This is Bury St Edmunds street market, a picture taken last February. The produce looks delicious, just what we should be aspiring to: fresh, healthy, lots of choice. What could possibly be better than this? But something is very wrong.
Look again and you will see that an awful lot of this produce is out of season. It’s early February, when Seville oranges (bottom right) are coming in from Southern Spain for our much-loved marmalade. That’s okay, because they have not travelled very far and they don’t need polytunnels – and anyway, local people in Seville don’t like them. In the middle of the picture, you can see Cox apples. That’s definitely okay, unless they come from New Zealand, because our local apples will store right through until March. Wet walnuts, probably from France, although they grow well in this country – also okay.
But apricots and raspberries? These are perishable stuff and they are only in season here and in Europe in high summer. Either they need a huge amount of heat to grow out of season here or they have come from the far side of the world by air freight.
They are on offer in the market because that is what people in this country want. We’ve forgotten the excitement of eating seasonally, looking forward to different things as they come into the shops. Quite a lot of us don’t even know what should be in season, because street markets now have to follow what the supermarkets do. (There’s a great website called Eat the Seasons if ever you wonder what should be in season right now.)
I was surprised – and impressed – to see a very different story in central France last month, where I was staying with friends.
This is Limoges market, where almost everything is produced locally – all right, not the pineapples – but most things, including dairy produce. All the milk and butter sold locally comes from the Limoges dairy, which collects milk from local farms. The cattle in the fields are hardy native breeds that stay outside all year, and they get to keep their calves with them. The bread is made from local grain, locally milled.
Of course there was an enormous hypermarket nearby, but the local shops do very well. There’s no death-by-Tesco here. I asked my friends why that was. “People like to eat seasonally. The shops only sell local produce because that’s what local people want. If we Brits want something exotic right now – say, a melon – we’ll have to go to Carrefour.”
We've got a long way to go before we can get back to the Limoges approach to food production and shopping. Most people in Norwich shop in the supermarkets, because it's convenient and it appears to be cheap. They also shop there because they don't know what to buy. According to the Daily Mail this week, people don't know what to cook either - most mums have a repertoire of just nine recipes that they turn out all the time, with no reference to the seasons. Top of the list is spag bol, followed by roast dinner and shepherd's pie - not exactly a resilient choice.
But things are getting better back home, in spite of the dominance of the supermarkets. Lots of us support farmers’ markets and have veggie boxes and are rediscovering good local food – and there are even new traditions emerging. I was listening to the food programme on the radio the other day, when they were talking about rescuing traditional farmhouse cheeses from oblivion. There’s definitely a mood of change for the better. On the cheese counter in Norwich market they told me that there is enormous interest in local cheeses; year-on-year they are outselling all their other cheeses put together.
And here in our very own market there are some interesting signs of resilience, in spite of steady decline for decades. There's been a market here for almost a thousand years. As recently as the 1970s three-quarters of the stalls sold fruit and veg, mostly produced from market gardens locally; now there are only four still trading. But in the last couple of years some new food stalls have opened up: Oriental (two), Hungarian and the latest, Portuguese/Brazilian; this new generation of Strangers is buying local produce alongside their much-loved traditional food.
And what about you, dear fellow Transitioners? Where do you buy your food? Do you support local producers and do you regularly cook more than nine recipes? If you do, we'd love to add your recipes to our Low Carbon Cookbook.
Pix: Street market, Bury St Edmunds (February 2008)
Covered market, Limoges (October 2009)
Norwich market (December 2007)