guy’s newsletter: hope springs eternal

In France we have already got the first of our early lettuce in the ground. The planter is immediately followed by a machine which synchronously bends and implants wire hoops, before stretching over clear plastic to create a mini tunnel that prevents the tender greenhouse-raised seedlings catching a chill and wilting. These lettuces are destined for your vegboxes in March and April, while this week we will start planting turnips, cabbage and swiss chard. On these slightly hardier vegetables we use a very light (17g/m²) translucent fleece which floats on top of the crop, protecting it from the worst of the cold winds and frost. Even now, there is enough warmth in the sun by midday for the young plants to put out roots and a few shy new leaves. I’m often surprised by how well crops grow here when it’s barely warmer in winter than Devon, but it’s all down to the light quality; the Vendée even had its own impressionists.

The farm here is pretty flat, typically with 60cm of highly porous sands lying over a heavy, impervious clay; the result is that rain soaks in quickly but then sits on the clay, moving only very slowly down the slope. To get the early crops needed to bridge the ‘hungry gap’ at home (April-early June), we need to get on the land early, even in a wet year. Following the advice of neighbours we have now deepened ditches, filled in the dips and invested in drainage pipes every ten metres. It seems to be paying off; I just wish we’d done it sooner.

Nobody said it would be this hard; after six years of farming in France the best I can say is that we are losing money more slowly. Arguably it was the height of bellicose, arrogant stupidity to think I could breeze in and bend that soil and sunshine to my will. Every year we uncover a new set of problems but bizarrely I am still relishing the challenge and almost always enjoy my visits. I leave full of ideas for new crops and ways of growing them. In addition to tomatillos, cape gooseberries, sugar loaf chicory and lots of new varieties of peppers and chillies, this year we will be growing oca (a very tasty Peruvian tuber), popcorn-destined sweetcorn, endive and a small area of sunflowers.

Guy Watson

guy’s newsletter: glamour & cabbages

When food and farming rubs up against fashion and celebrity I get the urge to bolt for the cabbage patch; then again, recipes from a fry-up chomping leek puller aren’t going to shift the kale and cauliflower. With that in mind, let’s leave prejudice in the fields and bring on the irritatingly young and gorgeous Hemsley sisters. They might be more commonly seen smiling from the pages of Vogue promoting stomach flattening, bowel curative, gluten-free cooking, but I met them two years ago in proper farmer’s wellies, picking samphire in the mud and rain with one of our farming co-op members. Despite the glamour and lifestyle photography, away from the cameras the sisters talk sense and are pretty down to earth; more to the point I like their food and we share an enthusiasm for lots of minimally cooked vegetables to the extent that this week’s recipe for lamb curry (on the reverse) is from Jasmine and Melissa. Another thing that makes me want to break for the cauliflower patch is anything approaching a faddish diet; something that might have led me to resist their mission to banish starch (gluten in particular), but when rice is replaced by grated cauliflower, who am I to argue. I doubt it would get me into Vogue but I am pretty sure that I would feel better for a bit less stodge anyway.

We have been selling our recipe boxes (everything for three quick meals in a box) for six months now; they are a waste free way of cooking tasty, affordable, healthy meals while expanding your cooking repertoire; it’s the only way I can get my son to cook me supper. For the next two weeks we have a guest box featuring recipes from the Hemsley sisters, ideal for those who are after a hassle-free way of trying their style of cooking. Having honed our skills on the southern guinea pigs, our recipe boxes are now also available to those of you in the north and east, so there’s no need to feel left out.

Meanwhile, we have been obliged to make a lot of substitutions to our planned box contents recently due to unexpected quality and transport problems, so apologies if you have been disappointed. We seem to be through it now and as our spring crops are looking really good, there’s plenty to look forward to.

Guy Watson

guy’s newsletter: kebabs, cars & agricultural shame

In the fields, it is half a million down and half a million to go; leeks that is. It’s very muddy but not much else to say there, so here are some other thoughts.

