When you work in sustainable food, people expect things.
If the word ‘supermarket’ is mentioned it is wrapped in an ashamed apology. People react with surprise when I talk enthusiastically about the new wave of meal-substitute shakes. And if there’s a menu recommendation to make, I’m apparently the go-to guy.
To be honest, I don’t often challenge these assumptions – they can be quite interesting (where does their ‘supermarket guilt’ comes from?) and useful – like last month when I was invited to judge the 2014 Soil Association Organic Awards.
But the dark truth is that I really don’t care very much at all about food.
I care very very deeply about the food system, its impacts, and how to maximise its potential; I care about the ingredients of meals, and the personal and public health repercussions; but when it comes to the flavours of food, I don’t really care very much at all. As long as it’s somewhere upwards from “not completely disgusting” or “probably poisonous”, I’ll probably eat it and be happy.
You might expect that this would come as a bit of a disappointment to the Organic Awards entrants, but this is actually good news – because this year things are a little different. This year, rather than just judge by taste and flavour, the Soil Association have decided to judge the business in its entirety.
So when the judges gathered in London a few weeks ago to short-list items for public voting in September, we were given not just table upon table of wonderfully prepared samples, but fact sheets detailing how they protect and develop their environment, wildlife, and the health and wellbeing of their employees, customers, and community. And they are great to read.
It is massively uplifting and reassuring that in an era dominated by short-termism, cost-cutting, and irresponsibility, that there are people out there who work relentlessly towards wiser goals; and that they choose to do so in an area as vital – yet as thankless and poorly paid – as food.
Yet hand-in-hand with this admiration comes a more upsetting and bewildering thought: This is some of the finest food I have ever tasted. From farming methods through to packaging, the process has been consciously designed to minimise harm and maximise good. If it’s possible to be so good, why do we support – nay, subsidise – industrial production?
And on top of that, this year’s awards come hot on the heels of the recent meta study of the health benefits of organic produce by Newcastle University – which show there are even broader benefits to organic food.
There were one or two particular highlights which stood out for me.
- Rhug Estate lamb: oh my word that was amazing. The flavours are extraordinary! We were lucky enough to try a shoulder and a leg from two different parts of the farm, one on the saltmarshes one on the applicants, and the difference from terroir is simply remarkable. The salt-marsh lamb was as if mildly infused with cloves. Mind blowing.
- Growing Communities and Wild Country Organics salads: such marvellous diversity in the bag – so many different flavours of green! There are 40 different leaves, heads and editable flowers in each bag, and over the year Growing Communities grow 123 varieties of leaves. That diversity, especially in an urban setting, rocks my world. Versus iceberg and lollo rosso normality, most of us have no idea what we’re missing. The stories behind these salads make them even more extraordinary.
Tristram Stuart of Feedback and I had the fun job of also judging veg boxes. Some were obviously less impressive than others, but it was really hard to judge fairly.
National companies do a great job of growing the market and providing a safe and dependable first-step into healthier produce, but versus all the local boxes they simply didn’t stack up in quality, or quantity.
Remember, though, that this is a relative statement: they’re all better than 97% of the produce you’ll find in supermarkets.
Some of the local boxes are extraordinary value, until you remember you’re not comparing like with like. Some are paying high land rent, employ lots of people, and are paying back start-up costs; whereas others are long-established, multi-generation family-farms paying no rent, and living in areas of cheap housing and labour. Directly comparing price on those two seems a little harsh, so thankfully there’s the produce to compare, too. Some seem to get the best of both worlds: for example, if you live near Shillingford Organics you are extremely lucky and I’m jealous.
All the entries were fantastic – and during Organic September you’ll be able to judge for yourself on the Soil Association website.