Courgette flowers in exchange for eggs? Green tomato chutney for sourdough? Why not? Bartering is in our DNA and predates currency for exchange of goods for sustenance. Refreshingly, in our time-starved, internet-shopping era, such community-based exchanging of goods – home-made, home-grown or foraged – is enjoying a significant and growing revival.
Food swapping is a response to recession and to the horrors of untraceable products in the food chain, and is also a practical way to redistribute surplus spoils and reduce waste. It reflects, too, the renewed interest in growing one's own, home-making, preserving and pickling. No money changes hands, food is the only currency.
Food-swapping events first picked up momentum in Brooklyn, New York, several years back. Kate Payne, author of The Hip Girl's Guide to Homemaking brought the initiative to life. As she states, its aims were simple: "To bring the community together and share a fresh and wider variety of food and meet like-minded locals." From small beginnings, Payne and another early food-swapping advocate, Emily Ho, started the Food Swap Network with the aim of inspiring others, and the movement spread through North America and beyond. As Payne notes with evident satisfaction: "It's small yet positive change." In Europe, the UK is leading the way in embracing food swapping. The most established scheme so far is Apples for Eggs, run by Vicky Swift and Sue Jewitt, who describe themselves as sustainably minded, passionate foodies who share an interest in growing their own and baking. They had previously worked together as producers on television programmes such as Footballers' Wives. Their first event was at Altrincham in Cheshire in 2011.
Participants bring anything they've grown, raised or produced themselves, and exchange them for other cooks' and growers' produce. "I like the fact that everyone has taken time to think about and prepare their swap, whether seeking it out on a forage, harvesting it from their allotment or baking. It brings the community together as it is accessible and appealing to all and attracts a real mix, from university students to pensioners," explains Jewitt.
Swift continues: "Most of our regulars bring around 10-15 swaps, which means that they will go home with a veritable larder full of goodies."
She insists that food swapping is more creative than competitive, with a lot of trading recipes and advice, although she cautions that it could get tricky if you start weighing up what some produce is worth in terms of time, such as homemade sausages or sushi versus brownies. But "that's simply not the way we think at food swaps," Swift says.
Most food-swap events follow the US outline and last about two hours. All swappers sign in. They mark up their wares to explain exactly what ingredients they contain and what makes them special. Participants window shop, sample and swap recipes for around an hour and then they place their bids. The swappers weigh up their offers and do their swaps. "There's something very connecting about swapping food face to face," says Jewitt. "Usually everyone goes home with a good haul."
A relative newcomer, Laura Goode, of Tunbridge Wells, Kent, organises her own foodie flashmob swap shops and confesses to being amazed by the level of interest spread by social media. To build a sense of anticipation, Goode releases the date on Facebook in advance, but announces the venue only a day before. "I like to keep it simple and encourage less sophisticated home cooks to come in and learn, too, swapping ideas and tips alongside more experienced cooks, then everyone goes home inspired. It is also very satisifying to realise that this is keeping the economy hyper-local in practice and people seem very keen for it to succeed."
Karen Barnes, editor of Delicious magazine, is a great advocate of food swapping, and inspired by a swap with the chef Dhruv Baker ("I made chocolate cake for his ragù") the magazine has started its own food-swapping operation with plans to set up a dedicated website soon. It's also encouraging readers to set up their own regional food swaps on and offline.
"At a time when it's never been more pertinent to preserve resources and avoid wasting food, what better way to do it than by swapping and sharing the good things you've made with friends, neighbours, people in your local area?," says Barnes. "It's a wonderful tradition to make chutney with a glut of fruit, for example, but there are only so many pots of plum, chutney one family can eat... Far better to swap a few jars with someone else's creations and enjoy their glut as well as your own. And why stop at chutney?"
Vanessa Kimbell, author, blogger and cookery school owner of the new and wholly ethical and sustainably driven Juniper and Rose Cookery school near Northampton, runs seasonal food swaps with a slightly different model and a wider aim of social change through delicious ingredients. "If you want people to change the way they think about they food, you need to engage them and have them eat differently," she believes.
Kimbell brings like-minded people together – usually, but not exclusively, food bloggers – who know each other virtually, yet invariably rarely have reason to meet, to raise awareness of particular ethical and sustainable food issues such as Ndali Fairtrade vanilla from Uganda.
For a recent event Kimbell hosted at Fortnum & Mason, she asked everyone to make a dish using the vanilla to swap. Then, there's simply a straightforward pot-luck swap. Inevitably, attendees bond over swapping dishes and recipes and culinary tips. Kimbell say: "it just builds like a delicious spider web and creates a real buzz."
Apples for Eggs
A food-swapping network with events up and down the country. Find out about food swaps near you. Future food swaps include Altrincham (7 July), York (13 July), Henley (13 July) and Ormskirk (28 July)
Home Grown Exchange
Nottingham's own food-swapping community. The next event is World War Two-themed one, taking place on 29 July. A swapping event set for August will include crafts.
Food Swap Network
An international network, co-ordinating food-swapping events mainly in the United States, but including food swaps in Manchester and Aberdeen and elsewhere in Europe. foodswapnetwork.com
Do it yourself
If you want to start your own food-swapping event, contact Apples for Eggs, who can help you get set up and networked. Kate Payne offers tips for first-timers at hipgirlshome.com/foodswaps or join the Food Swap Network (above).