Local Apples

I can’t think of a better example of the need for local food supplies than apples.

As I write, in October 2021, we are experiencing a number of issues with the supply of different food types that make a mockery of Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy which claimed that our supermarket dominated food chain had proved its resilience during the Covid pandemic.  Lack of workers to pick crops and process meats means that we have been warned to expect shortages of such “essentials” as Pig in Blankets this Christmas. Writing in the Telegraph, Xanthe Clay has helpfully given instructions for self-assembly.  What is the world coming to?

The supermarkets are further struggling with the shortage of lorry drivers and the just-in-time supply chain has resulted in many gaps on the shelves.  No wonder they have had little time to worry about the British apple season, now at its peak, which currently has no representation in Tesco’s, and plastic bags of imported Gala hiding behind the Duchy Organic label in Waitrose.

The website of The British Apples and Pears association is one of the saddest examples of promoting British fruit that I have ever seen.  Try looking at www.britishapplesandpears.co.uk/apple-varieties.  Seventeen varieties are illustrated – all as highly polished as something the Evil Queen might have given to Snow White to tempt her to eat the poisoned apple.  Looking at these pictures of apples is like looking at someone who has had too much cosmetic surgery – it gives me the creeps!  Finding a basket of these fruits in a hotel room is anything but welcoming, it generates immediate homesickness.

With the exception of Worcester Pearmain, the varieties fall into three main categories: the same old commercial favourites (e.g., Cox/Bramley/Egremont Russet); non-native varieties (e.g., Braeburn/Gala) or new (and trademarked) varieties (e.g., Zari/Rubens/Kanzi).  This is what happens if you have to supply the whole country.  The treasures in our 2300+ strong repertoire are as if they never existed.

This rock-bottom commercial situation ought, surely, to signal a resurgence in home-grown apples and short, local supply chains?  No-one who has ever eaten an apple straight from the tree would think of looking in a supermarket to buy apples.  With the added impetus of improving carbon storage and air quality everyone is aware of the need to plant trees, and why shouldn’t many of these be fruit trees?

With the caution that you don’t buy fruit trees in a garden centre any more than you would buy apples in a supermarket, there are many options for planting an apple tree.  Growing on half-standard rootstock is now the norm, you actually have to seek hard if you want to plant a tree that will grow to the traditional full height.  Half-standard trees are perfect in a garden setting.  They have turned out to be much longer lived than originally feared, and their reduced height makes them easier to prune and to harvest.

Which variety to choose?

This is where my caution against buying from a garden centre shouts loudest.  They will be stocked with a very limited range of varieties.  First, I would suggest you research which varieties are local to you.  They have proved themselves to be suited to your soil and climate.  Now is the perfect time to taste some local varieties as smaller orchards may well be hosting Apple Day events.  “Apple Day” was an initiative begun in 1990 by Common Ground and their website continues to provide a wealth of information about orchards, varieties and nurseries on a regional basis – https://www.commonground.org.uk/an-apples-orchards-gazetteer

There is another reason I hesitate to recommend specific varieties to plant, and that reason is biodiversity – we have over 2300 to chose from so why would I single out just a handful?  The reason that many older varieties have been abandoned is purely that they don’t fit the commercial model – they may not look perfect, be medium sized, or be prone to biennial cropping, but we can live with these things at a domestic level, especially if the compensation is better flavour.  Instead, below I give the general characteristics of types of apples to help you decide on your needs.

  • Dual-purpose apple

Britain is unique in having bred a range of apples specifically for cooking, other countries use dessert apples for everything.  Pretty much any apple can be cooked when it is under-ripe then eaten as it ripens but some are especially known for this.  They tend to come into season in September and then ripen sufficiently for eating in October.  If you can only plant one tree a dual-purpose apple might be useful.  If the apple contains some tannin too it might also be used for cider.  Tom Putt is one such example, known as a “cottagers apple” because it fulfils three purposes.  Dual purpose apples work well when eaten raw in savoury dishes like a salad.

  • Cooking apples

Bramley dominates the market; in fact many people would struggle to name another cooking apple.  Bramley apples are very high in acidity, which means that when cooked the flesh disintegrates to a fluffy pulp.  This is great for something like apple sauce, but not so good if you are trying to hold it intact, either whole when baked or in slices on a tart.  For this you need less acidity.  The dual-purpose apples work well here early in the season, but what about later?  Try Catshead, Annie Elizabeth or Newton Wonder to name just a few.

If you want the acidity of a Bramley (and it does mean the apple taste comes through no matter what you add to it) the Dumelow’s Seedling is an older alternative.

  • Keepers

Whilst an apple eaten straight from the tree is a wonderful thing, as a general rule the best keepers are those that ripen very late.  This means you will probably need to pick them sometime in October, before the winds bring them down, as you cannot keep an apple that has fallen.

Picked and stored carefully in an unheated room (e.g., shed or garage) you should be happily eating apples until the end of January by which time the texture is likely to be going soft and you will probably want to cook them up to finish.

Practically all cooking apples store well, and you might still be happily using these in March.

  • Dessert Apples

If you have plenty of room, you will probably want to plant more than one so that you can stagger eating across the full season.  Otherwise consider when you will be most likely to want to eat them.

Early season – the earliest apples ripen in August but be aware that their season is very short and early apples do not keep so it is possible to go on holiday and return to find every apple already fallen and rotting under the tree!  If you are around to catch them at their brief point of perfection you will need to be able to use the entire crop quickly.  Juicing is a common use of early apples.

Second early – you have a little longer to enjoy these apples, perhaps throughout the month of September, depending on how far north you live.  For example, James Grieve is a second early of Scottish origin which is quickly ripe enough for eating when grown in the South but is almost always considered a cooking apple on its home ground.  Worcester Pearmain is another old variety with a wonderful strawberry note and colouration to the flesh.

Mid-season – in addition to the dual-purpose apples already mentioned above, late September heralds some dessert apples for eating in early autumn.  Lord Lambourne and Sunset are two of my favourites.

Peak season – the apples are becoming longer lasting and fuller in flavour as October progresses.  Blenheim Orange is an old favourite that is too variable in its cropping for commercial growers.  The nuttiness of russeted apples makes them perfect for eating with cheese and there are far more to choose from than the commercial Egremont.

Late season/keepers – these are the apples that rarely ripen sufficiently for eating straight from the tree but will see you through to January.  Ashmead’s Kernel, Claygate Pearmain, D’Arcy Spicy and Cornish Gillyflower are just some of the names that fall into this category.

No garden?

The concept of Community Orchards was championed by Common Ground and the time is ripe to plant some more.

