Your Planet: The green gourmet

Caroline Stacey, food editor of The Independent, explains why choosing ingredients with principle and environmental awareness need not compromise the joys of eating
Click to follow
The Independent Online

They're so bright, they smell good in that sickly, fake-baked bread way, the bargains are irresistible, the fruit is buffed and shiny, the vegetables squeaky clean, and the lighting mesmerising. As soon as you enter, though, you risk all hope of hanging on to your shopping principles. You can't count on keeping it ethical and cutting out excess packaging.

One exception is the Co-op. Its 100 Fairtrade products - for which the growers and producers are guaranteed a price and investment is made in their communities - helps it sell more Fairtrade goods than any other retailer. It is a pioneer in greener packaging, and all its carrier bags are degradable.

In the north-west, meanwhile, the Booths chain supports local producers in ways others pay only lip-service to. Waitrose, too, co-owned by its workers, makes a commitment to UK produce, to organic, and to fair trade through the Waitrose Foundation, a partnership working with South African citrus farmers to improve their lives. It even has its own model farm supplying its stores with seasonal produce.

Yes, the other monolithic stores have plenty of organic produce, no more earthy-looking than any of the presumably pesticide-bathed alternatives. They have Fairtrade products. They have dinky kiddy meals and so very much more besides. So much to resist. That's the trouble. Everything's there, whenever you want it.

By encouraging our desire for year-round availability at the lowest possible prices, the supermarkets and giants of the food industry stand accused of having suppliers in a stranglehold, playing havoc with the seasons, and transporting food up and down the country.

What have you got to lose by shopping elsewhere? It can't be more stressful than navigating between the SUVs bulging out of parking spaces, dodging runaway trolleys, loading up with food you never meant to buy, from places it shouldn't naturally come from, carting it home and struggling to find space in the kitchen to stash it.

Giving supermarkets a wide berth will bring you more closely in touch with top quality food sold by people who know and care where it comes from and have a stake in what they sell. Change where you shop and the way you do it, start trusting the people you buy from, and you won't miss all that label reading and decision-making under the neon lights.

By shopping little and often, topping up with really fresh food, you can often go on foot or by bike, stopping off en route. It needn't be more expensive to do it this way, just more pleasurable and less wasteful.

A recent survey found that we end up binning a third of our food. The temptations offered by the supermarkets are partly to blame. Buy two punnets of plums for the price of one. They all ripen at once (if ever) several days later and you don't get round to eating them before they rot in the fridge. It's a myth, anyway, that supermarkets are cheaper for everything. Tesco has been found to charge more for the healthiest, freshest foods that you can get in greengrocers.

Traditional street markets have their limitations. Some stallholders still seem to think organic is something porn actresses fake and to care more about pre-metric weights and measures than they do about the spuds they sell by the pound. But they're cheap, they have fresh, ripe, seasonal fruit and veg in abundance, and they sell it unpackaged in reasonable quantities.

Better still, at farmers' markets the variety of locally-grown produce is unbeatable. You cut out the middlemen, you meet the people who've grown what they're selling and you discover exactly where it comes from and how good it is. Visit www.farmersmarkets.net to find out where your nearest one is.

The ethical shopper knows that food should make the shortest journey possible from the field to the basket (wicker, obviously). So, don't buy anything needlessly flown across the world - apples from New Zealand, potatoes from Chile - when we have our own. Why buy bottled water from Fiji when it comes from a spring in Derbyshire? Why buy bottled water at all when it leaves mountains of plastic behind? Keep a weather eye on the seasons - under the supermarket roof you have no idea what time of year it is. That's why food miles - the journeys made by imports, by air freight and around Britain - have been rising steadily. When it's flown in from abroad, organic food is just as much a culprit as any other. A quarter of all the miles clocked up by heavy goods vehicles on the roads are due to food transport. If the choice is between organic imports and home grown - even if it's not organic but at least responsibly produced - take whichever travelled least far.

What is more exciting than looking forward to the brief asparagus season, to English cherries, to the return of native oysters in September? Knowing that some seasons are fleeting concentrates the cook's mind, and sharpens the appetite. When English asparagus is at its best, bought in a bunch of spears from the farm where they picked it first thing that morning, there is no more luxurious supper.

