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Under The Plate of Fruit & Veg

Before the Second World War and right up to the late 1960s, most of the fresh fruit and vegetables consumed in this country were grown here and harvested seasonally. Strawberries appeared at this time of year just in time for Ascot and Wimbledon, ready to be doused in lashings of cream.

The asparagus season has always been short: it started in May and whilst featured on restaurant spring menus, asparagus slipped into our kitchens often to be over boiled, ending up rather mushy. Jersey Royals were anxiously awaited at the end of April and were greeted just as enthusiastically as the French welcome their Beaujolais Nouveau in November. Some produce such as potatoes and apples have long been safely stored to give almost year round availability and as storage and growing facilities have improved, lettuce, celery, sugar snap peas and other soft fruits can be found in the shops throughout the four seasons.

Of course before the war, other more exotic fruits and vegetables were available but these were very expensive and imported in small quantities. The one exception was bananas which have always been relatively cheap as a result of our colonial history, the banana tree’s prolific fruit production, very low labour costs and an established and competitive shipping and distribution channel.

With the arrival of supermarkets and their large contracts to fruit and vegetable producers, more regular and cheaper transportation costs and a widening of consumers’ tastes (often as a result of low cost foreign travel), more and more grocery products began to appear from all over Europe and even further afield. Holland, Spain and even South Africa have become our biggest sources of fresh produce but just check the packaging of your weekly shopping and you’ll quickly see blueberries from Poland, green beans from Peru, peas from Kenya, apples from France and a wide variety of just about anything from Thailand.

Today, we have become increasingly concerned about the “air miles” that are clocked up moving fresh and perishable food around the world. This not only causes environmental concerns but also nutritional worries as time, temperature and light reduce the vitamins found in fresh food. Spinach, for example, stored at room temperature, loses between 50 and 90% of its vitamin C in 24 hours. Refrigerated transport over long distances has even more worrying environmental impact. Apples from South Africa accrue thousands of “food miles” yet we have plenty of home grown apples (and many varieties too) at most times of the year. The same goes for many of our green vegetables.

This awareness has prompted most supermarkets to include “local produce” shelves in their offer which both celebrate local growers and recognise that consumers have become more in tune with this dilemma. After all, who wants to be known as an importer of wheat from a country like Ethiopia which has regular food shortages and famines.

Yet oddly enough the “food mile” campaigns never address what our food is served on. So many plates, bowls and glass and china generally are imported great distances, especially from the Far East. Even some of the most established names in crockery and dinnerware, such as Royal Doulton, Portmeirion, Royal Worcester and Dartington, import large parts of their collections when the skills and production capacity at home are freely available. A chase for cheaper and cheaper production inevitably means a reduction in quality, a slowing down of innovation and design development, an increase in dependancy on imports, a destruction of our indigenous manufacturing capacity and ultimately a dumbing down of our individual taste and style – not to mention the “plate miles” accumulated in the process.

We may well like the benefits of collecting air miles from our foreign travels but just as we have begun to question the appropriateness of fresh fruit and vegetables that have travelled half way around the world, perhaps it is time to look underneath our plates to see just how far they have travelled.