Seasonality and industry, industry and seasonality – can the two meet halfway?
At first glance, industry and seasonality appear to be opposite worlds. The food industry focuses on product uniformity – shape, color and taste and continuous year-round supply, whereas the very nature of seasonality is change, with food consumption and nutrition patterns varying according to the passage of time.
But industry is changing too, and slowly realizing that the “food industry” is a name that is a little detached, and that in actual fact, these are companies that make food. If you like, even the world’s biggest restaurant. As the party that feeds and nourishes most people most of the time, the food industry must consider all the issues that culinary arts address, including seasonality.
I will start by saying that in this case, I have more questions than answers, and maybe that’s exactly how it should be. It isn’t a matter of black or white or an unequivocal statement, and as I see it, discussing the questions is in fact the important part, because while the answer can vary in different situations, we have to be sure that we have considered every aspect and made the best choice given the circumstances, which may be a little different on each occasion.
Why eat seasonal, anyway?
First of all, food isn’t just fuel for the body. It’s also about the experience, about culture. Just as, to quote poet Shaul Tchernichovsky, “man is but the imprint of his native landscape”, so his food must reflect the time and place it was created. When you change your diet as the year progresses, as you eat, you connect to nature around you and to the incessant flow of time.
Another aspect is the culinary aspect: no matter how much we succeed in prolonging the seasons through technology, nothing will change the fact that every raw material is at its peak when it is in season. Cabbage will always be tastiest in the winter and cucumbers will be at their best in summer. When your kitchen is seasonal, you have the opportunity to use the finest raw materials.
And there is also the environmental aspect. A raw food material that is seasonal will always leave the smallest carbon footprint. Often, the need to extend the season comes at an environmental and economic price. Growing a vegetable out of season will require the use of more pesticides, a lot of energy for cold storage, and that’s even before we add to the equation the import of raw materials from other countries to create the availability of produce. So, without a doubt, a seasonal kitchen is also a more sustainable kitchen.
As I said, the questions are more interesting than the answers: how is seasonality reflected in our products? Do we at all need to manufacture strawberry yogurt in summer, and eggplant salad in winter? Or should we only work with seasonal raw materials?
People have always made sure to preserve raw food materials for use out of season. It’s a significant part of the evolution of culinary arts, whether the reason is passion or concerns of shortage. The whole art of jam is essentially the art of preserving fruit, and there are also other practices, such as pickling, salt-curing, fermentation and drying – all of them born of the desire and need to preserve.
We’re used to thinking about food preservation methods as industrial tools, as though industry has eliminated seasonality and shifted the weight to more durable raw materials that have undergone preservation processes such as freezing, pasteurization, concentration or drying, but in actual fact, these are just technological versions of those same principles that have always been the cornerstone of culinary arts.
The Italian kitchen would not exist without tomatoes, which become sauce when they are at their ripest in summer, and then preserved by hot filling them in bottles or kegs. How is this different from cooking the aseptic strawberries* used to make yogurt?
Another interesting point worth thinking about is that we contend with seasonality in industry. Whether we like it or not, if we don’t make sure there are potatoes in season, we won’t be able to manufacture Tapuchips. If, in summer, we don’t know what innovation in the coming year will require tomatoes, it will be too late to remember in winter, and we will also spend much of the winter at the eggplant roasting lines dealing with their problematic quality compared to the wonderful eggplants of summer. Seasonality is part of our lives, all the time.
Personally, I try to base most of my diet on seasonal, local raw materials. In summer, my salad will mostly consist of tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers, and in winter – kohlrabi, radishes and cabbage. In winter, I will season it with lemon, in summer I’ll prefer lime, and personally, I will avoid buying imported fruits. In winter, I’ll sometimes add strawberries to my salad instead of tomatoes (try it – its great!).
As a chef, I work on having my menus reflect the season. In winter, they include a lot of root vegetables and leafy greens, in spring, they have flowers in them, and in summer – fruit, just like nature intended. I always look for the raw materials that have a distinct season and use them in my dishes so that my menus feature offerings that are connected to the time and season. I will rarely make a dish that contains corn kernels in winter, or one with peas in summer.
At the same time, I’m very fond of preservation methods like fermentation – but I’ll always ferment quantities that aren’t too big, just enough to last a little longer than that vegetable’s season but will be used up long before its next season comes around, so that I have the chance to miss it a bit.
As chef for a food company, I think we need to stay balanced: on the one hand, give our consumers the food they love all year round, but on the other, encourage and foster keeping seasonality in mind.
If I do use a raw material when it is out of season, I’ll prefer one that has undergone a natural, traditional process (such as cooking, freezing or drying) rather than one that has been treated with materials that have affected its quality or the quality of the environment.
And most important of all – we must develop products that reflect the time, products that will be on the shelf when they are in season and, as the year progresses, will be replaced by other products, and so on. It’s a big challenge and it isn’t easy, neither in terms of development nor in terms of production, but it is our responsibility to help make consumers aware of considerations of seasonality and localness, and I consider it an obligation as well as a great privilege.
* A form of cooking that is an accepted industry practice – cooking, cooling and packaging on one clean line – that provides for shelf life.