Guy’s News: Stress & rhubarb

There has been frost on the ground in the morning but we have been irrigating by midday. The recent cold, dry weather is ideal for ploughing, mucking and preparing seedbeds, especially from a heated tractor cab, but outside it’s hard on both the plants and the planters. Even with the protection of crop covers the cold, dry north-easterly winds of the last two weeks can desiccate lettuce and spinach plants before they are able to get their roots into the moist soil two inches down. But with half a million spinach, chard, lettuce, cabbage and more to plant in the next month we cannot wait; in Devon the warmer westerlies normally bring the rain that stops planting, so we have to get on the land while we can. Our plants will just have to tough it out; getting good crop establishment in a year like this is all about managing the transition from the warm, humid glasshouses where the seedlings were raised, huddled in a tray with regular computer-controlled watering, to sitting in an open field blasted by an easterly wind. Our tools are irrigation, crop covers and preparing seedlings by slowly hardening them off before planting out. Generally, it works.

Meanwhile, when time allows, we are splitting and replanting rhubarb crowns. Given plenty of muck, the huge umbrella leaves of an established rhubarb crown will outgrow most weeds, but as soon as we harvest even a small amount from each plant, we are robbing it of its competitive ability. Over the years we have lost the battle with couch grass, creeping buttercup, nettles and docks; rather than dig up the weeds it is easier to dig out the crowns and divide them into three, carefully remove the weed rhizomes, and replant the crowns in a clean, fertile field. Over 20 years we have experimented with many strategies for controlling perennial weeds in perennial crops, and settled on covering the rows with biodegradable starch-based plastic mulch in late autumn, which lasts long enough to suppress weed growth before breaking down the next year. It’s not perfect because turning plant starch into compostable plastic is an energy-intensive process, so we will keep experimenting, as we always do. The newly planted rhubarb will not yield much this year, but we have another established field which we will be picking for your boxes, starting next month.

Guy Watson

Ben’s meat newsletter: Burgers & imminent BBQs

Sometime soon the weather will improve and we’ll all start thinking about BBQs, picnics and al fresco dining. The BBQ meatbox will be reappearing shortly but in the meantime there’s always a place for a good burger. It’s no secret that the best burgers are made from chuck steak; tender enough to fry, it has the perfect amount of fat to keep the burger moist. Years (rather decades) ago, on my one visit to the States, I was blown away by the pink, inch and a half thick burgers they served in New York. Hopefully you’ll be as impressed with the following technique for burgers made from freshly chopped meat.

Instead of buying mince, order a pack or two of braising steak (invariably chuck or feather). Chop into 1cm dice, lay out on a plate and put it in the freezer. When it’s well chilled (about 30 mins), put it in a food processor, add salt (no more than ½ tsp per 400g) and pepper, and pulse until you have the right, slightly coarse, consistency. Check after a couple of pulses to make sure nothing is caught on the blade. You can add other ingredients (I like a little lightly sautéed onion) but get too carried away and it won’t be a burger anymore; add extras to the bun instead. Next, form into thick burgers (about 150g), allow to rest, fry in a griddle pan on a medium-high heat for about 4 mins each side, or to your liking, and there you have it – the best burgers from freshly chopped beef. And as for the bap, I’m sure these uber-trendy brioche baps have their place but they do nothing for a burger. To really let the burger shine, scrape some of the crumb out of a ciabatta of French stick.

A couple of years ago, I came up with versions of the Canary Isles’ iconoclastic mojo picón and verde sauces. My BBQ sauce of the year used to change annually from teriyaki, to smoky piri piri, to vinegary Carolina style, but I think these two will do me again for this year. The picón works with everything while the verde is best with chicken, vegetables and fish. Both are good for dunking things in and will keep for a couple of weeks in the fridge if you jar and pasteurise.

Mojo Picón
Makes 1 jar, prep 15 mins, cook 0 mins

4 large red peppers, roasted & skinned
1 thick slice white bread or ciabatta
4 fresh red chillies, destalked & deseeded
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1 tsp cumin
½ tsp sweet smoked paprika
2 tsp sherry vinegar
4-5 tbsp olive oil, plus extra for frying

Fry the bread in a little olive oil until golden brown and crisp. Drain on kitchen paper and tear into pieces. Blitz the roasted peppers and chillies, garlic, cumin, paprika, fried bread and vinegar until you have a smooth paste. Add the olive oil, pulsing frequently, until it’s quite runny.

