The way we eat has changed in the nearly seven months since lockdown was imposed in the UK. With restaurants closed for most of that time and many spending all day at home, people have rediscovered a love of cooking.
Alongside flour and yeast to fuel our new sourdough and banana bread baking habit, sales of vegetable boxes have soared during this period.
A desire for better quality and more sustainable ingredients seems to have driven this trend, as we spend more time in our kitchens. While I began my challenge to eat with the seasons in January, it seems that during lockdown many more have started doing the same.
Guy Singh-Watson, the founder of organic vegetable delivery box company Riverford, agrees that people’s habits have changed “hugely” during the pandemic.
“There has definitely been a move towards people being happy to surrender choice and cook with what is in season and has grown close to them,” he says.
“People found they had much more time to cook and appreciate the ingredients they were using.”
Riverford’s deliveries were up 70 per cent on the prior year at the companies peak during lockdown. Even after shops began reopening, many stuck with Riverford and the company’s deliveries are now still 40 per cent up on last year.
Singh-Watson believes these sales would have been boosted even further had Riverford not being constrained by their ability to pack and deliver orders after a huge spike in demand. The company had to temporarily stop taking new orders and accepting new customers at the start of lockdown in order to catch up.
This rise in demand for seasonal and organic produce is a trend across the food industry. Data collected by the Soil Association indicates that there was an 18.7 per cent increase in organic food sales in the 12 weeks to the end of May (including 10 weeks of lockdown) compared with a 14.2% increase in non-organic sales.
Aside from the flurry of culinary activity in our homes, a greater appreciation of nature as the pace of life slowed during lockdown has possibly also led people to adopt more sustainable shopping habits. A YouGov poll commissioned by the National Trust revealed that 38 per cent of adults said spending time in nature was the moment they looked forward to most each day during lockdown.
Singh-Watson agrees that this growing appreciation of the green spaces around us has encouraged more people to take an interest in eating seasonal and organic food.
“If you are dashing around less and looking at what's under your feet more, you become engaged with it and you want to look after it,” he says.
Could the lockdown gardening boom also have had an effect on people’s shopping habits? He argues that these new gardeners often find they are "no longer happy to buy something all wrapped up in cling-film in a supermarket.”
Riverford’s customers’ renewed interest in gardening and the natural world has developed in tandem with a growing concern over the climate crisis.
“Something about Covid has been a catalyst,” Singh-Watson says. ”Things are happening in 6 months that might have taken 10 years.”
The company is now taking this opportunity to refocus its business and make sure the products it sells are the right choices for seasonality and carbon emissions. Last month Riverford was certified as an ethical B-Corp business for its social and environmental performance.
“We are slightly gambling on the idea that people are going to be more ethical and thoughtful in their shopping,” says Singh-Watson.
While switching to a seasonal diet has become more appealing during lockdown, it can still be a bit of an adjustment. “Quite a few people are baffled by what to do with a savoy cabbage,” he admits.
However, Riverford’s chefs have been on hand to help people work out what to do with the some the more unfashionable vegetables that appear in their delivery boxes.
James Evans, one of the company’s chefs who also presents its “Veg Hacks” YouTube series, says questions about how the more unusual veg appearing in its boxes have “gone through the roof” during lockdown.
He points to Romenesco cauliflowers with their lime green colour and fractal pattern as one of vegetables they get asked most about. Evans suggests: Cut into steaks and pan fry with Chinese 5 spice and butter.
Ultimately he believes that taking the time to understand how to cook these forgotten or lesser known vegetables pays dividends.
“When you’re eating seasonal UK produce, the vegetables are allowed to ripen naturally as was intended - so they’re going to be much tastier,” Evans says. “It changes the way you cook - but definitely for the better. And it’s nice to be connected to the seasons in that way. ”
As the colder months approach, the idea of eating seasonally can seem daunting. But he says the key is in the preparation.
“For me eating seasonally in winter doesn't just mean eating what's coming out of the ground in those months," Evans says. “It’s about using the stores you've prepared throughout the year - so you're not stuck with a plate of turnips come January.
Right now, he suggests making the most of British apples by making compotes, chutneys and jams. As winter and the prospect of more draconian lockdown measures loom large, it remains to be seen whether our appetite for seasonal food continues to grow.
Unlike the start of 2020, there is no novelty to the situation we find ourselves in, so will these new habits stick?
“Fundamentally, the question is are we all willing to make the sacrifices that we need to live more sustainably?” Guy Singh-Watson asks. “I would say that pre-March this year, the answer was a pretty resounding no. But now there is unquestionably a feeling that we cannot carry on the way we did before.”