Eating the Seasons

After an incredibly mild and frost free winter here at Coleshill Organics, we experienced severe frosts and snow in May in the organic garden (here’s poor Tony harvesting leeks on a very cold 6th May!). So perhaps it is not surprising that many of us have lost touch with the seasons, and particularly what fruits and vegetables are available at certain times of the year.

Our knowledge and appreciation of seasonal fruit and veg has been further eroded by the rise of the supermarkets. If we so wished, we could all eat strawberries and asparagus every day of the year; after all, they are ‘seasonal’ in their far flung countries of origin and now only a plane journey away. Yet there are very real costs to this year-round availability of what are often seasonal UK treats.

Most of us are becoming aware of the environmental costs of air freighting out of season fruit and veg, as well as the social and economic costs of hungry countries growing these crops for export markets. But what I want to talk about is the loss of our experience of eating with the seasons; eating a sun drenched, just picked strawberry, grown for its sweet, perfumed taste explosion—not the largely flavourless and wooly supermarket strawberry varieties, selected for their long shelf life and ability to travel miles and miles without bruising or losing their perfect strawberry formation.

The strawberry variety I grow here at Coleshill Organics is called Elan (left, punnets from last year!). But you won’t ever find Elan strawberries in the supermarkets, because this variety must be eaten within 2-3 days of picking. It doesn’t cope at all well with heavy handling, transportation, long storage or days on the shelves and is therefore deemed ‘unsuitable’ by supermarket buyers. Yet it is ideal for a local box scheme or farmers’ market stall, where taste and eating experience is paramount. I choose Elan solely for its fantastic flavour, and my customers benefit from this annual treat. I have no doubt there are real nutritional benefits, too.

Of course, as soon as we experience the first sunny days of spring, our thoughts immediately turn to delicious summer veg. Tomatoes, cucumber, courgettes, strawberries, new potatoes… they somehow signal the end of winter roots and the start of picnics and al fresco feasts. But the reality is these crops are not truly available in this country until we are nearly half way through the summer.

That’s not to say that we must survive solely on roots and cabbage, as anyone who will have visited my stall at Stroud farmers’ market over recent months will no doubt verify. As growers, we are becoming good at outwitting the seasons. We can build polytunnels to warm our early season soils and exploit the early sunshine, bringing forward summer’s bounty. My polytunnels mean that I can have bunched carrots, spring cabbage and lettuces at least two months ahead of those growing in the garden. My Stroud market customers had carrots every week of the year last year, with only one week’s break between the old and the new this year. I am the first to accept these early crops are hugely important assets for UK growers during the ‘hungry gap’ before summer arrives, when the garden seems to be offering nothing but nettles and ground elder.

Some intensive UK growers, however, take things a step further, heating their greenhouses and using powerful lights to extend the seasons even further, giving us ‘local’ tomatoes, aubergines and cucumbers three months ahead of the season. Yet these, too, come at a hidden cost in terms of the fossil fuels burnt to supply the intensive heat and light in these usually vast greenhouses. So is it any wonder that the more sustainably minded of us turn to Spain, France and Italy to anticipate the tastes of summer?

According to research, sun ripened fruit and veg grown in southern Europe and transported by road has less of a carbon footprint than UK produce ripened in heated and lit greenhouses. Nothing, however, is as straightforward as it seems and I was told recently by a UK greenhouse tomato producer that if a refugee is found stowed away in a lorry of fresh produce the whole cargo has to be destroyed for health and safety reasons. Food for thought.

So whilst grappling with these huge issues of how to eat ethically, seasonally and joyfully, I make daily trips (sometimes more often, as I am the most impatient of growers!) to check on the size of my bean pods, the colour of my strawberries, and the swelling of my potatoes. On my first such walk today I spied our first red-ripe strawberry—a long 10 days later than last year—and I ate it. While it was delicious, I know the increasing heat of the summer months ahead will be reflected in the changing flavours and developing sweetness of the fruits, and that a hot summer will give us the best ever tasting strawberries and tomatoes.

If we’re going to live with the seasons—and try to eat more sustainably—we need to understand that we can’t always have our strawberries and eat them. We must learn to go with the season’s flow and aim to cook with what’s available locally. Of course, at certain times of the year (like right now!), the UK’s seasonal offerings are rather meagre; and during this hungry gap we shouldn’t feel too guilty about looking slightly further afield for sustainably-raised organic fruit and veg, imported by road from our sunnier European neighbours. In just a few weeks’ time our commitment to more sustainable, seasonal eating will be rewarded as we feast on our home-grown summer bounty, and we’ll have forgotten all about our seasonal limitations. Seasonal eating might be a challenge, but it is worth it on so many levels!