I love Autumn! I love the colours. I love feeling the last breath of summer’s warmth being gently ushered along by gusts of wind hinting at winter’s icy chill.
I also love celebrating the harvest. Don’t get me wrong here, I am not one for pottering in the garden and I struggle to keep plants alive for a full year, but I do enjoy celebrating at harvest time.
As a child we would be asked to take a tin of soup or something into school for the harvest festival. All the tins were then collected together, nicely displayed during an assembly, and then distributed to people in the community who were most in need – the food banks of the 90’s! As a kid I didn’t know or care about the harvest festival. I didn’t even know it was anything to do with farming, to me it was just an annual event where I had to raid the cupboard for a tin of beans. Eventually I questioned what people did before tins were invented and that’s when I discovered the harvest festival was all about celebrating all that nature has given us.
Once upon a time men would gather in the crops and the women would preserve those crops in order to sustain the family through the forthcoming Winter. The Harvest Festival celebrates this ritual – all the hard work of toiling in both the fields and the kitchen comes to a close with everyone enjoying a lovely ploughmans meal, a sheaf loaf and a drink or 2 to rejoice and give thanks for successful harvest.
In that same tradition, this time last year I was gathering up the last fruits of the year and preserving them ready for Winter. I had such an overwhelming sense of being at one with nature – making the most of Summer’s abundance to sustain us through the next season.
This year was a very different story though. The unusual heat that we experienced here in Britain this spring/summer meant that all the fruit I normally gather up had fully ripened by early July which meant no August jam making for me. In fact I didn’t get to preserve anything this year for Winter. Luckily, in this day and age we don’t need to spend Autumn preparing for Winter. Eating seasonally can be reduced to nothing more than another hipster trend that allows gourmet restaurants to charge way over the odds, and the closest most people get to pulling a root vegetable from the ground is washing the dirt off a carrot they bought at the supermarket. And that’s the point – supermarkets allow us to buy the fruits of someone else’s labour. We never have to worry about not having enough food for winter because we can just go out and buy the same ingredients week in and week out any time of the year. It doesn’t matter what season it is, food is grown all over the world and shipped over so we can enjoy things like asparagus in January and strawberries in February if we want to.
I wasn’t able to gather up and preserve anything this year and I’m sorry to say but a lot of farmers took a much bigger hit than that this year as well. Many crops failed entirely and almost all farmers suffered heavy losses. This year more than ever we’re going to be thankful that the supermarkets are able to import food from overseas.
Therein is the dilemma. Supermarkets squeeze producers as much as possible to bring us cheap food year-round, shipping food all over the world thus contributing massively to climate change. However, as a result of climate change we’re having to rely on those same supermarkets (rather than local farm shops for example) to see us through winter at an affordable price.
I’m not trying to suggest supermarkets are the sole cause of climate change here. The modern lifestyle is largely to blame and our reliance on cheap produce from overseas rather than growing our own is just one contributing factor. Did you know that the old council houses (built before the 1980’s) used to be quite small but have relatively large gardens becsuse they expected the tenents to be self-sufficient?! The gardens were divided into 3 sections where crops could be grown, livestock (such as a pig) could be kept and I forget what the 3rd section was intended for now but it doesn’t really matter because of course almost no one did plant any fruit and veg in their gardens (or keep any livestock), instead they mostly became large areas for the kids to play in which is why later builds tended to have MUCH smaller gardens, if at all.
I’m not expecting anyone to suddenly rush out with a spade to start planting some potatoes here, instead I would urge everyone to try and shop local where possible. By all means get digging if that’s your thing though. Is eating seasonally really so bad if it means the food we’re about to tuck into has a lower carbon footprint? Buying direct from a local farm shop or green grocers means you’re unlikely to encounter fruit and veg encased in plastic packaging and you’ll be able to pick from the whole crop, not just the ones that conform to a certain shape or size. One of the bug supermarkets here is currently running an advert boasting about buying the whole crop by creating the “wonky” range – it’s good that they’re not just leaving the ones that don’t make the grade to go to waste, but they’ve wrapped them all in plastic and labelled it as “wonky”. How about buying the whole crop the farmer and selling the whole lot loose?! Let’s stop the vegetation-based apartheid, ditch the plastic, and just let consumers pick their own quantity!
Supermarkets have also recently been advertising their willingness to let you bring your own container into the store… like I said we should be doing in a previous post. Don’t wait for a shop to give you permission to use your own container instead of them giving you a disposable one – just take one with you and ask if they’re okay with it. I’ve been taking my own containers everywhere for a couple of years now and have never encountered anyone unwilling to fill mine instead of their own.
The one harvest ritual I did manage to fulfil this year was the sheaf loaf. I fully intended to take a photo but, in this house we love digging in to bread fresh from the oven and so, on this occasion we had already devoured half the loaf before I thought about taking a pic. I normally bake bread every few days so you think we’d be over the fresh from the oven novelty by now, but no!
One day my little one is going to have a great time getting his hands dirty kneading and shaping the dough with me, and I just can’t wait to be able to share the full harvest tradition with him – the preserving fresh fruit and vegetables ready for winter one, not the taking a tin of soup to school one.