There are some foods that need a little work to get the best from them, and in this hot-stepping world of ready meals, phone apps and instant gratification, at times it can seem an inconvenience. Spending time podding broad beans when a bag of pre-prepped supermarket veg could have you plonked in front of the TV in minutes seems madness to some, but history has shown that when the body is kept busy with a task that does not demand great concentration, the mind is freed to flex its lesser-used muscles in ways that a blaring TV will not allow. If you’ve hit a bit of a wall with a problem, give it a try. We’re not suggesting you’ll find the answer to world peace, but you might surprise yourself in other ways.
Gooseberries fall into this category of ‘too much of a hassle to bother’ for many. Their appeal is not instantly apparent, as anyone who has eaten one of these tart and rather hairy berries straight from the punnet will testify. However, those who do take time to discover the extent of their culinary possibilities reap many rewards. Don’t be fooled into thinking that gooseberries are only good for pud; nature has laid some helpful hints to help you plug their hidden depths of flavour in other ways. They ripen more or less as the first mackerel arrive off our coast, and a simple gooseberry sauce brings out flavours in both of these ingredients that you probably didn’t know were there. See our website for this and many more gooseberry-liberating recipes.
The gooseberry bushes on our Devon farm are also something of an icon of what organic farming is about for us. When Guy planted his first acre, a fair few people predicted that without an arsenal of chemicals, disaster would come in the form of sawfly, a pest that attacks only gooseberries. For the first three years the bushes were indeed stripped bare, but eight years on, nature has established a balance and we have a mystery predator keeping the larvae in check. Overall, it’s evidence of the virtues of a long-term understanding of farming ecology, the subtle management of our environment and a little faith, as opposed to beating nature down with chemicals and sprays. It does not always work out so well, but we are very thankful that it has in the case of our gooseberries which, after all, are a very British harvest.
Those among you who are warily eyeing a pair of odd-looking leeks in your vegbox, fear not. Welcome to the world of wet garlic. Essentially ordinary garlic harvested before the bulb and cloves are fully formed, wet garlic deserves no less a place in your cooking than its older, dried brethren. It is milder and sweeter in flavour, and works well in every dish you would use dried garlic in, just add it later in the cooking process and use more of it. For the more adventurous, try it chopped straight into salads, stir fries or risotto, or even to jazz up your scrambled eggs. Don’t be afraid to use the whole thing – bulb, stalk and even leaves, provided they are in good condition.
Growing garlic is relatively pain-free as far as pests and diseases are concerned, no doubt partly thanks to its natural pungency. The fiddliest part of its cultivation is in the planting itself. Firstly the cloves have to be separated from the bulbs – picture a circle of people among bulging sacks, boxes of cloves, mounds of floaty, papery vegetation and a pervading whiff of garlic, and you get the idea. When it comes to planting in October, the cloves have to be put in the soil pointed-end-up, as otherwise the shoot has to make a u-turn, wasting precious time and energy in the process and generally resulting in a weaker plant. Because of this little idiosyncrasy, garlic must be planted by hand. For the acre and a half of garlic we have growing here in Devon that meant placing over 100,000 cloves within five days; quite a task for our harvest manager, Martin, and his team.
We’ve been hosting Charles, a Ugandan farmer at our farm in Devon for the past two weeks. Join Guy as he takes a look at his creative farming methods (3 min 50 sec).
Devotees of PSB (as she’s known to her friends) will be pleased to hear that this darling of winter veg is finally heading in from our fields. The plan was that we’d have the earliest variety, Rudolf, in your boxes by January or February, but the bitterly cold period around December meant the crop simply stopped growing. A fair chunk of the harvest has been lost, but given that the plants were frozen solid or snow-blanketed for the best part of five weeks, it’s remarkable how much has survived. But what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger – or in this case – tastier.
Our planting schedule was designed to provide a relatively steady flow of PSB from January culminating in a ‘flush’ in late March and April. We plant varieties that harvest in consecutive months; Rudolf first, then Red Spear, Redhead, Claret (our highest yielder) followed by Cardinal. However because of the cold delay, much of it looks to be ready all at once in April, so there will be plenty to go around soon enough. Not so much of a failed harvest as a delayed one.
With its relatively recent appearance on supermarket shelves you would be forgiven for thinking that PSB is the result of some adventurous new veggie hybridisation. Yet step back into the ‘70s, a request for broccoli at your local greengrocer would be greeted with a fistful of these little beauties. PSB is the original broccoli, grown across much of the UK every spring. It fell out of favour as supermarkets opted for its Italian relative calabrese (named after Calabria in the south of the country where it originally was grown), which was easily manipulated to produce accommodating, neat-looking hybrids that grow year-round. PSB and her unruly spears were banished to the veg plots of ‘backward’ gardeners. Another example of how the supermarkets’ desire for uniform veg eclipsed the more fundamental qualities of flavour and seasonality.