The Community Orchard in our village was planted 25 years ago, and these are some of the points we have learnt:

  • What is the purpose of the orchard? It can, and probably will, fulfil more than one purpose, but stating and prioritising these at the outset is useful if uses conflict in the future. Here are some possibilities: Wildlife (best served by planting a traditional orchard of full-sized trees with the orchard floor grazed by sheep); Community Events; Local Food/Drink (perhaps a mother orchard for local varieties)
  • Ongoing maintenance: there needs to be a long-term body to manage the orchard, but the costs are on-going, and you need to consider how to cover this, e.g., a memorial garden where people to pay for a tree and its future maintenance, sale of fruit or produce from the fruit.
  • How will the harvest be allocated? If it is not all to be used to cover on-going costs, how will it be shared? It can be difficult to strike a balance that is fair and ensures that fruit is not wasted. It may affect you decision about which varieties to plant.
  • Longevity – if you have planted a traditional orchard, it will be 10 years before there is really much fruit to harvest. Those who were originally involved in its planting may no longer be around and you will need to plan how you will maintain interest for decades to come.

In Blagdon, the Community Orchard is owned and managed by the Parish Council and we have a separate group, Blagdon Orchard Group, for promoting and using orchard fruit generally.  After our first decade, we were amazed at the wide range of interests that were encompassed by this umbrella and decided to publish a book documenting this.  You can buy a copy (£9.95) by contacting me via this website.

Hedgerow Fruit

One of the projects undertaken by Blagdon Orchard Group was the planting of an edible hedgerow.  Farmers are now being “rewarded” to plant new hedges, although the reward is minimal.  Nonetheless, new hedges are being planted, and it might be possible to ensure that these include fruit and or nut trees by donating the trees where the hedge will have public access.  There are local varieties of plums, damsons and cherries throughout the U.K. so if you have a local speciality this makes and obvious choice.  As with Community Orchards, bear in mind that these trees will take a long time to bear fruit, but the maintenance will be covered by the owner/farmer.


Local Supply

To return to the issue of local supply, remember that you can still achieve this before any new planting bears fruit simply by taking an active interest in what is already being grown.  There are still independent orchards producing with minimal spraying and these need support.  Additionally, some people have more fruit growing in their garden than they can use and may actually be grateful for someone offering to pick it.  We raised some money for our group this way, just picking fruit and taking it to be sold via a local shop.

The future of our apples is very much local – resolve never to buy them from a supermarket again!


Truly Seasonal Blackberries

Today, 1st October is Devil Spit Day, the day when the Devil spits on blackberries making them no longer fit for eating.

These arbitrary dates are becoming even more irrelevant as the climate changes.  Actually, this particular tradition predates the Gregorian calendar and the comparative date would now be 11th October.  But my point is, that true seasonality can’t be tied to any date but depends instead on being able to read all the signs in nature.  As the following extract from Raynor Winn’s The Salt Path puts it – the blackbirds know the moment.

He held out the Tupperware box, half full with glistening, ripe purple fruits.  “Do you want a blackberry?”

The blackberries we’d picked along the way had been small, tart and sharp, so I took one only out of politeness, but when I put it in my mouth it was like no blackberry I’d ever tasted.  Smooth, sweet, and a burst of rich claret autumnal flavour, and in the background, faintly, faintly, salt.

“You thought blackberries had passed, didn’t you?  Or you’ve eaten them and thought you didn’t like them.  No, you need to wait until the last moment between perfect and spoilt.  The blackbirds know the moment.  And if the mist comes right then, laying the salt air gently on the fruit, you have something that money can’t buy and chefs can’t create.  A perfect, lightly salted blackberry.  You can’t make them; it has to come with time and nature.  They’re a gift, when you think summer’s over and the good stuff has all gone.  They’re a gift.

From The Salt Path by Raynor Winn.

You can see my recipes for blackberries here but if you find the perfect, lightly salted blackberry – just eat and enjoy!

Currants – black, red and white

This article is very much for gardeners as you will find it difficult to buy redcurrants and nigh impossible to buy the white variant.  Blackcurrants used to be easier to find but, as we recently discovered when taking some of our surplus to our local greengrocer to sell, they seem to be as rare as their red and white cousins now.  If you do find currants for sale, their price is likely to make many of these recipes prohibitive, but the good news is that they are easy to grow, don’t take up too much space and lend themselves to a surprising number of recipes as I discovered when faced with a surplus.

Leave the currants on the bush for as long as possible to eat raw, or semi-raw, for the most intense flavour.  Earlier in the season they can be made into a jelly – they are very high in pectin.  Redcurrants marry very well with raspberries as in the classic dish Summer Pudding, but also consider using a handful or more of red or white currant when making raspberry jam for a better set.  That said, soft-set raspberry jam is also good.  You can even use the young leaves of a blackcurrant bush for a deliciously scented sorbet, pick just the tips whilst they are still fresh green in colour – this will be before the fruit has ripened.

Whitecurrants are slightly sharper but otherwise very similar to the redcurrant that has more or less replaced them but, as you will see from the photograph above, they are actually pink rather than white when fully ripe.  An advantage over redcurrants is that when used to make jelly the lighter colour allows any added ingredients to be seen more clearly – they are my preferred choice for Mint Jelly.

Varieties – Modern blackcurrant varieties mostly originate from Scotland and will be called Ben something or other.  An old Somerset variety, which is reputedly very good although I have never tasted it, is called Mendip Cross.  White Versailles is the most commonly grown variety of Whitecurrant and is over 150 years old.


Blackcurrants: Raw blackcurrant ice cream or Raw Blackcurrant mousse, Blackcurrants with Crème Brûlée, Blackcurrant Leaf Sorbet

Redcurrants: Redcurrant Jelly

Whitecurrants: Mint jelly

Mix: Currant and Raspberry Compôte, Currant Shrub, Summer Pudding

Fresh and Simple Salads

1st June heralds the start of summer and fresh new season produce.  It means a real shift in cooking too.  During the long hungry gap, skills and innovation are needed to make the limited ingredients inviting.  What a relief to be able to pluck something fresh from the garden and revel in just its perfect freshness and newness with minimal effort.  Much of what I serve during the summer barely warrants a recipe.

Of course, there is nowhere to hide with this sort of food.  Everyone who grows their own knows the incomparable flavour that comes, for example, from freshly dug potatoes compared to any you can buy.  But not everyone has the space to grow their own food; and finding sources where you can buy freshly harvested produce can be just as challenging.

If you have very limited space, my top food growing priority would be herbs, even if it is just a few pots on a windowsill. Herbs are an essential seasoning; and the fresh growth immediately transforms a dish into a taste of summer.   I have featured a different herb each month for those who want to grow their own.

My next priority for growing your own food in a limited space would be salad leaves.  You can grow a mix of cut and come again leaves in a pot, but if you have room for a cold frame, you could become self-sufficient in salad for the whole year.  Salad Leaves for All Seasons by Charles Dowding, the expert in no-dig gardening, is a fantastic book that will teach you all you need to know to achieve that self-sufficiently.  Charles himself quickly realised that the only horticulture from which he could make a living from a small plot was salad leaves.  He began by picking and delivering bags of fresh leaves to local restaurants.

