An interview with renowned food journalist Dan Saladino
Producer and presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Food Programme for over 15 years, Dan has become a key figure on the British food scene, shining a light on numerous stories, championing food producers and telling food stories which help keep Britain’s food scene vibrant and improving. His award-winning first book Eating to Extinction, The World’s Rarest Foods and Why We Need to Save Them highlighted the need to save the world’s precious food diversity.
Although on a brief break from The Food Programme in order to research and write his next book, Dan took the time to speak to Andy to talk about his career so far, the food he loves to eat, his thoughts on the future of British food and what to expect from him next.
Give a brief synopsis of your business and career.
I started work at the BBC back in the mid-90s as a district reporter for local radio. This was followed by a stint in BBC television news, which confirmed what I already knew, that radio was where I wanted to be. After a few years working on Radio 4’s investigative series, Face the Facts, I was offered the chance to join the Food Programme, where I have worked ever since, first as a producer and now as a presenter. My first book Eating to Extinction: The World’s Rarest Foods and Why We Need to Save Them, was published in the UK in 2021 and has since been published in various other countries, including the US, Italy, Spain, South Korea, China, Japan, the Netherlands and Bulgaria. I am just starting work on my next book.
What made you get into doing what you do?
I fell in love with radio while listening to documentaries on Radio 4. One day, it dawned on me that people actually make those programmes for a living, and this is what led me to work towards a career in radio and a job at the BBC. In 2007, I was lucky enough to combine my passion for radio with another passion of mine – food – when I was invited to join the team that makes the Food Programme. I said yes, thinking I would stay for one year. But I’m still here; the subject is so fascinating and always changing. It’s possible to see and understand the world through the lens of food and farming. There are no stories you cannot tell through food.
Writing books happened because of serendipity. A literary agent was listening to one of my programmes and sent me a message on twitter asking if I would be interested in writing a book. That message resulted in me writing Eating to Extinction, a book that was three years in the making.
Describe a typical working day.
Ordinarily, when working on the Food Programme, no day tends to be the same. Sometimes I might spend the day researching and reading, trying to find stories – perhaps linked to a book that has just been published, a news story or an informal conversation with a food producer or farmer. Other days I might be on the road, off to record interviews and sound to make a 30-minute radio programme. Or I might be at home on a laptop editing and scripting and creating the programmes.
Things are a little different now as I am on a career break from the BBC researching and writing my next book. My time is being spent travelling to research stories, speaking to experts about some of the stories I am interested in and getting into the groove of being able to spend five or six hours each day writing chapters. It’s an exciting time.
What’s the best part of your job? And do you have a favourite memory from work?
I love meeting people who work with food, produce food, grow food, study food.
People who share my passion. I love collecting and telling stories. And I love playing around with sound. I find writing is much harder to love but a very fulfilling thing to have done!
Of all the memories I have, perhaps the most incredible one of all was spending time in Tanzania with the Hadza, some of the last of the world’s hunter-gatherers. There I got to sleep under the stars of the African savannah and watched these hunter gatherers collect honey from tall baobab trees with the help of the honeyguide, a bird with which they have a very special and ancient relationship.
This was a rare opportunity to glimpse into a world in which humans still have an intimate relationship with biodiversity.
When you are at home what is your staple dish for the family?
That changes all the time. I wouldn’t say I am technically brilliant at cooking but I love improvising and taking ingredients and seeing what they can become.
We get a weekly veg box and it’s always fun to receive a surprise each week, wondering what to make with it all.
What is your favourite place to go eat?
Around the table with family and friends. I am also fortunate in my work to have eaten in some very unusual settings and in different people’s homes around the world.
One meal that stands out was in Sicily with the food writer, Mary Taylor Simeti, an American by birth who has lived in Sicily and researched the food history of the island. She’s a hero of mine and I made a radio programme which told the story of her life through food. Eating at her farm with food she had grown was a very special experience.
Do you have any other hidden foodie gems you think are worth people knowing about?
