By the Going Local Going Green Team
Back in September we hit the halfway marker of our year long project; Going Local Going Green. We celebrated with a workshop at Feed Bristol’s Land and Food forum under the theme of 'resilience within our food system' - giving us a chance to reflect on our findings concerning Bristol's food landscape. And, most importantly, to talk about our recent locavore diet (the 100 mile diet).
Looking at the 4 other main themes of our research (nature, health, land and economy), how they relate to food and where they might play a role in our food system, we started with the basics. Where does our food come from and can we find it within 100 miles of Bristol?
Nuts, seeds and beans
When autumn arrives it becomes evident that there are lots of nuts we are able to grow in the UK. You just need to look up. From walnuts, hazelnuts, sweet chestnuts and beechnuts to the famous Kentish cobnuts we have a free and available alternative for omega's as nuts are a good protein source. Down in Devon in 2007 Transition Town Totnes started finding available land to plant over 300 nut trees - a conscious effort to provide free nuts for the community. Both sunflowers and pumpkins grow in the UK - and by default British sunflower and pumpkin seeds should be available. However, after a quick check at the health food shop and the local supermarket, most of these are imported from China or Turkey, suggesting economic reasons for the imported seeds (perhaps due to available land). Seeds that are readily available and grown in the UK include linseed or flax, hemp and quinoa - take your pick.
When it comes to beans, Hodmedods are an amazing organisation borne out of the Great British Beans project. Lots of beans have been grown in the UK since the iron age - and Hodmedods are started to revitalise the phenomenon. Their peas are from Shropshire, haricot from Cambridgeshire, gogmagog from Sussex and green split peas from Lincolnshire, East Anglia and Kent. Growing beans now appears to be more of an economically viable choice for some farmers, as we see more appearing on our supermarket shelves.
The SouthWest, as we well know, is famous for it's cheese. Cheddar comes from down the road, there is Dorset Vinney, Double Gloucester and Somerset Brie - just to name a few. Lye Cross, Godminster and other smaller dairies show that many folk are in the business of cheese making. When doing the research around 100% local cheese, however, we found that rennet, which is used in the cheese making process (and used to be from animal fat, but in organic cheese it is a mix of mesophilic cultures) isn’t always local, or even GM-free. We’ve started exploring raw dairy, and non-homogenised dairy like Brown Cow Organics River Cottage yoghurt, but raw dairy is only available direct from the farmer by law. So, you best keep your ears open for the new urban goat project Street Goat that’s making progress in the city as we speak. Even some seemingly local products like Yeo Valley are not in fact as local as we think. Sourcing their milk from OMSCO means that we’ve no guarantee that the product will be ‘local’ - but we can still be guaranteed it’s organic, and from the UK. One of the real tricks we’re missing by not using small scale local dairy is the change in taste and flavour of the milk, yoghurt and cheese from season to season, depending on whether the animal has been out to pasture or not. Surely one of the smaller joys in life?
Herbs and Spices
With herbs and spices, we orginally were very concerned with the latter. However there are various foraged alternatives we can find within our local area including peppery Alexander seeds, Nasturtium Seeds (which taste a bit like capers when pickled in local cider vinegar), Rock Samphire (which can we found near the sea) and lemony sorrell - all foraged herbs and spices that we found useful as spice relacements. Needless to say we also relied heavily on freshly grown herbs from home - the type of plants that grow well in our climate (rosemary, thyme and mint).
Looking a little further afield for shop bought herbs, we found The Community Farm had a great selection at the Better Food Company, the Organic Herb Trading Company down in Somerset supplies from their very own herb field as well as imports from fair trade, organic and ethically run farms. The Cornish Chilli Company and the South Devon Chilli Farm were also great finds for our spicy chilli needs. When it comes to salt we found the two obvious choices; Maldon and Cornish Sea Salt and we even found Norfolk Saffron.
We are a nation of tea drinkers, and lo and behold, we are growing tea - but perhaps not in the volumes needed to keep our nation happy all year around. In fact, not even close. We found that Tregothan Tea couldn't tell us if any of their packaged teas were 100% British grown - implying that their local blend is cut with Assam. We found similar results with the Cornish Tea company. These folk show that coffee can be grown in our climate in small doses but perhaps didn’t taste as good as that from native coffee lands.
As well as tea drinkers, we British do also love a good loaf of bread. Our research found that we could get local chestnut flour if we're willing to forage and grind the chestnuts ourselves. Wye Dean Healthfood store did have some chestnut flour in stock - but it came all the way from France. Sharpham Park in Somerset became our favourite mill - with their spelt flour becoming a baking necessity. Doves, Shipton Mill and Sharpham Park use EU and Canadian wheat to get a perfect blend when it comes to some of their flours. For an already baked loaf, it appears that all the Bristol classic bakeries, such as Herberts, East Bristol Bakery, Marks Bread, Hobbs House, all used a mixed blend to give a better taste. Yeast was a non-local story, Shipton Mill yeast comes from Germany and Hovis' yeast comes from UK - but sometimes from the EU, there is no way of knowing. Your best bet is to grab a sour dough starter from a baking mate.
