There is always a price to cheap food, writes Michael Kelly.
LAST WEEK, I tackled the concept of making your Christmas a little more sustainable, and focusing on the real versus fake Christmas tree debate.
This week, I want to talk about food at Christmas, and in particular that greatest of all culinary set pieces, the Christmas dinner.
Ironically, the traditional Christmas dinner can be one of the more sustainable dinners of the year in the sense that most of the ingredients are generally in season and produced in Ireland.
The great veg foursome on the plate on Christmas Day is generally spuds, carrots, parsnips and brussels sprouts, all of which are in season and should be readily available from Irish growers.
The shame of it is that most of us go traditional with our veg for Christmas and we are presumably happy to pay a fair price for them, considering the importance of the meal for many people.
But supermarkets persist in selling them at a price below cost.
The 49c-per-kilo veg offers are visible again this year, while many Irish veg growers go out of business year on year.
Somewhere in the halls of the big supermarket headquarters, there must be people who are joining the dots on this issue and realising that it won’t be long before there are no Irish growers left?
Equally depressing, the aggressive price promoting has made its way across the plate to the Christmas turkey and ham.
This year I’ve noticed one supermarket promoting Bord Bia approved Irish turkeys for €7.99. To put this in content, last year I paid €70 for a free range, organic Bronze turkey and was happy to do so.
Of course, the €7.99 turkey is a headline (and customer) grabbing figure and there can be huge variations in quality, size and how they are reared.
There can be differences in weight of a fully grown turkey from as small as 3kg up to a whopping 12kg or more (the males, known as Toms, are bigger than the females).
The age of the bird at slaughter is also a factor (the longer the farmer keeps it, the more it costs to rear) and this can range from as young as 11 weeks up to nearly 6 months.
If they are free range (as opposed to indoor-reared) this means they have more time to roam free, live a longer life and of course this is good for the meat flavour.
Then you also have to consider whether they are fed organic feed (which has no genetically modified ingredients in it).
But regardless of this, and regardless of whether the supermarkets are paying the farmer more than €7.99 for the bird, the net effect of these discounts (as we’ve seen with the veg prices) is to permanently lower the value of turkey in the minds of consumers.
These discounting issues follow a pretty well established trend by now – supermarkets tell the growers or farmers that the discounting is short-term and about building the market for their product, but they end up becoming permanent price points that result in an ever-decreasing downward spiral.
Growers and farmers leaving the industry resulting in job losses and ultimately less choice for consumers and bigger impact on the planet – more imports, more air miles, poorer quality. There is always, always a price to cheap food.
So this Christmas we have a choice when buying the dinner ingredients.
Yes, it’s possible that everything on your plate could be Irish, but that doesn’t necessarily mean more sustainable.
How and by whom the food is grown and reared has an impact on how sustainable it is. If you can afford it, try to go local and organic across the plate.
Best of all, try to buy it directly from a farmer or grower and pay them a fair price for it.
Things to do this week – protecting your crop
If you haven’t yet started, now is a good time to protect your plants, trees and soil from the more extreme temperatures – ensuring that you’re guaranteed some crops when spring rolls around.
Fleece will protect your crop or soil from frost and cold weather while admitting light, air and rain.
This is generally bought in large rolls or sheets and can be cut to the specifications of your plant/raised bed.
It is also available in varying thickness, including a heavyweight version (30g) for Arctic conditions. Fleece jackets for larger plants/bushes are available from some garden centres.
If you don’t have a greenhouse or polytunnel, you may want to look at covering young or more delicate plants with cloches.
This can range from glass bell jar cloches or ornate Victorian lantern cloches to homemade cloches from glass jars, fizzy drink bottles and sneakily-appropriated Water Cooler bottles from the office.
Recipe of the Week – Carrots with orange, garlic and herbs
I’ve been blessed with a great crop of carrots this winter, so I am trying out different ways to cook them to make sure we come up with the perfect carrot for Christmas Day dinner. This recipe from Jamie Oliver is interesting.
- 500g carrots
- Tablespoon of sugar
- A knob of butter
- Herbs – parsley, thyme, bay, rosemary
- 1 orange
- 3-4 garlic cloves
- Pinch of cumin seed
Boil the carrots in salted boiling water with the sugar, a knob of butter and a little handful of the herbs, tied up.
Cut the orange into eighths and add them to the water, along with a few whole garlic cloves in their skins.
Add a pinch of cumin.
As soon as the carrots are cooked, drain them, discard the herbs and all but one of the orange pieces. Squeeze the garlic out of its skin, chop the remaining orange piece finely and toss with the carrots, some seasoning and a little more butter.
Michael Kelly is an author, broadcaster and founder of GIY.