FOOD & TRAVEL
On Being Self-Sufficient
By Xanthe Gladstone
We are so used to having absolutely everything we want at our fingertips that the task of achieving complete self-sufficiency is a seemingly impossible task. The majority of us have a huge disconnect to how our food is grown and how it got to us – but I believe that knowledge is power. I believe that learning about what it means to be self-sufficient doesn’t have to be a luxury and instead, that it’s about making small steps and changes to understanding more about the food that we eat, who made it, and where it came from. Because once upon a time, everyone understood it – there was no other option.
Before the invention of supermarkets, food transportation and frozen food, all we had was what was around us: what we could grow and what we could produce ourselves. Growing food, keeping livestock, fermenting food and baking bread from scratch were every day, highly necessary skills. Fermenting happened because people needed to make the summer harvest last over the winter; baking took place because everyone needed filling with nutritious staple foods; and keeping livestock existed not because high welfare meat is better for us, the animals, and the planet, but because if you wanted meat, that was how you got it. It’s funny, because while these were all once necessities, now they are classified as trendy hobbies. But what if looking back on the past was the easiest way to understand our broken food system?
My move from London to Wales three years ago was inspired by an interest to become more connected to where my food came from, with the aim of living as self-sufficiently as possible. The first thing I did was build a vegetable garden. I didn’t know much, but I used my instincts to guide me and I learnt from others. The vegetable garden has grown substantially since then and I now provide two restaurants with fresh produce as well as my family and friends, too. I don’t eat meat so, although I am aware that they do play an important role in ensuring a fully regenerative and sustainable farming system, I do not currently keep livestock for meat. Instead I have 19 hens, whose eggs I eat and the rest I sell. I also have two donkeys, whose purpose is to bring joy to our lives, nothing more. It would be great to input them into my farming plans, but I think that’s wishful thinking given that they are relatively out of control most of the time. I have also learnt to bake mostly naturally leavened (also known as sourdough) bread, ferment food and drinks, forage much wild food including mushrooms, and cook on fire. This kind of cooking and connection to where my food comes from may be second nature to me now, but the excitement hasn’t worn off yet. I still get a huge thrill out of it all and would love to share that feeling with as many people as possible.
I am hugely grateful for the affect that this lifestyle has had on both my physical and mental health and it has deepened my understanding of the complexities of the food system as a whole. Unfortunately, though, it would be naive to simply sit here and tell you we should all live and eat this way because I understand that that isn’t always realistic. Instead, though, I want to share a few practices that we can all implement if you’re keen on learning more about where your food comes from. Most areas of the UK have farmer’s markets, which are a wonderful way to get the weekly shop done. The person-to-person interaction (rather than the faceless experience of a supermarket) that you get at a farmer’s market is one of the key ways to value food more highly. And if you shop smart, it won’t be more expensive.
Instead of buying cheap supermarket meat everyday, for example, maybe buy organic and/or grass-fed meat once a week at your farmer’s market. Buy a whole chicken and then make it last for a few days by having it with your Sunday roast, in sandwiches and salads for a few days after that, and then eventually you can make a stock out of it to use in other recipes. If we want to be dedicated to bettering our relationships with food and therefore the planet, we have to dedicate time and effort to do so. This is a commitment that I’ve chosen to make wholeheartedly, and there are definitely ways to pick and choose areas to focus on, whether small or big. For example, when you do buy vegetables from the market, try asking the stall holder where it came from and who grew it. As a vegetable grower who has faced many challenges, I will forever have a greater appreciation for the people that produce our food. Sometimes the stall holder might actually have grown it themselves too, which should help you value it in a new way.
I could continue with many more reasons and ways to live closer to self-sufficiency, but this article would be way too long. I will leave you with one more piece of advice though: grow something. No matter how big or small your flat, house, cottage, or wherever you live is, you can grow something edible. Herbs in a pot on the windowsill are good; rosemary, thyme, or sage are my favourite in winter and they will make your kitchen smell great. Chillies, tomatoes, and lettuce in the summer can be grown in small pots and live inside. Growing food you eat, however much or little, will hopefully start to show you just how satisfying living self-sufficiently could be, and it could also show you how important eating local food is in our fight against the industrialised food system.
By Xanthe Gladstone
Xanthe is a chef and food sustainability advocate. She is partially self-taught but has attended the world-renowned Ballymaloe Cookery School to take their sustainable food course. Xanthe’s mission is to educate people on the positive effects that the right food choices can have on ourselves and our environment.