Mojo Verde
Makes 1 jar, prep 1 h 30 mins, cook 0 mins

2 green peppers
3-4 green chillies
1 bunch coriander
½ a bunch flat leaf parsley
3 large garlic cloves
1 tbsp salt & extra for final seasoning
¼ teaspoon cumin
200ml extra virgin olive oil
2 tbsp each sherry vinegar & lemon juice

De-seed and finely chop the green peppers and chillies. Put in a colander and mix in the salt. Leave for an hour to drain – this will extend the shelf life. Remove the stems from the coriander and parsley and roughly chop the leaves. Put the garlic and herb stalks in the food processor and blitz until smooth. Add salted peppers and chillies, cumin, half the vinegar
and lemon juice and blitz again to a smooth consistency. Add the herbs leaves and drizzle in the olive oil while pulsing every few seconds. Check the salt and cumin levels and add more vinegar and lemon juice if you like it a bit sharper.

Ben Watson

Guy’s News: Storks, frogs & Brexit

Here in the Vendée the sun is shining, the storks are nesting and we are busy harvesting lettuce, planting sweetcorn and chillies, and preparing to pick the first chard and spinach. Our French farm, Le Boutinard, is a 300 acre former dairy farm on the edge of the low lying coastal ‘Marais’; a marshy area famous for its canals, salt, oysters and frogs. The later crops are looking fantastic, but anything that was growing roots in waterlogged February has struggled to recover. The surrounding drainage ditches are alive with frogs generating a deafening crescendo each evening. They are the favoured food of the seven pairs of storks that nest in the oaks surrounding the spinach field.

I get asked about Brexit at every break from our field work. The sentiment is generally that we should stay; that the European project is precious but fragile, and that our exit may make it crumble. Everyone here acknowledges that the EU has problems and needs to become more democratic and responsive to concerns of Europeans rather than Eurocrats, but resentment at a potential exit is not far under the surface. With Holland and the Czech Republic threatening to follow, it is not in Europe’s interest to make exit look easy; indeed, EU politicians are likely to get voters’ approval for making our post-exit life hell.

I have no appetite for “ever closer union” or an ever larger Europe; if this was a referendum on whether to join the EU, I would be for staying out, but that train has left and I will be voting to stay for three reasons:

1. The uncertainty following an exit vote will make the next 5-10 years of negotiation and adjustment hell for anyone trying to run a business; we need stability and certainty to allow us to make the good, well informed decisions and long term investment plans so vital to growth and employment.
2. Despite all its failings, the EU has brought peace and many other benefits; personally I would regret precipitating its demise.
3. Given the current mood in Europe, reform of the EU is inevitable; Eurocrats will be forced to be more accountable.

The EU needs to change, but we should push for the reforms most of us want from the inside. It will be a lot harder should we walk.

Guy Watson

Live Life on the Veg with us

LLOTV-header

We want to show the world we’re mad about veg. It’s at the core of everything we do. We love to grow it, cook with it, share stories about it and celebrate veg at every opportunity. So, from now on, we’re sharing our love of the green (orange, red, pink, purple…) stuff on everything we make and do. You’ll soon start to see new veg-centric boxes, Riverford vans and much more. Vegetable-crazy too? Come and #livelifeontheveg with us.

Why is Riverford rebranding?
To show the world we’re mad about – and experts in – veg. We want to put our authority about veg back at the heart of the business and think this new look and refocusing on veg will help us reach as many like-minded people as possible.

What else has changed – are you still independently owned?
Nothing has changed. We’re still independently owned and always will be.

What’s the idea behind the new logo?
It’s a distinctive, memorable carrot shape that helps us communicate who we are and what we do. We have changed our name very slightly from Riverford Organic Farms to Riverford Organic Farmers, to celebrate the fact that we are an independent, personal business and farmers at heart.

Are you going to throw away loads of old packaging and marketing materials?
No – we’re keeping waste to a minimum. We are mostly updating materials when they are the end of their life and due to be replaced, saving cost and waste. This may mean that you see old versions around for a while – for instance on some packaging and vans. We feel this is a good compromise between clarity and wastefulness.

Have you spent lots of money on this? Are prices going to go up as a result?
We worked with an agency to help centre our thinking on veg, which was a very good investment. Much of the work has been done by our team here on the farm and we are keeping costs down by phasing in new vans, packaging etc gradually and minimising waste. Prices won’t be going up as a result of the rebrand.

