The farm-to-table movement has been gaining momentum ever since its inception in the early 1970s. Championing organic, local produce above imported or processed ingredients, its core values centre on sustainability and diners’ wellbeing, with tangible results for the consumer, community and environment. Over the last 10 years especially, these values have increasingly come to define high-end dining. Restaurateurs and chefs are progressively abandoning the tried-and-tested carousel of haute-fare favourites in order to curate tailor-made seasonal menus. These menus are as much directed as they are defined by the locally available ingredients that comprise them. As we transition into a new season and towards the next cycle of farm-to-fork ingredients, we ask why seasonal cooking has become so important and explore how it’s redefining fine dining.
Mixing it up
A large part of seasonal cooking’s appeal is the innate creativity it awakens in chefs. More than ever, menus are reflecting the individual flare and flourish of their designers, whose expert eyes survey the ingredients available and combine them into unique and exciting dishes. Across the world, chefs are relishing the challenge, many using seasonal menus as a showcase of their culinary capabilities. “I’m always looking ahead and planning what I’m going to make next,” explains Chef Dan of The Milestone Hotel & Residences. Anticipating winter, where seasonal vegetables can require “a lot more cooking and skill to create something great,” Chef Dan is already trialling recipes: “At the moment, we are working on a salt-baked celeriac carpaccio with creamy bavarois, truffles and toasted hazelnut.”
“I believe it is essential for a chef to use as many fresh and seasonal ingredients as possible,” adds Chef Ioana of The Old Government House Hotel & Spa. “Using the products that are in season gives chefs a chance to test their cooking skills by creating new dishes and offering guests the best quality food the season has to offer. In so doing, we ensure our guests are happy. A rotational seasonal menu prevents our guests from getting ‘bored’ of the same dishes every time they visit us.”
Seasonal cooking further allows restaurants to use the ingredients that are readily available, as opposed to searching internationally for a specific item that either may not be in season or may not be native to the region. The result is an increased experience of local culture for the consumer. The age of the one-cuisine-fits-all-destinations approach to dining is nearing its dusk, replaced by a renaissance of regional culinary traditions. As the ground-breaking work of Massimo Montanari has proposed, the preparation of locally available ingredients may well be the bedrock of distinct culture. Seasonal cooking is encouraging restauranteurs from around the globe to vindicate that culture—including the award-winning Executive Chefs of Red Carnation Hotels.
At The Old Government House, an emphasis on seasonal, local ingredients has allowed Chef Ioana to combine Guernsey’s famous dairy produce with its legendary catch of the day. “The benefit of living on an island is that the waters surrounding us are abundant with fresh fish and shellfish: we use morning catches, fresh scallops, crab and lobster every single day. The unique benefit of living in Guernsey is that we’re in a privileged position to combine those ingredients with the world-famous milks and cheeses produced right on our doorstep.” The secret of Guernsey dairy is in the heritage of its cows, which have been selectively bred for dairy quality for almost a millennium—and since the forbiddance of imported livestock in the early 1800s, it is today a truly unique breed that produces fuller-flavoured milk than perhaps anywhere else in the world. “Some of our favourite dishes that combine Guernsey’s dairy with our fresh seafood are the lobster tortellini, seared scallops, catch of the day and the tian of crab.”
In Dorset, the spring and summer months offer an opportunity to reconnect with the British county’s centuries-old heritage of berry-picking. Thomas Hardy’s landmark Tess of the d’Urbervilles stressed more than 100 years ago how seductive Dorset’s berries could be—and just one taste of them in season is enough to believe him. Alongside the blackberry bushes, the iconic purplish-green spears of British asparagus unsheathe in the spring showers. These spears are admired for their sweet and tender taste, which are the direct result of their slow-growing climate.
While in season, asparagus is a defining aspect of British culinary culture. The short growing period, from April to June, sees over £23 million in spear sales. Such is the demand that barely a single spear makes it outside the UK. However, guests staying at the Summer Lodge can enjoy it in abundance in many of the hotel’s recipes. “Some of our favourite dishes celebrate our local seasonal produce. We use berries and British asparagus, as well as locally foraged truffles, throughout our summer menus,” Chef Steve tells us. Across from the Summer Lodge, guests can appreciate the heritage of local Dorset ingredients at The Acorn Inn, the 16th-century classic English pub that was mentioned as The Sow & Acorn in Tess of the d’Urbervilles.
