Seasonality

Matthew Fort, writing for Flavour First, asks whether we have become too obsessive about seasonality and whether in fact…” the relentless drive to eat everything in season isn’t always for the best when it comes to flavour”.

I have a feeling that his tongue is firmly in cheek when he asks these questions, but I’m going to play along, because I think the concept of seasonality is frequently misunderstood.

A quick glance at Wikipedia should be enough to clarify the situation, it provides the following definition:

Seasonality of food refers to the times of year when a given type food is at its peak, either in terms of harvest or its flavour. This is usually the time when the item is the cheapest and the freshest on the market. The food’s peak time in terms of harvest usually coincides with when its flavour is at its best. There are some exceptions; an example being sweet potatoes which are best eaten quite a while after harvest…

So, by definition, eating food “in season” certainly should be best for flavour.  The sweet potato example of when the peak in flavour terms does not coincide with the peak of harvesting could equally be applied to the apples mentioned in Matthew Fort’s article.  Some, usually the first to ripen in the harvesting period (late July/early August), taste best immediately they have been picked, whilst at the end of the harvesting period, late October/early November, many benefit from a further period of storage before they reach their peak in terms of flavour.  But, Matthew asks, when then is “the season” for eating apples?  – It depends on the variety, but certainly we can say that it is not now (April).  If we are looking for the cheapest apples, it will be at the peak of harvest, October.  Those apples that ripen fully in that month will also be at their best in respect of flavour, whilst those that need to be stored until they reach their optimum flavour will, quite rightly, cost a little more.  What Matthew is perhaps pointing out is that it is a complex matter, requiring knowledge of varieties and growing methods (as he mentions with regard to asparagus) and above all, a matter that cannot be tied to a specific date in the calendar but which will vary with the growing conditions in any given year.

It is this attempt to tie the seasonality of food to given dates within the calendar that causes the most confusion about the whole concept.  Of course it is understandable, we remember when we ate things last year and, quite reasonably, expect to eat them at the same time the following year.  But nature doesn’t always work that way and who knows what fluctuations climate change might bring.  Yet we all do it, food writers most especially, because letting people know when to expect an ingredient to be in season helps them to plan their menus and helps us plan what to write about.  During the long “Hungry Gap” we are desperate for something new, and yes, we may even resort to buying something that is “in season” elsewhere.  Within our relatively small country the difference in the dates on which something will ripen varies quite considerably, and is especially pronounced in the spring.  Take a non-food item like daffodils for example; there can be literally months of difference between them opening on the Isles of Scilly and the time they will flower way up on Orkney.  With the dominance of our capital city in publishing, even now that much is published on-line, I am sure that those in the north of the country will have got used to putting aside the advice about what to plant or cook this weekend until several weeks have passed.

Does this make the advice, or the concept of seasonality, worthless?  I don’t think so.  It is the foundation of sustainable eating and all part of the process of linking people, especially those who live in cities, with what is going on in the countryside.  Whilst they may feel tempted to give up on trying to understand the complexities of when something may be “in season”, just like the weather itself, it gives us something to talk about and talking about when our food will be at its best is a massive step forward for the UK’s food culture.

2020 Update

The above article, which I wrote in 2013, remains totally relevant today but I just wanted to add a couple more observations:

I write this update on 23rd April, St George’s Day, which has become for me a key barometer of seasonal change.  St. George’s Mushrooms are so named because they are found on this day.  In the past I have tended to find them a week to 10 days later.  Just a couple of years ago they began appearing on 23rd or even a little earlier.  This year I went to look in my usual spot about a week ago, and found that they had been up so long, in warm sunny weather, that they were almost dried.  Other people have confirmed that they have been picking for weeks and that they are now almost over.

Secondly, I re-read the chapter in Tim Parks book Italian Neighbours entitled La stagione è finita.  It talks about the difference between those who have learnt about seasonality from their peasant culture and those without such a background to draw upon and so learn from books.  The former have such fixed notions of the seasons that they will dig up an only partially harvested crop when “the season is over”.  The latter however have very little success in growing anything.  It reminded me of times when I have ordered something from a menu in Italy only to be met with a disparaging La stagione è finita response.  Foreigners are supposed to know when things are in season, even though they are not familiar with the local climate.

Seasonality is ever changing but the concept endures.  It should be a source of pleasure – not a rule book by which to catch the unaware!

Suzanne Wynn

23rd April 2020

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