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Our Food: Exploring Britain's colourful history

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Alex Langlands Alex Langlands | 12:00 UK time, Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Our Food is a celebration of the nation's food - its origins, its tastes and the story it can tell us about our island's history.

I'm passionate about food and where it comes from.

At home I try and grow as many fruits and vegetables as the garden and greenhouse will allow and firmly believe the love and care put into the growing of food comes out in the flavour.

For me Our Food was an opportunity to extend that passion nationally and to explore the story of my favourite food and the people responsible for its production across Britain.

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Alex Langlands meets Gwyn Thomas and his mountain sheep

You might think that as an archaeologist there isn't much call for my services in the food industry, but you'd be wrong.

Archaeologists - especially on TV - have been guilty of portraying archaeology in too narrow a light.

Over the last decade or so it has moved on as a discipline and has become so much more than a few trenches, some broken pottery and a handful of dusty old bones.

Archaeology is all about the material world around us and how to read that world.

Our own lives leave in their wake an archaeology of sorts, and even the most contemporary of industries leaves behind an archaeological record that can be studied in its own right.

The structured landscape of the world around us and the built environment are archaeological resources that can tell us a huge amount about ourselves.

For example I was amazed to discover in Scotland just how big the herring industry had been and how crucial to its growth the railways were.

The smokehouses of Mallaig, the dry stone walls of the Welsh valleys and the ancient field systems of Norfolk (all of which feature in the series) are all archaeological remnants of food-producing industries that have come to define these places and the people that occupy them.

What's more, before the Industrial Revolution the overwhelming majority of people in this country worked in a rural setting where their lives were intimately bound up with the production of one thing - food. So as an archaeologist you're never far from studying that which we have eaten and its centrality to our island's history.

In episode two, I got the opportunity to explore sheep farming in the mountains and valleys of Wales.

It's a way of life that really appeals to me. My host Gwyn was a true inspiration and I can honestly say that after a day striding around the valley I didn't want to leave.

Carving out a living in this harsh environment is all about working with the conditions - not against them - and the idea that sheep can be 'hefted' to the hills fascinates me.

A 'hefted' flock is a flock that knows their patch of the hillside and knows where to be and when. So much so that when the farmer comes to round them up all he needs is a dog and a whistle and the ancient knowledge passed down from generation to generation of sheep kicks in.

The flock slowly make their way, without the encouragement of a quad bike or the constraints of barbed wire, to a convenient place on the mountainside where they can be counted and checked - magic and timeless.

Alex Langlands with turnips

Alex visits Norfolk in episode two to examine the impact of the turnip

You'll see in episode one that I've always struggled to enthuse people about the turnip and just how important it has been to British farming.

So when I was asked to travel to Norfolk and explore the history of this humble vegetable and the role it still plays in agriculture, I was delighted.

This was a chance, once and for all, to spell out just how key it was to arable and livestock farming.

Turnips were introduced into crop rotations in the 18th Century to improve fertility in the soil, break the cycle of pests and disease and to support greater numbers of livestock.

The results of its introduction can hardly be understated and there's little doubt that without this simple root vegetable farming would never have been able to support the huge population growth of the 19th Century.

It was in Norfolk that it was really brought home to me just how important food is.

Its production and consumption permeate almost every aspect of our lives and its story can tell us so very much more than we think about Britain's colourful and extraordinary history.

Alex Langlands is one of the presenters of Our Food.

Our Food begins on Wednesday, 4 April at 8pm on BBC Two and BBC HD (except for analogue viewers in Northern Ireland and Wales). The series will be available to watch in iPlayer until Wednesday, 2 May. For more information about analogue television and the digital switchover please visit Help Receiving TV and Radio.

For further programme times, please see the episode guide.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.


  • Comment number 1.

    I'm surprised that Alex Langlands was so uncritical of agribusiness given his "green" credentials in the Norfolk episode. Seems he's just happy to take the money the BBC pays and to hell with his own principles.

    What happens when the artificial fertilisers run out? Or the smart tractors when the oil runs out? Is this sort of industrial farming sustainable in the long term? Sure things move on and farming practises change with the times but for someone who is an archaeologist and historian plus a self-appointed advocate of sustainable farming methods this is very disappointing indeed.

  • Comment number 2.

    Great TV. Sadly the piece on saffron was very wrong. There is commercial saffron growth in Norfolk , and I think the biology was incorrect. It is the stamen, not the stigma that are harvested and were being harvested [correctly] for saffron in the piece.

  • Comment number 3.

    Was driven to comment on a part of tonight's show - Our Food. The lovely Welsh farmer who has half a million walkers visit his farm said that although he says good morning to them , people do not reply. How rude and ignorant people are - what an appalling reflection that is of our modern society. You would think people who walk and enjoy the countryside would be a little better than the average, but apparently not. How sad Manners and politeness seem to have gone out of the window.

  • Comment number 4.

    The show made me think about what I learnt in school about the Agricultual Revolution and reminded me of Charles "Turnip" Townshend. A man with a great nickname who had a big influence on how food is produced - https://foodheroesandheroines.wordpress.com/2012/05/04/charles-turnip-townshend/


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