Farmers have a reputation for unabated misery, with some justification. How often do you hear one pleased with the weather, the government or the price of wheat or milk? So on this gorgeous April morning let me just say that things are pretty good. It has been a near perfect spring, the winter was not so bad for most of us outside of Somerset and I’m exceedingly pleased to see the
swallows return and call myself a farmer, even if I seldom get astride a tractor any more.
As I wander around the farm I tap into scenes of calm, well ordered productivity; be it splitting rhubarb crowns, planting tomatoes, courgettes or potatoes, everyone knows their job in our well choreographed dance with the seasons. How did we get here? The lost tempers, broken down machines and chaos that my demonic determination used to produce are a thing of the past. Instead we have a wonderfully skilled team and best of all they are, for the most part, smiling. I get a vicarious satisfaction from witnessing their progress across the fields but feel a little sadness not to be more involved. There is nothing like doing it with your own hands, but their hands are better than mine.
Fortunately I still have a small indulgence in the shape of two acres of artichokes and cardoons. They have yet to turn a profit, but in the year we have lost the cook and cardoon patron Clarissa Dickson Wright, I think I might have cracked it. I love the vigour and beauty of the cardoon plant, especially their flowers, but have to date failed to make the celery-like leaf ribs edible. The stringy bitterness has been too much even for me, but last week I tried a new variety sown last spring, and to my delight they were tender with the pleasantly mild bitterness of their relatives the globe artichoke. For Wash Farm customers with a penchant for the bitterness of endive and radicchio, a very limited number will be available on our extras list soon. Please let me know what you think; I might be tempted to plant more.
Easter does not have to be all about the chocolate; vegetables have plenty of fun to offer too! A great way to get all the family involved, roll up your sleeves and work together to use any leftover veg to make pretty, naturally dyed Easter eggs.
You can colour ordinary hen’s eggs with vegetable dyes at home in your kitchen, as different veg produces different colours. They create more subtle tones than chemical colourants, but as they are harmless dyes, it means that you have the added fun of eating colourful boiled eggs afterwards on a picnic lunch. Especially popular with kids!
Here’s what you’ll need for each colour you want to create:
- 1-2 teaspoons of white vinegar – this helps fix the dye to the egg shell.
- Your chosen veg – see below for the colours each creates.
- Eggs - try to use ones with the palest shells you can find, as they will show the colour more.
Natural dye sources:
- Blue/lilac – red cabbage (boil the chopped cabbage in water for 30 mins first)
- Pink – beetroot (boil the chopped beetroot in water for 30 mins first)
- Green – spinach
- Deep orange/terracotta – brown onion skins
There are many more colours you can create from natural materials; look online for more ideas. Just make sure that whatever you use is safe to eat first if you are planning to eat them, as egg shells are porous and will absorb the colourant.
- Gently wash your eggs, then place in a single layer in a saucepan with enough water to cover. Add a teaspoon or so of white vinegar along with your natural dye; the more dye material you use, the more intense the colour. Some veg will need boiling first (see dye list), in which case you add the eggs and the vinegar at the end of the boiling time. Simmer for 15-20 minutes.
- Remove the eggs and put to one side to cool and dry; an egg box works well as a drying rack. If you want a darker colour, remove the eggs from the liquid, strain the dye through a coffee filter and cover the eggs with the natural dye once more. You can leave them overnight if you like, but either way make sure they go into the fridge if you are planning on eating them (and consume within 24 hours of boiling).
- Repeat the same process for any additional colours you want. You can give the eggs more of a glossy finish by rubbing them with vegetable oil, and using wax or crayons to draw shapes or patterns before dyeing them can make your eggs even prettier. You can also layer dyes to create different colours – much of the fun is in experimenting and seeing how the eggs turn out.
Note (optional): Bear in mind that what you use to dye the shell can sometimes flavour the egg itself a little, so you may prefer to ‘blow’ the eggs first to empty the raw egg out. This also means that you can keep your coloured eggs.
