Interview with Max Jones of Up There The Last

Interview with Max Jones of Up There The Last

Max is a traditional food conservationist and founder of Up There The Last. He explores traditional food preservation and land-based intimacy by honoring the old ways. I’m really excited to have found his work, and have been enjoying poring over his words and evocative photographs. I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I do! Check out his substack for more of his writing as well as courses/events/and guided trips on his site. I hope to join him one day!

Where did you grow up, currently live and any other places that you call home? Any favorite seasons/plants/animals of those places that stick out? 

I am half English and Italian, I grew up in Birmingham UK where I went to school, and every holiday was spent in Italy to be close to my mother’s family and neighboring regions. We spent time in Liguria and Tuscany, and I have a great fondness for them, but predominantly I was running around the mountains of Piedmont, specifically the Biellese, where I developed my connection to cheesemaking and herding. I left Birmingham when I was 19, spending a year between France and America, before moving to London for over a decade where I worked as a cheesemonger and affineur. I moved into photography and the importance of documenting traditions which led me to Ireland, in pursuit of wild salmon, which has become my most respected of creatures from the animal kingdom. West Cork has been my home since 2018.

Ooooh the seasons! We are coming into Spring, and it’s an enormous time of year for me. Edible greens abound, I love eating hogweed shoots at this time of year. Everything is soundtracked by birdsong, the smells are rich, the spider crabs arrive in-shore, mayflies hatch for the trout and we get ready for the transhumance in late May in Italy. It’s pretty hard to beat.

What is your work about? How did you find your way to this work?

It is about trying to access a way of being that provides us with already established answers to so many of our questions today. Mainly, how to encourage us all to relearn to trust our senses, and reawaken our inherent ability to turn the landscape we live in into food by honouring long-established skills remembering that we become the landscape through its eating. 

And in this way, we might treat it differently. This is what I saw as a young lad in the piemontese mountains, how as long as you had a piece of cheese, an old salame and a hunk of bread in your pack, you could stay out on the mountain for days on end. You would never question the moulds on the outside, or the fact they hadn’t ever seen a fridge. It was just part of life.

And standing back watching the herders on the mountain living with their animals for 5 months, making cheese from that wild pasture and eating it, I realised that they were as much part of the mountain as the stones themsleves. A just sense of belonging was presented to me through this, and it is a way of life that is fraught with challenges.

There has been an incredibly savage disconnection to nature through food over the past couple of hundred years, and my goal is to connect us to the few people who genuinely live by these ways and spread their knowledge, so it does not go lost.

What kind of challenges do you face attempting to preserve tradition/keep traditional preservation methods alive?

Ooooooooh this is an enormous question. To be honest, when you go really deep into something you learn the staggering complexity and depth of it all. It is really diffcult stuff, and I remember once, when I was building a school at the smokery of the last exclusively wild salmon smoker in Ireland as well as going around the place giving talks and the like, I almost couldn’t get out of bed, so gripped was I by feelings of futility. The more I learned and the more I gave myself to learning, it was difficult to see how you can effect any change at this point in time. The mountain I was climbing was just too big. I realised that what was required was not just the defence and preservation of certain techniques and their context to keep them going, but rather a complete unlearning of what we have come to know from a consumer perspective. A sisyphean task if ever there was one! 

I don’t believe in AOC/PDO, I don’t believe in sell-by-dates, and I don’t really trust anything with a barcode on it. I have many problems with food-safety authorities.

When you go deep, I mean really deep, you realise how utterly meaningless these constructs are, and how they are stifling potential, natural solutions from blossoming. I celebrate and champion the knowledge of people who make food as part of their world with the congruence of living, and delight in hosting tastings of illegal food, that makes us think differently about it all.

What's your self-care routine like? When depleted, how do you refill your well?

