How to live off the land
Could you survive only on local produce? As the Government urges us to help reduce Britain's spiralling food miles total, Rich Cookson spends two weeks without salt or sugar, tea or coffee, wine, pasta - or chocolate
Monday 05 December 2005
If there's an ancient art to preparing rabbit, I'd like to be in on it. I'll spare you the details, but my kitchen looks like something out of a horror movie and the rabbit liver has just slipped off the chopping board and on to the floor - it's more like Reservoir Dogs than River Cottage.
Still, food doesn't come much more local than this. My rabbit was shot a few fields away and the vegetables were grown just eight miles down the road. The delicious, thick, creamy milk that will go into my mashed potato came free from a friendly farmer this morning. In a couple of hours, there'll be a steaming bowl of delicious and wholly local rabbit stew and mash on the table.
The food we eat is travelling further than ever to get to our plates. A recent government report revealed that the food eaten in Britain travelled a staggering 30 billion kilometres in 2002. The study, from the Department for Farming and Rural Affairs, also found that the amount of food transported by lorries has doubled since 1974, and now accounts for a quarter of all miles travelled by HGVs in the UK.
The phenomenal grown of supermarkets, with their centralised distribution systems and out-of-town locations, is partly to blame. But they rightly say they're only responding to demand: many of us want to eat strawberries and tomatoes all year round, without thinking too much about where they come from.
The report pointed out that each of us now travels an average of 136 miles a year by car to shop for food, and the combined environmental and social costs of all these food miles is about £9bn a year. Launching the report, the Sustainable Food and Farming Minister, Lord Bach, said that the issue was "complex and that a range of factors have an effect on the overall impacts of food transport, not purely the distance travelled by individual products... [but] buying local products has the potential to greatly reduce the distance food is transported."
So just how local is it possible to go? Styling myself as Somerset's answer to Morgan Spurlock - the US film-maker who ate nothing but McDonald's for a month and made a documentary about the grizzly consequences - I set out to live ultra-locally for two weeks. The golden rule is simple: I can only eat food grown, reared or hunted within 10 miles of my house.
That means forgoing a daunting list of staples including tea, coffee, sugar, salt and pepper, oranges, bananas, chocolate, pasta, olive oil and breakfast cereals. Would I be able to find enough bread, milk, meat, fruit and vegetables to live on - or would I be forced to eat parsnips for breakfast and succumb to scurvy?
Thankfully, I live in the Somerset countryside: with cows munching grass at the end of my garden, and winter crops sprouting at the back of my house, it seems like a cinch.
The night before I start, I clear out a kitchen cupboard.There's Tanzanian tea, Costa Rican coffee, tinned tomatoes (Italy), prunes (not quite sure why I bought those, but they come from France), dried apricots (Turkey), flaked almonds (Spain), nutmeg (Tanzania), pasta (Italy), dried lentils (France), risotto rice (Italy), sunflower seeds and pine nuts (China), basmati rice (India), pudding rice (Italy), couscous (France), soy sauce (which, dubiously, claims to come from the Netherlands), capers (Cyprus), olive oil (Italy) and an old jar of jalapeno peppers from Spain. At a conservative (though completely unscientific) estimate, all of the food in that one small cupboard has travelled more than 41,000 miles to get here. That's not far off twice the circumference of the earth.
I'm left with one small jar of local honey and four eggs from a nearby farm but a few minutes on the internet gives me some decent ideas about how to fill up the fridge. A good starting place is www.bigbarn.co.uk, a fantastic website that tells you what's available in your locality. The Soil Association's site ( www.soilassociation.org.uk) provides helpful tips, too.
Day One. With only eggs and honey to choose from, breakfast doesn't look too appetising. I dissolve honey in hot water, which does little to stop me craving the three cups of coffee I drink every morning, but is much tastier than it sounds. Alongside a plate of scrambled eggs, it makes a surprisingly hearty meal. Armed with a rucksack and a wad of cash, I set off for the three-mile walk across the fields to my nearest farm shop.
The store is suitably rustic and has a fantastic array of vegetables - delicious-looking kale, vivid-orange carrots, huge sacks of muddy potatoes, knobbly parsnips, eggs, butter, preserves - but most of it comes from Oxfordshire or Kent (apart from the peppers, which have been air-freighted in from Spain). I opt for three more jars of honey. And 18 eggs, just in case.
