Guy’s news: Hot harvesters & bothered bees

July is our busiest month. As neighbours make hay and grease their combines for harvest, our planting and picking reach their peak; all pushed on by the growth-accelerating heat which, at the same time, saps the energy of those tasked with keeping up with the work. Ed and his team of pickers arrive at our polytunnels at 5am with the first glimmer of light. Basil is picked first; partly because it is the most susceptible to heat and partly because, unlike tomatoes, full light is not needed to select ripe fruit. By mid-morning, temperatures are climbing past 40°C. At 45°C the bees, brought in to aid pollination, make an exit if they can, and keel over if they can’t. However, the heat means our tomatoes are tasting great; as well as the usual cherry tomatoes we have punnets of baby plum, yellow and deep red varieties; all selected for flavour from our trials last year. By 11am we hope to finish picking tomatoes, cucumbers and salad onions and move onto side shooting until fatigue makes work impossible, even with frequent breaks and lots of water; normally by noon.

Cucumbers are a notoriously fickle and demanding crop and unsurprisingly they struggled in the cold, overcast May and June; we kept the tunnels closed to boost temperatures but the resulting humidity has led to an outbreak of downy mildew, a virulent fungal pathogen. We have sprayed them with an organic mixture of garlic and seaweed and they seem to be fighting back with new, healthy growth, though this could be down to the change in weather.

After lunch anyone willing and resilient enough moves on to picking broad beans and currants (both nearly over), and planting the last of the radicchio, lettuce and winter leeks, cabbage and purple sprouting broccoli, all of which must be finished in the next week. Some field workers, having done their eight hours, go to the beach, river or reservoir, and who could blame them.

Riverford at Valley Fest: 2nd-4th September

We’ve teamed up with Valley Fest for a celebration of organic farming, fantastic food and music. When you book your tickets through us, we’ll invite you to a free cooking demo and supper in our pop-up kitchen. Plus, parking’s on us. Find out more on our website.

Guy Watson

Ben’s meat news: 10 years & goodbye

I can’t remember exactly, but it must be about ten years since we started the Meat Box, or Riverford Butchery as it’s now known. Back then, organic food was on the crest of a wave. Vegetable box sales were soaring and it felt as though the next step was to do the same with meat. We were right but, at the same time, very, very wrong. Yes, you did want quality, organic meat with sound provenance, as straight from the farm as possible, but, as things turned out, you didn’t want someone else writing the equivalent of your fortnightly dietary prescription. We’d like to say ‘suggested fortnightly menu’ but, in practise, meat doesn’t seem to offer the flexibility of vegetables. It all felt a bit prescriptive and became like a never ending drive around the M25 – ‘back at Cobham Services – it must be time for leg of pork again and what can we do with it this time?’ Potentially, the practical advantages were considerable. We never quite mastered it but being prescriptive should have enabled us to balance the carcass to a ‘T’ – hence solving the butchers’ perennial nightmare of having too much stewing meat and not enough steak. But times have changed; we’ve moved on from Sunday roast, Monday cold cuts and Tuesday cottage pie. If it makes people think about their food, who are we to say it’s a bad thing. If it means they live on ready meals and takeaways, I’d go for the cold cuts and cottage pie any day, or rather every Monday and Tuesday.

Quite rightly, we all see choice as being our birthright and the success of the Riverford Butchery has been down to lowering the minimum spend and allowing people to buy what they like. There’s still the old ‘fixed weight’ conundrum but the same applies in a shop – watch the pain in a butchers’ body language when you ask him to trim a couple of centimetres off a joint of topside. I could almost do it for pleasure.

But while the onus might have moved from set boxes to pick-your-own, our relationship with our farmers hasn’t changed. Many of them have been with us from the start. Some, through being members of our vegetable growing co-operative, since before then. Some might disagree but I’d like to think Riverford has bought them the best of both worlds – the professional predictions that allow them to plan ahead, together with the knowledge that they’ll be getting a fair price, independent of short term market oscillations.

