For some time now, we’ve been wanting to write a post about seasonality – it’s a very popular term but what does seasonality really mean for consumers today and how can we buy more seasonal produce?
A long time ago, and in a land not so far away, people either grew and harvested their own fruit and vegetables or bought them from local markets when the produce was ‘in-season’, i.e. when the specific qualities (normally, but not always, flavour) were at their best. As a result, what the people cooked and ate changed throughout the year as produce came in to, and out of, season.
As any gardener will tell you, there are many different varieties of any one given fruit or vegetable and each variety not only has different qualities but also takes a different length of time to grow; for example, the Jersey Royal potato is ready to harvest at around 95 days from planting, whereas Desiree potatoes may take around 125 days. So, by planting different varieties of one vegetable, producers can grow multiple crops (early and main) that extend the time when that vegetable is available – in reality though, each variety will be at its best for only a short period.
Certainly, climate and weather also affect the speed at which plants grow and when crops can be planted; warmer climates normally plant slightly earlier than cooler ones. This means that the same variety maybe available for a longer period, if planted in two or more distinct regions; for example, in Australia, Hass avocados are mainly grown on the eastern and western seaboards, with the avocados from Western Australia coming into season later than those in the east.
Growing varieties in different regions necessitates that the produce is transported and, depending on the transport method, the produce may not be as cheap or as fresh. If a fruit or vegetable doesn’t grow locally though, shipping it in may be the only option.
Today, we also extend the availability of fruit and vegetables using storage. In particular, fruit is often picked early and stored in temperature, humidity and aerobically controlled environments until required. A subsequent spell in ripening rooms (again under controlled conditions and sometimes using gases to accelerate the ripening process) and the produce is ready for sale.
With so many methods of extending the availability of produce, how do you really know when a given fruit or vegetable is in-season locally? Perhaps a good place to start is by buying local; the more local, the better. Thankfully, local farmer’s markets seem to be coming back into fashion and are a great place to buy fresh produce; you can often speak to the growers themselves and ask questions. You’ll also be reasonably sure that the produce hasn’t travelled huge distances to reach you and was probably picked recently as most small producers don’t have the infrastructure to transport or store large quantities.
If you’re looking for information, there are a number of charts on the internet that show the rough seasons for common vegetables and fruit but these generally don’t go down to the variety level so apples, for example, are ‘in-season’ for the whole of Autumn which is technically true, but some varieties will be better than others at different times. Some charts also list availability as opposed to seasonality so make sure you check the fine print. Finally, as we live in a global community, you also have to bear in mind where you live and when your seasons start; charts for north America that detail calendar months may not be as applicable to Europe and will be incorrect for places like Australia and New Zealand.
As we strive for ever-increasing convenience and a broader range of produce, fruit and vegetables have become available in more places and for longer periods (sometimes even all year around) making it harder to know what’s in-season. Thankfully, truly seasonal produce is still available if you want to look for it and there’s information available to guide you in your search. Choosing different varieties will help to extend the period of time when you can enjoy fresh produce and may add a new twist to a favourite dish.
Remember in-season varieties taste better, are more nutritious and are generally cheaper.