guy’s newsletter: the virtues of questionable cabbages

The warm weather means we have bumper crops everywhere; we just hope you can eat it all. The bounty is such that rather than see it go to waste, we have upped some portion sizes and are sometimes struggling to get them in the boxes. Take a moment to savour the carrots you may have this week, as the dry weather has created some distorted shapes and slowed growth, but this has only served to intensify their sensational flavour. A little bit of adversity is good for them. Meanwhile our summer greens have struggled too much; first from a lack of nitrogen thanks to the winter deluge, and then from a lack of water. For them, slow growth has resulted in a strong flavour which I like, but which some might describe as bitter. They are on the chewy side too, so I would recommend boiling rather than steaming.

So why am I drawing attention to questionable cabbages? My vegetably, farmer’s point here is that only a narrow minded moron could doubt that the way vegetables are grown has the potential to impact their shape, texture and flavour. Our organic vegetables are so tangibly different from conventional vegetables pushed on with nitrogen fertiliser and plenty of water that it would seem inevitable for them to be chemically different as well. This was broadly the conclusion of an international peer-reviewed study published in the British Journal of Nutrition two weeks ago, in particular that organic food contains substantially higher levels of some anti-oxidants.

To assert that the farming methods used to grow food do not affect nutritional quality, as has been our government’s line, has always seemed incredible. Perhaps in opening up the debate about organic food again, the new research findings will form the beginning of a change in direction. Those cabbages and carrots are enough proof for me though. What is more, without regular dousing with nerve toxins, chemical fungicides and herbicides, our fields, hedges and woods are alive with bees, butterflies and birds. I reckon that makes buying organic more than a lifestyle choice, and the occasional questionable cabbage representative of something much more significant.

Guy Watson

Great Godminster! How they make their mouth-watering cheese

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We visited Godminster to find out more about what goes into making their award-winning brie and cheddar for our Riverford boxes.

Richard Hollingbery, owner of Godminster Farm in Bruton, Somerset, has a simple mantra – nature repays those who treat her kindly. They are one of a dwindling number of dairy farms that are also cheesemakers, and we think this direct connection makes their cheeses all the better.

Farm manager Pete Cheek and Richard have crossed their 230 head herd of British Friesians with Swedish Red, Norwegian Red and Hereford breeds, to produce animals that are well-suited to the largely pasture based organic system of dairy farming. This also means that male calves can be brought on as beef animals. Wildlife is encouraged all over the farm with wide field margins and carefully managed ponds and hedgerows, while homeopathy is used as part of the herd management.

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On the cheesemaking side of the business, Richard has perfected the recipe for Godminster cheddar over the last 10 years, creating an unusually creamy cheese. Brothers Steve and Malcolm Dyer, along with Ashley Reynold, are Godminster’s treasured brie.

They work closely with Pete, the farm manager, so that they can tweak their cheese making process as the cows’ diet changes through the year; a wet summer for example will produce different milk to a hot one. All of this impacts how the cheese is made, as everything from temperature to pH and fat levels can influence how it turns out, and it takes an expert eye to know how to manage it. The brie is made in small batches and the curds cut by hand, with the team using a traditional liquid brine along with herbs, garlic and black pepper to infuse different flavours into the cheese. The result is a fantastic, authentic brie range that is full of character. Definitely one of our favourites!

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Separating curds & whey, ready to pack into cheese mould.

The cheese is made a stone’s throw from where the cows roam, grazing on organic grass and clover.  Their milk is pasteurised before having rennet added to it and kept at 23C for a day and a night. When ready, the curd is cut by hand using a ‘harp,’ tipped into plastic moulds and flattened by hand.

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Packing curd into mould by hand

The whey is drained away.

The brie goes into a brining room for 24 hours, then a ripening room for 5 days – this is where the bloom (or what we’d call the skin) starts to form.

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The team at Godminster make 80 cheeses at a time, which are cut and turned before being hand-wrapped and ready for our boxes.