Salad leaves are quick to grow and so some of the first of the new year’s planting to be ready for harvest.  Radishes are similarly early to harvest, but despite their name, Spring Onions are a little later, and this year, a bit later than usual.  Mine are just about ready to begin picking now (mid-June).

A food writer in our local paper alerted me to the fact that “Spring” onions are now sold in supermarkets all year round.  The UK’s main commercial grower is in Worcestershire and can apparently supply them from March to November, but I noted that this week, in June, those in Waitrose came from Egypt.  The switch in supply may well be owing to the previously documented trouble with trafficking and child labour for spring onion picking in Worcestershire.  The year-round supply is down to their use as an ingredient in Far-eastern cookery.

However, as a traditional British salad ingredient, I would say that freshness is essential and urge you to grow your own.  Following this year’s late frosts, which are expected to become a more recurrent consequence of climate change, I intend to try planting a “winter hardy” version of the popular White Lisbon variety for overwintering this year in the hope of achieving an earlier supply.

Back in March, Bee Wilson wrote about spring onions in the Financial Times.  She included some lovely simple recipes from an Edna Lewis of the USA, including the following:

Take the freshest spring onions and lettuce, wash, and then dress with sugar, vinegar, and salt. This, Edna Lewis says, is the taste of her childhood.  I tried it, using the best white wine vinegar to dissolve a pinch each of salt and sugar, no oil, and it was indeed delicious.  I didn’t mention to my husband that I was trying a different dressing but observed that when I offered him the last of the salad, he carefully tipped the bowl to get the remaining dressing – a result!

The taste of your childhood salads may not be one you are eager to recreate, but if you look back far enough into our history you will find that British salads do have a creditable heritage and there are no end of unusual ingredients that could be included as I wrote here.  So, whether you are looking for a main course perfect for lunch, a side salad, or something to refresh the palate between courses, the inspiration will start with your own fresh produce.

British Asparagus

It seems astonishing that only 15 years ago asparagus was something of a rarity in the UK, eaten by less than 10% of the population.   It was mostly consumed in restaurants, as a starter, or, as I vividly remember from one holiday in Scotland, a regulation three spears appeared alongside the main course.  Yet it is thanks to these restaurants that asparagus consumption has become popular in the UK again.

The history of asparagus growing in the UK is a long one which centred on the area in Worcestershire known as the Vale of Evesham.  At its peak in 1938, the area had 1200 acres planted with asparagus.  I am interested to see that literally at the 11th hour of us leaving the European Union on 31st December 2020, Vale of Evesham Asparagus was recognised as a Protected Food Name with PGI status.  Lord only knows what value this will confer; however, it does provide us with a well-documented history and a protocol that growers in the area must abide by if they wish to receive this protected status.

The protocol tells us that the microclimate surrounding the Vale of Evesham ensures the crops warm quickly in the spring, but only where the soil is sandy and free draining.  The protocol maintains that land outside the Evesham area is heavier, slow to warm and prone to being water-logged; although others claim that asparagus does, inexplicably, grow happily on these heavier clay soils.  Evesham is a long way from the sea (about 70 miles from Weston-super-Mare) and most of the other areas that are notable for growing asparagus are the sandy soils of the coast.  The dunes of Formby, near Liverpool, for example, also have a strong historical connection although hardly any is grown there now.   Another seaside location with a great reputation for its asparagus is St Enodoc in Cornwall.  It is popular with chefs with overnight deliveries three times a week.  Their website notes that

the salt deposits on the soil improve the flavour as the spears break ground. We don’t use artificial polytunnels to warm the soil to bring them up prematurely but wait until the air and soil temperatures are optimum for bringing the crowns back to life.

When you consider the difference that salt laden air lends to the grapes that are destined for a Manzanilla sherry compared with the further inland Fino, or if you have read the description of eating blackberries from the clifftops in west Cornwall contained in the book The Salt Path, it is entirely credible that the salty sea air might contribute much to the flavour.

The Second World War heralded the decline in asparagus growing in the Vale of Evesham from its heyday in 1938.  During the Second World War it was forbidden to plant any new asparagus beds and although the existing crowns could continue to produce for up to 20 years if carefully managed, after the war there was a shortage of the labour that had previously been employed in market gardens.  Our move towards centralised food production began with the war but has continued ever since and asparagus growing, and harvesting, is both labour intensive and also unsuited to lengthy distribution chains.

In my opinion it is this latter point that has the most bearing on the quality of asparagus – it must be eaten FRESH, that is within hours of picking rather than days.  The natural sugars begin turning to starch from the moment it is cut, and I find that the best asparagus comes from roadside stalls right beside the fields where it has grown.

The Vale of Evesham Asparagus protocol does make some other useful points about the expertise that develops in an area.  The sort of expertise that has learnt which field will be best suited to growing and knows exactly how to harvest to protect the life of the crowns.  Once spent the same ground will not be suitable for replanting with asparagus for 30 years, which is why places like Formby ran out of fresh ground.

All of this explains why asparagus is always going to be too pricy to regard it as a mainstream vegetable, although it is an extremely welcome herald of summer, appearing at a time when precious little else is growing.  If you do have the right soil and microclimate and are prepared to view it as a long-term investment (it will be 3 years after planting your crowns before you begin to take your first cut), asparagus would make a good choice for small growers who plan to sell to a local market.

Most growers don’t cut from any crown for more than 6 weeks so that it recovers well for the next year.  The asparagus season traditionally runs from St George’s Day until Midsummer on 21st June.  That is 8 weeks although if you have enough crowns, you could stagger cutting throughout this period.  The price tends to be highest at the start of the season but once it gets going the asparagus can grow up to 10cm a day and quickly grown asparagus will be straight and tender.  However, if the temperature is too low the asparagus will stop growing, or grow very slowly, giving crooked stems.  April 2021 has been the coldest, frostiest, and driest for at least 60 years so the asparagus season was late to start but cutting should now continue right through to midsummer.*

Asparagus makes an ideal meat free meal because the main ingredient is still considered such a treat.  As a main meal I would probably serve it in a risotto, although its affinity with eggs leads to several possibilities here – asparagus and goats’ cheese tart, omelette or just a simple softly boiled egg for dipping the spears.  Jamie Oliver’s recipe for minted asparagus ravioli takes a little bit of work but remains a favourite that I must eat at least once in the season.  When I do find somewhere to buy fresh asparagus, I tend to buy some of the cheaper sprue (thinner spears) or mis-shapes as well as perfect bundles.  I will cook it all on the day I buy it but use the mis-shapes for soup which can be reheated the next day.  This is also a good idea for the start of the season when all of the spears may be sprue and the weather perhaps more suited to soup than a salad.

For more cooking tips and recipes see here.

  • Update – it is now nearly the end of May and there has been very little asparagus cut, apart from under polytunnels, owing now to heavy rain and continuing cold.  So it will be an exceptionally late season, but the forecast is better for June.

