I was recently at dinner talking shop with a friend; he sells fruits and vegetables to the trade and I look after our restaurant wholesale at Neal’s Yard Dairy. We got talking about engagement - how does the supplier neatly package what’s happening on the farms, the fishing boats, the ageing rooms and most directly convey that to the chef?
Between cheese gradings with our buying team or trainings for our customers, a decent chunk of my work takes place from our offices and maturation arches in Bermondsey. And yet the desk is not, mercifully, where the capital’s most progressively minded chefs choose to spend their working hours.
I asked my friend, “when you know time is limited and communication fraught, what is your most powerful prompt in helping your customer make menu decisions?” Imagining he’d say “Whatsapp”, he instead immediately replied, “seasonality”. For the supplier of fruit and veg it is both the stick and the carrot (pun intended). Asparagus in November? Strawberries in January?
For most chefs today seasonality is the most fundamental organising principle in the search for good food. But just how well do we understand its rules? And how can we explore its inner workings in order to maximise resource and arrive at a more delicious plate of food? After twelve years of hedgerow to table cooking, the world recently witnessed René Redzepi dismount the iconic sign at the entrance to noma. And following a stint in Mexico, the restaurant will reopen later this year in its new evolutionary phase.
In his own words, the cooking at noma 2.0 will be a “true reflection of the landscape at that moment, the unique favour of that point in time”. The menu will be organised around what Redzepi calls “a myriad of microseasons”. Not just seasonally focused, but seasonally epitomised. More broadly, it could be argued that the New Nordic Cuisine’s most singular contribution to contemporary gastronomy is its sustained investigation into the effects of the seasons on a specific place, at a specific moment. Thereby helping us to arrive at a richer understanding of a place’s diversity, its traditions, its favours. A search for the truth at the heart of nature’s restless choreography.
Beyond the kitchen, in the trading of commodities, the supermarket negotiates a far more flippant relationship with seasonality - a marriage of tolerable convenience. It wasn’t that long ago that I remember seeing forced rhubarb appear in my local chain convenience store for the first time. Then what next? Cumbrian wild garlic in the herb aisle? Scottish girolles next to the button mushrooms? There are indeed signs of progress. That is until the seasons change their course and threaten to destabilise the balance to the point of near collapse.
In the most extreme example, the supermarket’s aseasonal addiction to commodity fruits and vegetables briefly became a subject of media interest earlier this year. Amidst a “perfect storm” of poor growing conditions in southern Europe, shelves were emptied of peppers and courgettes. Buyers scrambled to have iceberg lettuces air freighted in from the USA. And for just a couple of weeks the humble British winter root crop enjoyed a moment of relative celebrity under the glare of fluorescent strip light.
Just as British cuisine has borrowed from other traditions and food cultures it seems that, more than ever, we rely on foreign growing seasons too. In the UK we import an estimated 50% of our vegetables and 90% of our fruit. And with the slump in the value of the pound, any GP-conscious chef will tell you that this increasingly carries a financial cost as well as logistical and environmental problems too.
But there is another casualty that will always be of greater concern to the chef than the supermarket. Where consistency of supply and conformity of type are the essential buying criteria, the innocent victim is ultimately good favour. Precisely for this reason, it is hard to imagine the supermarket stepping up to become our food system’s great reformer. I believe in the power of a delicious plate of food and for that reason our protagonist has to be the seasonally oriented, curious, engaged chef.
The commodity market leaves us vulnerable, while the best restaurants leave us empowered. And as one of this story’s strongest protagonists, the New York based chef Dan Barber, has famously written, “when you pursue great favour, you also pursue great ecology”. In no small part owing to kitchens like noma, the lore of seasonality has not just reimagined contemporary cuisine, it has also helped change the very identity of the chef-protagonist. More than ever before he or she must also be a thinker, a collaborator, a grower, a forager, a voice. And once all of these activities have been brought to bear on the dish, it must also be chef who then delivers it to the guest for a thorough table-side explication of process and provenance. The increased presence of the chef in the dining room, beyond the threshold of the pass, symbolises the cook’s changing role as an advocate for delicious food, with truly seasonal integrity.
And so, returning to that original conversation between grocer and cheese supplier, it would certainly seem that the rules of seasonality are better understood in the context of the fruit and veg growing season. To the extent that seasonality can be invoked as a marketing strategy.
While in my experience the effects of those rules are far less well understood in the production of milk and cheese, surely they nevertheless follow the same principles? And if so, the question therefore becomes, how can the chef quite literally bring these ideas to the table? And help the market to more fully engage with seasonal complexity across the entire food system?
At Neal’s Yard we work with around 50 cheese makers producing a diverse range of styles; from traditional Appleby’s Cheshire to new school cheddar-style, Hafod. We prioritise good flavour and this means the majority make by hand, on a human scale - most but not all using raw milk from their own farms.
One farm that is more eloquently expressive of the changing seasons than many is Sleight Farm, owned by Mary Holbrook. She produces four raw goat’s milk cheeses for us named Sleightlett, Tymsboro, Cardo and Old Ford - and they are also some of the most characterful, unique cheeses we handle.
Following the winter of -season - when her animals are dried and cheese making has ceased - Mary’s herd comes back into milk with the arrival of spring’s kid goats. And, almost overnight, the farm leaps into life. The first milkers enter the parlour, early lactation batches of Sleightlett and Tymsboro cheeses drain in their moulds and the herd goes out to new pasture. And so almost by accident, Mary finds herself in the meat business rearing on the young males and bringing them to the London market in spring/summer.
Likewise all this milk and all this cheese means a lot of separated whey as a by-product. And so Mary finds herself in the pig business, bringing whey-fed pork to restaurants during the cheese season also. This is a period of great activity, but the herd’s lactation cycle will last for only nine months. And so, in the autumn, the season closes and this frantic cycle completes itself.
Within that lactation season, quality and consistency are shifting goal posts too. Most farmhouse cheese makers will tell you that early and late lactation milk is tricky to work with; fatty, protein-rich and unstable. But the mid-season comes with its own challenges too, for the simple reason that yields spike. And yet - at that precise moment - just when our ageing rooms are bursting with the season’s high summer soft cheeses, our market shrinks and we see our slowest sales period. This is not only tricky to manage, it is a missed opportunity and an example of how seasonal cheese production and consumption could surely be more closely aligned.
For these reasons, scaled up dairy processors will more often outsource the agricultural bit entirely, instead preferring to buy milk in from multiple herds. This obviously facilitates greater flexibility in supply and a consistency of prof le. But what is fundamentally at stake here is a cheese’s ability to express the unique circumstances of the milk’s production - the soil, the feed, the herd, the climate, the microbiology.
This language is familiar. For Redzepi and noma, these unique characteristics are the building blocks that contribute to a true sense of “place”, the unique flavour of “that point in time’. I like a beetroot and goat’s cheese salad as much as the next guy, but it seems that there is a growing interest among chefs to think more deeply about the process of cooking, starting at the farm level. What makes sense, what is right, what is true at this moment, in this place? And how can we adapt our cooking so that every element of a farm’s production is maximised across every moment in the season. The answer may well lie in a piece of British farmhouse cheese. But maybe I am biased.
Andrew Lowkes is head of restaurant sales at Neal’s Yard Dairy.