Apples

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One of my early memories is of waking up, opening the curtains and seeing the large apple tree in our small back garden newly cut down. Now in a relationship with a tree surgeon, perhaps it’s time that I forgive my Dad for choosing to cull the tree. Apparently he did a deal with his mate ‘John the wood’ in the pub. My parents didn’t have the time to deal with the apples, and the tree was apparently overbearing in the garden that my little sister and I played in, so they chose space over apples. Even if I still feel sad about that tree, I appreciate the point about time…

Time is the latest ‘secret ingredient’ of cooking, or the lack of it. A food writer called Jenny Linford recently wrote a popular book making the point loud and clear: the missing ingredient is time. [1] Flavours take time, fermentation takes time, even fast reactions take time to practise and to perfect. The average British person now spends only 31 minutes a day cooking, down from an hour in the 1980s. [2] So, that means that meals need to be ready to go, and the supermarkets are meeting that need with not just ready meals, but also cooking kits, where the lettuce is already chopped, the carrots are already peeled, the meat is sliced, and the rice is portioned up.

If the time dedicated to cooking is lacking, then this is just the tip of the time iceberg. Time and the market for short cuts is the big bargaining chip of retailers at the moment. We are tempted by one-hour delivery although this is not actually what it sounds like as it usually refers to ‘one hour slots’ not delivery an hour after you order – unless perhaps you live in the very centre of London. However, same day delivery, door to door from all supermarkets and also new entrants to the market mean that we can save time by not even leaving the house. Yet it goes deeper than that. What about the time it takes to produce the food in the first place? This is where the apples come in.

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As someone researching work in food production, I’m slightly ashamed to say that one of the few things in my diet that I actually pick myself are apples. I should of course have an allotment, or a veg patch. My excuses for not having one are many: the uncertainty of how long I will live in my house (veg patch excuse), this city (allotment excuse), the lack of skill and experience (even my raspberry plant died) … I could go on. But really, the reason is time. It’s very difficult (not impossible) to be an active player in a competitive work environment, in a tough economic context and grow your own veg. And that’s why I understand people buying ready meals. And I also understand why calls for a four day working week [3] might do more as much improve our diets as a ‘fat tax’ because it would give us more time to grow and cook food.

The thing is the apples aren’t even mine. Not only because my house is rented, but also because the trunk is in the neighbour’s garden. Once my housemates and I have collected them from windfall, or stood on the ladder, or climbed up the tree though, they are quite literally: the fruits of our labour. Delicious, tart and juicy for eating and cooking, for making crumble and pie, for stewing and freezing, for chopping and grating and even… for mixing with chocolate and turning into a squidgy sweet, added-sugar-free chocolate brownie! [4]

For most people who pick fruit and vegetables in the intensive horticultural system, the fruits of their labour are not what they pick or the value of that, but a wage that is so low it keeps the producers in profit (just) and maintains a price that satisfies consumers with very modestly valued apples. I deduce that this means for my neighbours, it is cheaper (time-wise) and easier to buy apples from the shops than to pick the ones in the back garden. And it’s only because they don’t care about the tree that we get a free harvest. We just have to hope they don’t decide to chop it down.

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[1] Jenny Linford, 2018, The Missing Ingredient: The Curious Role of Time in Food and Flavour, Penguin. https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/291/291455/the-missing-ingredient/9781846148972.html

[2] According to market research by Kantar. The full study is behind a paywall, this is an excerpt. https://pork.ahdb.org.uk/media/74830/convenience-is-key.pdf

[3] Now an active part of public debate and calls. See, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/sep/11/four-day-working-week-tuc-proposals-workers-rights and, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-45750920

[4] For the brownie recipe try something like this: https://www.feastingonfruit.com/easy-vegan-fudge-brownies/ I usually search vegan chocolate apple brownie and make something based on the different advice given and the ingredients I have to hand.

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