Connecting with what you eat – the importance of eating locally
Six months ago, I was living on a farm in Canada. Most of the food I ate came from the 160 acre piece of land that we farmed; the cows and sheep that were pasture reared and rotated through the fields supplied most of our meat, the jersey cows who lived in the upper pastures gave us raw milk, butter and cheese, the sizeable gardens produced our seasonal vegetables and soft fruit that we ate all summer and preserved for the winter, and the chickens that free ranged around the farm laid beautiful eggs with golden yolks every day.
Returning to the UK and moving to the city was a shock. As well as swapping fields for houses and birdsong for revving engines, suddenly my food came from the store, with little means of knowing where it came from. Even in the local organic food shop, I realised I felt disconnected from my food; I didn’t know where the carrots came from, how the chickens that laid the eggs were cared for or what breed of cow I was eating.
I decided that I wanted to know; I want that connection with the food I eat and the people who produce it. I started looking into the local producers and was surprised by how many there were in and around Bristol. I decided to go one step further and set out to meet the producers, and find out what they are doing and why. I wanted to see the fields that produced my vegetables, meet the cows who gave me my milk, and build a connection with those farms and the farmers working there.
I started a website called The Locavore, documenting the different farmers and producers I’m meeting, and will be adding to it as my journey in eating locally continues. I’m not saying that everyone should go out and meet their farmers (for a start that would leave the farmers with little time to actually produce food), but I wanted to share my experiences and help people to realise that there’s a face and a story behind everything you eat.
One of my main motivations to form that connection is that my farming experience taught me very quickly that you can’t trust a label. Food produced beyond organic principles may not be accredited, and likewise ‘organic’ produce can still be produced in large monoculture crops or less than ideal animal welfare scenarios. It’s a difficult task as a consumer to differentiate and be able to discern the provenance of the food we eat purely from packaging and marketing materials; in reality the only way to know is to have a relationship with the farmer or producer of your food.
A great example of this is the first farm I visited, The Severn Project. The farm is based in south Bristol, surrounded by houses and opposite a large Asda; hardly your average farm environment. They aren’t accredited as organic, but walking around the site with Steve, I learnt that their main obstacle to this is that their sites are temporary use, making accreditation impractical. Talking to him further, I learnt how serious he is about their growing principles, as well as the social impact of the farm (which works with people recovering from addictions). Now when I tuck into a bag of their tasty salad mix, regardless of what the packaging says, I know that I’m eating something healthy and produced with love and care, as well as supporting an inspiring local social enterprise.
I’m not limiting myself to only eating local food either; there’s a lot of wonderful food available around the world, and I believe there’s a way to incorporate global ingredients and flavours in our diet in a sustainable way. I’m focusing more on seeing what ingredients are available locally, and aiming to source these from local producers rather than further afield. This is easier when buying produce direct from farms, but if buying food that is processed or produced by someone else, it can be interesting to find out where they source their ingredients from.
My second visit was to the East Bristol Bakery, where I learnt about the impact of British wheat on a loaf of bread. Most bread flour is imported from Canada or the USA, where the higher protein content brought about by the longer sunlight hours leads to a lighter and fluffier loaf. However, alongside their other beautiful loaves, they’ve decided to sell a 100% British loaf. Inspired by a bike trip the founder Alex took from Cornwall to Bristol, sourcing the ingredients for a loaf of bread (“The Connected Loaf” as he calls it), it was initially a one week special. Now a permanent fixture on their menu, it’s definitely my favourite loaf with a wonderfully dense texture, and connecting me further up the chain to the local mill and grain producers too.
Next I’ll be heading to the neighbourhood brewery and a farm that makes award winning cheese. You can read about my ongoing adventures in my monthly posts on Indie Farmer, and follow me over at The Locavore (http://www.thelocavore.co.uk/) for the in-depth features.