Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Provenance Growers on Food

Where does your food come from?
We all know about 'frankenfood'. The stuff where they print grill marks onto burgers with rollers drenched in food colouring, attempting to make them look as though they were cooked in a remotely natural manner. Or when something similar to pasta is put in a vacuum sealed bag with any number of numbered accompaniments, "anyone fancy some 621, 230 and 774 finished with a dash of onion powder?" in a different flavour for every night of the week, all sold to make our lives simpler. This stuff is obvious. It is easy to choose to read the back of the package and decide that you don't want dehydrated this and that with stabiliser, anti-caking agents and other mysterious 'nature identical' (don't you love that one!) substances.

Where we lose the choice is in the things that should be the healthiest for us. Vegetables largely come naked. Luckily now country of origin labelling gives us a little information, but this is a bloody big country! I want the right to choose. To know if my food has been treated, if it contains GM produce, how it was grown and where. For me, the only way to know is to grow my own or ask questions. Not only to consider food miles or organics, but to engage with suppliers and producers, but most of all to garden!

Heirlooms not all the same.
Heirloom tomatoes are all the rage. For the last few Summers many menus have been graced with 'heirloom' tomato soups, bruschettas or salads. But which heirloom? Without a story about its origin, or a description of flavour and texture, the moniker 'heirloom' means little. But it can mean a lot. My best cropping tomato so far up here at Neika is Stupice which, according to the delectable Phoenix Seeds catalogue, is a Czechoslovakian variety where Summer temperatures in Prague average 19 degrees Celsius. Makes sense doesn't it? I've had no success with the French heirloom rockmelon 'Charentais' so this Summer I'll try the brilliantly named 'Collective Farm Woman', again from Czechoslovakia, and the Sweet Siberian Watermelon. Thinking about this when you head to the nursery, or peruse the seed catalogue will prove rewarding.

But, to contradict myself, don't let that limit you. The curious palate will find all kinds of niches in the garden to support all manner of unsuitable but tasty specimens. And practice can teach us much. If I sow coriander in early March it will grow to a harvestable size and tolerate frost and snow and keep our family in green curry all Winter. A laksa, or Vietnamese mint plant that is supposed to succumb to frost has stood all Winter for years, since I sited it near a large rock, which gives out a hint of warmth all night and protects my plant from the biting chill. And this year my family will have the luxury of a greenhouse in which we can nurture lemongrass, early tomatoes, Mexican coriander and maybe even some of those French rockmelons...
Then there are the stories of varieties nearly lost forever, then saved by dedicated growers. By growing, or buying and creating a demand for diverse produce, you are helping to promote genetic diversity in the food industry. Which makes life a lot more fun than just peas, carrots and potatoes, I'll take Telephone peas, Purple Dragon carrots and Pink Fir Apple spuds thanks!

Locally grown plants.
When you visit a nursery, ask questions. Economy of scale means that it can be cheaper to import plants from the mainland for sale, rather than to grow them here. But a tree or shrub that has migrated to Tasmania during the Winter from warmer climes is unlikely to do as well as one that is acclimatised. And there is the issue of Methyl Bromide which must be used to treat much of the plant material, including fruit and vegetables, that enters Tasmania. And as with supporting local farmers, try and support local nursery-people (and I'm not just talking about myself here!). I recently purchased a plant from a nursery that had a sticker from a mainland grower on it, and when I tapped it out of the pot, a pile of little green granules fell out. I have no idea what they were, fertiliser, pre-germinant weedkiller, or pesticide, but I didn't like them rolling through my garden bed. Get to know your nursery as you would your butcher or grocer, ask where plants and seeds come from and how they were grown, look for young plants in smaller pots as these represent less embodied energy and often establish better. Demand creates change. This Spring, Provenance Growers will be trialing a plethora of unusual edibles, all with the potential to add excitement to your family menu, so come and join my experiment! Just drop me an email, or come down to the Farm Gate Market in Hobart (see dates below) have a chat and check out what's on offer.

