As WE reach the tail-end of summer, we’re also seeing the last of our seasonal soft fruits in the shops. It’s been a great season for strawberries and raspberries, but tell that to three-quarters of the population.
Newly published research has revealed shocking levels of ignorance about when fruit and vegetables are at their best. Only a quarter of those questioned knew the summer months were when domestic soft fruits reach their peak.
And that was a comparatively good result. Only 4 per cent knew when plums were in season and 90 per cent admitted they had no idea when some of our best-known domestic produce such as asparagus, broad beans or blackberries were ready to eat.
Much of the blame for this must lie with the supermarkets who have created a retail environment where everything is in season all of the time. Despite their public pronouncements about sourcing locally, for buyers feeding hungry customers that is usually a total pain involving tricky logistics and unstable supply chains.
For them, working with a small asparagus producer in Scotland for a short season makes no sense when they can source from a supplier overseas at knockdown prices due to huge economies of scale.
The end result is Spanish strawberries in February and French beans from Kenya any time we want them.
But does consumer ignorance about what’s in season really matter? Surely something is in season when it’s in the shops and consumers want it.
I can’t imagine not eating tomatoes for nine months of the year or missing out on oranges or bananas because they are simply never in season here. The reality of supermarket retail means demand always drives supply and as long as there are people prepared to pay £3 for two kiwi fruit, they will always be on the shelves.
However, there is simply no substitute for produce at its natural best. This week I tasted some totally sensational Perthshire blueberries. Big, bright and bursting with juicy flavour they were a world away from the tiny, hard specimens we get from Morocco during the long winter months.
Transportation has a big role to play. At this time of the year, most of the Scottish strawberries and raspberries delivered to the supermarkets were picked just the day before. It stands to reason they will taste better than something that has been picked, put in a lorry and then on a plane before going to a distribution centre and then into another lorry while all the time being blasted with chilled air.
Out-of-season produce will always have a place on the supermarket shelves, but if you want to eat the very best produce available, the advice will always be eat local and seasonal – and know when and what that means.