The (lost) art of seasonal food

Has the knack for seasonal eating been overwritten by modern day methods?

The prospect of seasonal food is one that has become both buzzy and numbing: to food-lovers, cooking seasonally is an aspiration, a no-brainer. On another hand, ‘seasonal’ is fast joining the dictionary of overused food terms that you may wonder whether it’s beginning to lose real meaning. Have we really got to the point where we need to say our food is seasonal? After all, isn’t that how it should always be? Seasonality seems to be a romantic notion that the few do enjoy.

Appreciating what the earth can yield in any of its quarter phases is the ultimate denotion of nature’s passing time. But for a plethora of reasons, we’ve become disconnected from nature’s ways. For those who don’t grow their own or shop at farmer’s markets, where’s the seasonal signposting? Is it right that research and concerted effort should go into finding out what foods are good to eat now? Having become so used to the all-year-round availability of produce, spelling out the use of seasonal veg on a restaurant menu for instance, is the acknowledgement that the chef is using food how it should be – it’s not seasonless, but brief, fleeting, and to be appreciated while it’s here.

In the supermarket

Take a walk with me if you will through the doors of Sainsbury’s, where a wander down the vegetable aisle had my eyebrows raised. It’s July, and yet between the celeriac and the broccoli, I spotted a combo pack of “seasonal vegetables”. It wasn’t the plastic packaging that caught my eye though, it was the parsnip.

How can a parsnip be seasonal in July? That’s strictly Christmas fare, right? On closer inspection, it turned out the parsnip was from Spain. Do we really want to eat roasted winter vegetables on these 28-degree days? I suspect the majority of us aren’t craving wintry stews where there’s an abundance of beautiful summery veg around that fits the summer appetite like a glove.

My supermarket aisle shock is not a unique experience, however, as food anthropologist Anna Colquhoun tells me. “In November I found a ‘seasonal baby vegetable selection’ on sale in Sainsbury’s, containing sweetcorn, mange tout and courgettes. I wrote to Justin King [Sainsbury’s CEO], whose assistant replied that it was “seasonal in Kenya” and therefore not misleading advertising since the word ‘Kenya’ also appeared on the packet, in much smaller font.” So much like the liquid luncher’s proclamation that it’s cocktail hour somewhere in the world, there’s now the food version – it’s seasonal somewhere, so it can go on the shelf and the label.

For those who don’t grow their own or shop at farmer’s markets, where’s the seasonal signposting?

Assuming we mean seasonal UK, then the term is really interchangeable with ‘local’. But once we stray from that (which industrial farming and international trade has well and truly done), we can benefit from produce from other countries where our own home-grown attempts might pale in comparison. And who doesn’t want the juiciest, most sun-kissed fruit? “Taken to extremes, trade encourages a race to the bottom,” says Anna, “involving horrendous tolls on humanity and the environment, or ‘externalities’ as they’re called, since these costs don’t figure in the accounts books and foods appear cheaper than they really are.”

In the right company, one can learn a lot about what’s in season when. But in that same company, you can begin to wonder how they remember it all. It’s a process that need not be committed to memory if you can visit markets and experience what-you-see-is-what-you-get. But like learning your times tables, a handy seasonal calendar cheat sheet is useful if you don’t have the time, energy or brain capacity to learn the availability of fruit and veg by rote (and there are some suggestions that the seasons are changing anyway, so commit your courgettes to June just yet.)

Eating seasonally brings many more thoughts into question beyond how long you need to wait until you can eat courgettes. “How a product is grown, processed, transported and traded makes all the difference to the ethics of eating it,” Anna says. “And by how I include not only environmental matters but also social and economic. There really doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with eating a product from another country simply because it’s from another country. The idea is actually ludicrous. I for one am not giving up citrus, pepper, or for that matter, Bourbon.”

The all-year-round staples

Curiously, some produce has altogether surpassed the seasonal calendar and is promoted to all-year-round kitchen staples that, if they were only available for weeks or a couple of months a year, we’d be at a loss for many basic dishes. Onions, citrus and eggs, for example, are stocked year-round, and any trip to the supermarket, farmers market or local grocer can provide the certainty that you’ll find them. But egg availability for one should technically be reduced during winter because of the shorter daylight hours. But the use of these ingredients is so staple these days that our farming and production methods have circumvented the need for nature and climate, replaced by artificial methods so that we might continue to make delicious allium bases and late-night scrambled eggs the year over.

Colin Bom, Chief Operation Manager for Slow Food UK, suggests we’ve become accustomed to food that is always present. “We need to take a more active approach to food – it has a massive impact on you and it’s important to know about what’s available.”

Slow Food’s purpose is to promote seasonal, local and forgotten foods throughout more than 150 countries. Its work encompasses local meetings, campaigns and partnerships to get its positive messaging across. “More and more people will gain an understanding of seasonality if we talk about why it’s important,” says Colin. “The next step for us now is to show the right alternative, and help people to make the right choice. We need to share the story of production so people understand why that product is in season at that time.”

Seasonality events and harvest festivals are part of Slow Food’s work, as well as its 120-strong chef alliance, which focuses on forgotten British foods (small-scale produce threatened by industrialisation or environmental degradation) via chefs. “The chefs show you how great seasonal food tastes, and bring it back to people who are open to experience it and enjoy it.”

There are many organisations and individuals championing seasonal food for a number of reasons: it tastes better, feels socially better and makes sense. But should we be disregarding everything that comes from the supermarket? Colin says not, and that we should keep a critical eye open. We’re lucky to live in an age where a variety of food is abundant – be it from Britain or Barbados – we’re experiencing a food landscape not seen by our grandparents when they were our age.

Seasonality is probably the most important fashionable foodism we’ve had so far. Self-sufficiency, local eating and considered purchases are where you can makes in-roads to living better and more consciously when thinking about seasonal eating. Understanding the complexities of how your food got there in the first place is a big step right direction. Eating as seasonally as you can is one of the most active ways you can appreciate food’s production and rarity first-hand. And just like all good fashions, it’ll be back next year anyway.

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