I struggle a lot with organisation, and hold everything in my head at once which means that I run around like a mad pilchard, stressing myself out needlessly. To counter this I try and begin the day by walking my doggo Oats down to the pier (when it’s not lashing rain), and sit still with my legs dangling for about 10 minutes with my eyes closed, which sets a good tone for the day. I try to eat things that I discern as natural, I relax by cooking and after 6pm, I try not to work. Lighting a fire every night is a huge part of my mental wellbeing. 

When I’m depleted I try to sit still and relax, and concentrate on giving time to what I love doing most, which refills my well. Oh yes and a huge one is trying to stay away from my iphone, which I’m not great at. I can feel it warping my brain. My dad got it right back in 2013 when I brought my first iphone home to Italy and showed him, he said, “but, this is the Palantir”. IYKYK

What brings you the most pleasure in life?

Spearfishing, camping, fly fishing, playing cards with my fiancée Reídín, cooking with my little girleen Beatrix (she’s nearly 2), incorporating the food preservation skills I have learned into my daily routine, finding wild food, laughing, friends and perhaps best of all, playing music at an old-time and trad session I run on Wednesdays in the local pub. Oh yes, and going on adventures. Did I mention laughing? 

Describe your perfect day. 

Get up, sun is out, head to the pier for my morning decompress. Come home, have eggs from the hens and home-made smoked bacon for breakfast with my family. Play “Bunghi” with my daughter. Load up my van with all my adventure gear and Oatie. Rods, wetsuit, kitchen, tent etc. Say goodbye and head out along the coast road for a few hours, listening to good tunes. Stop at a river to fly-fish, hopefully catch a trout for lunch! Smoke some to bring home to my family when I’m back. Get back in the van, drive to the sea and go for a dive for scallops and crab. Make a big fire on the beach, have all my pals and loved ones arrive out of nowhere, we set up a big camp of gypsy wagons and my canvas tents and have an evening of fire and food and music and stories. Wake up without a hangover.

What are your top 3 favorite cookbooks/books? 

Lassù Gli Ultimi by Gianfranco Bini (Biellese traditions photography book)
L'an-cà da fé by Giorgio Lozia and Tavo Burat (Biellese cookbook)
Sea Fishing Hand-book by Nick Fisher (I’ve read this back to back about 6 times. Also, Nick Fisher? Brilliant)

Describe for me your perfect picnic spread.

My shepherd’s lunch basket, an old linen/flax cloth, and my Le Français Perceval knife. I would have a piece of Macagn’ from my home mountains in Biella, and anchovies with the illegal mountain butter made by “D” (have a look at the substack on this one!) on sourdough made by my friend Liz Parle. A fresh salame, some slices of lardo over Bagneri chestnuts with chestnut honey, Sally Barnes’ wild salmon with sweet-cream butter on soda bread with milky tea from a thermos. My buddy Peter Briderick’s mead, ice cold, and a label-less bottle of nebbiolo. Oh man, and a family-bag of O’Donovan’s salted crisps, home made ginger-beer, and a Hafod cheddar and pickle sandwhich. A jar of lacto-fermented cherry tomatoes. God, you can’t ask me this, it’s my favourite way to eat

Any upcoming projects you’d like to share? Things you’re currently looking forward to?

To be honest, the Substack is really exiting. It’s a self-financing project to document traditional recipes from fringe communities and artisans that is made possible by paying subscribers, which means I can follow my heart and passion and share my findings. It’s a bit of a game-changer in enabling things. For example, what I’m most looking forward to at the moment- I have been invited to stay for a night with a Traveller community in Ireland where we’ll sleep in a barrel top wagon and I plan to learn from their unbelievably strong heritage of fire cooking, and try to support some of their more maligned traditions like rabbit hunting etc.

Because I will write about it in the Substack, I can cover my expenses, and be able to take part in what I just realised is very close to my “perfect day” description above!

So please think about joining, I need all the help I can get.

Oh yes, and also I am looking forward to briging people with me to the transhumance in May!