My very foodie, and previously highly carnivorous, eldest son returned from Berlin for Christmas and announced that he was becoming a vegetarian; “If I can’t afford good meat, I would rather not eat it at all”. I glowed with pride before he went on to say that after a heavy night out he always ended up eating a kebab, and didn’t think his guts could take any more. Nice. Meanwhile, my gas guzzling old banger finally died and I took the plunge and bought an electric car, but then promptly flew to Sicily for New Year to look at vegetables that we intermittently truck 2000 miles to supplement the homegrown crops in your vegboxes. Before I left, my vegetarian father-in-law (possibly the most reasonable and thoughtful person on the planet) pointed out that, according to Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, head of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, livestock production contributes up to 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions – more than every single car, train, and plane on the planet.

All this serves to illustrate that managing our environmental impact is a minefield of personal and collective culpability; sadly I have almost no hope for leadership from the Government, so it lies with individuals and businesses. Comparing cars and farming I find myself hugely impressed with how, within one generation, the automotive industry has embraced technology to produce cars which are massively cleaner and more efficient. I wish the same could be said for farming; in an industry that should essentially be about capturing and harnessing sunlight, environmental impact has spiralled out of control. It is thought that we consume ten calories of fossil fuel energy for every calorie of food produced, while mercilessly raping the planet’s soil and wildlife. Don’t blame population increase; modern agriculture should hang its head in shame. This month’s Oxford Farming Conference, the industry’s annual right-wing, land owners’ bonanza, should have been a two day plea for forgiveness. Meanwhile, I had intended to suggest what individuals can do to reduce the environmental impact of their food but having rambled, this will follow next week.

Guy Watson

guy’s newsletter: with oranges & fennel this good, who needs meat?

I spent New Year in Sicily; mostly for pleasure, but Italy is always a good
place for vegetable-based inspiration. As things turned out I got snowed in up
a mountain, but not before going a little crazy at the markets in the narrow
streets of Palermo. While waiting for two foot of snow to melt, I amused myself
by cooking endless dishes with cardoons, fennel, artichokes, wild asparagus,
escarole, wild fennel and cima di rapa, along with mozzarella and pecorino.

No-one comes close to the southern Italians when it comes to skill with, and
appreciation of, vegetables. OK, they are blessed with a fantastic climate, but
more significant is their cooking culture and enthusiasm to embrace a range
of flavours and not immediately reject anything bitter; their willingness to
occasionally chew also helps. With the exception of some wonderful prosciutto,
the meat was boring. This is no bad thing as, according to chair of the UN’s
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, livestock
production contributes up to 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions – more
than every single car, train, and plane on the planet. It’s a truly staggering
statistic if even close to being true and adds fervour to our veg crusade and
makes me feel a little better about my flight, but questions localism and food
miles. More on this next week.

We get most of our oranges from Ginés in Andalucía, a grower who we’ve
worked with for many years, alongside a co-op of Italian growers based around
Mount Etna in Sicily. The Sicilians invariably grow the best blood oranges
(something to do with the volcanic soil, they claim); they are fantastic juiced,
in a salad with thinly sliced fennel or on their own; the season is short but they
should be available for the next six to eight weeks. This year Ginés has a poor
crop so we will buy more from Sicily, but our Seville oranges will as always
come from Ave Maria Farm located just south of Seville, whose organic groves
are tended to by a delightfully eccentric family. The first fruits have just arrived
and will be at their best for the next month, so get your preserving pans out.

Guy Watson

guy’s newsletter: easing life with a vegbox

I hope you are rested, fortified and full of good intentions for you, your family and the world at large. In my drowsy fireside perusings of the yuletide press there seemed to be a growing acceptance that we would live happier, better lives by focusing on experiences rather than possessions; bring it on I say. While this generally led on to suggestions of the ultimate holiday in the papers, I would suggest an even better place to start is with cooking and sharing food.