So it’s been rewarding but, as I’m sure you can tell, after ten years I’m running out of things to say, so this is my last meat box newsletter. But don’t worry, I leave you in the very capable hands of the Riverford chefs to help you make the most of your meat.

Ben Watson

Ben’s news: Wine with a story (to go with your veg)

My brother Guy might know his onions, but he’d be the first to admit wine isn’t his thing, and he’s happy to leave it to me. Outside the world of big brands and supermarkets, wine is the benchmark agricultural product. Done right (as ours are) it is simply grapes, grown under a nurturing farmer’s eye, minimally processed, and sent to you, via us, in a bottle. We don’t have a big list, but we aim to keep it interesting and in tune with the Riverford offer – and to work with producers we’re getting to know. Here are a few new wines for the summer; a couple are a little off the wall but we thought them too good not to try. All 100% organic too of course.

Who’s ever heard of frappato? It’s a red grape indigenous to south east Sicily and in days gone by, they’d have had a bottle waiting, lightly chilled, for the tuna boats to come in. These days it’s more likely to be a sardine boat. Outside its affinity with oily fish it’s a red wine pretending to be white; good with all sorts of vegetable dishes, from caponata to spring risotto. Equally summery (and red) is Moinho do Gato from Quinta do Romeu in Portugal. Good for a summer lunch or picnic. Nothing fancy – just a lovely glass of wine.

If there was a wine of the decade award it would have to go to Picpoul de Pinet, a kind of southern French Muscadet – good with shellfish. Olivier Azan, of Domaine de Petit Roubie’s farm is a bit like Riverford 30 years ago, with family members and relics of old ideas all over the place, together with a couple of caravans and a fair bit of rusty corrugated iron. It immediately felt like home and I was desperate to put off the long drive back to Blighty. Another great find is Chardonnay Terroir 11300 from Domaine Begude near Carcassone. It couldn’t be more different. Owned by Englishman James Kingslake it’s about as idyllic as it gets. Rosbifs abroad might not seem like fertile Riverford hunting ground but that’s the great thing about wine and its makers – they come in all guises. James is a perfectionist, who uses the best grapes and lets them do the talking. You can be a non-interventionalist in a traditional, or a modern way. They both have their merits and that’s the wonderful thing about wine. All that really matters is that we enjoy drinking it.

Ben Watson

Guy’s news: A UK-only box; but will anyone buy it?

Back in 1993, when we packed our first veg box, what little imported organic produce available was fit only for the compost heap by the time it got here, so our veg boxes were UK-only by default. Back then organic box customers and organic growers alike were widely characterised as freaks on the fringe, prepared to pursue the principles of local and seasonal even if it meant a diet of cauliflower, stored roots and cabbage for months at a stretch.

23 years and 30 million veg boxes later, I am happy to be part of a broader church. While our veg is still around 80% home grown, it is supplemented mainly by our French farm and a small grower group in Spain. Together they provide tomatoes, peppers and the like year-round without the environmental disaster that is UK heated glass production, and without losing the closeness to our growers. But globalisation has not passed organic farming by; if you want to buy organic and are not too worried about how or where it is produced, the supermarkets will provide you with just about anything at any time. Some of the organic pioneers whose advice I sought in the ‘80s would be delighted that trade and scale have led to success and accessibility, but I suspect more would be appalled by the way trade has arguably prevailed over principles.

I reckon we strike a pretty good balance between principles and pragmatism in what we provide. Eating can be a political and philosophical act but mostly it is just eating, and I don’t think it is our job to tell you what to eat (though we may nudge you in the direction of a sustainable as well as pleasurable diet and do draw the line at things like airfreight). Having said that, many of you have a strong preference for homegrown veg and I do get a regular ear bashing from the hardliners for importing at all, so we are going to offer a 100% UK box again. Our last attempt amounted to just 1% of sales, but maybe things have changed and more of us do without peppers for longer. We plan to run this box across the year bar a break for the hungry gap, when only the hardest of the hardcore would be satisfied with its limited contents.