What about the website? Are you also investing in improving that?
Yes – we’re busy working on improvements to the website too.

What do you think? Have you had your veg delivered in our new, really vegetabley box yet? Or seen the van out and about? #livelifeontheveg

Guy’s News: “Come on dad; everyone’s a brand”

So said my 20 year old son, in response to me moaning that I spend more time managing a brand than growing vegetables. When he was younger, my biggest decisions featured tractors, crop varieties, soil and planting dates; today images, fonts and snappy quotes get almost as much attention as my fields. His candid words of advice as we picked wild garlic were to, “get over myself ”. He makes music and DJs now and then – if his personal brand is strong enough he and his mates occasionally get paid to run nights in clubs and parties. His sophisticated, almost innate marketing savvy made me feel like a pre-digital dinosaur.

About the time he was born, my marketing expert sister had to explain to me what a brand was. I still prefer the term ‘reputation’ as it is based on real rather than managed experiences; meeting us, tasting our vegetables, eating in the Field Kitchen. In our globally traded, digital dominated age, real experience is becoming a rarity. Somehow we have to convey to ever busier people (most of whom we will never meet) what we do, how we do it and why our vegetables are the best. It is indisputable that most decisions are emotional and images are hugely powerful influencers in that process; words, facts and arguments are just too challenging for our (according to psychologists) ‘cognitive miser’ minds.

Despite occasional navel gazing, we remain unabashed veg enthusiasts at Riverford, so the imagery that supports our reputation should celebrate vegetables. Given that we can’t get away from marketing, it would also be great if it is pleasing to look at, so we are getting rid of that prosaic green splodge and replacing it with a plethora of vegetables. The process of design has been uncomfortably self-conscious but I love the result; you’ll notice the changes on the website, your boxes, communications, then vans, bags and the rest. I resent every penny sucked into marketing, so to avoid waste, the change will be gradual as we use up old stock. I hope to avoid gazing into dark orifices for a while, so I hope you like the new look as much as I do.

Guy Watson

Ben’s Meat Newsletter: quick-fry steaks & escalopes

Ever since we started the meat box business, food writers publishing endless recipes for trendy cuts of meat like onglet steak and New York short ribs but ignoring the popular, easily accessible ones has been a source of considerable annoyance to me. I like a ribeye as much as the next man but it’s a treat. For 95% of us, our meat staples consist of topside, chicken breast, minced beef, leg of pork etc, but rarely the cuts that get food writers’ creative juices flowing. Frying steak is a classic example. For years it’s made a regular appearance in our boxes but do a search on the web and the results will be virtually nada; we might cook it but chefs don’t.

A better name is minute steak or ‘no more than a minute’ steak because it’s absolutely crucial not to overcook it. Normally cut from the thick flank (often confusingly known as the top rump) or topside, it has virtually no fat so will dry out and toughen as it cooks.

It’s good because it’s cheap and very useful – but not for frying as a steak. Our quick-fry steak has been through a tenderiser (a bit like a steak hammer) so you can fry it quickly for a sandwich but I’d always take the precaution of cutting into strips before assembly. But just because someone has gone to the trouble of tenderising it doesn’t mean you have to fry it. Far better cut it into batons, fingers or ribbons and use it for something like a stroganoff, Thai massaman curry, stir-fry or fajitas.

Riverford beef escalopes are, in all but name, frying or minute steak, cut from the same muscles but a little thinner. Use for any of the above. Again the secret lies in fast cooking and not hanging around for too long once cooked. The cooking doesn’t have to be fierce – in fact quickly poaching in broth as with a ramen soup is a better way of ensuring that it doesn’t overcook and
toughen up.

Alternatively, a long slow cook will also work and tapping out and wrapping around a stuffing of some sort is guaranteed to impress. The Italians call them involtini and the Americans and Australians call them braciole. They’re surprisingly easy, cheap and can be crumbed and baked, cooked in a sauce (normally tomato) or part cooked and finished on the BBQ. I’m particularly keen on them cooked in a, not too hot, oven – so the filling oozes out.

pork or beef involtini
serves 4, prep 30 mins, cook 30 mins

4 pork or beef steaks – quick fry or escalopes
4 slices bread (2 for stuffing & 2 for crumbing)
100g lardons
2 onions, 1 very finely chopped & 1 cut into wedges
8 fresh sage leaves, finely chopped
12 tbsp finely grated pecorino cheese
8 tbsp olive oil
8 bay leaves
2 tbsp vegetable oil
white wine & stock to deglaze the pan
lemon to serve

