Why has this become so important? In the restaurant world, ‘Provenance’ (yes with a capital ‘P’) has become a word imbued with a magical spell. Akin to Artisanal, Sustainable, Local or Hand-Made. Words that have been hijacked by the world of ‘creatives’ and subsequently shorn of meaning, but, nevertheless, used over and over again to persuade the audience that what they’re experiencing is something of value.
Despite the degeneration of the word, the idea is, I would claim, important and ripe with consequences.
Why? Not because a lack of food miles is any real contributor to a lessening of the burning of fossil fuels. Not because a local farmer is necessarily more worth supporting than one a thousand miles away. Not because a restaurant is necessarily one of quality because farms or regions are mentioned on their menu.
But if we feel the produce is sourced carefully then can we also not feel that the provider of your meal executes his craft with some care. When we read that our steak comes from, for instance, Greenfields Farm, it is not because we intend on taking a drive up there at the weekend (where is it? The Midlands, The Cape, Namibia?) to inspect the happy cows that are intended for slaughter. It is because the naming of the place gives us some reassurance that this inspection is at least possible. It reassures us that our cows are not condemned to the misery of a feedlot or our chickens to battery conditions. We are reassured that the beasts or, indeed, vegetables are raised by a human being rather than a corporation. We might even go further and hope that the naming of the farm indicates that the size of the operation is on a scale that we can conceive, not the standard industrial process that produces such quantities of chicken thighs, beef fillets or breadcrumbed shapes of fat that the counting is beyond comprehension.
This is as a consumer. As a cook, I am interested in provenance so that I too can source the best possible produce for my kitchen and follow the trail of some fellow obsessive.
Food miles has been mentioned as a chimera for our ecological conscience, but distance is important for other reasons – reasons of freshness. The economy of shipping vegetables of fruit over thousands of miles has been well documented – particularly in relation to our individual trips to the shops to buy our 2 kgs of potatoes. But there is an inevitable deterioration in quality because of increased storage time. The fruit will have been picked unripe, the product will have been grown with storage as one of the major virtues and the process of large scale shipping can only be worth it if the stuff has been grown on an industrial level.
It is for this reason why we try to source our produce locally. Our milk, cream and cheeses are from the Midlands, where the churches are full and the goats are fat. Our olives and olive oil comes from the Cape. Our flour comes from farms in the Free State, the Berg and a Durban mill. Our meat comes from a single butcher that either owns or knows the farms on which the animals are raised.
These farms are nearly all free range and practice humane animal husbandry. The sad exception is our pork, but there are loader and loader whispers of this changing for the better. Our charcuterie is prepared by a family not 5 kms from our shops. Our eggs are free range and delivered by the man who wakes the chickens up early in the morning. The fish and shellfish come from these shores only, and, ideally, from the boats or rods that immerse themselves in our bit of the Indian Ocean. The herbs and salads are grown by ourselves and, those that aren’t, are grown and delivered by the only man I know who gets up at the same time as our Bakers. Our mushrooms, other than those that are foraged, come from a passionate mycophile in Isipingo. For the vegetables and fruit that I can’t source individually or organically, we use the Durban municipal market. This market is often frustrating for the lack of choice, but the flip side of that is that it is local and seasonal. We are privileged to be living in a city that does not provide raspberries 12 months of the year. Where we welcome the first asparagus of spring and celebrate spotting the ephemeral artichoke.
So let us all celebrate the local wealth and wallow in the unique terroir of our chosen home.