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Do you know where your food comes from?

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There’s something about the fresh country air and acres of green fields that makes you want to stride into a garden (not just anyone’s garden, that’s stealing) and pluck your own rocket from the ground, your own tomatoes from the greenhouse, raspberries from a bush and return to your huge, homely kitchen and produce a perfectly fresh meal on the Aga.

And while this is near enough what the Stylist team achieved in Dorset (with a lot of help from local farmers), for most of us – and definitely for me – it’s completely unrealistic. Not least because I don’t have a garden (or even a herb pot). And because, like you, I work long hours. Most nights I veer by a supermarket on the way home, picking up pre-packaged ingredients to throw in a microwave or a wok. Whatever’s quick. Whatever’s easy. It’s why there are now 440 Sainsbury’s convenience stores in the UK. This year alone, Tesco is opening 160 new Metro stores. There are, at last count, 244 Pret A Mangers and 760 Starbucks in the UK. Every street corner seems to hold a quick-fix temptation.

Even with the best intentions – our enduring love of recipe books and our enthusiasm for cookery programmes – we struggle to evade the grip of fast food. Feeding ourselves has become so easy, so functional and so sanitised, that although we appreciate the merits of eating seasonally and cooking from scratch, we rarely manage it ourselves.

But food is no longer about convenience and time-saving. It’s become a bigger, ethical issue, where people are stopping to question what they buy and why. The horsemeat scandal that swept through the British Isles in January this year is the latest in a long line of incidents which have highlighted the fact that we have lost a handle on how our food is produced. When horse DNA was found in beef products on sale in British supermarkets, it illustrated that tracing food to an honest, ethical source is more important than ever. In March, researchers writing in the journal BMC Medicine announced that processed meats are linked to “early death”, and recommended that we eat no more than 20g a day (two sausages and a rasher of bacon is 160g).

It’s enough to make you turn vegetarian, which is precisely what more of us are doing. The ‘flexitarian’ is on the rise (think of it as a 90% existence as an upstanding veggie, with maybe a burger or roast chicken thrown in). Food trend analysts are predicting a 50% increase in the number of us going completely meat-free over the next year, with some choosing to sidestep fish, a food group also steeped in confusion over mercury poisoning. This year, a new study by the Biodiversity Research Institute in Maine claimed that 84% of all fish contains unsafe levels of the metal.

In the mid-Noughties, we were advised to stop eating cod and tuna because of the devastating effects of overfishing in the North Sea. (To find out which stocks are now sustainable go to fishonline.org.) And then came the dawning realisation that our taste for passion fruit, kiwis and avocados was killing rainforests, forcing freight planes across the Atlantic and diminishing any sort of nutritional value in the process.

The local food movement, artisan producers and the return of nose-totail eating are all symptomatic of this growing unease about what we are choosing to eat: the Food and Drink Federation, which represents food manufacturers in Britain, expects an industry growth of 20% by 2020. Food is on the agenda like never before. In 1996, there were no farmers’ markets in the UK. In June last year, there were estimated to be 750. Duchy Originals, Prince Charles’ charitable foundation producing organic food, saw profits jump by a third last year. Dorset Cereals also announced a healthy profit, despite a price tag of £3.99 a box. Even the street food vans that populate every festival and food market – once the purveyors of the greasiest burgers – won’t even start up the grill unless every ingredient is organic, traceable and of the highest quality.

It was in the spirit of local, homegrown produce that we decided to set ourselves the challenge to source our food from scratch; could we make an entire meal, for eight people, with food sourced from our Dorset farm; pulled from a vegetable patch, foraged from the land or killed ourselves within a 10-mile radius? It was, for us all, a journey of discovery.

the meat market

Meat consumption is becoming a major sticking point. it comes ready-packed, bloodless and often pre-seasoned. Some labels will note the farm it’s from; all state country of origin. Beyond that, we don’t think much more about it. But if we are prepared to eat something, we should know how the animal has been killed to get it. Which is how I ended up at Clarke’s abattoir in Salisbury (clarkesthebutcher.co.uk). There are currently 370 abattoirs in England and Wales, and when we asked the British Meat Processors Association which ones serve the supermarkets, they couldn’t tell us “as companies tend to be quite secretive about that sort of thing”. In 2010, Morrisons was so distressed by leaked footage of animals being cruelly slaughtered, they pledged to install CCTV in all their abattoirs.