Further reading:


May Fairs

May 1 used to have far more significance than it does nowadays.  The Celts called it Beltane and celebrated with hilltop fires, around which they danced “sunwise”.  Greeting the dawn on 1st May stems back to those Pagan Beltane celebrations, young women believed that bathing their face in the early morning dew on this day was good for their complexion.  Dews are common at this time of year as the earth is only just warming up.

Tall, straight trees were cut for maypoles, they were decorated with flowers and coloured ribbons, and raised on village greens as the focal point for the celebrations.  The flowers and foliage were often gathered at midnight, an activity known as “bringing in the May” and it gave good cover for other human interactions.  The link between May Day and fertility was so strong that in Charles I’s time the Puritans banned the erection of Maypoles and generally tried to supress the celebration.  When Charles II returned to the throne on 29 May 1660 some places moved their May Day celebrations to that date and others to Rogationtide.

Rogationtide is not a fixed date but determined by Easter, which in itself is determined by the full moon.  The four days from the fifth Sunday after Easter are the Rogation Days, the last of which is Ascension Day (40 days after Easter).  The earliest date on which it could occur is 30th April and the latest 3rd June, so essentially it is a May festival.  (In Western Churches – Eastern Orthodox churches usually use the old Gregorian calendar).

Ascension Day marks Jesus Christ’s ascension to heaven and is the end of the Easter Season.  In C5th France, following a series of natural disasters, this day was marked by blessing the fields, animals and people.  It later became customary to walk the boundaries of the village to do this, a procession known as “Beating the Bounds”.

In Britain today we have two Bank Holidays in May, one at the beginning to coincide with May Day and one at the end, the “Spring Bank Holiday”.  May Day was formally adopted as International Workers Day in 1889, which has sadly overshadowed its earlier purpose, but whatever they now mark, the fact remains that the two long weekends in May provide opportunities for festivities and fairs.

Fairs (or fayres) were traditionally important not only as an occasion for relaxation and entertainment but also for business.  Many of the oldest relate to agricultural sales (Priddy Sheep Fair was the longest running having moved from Wells in 1348 because of the Black Death).  Hiring Fairs were also common on the quarter days.  Several foods are associated with fairs – a sort of porridge known as Frumenty was often served laced with rum.  Gingerbread, often in the shape of a man or pig, was always found at fairs but in Florence White’s Good Things in England a complete “fairing” was described as including:

Gingerbread Biscuits

Caraway Comfits

Candied Sticks of Angelica

Almond Comfits



The history of gingerbread goes back a long way (see Ginger and Gingerbread) and the biscuits known as Cornish Fairings, which have been made commercially since 1886 are actually one of the most modern examples as evidenced by the inclusion of raising agents.  Miss Rogers of Marazion in Cornwall who contributed the list of a traditional fairing also noted of the macaroons that they are “quite different from the English variety, much thicker and softer and crumbly, not tough”.  I’m not entirely certain what these may have been like as today we distinguish the English Macaroon from the more modern (1900) French Macaron which is a pastel-coloured sandwich of something more akin to a meringue.  I doubt these were being served at Cornish Fairs but perhaps they were!  Anyway, Florence White’s Macaroon recipe is the English version of the almond biscuit that came from Italy.

Fairing Recipes

Lambing Time

Pasture for Life celebrated its 10th year this month.  Over those 10 years, the certification scheme has greatly advanced understanding of the benefits of pasture fed meat, yet as Easter approaches I am gnashing my teeth whilst reading all the articles in the press that recommend “Spring Lamb” as the centrepiece for your Easter celebrations.  Open your eyes and look around – or just look at the pictures on social media – in Britain lambs are just being born in the spring, they are not ready to eat!

A very defined breeding cycle exists for lamb, only the Dorset Horn (and its polled variant) can breed all year round.  The various breeds have developed to reflect their local climatic conditions, with the first lambs being born early in the year in warmer parts of the south, gradually being followed by the Scottish Lowlands, the Welsh hills and finally the Highlands. Each of these areas produces lamb with its own distinctive flavour,  due in part to the breed and partly to their forage.

Even lamb which is not reared to Pasture for Life standards remains relatively immune to intensive farming methods and is usually reared outdoors, after all grass is cheaper than buying sheep nuts, although it has become common practice to finish them on cereals.  This has a detrimental effect on its Omega 3 content as well fuelling the criticism that in place of animals we could grow crops for human consumption.  This criticism of course only bears weight if the land is suitable for growing crops which most upland areas are not.

So, what would be involved in producing a lamb that was ready to eat at Easter?  Well in Britain that would, as I have already mentioned, only be possible with the Dorset breed.  It would be born in the Autumn and would then spend most of its life indoors.  Initially it would drink its mother’s milk, and there is a market abroad for very young, milk fed lambs.  However, by introducing silage, cereals and protein (often soya) it might reach what is considered a marketable weight at around 5 months.  Waitrose does sell a limited amount of this Dorset breed lamb, although there was none available when I searched the internet this week.  What their website does say is “because English and Welsh lamb is seasonal, we source high quality [Spring Lamb] from trusted farmers in New Zealand until June when British Lamb comes into it’s prime”.  So, if you are buying Spring Lamb for Easter, if fresh it will probably have been imported from New Zealand, although it might be possible to buy British frozen.  The option I prefer if I want to serve sheep meat at this time of year is to serve Hogget, which is from a lamb that is slaughtered over a year old.  Pasture for Life certified lamb spends approximately 50% more time grazing (52 weeks on average) than those finished on cereals.  They enjoy a longer and more natural life that enables me to enjoy watching the newly born lambs frolicking in the fields in Spring.


See also The Absolute Importance of Upland Mutton for more information about the characteristics of mutton from different locations and how to cook and serve it.

Truly Wild Deer

In 2012 I wrote here about the irony that despite large parts of the country being over-run by wild deer, we were importing 1000 tonnes of farmed venison from New Zealand every year.  The situation has continued to deteriorate since then, with the wild deer population in the UK now estimated to be over 2 million, the highest it has been for 1000 years.

Why is this a problem? Top of the list is the impact on trees.  With more emphasis than ever on the need to plant trees to help control climate change it is imperative that our efforts are not hampered by deer.  Deer numbers also need to be kept in check for the health of the herd. When their numbers outstrip the amount of food that is available to them in the wild, they turn to farmers fields, gardens, and allotments.  It is estimated there are up to 74,000 deer-related traffic accidents each year in Britain, and Highways England believes 400 motorists are injured in deer-related accidents every year.  Unless you have been directly impacted by one of these problems it can be easy to underestimate just how many wild deer are hiding in our woods. Even though I see a few during my walks with my dogs, on an occasion when I flew over the same woods in a hot air balloon, I was astounded by just how many we disturbed.

However, wild deer should not be seen merely as a pest but as a valuable source of delicious and healthy lean meat.  A market for wild deer meat is vital for hunters and, with the aim of strengthening this, The Wild Venison Working Group was recently set up.  The group is chaired by The Forestry Commission and involves stakeholders from woodland management, shooting, gamekeeping and venison suppliers.  I have been trying to understand the issues they face in finding a market for wild deer meat and the Food Culture in the UK is one.