The timing of this may strike some as a little ill-judged; I can only say that it was planned way before the EU referendum!

Guy Watson

Ben’s wine blog – Summer wine


It’s been a couple of years since I started helping with the wine side of things at Riverford and so far, it’s all been good. I’d be the first to acknowledge that my taste buds wouldn’t make me a Master of Wine, but I love the stuff. Outside the world of the big brands and supermarkets, wine is the benchmark agricultural product. Done right (as ours is) it is fruit, grown with love, minimally but skilfully processed, and sent to you, via us, in a bottle. Nobody else gets a look in – except the Chancellor, and that’s out of our control.

We don’t have a big list, but we’ve tried to keep it interesting and come up with seven new wines for the summer and beyond. A couple of them are a little off the wall but we thought they were so good it would be crazy not to give them a go. Who’s ever heard of Frappato? Well it’s a red grape indigenous to Vittoria in south east Sicily and in days gone by, they’d have had a bottle waiting, lightly chilled, for the tuna boats to come in. These days it’s more likely to be a sardine, but don’t shoot the messenger.

frappato Wine critic Jancis Robinson, described Frappato wine as, “Pale cherry red. Fire-engine-bright, loud, pomegranate fruit on the nose. A wine that both surprised and delighted me with its wholly unexpected energy – it romps across the palate, charged with frisky acidity, and delivers a tremendous amount of fresh cherry-menthol peppery fun. The tannins are almost non-existent. Certainly not a wine to get intellectual about, but it’s not trying to be ambitious. Drink slightly chilled.”

grapes2Our second weirdo is from the Duoro River in Portugal. Producers, Quinta do Romeu, describe their Moinho do Gato red as ‘a smooth, young and fruity unoaked red wine. Ideal for everyday drinking’, but that’s only half the story. Portuguese wine has stuttered at the starting gates many times. They are a big producer but beyond Sir Cliff’s Vida Nova and Mateus Rose, it hasn’t got far. That’s because they don’t buy into the whole grape variety thing and stick by this amazingly anachronistic concept of the ‘field blend’. Vineyards, planted by who knows whose grandparents are picked and made into wine. It’s Tinto or Branco and that’s about it. Amazingly, whatever the variety, they tend to ripen at the same time and can, but not always, make great wine – but they can’t put Chardonnay or Shiraz on the label. It was an afterthought but we were blown away by the summer fruit flavours and had to give it a go.

barrelsThis summer simply everyone seems to be doing Provence rosé, darling. To cut it as a billionaire, a vineyard in the Cotes de Provence is a must. It’s almost taken over from a superyacht or two. I hear Roman has actually planted a vineyard on his yacht. Our Mas de Longchamp IGP Alpilles Rosé is from Bouches-du-Rhône, the most westerly and, I admit, cheapest of the five departments of Provence. But its classic ‘salmon pink’ Provence rosé nonetheless, with a refreshing zing that makes it a perfect partner for light summer meals or just a few sunrays.

If there was a grape of the decade so far award it would have to go to Picpoul de Pinet. Pinet is a small village set back from the Étang de Thau lagoon near Sète on the Mediterranean, where they harvest oysters and other shellfish by the tonne. Picpoul developed as a kind of southern French Muscadet – the perfect accompaniment for shellfish. Ours, from Domaine de Petit-Roubié, is a little fruitier than most so more of an all-rounder, particularly good with summery vegetable dishes as well as all things piscine of course. I’m talking fish rather than swimming pools but, on second thoughts, both could work.