We know that life with a vegbox is not always easy; from last year’s customer survey (thanks to those who filled it in) only 22% found it really easy; 25% struggled to identify all the contents and 39% didn’t know how to cook some of them. Clearly you don’t have to jump off a bridge with an elasticated rope tied to your ankles to get a challenging experience. Some may relish the gentle testing that life with a vegbox brings, but a busy weeknight evening may not be the time you want it, so we clearly need to do more to make it easier.

One of the most heartening emails I recently read was from a customer whose cantankerously carnivorous, non-cooking, organic-sceptic husband had finally relented his Riverford resistance on grounds of flavour, and then went on to become a convert to cooking with our recipe boxes. Apparently he is now a full blown apostle. I’m really proud of our recipe boxes, in particular I love the empowerment they give to less confident cooks; even my junk-food-loving 16 year old has managed to cook from them. Many people buy them to provide quick, healthy and affordable midweek meals without having to plan and shop, or to widen their cooking repertoire. This year, all being well, you can expect some guest chef boxes from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and the Hemsley + Hemsley sisters too.

Cooking from a vegbox will never be a bungee jump but we do like to provide some gentle stimulation through the occasional mystery vegetable; this year look out for puntarelle (a type of chicory), make-your-own-popcorn-on-the-cob, corn nuts, huitlacoche and probably a few things even I don’t know about yet. One thing that will be unchanged is that whatever it is, it will all be 100% organic.

Guy Watson

Tasty turkey leftover recipes from Riverford

We’ve selected our favourite Christmas leftover recipes to help you make the most of any turkey or ham you might still have left on Boxing Day.

bubble & squeak with ham, poached egg & mustard hollandaise262

Bubble & squeak with hollandaise: see recipe here

A great Boxing day brunch dish. Leave out the hollandaise if you like, or if you’re not confident cooking poached eggs, you can fry them instead.

 Turkey risotto: see recipe here

A tasty favourite with a turkey twist. Makes a great recipe for using up the remains of a roast dinner, or substitute leftover goose or turkey after Christmas.

autumn vegetable quesadillas262

Turkey quesadillas: see recipe here

Feel like it’s time for a Mexican twist? Try our turkey quesadilla recipe to add a little spice to the festive season.

Turkey vermicelli soup: see recipe here

This hearty, warming soup uses up the scraps left over from a roast.

guy’s newsletter: learning with leeks

Leeks were the first crop I grew on a substantial scale and they remain an important staple for us, keeping the vegboxes full and our staff busy throughout the winter. They tested my back and my organic resolve during my early days as a grower and, what with the escapee that always seemed to be decaying under the car seat, plus the pervasive odour on my clothes, they kept me celibate through my first winter. Only pig farmers smell worse. After I had been planting and weeding all summer, the early winter of 1987–8 was horrendously wet; the field descended into a quagmire and the crop succumbed to the fungal disease rust. As I watched the previously vigorous foliage melt into a slime of decay, the advisers and chemical salesmen were whispering, serpent-like, in my uncertain ears that all my woes could be solved with a few potent kilos of fungicide.

Somehow I maintained my resolve and a sudden drop in temperature proved more powerful than any fungicide, halting the disease while the leeks carried on growing. By February the plants had replaced the infected leaves with new ones and I had learnt that rust is a disease of warm, damp Devon autumns and that I should not listen to chemical salesmen. By April, with an aching back and incipient rheumatism in my fingers, there was £6,000 in the bank and Riverford Organic Vegetables was on its way.

We normally start picking in September and harvest increasing volumes through the winter as the supply of other vegetables declines. By March, with the first hint of spring, the leeks are getting lusty; if you dissect one lengthways you may find, thrusting up through the leaves, the start of the ‘bolt’ that would eventually carry the starburst flower characteristic of the allium family (onions, garlic, chives). Initially this bolt is tender and perfectly edible but as it lengthens and pushes up through the leaves it rapidly becomes tough and unpleasant to eat. By early May the UK season is over and you should be wary of buying leeks without closely examining the centres for hard yellow stalks (bolts), until the new crop is ready.

Guy Watson