I have always loved cooking and eating, in fact most of my memories of places, people and travels are intertwined with food.
Growing up in South Africa I have vivid memories of my mom visiting the local grocer at least a few times a week where our fruit & veggies would be packed in old vegetable boxes. The owner was a friendly Portuguese gentleman who ran the shop with his mother (or wife?) who was a whole lot less friendly.
I don’t really remember growing up with vegetables and fruit in packaging (do you?), the supermarket was exclusively where my mom would buy all our household items once a month. Meat was bought at our local butcher (they are still there!) and the rest at our local family run corner shop.
When I finished school, I moved in with my best friend and I was in charge of the cooking. I still made my weekly trips to our local grocer not being able to afford much else.
As a foodie, one can understand my excitement, when I moved to London. I was gobsmacked at the variety of produce available, food imported from all over the world where neatly displayed in giant supermarkets. There where lots of ‘first time eats’ from weird and wonderful vegetables I have positively never heard off. (salsify, celeriac, cobnuts?!).
But what the variety made up in abundance it lacked in flavour. I remember staring at the wonderful display in my fruit bowl and thinking, I can’t smell anything? How can a peach be as hard to bite into as an apple? The result being that the food that I loved to cook was seriously lacking in flavour.
It was about the same time that I was lucky enough to eat at The River Cafe on the Thames early spring. Oh my, the food blew my mind! Firstly, the simplicity of the dishes, spinach, new season olive oil and salt, blooming delicious. Secondly, I realised that every single item on the menu was ‘in season’, in fact it was a celebration of the best of what spring had to offer in terms of produce, local fish and meat. I realised there is bucket full of flavour in simple seasonal produce (expertly cooked off course by talented chefs).
Why do seasonal food have more flavour? Simply put, seasonal & local produce is left to grow, outside and in soil until they are ripe enough to pick, Produce is ripe to pick, when they release their natural sugars and the flavour (and nutrients) size and colour are at its natural peak.
And so my love affair with seasonal food started! I was on a mission to start eating according to the British seasons. It was (and I think still is) hard to find truly seasonal & local food in supermarkets, so I started visiting local farmers markets, small neighbourhood deli’s and joined a weekly vegetable box delivery.
It was this search which inevitably lead me to buying more organic food by default. More often than not, the only truly seasonal British produce I could find was organic, this was way back in 2003, today it is a lot easier to find local produce .
The more I started sourcing seasonal and local food the more I started comparing ‘farm’ produce with supermarket produce. Being a prosecutor by proffesion I naturally started asking lots of questions, like how come the supermarket carrots are uniformed, perfect, sweet and so vibrantly orange compared to the market carrots which are, well none of these things (except for spring carrots which are a treasure).
The more answers I got the less I felt like eating produce from the supermarket. The word ‘fresh’ doesn’t really exists in the supermarket cold chain, with food being sold weeks after being harvested.
There are today, also massive environmental advantages to buying local – no air miles, less lorries on the road, and a reduced need for cold storage not to mention the processing and unnecessary packaging that is so often used to keep food fresh during transit. Imported foods have to go through a massive chemical process to keep it ‘fresh’ often months after being picked. Organic farming has far less of an environmental impact than modern intensive farming.
Buying local, seasonal and organic produce is the most sustainable and environmentally sound decision you can make.
I don’t want perfectly grown veg, rather give me the wonky, the dirty and the full of flavour.
Start changing your shopping habits one carrot at a time and see how your food transforms without much effort. I always say that the best seasonal ingredients needs very little done to them.