Fast food? I'm on a go slow

IT'S very much on the tourist map now, but when I visited Prague in 1992 the old city was only just emerging from the cocoon of Communism.Nearly half a century in the Soviet bloc had produced a sprawl of ugly concrete around a historic centre that had been left pretty much as it was.

IT'S very much on the tourist map now, but when I visited Prague in 1992 the old city was only just emerging from the cocoon of Communism.

Nearly half a century in the Soviet bloc had produced a sprawl of ugly concrete around a historic centre that had been left pretty much as it was.

It had been allowed to get filthy, but not flattened, redeveloped or “improved” the way most cities in western Europe had been in those years.

Under the grime of neglect, and the accumulated fumes of generations of Trabants, the city was still beautiful in the way it had been in the early years of the 20th century - before the Communists, before even the Nazis.

You might walk down one shabby street, turn a corner and find yourself in another street almost identical - except that here the painters and decorators had already been, and it was like stepping into a film set of 18th-century splendour.

The people were the most friendly and helpful I have met anywhere. At every road crossing, strangers would instantly, and unasked, help me manoeuvre my father's wheelchair up and down the high kerbs.

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I wonder if 13 more years of capitalism, and mass tourism, have had an impact on that astounding warmth and courtesy. I rather fear they will have.

In one respect, though, western capitalism had already made its mark on the city.

It was little more than two years since the riot in Wenceslas Square that marked the first real step towards the overturning of Czech communism. Yet already the most notable building in the square (really, a wide street or avenue) bore a massive insignia as familiar as the old hammer and sickle - and in the same red and gold colours.

It was, of course, the M symbol of McDonald's. Capitalism at its gaudiest, glitziest and foulest.

Now it may be that Czechoslovakia, as it still was then, was never greatly renowned for its fine food. But you could certainly eat better than burger.

And that over-arching M has been stamped on cities and squares from Paris to Beijing, Mumbai to Rio. And there isn't one of those cities where you can't dine gloriously on good local produce. For now.

It's hard to say what the worst thing is about burger culture.

Is it the raping of the rainforest to make way for beef cattle? Is it the way those cattle are treated? Is it the treatment of the soulless job of churning out the burgers?

Is it the bulging bellies of the fast-food addicts who buy them? The squeezing out of the traditional café round the corner? Or the eradication of choice from a world where the same pseudo-food is dominant everywhere?

For all these reasons and more I have given fast-food joints the elbow. I really began thinking that way in Prague in 1992.

But the best reason of all, from the selfish point of view, is that I eat better every day than anyone whose main meal comes wrapped in paper or polystyrene and smothered in over-coloured sauces and relish.

Most of what I eat is prepared in our own kitchen from real ingredients. As much as possible of what goes into it is grown or reared locally.

So-called “convenience” foods simply don't make it into our house any more. And that doesn't seem to have made our lives any less convenient - just healthier and pleasanter.

None of the hundreds of foodstuffs found by the Food Standards Agency to contain the illegal dye Sudan 1 has ever made it into my kitchen or on to my plate. Few people who shop in supermarkets or take away fast food can say that with confidence.

What's more, preparing real food turns out to be a pleasure, seldom a chore. In fact it's a good way to unwind after a busy day of work.

So here's to the growth of farm shops and farmers' markets. Here's to the good old Co-op.

And here's some food for thought. Slow food is better and nicer all round - for you, for the planet, for everyone - than the fast variety.

I'll no doubt be serving up another helping of this thought in a later column. In the meantime whet your appetite at www.slowfood.com. Bon appétit!

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