and was adopted from an undeserved tag heaped upon vegan and vegetarian proponents alike. They were seen in their day as not ‘the full shilling’.

So far back, many now spinning in their decomposing wicker coffins, those prescient advocates unwittingly exposed the very root of our present critical debate. Not by laudable protest against animal cruelty, cigarette smoking beagles, foie gras manufacture – least of all the anthropomorphic dreams of the Beatrix Potter lobby – but by raising awareness of food production, land use and climate change. Some of the most significant issues we face in this, our century.

I have for years tried to provide an exciting and occasionally challenging meal at the end of the day. One might say its my highlight after work – if not necessarily everyone else’s. But, after a number of otherwise successful attempts to develop a sense of environmental responsibility in the kitchen, my many efforts to replicate Crank’s Nut Roast failed completely. I knew when to stop, although that early nut-based assembly has remained the most frequently told joke in our family. Until now that is.

Recently I came across a contemporary Nut Roast recipe making a bid for mainstream cool – a revision of a dish that has become known in culinary circles as a riff. Suffice to say, this one met with wholehearted family approval.

It might even make a bid for inclusion in that book I should be working on, although the nuts and cheeses might need a little East Anglian riffing themselves.

Thanks to Allegra McEvedy, former chef with the Leon chain for her Contemporary Nut Roast taken from Big Table, Busy Kitchen (2013)

100g almonds, skins on
100g hazelnuts, skins off
50g pecans
1 large leek, trimmed
150g vacuum-packed cooked chestnuts
splash of olive oil
1 shallot
1 heaped tbsp thyme leaves
100g Comté cheese, grated
1 eating apple, halved, cored and grated
handful of flat-leaf parsley, chopped
2 eggs, beaten
20g parmesan, grated
drizzle of extra virgin olive oil

Preheat the oven to 190ºC/fan 170ºC/Gas 5. As it’s heating lightly toast the almonds, hazelnuts and pecans on the tray for 12-15 minutes until they smell nice and nutty when you open the oven. Tip them onto a plate to cool.

Line a 450g loaf tin (20 x 10 x 6cm) with buttered greaseproof paper.

Slice the leek in half lengthways, then slice finely, wash in a colander and leave to drain thoroughly. Chop the shallot. Blitz the nuts in a food processor until you have a mixture of fine and chunky pieces. Chop the chestnuts to a similar size by hand, then mix it all together in a largish bowl.

Put a splash of olive oil into a wide pan over medium heat. Sweat the leek, shallot and thyme for 10-12 minutes until soft but not coloured, adding a splash of water if they start sticking. Stir the leeks into the nuts, together with the grated Comté, apple, parsley and eggs. Season well. Spoon the mixture into the prepared tin, packing it down as you go. Top with the grated Parmesan and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. Bake for 25-30 minutes, until the top looks irresistibly golden. Leave to sit for 10 minutes before lifting out using the greaseproof paper and slicing thickly.

Wine thoughts

Why, a ’natural wine’ of course. Try one of the increasingly fashionable Orange wines. A white wine coloured by leaving both grape skins and pips in contact with the fermenting juice, subtlety changing the colour to a deep golden hue, or as Richard E Grant reflected in the much missed 2003 TV series Posh Nosh, “like God’s wee wee”