Guy’s news: Sticking to my tomatoes

It’s grey, grim and cold; our football team is in shame and the country in chaos but the world is still spinning and our vegetables are still growing. July is our busiest month but with enough dry days between the regular depressions blown in on a jet stream that should be undulating 200 miles further north, we are just about keeping up with the planting and weeding. It’s not good weather for killing weeds but the overcast dampness is ideal for a young leek, cabbage or cauliflower plant. If only I could be planted head-down next to them; it must be wonderfully quiet down there in the moist warm earth.

We picked our first tomatoes yesterday; a little late but the crop is looking great. We’ve had the usual invasion of hungry aphids who have each plugged in their proboscis in order to found a genetically identical sap-sucking dynasty. There have been years when they have reduced our plants to withered bonsai, but not anymore; Ed and our polytunnel team are right on their case, introducing parasitic wasps which oviposit (lay) an egg in each aphid to digest them from within before bursting out, alien-style, as another adult ten days later. We love them and the other predatory wasps, lacewing, ladybird and hoverfly larvae which together reliably keep our aphids at bay without pesticides.

The energy consumption of growing tomatoes under heated glass is an insane 5-10 times greater than trucking them from Spain, which is why 10 years ago we decided not to sell produce from heated glass, even if it’s local. Without heat the UK season is relatively brief; late June to October. I have never understood why but, as with strawberries, the first fruit are not the best; they will improve in flavour through to September before losing sweetness with declining light levels until we rip them out in October. There are few things more reliably disappointing than a UK hothouse tomato or strawberry in November.

The gardeners among you have suggested your favourite tomato varieties and even kindly sent in seeds in the past. Some may taste great when grown in California or Provence and we will keep experimenting but we always come back to Sakura, a large cherry tomato which does well in our summers. Just as well given the weather forecast.

Guy’s News: Rampant vegetation & bucolic harmony

Last night I dreamt of being entombed in rampant foliage under an impenetrable forest. After a wet June, Devon is cloaked in luxuriant vegetation; branches and hedgerows are sagging into roads under the weight of it and paths walked freely a week before soak legs with encroaching dewy nettles and cow parsley. Most years a lack of moisture is restricting growth by now but, with the sun at its zenith, the air steamy with humidity and soil temperatures still climbing, growth shows no signs of slowing. Anyone trying to manage it, be they gardeners or farmers, will be able to interpret my dream.

In my early years as a grower, June would typically bring feelings of panic and occasional despair as plans which seemed so achievable when conceived in January’s hibernation disappeared under weeds. Of course real wisdom lies in appreciating untidy diversity; working with nature with minimal intervention rather than fighting it with mowers and herbicides (for some). Such heady and bucolic harmony is our aim, and we’re getting closer, but we would still lose the good fight without our tractors; yet for the last two weeks they have been parked up, waiting for the soil to be dry enough to support them without compacting it. The weeds, which we like to hoe from their roots in vulnerable infancy, are getting a hold and will be harder to kill; leek, cabbage and lettuce plants are stacking up in the yard and our sowing programme is disrupted.

A cause for concern, but nothing that a few dry days will not sort out. The inevitable mud is clinging to veg and no doubt to your kitchen and fridge; we avoid washing veg where possible, partly as it keeps bettter that way and partly to remind you of its origin, but is it time to reassess? Opinions welcome.

In case this sounds like a farmer’s moan, I should say that most crops are as lush as the hedges; so despite a little woe it looks like being a pretty good year.

Guy’s News: Samphire, ospreys & trench foot

For many years we have picked marsh samphire from a salt marsh formerly used as summer grazing by the Miller family, one of our farming co-op members. For two centuries a sea wall originally built by Napoleonic prisoners of war held back the tidal waters of the River Erme, before being breached ten years ago. Natural England decided to preserve the flooded fields as a salt marsh and when the saltwater killed the grass and trees, the ground was quickly colonised by tiny seeds of marsh samphire carried in the water.

