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Eating with the seasons - article

Eating seasonally & locally

The way we eat is so important in terms of health, social life and general well-being. Most of us do it three times a day...why not do it in a way that always tastes great and is good for you at the same time.

I am a great advocate of seasonal eating for so many reasons; not least because if you don’t use good produce you can’t make good food, and seasonal produce is fresher and tastes better! Second, it’s cheaper too! It’s cheaper because there are no extra costs for forcing the growing conditions or transportation over long distances.

Also, seasonal eating encourages you to try new foods and flavours. Last, but not least, eating seasonally gives acknowledgment and appreciation to the natural processes and agriculture that take place for food to arrive at your table.

A seasonal diet celebrates eating the right things at the right time, in harmony with nature. As the seasons change so does the availability for produce. I often find myself looking forward to different ingredients coming into season as the supply of others diminish.

This is a concept that many of us have slipped further away from since even non seasonal produce is now available all year round. Unless, like me, you make a conscious effort to look where your food has come from most people are unaware if their food is in season or not. It seems to me if what we are eating is costly, both environmentally and financially, and receive an inferior product at the end, the best thing to do may be to just take a step back to how things once were.

In the past

Some of the oldest and greatest cuisines from around the world have been developed and refined over hundreds if not thousands of years. These cuisines have taken on their individuality and identity through developed combinations and cooking processes using what is indig- enous to the area, governed by the seasonal availability throughout the year.

Our ancestors did it as a way of life

India for example has a plentitude of locally produced spices and rice which is synonymous to their cooking. Just as tomatoes combined with garlic and basil for a sauce can be strongly identified with Italy. You see a change in most countries cooking from season to season, notably fresh vegetables and salads used in the summer months when there is an abundance and then more root vegetable and preserved pro- duce through the winter months. It is this ‘making the most of what is available’ that has driven creativity and established identity in dishes through the ages.

Today

Today our generation knows very little about where food comes from, in part because of the shift from countryside to cities, and changes in the way we obtain our food. 82% of the UK population now live in cities, which are surrounded by 24 hour supermarkets, full of processed foods and ready to eat meals. We live in a time in which everyone is in such a hurry, thriving on convenience, where it seems necessary for our food to be modified and undergo epic journeys across the world, expending resources the world does not have. Many are drifting further away from the idea that our food can go straight from field to fork, organically.

The LEAF organisation, [Linking Environment And Farming] carried out a number of surveys, asking Britain’s younger generation about agriculture and the connection to food. LEAF summarised their findings, branding Britain’s young people:

The generation that hasn't heard a cow moo

Another benefit of sourcing locally means you are supporting farmers for a more sustainable agriculture, looking back to the heritage of the industry where there was simply more emphasis on food and community than in more recent years. Shopping in green groceries, butchers and farmers markets should be more common place, taking the monopoly away from supermarkets who are able to manipulate the worth of foods and put small farmers out of business by paying less than the cost that it does to produce. A prime example is the price of milk, which has been a heated subject for many years; is that the supermarkets have continued to lower prices having forced the smaller family run farms to go bankrupt leaving only the mass producing factory farms to survive. It is a known fact that the welfare for the animals is neglected vastly when farming on such large scales as apposed to a small holding where the animals have more space and attention.

Most people think seasonality only applies to fruit and vegetables, but meat and fish can also be eaten at the appropriate time of year. Country game still clearly reflects seasonality. Closely controlled shooting and fishing periods are in place to ensure each species replenishes when out of season and in turn its numbers controlled when in season. Livestock that are available all year round still have times when they are at their best. Cattle tend to forage more in the Autumn, readying themselves for the possibility of a bleak Winter. So beef is best in late Autumn and early Winter. Lamb on the other hand is at its best in late Spring, a month or so after it has been weaned from the ewes milk, allowing it to eat grass for a while which gives better nutrition for muscle growth. It is also said that milk and cheeses taste benefit from the animals foraging
on fresh spring grass.