You can order PSB from our extras range at the moment (there’s not enough coming in to put in all the boxes just yet), but come April when the flush hits, you’ll be able to fill your boots. The whole of the plant is edible, including the leaves. The trick is to get the stalk tender without overdoing the flower buds – try bunching the spears together and boiling standing up in a pan, asparagus-style.
With continuing cold weather holding back growth, combined with some crop losses from the extreme cold before Christmas, we are very short of homegrown greens, forcing us to import more than we would like at this time of year. We have plenty of roots in store and there will be purple sprouting broccoli, spring greens, cauliflower and leeks to come as soon as temperatures rise. In April and May, as we get into the ‘hungry gap’ (between the old and new season crops), our dependency on imports will inevitably rise again if we are to maintain variety and balance in the boxes.
Rather than buy on the open market, our aim is to work as closely with our Spanish and Italian growers as we do with our local co-op. Most crops are now grown to a program by growers we like and trust, with a long-term commitment to organic growing that is based on values and beliefs, as well as commercial gain. Building these relationships takes time: time trading together and doing in practice what we said we would in theory, time in the fields, time around a table eating and normally time in a bar. Last week I took a trip to visit the growers in Andalucía.
First stop was Ave Maria near Seville, where Amodora and her two daughters have been growing Seville oranges organically since 1986. You couldn’t get much more organic than their orchards and with a cupboard full I can vouch that their oranges make the best marmalade. You probably have another two weeks to get boiling before the season is over; see our website for a recipe, to order a kit and for a video clip to guide you.
Next was Pepe who grows spinach, onions and garlic, but most of all asparagus (in the boxes late February to late April) in a fertile valley north of Granada, when he is not hang gliding in the hills that surround his farm.
Paco and his groups of growers on the coast near Motril grow tomatoes, peppers, green beans, lettuce, cucumbers and much more in some wonderfully fertile soils where, unusually for Andalucía, there is plenty of water. The broccoli in some of the boxes has been coming from Las Hondonaras; a co-op in another fertile valley east of Granada.
Guy Watson from Riverford in Devon
Throughout December, we’re posting tips, ideas, downloads and recipes on our Facebook page (our version of an advent calendar). Today’s tips come from John, Farm Manager on our farm in Devon. He has put together some tips on looking after plants in your garden over the winter months.
- Lots of winter veg can handle the frost, but it’s better to pull it out of the ground once it’s thawed, so rather than doing it on a frosty morning, wait until the afternoon.
- If you have root veg growing in your garden over winter, you can put straw around the crown of the plant to add some insulation.
- If you are growing celeriac, it’s best to harvest it before Christmas.
- When growing root veg, keep checking the leaves, as once they start to drop off, the veg is less likely to handle hard frost. You can harvest a batch and make a clamp by putting the veg in a small mound and covering with straw and then soil. When you want to eat the vegetables, pull them out and wash them.
- It’s a good idea to use garden fleece on your plants. Cover plants as early as you can to protect them from cold weather.
order garden fleece from Riverford Organic
Early November means celeriac has just come into season so we went out to our fields on Wash Farm in Devon to see it being harvested. We planted around 96,000 transplants between 18th and 21st May and started harvesting in early November and can usually use around 75% of the crop. The rest is either too small or has disease, pest or mechanical damage, but rather than waste it, we compost it back into the soil to feed next year’s crop.
Celeriac likes to be planted in the warmer weather but needs a lot of moisture so we planted ours in fertile, water retentive soil and irrigated once a week when the weather was dry. It doesn’t grow well in the frost so we make sure we harvest it and put it in storage by late December. When harvesting, you’ll see from the photos that our field workers, wearing waterproofs in the damp November weather use machete-style knives to trim the root and clinging soil. We’ve tried using a potato harvester, but ended up with a barn full of soil so stick to traditional methods – hand picking and cutting.
If you store celeriac in the fridge, it will keep for several weeks. Even if it’s cut in half, you can keep it for a week or more but you might need to shave off a layer to refresh the surface. An easy way of using it is to mash it with potato (around 1/3 celeriac to 2/3 potato).