The Millers lost 70 acres of highly prized summer grazing, but gained a modest source of income over the past few years as their sons and friends foraged the deliciously succulent salty spears of samphire each summer, which we usually sell alongside your veg boxes. Joe Miller has now had enough of dodging the tides and kneeling in the mud for hours; picking is incredibly fiddly, armed only with a small knife, a pair of scissors or Joe’s favoured garden shears. This year, pending reapproval from Natural England, my son and his mates (who foraged wild garlic for us in the Easter holidays) have taken on some of the picking as they finish their A-levels. The marsh is remote and beautiful with just ducks and the occasional osprey for company. A nimble-fingered picker in a good patch might manage to harvest two kilos an hour before being driven off the marsh by the incoming tide, then to carry the haul a quarter of a mile to the nearest vehicle access. As the ecology of the marsh has evolved, a succession of more competitive perennial species has colonised it and the less vigorous annual samphire has declined, so this may well be the last year of harvesting here.

We are trying to arrange picking from a much larger marsh in Essex, in which case there may be enough to include in the veg boxes themselves; otherwise (assuming the boys don’t get trenchfoot and wimp out) there will be modest quantities to add to your order over the next three weeks. Samphire is traditionally eaten with fish or occasionally lamb, but I like it best blanched for four minutes and served alongside an omelette or
scrambled eggs. Either way, in my book the trickiness of harvesting this crop makes it all the more of a culinary prize.

Guy’s news – Monsanto, polar bears & Donald Rumsfeld

The great virtue of glyphosate, the world’s ‘favourite’ herbicide, is that it kills slowly and thoroughly; it disrupts amino acid synthesis in every cell, leading to plant death two weeks later. After converting to organic farming in the 1980s I missed it, but over the years we have found alternatives in stale seed beds, cultivation techniques, and thermal and inter-row weeding. Today, we generally control weeds effectively yet add only around 5% to our production costs.

48 MEPs recently tested 100% positive for glyphosate, with concentrations in their urine at 5-40 times the level considered acceptable in drinking water. The World Health Organisation has classified the chemical as a ‘probable carcinogen’ so, with the licence to sell and use glyphosate in Europe expiring this month, an argument is raging in Brussels over whether it should be renewed, and if so, under what terms. The evidence on either side is far from convincing but, predictably, the UK is for renewal. One would hope that a decision will be made based on an assessment of risks, rationally balanced against an assessment of benefits; but history (asbestos, DDT, dioxins, tobacco) suggests that we frequently underestimate risks stemming from what we just don’t know. The majority of pesticides I used as a teenager, judged safe at the time by our regulators (largely based on science selected and paid for by the manufacturers), have subsequently been banned on health or environmental grounds, often after long wrangles like the one going on in Brussels right now.

PCBs, another Monsanto product, were judged too toxic for use by the US Navy in the 1950s but it took another 20 years for them to be banned. Today every one of us carries these hormone-disrupting carcinogens in our bodies. One study suggests they reduce polar bear reproduction by weakening their penises; no-one predicted that consequence and I don’t suppose Monsanto will offer  compensation. My point? When approving novel chemicals we need to consider what we don’t know we don’t know (Donald Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns”), what we know we don’t know (“known unknowns”), as well as what we know. This requires both caution and humility; rare qualities in those with political and economic power.

Guy Watson

Ben’s meat newsletter: BBQ is in the air

At last, we’ve had a bit of nice weather and the hills are alive with the smell of charcoal and burnt, or, if you’re lucky, perfectly caramelised meat. Judging from the Riverford Farm Shop trade over the bank holiday weekend, there’s a definite move towards cooking whole pieces of meat rather than the old drumstick, banger and burger combo.

A couple of weeks ago we celebrated the introduction of the butterflied lamb leg to the meat extras list. Next, if I had it my way, would be a 5cm thick slice of rump that could be quickly charred, wrapped in foil and left to cook through to a delicious, slightly bloody, pink. The problem is a rump is a triangular shaped joint so portioning it into large, fixed weight, pieces without enormous waste is nigh on impossible. And why? During BBQ season we can’t get enough grilling steak. It doesn’t grow on trees and despite demands for the ‘plus meat’ veg boxes running well into four figures, the vast majority of our beef is still bought ‘on the hoof ’ (i.e. we take the whole animal, rather than just the prime cuts) from local farmers. Good steak only accounts for just over 10% of the carcass, so during the summer, finding uses for the other 90% can be challenging.

But don’t despair, because where there’s a will there’s a way, and the joys of a thick, BBQ’d and sliced on the bias, ‘Italian Tagliata’ style steak are worth striving for. Foodies, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall in particular, are sniffy, to say the least, about topside but knock it into shape (literally) and it makes a fantastic, thick steak.

