Mary Green looks at the way our diets have changed over the years.
I am writing this as a mild winter comes towards its end, hoping we don’t get late cold spells. There’s quite a lot of wild food about in the hedges now, where it’s been allowed to grow, and the birds are already singing for spring.
On February 1, I saw cherry plum blossom out and the first hawthorn leaves – and a barnacle goose! On February 2, Candlemas Day was cloudy with rain then fair and bright, so take your choice. And I saw a celandine out.
They say you are what you eat. It’s surprising how much our natural environment is shaped by our food choices and those of people in the past. Years ago, I think people were more aware of this connection, but our supermarket shopping habits have distanced us from our food sources and how they fit into the world around us.
It’s 50 years since Joni Mitchell sang: “Give me spots on my apples/ But leave me the birds and the bees…” and I wonder if we’ve learnt much.
Thank you, Maurice Brett, for your letter last month – in January I was talking about biodiversity but I will look at some other aspects of food over the next two months including the effects of animal farming and vegetable growing, this month looking at our immediate environment and next month at wider climate implications. It isn’t simple.
March is the season of Lent, the fasting period leading up to Easter. People talk of “giving up things for Lent” but really in older times there wasn’t much option. When people ate according to the rhythms of their farming year, this was a lean time. Winter stored foods were running out and there was not much of this year’s yet.
I guess if you went even further back, to pre-farming days, there would have been a different rhythm again. Hunter-gatherers found food hard to get in the winter but by March things would have been improving.
There are plenty of wild leaves around now, many of which were used in traditional Lent foods like Dock Pudding (made from bistort and other leaves). Wild plants like dandelion are important food for wildlife and once were for us.
In the Christian tradition of fasting, the priority was to stop eating meat and other animal products, using fish and vegetables instead. At one time you were allowed to eat barnacle geese, because of the myth that they were born from barnacles, small shellfish, or even that they grew on trees, possibly because the young ones jump into the sea from great heights.
This diet is generally good for health and the planet too. However, in this tradition fasting is followed by feasting, when those who could returned to meat-eating and sweet rich foods; now it seems symbolised by Easter chocolate (which was among the sweet rich foods you couldn’t eat in Lent).
There were sometimes a couple of breaks allowed. One was Mothering Sunday when workers were allowed a day off to visit their mothers and share a rich cake called a simnel cake. And I know a family of Irish Catholic origin where the kids were allowed to eat chocolate on St Patrick’s Day (and the adults to drink alcohol).
However, most people in past centuries ate meat or sugar so rarely that for ordinary people Lent probably wasn’t so different from normal seasonal eating. Lent seems to have been supplanted these days by Dry January and Veganuary, which is fasting after feasting, not before! In hard times, fasting helped people appreciate the feasts of nature that came after. In times of plenty, fasting follows feasting as a kind of punishment or cleansing.
Our landscape here shows the history of pastoral farming – raising animals for meat and dairy. It has made our fields and hedgerows, carved out of forest, and our meadowlands. In past centuries the meadows would all have looked more like Eades Meadow with a great variety of wildflowers and therefore of insects and birds.
People would have grown small amounts of grain for themselves, but there is no history here of big commercial arable land, which harms the local habitat.
You can even see the remnants of ancient farming in some places, like the field by Scarfield Dingle and the slope up to Cooper’s Hill, which have ridge-and-furrow marks. The Scarfield Dingle field still has amazing diversity of wild flowers, having been long unploughed.
The old map in the Historical Society museum shows evidence of strip farming around Hopwood even in the late 18th century. Cattle, sheep and especially pigs also grazed in woodland – Piper’s Hill is a good example of an old grazed wood with pollarded trees. We don’t have to think of tree planting as an alternative to agriculture: it can and used to be part of it.
Fish were important, even in this landlocked area. A farm of any size would have its fish pond or lake, and many big houses kept fish in their moats after they ceased to have a defensive purpose. Rivers like the Arrow were fished too.
We have quite a few fishing lakes around here now, often in old marl-pits (clay pits), some on the site of old fish-ponds and some newly-made. Nowadays they are for recreational fishing, as it’s not done to eat freshwater fish.
These small wetlands are also important for biodiversity, not just for fish but many insect larvae. Even birds need them: in last year’s dry spring there were reports of swallows not being able to find mud for their nests. Properly-managed ponds and streams also help prevent flooding. We have some new ponds round here in Withybed for these environmental reasons.
Wild meat was much more eaten in previous centuries. When I was young, we ate a lot of rabbit and the occasional pigeon. In earlier times people ate wild duck, moorhen, partridge, squirrel and lots of other wild animals which came under the heading of game or wildfowl.