 

guy’s newsletter: summer parties, morale & gove

Our summer staff parties used to be wild affairs with anarchic games of gladiatorial football. Teams rotated chaotically amid drinking and swimming, with a few bodies usually lying around a smoking fire the next morning. 25 years on, with some sadness, we have grown up; our staff mostly drink in moderation and our fun is risk-assessed and less edgy than in our corporate youth. However we still had a wonderfully badly designed water slide sending bodies hurtling scattergun into the reservoir this year; as I emerged dripping blood I was surprised to find Health & Safety Julie sanguinely standing by. “My day off,” she said. I noticed she wasn’t queuing up for a go though.

Attendance and mood at staff parties is a (sometimes) brutal reflection of staff morale, and a good indication of what lies ahead for an organisation. In the late ‘90s, when accountants suggested all was well, I spent days cooking for our summer party and rented a river boat and band to serenade us down the Dart. No more than 10% of staff showed up; I was gutted. It was a low point and the only answer was to drink most of the booze myself. Sure enough it turned out to be a difficult year; in the whirlygig of growth, communication and relationships had got left behind. Lasting and progressive organisations are about people enjoying a shared purpose and respecting the diversity of contributions that it takes to get there. I’m not sure Gove got that, and I don’t think many teachers would have gone to his party. KPIs and cash are a poor substitute for respect.

This year, as the shadows lengthened and the sun finally slipped behind Caddaford Hill, I stepped over a vomiting youth and sloped off, leaving the hardcore revellers to drain the bar and argue over the microphone. Looking back over the revelry and ebullient happiness made me both proud and confident that we are well placed to face the challenges ahead, be they troubled websites, flea-beetle bitten rocket or persuading you to eat more kale. Better still, after 25 years of mostly great parties, no-one has died on that water slide.

Guy Watson

guy’s newsletter: is organic food better for you?

Most of us like to think that our assessment of the world and the decisions we make are based on evidence, rationality and logic. However, we are emotional beings, full of prejudice and ego, with the added complication of media manipulation thrown in. Science makes valiant efforts to exclude emotional bias and self-interest through systematic testing and peer review before its conclusions are presented as proof. It’s the best show in town, but is far from perfect as scientists are emotional beings too, and often see their work selectively published (or not at all) to meet commercial and political interests.

In 2009 the Food Standards Agency published a report suggesting there were no significant health benefits to eating organic food. Their director, Professor Krebs, concluded that it was a “lifestyle choice”, ie. that you are a mug and I am a quack. I was a little sceptical; my own instinct based on 26 years of growing and eating organic food is that it makes a huge difference. Broadly speaking, the slow steady soil-based growth typical of organic crops produces enhanced flavour, texture and, I would bet my house, more nutrition. So strong is my conviction (common sense or prejudice?) that I would say if science fails to reveal this, it is the science at fault and not my vegetables.

Five years later another, much larger study has been published in the highly respected British Journal of Nutrition. An international panel has concluded that significant nutritional benefits come from eating organically: 18-69% more antioxidants (linked to reduced risk of many diseases and cancers), far lower pesticide levels (no surprise) and lower toxic heavy metal levels. I’m tempted to extrapolate that per unit of nutritional value, our veg might even be cheaper.

How to explain the difference between the two studies? Perhaps science is not as objective as we thought. They’ll get it right in the end, but for now common sense prevails, which means not spraying our veg with nerve toxins, accepting slower growth, and occasionally sharing them with a few bugs. They will often cost a bit more as a result but that doesn’t make you a mug or me a quack, it just makes Professor Krebs seem excessively dogmatic and narrow minded.

Guy Watson

awards: national vegbox scheme riverford is recognised at the franchising oscars

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Designed to celebrate the country’s most exceptional franchisors, the British Franchising Association’s annual awards counted an organic farm on its shortlist this year. National vegbox scheme Riverford delivers across most of England and South Wales through a network of franchisees, known as ‘vegmen and vegladies’, who know and support their customers in the use of their fruit, veg, dairy and farm shop items.

“We were impressed by Riverford’s thorough, eight-stage recruitment process. Prospects must know the company’s ethos as well as their products,” said the BFA judges report. “Offering full disclosure, Riverford staff and the whole network are made available to help prospects with information like business planning templates and P&L forecasts. The process is robust. And the result is that they haven’t had a business failure in 15 years’ franchising – confirmation that their approach works.”

