Tag Archives: vegetables

Guy’s Newsletter: summer rain & sleepy potatoes

The August rains which ruined many a holiday have got our winter cabbages, leeks, kales, romanesco and calabrese broccoli off to a good start. The prospects for the later winter crops look even better as the slow drop in temperature prepares them for the first frost that typically arrives in early October. Meanwhile, when weather conditions allow, our farming co-op are busy harvesting main crop potatoes and getting them into store. The plants have been defoliated, either naturally through blight attacking the leaves, or through mowing the tops off followed by burning to prevent blight hitting; now we wait three weeks for the tubers to set a firm skin and for any blight spores on the surface to die before harvesting into one ton wooden bins. Few things smell worse than a potato store melting to slime with blight, so it is worth being patient. Initially the store is ventilated with ambient air to dry the tubers and allow any skin damage caused by the harvesting machinery to heal. After two or three weeks the fridges are switched on to bring the temperature down to 3.5°C over a month or so, and thus put the tubers to sleep. Valor, the sleepiest variety, will happily slumber on until next May or even June.

Those August rains were a mixed blessing; good for recently planted hardy winter crops needing to get established, less good for tender salads. Our spinach succumbed first to mildew brought on by the damp and evolution (new mildew strains have overcome the resistance bred into existing varieties), and then to nitrogen deficiency resulting from soluble nutrients being carried down through the soil profile by the rain; spinach is too shallow rooted and quick maturing to reach them. Later sowings are now recovering to some extent but you may have noticed your box greens tending more towards kale and cabbage as we look for substitutes for failing spinach. We are also struggling with a flush of the small leaved, succulent chickweed; it is often a problem in the autumn, establishing an interwoven mat which smothers out all but the most vigorous competition. Sorting the weeds from the crop is slowing the picking of salad leaves and spinach, yet chickweed is much prized in some parts of the world so I hope you will not be too indignant if a few harmless leaves make it through to your bags.

Guy Watson

Guy’s newsletter: getting edgy with veg

As we plough in the last of our bolting leeks, kales, cauliflower and cabbage and see the back of the potato, beetroot and carrot stores, another farming year is consigned to memory and the accountants’ spreadsheets. I think they’ll show it to be a little better than average, mostly because of the weather but also boosted by a welcome renaissance in the eating of these more traditional veg. Kale has been riding that wave for a while now and after years of drifting in the sulphurous doldrums of neglected brassicas, even cauliflower seems to have made something of a comeback; I have seen it on fashionable menus roasted (good), baked brain like and whole (hideous to look at and worse to eat in my opinion), bashed with farfalle (dreadful), grated into cous cous (surprisingly successful) and served tempura style (excellent). I still think it is hard to beat the comfort of a reassuring cauliflower cheese on a January evening though.

Cauliflower does well in our mild Devon climate and, as we prepare to sow next year’s crop, I am tempted to up the acreage. But let’s not get carried away; a visiting journalist warned me last week that our white curds are already considered “a bit last year” in the metropolis. It’s hard to keep up with foodie fashion as tweeting journalists and hipster chefs compete to be edgy with veg. Of course we are grateful that what we grow is the subject of their twitter storm, however fleetingly its epicentre hovers over us, especially if it allows a humble cabbage grown on a Devon hillside to get a leg up over a jumped up bell pepper trucked from Spain (or worse still, molly-coddled in a fossil fuel heated greenhouse at home). It’s just a bit frustrating that the timeframes of fashion and nature are so disparate; by the time we have planted and nurtured our chioggia beetroot or purple carrots to harvest, it will be foraged nettles and broccoli sprouts that the twitterati are raving about. I might sow a few more caulis anyway; I reckon we will still be eating cauliflower cheese after the bloggers have moved on. There is so much to celebrate and be proud of in the rising interest in cooking, particularly with seasonal veg, and particularly among the youth, but no part of our farming is perfected without the repetition and tinkering that continues long after the catwalk has left.

