There has been an outpouring of comment today about Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall's programme on free range chicken. Reading through the comments about the choices people make in the food they buy made my head reel: organic, free range, local or none of these. There are environmental issues and animal welfare issues as well as questions as to how much money and time you have. There are health issues and class issues and issues about how well travelled you are or wish to appear to be. It is a nightmare.
So here is my attempt at what I do and why I do it, in the hopes that writing it down will help me to see the inconsistencies and that other people's comments will help me to work out whether I would like to do anything differently.
I have bought only free range eggs for years and now we get about two eggs a day from our own chickens. There is no doubt that there is a difference in the freshness of using newlaid eggs and I love the fact that the chickens who are a pleasure to have about the place are also useful and productive. The only change I might make here at some stage is to have more chickens, not many, perhaps another couple if we let ours go broody.
I buy free range whole chickens from our local butcher but sometimes supplement that with chicken thighs from the supermarket for casseroles. I am somewhat erratic about whether this meat is free range or not and I will try to stop this and buy this meat as well from my butcher. I would in any case much rather give the business to him than to Tescos. He is a very gentle and courteous man whose tiny shop is as much a drop in centre for the elderly as an excellent butcher's.
I buy most of my other meat from him too, making a big freezer order up and stocking up for two or three months at a time. I am much more concerned with eating local, traceable meat than with necessarily eating organically. I know the abattoir he uses and he knows where everything comes from. I am always more comfortable with the animal welfare issues when buying lamb as it generally has an open air life and there are thousands of sheep on the hills around here. I wonder if I should think more carefully about pork? Pigs can be very intensively farmed and they are intelligent and curious animals. I am sure I would recoil from factory farming conditions for pigs too. I would quite like to have a go at rearing a couple of weaners over the summer for our own consumption but I suspect we would need to have a bit more time and not to have the regular night away from home which is part of our current pattern. Has anyone had a go at rearing pigs? Is it easy enough for complete novices like us?
I try to buy Welsh milk and butter. Whether this is truly local I cannot say. Since we are only twenty or so miles from the border, the Cheshire plain is probably more local than much of Wales but milk doesn't come labelled from Cheshire as it does from Wales.
Vegetables and fruit are hugely affected by the seasons. In the summer we can be quite close to self sufficient in vegetables. I don't at all mind the gluts and the casting about for yet more things to do with courgettes and beans. I like jam and chutney making and we produce endless supplies of apples, strawberries in season, gooseberries by the barrowful and increasingly raspberries. This is a part of my food shopping and eating habits which has changed a lot in the last few years. When I need to buy vegetables I try to buy from farm shops and we eat much more seasonally than we used to. I feel slightly odd if I buy green beans from Kenya in January and I am scarily conscious of food miles. Again I think local is more important than organic although we do grow our own veg organically. The big thing we haven't cracked is successional sowing and growing things to eat over the winter, although this year we have skinny little leeks and huge twisted parsnips for the first time. So I think I don't want to change much here other than to grow even more and to eat more, resisting my usual urge to have cheese on toast (wot? no veg?) for lunch.
Fish is a minefield too. I am bothered about sustainability and now rarely if ever buy cod. I like salmon but know that farmed salmon can be full of antibiotics. I love prawns but they come freighted with food miles. Tinned sardines are a favourite here and now one of you is going to tell me that they are an ethical nightmare or full of mercury and death in a tin. Help. But fish is meant to be good for you and I doubt we eat enough.
And fruit, what about fruit? We eat our own apples and if I buy any I try to buy English or Welsh in season but what about bananas and oranges, kiwi fruit and blueberries? I try to buy fairtrade bananas and we are growing our own blueberries now but there must be a huge environmental cost in bringing us bananas and pineapples all year round. But it is good for you. Isn't it?
I never buy processed food, ready meals from the chill cabinet. One cause for self congratulation because I used to when I lived away from home and worked every hour God sent. I do however sometimes buy sandwiches and I am going to try to do less of that.
I think it is easy to get totally neurotic about food at one end of the scale, as well as to be totally fixated on price at the expense of all else. Writing this is making me realise that I have a sort of food philosophy although I am sure it would fail in the face of anyone truly zealous about animal welfare, health or the environment:
grow or rear what you can yourself, buy locally and seasonally for most of the time, use supermarkets sparingly, don't waste (and isn't the compost heap or the chicken run a godsend for the failing vegetables at the bottom of the rack?) and very importantly, cook from scratch so you are not filling up with highly processed and chemically treated food.
I can feel the prick of a thousand objections right now. Could do better, I know.