It is the first time that Riverford have been nominated for this award, and the team are understandably delighted. Riverford’s Franchise Services Manager Nicky Morgan says, “Riverford takes pride in working with franchisees who mirror our ‘good food, good farming, good business’ ethos. We have refined our recruitment process to ensure that the right people are selected based on their business acumen, personal qualities and a genuine desire to work towards a common goal in what is essentially a fairly niche market. It is a huge accolade to have had this process recognised by the BFA in our recent nomination as finalist in the Franchisee Recruitment category of the 2014 Franchisor Awards.”
The awards were held at a black-tie gala dinner at Heythrop Park in Oxfordshire.

guy’s newsletter: good change & veg that bites back

April to June had me feasting on asparagus and wild garlic to the end. I will now happily forgo them until next spring as my attention moves to broad beans, artichokes, new potatoes, sugar snaps and marsh samphire. Five-a-day is easy with such a succession of delights, and I have quite lost interest in meat, cream and butter. Alcohol consumption may even have dropped a tad too. This is the time to avoid sauces, keep cooking to a minimum, cut back on the seasoning and let the vegetables do the talking; it is the time to celebrate what is in natural abundance.

I am uncomfortably aware that sounds like foodie drivel from the weekend glossies, but it doesn’t stop it being true. Even after 25 years, all this wonderful new season veg makes my heart quicken. The great thing about the deprivation of winter and the hungry gap is that it wards off the jading of the senses that results from too much of what we want. For me right now that is padron peppers from our farm in France. Quickly pan-fried in a little olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt, they are the perfect way to start an evening, and even better with a beer. Somewhere between 5% and 10% should bite back with a little heat, but last year when I grew them outside they were too hot at times. This year I have grown some in a polytunnel and they are perhaps a little mild, for me at least, but then I like my chilli. Sadly in the spring rush most of the outside crop got buried in weeds, so they will be on the extras list only sporadically over the next three months.

July sees the fruits (or should I say veg) of a happy accident add to the seasonal abundance. Our marsh samphire grows on an organic farm on the Erme estuary that was partly flooded when a Napoleonic sea wall collapsed. A licence from Natural England allows us to carefully hand harvest 100kg a week, so now is the time to eat it until you can take no more. These crisp, salty spears are especially good steamed and served in a salad, with fish or a poached egg. In all it’s a good reminder that as with the seasons, change can be a very good thing.

Guy Watson

guy’s newsletter – unseasonal swedes

While most of you are probably enjoying lighter meals in this warm weather, we are thinking of stews and roasts as we begin sowing our winter crops. Devon is the traditional home of the swede and my father would sow the crop speculatively, in the knowledge that if they did not grow well or his sons were too idle to pick them, they would be welcomed by hungry cattle in the winter.

As with many crops, swede growing techniques have become much more sophisticated, but Midsummer’s day remains the time-honoured sowing date. The swede field, on the edge of Dartmoor, was ploughed in March and cultivated into a ‘stale seedbed’ to encourage weed germination and conserve moisture. A final weed ‘strike’ is made by running a flame over the beds to kill any that remain, yet avoiding any disturbance which would stimulate more weed germination. The seeds are then singly-sown with superb accuracy, 5 inches apart, at a rate of 70,000 per acre. When it’s ready for harvest we will
work our way through the crop three times, picking the swedes as they reach the target weight of 1-1.3kg through to March 2015. All being well we will pick 15 tonnes per acre. Perhaps that is more than you need to know about swedes on a summer morning; I’m just jealous that I don’t get to sit on the tractor placing those seeds any more. Trundling up and down the fields was once my job, but I got promoted and wouldn’t know how to set up the new-fangled drill now.

Meanwhile I hope you are enjoying the broad beans. Please don’t be put off by the sometimes slightly manky pods as the beans inside are great. The same principle applies to the occasional salad leaf dotted with flea beetle bites. The day we have to ditch the stuff to look as smart as Waitrose will be the day for me to hang up my hoe…not that I get to use it much anyway.

Guy Watson