A superfood can refer to fruits, berries, or ancient grains credited to have miraculous effects on one’s health. Yet, how good are they really? And can’t we find locally grown produce with similar properties? Stefanie Schäfter, co-author of the book “Super Local Food,” addresses all these questions.
Spinach is like the planet Pluto among superfoods. Once a rising star of domestic leafy vegetables, it was relegated to a ‘has-been’ status. It is now generally well known that the high iron content of spinach can be attributed to a misplaced decimal point. After the error was noticed, the plant was deprived of its reputation as a superfood and long since been overtaken by the cooler-sounding but non-indigenous kale.
This is a typical anecdote for the arbitrariness that reigns in the field of food marketing. And it is also applicable to many other superfood trends. Goji berries, açai berries, and chia seeds – whether consumed in shakes, powders, or bowls – are frequently only available in highly processed forms. “A superfood is a food that is reputed to have special health effects. Usually because it contains a high concentration of a particular nutrient. That is why I would tag these items with a big, fat question mark,” says Stefanie Schäfter. “Most of what is marketed and sold as a superfood is highly processed and no longer possesses the vitamins it had while it was still fresh. And in the case of unprocessed fruits or vegetables, they are often not yet ripe when harvested and shipped around the globe. In no way can this be considered fresh produce, and we haven’t even begun to mention the ecological life cycle assessment* of these goods.”
It is not always a clear-cut matter. For instance, foods with superpowers can also be grown locally. “Crucial for a healthy diet is diversity. In this respect, a single superfood that contains a particularly high concentration of a certain nutrient doesn’t do much good. But if you regularly eat a lot of different fresh foods, you generally get all the nutrients that your body needs.” According to Stefanie, locally grown, healthy, and seasonal indigenous superfoods are therefore better for everyone – the producers, the consumers and their bodies, and, of course, nature as a whole.
What should you keep in mind with a local superfood diet? “There are two important components – whether the food is local and in season,” explains Stefanie. And it is not so easy. Supermarkets, for example, rarely sell walnuts or white cabbage grown locally. Even organic shops buy in such large quantities that they tend to stock food imported from other countries. “If you want to know where your fruit and vegetables come from, you can simply go to a farmers’ market or sign up to receive a regional organic food box. You can also do your groceries directly at a farm shop and thereby show your solidarity with local farmers,” advises the expert.
And here is a tip from a pro: you can even get a few local superfoods for free. “You are fortunate if you live in the country and can grow your own food. But even in the city or the surrounding regions, you can find a local superfood – the walnut. Hops grow in many places within a city. You can dry the hop cones and brew soothing tea with them. In the spring, hop shoots can be prepared and eaten just like asparagus – in fact, they are known as hop asparagus.” Another local superfood is the rosehip. The plant is a bit prickly, and you may remember it from your childhood. You can make tea or marmalade out of it, and it possesses an unbelievable amount of vitamin C.”
Pay attention, however, to where these edible treasures grow in an urban environment. “When on the hunt for local superfoods in the city, check the pollution levels in the area that you find them,” she warns. “I’d rather not pick any hops growing near the highway. For example, I live next to a park built on the site of an old train station. I don’t take anything that grows there, as I know that the soil is contaminated.” If you are curious about whether the soil in your neighborhood has any known contamination, you can call the local land office and ask. “In Berlin, for instance, I know that a section of Treptower Park has been maintained for many years without the use of chemical fertilizers. So, I go there to collect good herbs and pick stinging nettle for a wild herb salad. I make sure, however, to pick the higher leaves not touched by animals.”**
For the autumn and winter, Stefanie recommends lamb’s lettuce as a local superfood. “It provides a great deal of much-needed vitamin C in winter. Red beets are incredibly good for the cardiovascular system, while leeks and onions are superfoods for the immune system. You can harvest cabbage throughout the winter in Germany, and it is fantastic to ferment. Many other, especially firm, vegetables can also be fermented, and they are extremely good for the intestines,” she advises. Here, you can find a seasonal calendar of slow foods by the Slow Food Youth of Germany organization.
If you are now inclined to stock up on local superfoods, you can purchase Stefanie’s book “Super Local Food.” It’s available in German from oekom Verlag and costs around 20 euros. She has kindly left an autumnal recipe for us to publish here:
Autumn pumpkin pie with apple, walnuts, and lamb’s lettuce
This pie is the perfect dish for rainy autumn days. It can serve four as a main dish or, together with a salad, provide a light meal for six to eight persons. The fructose in the pumpkin and apple give the pie its sweetness, while the walnuts provide the necessary bite.
For the filling:
1 large Hokkaido pumpkin
1/2 stalk of leek
60 g walnuts
20 g pumpkin seeds
150 g feta cheese
A dash of apple juice
For the crust:
125 g wheat flour
125 g spelt flour (Type 630)
125 g cold butter
70 ml cold water
1 tsp salt
ca. 400 g lamb’s lettuce
neutral vegetable oil, e.g. sunflower oil
apple cider vinegar
Preparation (45-90 minutes)
Preheat the oven to 180 °C for a convection oven (200 °C top/bottom heat, gas oven level 4).
First, prepare the crust. Quickly knead all the ingredients into a dough by hand or use a food processor. Don’t let the dough get too warm. Place in the refrigerator until ready for use.
Cut the pumpkin into slices with a sharp knife, place it on a baking sheet, coat it with oil, and bake in the oven until soft and golden brown. Bake for 10-15 minutes, depending on the size of the slices. Line the dough into the pie form. Pre-bake the crust (blind baking) for 10-15 minutes. Blind baking entails baking a pie crust without the filling, so the crust retains its shape. The traditional technique is to press the dough into the pie dish and pierce the crust bottom repeatedly with a fork so it won’t rise during baking. Then the dough is weighted, for instance, with dried beans or grains, and then baked for a short time. The “blind” filling is then removed and replaced with the actual filling.
After cooking, puree the pumpkin, add pepper, salt, and apple juice to taste, then set it aside.
Chop up all the other ingredients: Peel the onions and cut into rings. Wash the leek and also cut the white and light green parts into thin rings. Crumble the feta coarsely, chop the walnuts into chunks, and cut the apple into thin slices.
Let the pre-baked pie crust cool.
Spread the pumpkin puree evenly on top of the crust and then generously spread the chopped ingredients on top of the puree.
Bake the pie for around 30 minutes. Meanwhile, wash and spin dry the lettuce and place in a salad bowl. Mix oil, vinegar, salt, and pepper in a small bowl and add to the salad just before serving.
Take the pie out of the oven and let it cool before slicing.
If you prefer a savory rather than sweet pie, omit the apple and apple juice and add a good dash of apple cider vinegar instead. It is best to try the filling before baking and season to taste.
The same recipe can be used for other soft vegetables. This pie is especially delicious with beet puree. It goes well with goat cheese and thyme.
You have a vegan pie if you replace the butter in the crust with margarine and leave out the feta.
* The life cycle assessment – as unimaginable as it may sound – is not so bad, with the exception of air freight, because some of the large shipping freighters are very efficient. The ecological life cycle assessment is more relevant here, as it includes, for example, the water or land footprint, pesticide use, etc.
** Although Berlin has been considered free of fox rabies since 1996, it still exists elsewhere, especially in southern Germany. Be sure to wash picked plants thoroughly and, if possible, boil before consumption.
Recipe photo: copyright Isabel Lindemann