Words by Tia Tamblyn
There’s no doubt that eating seasonally is a step towards a more sustainable lifestyle.
Seasonality is at the heart of how I love to cook; like many of us I have been drawn to the notion of seasonal eating, seeking out recipes and restaurants that celebrate local produce. Yet last year when I took stock of my knowledge of plant-based foods available through the year, I was shocked at how limited this was – despite being vegetarian since age eight, with plants therefore featuring as the mainstay of meals, and dabbling each spring and summer with growing vegetables. This realisation, along with a closer look at the consequences of eating out-of-season foods, has inspired a shift not only in our family’s eating, but also in the food that I serve at our pop-up café Botelet Breakfast Club that takes place in the farmhouse at our family home Botelet Farm in South East Cornwall.
Earlier this year (pre-lockdown) I decided to source all fresh ingredients on the Botelet Breakfast Club menu from within Cornwall, curious to explore the joys and challenges that would accompany truly seasonal cooking. It has set me off on a journey that has not only enriched the food on offer at Breakfast Club and on the table at our family meals, but also my understanding of the people and places locally that grow the most extraordinary array of beautiful, delicious produce.
Foraging at Botelet © johnherseystudio.com
One of the positives to emerge out of lockdown was the renewed interest in growing, foraging, using up the food we have in our cupboards and cooking from scratch, as trips to the supermarket became more difficult and for a while there was a sense – for the first time in my life – of the vulnerability of the food chain. With food shops emptied of some essential items and farms requesting urgent help from pickers in order not to lose their crops, lockdown exposed the value of our local food producers. Suddenly the fact that we import almost half of the food we consume in the UK (according to the government’s Food Statistics Pocketbook) just didn’t quite make sense. Many of us have created stronger connections with local producers over the past few months, as we have taken a closer look at food that is grown near to us. The Real Food Garden, based outside Bodmin, is a market garden that has had to make some big changes in a short space of time to meet increased demand. I was delighted to catch up with Amelia Lake and Chloe Bines from the Real Food Garden to find out more about what they do, and their thoughts on seasonal eating through lockdown and beyond.
Local sustainable produce is now more sought after than ever
Amelia and Chloe have nurtured their two acres of land since 2012, using organic methods to grow vegetables that they sell through their veg box scheme, on-site shop and to a few local wholesalers. Soil health and promoting biodiversity underpin the way that they work, setting aside plenty of space for birds, insects and wild plants to grow alongside their produce. “Seeing the biodiversity in this small space increase year on year is what drives us. It’s hard work, 12 hours a day, 365 days a year, subject to increasingly unpredictable weather. But watching more wildlife in the garden each season and being able to bring high quality, fresh produce to local people – corn on the cob harvested just half an hour before it’s bought from the shop – makes it worthwhile,” says Amelia.
The Real Food Garden is a carbon positive business, with the soil absorbing more carbon than is emitted. Yet growing in this way is hard work, and with only small returns. Amelia and Chloe believe that societally we have lost sight of how food is produced, which plays into the under-valuing of food sold within supermarkets, pushing prices down for all. Amelia describes the journey of growing a red cabbage that requires space in the ground for six months, and once harvested could sell for perhaps 60p. “We have come to value other artisan food and drink products – such as craft cheese or beer – but we don’t get that with vegetables,” explains Chloe.
The garden has evolved considerably since 2012
During lockdown as more people looked to local options for sourcing food, Amelia and Chloe upscaled their on-site shop, extending opening hours, trying to keep up with demand for their home-grown produce as well as bringing in other local and seasonal staples so that people could buy all they needed with one trip out. As with all small businesses, re-working their policies and procedures to comply with Covid regulations took considerable time and investment, but enabled them to support more local families. This, alongside a tough spring for growers with the hottest May on record. “Nature wasn’t ready,” says Amelia, as she discusses the changes they have had to make to their growing plans as a consequence. Since lockdown has eased, Chloe and Amelia report that customer numbers have dropped off significantly, but still remain higher than at the beginning of the year.
So, as our lives begin to get busy again, why should we continue to create space for seasonal eating – what value does it have?
