The following essay could just as easily been titled, “In Defense of Local Vegetables”, since the catalyst for the essay has been the various excuses not to use local vegetables, presented to me over the years. What follows then, is an attempt to address some obstacles still pervasive in the culinary world, and to shed some light on the differences among vegetables that necessarily confer differences in quality.
One of the most common obstacles to using more local and organic vegetables is that they are often more expensive to use. This is where the discussion of “value” begins. The reasons for the increased price are many, and it is rarely true that the farmer charging more must be making more money! At its simplest, the adage “you get what you pay for” applies. It has long been understood that wine reflects, in different degrees, the soil and climate of the region the grapes were grown in -terroir. However, exactly the same principles apply to farmed products, thus the statement, “there is no truer expression of a region’s distinct combination of soil and climate, than the food grown in it’s soils”. This is nowhere more evident than vegetables, and yet, in our recent rush to celebrate all things local, they are often the anonymous elements on a menu that takes great pains to tout the provenance of it’s protein, cheese, and wine. Why is this so? I believe there is a significant proportion of the culinary world that still assumes all vegetables of the same variety must taste the same, or reasonably so, regardless of the method of production or locality. Otherwise, I wouldn’t hear the argument about cost so often. The underlying premise being, “if all vegetable varieties taste the same (ie a carrot is a carrot), why not use the cheaper ones?”. This is usually paired with the notion that skilled hands in the kitchen can elevate any ordinary vegetable to the sublime. We wouldn’t assume for a moment that great wine can be made from inferior grapes, why would vegetables, which grow the same way, be any different? Vegetables that are grown with maximum flavour and health as a primary production goal, as opposed to efficiency or profitability, require more skill, time, and effort. Conversely, each time a market gardener makes a decision during the growing cycle of a vegetable that favours efficiency and profitability, he usually compromises flavour in the process. To accept the notion that all varieties of vegetables taste the same, is to make a dangerous assumption about the palates of your potential customers, since an extension of that argument is to assume that one cannot therefore distinguish between one restaurant or another, since the ingredients must taste the same. What then is the reason for that customer to choose your restaurant?
Ultimately, the price differential between well crafted, local vegetables and mass produced imported vegetables, on a per portion basis, is probably less than the bottle of water you are selling with the meal. Compared to the cost of meat, wine, and cheese, vegetables represent the smallest portion of the food budget.
Yet it is the vegetables that are so often economized on and glossed over on the menu, like the silky smooth reduction they may be covered in! Imagine the savings and other benefits to be had if we simply pared down the portion sizes of the rather meat-heavy plates that persist today, instead giving more profile to local, seasonal, and best yet, organic vegetables? The money saved on the meat would more than cover the increase in buying local vegetables, the plate would have a greater variety of flavours and textures, and would be healthier on a number of levels. In short, everyone would win!
The other reluctance to list local vegetables on the menu that I hear, has to do with the menu itself, as though it were a document chiseled in marble at great expense. Building flexibility into a menu is not a difficult proposition in this day of self-publishing software, indeed, it can be as simple as a chalkboard, an insert, or a well educated server, able to add to the dining experience by conferring his or her knowledge of the unique crops grown for that particular restaurant.
It is my hope that, as our food nation matures, we will reach a point where we realize that there are regional differences in crops, in the same way that there are differences in wines, and that this represents an emerging potential to develop regional cuisines, based around the most direct expression of each area’s growing characteristics, it’s vegetables.