Last month the French government introduced legislation outlawing plastic packaging on most fruit and vegetables. Several other EU countries are reported to be planning similar moves although, sadly, there is no sign of the British government following suit.
Whilst France’s initiative is to be applauded and encouraged, it addresses a symptom rather than a cause. The question, surely, is why do so many of our fresh foods come contained in plastic packaging?
The answer is that in a food system dominated by giant agribusinesses and supermarket chains the food we eat comes from further away than it once did, whether it’s Peruvian asparagus, fine beans from Kenya or Moroccan tomatoes. Plastic packaging not only helps reduce damage to produce being transported thousands of miles, it can also be used to compensate for the inevitable time lag between picking and eating by making the food on supermarket shelves look fresher than it really is.
Plastic packaging is not the only by-product of this global food system, where the appearance of freshness is paramount.
Apples from the other side of the world arrive coated in fungicidal wax, which can make them look as fresh as the day they were picked, even though they may be months old. Potatoes are treated with chemicals to inhibit sprouting. Some fruits are stored in gases to slow down the ripening processes. Salads are often bagged in modified atmosphere plastic packaging to artificially preserve their shelf life. Extreme temperatures – hot and cold – are used to slow down the rate of deterioration of a range of “fresh” foods. All smoke and mirrors, to encourage our own eyes to deceive us.
There is some fresh food that needs no packaging at all, plastic or otherwise, and which does not need to primped and disguised to look like something it isn’t – the food you grow in your own garden, allotment or balcony. Food which can be picked and on the table in a matter of minutes.
The shorter the time and distance between picking and eating, the less need there is for protective or preservative measures. If we want to rid ourselves and our food of the appalling tangle of single use plastics, as well as the less visible preservation tricks of the trade, the answer is to shop from local producers and, of course, to grow your own.
I was approached recently by Silvi, founder of London Apron, who kindly invited me to try their vegan meringues, made from aquafaba, an offer I was very happy to take up.
They are seriously good, and they worked brilliantly in this delicious vegan recipe, based upon an old British classic but using seasonal forced rhubarb paired with star anise to give it a tasty slant.
star anise and rhubarb Eton mess
250 g forced rhubarb, chopped into 5cm lengths
125 ml maple syrup
1 star anise
juice of a blood orange
200 ml coconut yoghurt
40 g vegan vanilla meringue, roughly chopped
1. Place the star anise, orange juice and maple syrup in a pan and place over over a medium heat. Once the syrup begins to bubble, reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for five minutes. Stir in the rhubarb and cook for a further ten minutes or until the rhubarb is just tender, stirring gently from time to time. Remove from the heat and leave to cool and infuse.
2. Once cool, remove the star anise from the rhubarb pan. Pour half of the coconut yoghurt into a bowl and add half of the rhubarb mixture. Stir gently to combine.
3. Layer up four dessert glasses, firstly with a layer of the meringue and rhubarb mixture, topped with a layer of crushed meringue, followed by a layer of plain yoghurt, then another layer of meringue and topped off with a layer of the rhubarb and star anise mixture.