Season’s eatings: an Australian obsession we could all learn from
Australia has won me over with its evangelical dedication to buying fresh, local produce when it is in season
“Of all the surprises I’ve had since temporarily moving here, the greatest has been the almost evangelical dedication of many Australians to buying fresh, local produce when it is in season.”
It’s almost mango season here in Australia. I know this because every second person I’ve spoken to in the last couple of weeks has told me so. A dribble of fresh, locally grown mango juice running down your chin seems to be the Australian equivalent of the moving elves in the window of Brown Thomas or the Penneys “Gotta whole lotta things for Christmas” ad. It’s not Christmas here until you’ve been mangoed.
Australia is not renowned for the sophistication of the national palate, which is associated in the eyes of the rest of the world with sausages sizzling on barbecues, Tim Tams and tins of beer. And yes, Australians like their barbecues and their beer (though I’ve yet to see anyone over the age of 10 eating a Tim Tam, which turns out to be a Penguin bar in a different wrapper.)
But that’s not the whole story. Of all the surprises I’ve had since temporarily moving here, the greatest has been the almost evangelical dedication of many Australians to buying fresh, local produce when it is in season.
Watermelon faux pas
One of my non-Australian friends tells a story about how, when she arrived here, she offered to bring some watermelon along to a party. She was taken aside by one of the other guests and told in horrified tones that no one would eat watermelon at this time of year. “It’s not in season.”
Much of it this is down to simple economics. Even in the big supermarkets, 95 per cent of the fruit and vegetables on sale are Australian-grown. If you need to buy raspberries in Sydney tomorrow, you’ll have to subsidise their travel expenses – that’s why raspberries are rotting on the shelves at $10 (€7) a punnet. Giant watermelons, which are in season now, can be had for as little as 99 cent per kilogram; a quarter melon is roughly the price of four out-of-season blueberries, which are $13 (€9) a punnet.
I started shopping in season from the local greengrocer’s when I came here because of price, but I’ll go on doing it even after I return home because of taste. Fruit that has been plucked before it is ripe, sprayed with hormones to delay the onset of maturity, and flown halfway around the world, just doesn’t taste as good as fruit that has been left to ripen on the tree and transported a few miles down the road. This shouldn’t be a revelation, but somehow it is: I have rediscovered the flavour of bananas and strawberries, and for the first time, I realise that “cotton wool” is not the most accurate description of the flavour of peach.
Ireland doesn’t benefit from a climate that can grow its own bananas or citrus fruits, but there are lots of things we do produce: in season right now are apples, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, swedes and turnips. In summer we produce beautiful strawberries and raspberries, and the forgotten, unfashionable fruits of our childhood such as gooseberries and loganberries.
In the past 30 years, supermarkets have completely changed the way we think about food. Ninety per cent of shoppers buy their fruit and vegetables from one of the major retailers, according to a 2010 Bord Bia report, compared with one in four – usually older and more affluent – who buy from greengrocers. One in five said they bought occasionally from a farmer’s market or direct from a farm – but the total volume of fruit and vegetables bought this way came to just 6 per cent.
Supermarkets, many foreign-owned, lure us in with the promise of low prices, convenience and year-round supply, and then they bamboozle us with two-for-one offers on things we don’t really need. They turn us into mindless shoppers, shuffling around in a state of semi-catatonia, focused on instant gratification and minimum outlay.
We don’t want to wait until June for our strawberries; we want them now, even if they’ve been flown all the way from Egypt and taste of boiled turnip. We want our salad washed and bagged and liberated of all flavour and nutrients; our carrots peeled and chopped, and our cheese pre-grated, even though experience has taught us that we might as well slice up a child’s eraser and sprinkle it on our sandwich.
I’m not vowing to give up supermarket shopping entirely – they are convenient and often cheaper. And you never know, they day might come when I really want a strawberry in December. But mindless shopping – that’s another matter.
The Irish Times Food Month is taking place throughout November. You will find food-related content in all of our sections, from Business and Sports to here in Life & Style. We will also have reader events, competitions and lots of exclusive content at irishtimes.com