A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS
Wednesday May 14, 2003.
Supermarkets conspire for us to eat as if it is permanently summer. But it is time we embraced the seasons, says Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
I have just written a book about seasonal cookery. I have done it because I believe passionately that those who shop and cook in harmony with the seasons will get immeasurably more pleasure and satisfaction from their food than those who don't.
I concede, though, that if, like me, you grow your own produce and raise your own livestock, you can hardly fail to appreciate the seasons and their impact on the kitchen. So what about those who don't?
The majority who buy all, and grow none, of their food? How relevant is my argument to them? In an age where the transport of food around the world, between the hemispheres and from one climate to another, is increasingly fast and furious, the question inevitably arises: why bother with seasonality? Why not simply embrace the extraordinary array of year-round choice we now have, and cook what we want, when we want?
This is a big question. And it seems that not all high-profile food-lovers share my feelings about what the answer should be. I don't usually single out my food-writing colleagues for criticism by name, but recently I felt inclined to make an exception. Nigella Lawson, who I admire greatly for her book How to Eat, last year presented a television series and published a collection of recipes called Forever Summer. As usual with Nigella, it was a pretty stunning collection of recipes. But the conceit that ties them together - that, thanks to the wonders of modern farming technology and international food transportation, you can now cook sun-drenched food from far-flung cultures all the year round - really got my goat. It seemed to me both cynical and reckless. As I let slip in a recent interview with the Big Issue, my feeling is that she might as well have called the book Fuck Seasonality. I have just re-read her introduction, and I stand by my choice of words.
In this instance, Nigella is simply the most high-profile perpetrator of a widespread media phenomenon. So much of the way cookery is presented in Britain - in cookery books and colour supplements, and particularly, recently, on television - works against our understanding and appreciation of our seasons. It does so by making someone else's seasonality (or ironically, their relative lack of it) aspirational. It implies that the food and produce of sunnier climes (the Mediterranean in particular) is more worthwhile than our own.
To me this is quite simply wrong. It is a matter of fact, not conjecture, that what is locally seasonal will always be far better than what is not. It's true almost by definition. Most produce doesn't travel well, and the various processes and technologies applied to it to help it travel better are invariably detrimental to its eating qualities. Similarly, the genetic modifications, inputs of chemicals, and artificial light and heat required to grow crops out of season are inevitably at the expense of flavour.
In short, the determination to batter down the natural barriers of food production always has as its motive sheer profit, never the best interests of the consumer. By contrast, seasonal produce, locally grown and locally sold, can always be harvested at its best, and eaten at its best. At my local farm shop you can buy vegetables on the same day they were picked or cut. Cook them (or eat them raw) on that day, before their natural sugars revert to starch, and you will experience a sweetness and acuteness of flavour that you may never have encountered before.
Of course, the biggest culprits are the big supermarkets. They are not merely uninterested in seasonality, but actually keen to suppress it. They have sourced produce throughout the world that homogenises their product range into a consistent, year-long display of cosy familiarity. There is even a buzzword for their mission: permanent global summer time, or PGST. By cherry-picking climates across the hemispheres and around the latitudes they are attempting to create a new agricultural world order, where the sun always shines.
Despite their best efforts, the seasons will still exert some influence on what they stock. Yet they will do everything to disguise this fact in presenting produce to their customers. They fear that seasonally driven marketing will result in inconsistent spending. They don't want their customers to think seasonally, because they believe seasonality is not profitable.
It's a misconceived policy that is damaging to the soul of British cooking. It rests on an assumption that the British food shopper is fundamentally lazy, constantly hankering after somebody else's lifestyle, and irredeemably convinced of the relative dullness of what is local and British.
This is, of course, a circular and self-fulfilling strategy. Reinforce these damning prejudices at every turn of the supermarket aisle and, amazingly, your customers fail to show much of an interest in local seasonal produce. But what might happen if customers were led first and foremost in the store to British produce that is in season, and at its very best, at that precise moment? The supermarket that dares to be different, that celebrates British seasonality and puts it at the heart of its marketing, might just pull ahead of its dull and indistinguishable rivals.