Poor Man’s Beef Tagliata
Serves 6-8, prep 25 mins (plus overnight marinating), cook 20 mins

1kg joint topside
1 garlic clove, crushed
4 tbsp olive oil
juice of 1 lemon
a few black peppercorns
2 sprigs of thyme

De-net and de-fat the beef. Place it on a chopping board and hit it with a mallet until it’s the required thickness – aim for around 4cm. Tempting as it may seem, don’t go mad. It needs to be in one even piece with the grain of the meat all running in the same direction so, when the time comes, you’ll be carving across the grain. You’ll get a few uneven, raggedy bits but so much the better – all the more tasty charred extremities for the cook. As well as tenderising, bashing it will open up the texture of the meat meaning it will cook quicker and absorb more flavour from your
chosen marinade and baste.

Once your topside is knocked into shape, place it in a plastic bag in the fridge with the crushed garlic clove, olive oil, lemon juice, peppercorns and thyme. Leave overnight.

When it comes to cooking time, remove from the bag and scrape off any attached solids. Allow to come up to room temperature and give it about 3 mins per side, basting with the marinated juices. Wrap in foil and leave on the edge of the BBQ to cook through and firm up for 10-15 mins. Carve at an angle, across the grain in thin 5mm-7mm slices. I had mine with the juices from the foil, crunchy chickpea flour chips and a carpaccio style mustard leaf and rocket salad with parmesan shavings and, I confess, felt pretty pleased with myself. It definitely wasn’t meat as a seasoning so it must have been a celebration.

If bashing your beef isn’t for you or I can’t convince you that topside can be grilled, you can get much the same result with a thick cut rump steak. One 250g steak will feed two. Cut the cooking time back to 1 min or so per side and only rest for a few mins.

Ben Watson

Guy’s News: Small but perfectly formed

A couple of decades ago, when veg boxes were just a promising side line, I was struggling to grow cauliflowers for Sainsbury’s. The specification required a perfectly white curd 120 to 150mm in diameter. Sometimes, with the right growing conditions, we produced the right quantity on the right date; more often we didn’t. There was no market for the small, outsized or excess caulis, so most of the time the crop got ploughed back in; the whole experience was wasteful, frustrating and commercially crippling. Eventually the buyer agreed to take two smalls for one large if we packed them in a ‘bra pack’, but by the time the specifications were agreed and packaging bought, the season was over.

I am sure we appeared frustratingly amateurish with our low “fulfilment rates” compared to conventional growers, but organic production will always be less dependable when it comes to cosmetic appearance; by definition it is part of a biological process which naturally generates diversity. In organic farming the greatest source of variation comes from the availability of soluble nitrogen in the soil, which plants need to build chlorophyll and proteins. In the relatively shallow rooting zone of most horticultural crops, concentrations of nitrates and nitrites vary hugely; in a warm, healthy soil with moderate rain, when a myriad of invertebrates, bacteria and fungi are working hard at recycling organic matter, it can be higher than in conventional, fertiliser-fed soil. Conversely, in cold, poorly aerated or damaged soils or after leaching caused by heavy rain our crops can starve, stop growing, turn purple and then yellow before prematurely running to seed in a desperate final attempt to preserve their genes.

We have been watching our summer greens in France for a month while they search in vain for this elusive nitrogen. With the crop in Devon almost ready and 100mm of rain leaching away any remaining nitrogen last week, time has run out; though perfectly formed they are barely half the target weight and would undoubtedly be rejected by a supermarket. We are not Sainsbury’s though, so we cooked them up, liked the flavour and have decided to give you two or three small but perfectly formed and very tasty heads. Minus the bra pack and waste.

Guy Watson

Introducing our next recipe box guest chef… Sarah Raven

Sarah-Raven-Jonathan-BuckleySarah Raven is an authoritative and passionate gardener as well as an award winning cookery writer, best known for her sweet peas, her gardening courses, and her appearances on BBC’s Gardener’s World. She is also an outstanding seasonal cook, whose recipes and ideas for rethinking food are informed by her years as a doctor, and are inspired by the fruit and vegetables she grows at Perch Hill, her cooking and gardening school in East Sussex.

