Almost three years ago I set off on a cross-Canada adventure to learn about farming. I expected to learn some new skills and eat some good food. What I didn't expect was that the experience would completely transform the way I eat.
Before I left, I ate reasonably well; I'd started becoming more aware of what I ate, being pickier about the source of the meat I bought and sometimes opting for organic ingredients. Over the next two and a half years, I learnt so much about food, and our food system that these changes have completely transformed the way I eat, even back in the city.
Eating the seasons
We live in a culture where if you want to buy sugar snap peas in December, you can. Before I started farming, if you’d asked me when in the year different vegetables grew, I’d genuinely have struggled (and that comes from someone who grew up in the countryside). Supermarket shopping had taught me that everything should always be available, and I never questioned it as I filled my basket with imported and out of season items each week.
But after spending a couple of years with my hands in the soil, it’s become instinctive. I understand the seasons; I know what grows when, and my body also seems to. In winter, I crave root vegetables with kale salads, trays of roasted vegetables and thick soups making up the staple part of my diet. Come the spring and I’m seeking those first fresh greens of the year and longing for fresh peas. Summer brings the bounty of tomatoes, peppers, courgettes and beans; those months where plenty is around every corner. Then in autumn, it’s savouring those last harvests of the summer vegetables, and the first glimpses of the squash that'll carry me through the winter. If you eat seasonally, you're eating produce fresh from the ground. And it tastes different; for that blissful short period that English strawberries are in season, they're sweet and juicy. Sadly the same can't be said for the out of season imports, likely picked off the plants before being fully ripe.
I enjoy the challenge of a local veg box, because it makes me creative in my cooking. This winter, I’ve learnt how to deal with the swedes that insist on popping up in my box, and discovered a deeper love for celeriac. When I supplement my box with other vegetables, I tend instinctively towards the big beautiful bunches of kale, and the ever reliable carrots and beetroot. I don’t want to eat sugar snap peas in December, the same way that I enjoy lowering my kale consumption in mid summer.
As well as the benefit of lower food miles, I genuinely enjoy the variety it provides in the food I eat. As I mentioned, I think it’s made me a better cook; I start from the ingredients and come up with meals to use them, rather than shopping for a recipe. It’s brought new staples into my diet; the massaged kale salad I thrive on in winter, and the frittata that so beautifully handles seasonal variation in produce are now regular items in my repertoire. And I enjoy the change in the vegetables themselves. Take kale for example. My favourite part of kale is the spring shoots that are produced as the over-wintered plants seek to flower. Snapped off and fried in a little oil and salt, they are almost as tasty as asparagus. When the plants are small in early summer, the leaves are beautiful in a fresh salad, tender and delicious. And in winter the leaves have become hardier, requiring cooking or a massage in oil and salt to soften them raw.
True cost accounting
Another major shift has been my understanding of the cost of food. I understand I speak about this from a certain position of privilege; while being far from well off, I am also not struggling day to day to live. I used to shy away from a lot of organic farm vegetables because of the cost. £1.50 for a bunch of carrots seemed like a lot, and I’d often find myself opting for the cheaper conventionally produced vegetables.
Now, £1.50 seems like a bargain. When I buy a carrot, I think about the hard work of breaking ground and building beds, the precision of seeding and the tediousness of thinning. I reflect on the relentlessness of weeding, and the time taken to harvest, wash and bundle those carrots. And none of that includes all the overhead costs like rent and machinery.
My awareness shifted; organic farm produce is not unreasonably expensive, it’s that conventional produce is unreasonably cheap. But there’s a hidden cost to this - there’s no such thing as a cheap carrot; somewhere, somebody or something is being taken advantage of. Maybe it’s a farmer or labourer being paid a low wage, or perhaps the environment is being abused with chemicals to make it produce more than the land can sustainably manage.
So that £1.50 is more than just money for a bunch of carrots. It’s supporting a farmer to continue to farm responsibly and sustainably on their land. It’s looking after the planet we live on and the valuable soil we need to feed ourselves. It’s investing in my health. And generally, it tastes far better, so it’s providing me with an ultimately more satisfying result in the food I cook.
For the price difference of 50p, that’s a bargain.
The final change for me has come in the meat I eat. Back in 2012 I read the book ‘Eating Animals’ by Jonathan Safran Foer. For the first time, I was confronted by some uncomfortable truths about the meat I was eating, and I couldn’t go back to ignorance. I started to shift; I began buying predominantly organic meat, and reducing my consumption. But I still ate out without really thinking, or was happy to eat whatever meat other people cooked.
When I was in Canada, I was fortunate to have some really hands on experiences of raising animals, and be involved in slaughtering and butchering them. I experienced the magic and exhaustion of lambing on Saturna Island, killed my first chicken in Saskatchewan, and helped skin a cow in the Kootenays. I moved livestock to fresh pasture in the summer and lugged heavy hay bales in the winter. I got to witness best practice animal husbandry, and there’s no going back.
I want to know where my meat comes from (I jokingly say to friends that if I don’t know the name of the farmer, chances are I won’t eat it). It was one of my main motivations behind starting The Locavore, to make these connections and witness these farms in action. I feel blessed to live in a place where there are some amazing examples of farms so close to where I live, and lucky that there are a few places that I feel happy to buy meat from/restaurants I’m happy to eat out at, because I know their sourcing policies are as strict as mine.
I’ve found myself becoming particularly passionate about nose-to-tail dining. When you live on a farm where eating meat = an entire cow in the freezer, you learn a lot about the different cuts and uses of the meat. I found myself delighting in oxtail stew, braising beef cheeks, and even peeling cow tongues. If I’m going to eat meat, I want to make sure the whole animal gets used. And that includes the bones too, transformed into a nutritious broth simply with the addition of water and time.
It’s also affected the amount of meat I eat. On an average week, I eat meat maybe twice, and often not a big portion. People say that organic farm meat is unaffordable; my solution is simply to eat less of it. I spend no more each week on meat that I used to, but I chose quality over quantity. I don’t bemoan paying £15 for a chicken, because that’s what it costs to raise a chicken in a healthy and humane way. Instead, I’ll make do with eating it once or twice a month, and stretch that chicken out over several meals, culminating in a beautiful soup and some stock for my freezer.
All this together means the way I eat is transformed. Seasonal, local, organic food makes up a majority of my diet, and I relish every bite.