The brown paper crackled as I lifted the package, so reassuringly heavy. I brought it to my nose and sniffed the seam. Sweet, nutty. I felt the salesperson’s eyes on me and I looked up and smiled.
Other shoppers might understand the thrill of the consumer hunt and the victory of the eventual purchase. But I don’t suspect many would extend this sense of satisfaction to an elusive bag of flour.
I am a locavore. Even though the New Oxford American Dictionary declared locavore its new word of the year in 2007 and googling the term produces 270 000 hits, few South Africans have heard of it. The term has existed since 2005 and describes an individual who seeks to consume food produced within a self-defined local area. For the authors of two bestselling locavore memoirs, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and The 100 Mile Diet, “local” means organically home-grown or produced within 100 miles (160km) of your home, respectively.
By either of these locavore definitions, my prized bag of flour wouldn’t cut it. The flour is not organic and is produced 250km from my home. But it is stone-ground, contains no additives, comes from local wheat and produces the most beautiful bread I have ever made.
This is at the heart of locavorism’s appeal — every follower chooses their own geographic and ethical boundaries. The internet offers accounts of communities that host dinners grown and eaten within one city block, while others limit their daily diet to their province or country. Restaurant menus in California, a locavore stronghold, attach the same importance to food origins as wine connoisseurs give to terroir, offering roast leg of Cattail Creek ranch lamb and crêpes with Lucero Farm’s strawberries.
Although locavore might be an American buzzword, local eating is a way of life for isolated rural communities throughout the world, especially in gastronomic meccas such as Italy and France. In today’s environmental and economic climates eating local makes inherent sense.
Local purchases support your local economy and your extended community. Buying directly from farmers and producers, whether at a market or a farm stall, is usually cheaper than buying from retail stores and allows you to find out when, where and how your food was grown.
It is impossible to trace the origins of all the ingredients used in highly processed foods (or even identify what half of them are), so local diets focus more on unprocessed foods and home preparation, which are cheaper and healthier.
The longer transit times and increased handling involved in transporting food over long distances often affects freshness and quality. With the energy crisis the fuel required to transport foods over long distances is of significant environmental concern.
The greatest frustration for local would-be locavores is the dearth of information. Most South African brands don’t give product origins on their packaging. Those that do rarely give more than the country of origin. As a result, the most reliable sources for local food are organic box schemes — the farmers’ markets springing up all over South Africa — or even growing things yourself. It’s hard to get more local — or cheaper — than that.
My diet isn’t 100% local by the laxest of locavore standards, but I live in a region with a year-round wealth of agricultural riches and I take advantage of that as much as I can. I try not to feel guilty that I tried and failed to give up imported Italian pasta. Coffee and chocolate are battles I’m not even willing to fight, so I only buy fair-trade imports.
I don’t even miss Italian tinned tomatoes. At the height of last summer’s tomato crop I roasted and jarred 15kgs of locally grown tomatoes, and now, whenever I open my kitchen cupboard, a wall of ruby jars gleams comfortingly from its depths.
One hundred years ago food such as this was a defence against the privations of winter. But now, in an environment where “in season” no longer applies and imported convenience trumps local abundance, the tomatoes take on new meaning. Those jars are my defence against the indifference of a world that doesn’t care where its food comes from.