Lessons Learned

Apologies for the delay – I’d promised a number of you a summary of things I’d learned during my month of only eating and drinking produce from a 50 mile radius. So, in no particular order:

  • Despite my previous cynicism that growing herbs on a window sill really wasn’t going to make a big difference in the reaction to climate change and peak oil, I am now converted to their value. A month without being able to use many spices (other than garden grown fennel and coriander seeds, and a couple of chillies swapped at the farmers’ market) proved their worth in being able to turn a fairly bland meal into something much more tasty. I have parsley, rosemary, sage, basil, fennel, chives, marjoram, thyme and mint in my garden, but will grow more in quantity and variety next year.
  • Following on from that, if we are to take eating local food more seriously, we need to encourage gardeners and farmers to grow a wider range of herbs and spices.
  • Equally, as good flavoured food is important, making stock became increasingly essential as the month developed. With no access to stock cubes etc, I found I was using stray vegetables, herbs, fish and meat bones more than before, and trying to remember to make stock regularly as it’s too late once you’re half way through a recipe.
  • It may sound obvious, but it became increasingly clear why the traditional British diet has evolved as it has. It would have been easy to have eaten bacon and eggs everyday for breakfast, a cheese sandwich at lunch, a casserole in the evening eg Lancashire hot-pot, and a roast lunch and fruit crumble on Sundays. ‘Fusion’ food was not possible. However, as we’re now used to using different ingredients and combinations, I think it gives us the opportunities to be more experimental and creative with both recipes and what we grow.
  • Drinks were one of my biggest challenges, particularly hot drinks. I kicked the physical caffeine habit very early on and without too much pain, but it was the social habit of putting the kettle on after coming home or being able to meet friends during the day somewhere that was more difficult. It also felt rude not being able to accept people’s hospitality, or feeling that they were going out of their way to meet my needs. As much as I enjoy mint teas and cider, it was fantastic to be able to drink white wine, and to be honest the coffee, red wine and local beer which I’ve drunk since the challenge has finished have been very enjoyable…  
  • There is a danger that having only bread and potatoes as the available carbohydrates could become a little monotonous unless used imaginatively. We’re very used to greater variety eg rice, breakfast cereals, polenta, pasta.
  • In different parts of the UK even bread will be an issue, as most bread flour is grown in eastern England. The only locally grown and milled flour I could find was spelt, which I loved, but it has its limitations, AND isn’t widely grown or sold. What is available is beautifully marketed and sold in the higher price range, so I would suggest that it needs to be more mainstream and commercially available. As it was my mainstay for bread, sauces, porridge, pasta and a version of risotto, and is apparently very nutritious, we need to be more accepting and encouraging of unusual varieties of food products that have become homogenised or taken for granted (eg rape seed oil instead of olive oil).
  • I ate and drank more cheese, butter, bread, potatoes, honey, cider and apple juice than normal, but consumed less milk (no coffee, tea or muesli…) and no sugar.
  • It seems madness that I could easily eat locally for a month, yet my chickens can only eat manufactured chicken pellets, all of which contain imported soya. If anyone knows of a brand that doesn’t contain imported food I’d love to know. A commonsense approach to using kitchen scraps I’m sure would be welcomed as well.
  • Clearly I was eating more regional food (eg cheese and cider), and Somerset is a great place for dairy, meat and vegetables. It also is fairly obvious I was eating more seasonal food (apples, last of the tomatoes, courgettes, plums, cob nuts, sweet corn, squashes and pumpkins) but there were a few surprises eg it was almost impossible to get onions as the commercial growers had harvested them and the onions were all in store drying. Equally I couldn’t always get apple juice as producers had run out of last year’s supply but hadn’t pressed this year’s crop. Obvious once you think about it, but for continuity the implications need to be thought through either for people growing their own, or for farmers growing a different variety that crops earlier.   
  • Without question, through both necessity and choice, food was less processed as I was using the raw ingredients rather than something pre-made eg sauces, bread, pies. This has implications for people’s time, manufacturers and supermarkets who will need to rethink their approach to convenience food and ready meals.
  • Going out for a meal proved almost impossible. Even where pubs or restaurants source and serve local food, cooking an entire meal is not easy with flour, spices, wine all being too easy to add without thought.  
  • The only local products things I could buy from supermarkets were cider, cheese, butter and milk. So basically all my shopping was from small retailers, farm shops and farmers’ markets, with produce from the garden and friends. The exception was Somerset Food Direct – an online delivery service. I can understand the logistics of supermarkets not wanting to deal with hundreds of small suppliers, or large suppliers (eg our local mushroom grower) not wanting to deliver to small family run shops, but in the long run as transport costs increase, distribution systems will need to be looked at to avoid either shoppers and/or small scale producers all making more short journeys. The majority of people buy the majority of their food at supermarkets – we will need to be able to buy more than cider and dairy products when transport costs affect availability.
  • Food is an easier and more immediate way to tackle the big issues of Peak Oil and Climate Change for most people, rather than the seemingly distant, scary and ‘there’s nothing I can do about it as an individual’  feeling when talking about world problems.   
  • I was often asked if it was more expensive buying locally – some things aren’t going to be as cheap as buying mass-produced products made from food bought cheaply from farmers in developing countries, but on one hand those arguments will fade away as transport and fertiliser costs rise, and on the other hand I was able to buy a greater range of cheaper meat cuts that aren’t sold at supermarkets. The quality of meat was also superb AND it was a much more pleasurable and human experience buying food from people who had grown or farmed it themselves, rather than from an anonymous conveyor belt in a supermarket.
  • It was great to find new producers (cheese, wine, milk, butter for example) who are too small to sell to supermarkets but sell excellent and more individual food.
  • We need to grow more locally – as individuals with gardens or window boxes, and as a region on our farms. It was OK for me to eat locally for a month but if 10% of the population were doing it, or through necessity the majority of the population, then I think we’d find there wasn’t enough. As a country we import 60% of our food. It’s not difficult to see the problem as transport and production costs increase.
  • We not only need to grow more food, we need to plan for continuity and variety. The ‘hungry gap’ in March – May is fairly well understood, but even in September, the month of harvests, I was wishing I’d known about the challenge earlier in the year and had been able to plant different things in the garden or freeze food either for convenience or necessity. I would also have benefitted from a green house from the point of view of variety (peppers, aubergines, cucumbers etc would have added to my diet), lengthening the season, and maybe as a slug/caterpillar prevention.  
  • Sugar – despite sugar beet being grown in Somerset, there is no local sugar produced and marketed as such: perhaps farmers would like to take up the opportunity?
  • Not being able to pop out to a supermarket meant that I had to plan better. Some products eg bacon, sheeps cheese, were only available at farmers’ markets, which in Clevedon are monthly. I know it’s my fault that I was away for the market in August, but it highlighted the problem in a very practical way. I’d become to reliant on having whatever I wanted whenever I wanted it, rather than planning or doing without.
  • With hindsight, I think my shopping and cooking habits were probably already edging towards local food. For people who shop predominantly at supermarkets and rely on ready meals, the transition would have possibly been much more traumatic, eye-opening and difficult. Convincing people to behave differently, even cooking one meal a month with local ingredients, or even using one local ingredient, isn’t going to be easy. 
  • Most importantly and pleasingly, the concept that local food grows better communities seemed to be right. I was very touched by the number of people who were interested in the challenge, strangers who sponsored me, and friends and neighbours who gave home-grown food and much appreciated support. Community spirit is alive and well. Thank you.
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