I have written before about how frustrating and confusing it can be trying to reduce food miles. It is not that things are not labelled well, I find Waitrose always have the country of origin stated in an obvious position. It relates more to the question of what is in season, and is it better to buy British food which may have been grown in a heated greenhouse (which is not always obvious) or to buy imports from Spain where the weather is better for growing things such as peppers?
So, in order to combat this dilemma, we try to buy what is in season. There are some places I can go to get help – I have Sarah Raven’s Garden Cookbook, and Monty Don’s Fork to Fork (and there are some things I try to grow myself so I have an idea what is in season for part of the year). Other things are just obvious – if it is not June or July then the chances are the strawberries are not free range, ripened naturally in a British field, but are imported or grown under glass.
This year we have discovered two new (to us) vegetables. The first was Savoy Cabbage. I know this is not knew to most people, but James has had a deep mistrust of anything resembling cooked cabbage for as long as I have known him, and I had a childhood where cabbage tended to be spring cabbage and by the time it was boiled to death then it resembled seaweed. Not that I minded, I did not have well developed taste buds at that time. Anyway, following advice from James’s mum we bought our first cabbage and have become firm advocates of the joy of bubble & squeak. Ours usually involves bacon or sausage if there are any left over (although it is just as nice as a vegetarian meal) with the green part of a leek and some boiled potatoes mashed in. Lovely!
The second is a more recent discovery and is about to go out of season I think. This is celeriac. As you would expect it does taste like celery, but is of a very different texture and much milder. We have used it in risottos, ribollita and casserole so far, as well as mashing it with potatoes. It tends to lift the risotto and the mashed potato, making them lighter.
Our next aim is to venture into the world of beetroot – any recipe suggestions welcomed.
I just caught the end of a program on Channel 4 about the cost of food, which included a poll to which apparently 55% of respondents thought that the government should intervene to reduce food prices. Do I come from another planet? As far as I can tell food prices have been incredibly low for far too long, which is why we, as a nation, are so fat and unhealthy, it shouldn’t be possible to sell some of the food for the prices in the supermarket.
They were also showing a family how they could make lots of different meals from food they would have thrown away. Therein lies one of the problems. Whilst we are busy bemoaning the rising cost of food, we are also busy filling our bins with perfectly good food that we have just changed our minds about and can’t be bothered to eat now.
I must be one of the few people who hasn’t seen a big rise in their food bills, I have just gone through the bills from the last few months, and, if anything it has gone down. I think there are a number of possible reasons for this. Firstly, we only buy what we need and rarely throw anything away, things that are getting close to their use by date, or in some cases, have gone past it, are used up thus dictating the choice of dinner. Secondly, we try to buy local or at least British or EU produced food wherever possible – thus the increased cost of transportation has less of an effect. Thirdly, we don’t eat a lot of meat, this is one of the most energy intensive forms of food, and by reducing our intake, not only are we helping the planet, but we are protecting ourselves against rising energy costs. We also do not buy ready made meals, and try to find food with the least amount of packaging – reducing the impact of rising oil prices. Finally, wherever possible, we eat organic and fair trade food. This means no reliance on increasingly expensive fertilisers and a slightly higher margin so increased costs are either absorbed, or do not represent such a high percentage of the final price.
So, the answer to the rising prices, as with all things, is to eat less and waste less, but I don’t think that this will happen until people start having less to spend on other things. Let’s face it, none of us are going to starve, unlike a lot people in other parts of the world.
I am lucky enough to live in a town that has a Waitrose in which I can do my weekly grocery shopping. I know that most people think that you need to have unlimited funds in order to shop there, but we have found that we actually spend less there than in other supermarkets. Although some products are more expensive, it is so much more pleasant to shop there that I am willing to pay more.
My other half and I have increasingly found ourselves looking at the origin of the food that we buy and tryto select produce from the UK, or at worst, from parts of Europe (I think the food miles from the north of France are probably less than those for produce from the north of Scotland). There are obvious exceptions to this – for example I don’t know of anyone supplying UK grown bananas, but we always buy Fair Trade bananas from the Windward Islands.
There are people who think we are mad, but as I see it, not only does the food taste better when it is fresher, hasn’t been refrigerated or stored in a preservative gas, it is good for the environment and supports the British agricultural industry (or what is left of it). Why buy Mange Tout imported all the way from Africa when you can buy Pak Choi from England? Importing food may seem a cheaper alternative, but the jobs that are lost as more and more farms become uneconomical result in a bigger burden on the tax payer, not to mention the environmental consequences of numerous farms being sold for housing.
The plus side of this approach is that food shopping and subsequent cooking has become more of a hobby. Buying seasonal, British produce has resulted in the discovery of crops we had never tried before: – Jerusalem Artichokes (not sure about these), Cavolo Nero (delicious in pasta and high in iron), red cabbage and purple sprouting broccoli (we bought this today and haven’t tried it yet). In addition to this there is the fun of trying out different recipes with the seasonal ingredients.
I will be trying to go one better this summer and grow some of my own produce and will hopefully have more luck than last year which resulted in lots of courgettes (although I have since found some recipes to use these) and green tomato chutney (which I believe is better than most as there seemed to be a lot of blight about last year).
So, next time you are in the supermarket and pick up those South American berries, South African pears or African beans, think of the environment and the farmers and try something different and British instead.