I talked to a few people I know and my confusion turned to despair. Almost all of them were eating tomatoes at this time of year. “But they can’t taste of anything?” I asked. My mother said that she compensates for this by adding a few pickled onions to their salad. I have previously mentioned that my mother’s influence on my cooking can best be appreciated for triggering my self-defense mechanism.
Some of the people, however, were former cookery “pupils” of mine, so they had heard chapter and verse about seasonal eating from me before. One of them said that it did prompt her, on finding no tomatoes, to consider what was in season. She alighted on beetroot and said the salad, which was to accompany local ricotta, tasted even better than the tomato one she had planned. But that just led me to wonder why she had planned a tomato salad in February in the first place.
All of these people are elderly, and whilst they used to grow their own vegetables and shop from Farmers’ markets, they now have to resort to supermarkets – and doesn’t it show!
One friend reported that she didn’t know what all the fuss was about because she had found plenty of tomatoes in a farm shop, and what’s more she pronounced, the beefsteak tomato she had purchased was delicious. The deliciousness I find hard to believe, but I had certainly seen that independent greengrocers were still tomatoes, at a price that the supermarkets would never countenance.
Is the answer just that we need to pay more? Yes, if we want out of season tomatoes, but even if someone can eventually convince me that artificially ripened tomatoes can taste like those ripened by the sun, what about the environmental cost? Some have responded to this by saying that we just need to use renewable energy. However, we don’t currently produce enough renewable energy to heat and light our homes, so should we be diverting it to growing out-of-season fruit and vegetables? Besides which, the row over the accompanying light pollution has been raging here in Somerset for over a year now. Bradon Soft fruit Farm uses LED lights from November to March to continue growing strawberries, and last year blamed problems in sourcing the required blackout blinds for breaching the planning permission, which they promised would be fixed by the end of 2022. Now they maintain they are not in breach of the planning, even though the lights can be seen at least five miles away, because last years bright lights were caused by “grow lamps” and he is now using “flowering lights”, which he thinks might be emitting a glare as they reach the end of their life.
The empty shelves have crystalized my thinking around payments to farmers. The only subsidies currently available are under the Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS). As a consequence, we personally will be bordered on two sides by wild flower meadows instead of grazing cattle. First they will need to kill off the existing grass, which would overpower the wildflower seeds that will be applied by direct drilling. Presumably this will also kill the numerous wild plants that grow here. I have always been fascinated by what grows where, despite all being grazed in the same manner. The field in front of our house has the greatest variety, because it wasn’t even ploughed during the war years. This is not one of the fields being resown, it is already a “wildflower meadow”, despite being grazed by cattle, and cowslips in particular favour this field. I’ll be interested to see how the newly planted meadows compare. We will certainly continue to graze our fields despite this receiving no subsidy, but we are just a smallholding.
Food security is very important to me, but I can relax knowing that at least we have enough land to feed ourselves. Of course, I buy imported food too. Those things we can’t grow here but can’t imagine life without, such as coffee, chocolate and spices, but also some of the things we can grow but are on the margins for our climate – tomatoes fall into this category. Our own are a bit hit and miss depending on the weather, and certainly never ripen before September, but we will eat tomatoes imported from sunnier climes throughout the summer. As a general guide, I reckon we eat about 80% British produce, so I was rather underwhelmed to hear Keir Starmer promising to source 20-30% British produce for our prisons, schools and hospitals.
We are now entering the period known as the “Hungry Gap”, when last years produce is over and this years is only just being planted. This is the period in which I rely most heavily on preserved food – frozen, dried, pickled or bottled; our own or sometimes imported. The preservation and transport does carry some environmental footprint, but far less than imported fresh produce and certainly nothing additional during its growing season. It follows the basic principle that seasonal food is food at its prime, grown in harmony with nature, it’s just the surplus that is preserved.
If we are going to start producing food in a manner that requires additional energy, I would not want my taxes subsidizing this. Higher prices are therefore inevitable, as is the fact that we will find it very hard to compete on price with countries that have lower land and labour costs.
What I would instead like to see is subsidization of agroecological farming, achieved via approved certification bodies, such as Pasture for Life. Its time we stopped viewing food production and the environment as separate issues and focused only on food production that has a positive environmental impact.
