One of the first things we hope for from our food is that it will make us healthy rather than ill. Over the past couple of weeks some scary stories have been appearing in the press and other media which suggest that this is not always achieved. First there were the Spanish cucumbers, falsely, as it turns out, accused of causing an E coli outbreak in Germany. Spanish cucumbers….in Germany? Isn’t that rather a long way for cucumbers to travel? Well, yes it is, but it doesn’t surprise me at all since whenever I pass near the motorway that leads through the Languedoc from Spain to the rest of France and then northern Europe the lorries seem to be almost nose to tail as they speed towards the lucrative salad market of the northern supermarkets.
There are so many issues raised by this trade in vegetables: the damage done to the environment by transporting them, the use of scarce water resources in southern Spain to feed the northern hunger for ‘fresh’ food and the exploitation of low-paid migrant labour in the polytunnels of Andalucia, to name but three.
For the moment, I’ll stick to just one other important issue, that of taste. How can a cucumber, a lettuce or a pepper taste good when it has been transported hundreds of kilometres?
Today there’s another E coli story: seven children in northern France have become ill after eating burgers bought in a supermarket. The meat to make the burgers is said to have come from France, Germany and the Netherlands. Three countries, in one burger? It sounds as though this too is very well-travelled food.
A few years ago I read an interesting book by Gillian Tindall, Céléstine, about life in the Berry region of central France 150 years ago. Tindall discovered from letters written at the time that people in the village of Chassignolles very rarely went to the nearest town, La Châtre which was only 7 km away. The only things they needed to buy there were needles for sewing. Everything else was produced in the village. This kind of self-sufficiency is almost impossible to imagine now. But it’s still important, I think, to eat as locally as possible and Lo Jardinièr and I try to eat only food that comes from within 100 kilometres of where we live. That’s not always possible – I have never been able to find a substitute for the Italian coffee to make the three cups of espresso per day that I need, or for the occasional piece of chocolate to accompany the coffee.
But what we try to do, and what I think we should all attempt to work towards, is to grow as much of our food as we can organically, and to buy what we can’t grow locally in small shops and markets rather than in supermarkets. That way, we know where everything comes from, very little of it is processed so we know exactly what it contains, and none of the meat we buy is made in industrial plants which use ingredients from three different countries to make something that really doesn’t taste very good. Local food is safe because everyone knows where it comes from and if it wasn’t safe or didn’t taste good people wouldn’t buy from that producer.
The only chemical we use in the garden – a little Bordeaux mixture or copper sulphate, which is allowed in organic agriculture and protects against blight and other diseases in tomato plants and vines, among other plants.
Our cucumbers are safe to eat and delicious – straight from the garden and onto the table. Most of our vegetables come from plants grown from seed we’ve saved from last year’s plants, or from friends’ plants. These cucumbers come from plants that have travelled a bit further – we buy the young plants in the village market from a stallholder who brings them from the next village 3 and a half kilometres away.