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Pasture to plate: Just the facts

Updated Wednesday, 27th April 2005

How does the food making up a typical menu get from the pasture to the plate? If you would prefer a more visual experience, you can follow the production process of some everyday foods with our pasture to plate interactive.

This page was published over 17 years ago. Please be aware that due to the passage of time, the information provided on this page may be out of date or otherwise inaccurate, and any views or opinions expressed may no longer be relevant. Some technical elements such as audio-visual and interactive media may no longer work. For more detail, see how we deal with older content.

First course

Tinned minestrone soup

The canning process and history
Since 1825, canning has provided a way for people to store foods for extremely long periods of time. The fresh produce is taken quickly to the factory for canning so that as many vitamins as possible are retained. The ingredients are then washed, peeled and sliced by machine before being put in the can. The food is then boiled in the can to kill bacteria and is sealed to prevent any new bacteria from getting in. Since the food in the can is completely sterile, it does not spoil. Once you open the can, bacteria can enter and begin attacking the food, so you have to remove the food from the can and refrigerate after opening.

The origins of minestrone soup
A thick soup of Italian origin containing assorted vegetables, beans, pasta such as vermicelli or macaroni, and herbs in a meat or vegetable broth.

The cooker
The first historical record of a stove dates back to 1490 in Alsace, France. It was made entirely of bricks and tiles.


Commercial production of bread
The modern commercial process used in large bakeries is known as the Chorleywood Bread Process (CBP) and was developed in 1961 by the Flour Milling and Baking Research Association at Chorleywood. This method produces bread and other fermented bakery goods without the need to ferment the dough in bulk. Dough development in CBP is achieved during high speed mixing by intense mechanical working of the dough in a few minutes. Not only does this save considerable time (which helps keep down the cost), it also produces bread which is better in respect of volume, colour and keeping qualities. CBP is now by far the most common method used throughout all sectors of the bread baking industry.


The making and uses of butter date as far back as 2000 B.C.

Butter is a food product which is made exclusively from milk or cream, or both, with or without common salt, and containing at least 80 per cent milk fat by weight.

Butter is essentially the fat of milk. It is usually made from cream and is usually salted. However, it can also be made from acidulated or bacteriologically soured cream and saltless (sweet) butters are also available.

Well into the 19th century butter was still made from cream that had been allowed to stand and sour naturally. The cream was then skimmed from the top of the milk and poured into a wooden tub. Butter making was done by hand in butter churns. The natural souring process is, however, a very sensitive one and infection by foreign micro-organisms often spoiled the result.

Today's commercial butter making is a product of the knowledge and experience gained over the years in such matters as hygiene, bacterial acidifying and heat treatment, as well as the rapid technical development that has led to the advanced machinery now used. The commercial cream separator was introduced at the end of the 19th century, the continuous churn had been commercialized by the middle of the 20th century.

Main course


Containing oil, minced beef, onions, tinned tomatoes, garlic, pasta and bechamel sauce

The Chilled Ready Meal In the United Kingdom the growth in the chilled meals sector was prompted by Marks and Spencer, whose successful chilled meals prompted a host of launches by other retailers. The success of ready meals in the UK is reflected in the fact that consumption per head is second only to Sweden in the European countries. The huge choice of high quality dishes today is a world away from the TV dinners of the 1960s, where the quality of the food was not considered as important as the convenience aspect. Traditional meals dominate sales today, although Italian and Indian meals are highly popular, reflecting British tastes in eating out. The food is packed into plastic or foil containers. Plastic has proved popular despite its heat resistance, and there is now a new generation of smooth-walled containers which heat up more evenly in a microwave oven.

Beef production in the UK The demand for beef in the UK has been falling steadily. In 1901 we each ate 30 kilos a year. In 2001 this had fallen to 15 kilos. There are many concerns now about the health aspect of beef - concern about BSE and the high fat content of red meat. Red meat contains saturated fat, which is linked with high blood cholesterol levels. The latest trend in butchering beef is to ensure the least amount of fat as possible on the joint.

Lasagne – pasta production in the UK and abroad
Prior to the Industrial Revolution, most pasta products were made by hand in small shops. Today, most pasta is manufactured by continuous, high capacity extruders. Pasta products are made from mixing milled wheat (normally the hard durum variety) with water and occasionally eggs. After the dough is mixed, it is transferred to the extruder. This machine forces the dough through a die which determines the shape of the pasta. The product is then dried - this is the most difficult and critical step to control in the process. The moisture content is reduced from approximately 31 per cent to 12-13 per cent. The finished pasta product should be hard, retain its shape and store without spoiling.

