by Dinner Lady
My mother hired a caterer for her birthday party last week. I don't blame her. After all the parties she has hosted over the years she deserves a day when she can just walk into her own party and enjoy the food without the worry of cooking for the masses. The food was amazing: delicious, colourful and plenty of it. One particularly enjoyable dish was figs and goats cheese with a honey dressing drizzled lovingly on top, and finished off with a sprinkling of crushed pink peppercorns. The caterer proudly noted that the figs were in season. And then qualified that with two words: "In Brazil".
Eating locally and seasonally has become more and more popular in the last few years following the post 2nd World War craze for exotic fruit and veg. When I started the Four and a half bellies challenge one of our rules stipulated "increase our purchase of seasonal vegetables". Certainly seasonal vegetables are full of flavour, as they were intended to be, not forced into existence to satisfy our culinary whims. I was amazed by the intensity of taste in our own garden grown runner beans last year. If produce is local and seasonal, then it is also likely to be economical and I have been amazed at how affordable our local organic box has been. The Eat Seasonably campaign points out that by eating fruit and vegetables when they are supposed to be grown, we can also eat more sustainably, reducing the amount of heating, lighting, pesticides and fertiliser used. And, importantly, it will make me appreciate produce all the more when I eat it. For I am so bored of endless curly kale, and long for a ripe tomato to dribble down my chin as I bite into it. Appreciation of what mother nature has given us must surely be a first step towards more sustainable eating.
In a bid to secure food supplies and enjoy produce for as long as possible, generations of humans have tried to cheat nature and make food last beyond the season. From pickling and curing, through tins and frozen goods, to artificially adapting local growing conditions. And the changing weather patterns that we have seen over the last decade or so is having an impact on what can be grown when. But when is it ethically ok to eat "out of season" and when is it not, if we are trying to eat sustainably?
A note was posted into last week's vegetable box, urging us to enjoy the last of the Autumn's Crown Prince Squash, which had been lovingly stored in crates in the cool and dark. They were grown in season, yet eaten out of season, and to me this seems to fit the sustainable criteria because of the lo-tech method of storage. On the other hand, artificially forcing fresh produce into existence through chemicals, heating or other resource heavy methods immediately strikes the said produce off my shopping list. But what about the mid points on this seasonal continuum? Marmalade, jam and chutney making is another method of prolonging the joys of freshly grown, local and seasonal produce. Whilst this seems to be another relatively lo-tech method, think of all the energy used while canning and filling jars, distributing and then recycling them on the scale we have become used to. And we may feel virtuous doing this at home, but we certainly cannot boast economies of scale. And what about those emergency peas that lie in my freezer waiting for me to run out of fresh vegetables? Even if they were grown and picked in season, is the packaging and energy consumed by the vast freezers in the factory, lorries, supermarket and at home justifiable? Like all things to do with sustainable eating, it is easy to agree on the extremes, yet the middle ground remains fuzzy. After a week of heady debating I have decided that I shall continue to enjoy strawberry jam throughout the year, but for the time being, will not replace the packet of frozen peas when this one runs out.
And what about those figs from Brazil? Seasonal they may be, but in no way, shape or form are they local, and so, until I have pondered the "local" criteria a little more, they will be off my shopping list. Sorry, Maths Geek. You told me that everything is in season somewhere, sometime. You are right of course. But what we will welcome into our house as seasonal, for the time being, is food that has been grown with the least interference, transported and stored using as few resources as possible. You will have to wait for another visit to your grandmother's house before you will enjoy figs again.