The abattoir comprises a small out-house building of five rooms, with one concrete-floored room and doors that remain open at all times. As I take up my post by the doorway, four men in white overalls ready the room for the cow’s arrival. Everything is hosed down and cleaned military-op style; quick, efficient, no fuss. In summer they kill, on average, four cattle a day and around 30 to 40 sheep (it can go up to six cattle a day and 60 sheep at Christmas). There is a vet present to perform a pre-slaughter inspection, check the animal’s health and passport, and monitor the hygiene and butchering process. I’m surprised at how respectful it is. After the cow is stunned and killed, its carcass is turned into 240kg of meat – a selection of prime cuts from the back quarters such as sirloin and rump, and longer cooking meats such as stewing steak from the front.

“I love cows,” says Malcolm, one of the team, as he’s handed a cup of tea. “But they’re bred for meat. The best thing we can do is treat them well in death.” We discuss the differences in abattoirs; how in some factory abattoirs, cows often travel for hours in trucks to be killed, witnessing other animals being slaughtered while they’re waiting in line. “That’s why you should get your meat from a local butcher,” he explains. “You know it’s top quality and the animal’s been treated humanely.”

Malcolm told me that every meat eater should witness the death of a cow, and I think he’s right. It’s a visceral, graphic experience and, in my opinion, if you can’t watch it, you shouldn’t be eating it. One colleague won’t eat anything she wouldn’t be comfortable killing herself, and I have to agree. But how many of us have rules such as these we can genuinely uphold? I left with some cow cheek for our evening meal, along with a new-found respect for where it had come from.

Farm to fork

Eating seasonally was also highlighted on the farm. You can buy anything at any time; leeks in July despite British leeks not being ready until November. Our expectations mean we’ve forgotten how climate affects our diet. “There wasn’t a summer last year, which meant there wasn’t a growing season for farmers,” explains Jo Lewis of the Soil Association. Staples such as potatoes, sprouts, carrots and cauliflowers were in short supply at Christmas (the supermarkets had to import them to make up the shortfall).

This year, plums have been wiped out by the long winter, although the apple harvest looks like a bumper one due to the trees not flowering until late spring. Following our strict, seasonal rules, we created a meal around what we can pick – potatoes, broad beans, shallots, rocket, mange tout, spring onions, bay leaves, thyme, rhubarb and strawberries. Challenging, but way more enriching than any supermarket ready meal.

Our year-round demand for every conceivable fruit and vegetable is happily supplied by the supermarkets, but at what cost? Sugar snap peas come from Central America, Kiwi fruit from Chile, and all lose most of their vitamins (largely, the B vitamins, C and E) in the process of being exposed to light and temperature over periods of time in storage that, for more robust vegetables like potatoes, can stretch up to six months. In turn, seasonality, links to supporting our own farming industry. We are all guilty: if a recipe calls for asparagus, we’ll happily pop it in the trolley, despite the fact that outside the UK’s short season in May and early June, it’s likely to come from Peru.

Despite all the pleas from the farming industry (and Jamie Oliver), we’re all guilty of not choosing British produce. Cheap Danish bacon (£3 for 300g compared to Sainsbury’s Organic at £3.99 for 200g) finds its way into our shopping basket. New Zealand lamb sells between £2.50 to £5 a kilo cheaper at wholesale than British produce, so supermarkets rarely buy homegrown lamb. Britain’s dairy industry has been described as “bleak”; last year, during the terrible summer, it cost farmers 30p to produce a litre of milk (the price hike came from the cost of keeping their herds out of the elements) and they were lucky if they’d get 25p in return. “British farmers are under pressure to meet higher welfare standards,” explains Jo Lewis. “Cheap meat and milk are the UK’s favourite imports, so if we buy higher welfare, we tend to support British farmers.” And if we don’t, we are in danger of losing our small producers. In their place, we’ll have industrial-size farms where animals are merely a cog in a machine.

“The Red Tractor logo is a shortcut to good quality food,” explains Debbie Cawood from the NFU. “This means what you’re buying is British, good quality and supports British farmers.”

It was humbling to realise how little I knew about the origin of my food and my shopping habits (I’ll never be caught buying Danish butter again). And that’s the crux of the matter: it’s up to us, the consumers, to drive demand. “Ask about the provenance of the food and about the standards,” says Rebecca Lenik from Freedom Food. “If you’re not convinced about what you’re being told, don’t buy it. It’s all about consumers being savvy and demanding better welfare.” It’s within our power to change the system. If you want to make a difference, turn over to find out how.

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