The UK’s level of self-sufficiency is in long-term decline. We now produce just over half of the food we consume. Of the shortfall, nearly three quarters is currently made up of food imported into the UK from the European Union (EU).
Climate change related uncertainties – highlighted by scorching temperatures and insufficient rainfall over this year’s long hot summer – are an additional food security concern. Some UK crops were badly affected by the high temperatures and reduced rainfall over our extended summer. In addition, severely reduced grass growth means livestock farmers have been forced to use up winter fodder supplies.
Toss Brexit (and especially a “no deal” Brexit) into the mix, and there are reasons for us to be very seriously concerned about our future food security. The UK government, which has shown little sign of negotiating competence over Brexit thus far, will need to negotiate new agreements to maintain current food levels, as well as to secure a ready supply of seasonal agricultural labour.
Any problems importing food to plug the huge gap between what we produce and what we consume will compromise food security and increase the price of our food. No wonder, then, that there are reports of the UK government stockpiling food, as well as medicines, as Brexit draws nearer.
Setting aside the rights and wrongs of Brexit (not least the question of how many “leave” voters actually understood they were voting for the mess we now face), the real long-term challenge for the UK must be to address the imbalance between what we consume and what we produce.
To achieve that, we will need to become more self-reliant. There are two ways to achieve that: firstly, to grow more of our own food and, secondly, to reduce overall demand for food by encouraging different patterns of consumption.
Reducing meat consumption, a major net import, would make a big difference, as would encouraging the UK population to eat more locally produced, seasonal produce. These simple goals would not only help improve our overall food security and help address the UK’s growing balance of payments deficit, they would also encourage us all to eat more wisely and healthily.
Cassoulet is a classic rustic dish from the Languedoc region of southern France. Traditionally, haricot beans are used, but I’ve used some of my home-grown fresh borlotti beans (known as cranberry beans in the USA) instead, and in fact any other fresh bean would be fine. You could also use dried beans or canned beans instead. If you are using dried beans, soak them in cold water overnight then simmer for an hour before using. For canned beans, reduce the cooking time in the oven to one hour.
The slow cooking process gives a wonderfully rich, deep flavour to this lovely vegan dish. Serve with some good quality crusty bread.
If you would prefer not to cook with wine, simple use the same quantity of additional vegetable stock. I have cooked it both with and without wine, and it is delicious either way.
borlotti bean cassoulet
600 g fresh borlotti beans (weight after removal from pods)
2 onions, diced
2 carrots, peeled and diced
2 sticks celery, diced
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
3 sprigs fresh thyme
2 bay leaves
1 tsp smoked paprika
1 tsp sea salt
200 ml white wine
500 ml vegetable stock
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1. Pre-heat the oven to 150°C (300°F, gas mark 2).
2. Pour the olive oil into a large, oven-proof casserole dish which has a lid and place over a medium heat. Add the onions, carrots and celery and cook, stirring, for 10 minutes or until all the vegetables are tender. Add the garlic and cook for a further 2 minutes, continuing to stir. Next, stir in the beans, sea salt, smoked paprika before adding the wine. Stir to combine, then add the stock, thyme and bay leaves.
3. Turn up the heat and bring the contents of the casserole dish to a simmer. Place the lid on top and then transfer the dish to the oven. Cook for two hours, by which time much of the liquid will have been absorbed, and the beans will be tender and beautifully flavoured. Serve hot.