Nutritional properties of naturally grown plants.
If you feed a child sugar she gets energy. She might even grow. But will she be healthy and strong? Will she have natural resistance to illness, healthy teeth, organs, hair and resilient bones? Plants behave the same way, you get out what you put in. Feed a plant with artificial fertilisers, and they will grow, but will be prone to attack from insects attracted to their lush sappy growth. They can grow faster than their natural rate and topple at the first breath of wind. They will probably lack flavour. Vegetables and herbs grown in a natural system will be fed from the soil. Composts, worm juice, fish and seaweed emulsions and weed teas are used to stimulate soil life which in turn releases nutrients in a form that can be used by plants. Healthy soil, healthy plants, healthy people! Plants grown at their natural rate, in the conditions they prefer can develop a greater depth of flavour. Torture your thyme with a dry sunny garden like its native Mediterranean climate, and you'll get a smaller plant, but one that is bursting with aromatic oils to enrich your cooking.


Connection to food
I have my own heirloom rhubarb plant. I don't know any more of its provenance than that it was handed to me over the fence 15 years ago when I lived in Howrah. It has never run to seed, it tolerates rugged gardeners and I have divided it, moved it and shared crowns with friends many times, and I still love it. Many rhubarb plants you see for sale have been grown from seed. This means their parent must have produced seed, which in turn makes it highly likely that the resultant offspring will too, and for a rhubarb plant running to seed is counter productive. A bolting plant produces very little in the way of edible stems, and stores less carbohydrates in its rhizome for the next years production. Using my Howrah rhubarb reminds me of that stunning view of the river, and my generous neighbour.
My mother grows a rosemary rumoured to be the progeny of a cutting that was struck by a digger in Gallipoli. It tastes the same as other rosemary, but when gathered and used it carries an air of romance not found in a generic plant.
Stories and connections help make the acts of gardening and eating an almost reverential affair. You can connect with the past, with stories of people, places and events, while sowing, reaping and feasting.

Informed is empowered.
Ask questions. Talk to your supermarket or grocer and ask the questions that matter to you. Is the broccoli I feed to my family treated on import to Tasmania? What with? And what about the tempting American cherries we are being invited to enjoy this Winter? What has to be done to satisfy quarantine regulations to bring these things here? And what about erring on the side of caution? Why, after past mistakes like DDT and the arsenic laden soils of some of our old orchards, is there still the mindset in our regulators that we can still mess with nature and consider things safe after only a few years of testing, when some chemicals can linger in the environment forever and disperse beyond our control. I buy my lamb from a local butcher who gets it from a farm where sheep are unmeusled, where social, cultural and environmental work is part of the running of the farm. And he was happy to tell me all of this, so go on, ask!

Curious palates.
There are amazing foods out there, thousands of them. Six years ago I'd never tasted miners lettuce or orach, four years ago mizuna was a luxury green, snavelled from an expensive pack of Asian greens to be munched raw, medlars were a curiosity and I had no concept of what bletting was, and this year I stumbled upon the deliciousness that is a tomatillo. All of these fabulous foods are now staples in our family diet, freshly gathered from the garden, and the only way you are likely to taste any of them is to find them a specialist grocer, or farmers market, or to grow them yourself. There is little else as likely to inspire appetite and connection to food as much as growing it yourself or talking to the person who did. My poor partner suffered a cross word from me last night as I discovered the travesty of purchased parsnips in the fridge, when there are some beautiful ones here in the garden. The delight of a parsnip fresh pulled after a couple of frosts have urged it to convert its starch into sugar is truly a revelation. Tender and sweet, roasted in a little of that Murrayfield lamb dripping. Nothing like it!

The disclaimer.
Like many of us, I do not always practise what I preach. Don't get me wrong, I would love, to but where would my quality of life be without staples like chocolate biscuits, fish sauce, rice and many other sins I am too embarrassed to confess here?
If someone should happen to bring some Champagne over and a little wedge of French cheese to go with it, should I turn them away?
And how can I resist the 'must have' new plant I haven't seen anywhere else, even if it has crossed the water? But I promise if it's good I'll propagate it and share it with you!
Oh, and sorry Matt, the parsnips in the garden were too small to pick, oops!

I'll be at the Tasmanian Farm Gate market
on Sunday 20th of June, 4th of July and the 18th of July.