I love finding small producers online. Because of the internet it’s now possible to interact with highly skilled and specialised food producers from a distance. It’s so exciting to receive a food parcel of foods from around the country, knowing you are dealing with people who are obsessive about trying to provide the best.
Do you have a favourite cheese at the moment? If so, why is it your favourite?
I’ve recently come back from Turkey where I was researching a story for my next book. As a result of this trip, I now have tucked away in a cool part of my house the strangest looking food object you can imagine.
It’s conical in shape, pink and furry and it’s made from sheep’s milk. It’s a so called ‘tulum’ cheese which is matured and kept inside goatskin. The most surprising part of the story about this particular cheese is that it’s matured in a cave beneath the grasslands of the Anatolian steppe.
To get to the cave where the cheese matures, you have to ride in a rickety elevator where the cheeses stay for six months. Although the cheese looks a bit unnerving because of the goatskin it’s wrapped in, it’s a delicate and gentle flavoured cheese, creamy but with a unique flavour that comes from the microbes which exist inside the cave. This cheese, Divle, comes from what must be one of the oldest cheese-making cultures in the world and so I really feel as if I’m tasting a piece of history when I eat it.
What couldn’t you live without?
Apart from my family, the answer is connected to the previous answer. I think it would be a very sad existence to live without cheese. Of all foods, this is the one that really encapsulates the wonders of food diversity and food landscapes.
What made you write your first book?
I became obsessed with a catalogue of endangered foods created by Slow Food called the Ark of Taste. I thought the stories of the rare foods contained on the ark were some of the most beautiful stories I had come across and I wanted to understand why they had become endangered.
That’s the journey I went on when writing the book, researching wild foods, different grains including wheat and maize, different animal breeds, vegetables and also cheese. I realised that these endangered foods capture the innovation, adaptation and experimentation of humans.
This disappearing diversity is also essential for our future as these foods can add greater resilience to the food system and give us options for the future. We can’t afford to squander our food diversity as a lot of the genetic resources we’re at risk of losing could contain the agricultural traits we’ll need more of, from drought tolerance to disease resistance, in the face of climate change.
What do you think we should change with our food system? And how can people make a difference themselves?
In the epilogue to Eating to Extinction I argue that the modern food system needs to embrace diversity. I’m not arguing that the endangered foods I write about in my book will feed the entire planet.
But I do argue that we will have a better, and far more sustainable food system if these rare foods were no longer in danger. We need to all eat as diversely as possible, for the health of ourselves as well as that of the planet.
There are stories in the book of endangered peas, beans and lentils. One of the earliest foods humans domesticated; crops that feed us and the soil, but in many food cultures they have been in decline.
These are now being seen again as important foods for the future.
Where do you look for inspiration?
My work and the reason why I love food is it’s so multi-disciplinary. By that I mean I take inspiration from experts in archaeology, anthropology, botany, history, economics, art and geography. That’s the amazing thing about food – inspiration can come from so many different places.
What are your plans for the future?
My immediate plan is to write my second book, this one picking up the baton from Eating to Extinction and telling the stories of the positive ways in which humans have shaped the world through food and farming. I want to find out what we can learn from some of the most ancient, complex and diverse food systems that still exist around the world today. It’s early days but I’m looking forward to following up Eating to Extinction.
Also if you have a favourite way to cook cheese?
It’s difficult to beat melted cheese on toast or a Welsh rarebit cooked the Fergus Henderson (chef-patron of St John Restaurant) way. You melt butter in a pan, stir in flour, and let the mixture cook together until it smells biscuity but is not browning. Add mustard powder and cayenne pepper, stir in Worcestershire sauce and Guinness, then start to gently melt in the cheese.
Natural cheese-making and making your own lactic acid ‘starter culture’: is it the panacea of farmhouse cheese-making?
What is natural cheese-making? Natural cheese-making essentially involves cheese-makers making their own starter cultures rather than buying-in commercial starter cultures to make cheese. But it is difficult to do, and…