Venture into the world of sustainable living, and you’ll quickly hit upon the idea of seasonal and local food. There is much that can be good about low-impact food. A confidence about how it has been produced. Freshness. Investing in smaller businesses and a food system that works for people and planet. We don’t have an exclusively plant-based diet, but our food ethos attempts to be, in the beautiful words of Yasmin Khan, ‘seasonal, abundant, plant-focused, and communal’*. And so a weekly vegetable box delivery forms the backbone of our meal planning.
Well, these have been some months. An uncharted and unsettling world, experienced from the enduring familiarity of home. In June last year we finally left the flat. Walked down the street. Saw the hand-drawn declarations of support for the NHS with our own eyes. Learned to stick together and keep our distance. We have been fortune to see the sea; spring-cleaning for the soul. We have been able to spend time with our families without the glare of screens.
Still, a year on, most of life has remained within these walls. I thought I would turn to our bookshelves to travel, explore. I tried Robert MacFarlane’s ‘Mountains of the Mind’. Wonderful, sweeping, but too vast and distant for my current reality. I started novels of heartbreak, but found myself reluctant to pick them up after a day of work and news overload. I have learned that in this current life, I seek to stay safe, cocooned. I return to favourites (Tolkien, Atwood, Barbery). And I read about food.
I say for summer, but maybe they’re for anytime. It’s just now, when the long light evenings prefer books to screens, and the veg harvest is beginning to peak, that I’ve pulled them from the kitchen shelf again. And keep them by my side of the bed. Dreaming of burrata salad. Waking to the idea of freshly baked Maslen bread.
Why these three books? I love them equally. And read them for slightly different reasons.
Add in coffee – which the book does – and you basically have my ideal diet (if health wasn’t a consideration. Which it is). Simran Sethi’s book journeys through the origins, production and threats to some of the world’s favourite foods in this time of monoculture, habitat loss and climate change. She teaches us – with the help of experts – to find the story in every taste, focusing on five foods: wine, chocolate, coffee, beer and bread. But her message is broader than these particular items; by understanding what we’re losing, we can start to claim it back.
A couple of weeks ago I learned that one in three people in the UK think that this winter they will have to make a choice: warm their food or their home. I heard this as I sat in a chilly room and looked at three tins that I had no way of warming for my dinner. It was an effort to make real, for a little while at least, this terrible dilemma. And it’s one I’ve continued to think about.
The setting was Fuel by Jack Monroe, a pop up restaurant organised as part of the launch of Jack’s new partnership with the npower Foundation to expand their fuel bank network. Jack introduced the night by telling us something of the food and fuel poverty that affect one million people in the UK today. We were then presented with covered dishes for our dinner. Lifting the lid, this was the view before us.
Roald Dahl novels made a big impact on me as a child. One in particular – the BFG – left me ever grateful for the food I enjoy. The novel’s titular character has made an ethically motivated decision about his eating habits, which means he has to make do with the foul-tasting snozzcumbers. He needs and has food to eat but it isn’t a pleasant experience. This story made me routinely glad that I don’t just need food to survive; I enjoy sufficient freedom and access to be able to avoid what is distasteful to me and devour what tickles my taste buds.
I’m grateful that the ethical choice doesn’t have to be an unpleasant culinary one. Ethical options are increasingly available and affordable, and don’t mean a compromise on taste (frequently the opposite). Solutions often overlap, but what constitutes a ‘good choice’ will depend upon your motivations: animal welfare, supporting independent businesses, going organic… One of my primary drivers is reducing our carbon footprint. This lends itself to a diet dominated by locally grown vegetables that aren’t over-packaged in plastic. So we started to order a weekly veg box.
We bought a strawberry plant. We watered it. We repotted it once. Pollinators came and went. Strawberries flourished, taunting us with their green state until they gradually blushed red. I am absurdly proud of this achievement. Continue reading →
An unintended consequence of our house move is that, after all that moving and sorting, it’s actually the small rectangle of space found beyond the back door that draws me most. From our first days in the house, in dry weather (wooly jumpers overcoming the challenges of temperature) I could be found out there, usually sat with the laptop or a good book, a coffee or glass of wine. The impact this small space has had on my well-being has been pleasantly unexpected. Continue reading →