Some years ago we made dinner arrangements with a Spanish friend a few weeks before the date we agreed to meet. A week before the date we started to get a wee bit anxious as she hadn’t been in touch to say she was still going to turn up. So we phoned her.
“Of course I’m coming, I told you that weeks ago.”
She didn’t realise that, being British, we needed her to confirm she was still coming at least three or four times before the date arrived.
This week we received an email from friends checking we were still good to meet up in a Portuguese town in a couple of days. We’d made the arrangements some weeks ago, and at the time had agreed where we’d stay etc.
“I wonder why they felt the need to check,” I said to Andy. “We’d have told them if we weren’t coming, what else was there to say?”
When I thought a bit more about it, I realised it was exactly what we would have done in the past.
Whilst we haven’t gone completely native, we have picked up various traits as a result of living outside of the UK.
It’s been such a gradual process we don’t notice some of these till there’s a trigger. In this case the trigger was a spate of articles musing over the availability of various food products in Britain post Brexit. A BBC Countryfile Magazine article considered the possibility of the United Kingdom having to become more self sufficient. The country only grows 61% of the food it consumes. The big problem lies with fruit and vegetables, over 50% aren’t home grown.
To become more self sufficient there would be a need to change eating habits, to have to eat fruit and vegetables that were in season rather than people being able to buy what they want, when they want all year round.
When I read this my first reaction was ‘that’s no big deal, that’s the way we eat and it isn’t a problem.’
But that’s now. We’ve had over a decade and a half to adjust to mainly being only able to buy what was seasonally available in markets and supermarkets. Yet I believe we enjoy an extremely varied diet featuring interesting dishes which we chop and change all the time.
Admittedly, when we were in the Canary Islands, which is a gardener’s dream, there was a lot of gorgeous produce available at any one time. There it’s some meats which have to be imported. In fruit and veg terms, we were spoiled… up to a point. The climate isn’t ideal for all root vegetables, so neeps on Burns Night and roast parsnips at Christmas were replaced with sweet potato, or pumpkin. In autumn we looked forward to braziers in the street serving pokes of freshly roasted chestnuts. That one isn’t so different from Britain.
Sometimes we missed not being able to get exactly the ingredient we wanted, but you learn to adapt and innovate.
Travelling around rural parts of Europe we regularly spot roadside fruit and veg stalls, a good way of seeing what are the seasonal ‘in things’ in any destination. On a spring visit to Crete we saw lots of street sellers sitting beside crates of bulbous artichokes. On a road trip through Croatia we drove alongside rows of ramshackle and colourful kiosks decorated with bulging bags of oranges and tangerines in an area so rich in citrus fruits it’s known as Mandarin Valley. Walking Germany’s Black Forest during October we followed country paths which took us past farmsteads, outside of which honesty crates were packed with multi-coloured pumpkins and squashes. In Drôme Provençale we were teased with stories of how much delicious fun black truffle season was. Teased because we weren’t actually there during the season of the black diamonds.
Just a few weeks ago we stepped off the Lisbon to Porto train to find a stall piled high with cherries on the platform of São Bento train station. Last week, in a cottage in a mountain village in the north of Portugal the owner presented us with a bowl of cherries and a plate of walnuts, both just harvested from her garden. In truth, the walnuts weren’t really breakfast fodder but you get the point.
It’s not just fruit and veg. When we tried to order sardines in a fish restaurant in Sesimbra one March, the waiter shook his head, “no sardines until May. June’s even better.”
The acceptance of what is and what isn’t available is almost subliminal. Maybe because what is available is so good we don’t think of the things we can’t have. I’ve lost count of the number of times visitors have exclaimed “this tastes so much better than it does in Britain”. It’s happened both in the Canaries and in Portugal. There’s a simple reason for that, things tastes so much better in season than they do when mass farmed year round or, especially in the case of imported fruits and veg, picked before they’re ready and then artificially ripened.
There may be some horrendous consequences of the Brexit fiasco, but having to adjust to seasonal eating wouldn’t necessarily be one of them. In fact, it’s something foodies are probably already doing. Eat the Seasons is an excellent website for identifying what to look out for each month.
In Portugal there’s also a wealth of quality local produce. Staying on a small fazenda (farm) we can pick our own oranges, lemons, plums, loquats… when they’re in season. A neighbour often brings around huge courgettes from his sizeable allotment. We’re surrounded by vineyards, there’s a duck farm at the end of the road (the ducks roam freely, until they don’t) and a cheesemaker a few hundred yards away.
There’s even good parsnips in Portugal. Last Christmas we were (sad though it might sound) excited by the prospect of having proper ones with Xmas dinner. However, it would seem the season ends the month before the festive season kicks in. It was back to sweet potatoes yet again. You can’t have it all.