Although the number of wild deer is increasing across most of Europe, the rate of increase is kept in check by up to half being harvested by stalkers each year.  In Scandinavia and Eastern Europe hunting is very much a part of their food culture and people retain the traditional knowledge of the appropriate cooking methods required by different varieties, ages, and cuts of wild deer.  In the UK, 50% of venison is purchased from a supermarket, and they will not sell wild deer because of their inconsistencies particularly regarding carcase conformity.  The majority of the farmed deer sold in supermarkets will come from the Red Deer species, which will have been reared in a confined environment, with rotational grazing supplemented by pellet feed, sileage or other crops, especially in the winter.  They may be housed in the winter and the calves are usually weaned.  It takes about 15 months for them to reach the desired carcase weight of 60 kg, although with more intensive feeding this can be achieved sooner.  As with the rearing of other animals, practices vary in their degree of intensity – the UK has 7 deer farms certified organic, however, the lives of all farmed deer differ considerably from one that has existed entirely in the wild.

To meet the supermarket demand for farmed venison, The Scottish Venison Association has for years been trying to encourage farmers south of the border to take up deer farming with them supplying the starting stock.  Ironically, there are no native deer in New Zealand, so most of their breeding stock came from Scotland but the number of farms soon overtook those in Scotland.  The Scottish government recently paid for detailed market research to assist the Scottish Venison Association.  The research covered the whole of the UK and showed that the home market for venison increased by almost 11% in 2019.  The retail market is dominated by two brands accounting for 59% of sales – Highland Game and Waitrose.  Almost 50% of venison is bought in supermarkets, of which a third is sold by Waitrose and is mainly imported from New Zealand.   However, Sainsbury’s (13%), Morrisons (10.7%), and most recently Tesco, all sell venison farmed in the UK “when available”.  Most of this is supplied by Highland Game.


Parkland Venison

A somewhat halfway house between farmed and wild are Parkland Deer.  Keeping a herd of Fallow Deer on your estate became de rigour for large properties, you will find them still on many estates managed by the National Trust as well as larger private houses.  Red Deer are also kept in some larger public parks, Richmond being the most famous example.  Parkland Deer are classified by DEFRA as wild and so can only be culled during their official hunting season.  The herd will be enclosed but the parkland should provide them with a similar habitat to that which they would choose in the wild, i.e. a mix of pasture and woodland.  However, unlike wild deer, which will have to rely entirely on what they can forage, the diet of parkland deer is usually supplemented during the winter and they may even be provided with some shelter.  The supplemental feed may just be sileage and fodder crops grown on the estate, but it could also be in pellets form.  The sight of a parkland deer keeper tipping out a bag of feed is such a long way from what I consider to be wild game that I would quibble with the DEFRA designation, even though it is intended to afford the protection of regulated culling seasons.   “Wild” venison from parklands is however particularly popular with the restaurant trade as it provides them with a consistent product.  I recognise that it is better they buy this than imported farmed venison, but it doesn’t do much to help the control of truly wild deer.

Truly Wild Deer

The term venison was originally applied to any furred game, including hare, although now it is used only for the meat of deer, which still encompasses many different beasts worldwide.  The characteristics and flavour profile vary considerably depending on breed and diet.

Red Deer and Roe Deer are both native to the UK and Fallow have been with us since at least Norman times if not since the Romans.  The rest (Muntjac, Sika and Chinese Water Deer) are escapees from zoos or wildlife parks and are more of a problem in some parts of the country than others.  Chinese Water Deer, for example, are found predominantly in the east of the country, the wetlands of the fens being the closest to their natural habitat.

Wild Red Deer are most closely associated with the highlands of Scotland where their diet will consist largely of heather and berries, but Red Deer are also farmed in the lowlands, where they are more likely to be fed on barley.  So, diet as well as breed will have a significant impact on flavour.

The taste most often disliked in wild venison is usually described as gamey or livery.  Yet some species are more often likened to lamb (or mutton) and beef.  This is particularly so for Muntjac, but opinion is definitely split over whether this is preferable to the more gamey taste of Roe or Red deer.

The texture of wild deer is also much firmer than in farmed or parkland, their muscles developed because they travel over a much wider area to obtain food.  Roe, which is never farmed or managed, has a close-grained texture; whilst fallow deer, usually from parklands, is very soft, some might even describe it as “pappy”.  Its flavour is mild making it an ideal beginners venison.

Red deer have the strongest flavour; they have interbred with Sika deer to such an extent that there may no longer be pure native Red Deer in Scotland, but in any event the flavour of Sika is usually on the strong side.

Chinese Water Deer, unlike most deer which are very lean, have a thick layer of fat across their backs, which prevents them drying when cooked but could also be a factor in them often being likened to lamb.  They are small animals so their cooking needs to be adjusted for this too.

It is really high time that we stopped referring to venison generically when their characteristics can be so different. Roe deer, highly rated in France, are always specified as Chevreuil.   In Sweden Roe, Reindeer and Elk are always specifically named although a generic Hjort is used to cover “other” deer.  It amazes me that sellers, particularly online, tell you that they manage herds of both red and fallow deer but then fail to tell you which you are buying!  Each seller is, naturally, convinced that their venison is best but if a consumer has had a bad experience with venison once they will often write the whole thing off when all they need to learn is their own taste preference.

From field to table

Talking of bad experiences, these can often be the fault of an amateur stalker who doesn’t have the right facilities to process the carcase.  Whilst the problem of poaching still exists, most legitimate stalkers are actually very well versed in all aspects of deer handling, thanks to qualification through the British Deer Society.

The size of a deer carcase brings its own challenges.  A red deer stag could weigh up to 190 kilos, although the hinds (females are usually smaller and lighter than males) come in at between 60 and 120 kilos. A fallow deer will be about half the size and a roe about half again.  The stalker will need a refrigerator large enough to hang the carcase otherwise the meat may spoil; and the skill, space, and equipment to butcher the beast into manageable joints.  They will usually want the customer to take the entire carcase although if they have a sales outlet (such as a farm shop or stall at a farmers’ market) they will be able to sell individual cuts.  As with many other foods nowadays, the onus is often on the seller to do much of the preparation and cooking too.  To overcome a lack of cooking ability it is considered necessary to present game in an easily recognisable, non-challenging format, like sausages and burgers, or sell ready cooked pies and meals that just need heating.  These actions help sell venison, but don’t address the long term lack of knowledge about the meat and how to cook it.


Further Information:

Market Research for Scottish Venison Association:


Waitrose Deer Policy:

A presentation by John Gregson of Waitrose to the Game and Wildlife Conservancy Trust was primarily intended to explain their ban on lead shot game.  The lead shot issue is not really in dispute, the various shooting associations having all committed to phasing this out over the next five years and work on alternatives is coming on apace.  The presentation does, however, share a lot of Waitrose’s thinking on satisfying the Millennial market, on which they are clearly focussed.


