Sweet Talk

This weekend I’ve been gathering elderflower blooms to make my own elderflower champagne.  I thought it was about time that alcohol got the sustainable living project treatment, but in fact this post ended up being about something slightly different.

Elderflower Blooms at The Sustainable Living Project

Needless to say there is nothing terribly sustainable about our nation’s boozing habits.  We put unnecessary pressure upon our essential services. We waste no amount of our time and reduce our productivity as a result of over-indulging. And often acquire into the bargain a rather nihilistic world view.  And that’s just the teenagers falling half dressed out of night clubs. 

Middle aged drinkers like myself are just slowly pickling their livers while propping up the Spanish economy with our Rioja habit.  The Man from Salford being a real British ale fan can claim the sustainability brownie points on this one, he supports the local economy by propping up the bar.

 I thought it was about time I tried making my own alchohol in an attempt to reduce my carbon footprint.  The recipe I’m using for my elderflower champagne is a River Cottage one. 

 The Man from Salford and I are somewhat in disagreement over Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.  I am of the opinion that as far as the spectrum of TV chefs go, he is one of the good eggs, ( a metaphor I’m sure he’d appreciate.)  However, The Man from Salford is very cross with him, and indeed called him a very rude name, on account of his Shepherds’ Pie competition.  I had no idea that The Man from Salford felt so strongly about shepherds’ pies.

This aside, as I was happily collecting elderflower blooms from the hedgerow, getting my hands covered in pollen and just generally enjoying that unmistakable smell of summer, it occurred to me that the main ingredient of my brew wasn’t really elderflowers. Cheap, abundant and local as elderflowers are, the main ingredient, besides water, is sugar.

I’ve not grown any sugar in my back yard this year, that’s for sure. (Nor the four lemons that make up part of the recipe either!)  Yet we are as dependent upon this form of pure energy as we are upon fossil fuels. 

Approximately 145 million tonnes of sugar are produced a year.  60-70% of this is derived from cane sugar, the rest is produced from beet.  Sugar is responsible for greater bio-diversity loss than any other crops.  In addition to this sugar production requires intensive use of water, is heavily dependent upon agricultural chemicals, pollutes water courses, damages soil health and causes soil erosion, and in many delicate equatorial regions contributes to habitat destruction.  Hardly one of the more sustainable crops then! 

The good news is that there are better ways of producing sugar without great losses in productivity.  Better Management Practices (BMP as it is often referred to) cites use of improved and efficient irrigation schemes, rational chemical use, as well as green manures and bio-fertilisers in place of chemical fertilisers.  Farm and Landscape Planning encourages sustainable practices such as the nuturing of marginal lands to promote diverse eco-systems or the planting of hedegrows to prevent soil erosion from wind.  (This is a problem in the beet growing regions of Europe and in the UK where soil is often left bare in the winter months.)  BMP also promotes the use of sugar by-products as fuels and soil improvers so that sugar becomes a more efficient crop overall.  To find out more about sugar production and sustainability visit the WWF’s report Sugar and the Environment

I opted to buy fairtrade sugar for my elderflower champagne as the best compromise I could come up with for now.  Historically, the human price of sugar has been high.  Providing my champagne is a success, I will savour and appreciate every drop as we sit by the canal during the summer evenings.  I feel slightly pleased, at least, that this canal’s part in the history of industry and empire isn’t too shameful.  It was built to serve the Wedgewood potteries whose founders were keen anti-slavery campaigners.  Sugar bowls of the period bore the anti-slavery medallion as a reminder to consumers of  the human price of sugar.  Perhaps someone can make sugar bowls reminding us of the environmental price of sugar production?

The Wedgewood Anti-Slavery Medallion

The Wedgewood Anti-Slavery Medallion

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5 comments to Sweet Talk

  • Hi Goo
    Thank you for an informative and thought provoking post.

    I have also been making my own booze in an attempt to reduce my footprint :-) My mead was excellent and my cyser was pretty good:-). I tried buying local honey, but it was over £1.50 more per jar than the imported organic honey and when you are looking at around 5lb of honey per gallon :( , so I ended up just buying English honey. I am seriously thinking of keeping bees! But even then, having looked at modern beekeeping I would have to go for a more sustainable Top-bar hive method (see http://www.biobees.com/ or http://anarchyapiaries.org/). With the threat of bee decline and it’s impact on our food security, while our government refuses to ban nicotinide pesticides which are heavily implicated, what are we to do except sit down and slowy pickle ourselves in as low-impact a way as we can :-)
    Have Fun

  • goo

    Thanks Kester. I’ve already visited the biobees
    site, it is excellent and I strongly urge anyone with an interest in beekeeping to do so. As well as pickling ourselves we can also do our best to inform as many people as possible about low impact living.

  • Apart from my envy that you are making Elderflower Champagne (why do I never get it together to harvest elderflower, oh why?) your mini critique on the sugar industry is a great reminder of what our sweet tooth costs. I don’t use sugar except in breadmaking and I don’t eat sweeties that often any more but processed foods are going to be stuffed with it, that’s the problem. We take it for granted so much that it’s almost invisible, and it’s those things that we just expect to be there and be plentiful that can often do the damage.

    I love that your part of the canal network has such a positive history and the detail of the anti slavery medallion is fascinating. Thanks for a superb thought provoking post.

  • pablo

    what an excellent and heartening site. sugar has been playing on my mind a little so this article was most welcome. you’re an inspiration, keep it coming. ;P

  • goo

    Thanks Pablo, very kind of you to say so – the question I try to ask always is, ‘Is there a better way to do this?’ Usually the answer is yes.

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