At 7.40am on Tuesday 21 December the TV cameras turned once again to look at the moon. And, in keeping with predictions, it had disappeared – eclipsed by earth’s shadow. Journalists and astro-pundits dwelt on it being the first full lunar eclipse on a winter solstice for almost 400 years. Although interesting, for me it was important only because it heralded the beginning of the end of winter. From now on daylight hours would lengthen and spring would be on its way. This was the event worth celebrating, as it had been by our forebears. I love the changing seasons. My favourite time of year is spring/early summer. I view spring as the period of re-awakening, as affirmation of some innate drive to survive. What can be better than seeing bluebells and crocuses in flower; or watching trees bursting into blossom; or bees foraging; or birds building their nests; or tiny ducklings streaming along behind their mothers; or baby rabbits scampering over tufts? Compare this to the cold, dank, dour days of winter.
These then are the seasons of our natural environment, of our own outside world. How different these are to the seasons as they relate to our food. Here we have a real problem. Nowadays it would be unthinkable for shops to synchronise the provision of fruits and vegetables according to UK seasons. In the local greyhares supermarket all the once-seasonal fare, such as tomatoes, plums, mange-touts and even strawberries are sold year-long. The special taste of the first strawberries of the year is a thing of the past. Moreover, our generation may be the last for whom seasonal fare has any meaning. While most younger people (this is a generalisation based on a very small sample!) will have only known continuous provision of seasonal goods and could not imagine otherwise. For them, eating fresh raspberries in the winter is normal.
It is difficult to turn the clock back but I know my wife and I are not alone in trying. To help preserve our childhood love of, and respect for seasonal tastes, as well as for reasons ecological and political, we scrutinise each product’s label to check its country of origin. Our aim is not to buy soft fruits, leaks, or asparagus for instance unless they have been produced locally (in exceptional circumstances that stretches to include the EU) and so in season. Thank you Kenya, Egypt, Namibia, or Peru, but no thanks. I feel less concerned about many animal products. I am happy eating farmed mussels in the summer (breaking the rule I learned of never eating shellfish in the ‘r’-less months of May to August) but I draw a line at New Zealand lamb or Honduran prawns at any time. All this limits choice but seems justified. In France, where food is a priority, the seasons are respected with almost religious fervour and even cheeses are seasonal!
Religion and the seasons have something else in common – people take a position from which they cannot be dissuaded. For my elder sister it is, and always was, the summer which is favourite because of the light. For my wife it is the autumn, mainly because of the colours. The choice of seasons is one of the few fundamentals about which we disagree. For my niece, winter. And for my younger sister, being a diplomat, all are lovely. However, setting aside our differences the seasons are precious to us all. I often wonder how people manage in countries where the seasons are indistinguishable.