Eating for sustainability
AS AN infrequent shopper I have to confess I am not as morally conscientious in my selection of food products as I should be. My shopping tends to be almost exclusively steered by convenience; I go where food can be found fresh with the least amount of effort.
Most people’s food purchases are still price-driven, but there has been a gradual increase in consciousness regarding the origin of food over the past 10 years, with almost every food product having an alternative organic, free range, fair trade, local, low or no carbon miles option. Extensive research is conducted regarding global food security and environmentally sustainable living. We are constantly reminded of our impact on the environment, and requested to recycle and reduce our carbon emissions. The ethos has shifted from more to one that espouses less — use less, live gentler, soften your impact, grow your own, collect water, green everything from lighting to your vehicle and upcycling used things.
This focus on greening and being kinder to the environment means that foraging is now the word du jour in the food world. Foraging has become such a hot new trend that even the world’s top chef for 2011, René Redzepi of Danish restaurant Noma, has been invited to share his views on locally sourced food at the 2012 Design Indaba.
Locally, there has also been renewed interest in food from natural sources, as evidenced by a new hiking trail on the Garden Route’s oyster-catcher route exploring local foods from the environment.
SA’S doyenne of anthropological food writing, Renata Coetzee, published an amazing work on the veld-food of the Khoi and San people called Koekemakranka (published by Lapa). From a book written by Francis W Fox and Marion Emma Norwood Young: Food from the veld: edible wild plants of Southern Africa (1982) which contained research from the ’60s onwards, I learnt that even the agapanthus and arum lilies growing in most suburban gardens have on occasion been used as nourishment from the veld.
Most people are not aware that familiar plants are also edible, such as the water-berry tree and num-nums — plump bright red juicy fruit that can be eaten as is or used to cook jam.
Although living in a way that lessens one’s impact on mother earth is not so difficult at home, it is certainly much more difficult in a commercial environment like a restaurant. Another fascinating new book written by Australian Red Lantern restaurant chef Mark Jensen (Murdoch Books, 2011), called The Urban Cook, gives us a glimpse of how this is possible.
Chef Jensen says that he wants people to consider the ethics of food production, our carbon footprint and whether or not the way we produce our food is sustainable when it comes to day-to-day food consumption.
He maintains that most urban chefs do not know the provenance of their produce, even though good produce generally forms the foundation of their success, and that most chefs do all their purchasing over the phone without ever contemplating the origins of the meal and with most purchases being purely price-driven.
Two Gauteng restaurateurs that I spoke to and that are fully geared to fight the sustainability cause are Philippe Wagenführer of Gray restaurant in Boksburg and chef Maryna Frederiksen of Lucit restaurant in Pretoria.
Wagenführer is an old hand at raking in top South African restaurant awards and in his latest restaurant the limited wine choices are justified along moral and ethical lines. There are five or six wines on offer, each individually and personally sourced to represent the best available wine in the particular style and within the price range. Gray serves only grass-fed beef, aged for 18 to 24 days, and the cheese board consists of cheese from West Rand Italian cheese-maker Giovanni Scarcella, while the beer on offer is from an artisanal brewery in Parys called Dog & Fig.
But it is Wagenführer and staff’s ability to offer food made from carefully sourced produce at affordable prices that makes one wonder why food stores claiming to sell ethical or morally verifiable foods generally charge such a high premium for their products.
Chef Frederiksen, originally a Pretoria girl and now a seasoned American chef, has returned to SA after 20 years, after cooking her way through San Francisco, Seattle, Washington and Florida.
She adamantly believes in knowing where and by whom her produce is grown and will hop on her scooter to visit a local herb farm, hand-picking produce for the Pretoria eatery where she cooks.
If at home you are unable to plant potatoes, pumpkins and mielies, or keep a cow and a sheep, at least plant a few edible flowers, grow your own herbs and trail the odd butternut up a tree. Apart from understanding that what we do now will affect Mother Earth for those that come after us, it is important to know that the food we eat should be healthy, grown without chemical interference, and should not have travelled farther than we ever have to end up in our Monday night meal.