To do this: First wash the egg gently but thoroughly in warm water. Next, slowly make a small hole with a clean sewing needle at the pointed end of the shell, taking care not to crack the egg. Make a second hole at the opposite end, about double the size of the first. Use a knitting needle or similar to pierce the yolk of the egg via the larger hole, then, gently holding the egg between forefinger and thumb over a small bowl, blow through the smaller hole to get all the raw egg out and put aside for an omelette of spot of baking. Rinse the emptied shell thoroughly in cold water and use as above.
I am writing this from our farm in the Vendée, France, where a trailer and team of pickers are edging their way across the field, harvesting the first outdoor lettuce of the season. It is a glorious morning, with the dew still heavy on the crisp heads of Batavia that will be in your boxes shortly. Ten days ago amid gloom and rain, we thought these lettuces were done for as mildew took hold.
We’ve already lost the entire 20,000 lettuces from our greenhouse to aphids, so I was wishing for a tectonic plate shift under the Vendée to swallow the whole disastrous project in one seismic gulp. Thankfully all that was needed was an opening in the clouds. After a few days of sun the farm and its crops have been transformed. Our sun-loving lettuce have grown out of the grip of the mildew allowing us to trim off the infected leaves to produce a fair crop. Meanwhile the spinach, courgette, garlic, turnips and cabbage are all racing away under their crop covers. All being well we will finish planting the last peppers, chillies, tomatillos and sweetcorn in the next ten days, just as harvest starts in earnest.
Back in Devon we are entering the depths of the hungry gap and it will be another month or two before we start harvesting spring-planted crops. My Vendéen folly was borne out of the desire to keep you in greens through this period without travelling four times as far to Spain or Italy. The problem with such rationality is the freakish weather hidden behind the climatic averages. It’s been relentlessly grey and rainy this year, but every year my neighbours tell me they have never known a year like it. I think I also underestimated the life draining, blood sucking nature of French bureaucracy and tax. This is our fifth year and we are yet to make a profit but with a fresh, dew-dripping lettuce in your hands on a lovely morning, hope springs eternal; I will not be defeated.
At home the season is finishing with an avalanche of purple sprouting broccoli. Rather than hold stock or let it go to waste, we have upped the portions in your boxes so enjoy it while it lasts. Along with leeks and cauliflower, you won’t see it again for nine months.
It appears I am going to live forever. According to researchers at University College London, up to 3 veg a day decreases mortality by 14%, 5 by 29%, 7 by 36% and 7+ by 42%. As I live and breathe the stuff I reckon I must be immortal. Maybe I should buy an annuity after all, just for the pleasure of getting one over on an insurance company. Will the actuaries now start asking how much cabbage you eat alongside how much you smoke and drink?
I am generally cynical about headline-grabbing research as scientists and university chancellors have often had PR training and become media tarts like the rest of us. That said, like most people I am always partial to research that backs up my own prejudice. Never mind wonder diets, cholesterol-busting superfoods and antioxidants; my abiding belief is that the closer our diet is to the one we evolved to eat, digest and assimilate over millennia, the healthier we will be. A varied diet including moderate quantities of animal fat and protein, minimal processed food and additives and loads of fresh fruit and veg with as little cooking as possible is a good place to start. If you can combine that with enjoying your food while not worrying about it, so much the better.
My current veg enthusiasms include spring greens, though quantities are limited due to some unplanned foraging from our cows. After a long winter the greens are small and look a little rough but are the tastiest we have ever grown. Lightly cooked they are so tender it’s almost sacrilege to add salt, butter or lemon. From the woods my children and friends are busy picking wild garlic; great in a pesto with hazelnuts, folded into an omelette or, for the hardy, raw in salads. However my absolute, liver-cleansing favourite is dandelions, blanched, lightly cooked with garlic and chilli and tossed with pasta (recipe overleaf). We have a few cultivated ones from our polytunnels for sale on extras, or pick your own.
Meanwhile for those among you with a garden of your own, we have used agricultural fleece available to keep the insects and the worst of the weather off your veg; roughly 30-40m2 for £4.99, with proceeds going to Send a Cow.
Last week our Prime Minister’s office issued an “independent report” calling for the UK to override EU regulations and start growing GM crops in the UK. What we were not told was that all of its authors had close links with the GM industry, as seen in the national press since the report’s release.
