Charities estimate that as much as half the food produced for humans is wasted.Melissa Hemsley talks to Jessica Salter about her mission to rediscover Britain’s ‘make do and mend’ culture through the art of cooking
The morning Melissa Hemsley got back from a five-night trip to Kenya with the Fairtrade Foundation to see how local women farm coffee beans, she had an argument with her boyfriend, Henry. “I’d bought him some coffee home – he made a cafetière, spilled some on the counter and then didn’t finish the pot,” she remembers. “I’d just seen the amount of effort those women had put into harvesting the beans – literally backbreaking work – and seeing it go to waste was too heartbreaking. I shouted at him, ‘you can’t waste that’.” It wasn’t, she concedes now, the most effective approach. “I know that you can’t nag people; they need to feel positive about making a change,” she says with a grin.
Hemsley, 34, has been using a more honeyed tactic on her hundreds of thousands of online fans, who pore over her recipes on Instagram and in her monthly Telegraph Magazine column, where she posts delicious dishes that happen to be seasonal and zero-waste, such as a cauliflower soup made using the whole vegetable, stalks and leaves included.
Behind the scenes, she’s also an advocate. She has put together a guide to the UK’s most sustainable restaurants, hosted the Food Made Good Awards earlier this year, cooked for protestors involved with Extinction Rebellion, joined plastic clear-ups and organised and launched a series of sell-out talks called the Sustainability Sessions. Last but not least, she’s written a book that comes out in January called Eat Green, which aims to help readers use up the food they’ve already got in their fridges.
The impetus is that we’re wasting food on a mind-boggling level. The UN claims that around a third of the food produced for human consumption gets wasted or lost, equating to about 1.3 billion tonnes per year. Other charities estimate food waste could be as high as 50 per cent.
It’s a modern phenomenon – Britain used to be known for its make do and mend attitude, rather than rampant waste. Indeed, Hemsley says that her passion for being sustainable in her cooking comes from how she was raised. “In our house, nothing was wasted–especially not food. My mum bought chicken to roast for Sunday dinner and the leftovers were turned into different meals that would last all week, from broth to soup to noodles. She would take stale bread, sprinkle it with water, then bake it with garlic to make garlic bread. You finished what was in the fridge before you went shopping. That was how we ate.”
When Hemsley left home after finishing school, she taught herself to cook while staying on friends’ sofas and working in London: “I didn’t have any money so that was my way of contributing, and I had to be creative on a budget.” Later, she went into business with her sister, Jasmine, as private chefs for clients including Take That, under the name Hemsley + Hemsley. “We were running a business, so margins were tight: we’d buy in bulk, buy fresh produce from markets and make everything from scratch. It’s all the things I tell people they can do now. We did it because we wanted to save money.”
She sees no problem in talking about the financial incentives as a way to nudge people to be more eco-minded. The charity WRAP UK estimates that we throw away £20 billion-worth of food here every year. “If money is a motivating factor – as it was for me – then great,” she says.
“I can think of nothing worse than wasting money on food that I’m just going to throw away; I’d rather throw old veg and herbs in a soup or stock or broth and use up my fruit bowl by making a chutney or a banana bread.” She treats leftovers as “halfway towards my next meal; I had a roast on Sunday, so I threw the vegetables into a frittata this morning and it took me minutes.”
Hemsley found that her little kitchen garden at home in London, in which she grows herbs, leafy greens and vegetables, has been instrumental in cutting down on waste. “For me, herbs transform a dish, but they often come from the supermarket wrapped in plastic,” she says. “It’s great to have them growing and then just snip off what I need.”
Any food waste from her cooking that can’t be transformed into another dish goes onto her compost heap, to feed her garden. Not that she has much going spare, thanks to the arsenal of smart waste-not tips she has up her sleeve (another legacy from her mother). One that she suggests is to save any small knobs of vegetables, peelings or stalks of herbs in a freezer bag “and keep adding to them until you have enough to make a stock”. Another is to use the freezer to save herbs and leafy greens that are about to wilt, then throw them into curries and stews later.
She says being sustainable has added benefits – not least concentrating the mind when you pop out to the supermarket because the fridge is bare. “It can be really overwhelming going into a big store that’s brightly lit and packed,” she admits. “There’s so much choice. But if you think, ‘what’s in season right now’, in mid November, and think ‘squash, mushrooms, leafy greens’, then you can be more focused. I find that what’s in season is actually what I’m craving, so eating seasonally is more satisfying.”
What are your tips for cutting down on food waste and saving money? Tell us in the comments below.