Sauce milk production in the UK
Milk goes through various processing stages. Homogenization is the process which breaks up the fat globules in milk so that the cream is mixed evenly throughout the milk. There are several methods of pasteurisation, all using heat to reduce the number of microrganisms present in the milk to virtually zero. Pasteurised milk accounts for approximately 89.5 per cent of all processed drinking milk in the UK (other processes being sterilisation and UHT or ultra-high temperature, where the milk is treated at very high temperatures and makes it storable at room temperature for long periods if unopened). A small amount of the milk which is currently sold in England and Wales is untreated (ie not subject to any form of heat treatment), but the sale of untreated drinking milk has been prohibited in Scotland since 1983. Milk in the UK is produced in different grades - skimmed (it legally has to be less than 0.5 per cent fat, but is usually about 0.1 per cent fat), semi-skimmed (1.5-1.8 per cent fat), full-cream (about 3.9 per cent fat) and high-fat milk from Jersey, Guernsey and South Devon cattle (more than 5.2 per cent fat). Milk can now be bought in many different sorts of packaging, including cartons, glass and plastic bottles and cans.

Cows' milk is used for the production of most cheeses. The majority of cheeses are made from heat treated or pasteurised whole, low-fat and non-fat milk.


Pre-packed green salad
The advantage of buying a pre-washed, pre-packed, green salad is for the convenience and to get the variety of leaves without having to buy whole lettuces. The disadvantage is that pre-packed salads cost more than buying the raw ingredients.

Ingredients are sourced from different locations during the year according to where the quality of raw material is at its best. In summer, the leaves come predominantly from the UK, and during the winter from Europe, particularly from Spain.

Nothing is added to make the leaves greener. The raw materials are used as soon as possible after harvesting, and it's the freshness of the raw materials which makes the salad green.

As part of the packaging process, where product quality is improved, a combination of food grade 02 and CO2 is used which is flushed into the finished bag with the salad ingredients. Nothing other than gas (where appropriate) is added to the leaves in the bag. Where products are gas flushed, the air in the bag is replaced by the product and the gas mix. Air is not actually drawn out of the bag to form a vacuum.

The wash process starts with hand preparation of the leaf ingredients, these are then washed in a special two stage process which combines water and air to remove any dirt from the raw material. From the wash process, the ingredients pass into a special high care area where the finished product is packed. The raw leaf materials are selected prior to harvest. This can be done either by hand or by machine depending on the size and the nature of the raw material. Bacteria are removed during the washing process.

The first stage is to remove any visible dirt or contamination from the raw material. The second stage of the process is to wash the leaves in a water solution containing chlorine or in the case of organics, fruit acids. The packed product can have a shelf life of between 4 and 7 days. A prepared salad will actually last longer in its packaging than a prepared salad cut at home and left for the same time.

Once the salad cut surface is exposed to the air, the cut surfaces will brown or pink by enzymic action. The factory temperature, wash processes and packing methods are designed to reduce the effect of the enzymic action and will actually give a longer life.

Olive Oil
Good quality, single variety extra virgin olive oils are imported from Italy and Spain and are more expensive than commercially blended extra virgin olive oils. The olive oil market in Britain is growing at a rate of 25 per cent per annum. Olive Oil production process It is crucial to harvest the olives at the right moment of ripeness and to mill them on the same day. In the oil mills the olives are cleaned, washed and classified by qualities and/or varieties to obtain the best oils.

Milling: a hammer crusher or stone molars breaks up the vegetable tissue and releases the oil forming a homogenous paste.

Pressing: the paste is put through a cold press to extract the oil and vegetable water. The best oil is extracted from the first cold pressing paste. Decanting: The remaining oil is separated from the vegetable water that still remains in the paste. This is conducted by natural decanting or through a centrifugal machine. The virgin oil is then analysed for its quality. As well as a chemical analysis the oil is tasted. Like tea, coffee and wine, olive oil has professional tasters as well.The oil is considered and rated on how clear it is, its aroma, taste and mouth feel.

Balsamic vinegar
The making of balsamic vinegar employs a long fermentation process that begins with grape must, (the skin and pulp of fresh grapes), which is condensed by simmering it gently over an open fire for hours. It is then aged in a series of barrels made out of a variety of woods in light, airy attics for at least twelve years.

Salad dressing
Oil and vinegar don't mix on their own - an emulsifier is needed. A typical cooking emulsion is a salad dressing. The emulsion can be temporary - like a vinaigrette, or permanent like a mayonnaise. The thicker an emulsion the less likely it is to separate. A good emulsifier is mustard and a lot of shaking.

Microwave technology

A microwave oven uses microwaves to heat food. The commonly used radio wave frequency is roughly 2,500 megahertz. Radio waves in this frequency range have an interesting property: they are absorbed by water, fats and sugars. When they are absorbed they are converted directly into atomic motion – heat. Microwaves in this frequency range have another interesting property: they are not absorbed by most plastics, glass or ceramics. Metal reflects microwaves, which is why metal pans do not work well in a microwave oven.In microwave cooking, the radio waves penetrate the food and excite water and fat molecules throughout the food. There is no heat having to migrate toward the interior by conduction like in a normal oven. There is heat everywhere all at once because the molecules are all excited together. The whole heating process is different because you are "exciting atoms" rather than "conducting heat".


