Executive chef Richard Turner talks about the important of local seasonal produce
Seasonality is a once essential practice that has fallen by the wayside in these modern times of availability. Back when we started importing produce from all over the world, it was seen as very clever indeed to be able to provide mushrooms from the southern hemisphere in summer or tomatoes from Spanish polytunnels in February. But now the novelty is wearing thin, because without the ebbs and flows of seasonality, there’s less flavour to look forward to for the avid cook and eater. Savvy cooks are now returning to buying seasonally and they are eschewing those perfect looking but tasteless strawberries outside of summer.
Autumn is a most exciting season for a cook, especially a meat cook. Come the autumn (or fall if you hail from the other side of the pond); game, fungi, roots and store cupboard ingredients come into play. Between now and winter, we have a rolling cast of autumnal superstars, parading their depth of flavor; wild mushrooms and late season nuts and fruits, game birds galore and venison. We have an excuse to gorge on these seasonal bounties, taking advantage of a short glut.
This approach is more cost effective: when produce is in season locally, the relative abundance of the crop should make it less expensive. It's simple, really. Food is easier to grow in its proper season, making it more abundant, less time-intensive, and more affordable to us, the consumers. Often because there is too much of it, and it needs to be used up.
Seasonal food is significantly more delicious than food grown out of season. Foods that have had the chance to fully, naturally ripen before they’ve been picked will taste how they’re supposed to. And if you’ve ever compared the sweetness of a Spanish tomato in February to one from the Isle of Wight in August, you already know what allowing food to fully ripen means to your taste buds.
Foods also lose flavour, just as they lose moisture, when they are stored. Fresh, locally harvested foods have their full, whole flavours intact, which they release to us when we eat them. Foods that are chilled and shipped lose taste at every step of the way – chilling depletes flavour, transport depletes flavour and being held in warehouses depletes flavour.
Eating seasonally is healthier, too. Studies have shown that some crops can have up to three times more nutrients when grown in season. Local fruits and vegetables don't have to endure as much travel, so they don't lose those vital nutrients in transit, as opposed to harvesting early and further afield. Transportation sometimes involves irradiation to protect the produce, (additional processing that local produce does not need), which is subsequently refrigerated during the trip. And refrigeration whilst extremely convenient, is often the death knoll not just for flavour, but also the nutrients in fruits and vegetables. And – guess what? – the heritage strains of vegetable we ate historically have been usurped in the commercial agricultural world by strains better suited to the rigours of transport, storage and refrigeration. Unfortunately, while creating these “super-vegetables” no one was thinking about flavour or health – just profit.
And if that’s not enough to convince you, then you might be finally be persuaded by the fact that eating seasonally and locally is also better for the environment. Local produce is, of course, moved shorter distances than imported food, which sometimes travel more than 1,000 miles to get to us. Think of all the fossil fuel consumption that is avoided.
So right about now we are entering a period of autumnal abundance, the summer sun’s energy providing its last fruits of the year; a time to fill your boots. Look at labels for where they’ve been grown or if you can, buy from farmer’s markets or actual greengrocers. If you can get varieties called ‘heritage’ or ‘heirloom’ you should be in for a treat, as they should taste how vegetables tasted before intensive farming took over. High-quality produce, packed with nutrition will be your reward. And your taste buds will thank you for it!