Earlier still, “animal” foods would also have included snails, grubs, insects, rodents and small birds – actual big cuts of meat as we know them would have been rare. I’ve seen roast mice on a stick sold by the wayside in Malawi, and eaten fried insect larvae. Wild food was healthy lean meat, didn’t use up resources and when taken in small quantities didn’t harm wildlife too much.
However, when people started taking wild game in a big way, they upset the balance of nature. For example, in Britain many birds of prey were hunted to destruction so they wouldn’t take game, and otters almost died out, killed as vermin because they ate fish.
Here, the reappearance of otters on our canal and rivers and the return of red kites to the area are all good side effects of the decline in large scale game rearing and food fishing.
Further north, moorland biodiversity is still ruined by being kept for grouse shooting. Also, eating and trading wild meat in a big way leads to episodes like the coronavirus epidemic in China and species loss in Africa.
Trying to imagine the Village area in the past with its meadows and fish ponds, you also have to think of orchards. Here in Withybed we still have damsons, plums and apples in many of our gardens, including a special kind of local golden plum, the Warwickshire Drooper, unfortunately getting scarcer now.
Until the 1970s Tardebigge was full of apple orchards and cider makers. Along our canal and in some hedges you can find remnants of orchard trees as well as wild fruit trees, great food sources which are also invaluable for insects and birds. They help in carbon capture too.
People have eaten apples, pears, plums, cherries and damsons for centuries here, as well as sloes, elderberries, blackberries, wild service berries and all sorts of wild fruit. Restoring more orchards would be a great way to address both biodiversity loss and climate change.
We should shift back to eating more plants, like our ancestors did, but it isn’t a simple thing. Eating a wide variety of vegetable foods is obviously good for your health. It is good for tackling pollution, so long as it is grown sustainably, as it doesn’t contribute methane to the air like animals do. It does not use up vast quantities of the earth’s resources.
Seasonable vegetables are relatively cheap so helpful for people on low incomes. Sustainably grown vegetables can form part of a good habitat for wildlife. They can be bought unpackaged from local growers and some larger shops. You can even grow them yourself.
However, eating ready-made “vegan food” may do the opposite. I checked a packet of supermarket “vegan bangers” which had 27 ingredients. Two were kinds of sugar, two were chemicals I hadn’t heard of, and the rest were processed forms of vegetables, grains, pulses and fungi, including palm oil. I have no idea where any of these came from, but soy for example will be imported and more than 90 per cent of it is grown in cleared forest land. Large quantities of carbon will have been released in their manufacture and transport. And they were wrapped in plastic.
Growing a wide variety of vegetables and fruit is good for carbon capture – so long as land isn’t ploughed up every year. It doesn’t cause much pollution – except when it is imported or transported long distances by road. If you want locally grown vegetables, you may have to stretch “local” to Evesham way where there are many farm shops – or grow your own – now the local Prison Shop is closed.
There are lots of people growing veg and fruit on the allotments here in Alvechurch. When I go around the Open Gardens in Alvechurch or Withybed, there’s some really creative veg growing in small spaces. And Incredible Edibles Alvechurch is showing us all the way.
The first step is to know what you are eating and where it comes from. That would be a good Lent diet: only eating food when you knew where it came from. It’s really hard. And plant fruit trees!
The Withybed Poets recently wrote poems retelling well-known stories. Here is one of mine.
And God said to Noah, there will be a great flood,
Now the ice is melted and the climate wrecked,
Higher than the tops of mountains. I’ve chosen you
To save the planet’s life. Go out and find
Two of each bird and beast, and build an ark
For them and your family. You can be saved.
So Noah went and got the elephants and shrews
Wrens and sparrow-hawks, wolves and rabbits
And started loading them. But then he saw a hitch.
God, he said, what will they all feed on? And God said
Well some of them will eat each other, that’s OK
But then I guess you might need more than two
In case the hunger outstrips the breeding
Get a few more of each, be on the safe side.
Noah looked at the collected animals. Another hitch
What would the elephant and chaffinch feed on?
Another check with God, who said You’re right
You need the plants, and soil and mosses, fungi.
Insects and worms and all that lot. Get two of all.
He went and started his collection, took his little trowel
And then his big spade for the oaks and ebonies.
Finally he had together all the living things.
He stood and scratched his head. Looked at the ark.
Dear God, he said, how can I fit them in?
Mm said God, that is going to be tricky.
How big a vessel do you think you need?
I guess about as big as Earth, said Noah.
Yes, said God. Now do you see.