“I want every dish I eat to look good, be good to eat and do me good. If you go about it the right way, you can eat wonderful food which also has a positive effect on your health, and makes you live longer and feel better,” Sarah explains.

Riverford-vegetarian-recipe-box

The recipes featured in our new recipe boxes come from Sarah’s new cook book, Good Good Food, which is full of wholesome recipes with an emphasis on using fresh, seasonal ingredients and getting creative with fruit and veg – a good match with our own approach to food.

“I love the whole philosophy of Riverford; farm-grown organic food, supplied as directly as possible from the field to the customers’ plates. That’s what food should be about and the fresher the food, the more nutrition it has in it too.” says Sarah.

As well as being an inspirational teacher, Sarah also writes on gardening for The Telegraph, Country Living, Gardeners’ World Magazine in addition to her own award-winning gardening and cookery books.

Recipes featured in Riverford’s Sarah Raven recipe boxes are:
Tomato and Poppy Seed Tart, Sangria Chicken, Shaksuka with Chickpeas, Sweet and Sour Vegetable Curry, Chicken Puttanesca and Summer Veg Stir Fry.

Each box contains three recipes for two, and the contents will alternate each week, so you can try them all! Keep an eye out for our Sarah Raven competition on social media too.

The boxes are available to order from the 18th of June for delivery from the 20th June – 15th July. You can order online at www.riverford.co.uk/recipeboxes or by calling the farm on 01803 227 227.

To find out more about Sarah Raven, visit www.sarahraven.com.

Guy’s News: Waste in the Right Place

Objective, measurable specifications are the holy grail of quality control, but whether teaching children, breeding cows or growing veg, focussing on the measurable risks losing the subjective; in our case, that’s flavour. What percentage of a broad bean must be beans? How many spots are acceptable in a chard leaf? These issues can be quantified and do matter, but so does flavour and the excitement of irregularity as evidence of the wilder side of food.

Of course it is your opinion that really counts and if here on the farm, I reckon most of you (like me) would let the borderline veg through; we all hate food waste, especially when it is so obvious how much work has gone into growing it. Yet in the kitchen, when harassed after a hard day’s work and trying to get dinner on the table, many of you are understandably less forgiving. It is a narrow line. I am determined never to be like the supermarket buyers I once loathed; it is up to us to encourage you to focus on culinary rather than cosmetic quality, and occasionally even to argue for tolerance from a producer’s and environmental point of view, so long as we don’t tip over into arrogance.

Our environmental work with Exeter University a few years back suggested 85% of the carbon footprint of our veg is clocked up after leaving the field. While some of you would embrace turnip tops and scarred outer lettuce leaves, many do not, so we’ve learned it is best to leave the trimmings in the fields where they contribute to soil fertility; picking, packing, cooling and transporting them just to add to your household waste may be well-meaning, but it is misguided. Those of you that have been with us for many years will have noticed that our veg is trimmed more and is cleaner; it is a progression that I have sometimes resisted but mostly I have been wrong. Our quality control team have done a great job in driving up standards and getting the waste in the right place. There have been occasional suggestions of compromise (even sell-out) but I would argue it is more like pragmatic common sense. The critical thing is that we keep tasting, arguing and valuing the subjective as well as the measurable.

Guy Watson

Ben’s meat newsletter: Sandwiches & BBQ’d lamb

First a quick rant. What’s the problem with the sandwich? Everybody seems to be sticking the knife in. It’s great news that sales of ‘made up’ sandwiches are on the wane; a mishmash of E number enhanced fillings, placed between slices of mushy, stodgy white bread about a week before eating doesn’t have much to recommend it. It’s truly staggering how many E numbers they can fit in a sandwich. However, this isn’t to say there aren’t some great sandwiches out there for the making. Judging by Jay Rayner and Henry Dimbleby on Radio 4’s The Kitchen Cabinet last week, the anti sandwich movement has become a stampede. Pair this with the gluten free thing we’re not allowed to mention (out of respect to coeliacs) and you have a coalition that could well take over Europe. My point is that just because most bought sandwiches are pretty bad, that doesn’t mean we have to rule out the whole genre. Fergus Henderson, of St Johns, took the bacon sandwich to the pearly gates of organoleptic heaven and Brindisa Tapas, of Borough Market, did the same with their ciabatta, chorizo, rocket and piquillo pepper combo. I’m not ashamed to admit to a soft spot for a Riverford ham and Tracklements English mustard sandwich (Colman’s is a bit strong so you can’t give it a good slathering – and don’t spare the butter), and you can’t beat a leftovers sandwich; roast chicken and stuffing, beef and horseradish, pork and apple sauce… the list goes on. It’s as much to do with texture as taste so add a bit of crunch with lightly toasted bread, salad leaves etc. I’m sure Messrs Rayner and Dimbleby would exclude various pitta and kebab concoctions from their general condemnation – which rather proves the point that they’re scaping the wrong goat.

