It’s the middle of February and the skies are a dark gray, a grim winter bleakness hangs over the city. Walking up to my favorite stand at the Saturday market, however, the table is popping with colors. Dark red beets, bright orange carrots, purple cabbage, the tips of leeks a bright green, their bulbs pure white with scraggly roots, almost like whiskers. The produce on the table in front of me is a joy to look at.
It’s a joy to eat, too. Even in the middle of winter there’s plenty of bounty. You just have to open your eyes to look for it.
Winter produce gets a bad name, probably because it’s so mundane. Root vegetables upon root vegetables upon root vegetables. But we were meant to eat in season; if there’s anything unnatural about how we eat nowadays it’s that we can get tomatoes and raspberries in March, even when we live in the Northern Hemisphere.
In the last few weeks I’ve been on hyperalert for all these non-winter foods. I’ve just seen one too many photographs of yogurt bowls with raspberries and blueberries—fresh ones, not frozen ones. Then I saw someone post a photo of strawberries in a colander that the photographer was rinsing to make a cake. The cake was of course beautiful, but it was one out-of-season fruit too many, and it sent me over the edge. I wanted to scream out “It’s WINTER, people, COME ON!”
But it’s better not to pass too much judgment. How and what we eat is an evolving thing. Our favorite foods may change from one year to the next, and if you think back to your average grocery list a few years ago, chances are your choices have evolved. There was a time when I, too, bought strawberries out of season, and nowadays I cringe at the thought.
When it comes to what we eat, we’re influenced not just by our personal tastes, but by our friends, food and diet trends, and the media. Eating might be a simple act, but how we navigate around it certainly isn’t. Do we buy this or that? Do we avoid one ingredient or another? Does this product have negative health effects? What about that one over there?
We talk a lot about eating in season, and eating locally, but as my mother has written on the wall above the stove, “Talk does not cook rice.” It’s one thing to talk about things, it’s another to do them.
So I decided that instead of screaming out, I would look into what I was eating. For one week, I would commit to eating in season.
But what does that even mean? Technically, tomatoes are in season in Australia right now, but that doesn’t mean that I should eat them. And it’s important to note that we can’t talk about eating seasonally without talking about eating locally. Eating “in season” means eating what’s in season wherever you live.
So what does eating locally mean? Do you choose a 100-mile radius from which your food has to come from? Is local just from the city you live in? Or the state? Or the country?
For my own sanity, I decided that I would be strict about buying as local as possible for fresh produce, but that dry goods might need to come from a bit further away, because of what was available. And also what was already in my pantry.
I’ll stop here and say that I live in Paris. I have the advantage of being part of what in France is called an AMAP (essentially a CSA) and every Monday our farmer Manu drives in from his farm just north of Paris and gives us our vegetables, and often fruit. I can be sure that those are local and in season, and I don’t have to give my vegetable consumption a second thought. If Manu brings carrots and potatoes, then I have to figure out what to do with them. There’s also the local Saturday market, which has a handful of local producers, including my egg lady, the honey guy, the cheese people, and a bakery stand where they sell flour that they mill themselves, with grains sourced from local producers. This is what I consider to be luxury.
But what feels like a luxury to me is simply what used to be normal; we didn’t always live in an era of supermarkets where we could buy anything we wanted at any point in time. We didn’t look at at a recipe and then source what we needed; we used what we had and then figured out how we could turn it all into a dish. For centuries we were obligated to respect seasons and ingredients that came from afar reflected the distance in their prices. If it didn’t come from your backyard garden or the farm down the road, then you weren’t eating it.
That being said, we have been globally trading goods for centuries. Exotic spices have been a part of the culinary repertoire for quite some time. What has changed is the speed and the mass in which we trade these goods, making it impossible for us to not think about the footprint of the products that seem so normal in our regular diets.