As for oats - our new favourite provider is Pimhill, just down the road in Shrewsbury, which can be bought at Better Food Company in huge sacks, or smaller ones if you wish. No need to travel all the way up to Scotland.
Processed oils we found in the local area included Rapeseed (Fussels in Frome, Cotswold Gold, Bell&Loxton) but we couldn't find organic rapeseed in the UK as the nature of the growing process - rapeseed is very nitrogen hungry. Hemp oil we found with Green Dragon grown in Totnes. Jo is now a complete convert to ghee - which you can make at home and is lower in lactose so good for lactose intolerant people. We are as yet to find a local nut butter - we found some in local section of Surrey’s Co-op, but after closer inspection the product didn't have any local ingredients at all!
When it comes to meat we're lucky in the SouthWest. There's loads of meat we can garner from the wild (squirrel, hare, rabbit, wood piegoen, pheasant, venison, wild boar) either via roadkill or local hunters. Interestingly over in the Forest of Dean it's quite difficult to eat the boar that's hunted in the local area as it tends to be shipped out to the rest of the country. With beef there are various producers in the Bristol area - the Story Organic being one of the best. Source and Blagdon Butchers supply a great range of local and organic meats. Source also does a great range of cured meats, although after a chat with Joe, coupled by a realisation that the salt is from Spain meant that we had to put them back on the shelf during the local diet. However Joe did know personally the particular farm that supplies the black peppercorns in Indonesia, raising again the issue of whether local really is the best choice. With sausages we have Bath Pig and Helen Browning's Organic, but the issue with sausages is the input that goes into them. Where do the skins come from? Where does the vitamin C powder come from thats routinely used in sausage making? Organic chicken is still proving to be very expensive, but Source supply some very reasonable freerange chicken from local farms. Chicken is a definite case of 'taste the difference'. If you're eating a happy, healthy chicken, you can taste it. Another staple is bone broth. You can grab bones for free from any butchers and boil them up for a delicious stock, like the Hemsley and Hemsley girls like to to do. Delicious.
Fish (& seafood)
Our local fish supplier could be Brixham in Devon - within 100 miles. Of course there's no telling how far the fish have swam! In London the community supported fishery Sole Share are suppliying ethically sourced fish to the people of London. Here, a lot of the fish supplied in the Better Food Company are from the North Sea. Bristol Fish Shop is linked in with aquaponics and supplies cray fish from the channel. We've found issues with the unsustainability of fish farms in the UK, but the Community Land Trust is working on new ideas for fishing systems in Devon. You can even drop in to Phoenix cafe for an example of how aquaponics work.
We have a rich heritage of apples, plums and perry pears, with a wide range of apple varieties that can supply us for ten out of twelve months of the year, yet what is available now is a shadow of former times. The saying 'as different as chalk and cheese' comes from Somerset, with the Somerset levels being rich pasture for dairy and the hills chalky and historically covered with apple orchards, but thousands of acres have been ripped out in the last 40 years with the rise of cheap imported supermarket apples. Of course, the west country is famous for its cider, which use to be a staple. Then there is cider vinegar with its important role in preserving and high health benefits. Perry Pears are a native species, both long lasting and prolific. The orchards just south of Gloucester had a national reputation, but now only a few trees remain standing majestically in what is now pasture for cattle and sheep. You can forage for apples and pears or find them through Horfield Community Orchard or the community orchard at Royate Hill.
The Blue Finger (the high grade agricultural land running out of Bristol on either side of the M32) wasn’t just home to growing vegetables for Bristol, it also used to have hundreds of plum orchards centred round Winterbourne and Frampton Cotterel, and also has it’s own variety - the Frampton Magnum. Only remnants remain, again as a result of cheap imports.
The local area does have an abundance of wild and hedgerow berries; blackberries, haw berries, rose hips and others. Whilst they may not yield as heavily as top fruit, berries have significant health benefits and preserve well, and could play an important part in our diet and health particularly in the dark months of the year. Mushrooms are another fruit that our habitat is well suited to that is under utilised with high nutrition and health properties, easy to find during a forage if you know what you're looking for!
Overall, there is not much vegetable growing, either organic or chemical in the Bristol area, especially when you consider the climate and soil. Dairy farming and property development have been prioritised over growing vegetables. Seasonality also plays a significant role as the diversity of what is grown locally is not what it could be (largely due to the limited extent of local production), so at certain times of year much of what is available organically is imported from Spain and/or Lincolnshire, but you can get a local box from Sims Hill Shared Harvest right at the bottom of the M32.
A hundred years ago, the Blue Finger had a hundred odd growers supplying Bristol’s markets. It is worth noting that the Frome Valley had a water system including land drains and ponds, and that horses provided cultivation power, transport and manure. Sims Hill, Feed Bristol, Edible Futures and Beacon Farms are looking to reclaim and restore this heritage but they are small and recent events have shown how vulnerable and precarious this process is!