Eating fresh fruit and vegetables is one of the few pleasures that we all take for granted and look at the choice we have. Where once it was a treat to find a banana or the only lettuce available was the soft round and limp Dutch hothouse when carrots, parsnips and cabbages were the only vegetables available to us for what seemed like months on end. Today the shelves are bursting with variety, colour, textures, flavours and shapes. But the source and quality of our food has increasingly become one of the biggest consumer issues of our time.
While we are all aware of the debate over how far our food travels these days just to get to our table the question of food in season is a logical follow on, or should it be, does food have seasons any longer?
There is an old saying “a place for everything and everything in its place” perhaps we ought also to think about this in another way “a season for everything and everything in season”.
As I write this we are coming to the end of the asparagus season, that is the asparagus season here in Britain as opposed to that of any other country or part of the world. I know I have probably written about asparagus in every article I have ever written at this time of year but it is a great example of how food and its seasons have virtually vanished.
Asparagus is available all year round, from a myriad of different countries and at a price if you are willing to pay it, but it will never be as good as the bunches you’ll buy from the farmers market in the village or that caravan by the side of the road during the two short months that it’s available locally. It will never have the same intensity of flavour, will always look a little tired, have a slight bend to the stalk rather than being crisp and the colour will not be quite as vibrant or fresh looking once cooked but if it’s there on the shelves you can guarantee someone will buy it.
In a supermarket yesterday with still a few days of the English asparagus season left their offering was from Peru, the other side of the world while we are still picking asparagus here in Britain.
Last year in late September through early October I was in Kent, Surrounded by orchards, all laden with fruit, trees so heavy with apples and pears that the ground around them was covered in them, yet whenever we went into a super market there was no English fruit available anywhere (with the possible exception of one group).
The trouble is it probably just doesn’t enter the head of the average shopper, I fancy some asparagus today or aren’t those strawberries a fantastic colour, I’ll get some for tea tonight even though it’s the middle of January and the strawberry season here in Britain is still some 5 months away.
In a survey I saw not that long ago by one of the leading supermarket chains they found that the average person out doing their shopping has no idea what is in season at any given time of the year. Personally, I find this quite depressing, but thinking about it we are all being conditioned in all aspects of our lives to expect what we want to be there when we want it no matter what it is, not just food. We now find parsnips and Swede on sale in July, sprouts in September, in fact come to think about it I saw them the other day next to the Peruvian Asparagus, next it’ll be fresh pheasant in July!
The concept of different foods being at their best at different times of the year from each other doesn’t make a lot of sense when virtually everything can be bought all year round.
The first courgettes of the year, small, tight pale green and so crisp that they almost burst as they’re cut, and once cut, oozing their sticky juice, are magical compared to the fat limp lifeless courgettes from Israel, Holland or Spain during the rest of the year. Not that they are totally rubbish for if you were to eat one of these within hours of picking, I’m sure they would be lovely. No, it’s just that when cut in Israel at a time that may or may not be their season there, then flown however many thousand miles it is to this country, trundled over to the market or to the supermarket warehouse where they’ll probably sit for a day or two before being transported out around the country to the various stores where they are pounced on by you and I before then leaving them for two, three, or even more days in the vegetable draws of our own refrigerators at home before being consumed. They are never going to be the best courgettes you have ever tasted now are they. Couple this with the fact that they are also probably force grown out of season then what flavour can they possibly have retained.
It would seem, from this same survey, that 86% of shoppers have no idea of when home grown fruits and vegetables should be in season meaning they no longer have the anticipation of some seasonal goodies such as blackcurrants, gooseberries or raspberries. Looking forward to the first English strawberries of the season, that early flush of peas or an early season partridge means absolutely nothing to more than 14% of us and chefs are no different by and large sadly. How many times have I seen menus written containing local pheasant in April, fresh peaches in November, Jersey Royal potatoes in September, fresh redcurrants in February.
Now I am as guilty as the next person of shopping out of season, when foods from around the world started to become available to us all everyday of the week I was at the front of the queue to buy those mangetout in winter, those out of season redcurrants just to use them as garnish. But I have now grown up and mended my ways and realise the cost of buying like this. I still like to have the first of the season of anything as it just comes in and if I can get it a week ahead of anyone else even better still but these days there is a limit to what I will buy and when.
While I’m on the subject of percentages and interesting facts they also found that only 4% of the Welsh nation know when leeks are in season, and if anyone was going to know that bit of information it ought to be the Welsh!
Another survey, found that we actually want to buy home grown foods in season if only we knew when these seasons were. The knowledge that food in season is a good thing is generally accepted but unless we ensure that our children understand seasons and try to stick to buying in season ourselves what hope do we have for local seasonal recipes and of saving our heritage?
One way of getting close to buying food in season would be to always buy British, of course some produce is force grown but because of our climate it will never be stretching the seasons that early or that late. Buy British, buy local and buy in season and what you’ll get is cheaper fruit and vegetables that actually have taste, texture and flavour. Not only this but you’ll also be helping the local economy no end! Buying local food that has been grown in the local soil not only delivers fantastic flavour, helps the local economy and ensures a living countryside for future generations, but if enough of us do this it may make the supermarkets more willing to buy and source more produce locally too.
True we eat mangoes, paw paws, rambutans and passion fruit and they come from the world over all year round, as too do our bananas, lemons and oranges that we all take too much for granted these days, but none of these grow in this country so I see no comparison.
Farmers markets, box schemes, local market stalls, stalls by the side of the road, buy from any of these and it will all be fresher, tastier, more nutritious and probably cheaper than you can buy if it were coming from somewhere across the other side of the world. It would also have travelled less miles and therefore be better for the planet.
Use local fresh food in season like this and its flavours will not need adorning either, they will speak for themselves. If it’s there to start with then there is no need to find it by adding other ingredients. Local produce from smaller suppliers and growers often also means more unusual and tastier varieties too.
We should have charts on the walls of supermarkets and local greengrocers showing what is in season as the year progresses would certainly help to keep us all informed of what is available now or just about to arrive.
Look out this month for fennel, that slightly aniseed flavoured vegetable more of a staple of the Mediterranean than this country, choose firm unmarked white, with a hint of green, bulbs ignoring those that are turning yellowish and with limp looking fronds. Radishes, as the summer wears on then the radish gets hotter, great for nibbling with drinks from a bowl of iced water. Globe artichokes, again more of a staple of the Med but still to be found growing in this country especially in gardens around the county. Samphire is in full swing but always avoid any that looks the slightest bit slimy. Borage flowers ~ great for slipping into the jug of Pimms.
Tastes of Summer
Courgettes Stuffed Lamb Roast Cod with Fennel Lobster, Tomato Jelly and Borage
Those courgettes I mentioned are ready now as too are tomatoes, broad beans, peas and spinach. Now is the season for berries, raspberries are in as are strawberries, rhubarb is still to be had and even those gooseberries. Currants too, red, white and black, fabulous summer fruits.
Yes, this month we see all manner of produce available and not just fruit and vegetables either for this is a great month for pigeon for instance, they’re out there fattening themselves up on ripening corn and barley blown down on the winds. Whitebait are abundant at this time of year too and right throughout the summer and who could forget Scottish Lobsters at this time of year, just stunning. Let’s not forget the humble lettuce, all manner of lettuces are around at this time of year as are spring onions to go with them. In fact it is hardly fair writing about what’s in season now as the list contains so much, it would be far easier to write about what’s not in season like parsnips and sprouts!
It's summer, let’s celebrate by eating our locally grown produce rather than imported.
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