Jessica Seaton is the co-founder of Toast. Her recently released cookbook, Gather Cook Feast, celebrates the connection between the food we eat and the land it comes from. She talks about the arrival of spring, and seeking out ingredients that connect us to a time and place
The weather has softened and in London, spring has now definitely arrived. As I write, a balmy breeze is gently moving small branches heavy with cherry blossom, the sun is shining and my thoughts are turning to new spring ingredients.
Almost nothing excites me more than visiting a good market or independent store to explore really fresh, seasonal produce. I get positively ecstatic, always buy too much, take too many photos, and struggle home laden with bag after bag of food that I can hardly fit into my tiny London fridge. Meals have to be cooked rapidly to avoid wasting the gloriousness.
My recipe book Gather Cook Feast is about the connection between the food that we eat and the land in which we live. My inspiration for the book was to create food that feels like a particular landscape: a plate that feels like a place, if you will. Food is fundamental to life and we build deep associations with it (like the ‘petite madeleine’ for Proust), whether from childhood, a memorable event, or an association with a place.
The fragrance of a mushroom is warmly and muskily associated with the smell of a forest; the taste of seaweed carries the same iodine kick as the waves themselves. The flavour of lemon carries a similar sharpness to the slap of a wave when swimming. It’s by these means that I have made associations.
Salt marshes of Romney
And what about the effect of a landscape on the nature of the food itself? This is often called ‘terroir’ and a stunning example is salt marsh lamb. The sheep graze on the bleak salt marshes of Romney, the Gower and the Lleyn peninsula, and develop a meat marbled beautifully with fat and a taste that is distinctly different from pasture grown animals.
The salt spray and the samphire and wild grasses they consume seem to come through in the sweet, almost herbal, taste of the meat. Also, these pasture lands are never fertilised, so what you taste is meat as it should be, from natural herbage—about as free from human influence as possible in 2017.
But while I love natural landscapes and environments, I continue to live most of the week in the heart of London. How, then, do I keep this association alive? The answer is to search out producers and markets that carry good, seasonal produce that still retains the feeling of the earth they come from or the sunshine that ripened them.
A key factor is time to market. Most produce channelled through the supermarket system is already old by the time it makes it on to the shelves. As an example, an apple can be in oxygen-lowered cold storage for six to 12 months before you eat it; a lettuce stored for between one and four weeks. Of course, this is essential if we require a strawberry at Christmas, but I prefer a different way—to eat what is fresh and ripe just now.
Pick and eat
To pick and eat the salad from my garden in Wales within 10 minutes makes it taste more alive than any bagged salad from a supermarket. Find an independent store or market stall that sells produce picked within a few hours for maximum taste.
London has a glorious history of drawing in magnificent produce from the entire country and abroad to feed its demanding and growing population. In the last century and before, geese, sheep and pigs were herded across tracks and plains for weeks, their delicate feet protected by little boots for the journey, before reaching the capital and its eager residents. Now is no different, although the modes of transport perhaps more humane.
I can find a greater variety of seasonal, beautiful ingredients here than I can at home in Wales. How lucky to be in London!