Preheat oven to 180°C/gas mark 4. Prepare the pork or beef by cutting each steak in half then using a rolling pin to flatten the slices into thin escalopes – they should be rectangular and big enough to wrap a heaped tbsp of stuffing but don’t over do it or they will just fall apart. Blitz the bread into breadcrumbs. Halve the crumbs and pour one half into a mixing bowl. Add the lardons to the breadcrumbs in the bowl plus the finely chopped onion, sage and cheese. Season and mix well. Gradually add enough olive oil so that the mixture clings together and holds well allowing you to shape it. Divide the breadcrumb mixture into 8 – about 1 tbsp of mixture per involtini. Place mixture at the end of an escalope and carefully roll up, folding in the sides as you go to completely seal in the filling. Repeat with remaining escalopes. Take a flat sided metal skewer and thread four rolls onto the skewer, alternating with onion wedges and bay as you go. Repeat with the remaining skewer. Have two plates to hand. On one plate add the reserved breadcrumbs. On another plate add 2 tbsp of vegetable oil. Coat the skewers first with the oil, then crumbs, pressing down well to coat the meat. Repeat with the remaining skewer. Place the skewers onto a baking tray lined with baking parchment, then into the oven for 25-30 mins or until the crumbs have a nice colouring. Carefully turn half way through cooking. Once cooked remove and deglaze pan with a little wine and veg stock. Reduce and serve with a squeeze of lemon and basmati rice.

Guy’s Newsletter: planting, picking the last of the old & waiting

Every bird seems to have a twig in its mouth and some have already laid eggs, but spring has yet to arrive with any conviction in our fields. Making use of breaks in the weather we have sown carrots, planted the early potatoes, the first lettuce, chard and pak choi but it will be a long wait before there is much to pick. Welcome to the hungry gap; the scourge of every gardener, box scheme and die hard localist.

Out of the wind and rain in our tunnels we are busy picking a late rally of rocket, land cress, claytonia, mustard, salanova lettuce and dandelion greens to make salad bags. The first salad onions and tomato plants are ready so, as soon as the last pick is taken, it is a scramble to clear, spread compost or manure, cultivate and plant; sometimes all with 24 hours.

Purple sprouting broccoli is approaching the end of a short season and it is the last week for kale, but leeks seem to be held back by the cold and look likely to run to the end of April. Last month it finally came dry enough to lift the carrots trapped in the ground by a wet winter, but they had already started re-growing and putting their stored energy into throwing a seed head, making the roots dry and woody. It is painful to walk away from a crop that has been painstakingly nurtured, but it would be a lot of work to lift and sort only to produce an inferior carrot. Sadly we will be on Italian carrots (actually they taste OK) until early June when we hope to harvest the first spring sowings.

My children, nephews and friends are busy picking wild garlic in the woods, but with school and exams beckoning and the trees above coming into leaf this will be their last week. If we can organise some other pickers it will be on the extras list for another month. For culinary adventurers who share my taste for the bitter earthiness, cardoons will also be available for a few weeks complete with recipes; they are the best I have ever grown but numbers are limited.

Guy Watson

Guy’s newsletter: fantasy farms

While most of us have only a limited interest in where our phones, shoes and cars are made, almost everyone cares where, how, and by whom their food is produced. Indeed, most supermarkets have trumpeted their close links to farmers for this reason, and occasionally made short-lived attempts to make that closeness a reality. However it is expensive to deal directly with hundreds of small scale, often cantankerous farmers whose crops and products are less reliable than the mass-produced alternative; it is also problematic if customers start wanting produce from a particular farm, thereby reducing bargaining power when supermarkets want to drive down the farmgate price. A genius in marketing came up with the answer; invent fictitious, delightfully compliant and reliable farms like Tesco’s ‘Boswell’ and ‘Woodside’ farms; they sound plausible as the source of their steak and sausages, but turn out to be figments of a marketer’s imagination, with the meat coming from who knows where.

Will they get away with insulting their customers with such blatant deception? Perhaps; according to current marketing speak, “we all think a lot less than we think we think” ie. we are less considered and more emotional in our decisions than most of us realise, or as psychologists put it, we are ‘cognitive misers’. As such, deceptive marketing takes advantage of our susceptibility to vague emotionally appealing messages and our reluctance to critically analyse facts.

