A few years ago I remember reading somewhere about a group of people in Italy who are dedicated to eating locally produced food. It was my introduction to locavores and the idea that it’s just as important to think about how far food has travelled to get to my plate as it is to think about how it has been produced.
Throughout my lifetime, the range of fresh fruits and vegetables available in shops has increased substantially and I’ve grown accustomed to seeing foods from all over the world at just about any time of the year. Every region of the globe has indigenous foods and along with that, a particular cuisine. I’ve grown to enjoy that variety as a regular part of my diet, yet when growing up in Northern New Brunswick, with the exception of bananas, oranges and dried fruits, I was pretty much a locavore.
Apples in Abundance
For fruit, we had apples and plenty of them. Not only are there lots of apple varieties cultivated in Canada, but as kids, we were always eating apples picked from a tree stumbled upon during an afternoon adventure. Yes, they were wild and often tart, but we ate them anyway.
Blackberry Picking With Bears
And when they were in season, we had all the strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, and blackberries we could eat. Especially blackberries. But rather than buying them in shops in protective, plastic containers, we picked them in the wild, filling plastic pails.
I remember picking blackberries along the Renous highway – a long stretch of gravel road running through dense, spruce forest in Northern New Brunswick. We were headed for the Gaspe on a camping trip. It was an isolated stretch of road, and we might have seen one or two other cars on the whole journey.
But the side of the road was loaded with wild food, both animal and vegetable, and anytime Dad saw berries, we’d stop to pick. Mother was always terrified a bear would come out of the bushes and maul us to death. She’d stay in the car while we’d get out, plastic pails over our arms; the tempting fruit outweighing any fear of bears. One time we did see a bear! Our fingers stained purple, pails partly filled, we clambered back into the safety of the car, leaving plenty of berries for the hungry bear.
On the vegetable side, as we lived in a potato farming region there was an abundance of potatoes. In the summer, for salads we’d get cucumbers, radish, celery, a few tomatoes and occasionally something other than iceberg lettuce.
For hot meals we had green peas, and green and yellow string beans. Now and then a zucchini grown in a friend’s garden would turn up. In the fall, turnips and beets, carrots, squash, pumpkin and sometimes parsnips. But throughout the winter, other than root vegetables, it was mostly frozen peas and green beans, summer’s bounty packaged by the local McCain Foods.
But when they were in season, we did have fiddleheads, new ferns shoots, picked as they poked through the ground before having a chance to unfurl. Delicious steamed, slathered with butter and a drizzle of brown vinegar. We went out into the woods to pick the fiddle heads, or someone would come selling them door-to-door for mere pennies. I’ve only once or twice seen them in shops outside New Brunswick. And they weren’t cheap!
Family and Friends Introduce Exotic Fruit
By the time I left home and moved to the city, there was more variety in the shops, a lot of it imported, but still quite seasonal. When I was living in Ottawa, my brother Tom came for a visit and told me about kiwi.
He’d been living in Vancouver where he’d eaten it for the first time. I’d never had kiwi, and had never even seen it! He described a fuzzy, brown, sort of egg-shaped fruit. Inside that fuzz, a sweet, soft, green flesh with little black seeds and a white, star-shaped centre. “You have to try it!’ he said, and went looking for it in Ottawa shops, but couldn’t find any – out of season.
Native to China, it’s grown commercially in many other countries and Italy is now the world’s leading kiwi producer. It’s in our supermarkets year round. Out of season, it’s usually hard as bullets, and often won’t ripen well at home. Hardly worth buying. I wonder what it tastes like picked wild in China?
Mango is another imported fruit now commonly available in our shops, yet I didn’t see my first mango till I was about 30! A man I was dating turned up at my flat one evening, his eyes full of mischief.
“Look what I have!” he crooned, as he held out a big, fat, yellow-orange-red fruit.
“You don’t know what that is!” He exclaimed. “Mango. Have you never had mango?”
He then proceeded to cut it up and feed it to me; the sweet, sticky juice running down my chin, him licking it off, giving me a sensuous first-mango memory!
We’ve come to take mango for granted here in the north, yet it’s grown in tropical and sub-tropical climates and loses lots of its flavor traveling from tropical tree to northern table. In Spain, I got to try some with much lower mileage. What a difference! Juicier, fleshier, sweeter – my old boyfriend would certainly enjoy them!
Cherimoyas in Spain
A fruit I never saw until I went to Spain is cherimoya. When I first moved there a woman from Amsterdam introduced me to it.
“Whenever I come here I buy these,” she said, talking between mouthfuls, her words coming out as she spit out the pips.
She was standing at the kitchen counter eating them one after the other. She’d only just arrived and had gone straight to the shop where she’d bought about a dozen.
“What’s that?” I asked, eyeing the odd-looking, olive-green, avocado-shaped fruit – its skin patterned with raised hexagons.
“Cherimoya! I love them. Can’t get them at home, and if we do they’re really expensive. Here, try one.”
I copied her eating style, spooning out the flesh and slurping the sweet, juicy fruit off the hard, black pips, then spitting them out in a stream.
I was sold and cherimoya became a staple in my Spanish diet. I haven’t seen any since I left Spain! Pity!
In Hungary, vine-ripened tomatoes were in abundance, as were onions. It was there I grew to love sliced tomatoes with chopped onion and a little olive oil drizzled over. So much sweeter and juicier than the hard tomatoes I’d experienced as a child in Canada.
Paprika was also readily available, and it took on a whole new meaning in the country famous for it . I’d always thought dried paprika was tasteless and used mostly for color, but the paprika in Hungary was full of flavor, both sweet and hot, fresh and powdered. No wonder they use it in everything, and even name a dish paprikash.
Modern Diet Varied with Imported Food
And so it’s been that I’ve moved beyond the foods common to my childhood in Eastern Canada, and have grown to enjoy a diet that includes a full range of fresh fruits and vegetables from all over the world, no matter what time of the year. That makes me anything but a locavore! Yet when the volcanic ash grounded planes last year, leaving fruit and vegetables destined for U.K. shops to rot in warehouses half way round the world, I really started to think about where my food was coming from and how far it travels to reach my plate. It made me start looking more carefully at my food’s country of origin.
Today, I try to choose locally produced food, and at the very least British.
But this is a very small island, with a huge population, and a climate not capable of producing many of the foods Brits have grown to love. Yes, a good chunk of this country’s population is cosmopolitan and their food tastes are well-developed beyond bangers and mash, fish’n’chips and beans on toast. Though I wonder if we had to rely entirely on food produced in Great Britain, would we go back to that heavy, bland diet? How many of us would get to eat fresh greens and veggies year round? Would they become luxury foods available only to the wealthy, or those with land, or prized allotments to grow them?
I believe in making the smallest carbon footprint possible, and in supporting my local food producers. But I enjoy foods from abroad far too much to give them up and adopt a totally locavore diet. Perhaps if I lived in the Mediterranean it would be easier, but what foods available to me here would I have to trade for the locally grown grapes, kiwis, mangoes and cherimoya?
What about you? Would you give up some of your favorite foods to be a dedicated locavore? What foods are locally produced where you live? Would you be happy with a diet made up with foods only from that list?