Wild Venison to Feed Children

The Country Food Trust provides games meals to those in need.  In 2020 they have focussed on the provision of meals to children and also added wild venison bolognese to their range of meals.  It costs them £5 to provide each meal.  You can read more and donate via their website.

Deer Management Training:

The British Deer Society organises courses for those managing and stalking wild deer.  You will also find information, including open seasons, for the species found in the UK on this website.


Deer Farming in the UK

Insight provided by a vet.


Species Tasting Guides:

What information exists mainly comes from the shooting community and you will see from the results of the tasting I conducted for my previous article that opinions vary.  The more this is discussed the better!


Bluebell Woods Wild Venison (Norfolk) https://wildvenison.co.uk/species_taste_guide.php

My cookery tips:



British Walnuts

A fundamental principle of the Campaign for Real Farming is to use British produce as far as possible and import only those foods that we cannot grow here.  Walnuts challenge this principle in that we can grow them, but mostly don’t, at least not commercially.

As the country steps up its tree planting to help combat climate change could walnut trees feature in this planting and at the same time improve our food security?

Almost 40% of the worldwide export in walnuts comes from California, with the UK being their 5th largest market.  Walnuts are rich plant source of Omega 3, and so of special importance in vegan and vegetarian diets, although valued by all for their health-giving antioxidants.  The UK market looks likely to continue to expand whilst repeated drought and wildfires in California throws into question walnut production there.  However, Californian walnuts are sold in supermarkets for less than half the price of the rarely found home produced walnut.  The CBI provides market information for potential new entrants, although personally I would hesitate to recommend growing them from a purely commercial standpoint, although the value of walnut wood is apparently good.

My enthusiasm for English walnuts stems from their culinary attributes.  Californian walnuts are what I had eaten for most of my life until a friend brought a sack back from France.  These walnuts were from Grenoble, the first fruit to receive the French quality symbol that went on to become known as “Protected Designation of Origen”.  Périgord was later also awarded PDO status and is probably the better-known region for French walnuts.  The ones my friend had brought home from Grenoble were a complete revelation to me.  Finally, I understood the fuss about walnuts and from then on Californian just wouldn’t do.

The following year I saw “wet-walnuts” for sale in Somerset and, despite their unappetising appearance, leapt to buy them.  Walnuts are “wet” when they first ripen in September and you could literally squeeze oil from them by hand.  The shells are blacker at this stage, so they don’t look particularly appetising.  When you crack them open the skin is still soft enough that you can peel it away and, as the skin is the most bitter part, you may wish to do this.  Wet walnuts are ideal for pounding to make a sauce – for example to serve with pasta or fish.  However, the nuts won’t store for long unless you dry them.  Walnut oil is very unstable, so even when dried they are best eaten within a few months.  The freshness is probably what made my first taste of Grenoble walnuts so wonderful, and I am now firmly wedded to the seasonal aspect of the nut.  If I see them listed amongst the ingredients of an otherwise clearly summer dish it really jars with me, so whilst some people might see them as a year-round provider of essential nutrients, for me they shout Autumn and Winter.

In addition to the over-riding importance of freshness, the question of the suitability of the trees to a particular area definitely intrigues me.  I accept that the regions of Périgord and Grenoble in France are ideally suited to growing walnuts, but what I can’t say, at this time, is whether we have similarly suitable areas in the UK.

Walnut trees are slow growing but long lived.  They require plenty of space and the land beneath becomes fairly barren owing to the chemical juglone produced by the roots, so it is often planted on the periphery in agroforestry.   It takes 10 years for a tree to start producing a decent number of nuts, and even then, nut production is fairly hit and miss.  No-one seems to be quite able to explain why some trees do well and others do not.  There is an old rhyme that hints at this problem although containing no sensible advice:

A woman, a dog and a walnut tree,

The more you beat them the better they be.

Certainly, walnut trees are unlikely to produce nuts consistently in the northern part of this country and locally in Somerset I have found them to be more forthcoming on the warmer southern flank of the Mendips than on the north, although even here I know ancient trees producing well and others that do not.

In the late 17th century Surrey was at the heart of walnut growing in the UK.  This came about when John Evelyn was asked by the Royal Society to draw attention to the damage done to England’s wooded estates during the English Interregnum and to encourage reforestation. His findings were published in 1664 under the title “Sylva or a discourse on forest trees and the propagation of timber in His Majesty’s dominions”.  He championed the growth of walnut plantations on several family estates, including his own around Godstone, and elsewhere in Surrey, notably at Leatherhead and Carshalton.  The walnut tree was clearly suited to the Surrey soil, although whether it was especially so or just the result of many large estates being found in proximity to the court is not certain. Whilst some people are lucky enough to have their own walnut tree, because of the space required they have always been more associated with large properties.  Their prestigious status is evident from the number of times their presence at a property, even as a single tree, is reflected in the house name.

However, Evelyn’s project came to an abrupt end just two years after his death, when the bitter winter of 1708 destroyed most walnut trees in northern Europe.

Trees were replanted, but commercially it became their timber that produced the greatest value.  Walnut wood is used in cabinet making, marquetry and for gun stocks.  Many trees were felled for this later purpose for the Napoleonic Wars in the 19th century.  The same thing happened again in the Crimean War to the extent that one Birmingham arms maker had to transfer his operations to Turin where the supply of walnut wood was more assured.

And so, we find the current position in Britain today is that walnut trees are mainly grown in isolation, if the garden is large enough, an ever-rarer occurrence; or the remnants of large estate plantings might be found around its margins.  Bossington, part of the Holnicote on Exmoor, provides a great example of the latter.  You can find seven walnuts trees of varying ages around the green and more along nearby roadsides.  The once famous giant tree which had dwarfed a cottage beside the green was felled in the 1950s.

Bossington Walnuts

A more recent estate planting exists near Glastonbury.  Roger Saul decided to replant walnut trees at Sharpham Park when he discovered evidence of them having been grown there when it was a monastery.  300 trees were planted in 2004 and 12 years later they were producing enough nuts to sell.  British walnuts (and Sharpham Park’s are Organic) sell for about £20 a kilo. You can also buy British walnuts online from Potash Farm in Kent.

As yet, few people seem to appreciate the qualities of British walnuts enough to create much demand, although I am convinced that when they taste them, especially the young wet walnuts, they will never look back. The most widely planted variety of walnut tree in the UK is Broadview, but If you are thinking of planting there are many modern hybrids available to suit specific requirements – see the websites below.

I do now have my own walnut tree, but don’t get many nuts from it.  Squirrels are the main problem here.  The tree does produce a decent crop, but the squirrels take the vast majority.  In an effort to beat them to it, I have harvested some of the nuts when “green”, in early July, and pickled them.  Pickled Walnuts are the only culinary use for walnuts for which the British have gained any renown, although we are not by any stretch, the only culture to use this method to preserve them.  One researcher identified more than 60 distinct recipes for pickled walnuts from countries as diverse as Australia, Britain, Canada, China, France, Germany, Greece, Holland, India, Italy, Mexico, New Zealand, Portugal, Russia and Ukraine.  Two features stood out that distinguish “British Pickled Walnuts” (those originating in British speaking countries): – none of them include garlic and all of them include sugar of some type.  About half of the British recipes include ginger.

