Leeds’ green and pleasant lands…
Phoebe Ryan, the Leeds based writer behind food blog, The Edible Woman, gives Leeds Welcome her insider opinion on keeping an allotment and emerging food sourcing trends.
My dad had an allotment when I was growing up. Lots of our meals had allotment produce woven into them. Only ten minutes walk from our house, it was a patch of land to cultivate, where you were surrounded by like-minded people growing fruits, veg and flowers.
I hated it. Come rain or shine, Dad would troop me up there, a grumpy kid pushing a wheelbarrow full of spades and forks and hoes, to weed, pick and sulk. In my pre-teen head there could not have been a more awful use of a weekend.
Two months ago, I went and got myself an allotment. Like, I genuinely paid for the pleasure of digging, picking, weeding and avoiding spiders. Apparently I’ve changed a lot.
But it isn’t just me whose attitude has changed. Suddenly the whole UK food scene seems to buzz with “provenance”, “local”, “organic”, “food miles”, “free-range”, “hand-grown”…we care! To eat tasty pork a nice, happy, snorting, pink pig has to die, and we care where and how it lived its life. Studies have shown that well-reared animals are tastier (as well as making us feel less guilty for having munched him up. Sorry pig).
Instead of squeamishly avoiding anything that looks like an animal and buying the cheapest produce we can, restaurants and consumers alike are opting for best-quality animals, forgotten cuts of meat, and resurrecting heritage varieties of fruits and vegetables with emphasis on supporting growing in England. We seem to be shrugging off the convenience-driven, canned, long-life attitude that England has suffered from for the last fifty years. Those mammoth, industrialised processes all seem a bit suspicious, inhuman and disconnected. We want to know the reality of what we eat.
This food “trend” can have its downsides though. I spoke to Richard, Sous Chef of Le Cochon Aveugle in York and chef behind the successful Gorse pop-up at Mrs Atha’s during Leeds Indie Food festival:
“I am very much behind the idea that you need to start with good ingredients to get good food. I think in a good restaurant in this day and age that should be a given. Provenance is intrinsic to the chef’s role now, not an extension of it as perceived in the past.”
Our interest in sourcing has created a generation of consumers for whom choosing organic, or free-range, or local, is aspirational. But this tendency to be more interested in provenance can make us gullible consumers. Take the sorts of marketing that says eggs are from cheerful hens, or pork is made from pampered pigs. Though some of these companies will be doing their best to provide the best in animal welfare standards, some are merely tapping into the sudden market for “friendly farming”. Locality is a more nuanced problem too – would we insist that our restaurants don’t use lemons because they’re not grown in England?
“Coming back to locality…this is maybe the trickiest of all. I remember when I was working in London in a restaurant that used 90% produce from France and Italy and a customer complained to the chef about the food miles on the products, yet he had driven on his own from County Durham just to eat at the restaurant.”
Good point, Richard. Not every food choice is black and white. One thing is for certain though – if you’ve grown what you eat, you know every stage of the process!
Back to my allotment. We are far from self-sufficient (I don’t know anyone who lives on nettles and bindweed, if you do, give them my number). But amongst all of the crap are the tendrils of bramble, covered with shining, plump berries (we had loganberries and raspberries as well as blackberries, if you want me to show off…) Under a shoulder-height jungle of nettles we discovered bushes covered with jewel-bright red- and blackcurrants and dessert gooseberries, and towering over everything is a plum tree which looks positively exhausted by the weight of fruit on it. I mean, if a punnet of raspberries is £2, and a punnet of plums is the same, think how much fruit we’re getting for free (…ish)?!
Everyone has the right to ask for an allotment – land was made available after the First World War so families could feed themselves. They’re priced between £25-£100 per year. If you’ve always wanted to grow stuff, take the leap now – whilst spending your Sunday digging is almost a cool thing to do.
I haven’t mentioned weeding yet have I. Yeah. Weeding is rubbish.