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Health, resilience, and a locavore diet

I love everything about food, from fork to fork, and I adore eating from my terrain. So I recently spent a week trying to eat and drink only from within Sussex as a personal experiment and also to test the boundaries of what's possible. 

How, for example, would I source salt, the one thing I couldn’t do without? I ended up making a jar of my own from 10 litres of seawater boiled down for several hours in a pot over some home-made charcoal, leaving the last gloopy layer to dry in the sun. It was slightly grey, but it does the job.

I also discovered the joy of chillis - there was a Chillifest on the first weekend - and horseradish, successfully making horseradish cream for the first time. That made me think I could do without pepper, at a push. Herbs, of course, are plentiful round here, as well as spices such as the seeds of nigella, fennel and coriander.

Alcohol made only from local ingredients was hard to track down and I ended up rather surreally drinking quite a lot of Harvey’s Nuptial Ale, made from Sussex sources for the royal wedding earlier this year. Add in local cider and wine, and I probably spent more on booze than on actual food that week. But at the end of the week I pressed four tubs of windfall apples at a local apple pressing and have got 23 litres of my own cider brewing. I’m moving on to beer next.

I’d given up tea and coffee a while ago and taken up drinking green tea, which I assumed I could do without for a week, but on day four I had to go back to it, as I realised my grumpiness was in part due to withdrawal symptoms.

There’s plentiful vegetables, meat, fish and dairy available in Sussex, thank goodness, as we have good soils and sunshine. Some of the small local farms providing this are able to sell via their farm shops, local restaurants, box schemes and markets, including the Friday market that Transition Town Lewes started a year ago.

The discovery that really shocked me was how lacking we are in staple carbohydrates. In searching for truly local bread, I discovered all our artisan bread makers use flour from Shipton Mill in Gloucestershire. Then I discovered Plumpton Mill, just a few miles from Lewes, a wonderful renovated watermill that was mentioned in the Domesday Book, so it's a thousand years old. It’s one of only three flour mills left in Sussex. They told me their wheat came from Tablehurst Farm in Sussex. That week I learned to make sourdough from their flour and I’ve continued to ever since – it’s about a quarter of the price of artisan bread, it's delicious and feels deeply nourishing.   

I spoke to many farmers and foodies that week and my findings slightly freaked me out. As far as I could tell,  Tablehurst is the only farm growing wheat sold for local consumption in the whole of Sussex. On a recent walk for 20 miles across Sussex I passed through acre upon acre of wheat, so presumably this all goes into the corporate agriculture machine.

I couldn’t find any oats at all being grown for human consumption in Sussex. Nor barley, millet or rye. Nor beans or peas for drying. The old song: Oats, peas, beans and barley grow tells us that this is what we would once have eaten here. In days gone by a resilient community would have had farmers around with silos full of grains and sacks of beans for the year ahead.

This all relates to health in two ways. Healthy food creates resilient bodies and healthy local agriculture creates resilient communities - that's a truism. We can't be resilient or, I would argue, truly healthy when we depend on industrial agriculture. Here in Sussex some of us might be sourcing our fresh food from the land but if our staple carbohydrates and non-animal proteins are completely inaccessible to us locally, that compromises our resilience.

My second concern is that after a week of eating extra meat, eggs and dairy to make up for lack of pulses, and extra potatoes and wheat to make up for the rice that has become a staple for me, I started to feel quite unwell. I’ve been on an alkalising diet for about ten years since contracting, and recovering from, rheumatoid arthritis and then breast cancer. This diet suits me well: beans, rice and other grains, seeds and nuts, fresh veg, yoghurt and a little fish or chicken once in a while give me steady energy flow, a good digestion and is very affordable. Without it my body was starting to ache and bloat.

I’ve carried on with much of my Sussex diet as it’s delicious, nutritious and makes my heart sing. I intend to source more and more locally in the months to come, but how do I replace my staple carbs and pulses imported from Italy and Turkey with local versions? I might copy what's being started in Norwich. Anyone want to join me to hatch a plan? To be truly healthy and resilient, we’ve got to get more radical.

Photos: local salt, cob nuts and pumpkin; cider in the making; Plumpton Mill flour, sourdough bread and the mother levain

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