By contrast, our desire for luxuries such as farmed king prawns is causing environmental devastation along the coast of India. We should savour and pay for food that doesn't have hidden costs. A perfectly ripe English pear, the crisp, golden skin of a gamey-tasting, firm-fleshed roast free range chicken, the knockout aroma of a freshly-baked loaf from an artisan baker - it's a luxury to be able to buy any of these from small, specialist shops. And it's a luxury worth fighting for.

Where they are cherished, farmers' markets, farm shops, fairs and delicatessens thrive in defiance of the giants. Having food delivered cuts out multiple journeys to the shops. Supermarkets do it - packing the orders in countless plastic bags. Farmers do it, sending their meat direct to your door. Either way, beware the packaging. I've had delicious meat from rare breeds at Welsh hill farms - sent chilled in coffin-sized insulated boxes that will remain unaltered in a landfill site long after that breed of sheep is extinct. Hurrah for the National Trust farm in Snowdonia delivering a box of Welsh lamb insulated in sheep's wool that can be used again.

We should stop thinking of food that has become cheap because it's intensively produced as if it were a right. It isn't. We shouldn't resent paying more for the chicken or salmon that has lived and died well, and tastes like it. These make meals we will remember, rather than giving us surplus protein and a niggling anxiety that the cheap feed and compromised chain of production that makes them "bargains" may turn out to have serious consequences for our health.

As Hugh "The Guru" Fearnley-Whittingstall argues isn The River Cottage Meat Book those who eat meat have a moral responsibility to make a difference to the way it is produced and used. We should buy better quality, think about animal welfare, eat all of the beast and less of the most expensive cuts.

We should be conscientious about fish, too avoiding species that have been overfished. Essential reading to find out which fish can be eaten with a clear conscience is The Marine Conservation Society's Good Fish Guide. Log onto www.mcsuk.org or www.fishonline.org/ for more information.

Also, as Mark Hix often advocates in his cookery column in The Independent Magazine, as well as rustling up deliciously simple meals from seasonal delicacies, you can gather wild food, such as blackberries, without impacting on the environment. Better still, grow your own. Food doesn't come more responsibly produced than that; and you don't even have to go shopping.

THE TEN BEST COOK BOOKS
1 The River Cottage Meat Book
By Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (Hodder & Stoughton, £25). How to rear, cook and eat meat responsibly.
2 New English Kitchen; Changing the Way you Shop, Cook and Eat
By Rose Prince (Fourth Estate, £18.99).A brilliant book, preaching the virtues of thrift (and ethical eating) at its most inspiring and creative.
3 The Handmade Loaf
By Dan Lepard, £20, Mitchell Beazley.The most influential baker in Britain hymns the joys of baking.
4 Organic Baby & Toddler Cookbook
By Daphne Lambert and Tanyia Maxted-Frost (Green Books, £6.95). An organic chef and nutritionist recognise the need for alternatives to jars.
5 Henrietta Green's Farmers' Market Cookbook
By Henrietta Green (Published by Kyle Cathie. Out of print. Look for second hand.) Practical suggestions for cooking the produce you find in farmers' markets.
6 Delia's Kitchen Garden
By Gay Search & Delia Smith (BBC, £20). A beginners' guide to growing your own and then eating it.
7 The Food our Children Eat
By Joanna Blythman (Fourth Estate, £7.99). Worthy manual, subtitled "How to get children to like good food".
8 A Fair Feast
Ed: Vicky Bhogal (Simon & Schuster, £9.99). Celebrity recipes that encourage us to buy Fairtrade produce. (Profits go to Make Poverty History.)
9 Rick Stein's Guide to the Food Heroes of Britain
By Rick Stein, £14.99, BBC Books. A tribute to producers of high-quality food.
10 A Greener Life
By Clarissa Dickson Wright & Johnny Soctt, £25 Kyle Cathie. Publ: October. A comprehensive beginner's guide to becoming more self-sufficient.

Comments