I collect old recipe books. You know the sort: Woman's Home Cook Book (1960s) or The Times Calendar Cookbook (1970s). I love scrutinising their rather dated recipes and pore over their ghastly Technicolor photographs but I find myself subconsciously substituting all the ingredients that weren't readily available in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s. (I’m talking of a time when olive oil was bought in tiny quantities from a chemist!) I do wonder whether these recipes will be any more tempting now if made with ingredients that are readily available now, than they appear to my somewhat jaundiced eye.
However, before you think I am mocking these old-fashioned cookbooks, many of them are very much structured according to the seasons or by month and their recipes reflect this. Although, the one thing all these old books mention is that ‘exotic foodstuffs’ are becoming more widely available. They are clearly entranced by this new trend; it was clearly an exciting time. But the one thing that is quite apparent is that no-one then had any idea about the implications of all-year-round supply and the loss of seasonality in our cooking and shopping.
I am not suggesting for a moment that you shouldn't buy food that is sourced abroad. However, I know from experience that, say, English asparagus in May and June is much nicer than anything imported throughout the rest of the year. I'm not saying wear a sackcloth, ashes and a hair shirt and I am definitely not preaching total abstinence. However, what I suppose I am saying is did you really need that New Zealand lamb, those Kenyan beans or those Guatemalan peas?
I think there are several reasons for cooking seasonal and searching out local, seasonal food. Without wishing to get all preachy and tree-hugging on you, local, seasonal food has no ‘air miles’ and buying locally may help to reduce carbon emissions by reducing the amount of transportation involved; (although there was a recent story in the news about English apples being flown to South Africa to be waxed and then flown back … can anyone tell me if this true?) Seasonal shopping helps to support local farmers and thus the local economy. It's an opportunity to get back in touch with the cycle of the seasons, in the ways we did before industrialisation. Although, according to the Eat the Seasons website, it is most important because seasonal food is fresher and so tends to be tastier and more nutritious.
I appreciate that many of us don't have access to farm shops, farmers’ markets or even street markets, and we are dependent on supermarkets; we may not be foraging material. I can tell you that I am definitely not foraging in some of the hedgerows in my neck of north London. Nor do we have the time or the inclination to shop every day. But supermarkets will stock seasonal produce, too and it's worth having a think about using the produce that's available right now. Apart from anything else, cooking seasonally means that you are in more in sympathy with your ingredient: peas taste wonderful in June, but are they really right for December? (Actually that was a really bad example as I could eat peas every day of the year!) Ok, a better example would be would you really want to eat a hearty beef and ale stew with dumplings in August? Unless our climate changes quite radically, I can't imagine why you'd want a rich, robust meat dish in the heat of summer when you could be eating glorious summer salads. I think you'll find that's QED to me.
So just think about enjoying and taking advantage of Britain's rich and varied seasons. Look; eating and cooking seasonally doesn't entitle you to sanctification, although you may feel a little saintly. The one thing you will notice is that your food will taste absolutely divine!
If you're interested in seasonal cooking, check out Eat the Seasons website or Hugh Fearnley- Whitingstall's River Cottage website (he puts it far more eloquently than I do).