Organic carrots at FIG, my local food co-op, are cheap. Usually when I apply the word 'cheap' to food, I mean cheap and nasty.
But there's nothing nasty about these carrots, or anything else that I get from the co-op. I don't need an invitation to wax lyrical about my food co-op. Ever since we moved to Australia, I have struggled with the challenges of sourcing and buying fruit and veg that makes me feel good. Until recently, I bought a bit in a little gourmet grocer (do you hate gourmet as much as I do?), a bit at the supermarket, spent a fortune in a health food store, and supplemented it with a very small expensive weekly box delivery.
I have spent almost three years thinking we would never be able to eat the way I want us to.
If it wasn't breaking the bank, it was breaking me. That might sound a touch melodramatic, but for a while there I lost that connection – with food, with nature and with farmers.
In the UK, I found it easier to find that connection. My weekly box came box with notes and beautiful anecdotes about who was growing what, and why the month's crop of purple sprouting broccoli was wiped out by a sudden change in the weather. It was very real.
I also found a little connection at the supermarket. The Big Four over there are just as bad as the Big Two over here, but I shopped somewhere that paid farmers a decent price for their milk. It was probably far from perfect, but I felt a connection and talking to all those producers and growers over the years, I believed this supermarket was committed to fostering good relationships with its suppliers. That feels right to me.
Labelling helped too, of course. I could tell my pork was raised in the open fields of East Anglia from outdoor bred pigs sired by pedigree Hamsphire boars and my raspberries grown by a nice chap called Harry Hall in Berkshire.
Sadly, labelling over here is not the same. Beef is Australian and pears are grown in Australia. That's about all you get in my supermarket. When you think of the sheer scale of this beautiful country, there's a lot of connection lost for me where food is concerned.
Organic isn't everything. In fact, when it's packaged in loads of plastic and sits for days on end on the supermarket shelf looking miserable and tired, I'd probably rather go for the fresher stuff on the other side, even if it has been buffed and polished till it sparkles. (Actually, if it sparkles, I just go without.)
Nor is local. People pay too much lip service to local, especially people who don't care. I once ate in a restaurant in the West Country that was so proud of its locally reared chickens. 'It's all local', I remember them saying. I like a story, so I visited the farmshop down the road who sold these chickens. It turned out they were caged chickens.
But when you combine organic with just-picked and local, and when it's perfectly in season.... well, it's food that sings. I have my connection.
Back to carrots. I ended up with 10kg last week (it was quite some singing).
Here's how they ended up. (And they all went down a storm in lunchboxes the next day.)
Carrot and sesame burgers with chickpeas, lemon and cumin
Kakiage (tempura vegetables)*
Do you need that connection too? Do you wish we had an affordable supermarket full of food that sings? One that could fill the gap that co-ops, farmers' markets and box schemes can't meet?
* Make the tempura batter by mixing 1 beaten egg with 1 cup of iced water, then gently mix in 1 cup of flour and a good pinch of salt. Pay it very little attention and don't worry about lumps. Whatever you do, make sure you have iced water and don't over mix. I added grated carrot, zucchini, red onion and red capsicum. I still had batter left over, so I dunked cauliflower in there too. Add spoonfuls of the mixture to hot oil and deep-fry until browned all over. Drain then dip into equal quantities of soy sauce, mirin, sake and a bit of sugar to sweeten.