The rant: What’s so great about eating seasonally?
Does the food lover’s mantra, ‘eat seasonally, eat locally’, hide a range of misconceptions – from lack of logic to xenophobia and snobbishness?
Writer Adam Johns thinks so, and he reckons it’s time to enjoy the fruits of human endeavour, regardless of their seasonality.
My father’s family were fruit and veg merchants. My childhood was spent gorging on produce from all over the world (albeit the slightly manky stuff that couldn’t be sold). One of my earliest memories is of creeping out of the house with my dad on a still-dark morning to accompany him to the Birmingham Wholesale Market. I watched, entranced, as a trader opened a box of apples, fresh from South Africa: cool, crisp and shiny. To my delight, he offered me one. I can still remember the taste, as sweet, crunchy and juicy as if it had just fallen from the tree. It seemed like a miracle to the four-year-old me that an apple had come all the way from Africa.
Today, gigantic container ships supply us with everything from bras to bananas and we think nothing of it. Thanks to international trade (something that’s been around for a while – ever heard of the Spice Route?), we can buy anything we want, whenever we want it. We should celebrate that. It’s a triumph of human endeavour, and our forlorn, beetroot-eating ancestors would have killed to have the kind of diversity in their diets that we can enjoy.
So when did the absurd foodie dictum emerge that, if it grows in this country, you’re not allowed to eat it from anywhere else, even out of season? Shoes and clothes are still made in the UK, but how many of those who insist on ‘buying locally’ make a point of wearing these items? Most will be shod in the same trainers and clothed in the same shirts from China or Vietnam as everyone else. So why is that permitted if it’s not okay to eat an imported tomato? Perhaps it’s the British taste for self-denial. Think of all those hair-shirted ascetics we’ve revered over the centuries: Sir Thomas More, Gandhi, Jeremy Corbyn… “It’s not just about seasonality,” the vegetable martyrs protest. “Even if I didn’t eat seasonally, I’d never eat non-British tomatoes/asparagus/(insert any vegetable or fruit that grows in the UK) because ours are the best.”
This is culinary xenophobia. Have these people blind taste-tested asparagus from different countries? The idea that British tomatoes can compare to those soft, deep red, juicy specimens from Mediterranean countries (even from the desert polytunnels of Almería in Spain) is indefensible. And why is it OK to eat imports in a tin? There’s also a mean-mindedness to the seasonistas’ stance. Every time you turn your nose up at a green bean from Kenya or a bunch of asparagus from Peru, you deny farmers in such developing countries the chance of a better living.
But never mind the piety, hypocrisy and chauvinism – feel the snobbery. That, as so often in these matters, is the most powerful factor in this whole conceit. Serving out-of-season fruit or veg at a dinner party is now as much of a contemporary middle class no-no as using your phone in the quiet carriage, preferring salad cream to mayonnaise or having net curtains. Offenders are mocked, belittled, pitied.
The seasonal snobbery has infected retailers too. In my local supermarket, now I can no longer find South African apples, only British ones – even in spring, when the British fruit have been lurking for months in giant oxygen-less fridges. Though they look okay, bite into them and you suffer that tell-tale woolly texture. My Proustian apple from Birmingham by way of The Cape was a hundred times fresher.
I’ll concede that children who learn to postpone gratification tend to have better outcomes in life, and perhaps on some deep level this endless waiting for things to come into season is doing us good. It’s not my idea of fun, though. To misquote Mark Twain, you’re more likely to regret what you didn’t eat in life than what you did eat, and I can’t imagine myself on my deathbed, thanking the Lord I never consumed an unseasonal courgette.
Do you think Adam has a valid point or do you take a different view? Let us know in the comments below.