Friday, April 10, 2009

An extract from the book Seasonal Food by Paul Waddington


Life in Britain was once intimately entwined with the seasons. Our survival depended on a wealth of skills we developed to take advantage of the growing seasons and to deal with the barren winter. We learned when to plant and harvest to ensure fresh food was available for as long as possible. We knew exactly when wild foods were ready for the taking. And we learned to dry, salt, smoke, preserve and store food to keep us going through the lean times, or to take advantage of abundance. Our year turned to a cycle that was driven by the seasons, with the last autumn harvests heralding the end of the old year and the beginning of the new.

For many of us today, technology has reduced the seasons to little more than an aesthetic distraction. Heating and air-conditioning keep us comfortable all year round. Refrigeration, high-technology storage and a globalized food market mean that we can eat whatever we want, whenever we want. The year follows very different rhythms: the school year, the tax year, the financial year.

As a result, what awareness we have of food's seasons is diminishing rapidly. It has arguably been on the wane for hundreds of years, since a series of land enclosures starting in the 1500s began to reduce the amount of common land on which small farmers and labourers could grow food and raise livestock for themselves. By the late eighteenth century, when enclosures accelerated, many were forced off the land and into towns and cities, where, according to food historian Colin Spencer: "...under the slavery of long hours and pittance wages, their diet declined to bread, jam, tea and sugar." While we might think that junk food, far removed from nature's cycles, is a relatively recent phenomenon, it has in fact been a part of British life for hundreds of years.

As the first people to industrialize, Britons were the first to lose our connection with the land and the seasons. We regained it -- albeit briefly, and under duress -- in the Second World War, when the 'dig for victory' campaign had the whole nation growing its own food and in better health than at any other time in the twentieth century. After the war, though, the combination of agricultural subsidy and chemical farming severed this connection anew, and brought us to where we are today: a world of cheap, year-round abundance.

So should we care about the relationship between food and the seasons when it is no longer a matter of life and death; when we (in Britain at least) can eat what we want, when we want?

I believe we should. For a start, there's the simple fact that food tastes better in season. From spring lamb to asparagus, from apples to wild salmon, fresh, local produce is better to eat than food that has been raised artificially, or that has travelled halfway around the world in a controlled-atmosphere container. There are straightforward reasons for this. Take tomatoes. They like to grow in rich, well-composted soil and need good strong sun to ripen properly. The flavour of a good tomato is a result of the subtle interplay between nutritious soil and sunlight. So it should come as no surprise that 'fresh' tomatoes, planted in an artificial substrate and grown out of season in an air-conditioned greenhouse, taste of nothing much at all. Or take intensively farmed salmon, also available all year round. Fooled into growing by artificial light, drenched in chemicals, drugged up to the eyeballs and crammed into pens at densities of up to 20 kg per cubic metre, they are not in good shape when they reach the supermarket. Wild fish, on the other hand, caught in season, have reached a prime condition that results from a natural life cycle and are an infinitely superior product.

Of course we can get many foods all year round. But it's a treat and a privilege to eat them in season, because for much of the year, many foods are far from being at their best.

Then there's the question of how sustainable our approach to food production and consumption is. Our 'year-round abundance' has carried a heavy price. The problems of industrial agriculture -- from unhappy salmon to battery hens to pesticide-soaked vegetables -- are well documented and have provoked a surge in the sales of organic produce. This is to the good, because apart from giving us foods free from agrochemicals whose deleterious effects are thought to range from poorer child health to male infertility, organic production has many benefits. It promotes biodiversity and soil quality; it reduces the pollution of waterways and land. And most of the time it gives us food that is healthier, richer in nutrients and tastier.

But adherence to organic standards alone is not necessarily a sustainable way for us to consume food; nor does it guarantee a superior product. Flying in organic spring onions from Mexico and collecting them by car from a supermarket create 300 times more CO2 emissions than if they were grown locally and delivered by an organic box scheme. And they don't taste as good, either.
In a world where man-made climate change is becoming an urgent issue, what we eat is more than just a matter of taste. Buying in season encourages us to buy locally, whether from the farmers' market in town or the specialist sheep farmer who sells direct. Supermarkets may pride themselves on an ever-growing range of organic produce, but if a kilo of apples has made the flight from New Zealand in March, are they really going to taste as good as a well-stored late British variety? And if you accept that human activity contributes to climate change, is this worth the kilo of CO2 they will produce, compared to the 50g if the same kilo were bought locally? Despite the fact that we can grow perhaps the best apples in the world, Britain has lost 60 per cent of its apple orchards since 1970, thanks in part to bureaucratic madness that paid growers to dig them up. Buying locally and in season encourages local producers, who are building a more sustainable food industry, contributing to a renaissance in British produce and cuisine and creating a better environment.

Most of all, though, eating with the seasons brings a rich variety into our lives. Where's the fun in eating the same things all year round? By being closely aware of what's in season, you get twelve months' worth of gastronomic treats, and satisfying answers to the perpetual question of what to buy and cook for yourself, family and friends. Today, the nearest thing to a seasonal gastronomic event in Britain is the annual consumption of an oversized fowl, accompanied by miniature cabbages, about both of whose qualities many have, at best, ambivalent feelings.

The seasons have much more to offer than this. British produce gives us a huge range of reasons to celebrate throughout the year. From the autumnal abundance of fruit, game and vegetables to the spring treats of lamb, fresh greens and mackerel, there is (almost) always something good, fresh and locally produced for us to enjoy

However, unless we are enthusiasts, farmers, or live close to rural tradition, many of us have only a vestigial awareness of what's in season when. Regaining this knowledge is not easy. Chefs and food professionals tend to keep it to themselves, occasionally giving away tempting titbits in their recipes: 'And now, of course, is the perfect time to eat lobster!' Why? How do they know this? How do we get to know this?

The purpose of this book is to put comprehensive knowledge of food's seasons back in the hands of people who buy food. It's not a recipe book -- there are plenty of those already. Seasonal Food is a guidebook to what's in season when and why in Britain so you can eat produce at its best, contribute to a renaissance in local production, and simply revel in the variety of the seasons.

-------- © Paul Waddington 2004

For his book and a bit more about it, his website is here.

No comments: