The Sustainable Dinner party

Guest blog from Claire Turbutt:

So the reason I’m writing this blog is that I invited Jane and Mark to a dinner party, I hadn’t chosen the theme at the time of the invite and Jane ‘convinced’ me to hold a sustainable dinner party. I didn’t know what I’d let myself in for!

So I’m a fairly environmentally friendly person, when Jane began her journey I was one of the people who completed the Friends of the Earth questionnaire and got 70%, but holding a completely sustainable dinner party stretched my improvisation skills. To begin with I thought about making a meal where I could say what the food miles were for all the ingredients. I started by decided that I would buy everything locally. I created the following menu:

  • Puff Pastry Canapes
  • Salmon and Asparagus baked with herb butter
  • Beer-butt Chicken with Coleslaw, Green Salad and Potato Salad

And then my lovely friends Lesley and Jane offered to make dessert – how could I turn them down? Lesley had some summer fruits in her freezer which she had purchased from Riverford last year. She bought brioche from her local bakery and we served it with local clotted cream (yum!). Jane had some kiwi’s in her veg box that week so she made a kiwi cheesecake. I love it when a plan comes together.

The week before the dinner party I went to the Royal William Yard farmer’s market looking for inspiration (the market happens on the first Sunday of every month) I started talking to the stall holders about how sustainable their food products were.

My first stop was Ash Tree Farm Herbs and Spices stall where I learned that the Fairtrade and organic supply lines within the spices trade are difficult to rely on. For herbs that come from the Mediterranean we can be fairly sure their origin is genuine however for some spices she would not be able to guarantee they were produced using fair payment policies. She could tell me that the cinnamon she had for sale came from a small family farm in India. I used chilli powder, smoked paprika, cinnamon, and fennel seeds from this stall.

My next stop was at the Barbican Botanist’s stall – a local gin box company, after a lovely chat with the owner I decided to buy a local gin that was actually bottled less than a mile from my house.

Then I had a chat with Smeaton’s Smokehouse, this is a family run food smoking business based on the Langage Farm industrial site just outside Plymouth. I asked them about where they got their wood for smoking, they use a sustainable wood supplier based in the UK. Their cheese was also locally produced. Having sampled their Applewood smoked cheddar – which was delicious – I decided to buy both types (Cheddar and Goat’s Cheese).

My final stop was Evergreen Farm stall; they had a free range chicken which the stall holder told me had been born in Cornwall and then moved to their farm in North Devon at three days old. It had then been allowed to roam and grow slowly until it was driven 12 miles down the road to their local abattoir.

On the day of the dinner party I made the journey across town to Harvest Home on Exeter Street – I have to admit I drove rather than cycled – and there I purchased Asparagus, cabbage and carrots. I have a keen gardener friend who had grown some lovely leeks which I nabbed off her.

So all my ingredients were pulled together, and at this point I decided to get ahead of the game and work out the food miles for each food item. However when I went to the almighty internet for help I discovered that food miles had been largely debunked (because the distance something travels is not necessarily the best way to measure its impact on the earth). I looked further and discovered SUSTAIN’s list of 7 things you can do to eat more sustainably. I assessed my work using this list.

  1. Be waste free

I made sure to purchase all the ingredients from local traders to minimise both how far I had to travel to get the food and the packaging that would be on the food as well. I am really lucky there is a food market at the end of my street each month so I was able to walk to the market, buy my food and walk back.

Evergreen who supplied the meat had sealed it in a plastic bag. I took my own shopping bag so didn’t have to use a single use plastic bag. Jane later told me I could have bought from Gribbles in Plymstock and there would have been no plastic involved at all! Next time.

The cheese did come vacuum packed in plastic so that was a bit of waste.

Lesley who made a lovely potato salad from Jersey Royals with local cream and yoghurt avoiding using cling film by covering her dish with a pink shower cap (previously unused) a tip she’d got from the TV. The bread that Dave bought from Jacka’s Bakery came in a paper bag.

  1. Eat less meat and dairy

I considered making an entirely vegan meal but decided that one chicken between 8 people was a reasonable amount of meat (as opposed to a steak each or a chicken breast each). The cheese I bought was from organic cow’s milk produced locally, and was also shared between the eight of us.

  1. Buying local, seasonal and environmentally friendly food

I made a lot of my purchases at my local market; the chicken I purchased was free range organic raised on a farm 49 miles from Plymouth in Ashwater (so officially counts as local!). I bought local cheese from Smeaton’s Smokers who use sustainable wood to smoke local unpasteurised cheeses in a unit on Langage Industrial Park – they use traditional methods which resulted in a really tasty product. I couldn’t resist their Applewood smoked cheddar.

I also bought some local gin from the Barbican Botanist which had come from Salcombe, a mere 15 miles from Plymouth and had actually been bottled within a mile of my house.

The butter, eggs and milk I used in my recipes all came from Riverford who sell local produce, delivered to your door – they have done a lot of work to minimise packaging in their business.

  1. Choosing Fairtrade certified products

I discussed with the herbs and spices trader whether her products were Fairtrade or organic. She was very knowledgeable about the whole issue and told me that she gives talks about fairness in the spice trade. I have fennel seeds and smoked paprika from her which I used in the marinade on the chicken. Talking to her really opened my eyes to the difficulties in choosing sustainable items when supply chains aren’t well documented.

Indian Tonic Water came from Fever Tree who have a modern slavery policy available on their website. Their botanics come from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mexico. They use spring water from Staffordshire. The sugar I used in my marinade was labelled as fair trade.

  1. Choose fish from sustainable sources

I got my salmon from Aldi and before I purchased it I checked that it was sustainable. There is a sustainable fish symbol that producers can add to their packaging. The scheme ensures that fish stocks do not become depleted.

  1. Getting the balance of sugar, salt and fat right

Hopefully the meal I produced was fairly balanced; there was some protein, some carbohydrate, lots of vegetables and a little bit of fat, salt and sugar.

  1. Growing your own

I grew kale this year, along with rocket and sorrel – all of which make tasty additions to the salad I served with the main. The leeks from my friend Stacey’s garden contributed to the starter.

All the guests brought sustainable wine with them and Jane even gave me a bamboo toilet roll and sustainable soap as a hostess present.

What did I learn through this process?

The biggest thing I learnt was that a lot of things I would usually do for a dinner party without thinking are big no-no’s for sustainability. For example herbs and spices which travel thousands of miles and may have been produced using slave labour, cut flowers that use litre upon litre of water to produce, meat that comes packed in plastic which will almost definitely go straight to landfill.

It is also extremely difficult to go completely sustainable immediately because every food product has some kind of impact on the environment; however making a few small changes can make a difference. Forgoing cut flowers that have been air freighted from an exotic location. Buying local produce that has been lovingly reared/produced by local farmers and producers. Supporting local suppliers through buying their products and being interested in the efforts they’ve made to be sustainable.

All the stall holders and suppliers I spoke to were happy to explain how they were being sustainable. I was amazed at how much they had already done and I will definitely be shopping more sustainably in the future.

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