“Seasonality is the key to sustainability”Paul Leonard, Head Chef at the Forest Side Hotel
That’s the philosophy of Paul Leonard, Head Chef at the Forest Side Hotel in Grasmere, Cumbria. A chef who develops his menu according to what’s on the growing plan at the vast kitchen garden in the grounds of this 18th century manor, overlooking the rugged lakeland fells. Planted across one row of raised beds are six different varieties of strawberries, ready for cropping in the summer months. Yet if you walk into any UK supermarket in any season, you’ll find strawberries for sale. A few generations ago, it was unheard of to find these on the shelf at any time other those June weeks that coincide with the Wimbledon Tennis Championships, a bowl of fresh British strawberries and cream as much a part of the tournament as rackets and balls. But just what is the environmental cost of this year round availability, of ‘unseasonal’ fruit and vegetables?
Obviously if something has been grown outside the UK, and imported in, it must have travelled by air or ship, these extra food miles equalling more pollution and a greater carbon footprint. Asparagus is apparently the worst offender, according to research by Angelina Frankowska, who studies sustainability at the University of Manchester. It has the highest carbon footprint compared to any other vegetable eaten in the country, mainly because over 74% is imported, most of it by air from Peru. As it loses it’s flavour so quickly after harvesting, this is the best way for it to travel in order to arrive in its optimal condition onto the shelf and onto our plates.
Unfortunately however, the answer to reducing carbon in your diet, isn’t as simple as avoiding Peruvian asparagus, or indeed any other product that has not been harvested in the UK. According to David Raey, a climate scientist at Edinburgh University, and the author of ‘Climate-Smart Food’, the carbon intensity of the production process needs to be taken into account as well. In other words, produce which has been grown locally in the UK, particularly when it is not in season, may have done so in energy intensive poly-tunnels, and therefore have a higher carbon footprint than that shipped from warmer climes. Without detailed carbon packaging on our food, the most sustainable choice is to chose food which you know to be ‘in season’, and thus, hopefully, has not been grown under these artificial conditions.
While the carbon data of food may not yet be readily available to the consumer on their weekly household shop, it can be found on the menu at the National Trust owned Sticklebarn pub in Langdale in Cumbria. Not only do they use seasonal produce but they now print the CO2e – a carbon equivalent which takes into account all greenhouse gases – of each dish on their menu allowing customers to make an informed and ‘planet friendly’ choice.
However the ‘planet friendly’ choice doesn’t stop with the seasonality of the food we buy or eat, equally important is how much we waste. According to David Raey we can avoid waste by simply not “over-buying or over-serving at mealtimes and keeping to use-by dates”. Of course many households now compost what they waste, rather than discarding into landfill, and this is also done on a larger scale at many restaurants up and down the UK. At the Forest Side, they use their own compost from kitchen waste to fertilise the garden, as well as using every part of not just the animal, but the vegetable as well. Paul used celeriac as an example of this, stating that normal preparation of the vegetable may involve discarding the skins, while conserving the rest for soups or purées, thus wasting approximately 20% of it. At the Forest Side, where they have grown the celeriac from seedling in a tray, transplanted and protected it from frost, tended to and cared for it for over four to six months, it becomes more than just a cheap vegetable. They treat it with the same respect as they would an animal, turning the otherwise wasted skins into a delicious broth to be served as an amuse bouche on their Michelin starred tasting menu.
So waste less, eat seasonally and buy locally, preferably from one of the many farm shops up and down the UK. These offer the consumer the opportunity to buy produce straight from the field. At Low Sizergh Barn, a family run farm in Kendal Cumbria, you can even buy fresh raw milk straight from the milking parlour, from a handy milk vending machine. Just don’t forget your reusable glass bottle! By buying local produce from smaller businesses, the impact is not just a sustainable food choice, but also helps to support and therefore sustain the local community. And of course strawberries freshly picked from the farm on a warm summer’s day, will always taste better than the plastic-wrapped ones on the shelf. Environmentally friendly, supporting the community and deliciously ripe. The ultimate game, set and match.
Written by Joanna Lawrence