Regaining taste for real food

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Exmouth Market, a short street in East London, owes its name to the thriving food market that flourished there in Victorian times before supermarkets arrived to steal its customers.

On Sept. 22, 2006, farmers returned to Exmouth Market and set up their stalls for the first time in decades. The same is happening throughout Britain: There are now 550 farmers' markets across the country.

The trend has not been lost on supermarkets. Tesco recently announced it would begin selling produce from local suppliers, and U.S. chain Whole Foods will launch a London outlet next year.

Environmental awareness is fueling doubts about industrialized farming, driving demand for organic food. It's also raising concern about "food miles," transporting produce thousands of miles rather than selling what's grown locally. Worries about obesity are affecting our opinions of processed food. And celebrity chefs, with their TV shows and tie-in cookbooks, are raising our culinary consciousness.

But above all, we crave authenticity. In an age of globalization, when the things we buy come from anywhere and everywhere, a product with a genuine provenance and history behind it is something to cherish. And nowhere is this truer than with food.

A product with a back story can charge a premium. So it is at the farmers' markets, where handwritten chalkboards flatter our discernment while effortlessly relieving us of our cash.

But even authenticity can be faked. Chefs prize the rare piment d'Espelette, a chili pepper grown solely in 10 small villages in southwestern France. It is designated "AOC" (appellation d'origine contr“lee), which means no other chilis can use the name. Its producers are members of an exclusive brotherhood. And on the last Sunday in October, the village of Espelette celebrates La Fete du Piment, a festival dedicated to the fiery vegetable.

Yet far from having a venerable history, the piment d'Espelette is a modern confection. Until the 1940s the chilies were sold only as powder, and the festival didn't arrive until 1967. But we want tradition, so we buy the myth.

Technology and globalization are sweeping aside old certainties, leaving us to cast about for roots to ground us. No wonder real food is back on the menu.
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