Of course, what I want is irrelevant. It’s not even down to the government, although they could help. It’s what “the consumer” wants that will determine what food is produced. This is the bottom line – if no-one was buying, no-one would be producing. In the main, the supermarkets decide what the consumer wants, and often that works. For example, I’m not sure that anyone I spoke to actually woke up thinking “I fancy a tomato salad today”. What happened was that they went shopping and from the produce on offer thought they might have a tomato salad. Except if that was entirely true, no-one would have worried that tomatoes weren’t available. Somewhere along the line we have begun to expect to see them all year round and noticed their absence. Tomatoes are one of the world’s most popular plant foods. It’s just that we used to use tinned tomatoes when fresh were out of season. Food writer, Xanthe Clay, puts the fact that we even want to eat a salad in February down to our centrally heated homes, and I agree that central heating has played a significant role in changing the food we eat. A bit of fresh food makes a, literally, refreshing change in the winter, but there are many better ways to achieve this than tomatoes.
Supermarkets are not the only ones to blame for the out of season produce we consume. Even veg box schemes have succumbed to the demand for easy one-stop shopping. It began with the food we can’t produce here, like bananas, then moved onto sourcing produce from abroad that was available earlier than homegrown. Now the “local” veg boxes are topped up by British producers who are extending the season by using heating and lighting (such as the strawberries mentioned above). Some veg box schemes do still offer boxes of purely naturally grown produce, and these are always the cheapest option. Unless this is the type of box you buy, you cannot at all rely on these schemes to give you an understanding of when produce is in season. Our local community farm featured courgettes as their star ingredient for April, the month when you are more likely to be sowing seed in pots. It is no wonder that people are so disconnected from the natural growing order.
Some of the attraction of an out of season tomato seems to lie in the lack of effort required to prepare it. When the summer comes and we can barely keep up with the fresh produce, it needs little doing to it – BECAUSE IT IS AT IT’S PRIME!
During the hungry gap, you have to make an extra effort, be more creative, to avoid boredom with the same limited produce. The best chefs excel at this time. I don’t want to pay huge sums of money to be presented with a simple sliced tomato. What I pay for is new ideas. In July you can barely give courgettes away, so when I eat them in a restaurant, I hope to be served them in a new way.
Here, via the Good Food Guide, are examples from chefs of how they meet the hungry gap challenge:
Extracted from this, Sam Buckley of Where The Light Gets In, Stockport, explains:
I lean into this time of year, relishing the ‘hungry gap’ as a reminder of natural systems. ‘For me, the hungry gap gives us a chance to really stretch our creativity and imaginations. We cook with the British food season and actually the biggest abundance is through winter. We love celeriac, there’s beetroot; grains are exciting, mushrooms too.’
‘In the natural system you don’t see anything [fresh] till the end of April,’ says Sam who has long argued that our food culture and heritage need to be ‘re-realised’. He adds: ‘A connection with food has been stripped away from us. But everything comes together well when you follow the [seasonal] rules and cook from our isles. We cook what’s available right now. It’s like singing in tune. Everything clicks and before you know it you’ve got a bowl of food that you really want to eat, that’s good for you and feels right for the time of year. That’s the secret, I think.’
For some less cheffy ideas, here are some examples of the salads I have served this February:
- Celeriac Rémoulade (recipe below)
- Blood orange, red chicory and olive
- Root Vegetable Slaw
- Lentil and Dandelion Leaf
- Puntarelle (an Italian leaf, not dissimilar to dandelion but taller, which can be grown here) with lemon and garlic dressing
- Micro- leaves – hot and peppery leaves grown on your windowsill (variations on mustard and cress) or weeds picked in the garden, e.g. hairy bittercress
- Landcress (similar to watercress, which will be available in March)
1 medium sized celeriac
2 hard-boiled egg yolks
Tarragon wine vinegar
1 raw egg yolk
1 heaped tsp Dijon mustard
5 fl oz/125 ml olive oil
1 tbsp chopped chives
2 tsps chopped capers
Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil.
Peel the celeriac and grate it using a coarse grating disc of a food processor. Put it immediately into the boiling water and blanch for 20 seconds. Drain in a colander and then dry on kitchen paper. (Celeriac discolours very quickly, so if you have to grate it by hand, do it into a bowl of acidulated water.)
Pound the hard-boiled egg yolks in a mortar with a couple of tablespoons of tarragon vinegar, then stir in the raw egg yolk with a wooden spoon. Add the mustard and then start dripping in the olive oil, bit by bit, as if you were making mayonnaise, increasing to a steady stream as the mixture begins to thicken. When you have added all of the oil, stir in the chopped chives and capers, taste and season. Add more vinegar if required, it should taste quite acidic. Stir in the grated and blanched celeriac.