As BBQ season gets into full swing, two welcome new additions to the range are baby back ribs and boneless butterflied lamb leg. Back ribs are the cut from the top of the ribs adjoining the loin so, although lean, they don’t take as much cooking as spare ribs from the belly and shoulder. I’d still be inclined to give them an hour or so in the oven on a minimum setting to get the cooking process started and ensure the meat slips off the bone. Butterflied leg of lamb is definitely the cream of the BBQ crop. Cooking steaks on BBQs is notoriously risky. It’s far easier to sear the muscles whole, allow to cook through to your liking, and then slice into thin steaks. There’s a recipe on the website for Grilled Leg of Lamb with Swiss Chard and Anchovy Gratin. Here’s a simplified version of the lamb part adapted for the BBQ.

BBQ Butterflied Leg of Lamb
Serves 2-3, prep 10 mins (plus overnight marinating), cook 35 mins

3 garlic cloves, crushed
1 tbsp chopped rosemary
2 tbsp lemon juice
2 tbsp olive oil
1 boneless butterflied lamb leg

First prepare the lamb. Mix together the garlic, rosemary, lemon juice, olive oil and a little seasoning to make a marinade. Place the lamb in a large dish, pour over the marinade and leave at room temperature for 8 hours or overnight, turning the meat every now and then. Remove the lamb from the marinade and pat dry. Preheat a BBQ or char-grill to high. Cook on the BBQ/char-grill for 10 mins, turning every couple of mins. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook, covered with foil or an upside down wok (the dog bowl works well) for 10 mins for medium, or until cooked to your liking. Transfer to a plate and loosely wrap with foil. Set aside for 15 mins to rest, then serve.

Guy’s News: Enlightenment in the cabbages

One of the things I love about being an organic grower is the constant challenge. The ever-receding horizon of perfect knowledge means that I will be learning to the end. After 30 years, assumptions are still regularly confounded in the field; in this case, why the cabbages won’t grow. Pre-enlightenment, our inability to explain natural phenomenon led to mysticism; I don’t rule out that the crop is stunted due to the the phase of the moon when it was planted, or that I failed to bury a corn dolly last autumn or to regularly prostrate myself before the appropriate deity, or didn’t apply activated carbon or mineral dust. Whatever the reason, our pointed cabbages do seem to have lost their spirit; like a whippet with its tail between its legs they seem nervous, unable to break out of themselves and get on with photosynthesising, growing and being eaten by you. As I stand among them, I am still searching for a more prosaic, scientifically conventional explanation. They have had the muck, the sun, the warmth and the water. The soil is not compacted and the weeds and pests are under control, so their purple leaves and pinched appearance remain a mystery.

After work and a few beers, I am still deliberating with the farm team. The consensus is that it’s down to a mixture of things, all of a post-enlightenment nature. Marco leads on stress brought on by wildly fluctuating temperatures; Scott on leaching of nutrients by February’s rains, plus too long spent in the seed trays waiting for a break in the weather to allow planting; Didier thinks they have been too dry. We’ve sent some leaves off for analysis but don’t expect anything conclusive, just another piece in the ever-evolving jigsaw. My enduring faith is that every year we will understand more and become better farmers and custodians of the land as a result. Conventional farmers might reach for a dose of ammonium nitrate to attempt to alleviate the immediate symptoms, but this contributes little to understanding the complex relationship of plant, soil, weather and just possibly the cosmos. There is no harm in accepting imperfect knowledge and occasional inexplicable failure; the enforced humility does us good. Though that sounds like something from The Pilgrim’s Progress, it actually reflects a healthy post-enlightenment acceptance that there is more to learn.