Coffee is one of those products, and as a journalist who writes about coffee, it’s hard for me to give it up for a week, both for personal (hello, I love coffee in the morning!) and professional (I had a few interviews with people in the industry, and if you’re interviewing a coffee person, you’re probably drinking a coffee with them) reasons. Because coffee is one of the products “from afar” that is a part of my everyday, I focus on buying quality beans from roasters that believe in investing in an ethical product. That’s why I don’t mind paying more for my cup; it’s not a more expensive cup, it’s a more responsibly priced cup.
Coffee wasn’t the only thing that I noted creeped into my “in season, local” diet during the week. On the first night of my experiment we had people over for dinner. I made an onion flatbread (onions from the CSA) with buckwheat flour (milled locally). Carrots were roasted with garlic and blended into a soup. The cumin powder I used to spice it was obviously not local, nor the black pepper. For dessert I had made chocolate tarts. An almond crust (honey and almonds from Spain, ugh, I was starting to stretch the “local” definition), filled with chocolate ganache. Chocolate is certainly not local, and neither were the dried figs that I added in as well.
The week went on in a similar fashion. I found that for main dishes, eating in season and locally wasn’t that hard, as long as I accepted that there would be a lot of root vegetables. My regular diet is made up of mostly fresh produce and whole grains, all of which I am able to ensure do not come from the other side of the planet. Dishes from the week included beet and carrot fritters with goat yogurt shallot sauce, salad with pears and mustard vinaigrette, a potato and turnip pizza on buckwheat crust, and warm millet salad with potatoes and shallots.
But all the other ingredients were a different story. I keep a lot of dried fruit on hand for adding to food and to bake with. I looked in the pantry. The figs were from Turkey, the raisins I wasn’t sure. And while the hazelnuts sitting in the big glass jar were from France (and I had paid extra for it), the almonds were from Spain, although that seemed like a more ethical choice than the ones that were available at the market and hailed from California. Why there are Californian almonds sold in Europe in the midst of a severe drought is beyond me.
During the week, I had to test a couple of recipes for my book The Culinary Cyclist, which is getting re-released this fall. One of my most longstanding recipes, and one of my favorites is the Quinoa Apple Spice Cake. Since publishing that book almost two years ago, though, I’ve changed my ways. Olive oil for coconut oil, because it’s more locally available, and honey for sugar, because the bees live nearby. Like I said, how we approach food is constantly evolving. But this recipe had to be made as it was, and there wasn’t any sugar left in my pantry, and while quinoa used to be a big part of my diet, I’ve weaned it out, so there wasn’t any of that on hand to test with, either. So I walked to the organic food store to get my required ingredients.
I walked out: Brazil in one hand, Bolivia in the other. I felt defeated.
But I had triumphs in the week as well. Instead of buying dried apricots (again, Turkey) for a recipe I was making, I decided to dry apples in the oven as a replacement. Turns out it’s way easier than you think. One step closer to a more local kitchen.
The week was a reminder that if we want to eat in season and more locally, we have to make a concerted effort, because the system isn’t in place to make shopping locally easy for us. The system is globalized, and sometimes it’s easier to get an apple from New Zealand than it is to get one from 60 miles down the road. If we want to be more conscious, we really do have to look at every single label.
But we also have to pick our battles. I won’t fight coffee, for example; my response is to make sure I buy good stuff, so the producer on the other side of the world is making a fair wage.
What I do know, however, is that we shouldn’t be making strawberry cakes in the middle of winter, or dumping goji berries into chia seed coconut pudding on an everyday basis. Ingredients and products from far away shouldn’t be staples; they should be occasional treats. There are plenty of options in our backyards, no matter where we live. And sure, in the Northern Hemisphere, winter produce can easily get you down—I take a look at that bag of potatoes and want to scream—but it means that once spring rolls around and some of those produce items that you have been longing for become available, they taste so much better because you waited for them.
One thing is sure when it comes to our personal health, and that of the community and the planet: the best thing we can eat is real food. All the better if as much of that food as possible comes from nearby.
Anna Brones is the author of The Culinary Cyclist and Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break and runs Foodie Underground, a site about real food for real people. Wherever she is in the world, she can often be found riding a bicycle in search of excellent coffee.