Asda is the first of the big four supermarkets to show some inkling of an interest in such a strategy. A fortnight ago it announced a new initiative, committing itself to putting home-grown produce first in its stores and, perhaps most importantly, to labelling it clearly and unambiguously. The move has been cautiously welcomed by British farmers as about the first piece of good news they've heard from one of the food retail giants in decades. How ironic, and how utterly ridiculous, that Asda will actually have to break the existing labelling laws if it is to keep its promise.
The suppression of seasonality is just the thin end of the wedge. The whole idea of PGST is to present a seemless array of identical-looking produce throughout the year. An extension of the mission to homogenise the seasons is therefore the mission to homogenise the produce itself. One of the best-researched - and scariest - food articles I read last year, was written by Joanna Blythman for this newspaper. She catalogued the numerous ways in which, on the orders of the supermarket giants, farmers at home and abroad are compromising or abandoning the simple quest for good-tasting food in favour of the quest for food that "behaves itself" in terms of looks, conformity to certain standards in size and shape, and the ability to crop consistently in all the PGST zones.
We are talking about a brave new world of test-tube fruits and vegetables, stripped of the quirks and character that give them interest and charm. To use one of Joanna's examples, the strawberry variety Elsanta, developed in Holland in the 1960s, now accounts for more than 85% of the UK market. But it's not a variety you'll find in any fruit enthusiasts' garden, or any retail nursery. Because fruit lovers know that it simply has no taste. Its "qualities" are an ability to withstand weeks in cold storage, then, after artificial ripening by exposure to ethanol, hold its scarlet colour and glossy sheen for further weeks on the supermarket shelf.
These new "standards" are enforced with totalitarian authority. Farmers unwilling to toe the line are simply shut out of the loop - sent to Siberia, as it were, until their non-conformist commitment to characterful produce is either beaten out of them, or they simply find another way to make a living.
Happily, despite the overwhelming clout of the supermarkets, there are still some small producers dedicated to cultivating the best varieties of our seasonal produce. Increasingly, they sell only through local markets, such as farmers' markets and farm shops. They are the guardians of the vital variations in the taste and texture of produce that allow us, by turns, to be individuals in our own taste. They are our safeguard against a future of bland homogeneity. If we do not use them, we will lose them.
To all who perpetrate and encourage the anti-seasonal, anti-local sentiments about food, be they celebrity cooks, food retailers or the media, I suppose it may be a genuine source of regret that we do not, in this country, have an endless summer. I feel no such pangs. On the contrary, I think we have one of the richest experiences of the seasons of any country on earth. And, shaped by those seasons, and centuries of food production, one of the most beautiful agricultural landscapes too. And we have a range of homegrown produce and a culinary heritage that reflects that experience, and helps to make us who we are. Our weather may be the butt of longstanding jokes among our continental neighbours, and consequently, in that self-effacing British way, among ourselves. But don't we love it really? Isn't our summer so special precisely because, just like our autumn, our winter and our spring, it doesn't last for ever?
In the end, then, shopping seasonally is not a high-minded duty, but a liberating pleasure. The downside of the culture of infinite year-round choice is a kind of options paralysis: there's so much on offer that you don't know where to start. Understanding the seasons brings a sense of structure, rhythm and rightness to your shopping and cooking. In a world where the methods of food production are rapidly unravelling into madness, seasonality is sanity, offering the best and quickest solution to the never-ending question: what shall I cook today?
Hugh's new book, The River Cottage Year, is published by Hodder and Stoughton, £17.99. To comment on this article, visit www.rivercottage.net The Guardian's free colour supplement on Saturday 17 May, continues our major investigation into food as we examine the global forces that control what we eat.