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Disadvantages to four season availability

These days, crops are cultivated to store longer and travel further. Fruit and vegetables are harvested before they are ripe, with the expectation that they will continue to ripen in transit or on the shelves, sometimes even being exposed to ethylene gas in order to induce them to ripen artificially. Treating food in this way drastically affects taste and texture, as well as the vitamin and nutrient content, which diminishes rapidly over time.
Forced growing in intensive farming and extending harvesting periods affects the land also. It does not give the soil time to recoup naturally, exhausting the nutrients. Consequently, farmers are forced to use fertilisers and chemicals to replenish nutrients and balance the pH.

When nutrients are absorbed from the ground by the plants for growth, not all of the nutrients originally present in the ground can be easily added back artificially by fertilisers and chemicals, this will eventually lead to barren landscapes and nutrient deficient crops.

This coupled with the use fungicides which virtually eliminate mycelium networks and micro organisms that purify the ground and pesti- cides that remove the insects thus cause disruption to a functioning ecosystem is highly problematic. Growing organically is clearly the future for sustainability!

Tomatoes are a great example of how much better food can be when grown organically and seasonally. There is nothing more disappointing than cutting into a pale, hard supermarket tomato, which its flavour can only be described as faint. Conversely there is nothing more satisfy- ing than the sweet smell of a home grown vine-ripened tomato that requires the sharpest knife just to keep a slice intact, and a taste that you can smell long before it even goes near your mouth.

In addition to the environmental benefits and sensory enjoyment of eating locally sourced food, I believe that there are many health benefits too. There is a long standing enigma called ‘The French paradox’. This refers to small towns in rural France that eat and drink their fill of red wine, cheese and red meat. For a seemingly heart-stopping diet, people in these communities exceed national life expectancies. Could just be something in the water? Or could it be that they grow all their own vegetables, rear livestock within the community and trade between them- selves, worlds away from hearing the term, ‘genetically modified’?

I don’t know if there may be a magnitude of scientific reasoning to how eating locally may be of more benefit other than just eating fresher produce has more of its nutrients intact. However, just like local honey, which is rich in local pollen that can help the body to acclimatise and prevent allergic reactions to hay fever in the local area, I believe that there are other benefits in an indigenous diet on a similar principle to this, absorbing beneficial properties like decease fighting micro-nutrients to maintain and boost your immune system to the specific environ- ment that they originate from.

If you were curious, the name for someone that chooses to eat food grown in the nearby surrounding environment is called:

a locavore

Other thoughts

growing seasons are, and pick produce that will be at its best at that time. For example, consider the vast difference in taste between a pale, bland clementine purchased in British summer time, versus the sweet, sharp taste when purchased in the winter months when the growing conditions abroad are prime.

The UK is a small island whose local produce can be limited by the climate. However this does not mean that UK food produce cannot com- pete with the best.

It is not just the flavours that change through the years’ cycle. Like the seasons seen in the landscape, the colours and textures change in the food too. Vibrant and fresh in the spring to vivid colours and rich greens in the summer and onto warmer tones throughout autumn and finally earthier muted colours in the winter.

Don’t be afraid to forage or grow your own. It’s not exclusively for the most enthusiastic, handbook wilding fanatic! Start simple, grow your own herbs, pick a blackberry when you see one next to a walking path in Autumn, it’s free! However, I would recommend some sort of hand- book or on-location internet search when out gathering mushrooms and berries, just to be on the safe side as there are quite a few out there and not all so innocent.

Final thoughts

Acknowledging the season when out doing your groceries should not seem like belonging to a ‘cult’ and it is not an ‘all or nothing’ situation. Simply the awareness of where your food comes from and how fresh and good for you it is, without the need for being unnecessarily geneti- cally modified is a comforting thought, both in the knowledge it is good for you and the environment. Communicating with the people that sell and produce your food can keep you informed of what may be upcoming within the season and even what may be best to buy depending on how the weather conditions may have effected crops.

There is an obvious desire for local fresh produce, with the ever increasing amount of farmers markets that seem to be popping up every- where. Most of these stalls seem to be selling organic and of a seasonal nature in the majority. It is nice to see a rising awareness within com- munities when food and health are concerned. A shift away from the impersonal supermarkets and their disregard for quality over figures may be what the country needs, bringing everyone closer together through sharing food and knowledge.

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