A BBC poll has disclosed that less than one in 10 British know when some of the UK’s most well-known fruit and vegetables are in season, and supermarkets do little to help. But would a strawberry at the Christmas table actually be so out of place?
Difference of opinion in favor of seasonal eating goes beyond flavor. The nebulous spectra of localism inevitably materialize.
It’s always five o’clock somewhere, goes the sot’s dictum. This sound theory may also be applied to the seasonality of fruit and vegetables. These days, the year-round accessibility of everything from Peruvian asparagus to Dutch tomatoes is pretty much omnipresent in UK supermarkets. Such disregard for British growing seasons has become something of a cause célèbre for foodie types, and a new survey by BBC Good Food Magazine has found our knowledge of the seasons to be pathetic.
Of the 2,000 people surveyed, only 5% could say when blackberries were plump and juicy. And 4% guessed accurately that when plums were at their best. One in 10 could pinpoint the season for gooseberries. All of this in spite of 86% professing to believe in the importance of seasonality, and 78% claiming to shop seasonally.
In the great format of our foodies imperfections – the obesity, the undeviating rise of ready meals, our reluctance to cook – does it really matter if people don’t know when a broad bean is in season? Jack Adair Bevan runs the Ethicurean restaurant in Bristol, which, as far as possible, cooks with the seasons using produce grown in its walled garden. Regardless of this impressive approach, he’s not about to criticize those who aren’t so familiar to nature’s flux. “We’re pretty disfiguring in the sense that having a garden means we have it all here – our eye is on the seasons constantly. But I can see it would be hard for someone without a garden. If all they have to go on is what’s in the shops, well, you can get pretty much anything all year round.”
Thane Prince, author of Perfect Preserves and a judge on the BBC’s Big Allotment Challenge, agrees. “I think it’s quite delicate, because there’s always something in season somewhere,” she says. “It’s a subject of trying to make sense of the seasons these days, and there is a natural body clock to food that makes seasonal food taste better.”
To be sure, superiority of flavor is and should be high on the list of why it might be worth being in touch with the seasons. A pale January tomato is a foul thing. A strawberry at the Christmas table would be a deviation. Or would it? “I think they seem wrong because they don’t taste good,” says Prince. “If you could find wonderful tasting strawberries in December then, for many, that would be far better to Christmas pudding.”
Urging in favor of seasonal eating go ahead of flavor, however. The vague specter of localism, automatically, transpires. If you were to dispute that, in a blind tasting, most of us wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between British and Peruvian asparagus, you would, in all chances, be met with a volley of argument concerning air miles and freight and footprints. This is largely bunk. Unless you live in an asparagus-producing part of the country – the Vale of Eve sham, say – then the environmental impact of Peruvian versus British asparagus is vanishingly small. If you drive to the supermarket it is declined altogether, if not tipped in favor of Paddington Bear’s homeland.
There are wispy arguments. In 2010 in an interview, Guy Watson, founder of the River ford Organic vegetable box scheme, says “I am an advocate of local food, partly on ecological grounds but mainly because I think it’s important that people feel a connection with where their food comes from.” We can, in this case, consolidate local with seasonal, but it doesn’t get us much closer to a strong argument for shopping seasonally. Other seasonal admirer use words such as “harmony”. It’s a nice idea, but it’s as wishy-washy as any winter strawberry.
More tangible, if not utterly watertight, are economic arguments. The law of supply and demand command that June’s glut of strawberries makes for an inexpensive product than you’ll find out of season. Anyone who has ever eaten a Jersey Royal, on the other hand, will know that seasonal doesn’t automatically mean thrifty.
Conceivably the most convincing argument of all is that of simply supporting British producers. Unless you’re after blood oranges or pineapples, by shopping seasonally you should, by and large, find yourself buying British. Notwithstanding of food miles or flavor, it is methodically depressing to find supermarkets selling Peruvian asparagus in mid-May. In 2012, only 23% of the fruit and vegetables we bought were home grown. We’re only a small country, and far from self-sufficient, but we can do better than that.
Finally, however, our apprehension of food seasons, while evidently leaving room for improvement, is less of a worry than countless other defects in our relationship with food. There was a time when the “hungry gap”, was a cause for genuine alarm, the obdurate fields making for Spartan dinner tables. I can’t help fascinated if our forebears wouldn’t be overjoyed by our sniffiness at eating green beans in March.