It’s early spring here in southern Tasmania; no doubt about it. The bulbs have pushed their green fingers through wet soil, the daffodils have thrust their cheerful faces towards the sky and the garden is gently unfurling itself, seeking the warming sun. The nights are still chilly but the days are lighter and warmer, and this weekend the first bees appeared, contentedly buzzing among the bright blue flowers of my borage.
It’s the lean season in the garden: winter crops of brassicas are going to seed and falling victim to the aphids that manage to appear out of nowhere. My spring greens, freshly planted, are little more than shoots and sprouts and the summer veg still lie in coiled potential within their seeds, sleeping in the warmth of my tiny greenhouse. The lack of local produce at this time of year can be felt at the grocery store and at the market. Winter root vegetables are past their best, with potatoes threatening to sprout in the cupboard and parsnips turning woody. There’s still kale about, but after 4 months of kale feast I’ve had my fill until next winter. At my local grocer the shelves are stocked with eggplant from north Queensland ($14 a kilo!), strawberries from Western Australia and green beans from somewhere in northern New South Wales. It’s all food that’s travelled a long way from market, by boat or plane, or spent months in cold storage, before it reaches our plates.
Me, I like to eat fresh local produce that reflects the seasons. There’s a whole load of good reasons to do this:
- Local food gets to you sooner, so the food is fresher, tastes better and has peak nutrient content.
- It’s more energy efficient, as less energy has been used to store and transplant the food.
- Seasonal growing also requires fewer resources as we’re working with nature: no lighting, no heating, less fertilizers, less pesticides and less irrigation.
- Seasonal eating allows us to taste the changing seasons and be more connected with the world around us.
- It supports local growers and brings local products to market, improving food security and helping to build community.
- It’s cheaper, as you’re not paying for the transport, storage, and other resources, plus you can grow a lot to eat yourself!
So what to eat in Hobart in September, when the pickings are slim and the shops full of imports? It turns out that there’s quite a lot! Between my little garden and Farm Gate Market I’m managing surprisingly well. You just might need to broaden your definition of vegetables to get the most out of early spring. A 10 minute forage in my still-establishing garden yielded the array of tasty goodies pictured above:
- The last tiny shoots of sprouting broccoli, surprisingly sweet and just bite-sized.
- Delicate fronds of salad burnet, rapidly unfurling new spring growth.
- The first pickable leaves of oak lettuce, a self self-sown surprise in the berry bed.
- The last few leaves of my winter crop of rocket (arugula), now in full flower.
- “Rocketini” – the whole seedling thinnings from the spring crop of rocket – densely packed with nutrients and flavour.
- Soft new leaves of the nasturtiams - such a lovely peppery taste.
- A few sprigs of salad-friendly herbs: coriander shoots, sea celery and deep green mint.
- a beautiful selection of edible blooms: bright yellow kale, maroon and cream rocket, borage blue and the cheery orange of nasturtiam.
Edible flowers are one of my favourite spring garden things, and this evening’s pickings turned my garden fresh salad into a delicious, nutritious work of art. With the addition of avocado donated by a friend with a bumper crop, some baby radish greens* from the incredible new season radishes I picked up at the Market (thanks Provenance Growers!), some Huon Valley smoked salmon and a splash of local raspberry vinegar for dressing, everything on my plate this evening came from this little isle and most of it came from my back yard, a new patch that’s only just beginning its kitchen-garden journey.
That said, I still find myself yearning for a glossy dark eggplant (aubergine) or a bright red capsicum (bell pepper). I grew up in Queensland where European veg grows through the winters and summers are full of south-east Asian flavours, but I have learnt that the well-travelled specimens that grace our southern shores are a poor echo of the flavours I’m dreaming of. Better off waiting for the long days of late summer, when the locally grown stuff appears and life is Mediterranean-flavoured. For now I’ll celebrate the flavours of Tasmanian spring in all its fresh green glory, and preserve the few excesses of the season to flavour the summer to come.
Want to know what’s in season where you are? There are lots of great, region-specific seasonal food guides available on-line, or wander down to your local produce market and see for yourself!
* Yes, radish leaves are perfectly edible! So are beetroot leaves. Both can be used as salad or lightly stir-fried but the youngest, freshest leaves are best.
These days I think most everyone who’s interesting in food – from either a taste or a sustainability perspective – has discovered the benefits of shopping at local farmer’s markets*. Fresh, local produce that tastes great and supports the local community: what’s not to love?
There’s a lot of good information out there about the benefits of shopping at your local market and avoiding the supermarket produce aisles:
- The food is fresher, thus packed with more nutrients and will keep fresh for longer.
- You can get a broader range of varieties, bred for flavour and to suit local conditions, rather than shelf-life and supermarket aesthetics.
- You’re supporting smaller farmers who tend to manage their land more sustainably than the big agri-business growers that supply the supermarkets (where often decisions are made too far away from the land).
- You’re supporting the local economy, investing directly into your own community instead of creating profits for multi-national corporations.
- You’re shrinking your carbon footprint by purchasing food that’s locally grown and in season, avoiding energy use for storage and transport.
These are all very good reasons to consider shopping at farmer’s markets (though there are potential down-sides in terms of global food security, affordability and global distribution of wealth, but that’s a complicated discussion for another day) and what originally got me out of bed on a Sunday morning to head down to Farm Gate, but it’s not the main thing that keeps me coming back.
What keeps me supporting my local market is the sense of community this simple activity builds. Sometimes I’ll wander the market with a friend, making new connections as we meet people they know, but often I’m happy to wander alone and strike up conversations as I go, a question about growing techniques or flavour combinations turning into a connection over shared interests. Over time I’ve come to know a few of my favourite stall holders and growers, learning about their businesses and the passions that drive them to produce small-scale, high quality food.
There’s Ross and Matt with their free-range heritage-breed pork products, who have made me finally understand what the fuss over bacon is about. There’s the amazing Paulette of Provenance Growers, with her near-encyclopaedic knowledge of unusual edibles and native herbs who is enabling my ever-expanding herb collection (and her mum, who keeps me happily supplied with finger limes). Mark of the Naked Carrot and grower of tasty micro-veg has a ready smile and says nice things about my photography, and Masaaki Koyama makes the best sushi I’ve ever eaten (and has cooked for Iron Chef Sakai!).
Through these talented cooks and growers I’ve learnt more about where my food comes from and the challenges local farmers face. I’ve learnt what to do with broad beans and mizuna, eaten purple spuds and slippery-jack mushrooms and ditched growing parsley for the tastier native sea celery. From the market I’m learning what to sow and harvest each season in my own little patch, when dairy goats produce the best milk and how to cook a cassoulet, but more than that I’m making friends with the people who feed me, connecting a little deeper with my local community.
From the corner store to your favourite café, food has an enormous power to draw people together, and no-where have I found that more strongly illustrated than at the market. These days I look forward to catching up with my favourite market people as much as to the delicious produce I’m going to be bringing home.
Have you nurtured a sense of community through food? Got any ideas of how we can connect our communities through food in places without farmer’s markets or where socio-economic drivers keep people away? I’d love to hear about community gardens, co-ops and other projects that grow more than just food and feed more than our bellies.