Asparagus in winter?
- Credit: Archant
Naomi Mead looks at the importance of eating with the seasons
When deciding what to cook for dinner last night, I wonder just how many of us considered what foods are currently in season? Then again, why would we need to, considering supermarkets offer ‘convenience’ by providing us with the same fruit and vegetables the whole year round? Thanks (or debatably not) to modern food processing methods and a global distribution network – whether it’s spring, summer, autumn or winter – the produce aisles in our trusty supermarkets remain largely unchanged. The British asparagus season is only about eight weeks long (starting in the UK from the end of April), but we can (and perhaps did) have asparagus with our Christmas dinner if we so chose! But is this really such a good thing? The over-packaged, over-travelled, under-sized asparagus stalks we can buy in November, air-freighted from Chile, are not even comparable in quality (and yet double the price) to the fresh green spears wrapped in brown paper that we can buy at our local farmers’ market in May.
When crops are transported, they are harvested early and kept refrigerated so they don’t go rotten during this transit period. As a consequence, they may not ripen as effectively as they do in their natural environment, and this almost certainly impacts on flavour. Further to this, many out of season fruit and vegetables rely on chemicals, preservatives and waxes to make them look aesthetically pleasing; and that’s before we’ve even considered the impact on nutritional value. Seasonal produce picked and eaten at its peak is higher in vitamins, minerals and health-boosting antioxidants than those fruit and vegetables harvested before ripening and transported halfway around the world. As one example, spinach and green beans lose two-thirds of their vitamin C within a week of harvest, according to the University of California.
Pile onto this the many environmental benefits, and the added incentive that it makes financial sense to eat seasonally (fruit and vegetables are, as a rule, sold more cheaply when there is a glut), and we have a very strong case for eating in a way that nature intended. With all of this in mind, here are some top tips for eating from field to fork -
Shop at your local farmers’ market for the freshest, seasonal produce grown on your doorstep. Even if you can’t go every week, by visiting a market once a month you can gain an awareness of what produce is in season, so you know what to look for in the supermarket. Once armed with this knowledge do still be vigilant and check the labels in the supermarket – I have unintentionally picked up Spanish tomatoes at the peak of British tomato season. You can also visit websites such as www.eattheseasons.co.uk for monthly lists of what produce is in season, and from where it’s sourced.
Get an organic vegetable box delivered to your doorstep every week, http://vegbox-recipes.co.uk/veg-boxes/find-a-box-scheme and enjoy produce sourced from local farms. These box schemes select the best of the latest seasonal crops for you, and this way you get a greater variety of produce than you may normally choose for yourself; broadening your intake of a much wider spectrum of vitamins and phytonutrients. It is this variety that has been shown to be of utmost importance for good health.
Grow your own produce. This really is the ‘gold standard’ of seasonal eating as you can quite literally get from field to fork within the hour! Not practical for everyone, but if you have even a small outside space then take full advantage. Potatoes and tomatoes are both very easy to plant and maintain, and even if you only have a windowsill to work with, you can grow chillies and fresh herbs!
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Use colour as your guide. You will notice that fruit and vegetables in the peak of their season have a wonderful vibrancy about them. The brighter the colour, and the more colours you have on your plate, the greater the variety of nutrients you are getting from your produce. The redder a red tomato is, for example, the more immune-boosting beta-carotene it contains. Same rule applies for peppers; as the pepper progresses from green to red, it gains 11 times more beta-carotene and over double the amount of vitamin C. Eat a rainbow, and make sure it’s a bright one!
Stock up the freezer with seasonal fruit and vegetables. Whilst not quite as nutritionally tip-top as fresh produce, this is still a better alternative to fruit and vegetables that have been picked before ripening and then sat in storage for days, even weeks, on end. I will always remember going to my grandparents’ house and their freezer being filled to the brim with gooseberries, redcurrants and broad beans freshly picked from the garden, and as with so many aspects of food and diet, our grandparents had it spot on!
Naomi Mead is a Cheltenham-based registered nutritional therapist at Food First,
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