They were the most disliked vegetable in our kids’ summer challenge, but Brussels sprouts are back with a vengeance this year. Sprouts are one of the most challenging crops to grow organically; in fact we have given up trying on our farm. Ours come from Anthony Coker, one of our local co-op growers, and Organic Dan in Lancashire. This year the growing season has been kind and they are expecting bumper yields. A good spring helped to get the crop established and then a fair bit of luck and good management helped to avoid the cabbage aphid and white fly pests (sprouts are often more popular with pests than they are with people). Now, thanks to mild temperatures and just the right amount of rain, this year’s crop is looking and tasting fantastic – and is even a few weeks early. They will be in the boxes in the run up to Christmas, some looking dramatic on the stalk, and others loose and ready to go.
If you have never seen a field of sprouts, it is a pretty impressive sight, like a sweep of mini Christmas trees decorated with vibrant green baubles. Unlike most conventionally grown sprouts, ours are selected and picked by hand; backbreaking work for the teams out in the fields. So even if you’re one of the haters, you can take solace from the fact that you’re not growing or picking them.
In the kitchen, think of sprouts as mini cabbages (or at least use that as a ploy to get kids to eat them), so flavours that complement cabbages, like caraway, bacon and nuts, will work well. Cook sprouts as quickly as you can; it’s important to catch them before they become unappealingly soggy. To help them keep their crunch, try them in stir fries, or even shred very fresh sprouts with toasted sesame seeds and soy sauce for a quick Asian-style salad.
order sprouts from Riverford
Winter seldom comes to Devon much before Christmas; this mild and protracted descent into winter is known as a “long back end” in farming circles. The fields take on a pallid, washed out colour, but with a warm and active soil; the leeks, cabbage, kale and cauliflower keep on growing unabated in the declining light.
We are clearing the last lettuce and the tomatoes, peppers and chillies have already been ripped out of the tunnels, to be replaced by winter salads. It is still warm enough for them to have grown a little more, but in the dismal November light the quality is always disappointing from these sun lovers. Better to accept the descent into winter and move onto crops happier in less light.
We are busy planning for next year and have already sown the first cabbage under glass and planted out over-wintered garlic, onions and sown the first broad beans outside. It has been a wonderfully dry and bright autumn, allowing the potatoes to be harvested in good conditions. Some have been affected by the dreaded potato blight. Rotting blighted potatoes are enough turn the nation to rice and pasta, so the worst will be fed to the cows. Rather than reject the lot, we will wash the less affected samples to give us the best chance of picking out the bad ones before they go in the boxes. Inevitably some will get through. Do let us know if you get unlucky and we will happily replace them.
After years of filling bags of spinach and lettuce by hand we have bought a fancy machine to simultaneously make, fill and seal the bags for us. We are not turning into M&S; there is no option but plastic for these delicate leaves and we have just had enough of doing it by hand. As with the existing plastic bags, unless you are confident that your local authority can recycle them, return them with the boxes and we will sort and recycle them here at the farm.
Riverford is a family business. All five of the second generation are working on the farm, with our father and founder acting as our environmental auditor. Watson sibling relations are better than most but we are all stubbornly independent, particularly me (veg) and my two brothers: Oliver (dairy with his partners) and Ben (meat, shops, preserves etc). To keep the peace we operate as overlapping but separate businesses; hence the different logos and probably slightly confusing communications.
Ben started butchering and curing my father’s pigs in our garage in 1983. Over 27 years this has developed into three farm shops in Devon, a commercial kitchen making preserves, pies etc and eventually the meatboxes, which we deliver alongside the vegboxes. Ben is as obsessive about good meat and how it is produced as I am about vegetables. He will continue to be the inspiration behind our meat offer but we (the veg crew) are better at putting things in boxes and the logistics of delivery, so this summer we took on the running of the meatbox business.
I hope this development will not put off the vegetarians amongst you. Grass clover leys and the livestock that graze them are vital to building soil fertility between vegetable crops. To support farmers throughout the rotation it makes sense to sell the resulting meat and dairy products. Through our long relationships with these farmers we know where our livestock comes from, the breeds, how it was raised, how it was killed and hung. It is butchered and packed by hand by a dedicated team of skilled butchers who share in the profits.
Most of us eat more meat than is good for us and the planet. We will continue to celebrate the culinary possibilities of vegetables and to challenge the assumption that meat should be the centrepiece of a meal. Last week this approach won our Riverford Field Kitchen the Observer Best Ethical Restaurant award for the second year running; well done to Jane, Sam and their team. We would like to encourage the meat eaters amongst you to enjoy better meat, less often, in smaller quantities and with complete confidence that the animal has been treated respectfully.
You can make bespoke meat or fixed content meatbox orders (the boxes tend to be about 10% cheaper) at www.riverford.co.uk. To find out more about the farmers that supply us, see Ben’s website www.riverfordmeatbox.co.uk.