Even though I took the government to the High Court in the 1990s to challenge the legality of GM crop trials bordering our farm, I am not a Luddite. We have made such a mess of our planet that we need to harness science in the search for sustainable co-existence, but we must acknowledge how much we don’t know and that the most important science is the least understood; namely ecology.
Were Monsanto or Syngenta to come up with a perennial, nitrogen-fixing wheat, maize or rice, I would find it hard to argue against it. Yet after 30 years the GM industry has failed to deliver any substantial benefit. The debate doesn’t seem to have moved on and this report isn’t going to help, whatever its true motivations.
I remain marginally anti-GM, though mainly for sociopolitical reasons. Firstly I don’t like the world’s food supply being controlled by a small number of global corporations (Syngenta, Monsanto and DuPont already control 47% of the global seed market); I also lament the continued loss of nutrition, food culture, and the autonomy of small scale farmers that accompanies the drive towards globally traded monocultures.
In Uganda, where 30% of calories are consumed as bananas, a wilt resistant GM variety was widely promoted as an example of how GM could feed the world. According to the farmers I spoke to it was inedible; another case of hyperbole before reality. In the meantime simply better agricultural practices could increase output many-fold and farmers have found other means of living with wilt. Watch our film on my recent Uganda trip here to see how giving farmers independence rather than introducing dependence on GM and agri-chemicals is what is driving positive change.
The muck is flying, the furrows are turning and every functioning tractor is hitched to something. Even the neglected and otherwise abandoned, smokebelching old timers get coaxed back to life to haul plants, seeds and crop covers to the fields.
With sun on their backs, our field workers once again consider themselves lucky; the hours are long as we struggle to catch up but everyone likes to see jobs done well. All of this is so much easier when the mud stops sticking to boots and wheels, and soil works easily into seedbeds that invite young plants to grow. Who wouldn’t be a farmer when the weather is with you.
In France we have finally planted the cabbage and kohl rabi (five weeks late), and are planting the last lettuce before moving on to courgettes, sweetcorn and turnips.Meanwhile in the polytunnels we are preparing to cut the second crop of lettuce before immediately replanting with peppers. A month ago with so little sunlight and fungal disease running rife I thought they were a write off; we lost a third but the survivors rallied remarkably as soon as the sun showed, and there will be a fair crop for your boxes over the next two weeks.
The signs are that it will be a long hungry gap after a warm, if wet, winter. Most of our leafy crops will finish early and a wet spring has delayed planting so there will be a shortage of green veg over the next two months. I can only lament the day last November when my sister’s cows broke through the fence to munch through our young spring greens. It has left a big hole in our plans, which the weather has conspired to make larger. Yesterday, after four months indoors and a diet of ten tons of silage each (broken only by the occasional grade out banana), our cows were happily bounding around the fields enjoying the taste of fresh grass. As the yard gates open even the older cows skip and buck their way up the lane. Any remaining sombre dignity is abandoned as they get to the field and cannot decide whether to eat or charge around, throwing double footed kicks high in the air. All being well you’ll be able to enjoy the spectacle too as we plan to film the turnout, and share the video on our website and Facebook page soon.
After a couple of sunny mornings I feel my pulse rate rising as another cropping year is about to start. Memories of floods and mud will be banished as the first seedlings are fed into the planter and delivered into the soil in orderly rows. It has been a miserable time in the fields but if there was going to be 10 weeks of relentless rain, the dormant winter months were the best time for it to fall.Soil temperatures are relatively high and the first plantings of potatoes in Cornwall and Jersey are sprouting and developing well. In France, we have been able to keep up with the lettuce planting through the rain and by the time you read this we should be sowing cabbage and spinach and preparing beds for courgettes. I can barely contain my excitement.
When we packed our first vegboxes on the floor of an old cow shed over 20 years ago, there was little planning. My fundamental assumption was that everyone cooked and ate like me and my family, and the arrival of a box would be the equivalent of a lazy walk around an allotment with just the vaguest plans for dinner. As it dawned on me that eating habits and appetites varied as much as our taste in clothes, our box range proliferated. Over the years we have added fruit, different sizes and styles and some rather nonsensical names, and ended up with a range which even I am confused by. Next month we are reorganizing things so that (I hope) you will find it easier to pick the best box for you, avoid things you don’t want and get more of the things you do. More details to follow.
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