The refrigerator uses a cycle to keep your food cold. The compressor compresses the ammonia gas. The compressed gas heats up as it is pressurized. The coils on the back of the refrigerator let the hot ammonia gas dissipate its heat. The ammonia gas condenses into ammonia liquid at high pressure. The high-pressure ammonia liquid flows through the expansion valve. On one side of the valve there is a high-pressure ammonia liquid. On the other side of the hole there is a low-pressure area (because the compressor is sucking gas out of that side). The liquid ammonia immediately boils and vaporises, its temperature dropping to -27 degrees F. This makes the inside of the refrigerator cold.The cold ammonia gas is sucked up by the compressor, and the cycle repeats.

Salad spinner

The first easy-to-use salad spinner was invented in 1972. It consists of a large plastic tub with a fitted basket, and a lid that has a handle for spinning the basket. Centrifugal force throws the water off the leaves without crushing them as the energy from the handle is geared up over a simple cog and rotor system to spin the basket within.


Sponge pudding


Containing self-raising flour, sugar, eggs, margarine and milk with summer fruits and vanilla ice cream

Self-raising flour
In 1845, Alexander McDougall, previously a struggling Scottish shoe merchant from Dumfries and a Manchester schoolmaster, finally achieved his ambition of setting up as a manufacturing chemist. He recruited his sons into the business and in 1864, the McDougall brothers developed and produced a patent substitute for yeast. This was the starting point which was not only to revolutionise home baking, but firmly position McDougall's as a household name.

Today, Tate and Lyle is the only cane sugar refiner in the UK and its brand name is one of the best known. However, a century ago it was a very different picture. In 1864 there were 74 refineries in the country with many families, such as the MacFies, Martineaus, Fairries, Walkers and Kerrs, involved in the sugar refining process. It was against this background of competition that Henry Tate and Abram Lyle began their respective sugar businesses.

Following a competition promoted by Napoleon III to find a cheap substitute for Butter, margarine was invented in France in 1869. The winner of the award was food technologist Hippolyte Mege-Mouries. The process he used was to separate the solid fat of a cow from the oily fat. This oily fat formed the basis of his margarine. He analysed the fatty acids, which are the building blocks of fats, and chose one which looked like shiny pearly droplets. He called it margaric acid after the Greek word for pearls (margarites) and used this for his butter substitute. The patent of this invention was bought not by the French but by the Dutch who dominated the production of margarine for several decades. The use of vegetable fats in margarine was introduced at the beginning of the 20th century much closer to the products that we consume today.Under the Margarine Regulations Act of 1967 margarine sold by retail is required to be fortified with vitamins A and D to levels comparable with or higher than those found in butter.

Irradiation of summer fruits
Foods are irradiated to eliminate germs which cause food-borne diseases, such as salmonella, e-coli and campylobacter, and also to prolong shelf life. Favourite foods to go through the irradiation process are raw meat and poultry, fruit and vegetables and dried spices and grains. Soft fruit such as strawberries and raspberries which have a short shelf life are ideal foods for irradiation. The nutritional value of irradiated foods is essentially unchanged, but the taste can be slightly different.

Ice cream production
In the world's largest ice cream factory Walls produce 150 million tons each year. The method of production isn't far removed from Mrs Marshall's ice cream machine of 1888. The ice cream freezer contains a hollow barrel with a rotator inside spinning at 240 rpm. The ice cream mixture is mixed and frozen here. It's then moved to the hardening tunnel for 45 minutes, where the ice cream becomes solid.

Vanilla flavouring
Vanilla was a flavouring found by Europeans after the discovery of America. Vanilla ice cream is the top choice for 90 per cent of us in the UK, and it's also the world's favourite flavour.

Kitchen technology
The invention of the Kenwood ChefThe Kenwood Chef food mixer was made and launched in Britain in 1950. It was the brainchild of RAF Engineer Kenneth Wood, who got his idea for the Chef and other kitchen gadgets from his world travels. Home baking became a much easier task.

Freeze-drying removes the solvent, which is usually water, from the dispersed or dissolved solids. It can also be used to separate volatile substances and purify materials.

Instant coffee is the most well-known freeze-dried product.In 1938 Brazil had a coffee surplus. Nestle's solution to this was to devise a system for freeze-drying coffee. Nestle's freeze-dried coffee was called Nescafe and first introduced in Switzerland. It became a popular drink in the UK after 1956 when commercial television was introduced. The commercial breaks were too short to make a cup of tea, but just long enough to make a cup of instant coffee.

We eat more chocolate in the UK per head than any other country.

Chocolate goes through various processing stages before it becomes chocolate as we know it. Chocolate starts with the crumb which has a sandy, gritty taste.

Milling creates the right chocolate particle size, which is important – too large then the chocolate is gritty, too small and it's too greasy and slimy. It's then mixed in with the cocoa butter and poured into chocolate moulds with other ingredients such as fruit and nuts, to create chocolate bars.The chocolate is cooled down over a period of about 30 to 40 minutes, very gently. If done too quickly bloom (a white discoloration) appears on the top. Finally, the chocolate is passed through and wrapped.


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