A mile or so up the road, there's a farm that sells decent beef from its Aberdeen angus herd. The family has farmed here since 1958 and are happy to talk about how they farm and who else might be worth visiting round here. I go for a couple of hefty sirloins and some stewing steak. They also knock some money off the total price - something you don't get in Tesco.
And then I hit the jackpot: a huge farm shop in the wonderfully named village of Farrington Gurney. The farm shop, called Farrington's, sells fabulous vegetables from its 430-acre farm. Tish and Andy Jeffery have farmed here for 15 years and their philosophy is strikingly simple. "We want to sell as much local food as possible," says Tish. "The further food travels, the more it loses its nutrients - and I don't see the point in buying vegetables from abroad when they are so much tastier if they are grown locally."
While the shop does stock some food from overseas, I can get a good range of vegetables here (all helpfully labelled with food miles). The shop's butcher, too, points me towards its beef (reared within a few miles, he says) and locally shot game. Unfortunately, there's no milk (it comes from 20 miles away) and the bread, too, is off the list. The butter is also produced out of my area, but I desperately need something to cook with and as it's only out by a couple of miles I cheat slightly. I emerge with four venison steaks, two pheasants, a large bag of potatoes, red cabbage, beetroot, cavalo nero (black kale), swiss chard, leeks, fennel, celeriac and two pats of butter. And all for £19.73.
For the next few days I eat remarkably well. I pick the last few apples from my garden and stew them with local honey. Breakfast alternates between this and increasingly bizarre dishes involving eggs and vegetables (cavalo nero omelettes are a particular favourite). Beef stew without seasoning tastes rather insipid, but improves with age. The venison is delicious, as is steamed green veg. I eat my body weight in potatoes.
A couple of days later, some friends come round for supper. We eat roast pheasant, mashed potatoes, honey-roasted beetroot and kale - all of it local. They drink wine while I stick to honey and hot water.
Towards the end of the week, I find another shop that sells vegetables produced at a local market garden. The owner tells me about a local cheesemaker, less than a mile from my house. That night's supper is a squash from the former, baked with goat's cheese from the latter, washed down with honey and hot water.
By day eight I'm beginning to notice how much extra work this is. Most meals are based around meat, vegetables and potatoes, which all take time to cook. Without pasta and rice, I'm really stuck for quick lunches. I've also been scrupulous about saving fat from the steaks I fry and making stock from any leftover bones - both go some way to adding extra taste to my cooking, but I'm sorely missing salt, pepper and fresh herbs. Breakfast is also difficult: eggs and honey are rapidly losing their appeal and I still can't find any milk. Most mornings, I fantasise about toast and strong coffee.
The following day, I'm working in London. I have breakfast at home but can't find anything that I can take with me for lunch and resort to a sandwich at Paddington station. I work late and eat on the train that evening too.
With only three days to go, things start to slip. I succumb to an early-morning coffee and start adding salt and pepper to food. From there, it's a short step to using dried herbs and (local-ish) bacon when I cook. I may have broken my own golden rule a few times, but most of my ingredients are thoroughly local - and the difference is remarkable: food simply tastes so much better when it is properly seasoned.
But I certainly won't be rushing down to the supermarket next week: there are a couple of partridges and another pheasant in the fridge, and more local vegetables than I know what to do with. I'm looking forward to the odd banana or two, and some guilt-free coffee, but there's so much good food on my doorstep that it seems insane to buy it from anywhere else. I might even tackle another rabbit, if someone can show me how to do it.
* Half of all vegetables and 95 per cent of fruit eaten in the UK is from overseas.
* Two out of three apples sold in supermarkets are imported, says Friends of the Earth - with Tesco the worst offender, sourcing 72 per cent of apples overseas. Some had travelled more than 12,000 miles.
* From 1978 to 1998, the amount of food transported on UK roads increased by 20 per cent, but the average distance travelled went up by 50 per cent.
* Food transport in and to the UK produced 19 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO 2) in 2002.
* Transport of food by air has the highest CO 2 emissions per ton, and is the fastest-growing mode.
* Buying locally grown and manufactured produce boosts the rural economy. For every £10 spent in a local organic box scheme, £25 is generated for the local economy, according to the New Economics Foundation. This compares with £14 generated for every £10 spent in a supermarket.
* Ingredients for a typical Christmas dinner travel up to 30,000 miles, according to the Green Party.
SOURCES: DEFRA, FOE, GREEN PARTY, NEF
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