vineyard

A little further west we’ve two new suppliers, coincidentally, a (long) stone’s throw apart, just south of Carcassonne in the Languedoc. Domaine Begude (yes Jonny) is the home of Englishman, James Kingslake. He bought it from another ‘rosbif’, the eccentric Bertie Eden of Chateau Maris, and though it always sounds a bit ‘good life/year in Provence’, the good thing about an English vigneron in France is that the end result tends to be the type of wine we want to drink. Despite its sunny climate, Domaine Begude is quite high and really catches the winter weather making ideal conditions for Burgundian Chardonnay and the lightly oaked Chardonnay Terroir 11300 is positively Chablis-esque – perfect with virtually all light dishes from fish to poultry to vegetables. However hard the Australians and Californians tried to ruin it, Chardonnay is still the best white grape for pairing with food.

Domaine Py, just down the road and a little more traditionally French, make an intense Old Vine Merlot that punches way above its weight. Full of dark, plummy fruit flavours and soft tannins it’s an all-round food wine par-excellence and despite stiff competition to replace the old Pech Matelles Merlot, it was a unanimous decision.

wine-case

So that’s six new wines that make up our summer wine case… there’s a bottle there for all occasions.

malbecAlso new and worth a mention is our Caligiore Malbec. I’m not a fan of the typical flabby, over alcoholic, Malbec but there’s far more to this one. Definitely still no shrinking violet but with enough integrated tannins to give it an extra dimension beyond the rich, dark fruit on both nose and palette. It’s probably more one for the winter, but if you’re planning a seriously meaty BBQ it would certainly do the job.

For a simpler, ‘sausages on the beach’ affair, our Bodegas Castaño Monastrell is hard to beat. Intense Morello cherry flavours with a touch of rounding (rather than imposing) oak and that underlying sweet fruit that works so well with BBQ’d food. And for £7.49 it’s the best value on the list.

Ben Watson

Ben’s meat newsletter: Grass-fed & The Archers

Meat news has been thin on the ground recently. In the past, the Archers has offered inspiration but all we have at the moment is the Fairbrother bros and their ‘Upper Class Egg’ enterprise. Despite their slightly ‘fake farm’ marketing shenanigans, their main USP of grass-fed chicken is worth looking at.

The Cowspiracy film posed the questionable proposition of grass-fed beef being worse for the environment because they grow slower and live longer, so produce even more methane. There are actually many arguments in favour of grass-fed beef and the same applies to lamb which, if anything, offers even more benefits on hilly, marginal farm land. So for better or worse, grass-fed beef, lamb and venison is pretty much what it says on the tin. With non-herbivore pork and poultry things are different; in extremely simplistic terms and ignoring all the other building blocks of a good diet, there’s plenty of protein in grass but pigs and chickens don’t have the digestive system to extract it.

Hardcore ‘paleo’ dieters bang on about 100% grass-fed chicken and eggs and I’m sure it is possible, but in practice a grass-fed chicken will get most of its nutrients from elsewhere. Grass might add flavour and give the end product nutritional benefits (fatty acids for example) and will also give colour. A good, but not infallible, test of a genuinely free-range chicken that has had access to fresh pasture is a healthy, yellow pigment in the skin. With all chickens it could come from maize but I can almost guarantee that a lily white, supposedly, free-range chicken will never
have seen or eaten a blade of grass. So don’t be fooled by those dastardly Fairbrother brothers; their chickens might have better views and a caravan might be preferable to an insulated poly tunnel, but calling them grass-fed is a tad misleading. They’re still fed on bought-in rations, almost inevitably grain and soya based, and it’s where this comes from that matters. I’ve mentioned a few times before ‘The Pig Idea’ campaign and the benefits of feeding swill/food waste to pigs and chickens, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of progress. It might work in small, integrated local farming systems but not in today’s mega agribusiness world.

Years ago, before she came to work at here, a Riverford colleague was looking at the feasibility of a self-contained wormery and chicken rearing operation. Sadly it came to nothing but a bit of thinking outside the box is what’s needed. What will the Fairbrothers come up with next?

Ben Watson

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