The use of pickled walnuts varies is as variable as the recipes, but here in Britain they are almost exclusively used as an accompaniment for cold or grilled meats.  I have given Dr Kitchener’s recipe for “Wow-Wow Sauce” which dates back to 1817 as an example of the particularly British use of pickled walnuts.

You can see my walnut recipes here.


A Passion For Trees: The Legacy Of John Evelyn, by Maggie Campbell-Culver 2006

Potast Farm – www.kentishcobnuts.com



https://www.permaculture.co.uk/articles/why-you-should-grow-walnuts-juglans-regia includes a link to companion crops that seem unaffected by juglone.

CBI –  https://www.cbi.eu/market-information/processed-fruit-vegetables-edible-nuts/walnuts

How has Covid impacted on the UK Food Culture?

Although we are still in the grip of the global pandemic Covid 19, the three months lockdown from March 23rd 2020, which in the UK saw all but “key workers” confined to their homes, has now ended and some initial analysis of the impact is possible.

Our food culture is constantly being shaped by changes in our wider social, political, technological, and economic environment. When you look back, the differences between the food culture of one decade and another are quite marked and, whilst Covid is unlikely to prove as significant an event as, for example, the Second World War; this period when all “normal” activity was suspended is sure to have left its mark.  The two other significant influences working at this time are climate change and the role that agriculture plays within this; and our withdrawal from the European Union, leaving us free to determine our own rules, such as how we subsidise farming, but also with whom, and on what terms we will trade.

The Campaign for Real Farming has, since its inception, called for a radical rethink about the way our food is produced and distributed. It has long since given up hope that the level of radical thinking this will require is likely to be achieved by any political party, and instead recognised that change needs to be driven by “Ordinary Joes”.  Covid has already achieved what would have been unthinkable to anyone only a year ago, in that it has forced governments worldwide to put human issues ahead of financial growth; although the desire appears to be a return “to normality” as quickly as possible.  But, having been given the opportunity to step off the treadmill, some of Joe Public appear reluctant to step back on.

The obvious reason for this is a continued fear of catching the virus.  Medicine has made tremendous advances in the last century and we have almost come to expect that it can cure any illness.  Certainly, we do not live with an expectation that a proportion of our family will die prematurely owing to disease.  Beyond this there are many other forces at work, some of which are intimated in this poem, which has been widely shared during lockdown:

And people stayed home
And read books and listened
And rested and exercised
And made art and played
And learned new ways of being
And stopped
And listened deeper
Someone meditated
Someone prayed
Someone danced
Someone met their shadow
And people began to think differently
And people healed
And in the absence of people who lived in ignorant ways
Dangerous, meaningless and heartless,
Even the earth began to heal
And when the danger ended
And people found each other
Grieved for the dead people
And they made new choices
And dreamed of new visions
And created new ways of life
And healed the earth completely
Just as they were healed themselves.

Kitty O’Meara


Working from Home

Almost 50% of the workforce worked from home during lockdown (compared with about 4.7% in 2019) and many of them have decided that they don’t intend to return to the office.  Above all they want a better work/life balance, having realised what can be achieved by releasing an extra hour or two a day that was previously spent commuting.  Financially, those furloughed on 80% of their normal salary, realised that the cost of going to the office accounted for at least the other 20%. They were saving more than this in transport costs, office clothing, buying lunch and coffees.   On average, people were able to reduce their personal debt by £1000 during lockdown.   Of course, this lack of spending in cafés and restaurants was a major driver in the government wanting people to return to work, and Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s Meal Deals.

Whilst not every job can be done from home, and not everyone wants to work this way, employers too have found that, thanks to modern technology, home working can be remarkably productive.  Providing office space, especially in cities, is hugely expensive and it is predicted that some 20% of current office space will remain vacant.

If these predictions are correct, and estate agents are confirming a rise in enquiries for properties further from cities and suitable for homeworking,  it will surely impact not just on those businesses that currently exist mainly to service office workers, but also on our food culture, which is what I am here to consider!


Home Cooking

Around a third of our household expenditure on food and drink is spent on “out of home” meals.  This caused one of the biggest difficulties for our food distribution system when suddenly all of the food that had previously been destined for the wholesale market was instead required at home.  Meanwhile, those at home found themselves required to cook for the whole family three times a day, day after day.  This came at the time of year commonly referred to as “the hungry gap”, when our winter store of fruit and vegetables is nearly depleted, and the seeds for the current year’s crop not yet planted.  We are more dependent on imports at this time of year than any other, and some produce, most notably flour, became in truly short supply.

People coped brilliantly.  From the National Food Strategy report¹ we learn that people were more likely to have cooked from scratch, eaten together as a family, cooked meals to freeze for later, eaten more healthily, shopped locally, and thrown away less food.  From social media we saw that making bread, especially sourdough, was particularly popular, and it seemed that everyone used up bananas by making a loaf.  If people needed advice they could always ask, and there was usually an on-line video available.  The lessons learnt during lockdown are now there for life, and pretty much everyone now has a repertoire of dishes that they can easily reproduce when the need arises.


Cooking from Scratch

39% of people reported cooking more food from scratch and buying less processed food ¹.  Ready meals have become a key feature of our food culture.  We spend 28% more on pre-prepared foods than France, 64% more than the Spanish, 101% more than the Germans and 178% more than the Italians ¹.

Why does this matter?  Health is usually given as the key reason as ready meals are likely to contain higher levels of salt, fat, and sugar than you might use if you made them yourself.  My brother made a birthday cake during lockdown and was astounded at how much sugar it used (he takes an artificial sweetener in his tea and probably therefore considers that he doesn’t really eat much sugar).  He lost weight during lockdown as a result of everything being cooked from scratch; although he was in the minority – 21%, compared with the 40% who gained weight during lockdown ¹.   However, under such stressful circumstances comfort eating (and drinking) is not unexpected.  A growing awareness of the link between obesity and poor outcomes for Covid sufferers has perhaps already seen some of this initial weight gain being shifted.  It will be interesting to revisit these statistics six months down the line.

My biggest gripe with ready meals is that we lose control of the source of the individual ingredients.  This bothers me most with meat.  Even in restaurants, unless the source of the ingredients is stated (and known to me), I tend to order a vegetarian option.  There is a lot of concern that when we strike trade deals with new countries, we will admit foods that have been produced to lower standards than we allow in the UK.  This is not an entirely new problem, and certainly food labelling does not make things clear. For example, whilst people might select an organic chicken if they were choosing  one to cook, when it comes to the chicken in their sandwich or ready meal they have no idea of its provenance and it is here that the most inferior produce lurks.  However, I would not classify all ready meals as “junk food”.  We might spend nearly twice as much on them as the Italians ¹ (presumably on twice the number) but following a delayed flight home from Italy the fresh produce and comparatively good quality ready meals available at Marks and Spencer’s Simply Food in a motorway service station on the way home made me feel almost proud of what we can find here in comparison to Italy.