Are we really wired this way? Perhaps so, but I believe trust plays a part too. I hope it’s reassuring that Riverford is a real place which you can visit to see our crops and our farming co-op, meet our staff, see that it is founded and owned by a real person, and observe first hand how our values have a constancy that is not subject to flights of marketing fancy. Perhaps such principled commitment has its downsides; the founder of a competing veg box supplier once said, “The problem with you Guy is that you’re so “f***ing boring”; if that’s the price of constancy and reality, it is a badge I will wear with pride.

Guy Watson

Ben’s Newsletter: How much meat?

There is only one general Riverford meat topic right now – how much meat should we be eating? It’s a tough question for a butcher and one that, not surprisingly, most aren’t prepared to face up to.

Easter’s come and gone and I’d be interested to know whether anyone has scaled back on the meat element of their festive fare in response to the How Much Meat? campaign. With Professor Tim Lang suggesting a daily allowance of 70g, that doesn’t give a lot of leeway for celebratory meals. So what’s the answer? You’re certainly not going to fi nd it in the papers or cookbooks. A quick dip into The Guardian and Observer last weekend gives full bags of tricks for using pork mince, cooking chorizo, slow cooking pork ribs and breast of lamb. The plus side is that there was no beef on the menu and the suggested cuts and sausages are made from lesser used cuts but, on the down side, work your way through that lot and you’ll be well on your way through your monthly rations.

Being naturally contrary, the debate sometimes brings out the reactionary in me; I was on the verge of going online and booking tickets for Grillstock. “Music festivals are good and all, but have you ever been listening to a band and thought, ‘wow… I wish I was eating a big pile of meat.’ That’s where Grillstock comes in, a magical place where hotdog eating contests……..” says the website, and there lies the problem.

The mammon that is the culture of meat is so deeply embedded, even in the quasi alternative of music festivals, that changing it is going to be like moving mountains. Karl Marx would probably have had a thing or two to say about it. He probably did.

So what’s the answer? Thinking back to the early days of the climate change debate, I don’t remember it being like this. There were a few ‘holier than thou’ types on bicycles but, for the most part, we were all wrong together and now, for the most part, we’re all learning together. The meat question is just one issue. In the present context the methane figures are alarming but I stand by what I’ve said that around 25% of total GHG emissions isn’t a bad price for feeding the world. That’s it from me, but the debate continues on our website: www.riverford.co.uk/how-much-meat.

Guy’s Newsletter: how much meat?

So how much meat should we all be eating? After three months of reading, thinking, debating, meeting MPs, policymakers, academics, campaigners and farmers, some things are clear, others less so. This is where we have got:

1. We need to eat much less meat (also eggs and dairy). What would be sustainable? No credible answer exists, but there is consensus in academia of around 600g/wk; about 40% of the average UK consumption (1600g/wk) or marginally less than global consumption (800g/wk). Clearly a huge challenge, but not impossible, as demonstrated by the UK’s 3-4 million vegetarians. Collectively, we need to decide our priorities and face up to our responsibilities.

2. If we carry on as we are, livestock production will account for our entire global CO₂ emissions allowance (as defined at the 2015 UN Conference on Climate Change) by 2050. Despite this I’m told the issue doesn’t feature in Defra’s soon-to-be-published 25 year Food and Farming Plan. Increased consumer awareness will help, but farming practices won’t change without amends to government policy; the environmental costs of meat production must be internalised and reflected in price as increasingly the case in other sectors.

3. Feeding grain and soya to ruminants, like beef and dairy cows, is insane. In addition to driving climate change, this form of agriculture is the least efficient use of land and given that one in nine of the global population is already going to bed hungry, it is morally questionable. The arguments around the relative environmental costs of different animals and agricultural systems are complex, but buying grass-fed meat and dairy seems the best way to go. As I originally suspected, the evidence suggests we must eat more veg, and eat less and better meat; look for organic accreditation and the new ‘Pasture for Life’ label, which guarantees livestock have never eaten grain in their entire life. Meanwhile, in the longer term, we are looking into lobbying Defra on addressing this incredibly important issue. We simply can’t afford to ignore it any longer.

Guy Watson

Missed our How Much Meat London debate?
Watch the highlights at www.riverford.co.uk/how-much-meat.