Wednesday 17 February 2010

Future food

It’s bitterly cold this evening. Spring seems a long way away again, although it was such a sunny day. It’s one of those days when the Transition journey feels like it’s going to take a long long time.

Earlier this week some of us were talking about veggie boxes and how much we enjoyed rising to the creative challenge of doing something delicious with the most unpromising produce. “I must admit that turnips defeat me,” I said to Kerry. But no, she says she’s found a brilliant recipe that turned her from a turnip-hater (like me) into an enthusiast.

It’s Lent and I like to try to eat very simply for the forty days ahead. Much the same as the ideal Transition pattern of eating – seasonal, local, mainly vegetarian; not much dairy; little or no meat or fish. But – and this is what I’ve been reflecting on today – this is not just for Lent. At the moment I can choose how I eat; in future I won’t have any choice. I’m going to have to do it always and that might not be such fun all the time when it is for real.

I’ve been dipping into George Ewart Evans’ Ask the Fellows Who Cut the Hay (probably long out of print), following up on something Erik said at the TN café about East Anglian life. He’s writing in 1956 about the harsh realities of rural life in Suffolk, as told to him by a group of old people who lived through it all. Not all of it was bad, of course, and the festivals must have been great. But most of the time it was hard. I’ve read similar accounts about just how perilously close to starvation people used to be in the Riviera, saved only by their chestnut trees; and throughout those parts of the Mediterranean that seem idyllic now. Crop failure was very serious indeed. Food shortages were common and affected a far wider population than just the villages.

We were talking about food security, among a lot of other issues, at the Transition Talk Training in Colchester last week. Nigel, from Woodbridge, keeps bees and is definitely on the case. So is Marina, from the Apricot Centre near Manningtree. And me? I’m just starting out. I’ve grown fruit and veg all my life; I’ve briefly kept bantams (more of that later); I like to think of myself as a sensible shopper and fairly capable cook. But the changes I need to make in the kitchen are radical.

On that journey, I shall need to become a much more resourceful cook. Dishes like Charlotte’s Tagine aux Sept Legumes (really skilful use of humble ingredients with clever spicing), butternut squash risotto with rosemary (yesterday) and today’s lunch, Hugh F-W’s chickpea and kale curry. Today’s books will certainly help me to do more interesting things with my veggies in season.

First, one that I use all the time and keep in the kitchen: River Café Cook Book Green. It’s organised on a month-by-month basis; you have to make minor allowances for it being more closely aligned to the northern Italian seasons than England. Most of the recipes are really simple and taste divine. Potatoes and dried porcini mushrooms baked with some thyme and garlic (January); chickpea pancake with rosemary (that’s farinata, for Charlotte, from that hard-pressed Riviera)…

Second, one that Kerry and I think is indispensable when you just can’t think what to do with your fourth batch of parsnips in a row: Riverford Farm Cookbook. These guys know all about the realities of veggie boxes.

Pix: seasonal veggies on sale in the city; Transition Talk Training at Colchester (courtesy of Andy Croft)

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