You know that feeling. You bite into and apple that looked good only to discover it was flavourless and floury. A few months ago the apples from this same shop where crisp and juicy but now they are lacklustre. It’s such a disappointment. You move on to the strawberries and find they are outrageously priced! Last year they were 3 for $4. You think: ‘What’s going on’?
The answer is seasonal food. Most of the things that we eat have a season. Their ‘season’ is the period when the product is ripe and being harvested on the farms that supply your market. Fruits have picking seasons. There are summer and winter vegetables. Some meats and seafoods have a season too. If you have ever noticed the same brand of cheese tasting different throughout the year it’s because the animals’ bodies respond to different seasonal conditions. When a food is in season it will be at its peak in quality and abundant in the marketplace.
Seasonal Food = Best Quality at the Lowest Price
Learning how to tell what foods are in season when is the key to budget cooking. Eating fresh produce when it is in season means you are eating it at its freshest and before the the nutrients have been depleted by time. This means that it is the healthiest it can possibly be for you. When a food is in season it is abundant in the marketplace so you are also eating it when it is at its cheapest. Basically, you are getting the best food at the lowest price!
Before we had the benefit of refrigeration, everyone ate seasonally. There was no choice. Fruits and vegetables were ripe for harvest when they were ripe. They were picked and there was a pretty short window of time when they had to be eaten before they would spoil. Anything that couldn’t be eaten fresh was preserved in some way (jamming, drying, canning etc). The fresh product was pretty short lasting. This is still the case for many around the world today.
Industrial refrigeration and long-haul transportation of food allow things can be kept in cold storage for many months or brought from across the world so they can be sold out of season. This can be a very good thing – and there are places around the world that still need to develop this kind of infrastructure in order to provide healthy food and optimum nutrition for their population.
Too much of this good thing can mean that we start to develop problems in our food supply system to do with over-nutrition, a loss of knowledge and skill around seasonal food, lack of local biodiversity and a decrease in the resilience of the food system. Cold storage can extend seasons by stopping food from perishing too quickly, but it can also downright cheat consumers by allowing food that is a year old to be sold as ‘fresh’ or by selling last year’s produce at a time when people are anticipating new season produce.
But I want it all now!
The industrialisation and globalisation of the food supply chain with long-haul transportation, refrigeration and long-term cold storage means that stores can have apples, oranges, peaches and figs in a store together at any time of the year even though these items grow in very different climatic and seasonal conditions. However, if we want everything all the time it comes with a pretty hefty price tag! It means that we are always buying at least some ingredients when they are in limited supply. It is also costly for the planet. Transportation and refrigeration are major sources of CO2 emissions in the food supply chain.
By eating seasonal food you aren’t giving up variety. You are just choosing to get variety across the course of a year rather throughout the week. You might eat peaches ever day in summer, apples every day in autumn and oranges everyday in winter. But you would discover a different kind of variety. For instance, each fruit has many different varieties that ripen at different times. Mandarins aren’t just ‘mandarins’ they are Hicksons, Emperors, Imperials or Honey Murcotts. Learning (and loving) this kind of variety promotes biodiversity in the food supply chain which makes it more resilient (able to cope with shock).
Seasonal Food and Local Food
Considering everything is in season somewhere in the world at any given time, seasonal food and local eating work together. I live in Sydney, Australia which has a fairly temperate climate. This means that throughout the year something is always in season. I will confess that a short, definitive growing season followed by a long, snowy winter is kind of exotic to me! You need to look around where you are, observe and research what grows when in your part of the world to understand what is in season for you.
There are few aspects of our food system in Australia – and I am sure it is the same in other parts of the developed world – that make this complicated. The malleable definition of ‘local’ can also confuse how we see what is in season. For instance, if we are in Sydney and we think of ‘local’ meaning all of Australia (as many people do) then we might be happily buying ‘seasonal’ food that doesn’t provide the environmental benefit we would expect from buying in season because it is still being shipped thousands of kilometres across our huge country. Some people don’t see a problem with this. But it takes a lot of energy and produces a lot of greenhouse emissions to have food refrigerated and shipped. It’s worth considering how local, seasonal food can help reduce emissions and fight off climate change.
Getting Started with Seasonal Food
- Start by looking around you. When you are in the grocery store consider what foods are cheap and abundant at what times of year and look for information on where they were grown.
- Visit a farmers’ market. You’ll get a good picture of what’s in season (and what’s not) by what you see around you. If you see something that doesn’t seem to fit, ask questions of the vendor. There might be an interesting reason.
- Grocers – like Harris Farm – can send you market reports so you know what’s in season
- Explore online seasonal guides for your area
- You may also like to head to the local library and pick up some fruit and veg gardening books. They will tell you when you can expect things to be harvested. Choose books published in and for your area. Seasonality in temperate Sydney is one thing – it’s very different a cooler climate like Hobart and a completely different kettle of fish in somewhere like Canada or Russia. Growing your own soon gives you an ideas of how the seasons around you work!
- Keep an ear out for events in the news that may affect availability and prices. Floods, cyclones, cold snaps, heat waves, out of season whether all have an impact on when the best food arrives on the shelves and how much it costs.
- Find out where there are pick-your-own farms near you. If you use them you’ll soon become familiar with what food are available when.
- Subscribe to Easy Green Recipes (below) to get idea for how to use your produce across the seasons.