Sharing meals at the table

Our tendency to grab meals “on the hoof” is evidence of our weak food culture.  The French spend twice as long eating each day.  Here is an extract from the full table, showing the lowest and highest figures:¹





Country Minutes spent eating per day
USA 63
Canada 65
Ireland 75
Spain 126
Italy 127
Greece 128
France 133



Pre lockdown only 58% of families were able to routinely share weekday meals and long working days, including travel time, were the main reason for this. The rise of not only after-school clubs but also breakfast clubs, evidence the problem.  During lockdown 26% reported eating together as a family more often. ¹. Its not actually as great an increase as I would have hoped, but I have a hunch that those who did have seen the benefits of doing so, it may even be something that they felt guilty about before.  Research from the Guy’s and St Thomas’s Charity in conjunction with Bite Back 2030 ² found that 60% of young people, when questioned about their eating habits during lockdown, thought that the increase in shared family meals had been good for their health and well-being.  Harvard psychologist Anne Fishel cites a daily family meal, during which children have a chance to share their feelings and be listened to, results in children who are more optimistic, do better at school and generally enjoy a higher level of well-being ³.  It is, she says, a warm and welcoming atmosphere at table that is most important, the benefits don’t spring from making a gourmet meal.

I normally look after my primary school aged nephews once a week and have been amazed by their fascination with our dining room and “formal” dining accoutrements such as knives and forks!  You only have to glance around a restaurant to see how many adults today seem never to have been taught to use them.  Laying the table is all part of the occasion and, I have insisted my husband join us even though it is earlier than our usual mealtime because I have seen how important it is to them.  The difference in behaviour between British children in a pub or restaurant and the behaviour of those native to the countries at the top of the table above cannot have gone unnoticed.

The current culture for feeding children seems to be “little and often”, yet our British snacking habit is one of the worst things about our food culture and a big contributor to type two diabetes.  At school too, “cafeteria style” options are now the norm and there seems to be little emphasis on the social side of enjoying a meal together.

I would suggest that if the government wants to tackle our obesity problem, they focus some attention here.


Growing your own

This is another aspect in which the government has a role to play.

Estate agents are already seeing considerable demand for properties suitable for home working.  Rightmove and Savills have conducted surveys into the changed priorities.4   The top priority, stipulated by 71% of property searchers, was a garden and outdoor space.  It is not clear how people intend to use this space although of those that already had a garden at the time of lockdown it was notable via social media how many began to grow their own vegetables for the first time.

The council houses that were built after the First World War always included generous gardens with the expectation that families would grow their own vegetables.  Horticulture is a difficult sector to make profitable on a commercial basis, the vegetables sold in supermarkets are so cheap that one almost wonders why anyone would bother to grow their own, unless of course you consider freshness and flavour within the reward!  People growing their own contributes to our food security but the connection to nature and the seasons is fundamental to good eating.  I would put a return to including gardens within housing plans top of the list of actions that the government could take to encourage the positive food practices that we saw in lockdown.  Where this is not possible, they should look at the provision of allotments.  Every school should have a school garden.  The contribution that gardening makes to mental well-being should amply repay the expenditure.  Even those without a garden should be encouraged to grow something – herbs or salad leaves are perfectly possible in a window box and unlike most vegetables, they are usually overpriced in supermarkets.


Obesity is not only caused by Gluttony

The final element of Part I of the National Food Strategy that relates to Food Culture has to do with our health, and particularly the impact that obesity has on Covid 19 patients.  Even before the report’s recommendations had been delivered the Government had announced a “new obesity campaign” proposing legislation to block TV advertising of “junk food”, displaying calories on alcohol and menus, and ending “buy one, get one free” promotions.

The National Food Strategy report expresses concern that the causes of obesity need to be more thoroughly understood and any campaign more precisely targeted and wholeheartedly agree.

It identifies 6 eater profiles and compares their typical BMI, both current(?) and projected at age 50.¹  This is a useful start point for considering the very varied reasons for weight gain, albeit of necessity still simplified into just 6 eater types.

Dr James Le Fanu, writing in the Daily Telegraph, expressed his own concerns about the likely ineffectiveness of the new Government Obesity Campaign stating that the tenor of the proposals, in attributing obesity to a combination of ignorance and self-indulgence, is patronising, moralistic and – wrong.  Whilst the average Briton may be a stone heavier than 50 years ago but, he cautions, as Cambridge nutritionist Andrew Prentice has pointed out we are eating one fifth less food than back in the Seventies.  The culprit, he concludes is not gluttony but a decline in energy expenditure and cites driving rather than walking as an example.

Exactly so, although the example that I most identify with is the introduction of central heating.  As a child in the 1960’s I vividly remember the ice forming on the inside of my bedroom window and a rapid scramble to dress in front of the living room fire.  Similarly, I remember the reluctance to leave the fire to visit the freezing bathroom when nature called.  By 1970, the point from which weight gain is being considered, 30% of households had central heating installed but the percentage increased rapidly from then – 60% a decade later and 95% by 2018.5  The 1970’s saw a plethora of convenience foods, “junk food”, the like of which I wouldn’t touch with a bargepole nowadays.  Yet I was a skinny child; and didn’t start to put on weight until I hit my 30s.  Of course, no-one would suggest we should abandon central heating, but perhaps turn the stat down a bit?  I find almost every public building unbearably hot and our planet might benefit too!

I’m sure there are changes to be made to our diet, which will also benefit the planet and our health, but the issues are complex and although Covid has provided a tremendous unplanned “teachable moment” we need to ensure we make the right decisions going forward – but I am sure Mother Nature will teach us more than any government could ever do.





¹ The UK has had no formal food policy since the end of the Second World War, but leaving the EU, who had been making the majority of our food decisions, had prompted government to call for a National Food Strategy.  DEFRA commissioned businessman and owner of the Leon chain of restaurants, Henry Dimbleby, to carry out a full review, which is due this Autumn.   Part One of this report, specifically considered the cracks in the food system exposed by Covid and mindful of the trade deals the UK is now negotiating, has been published.  The report contains some useful statistics relating to our food habits during lockdown, which I have referred to throughout this article. You can download the report at https://www.nationalfoodstrategy.org/

² Hungry for Change project https://www.gsttcharity.org.uk/what-we-do/our-projects/hungry-change

³ The Family Dinner Project  https://thefamilydinnerproject.org/category/food-for-thought

4 https://www.which.co.uk/news/2020/05/revealed-how-lockdown-has-changed-house-buyers-property-priorities

5 https://www.statista.com/statistics/289137/central-heating-in-households-in-the-uk