Firstly, freshness. When we eat with the seasons we can buy locally grown produce that has less food miles and can make it from ground to plate in a short space of time, no planes, boats or lorries required (consider that, according to the BBC’s ‘Facts about Food Miles’, almost 20 million tonnes of CO2 are generated each year moving food to and within the UK). This not only optimises taste but means we can capitalise on the nutritional benefits of fresh food, which reduce over time in transit.
Secondly, supporting the local economy. In Cornwall we are blessed with a clement growing climate and an array of fantastic producers – such as the Real Food Garden - on our doorstep, growing high-quality produce that is sold in local shops, farmers’ markets, supermarkets and roadside stalls as well as through wholesale trade. By purchasing food that is grown near to us, we support the local economy alongside reducing food miles. Seek out growers that utilise organic methods, enhancing biodiversity and soil health as well as optimising the taste and nutritional content of our food.
Amelia and Chloe
Eating with the seasons offers a journey through the year
Connecting with our community is one element of buying local that has surprised and delighted me. Taking the time to find out who is growing what, where, and when has proved to be a rich source of knowledge and friendship. Amelia says: “You put all your love into the vegetables and so often it’s a one-way street – you send them off and don’t hear back. With our local veg box scheme it’s two way, we regularly receive feedback from our customers and we love this part of it.” Chloe, who carries out their local deliveries, adds: “It’s fantastic seeing people’s faces as I drop off the boxes. We often chat – about what’s in the box, and how they used last week’s veg.”
The packaging of local, seasonal food is often far greener than imported counterparts. When food doesn’t have to journey as far or for as long, its covering can be lighter. Amelia and Chloe put a lot of thought into packaging their vegetables using as little as possible, and where it is required, utilising paper and jute bags or low-density micron plastic – which they receive back and re-use.
Eating with the seasons offers us a journey through the year that connects us with our local landscape in a way that we can easily lose sight of in the fast-paced, global and digital world we inhabit; celebrating the arrival of the juicy, ripe strawberry in early summer, foraging for blackberries in autumn and relishing the first bite of a winter brassica. Through a combination of sourcing local produce, growing (for those with access to space) and simple foraging, we can forge a deeper connection with our landscape as well as the people within it.
Top tips for seasonal eating:
Have a seasonal food chart showing the variety of foods available locally through the year.
Research recipes based around a particular seasonal ingredient or adapt your old favourites. Use recipes as a guide in draft form, there to be adapted to use up what you have and swap in seasonal ingredients.
Seek out local growers – through farmer’s markets, veg box schemes and online research. Keep connected with what they are producing to inspire your own cooking.
Consider setting yourself a challenge of cooking one wholly seasonal meal a day/week/month. Make it an achievable goal so that you relish the challenge.
Take small steps towards seasonal eating – enjoy the journey as you learn, explore, grow and forage perhaps just a little more each season. Celebrate the changes you make as you tune into the joy of dancing with nature.
There’s no doubt that eating seasonally is a step towards a more sustainable lifestyle – buying local to reduce the environmental footprint of our food and enhance biodiversity, whilst supporting our local economy and our own nutrition and health. It might mean that we don’t eat any foods we could desire at any point in the year – as we have become so used to – although as Amelia comments, “there’s abundance at every time of year, but it’s not necessarily diversity of abundance”. She’s also quick to add that eating seasonally isn’t just about sacrifice, but about reconnecting with the joy of welcoming each season’s offerings.
More of us than ever are reconnecting with the world around us
How many of us felt an intuitive sense that lockdown offered possibilities for positive change? Opportunities to rethink our lifestyles and carry forward some of the calm that many of us were lucky enough to experience as our worlds stopped spinning so fast? We may not be spending as much time digging in the garden as we did during spring, yet perhaps we can still embrace that desire to deepen our connection with nature, to support and value the community of people in our local area that nurture the food we eat, to celebrate the craft of growing, cooking and eating with the seasons. As Amelia says: “Nature is always dancing, we need to be able to bend and sway like a tree and dance with it.” I’m only beginning to tune into the rhythm, but that’s a dance – in all its beautiful fragility – that I’m keen to learn the steps to.