“Simply put, cooking with seasonal produce has proven to increase the quality and taste of dishes being prepared,” says Chef Ioana. The flavour of fresh foods is unanimously regarded as superior, with almost every good restaurant in the country reaffirming the fact. Comparatively little attention is paid, however, to the nutritional value of fresh ingredients. As Chef Steve tell us, “the quality of a food is best when it is naturally seasonal, freshly picked and has not travelled a long way.” The longer an ingredient remains in transit, the longer it sits on a shelf in storage—even within properly thermoregulated environments—the more nutrients, enzymes and beneficial bacteria it loses.
Even “healthy” foods can drop well below the nutritional value they are commonly believed to contain when left on the shelf. Fruit and vegetables especially are affected by what are known as “food miles”—the distance between the origin and final destination. With every bump, change of climate or disturbance along the way, a percentage of their innate water content is lost, leading to less hydration and ultimately a reduced benefit to cellular health. That’s why, at many of Red Carnation Hotels’ gardens, space is devoted to the cultivation of fresh herbs. In Dorset, the Summer Lodge plucks lettuce and apples straight from its own garden, while herbs and vegetables are sourced directly from Ashford Castle’s estate to complement the locally sourced fish and surrounding lamb suppliers. Even in central London, where space for cultivating local ingredients is limited, The Milestone enjoys a dedicated herb garden that makes use of The Conservatory’s abundant natural light. In addition, across The Red Carnation Hotel Collection, more than 500,000 bees have found a home in rooftop and garden apiaries that produce nearly 700 lbs of honey each year to be used daily in our breakfast recipes.
Perhaps the most impactful of seasonal cooking’s benefits is its sustainability. By rotating menus to reflect locally available produce, the number of ingredients imported from far afield is kept to an absolute minimum. The effects this has on the environmental cost of cooking cannot be underestimated. The transportation sector accounts for over 14 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, with almost 95 per cent of that emission arising from petroleum-based fuels. Yet, this is only part of the story. Food transport is a major contributor to the staggering waste across the world’s agricultural industries. Almost a third of all food is wasted before it reaches the consumer, a large part due to an insufficient “cold chain”—a consistent cool temperature from point A to point B necessary in slowing food decay. Given that agriculture is responsible for almost a quarter of the global greenhouse gas emission, tackling food waste from transportation should be a priority—and seasonal cooking is helping to do that.
In addition to cutting down on waste and greenhouse gas emissions through minimising long-distance networks, seasonal cooking promotes established partnerships between local suppliers and restaurants. These partnerships hold immeasurable benefits. Firstly, they preserve local businesses. By so doing, they help to prop up sustainable alternatives to multinational conglomerates, whose global supply chains exacerbate the raw tonnage of exported and imported food. Secondly, by sourcing products directly from a supplier, small-scale local partnerships reduce the extortionate environmental cost of what is referred to as the “last mile.”
The “last mile” refers to the final stage of food transportation, from, for example, a warehouse to households across a city. It’s responsible for as much emission as a thousand-mile journey via sea freightliner. It should be also said that local-to-local transport requires far less packaging than does long-distance trade. A part of Red Carnation Hotels’ pledge to eliminate single-use plastics by 2022 is our increased partnership with local retailers and on-site growth of ingredients. At the same time, with the rise of seasonal cooking, “knowledge of local sourcing and suppliers has become all the more important to the consumer,” Chef Steve informs. Local partnerships allow restaurateurs to ensure no chemicals or undue preservatives are in the ingredients they cook with. As consumers become increasingly accustomed to knowing where their food is coming from, chemical-free is ever more the norm. Alongside responsible local partnerships, all of our resident herb, fruit, and vegetable gardens are grown without any artificial chemicals. The result: fewer toxins entering the world’s ecosystems.
Leading the way
Seasonal cooking is beneficial for the consumer, local community and ultimately the environment. Fine restaurants and award-winning chefs direct what defines great food and good dining practice. As an increasing number move away from year-round, environmentally costly menus, towards community-driven, sustainable cuisine, seasonal cooking will continue to take over the consumer conscience. As Chef Ioana says, “it depends on the restaurant or hotel, however we have noticed that, at least in Guernsey, we don’t see local menus changing as often as we’d like. We try to keep ahead of this by helping set the trend ourselves.” Driven by the desire to make travel matter, Red Carnation Hotels is committed to shaping the best hospitality practices across the globe. From the incredible sustainability potential of Bushmans Kloof’s gardens to the bush ingredient-centred recipes of Xigera Safari Lodge in Botswana, the most recent hotel to join our collection, seasonal cooking is at the heart of our sustainable cuisine initiative.
Enjoy the delicious benefits of seasonal cooking at any destination in The Red Carnation Hotel Collection.