Guy Watson

Guy’s newsletter: veg boxes; the vision & the reality

April and May are traditionally challenging months of self-denial for those living with a veg box. 20 years ago it was so hard to make a good box through the ‘hungry gap’ that many pioneering box schemes would close from March to July; some would limp through with repetitions of sprouting potatoes, woody swedes and blown cauliflowers, but either way it took a very committed customer to stick with them. However, this week’s boxes are fantastic. These improvements have come from a mixture of increased grower expertise, better storage, investment in polytunnels, our farm in France giving us a six week jump on the season, plus good, long term trading relationships with small scale growers in Spain and Italy. All in all it’s a long way from the first 30 boxes we packed on the barn floor 22 years ago.

Yet is this a compromise from the vision of those first tiny box schemes? Undeniably, but I would argue it’s a pragmatic, justifiable and sensible one; vision can be inspiring but seldom lasts without a fair degree of compromise. Most of those early box schemes have packed up; more have opened in their place but there seems to be a cycle driven by what a visiting academic writing her PhD on box schemes described as “mutual disappointment”. However ideological sounding and emotionally appealing, the veg box vision asked too much of growers and customers; the customers didn’t get the quality or variety of vegetables they wanted, and the farmers didn’t make the living they needed. It is very hard for one farmer to grow 100 crops well and even harder to do it on a small scale and produce food at an acceptable price without being ground into the dirt by the challenge. Even farmers like to take holidays now and then.

The relentless march to scale and specialisation in farming, like in everything else, is as depressing as it seems inevitable. At Riverford we have put the brakes on this trend with our farming co-op sharing machinery and expertise and thereby helping to sustain the viability of smaller farms. I do occasionally romanticise about our early days harvesting carrots and potatoes by hand or picking spinach with scissors, but there is no way back; the only people wanting to live like peasants are those who haven’t tried it.

Guy Watson

Guy’s newsletter: hot & busy in the Vendée

A dry and sunny Easter gave ideal conditions to get ahead with planting at home; we are already irrigating in earnest to help the seedlings out and get the first lettuce, cabbage and spinach away to a good start. This meanwhile is being typed 250 miles south, under a tree on the banks of the reservoir of our farm in the French Vendée. As we come to the end of leeks, cabbage, purple sprouting and cauliflower at home I am here to check on the start of our hungry-gap-plugging French harvest. This morning we cut the first of a fine crop of outdoor lettuce and chard which are already chilling in the cold room ready for the trip north tonight; just as well, because it is already 25°C and climbing. The irrigation pump is purring away, sending water to germinate the first sweetcorn. Two weeks ago, many of our fields were too wet to travel on and our crops were being chilled by bitter easterlies; this week we are irrigating gasping plants and our peppers are keeling over from heat stress. The crop covers and low-level tunnels we use in early spring advance crops and keep off the wind, but the big question is always when to remove them. Ideally you pick a damp, warm overcast day to minimise the shock to the plants; if none are forecast, we take them off in the evening, water immediately, and hope.

In a bid to keep up we have brought in contractors for the heavy work of muck spreading and ploughing, allowing our team to pick in the mornings before moving on to sow and plant sweetcorn, peppers, chillies, sunflower, cape gooseberries, tomatillos, butternut squash and fennel in the afternoon. Every rusty wreck of a tractor is dragged from the back of the barn and every able body pressed into action in an attempt to keep up with the work; the next six weeks are critical here. Planting will soon be done but there is a scary amount of vegetables to be picked by a largely inexperienced team. The aim is to plug the hungry gap at home while we wait for those new season UK crops. To go from a plod to a sprint in just a few weeks and then back to a plod again is a management challenge, but we are getting better at it; my accountant even tells me that, for the first time, we made a very modest profit here last year.

Guy Watson

Guy’s newsletter: wild garlic & potato patience

I am in the midst of my annual wild garlic fest; whether mixed raw in a salad or sandwich, wilted into an omelette or over pasta, ground into pesto with roasted hazelnuts or melted into a risotto, the possibilities are endless. To add to that, unlike so much foraged food, wild garlic is quick and easy to use too.

Such is my enthusiasm that about eight years ago we started harvesting wild garlic from the woods and including it in the veg boxes; a few people said they would rather forage for their own, but the huge majority of you welcomed it, so we have continued. We did pause briefly after accidentally including a Lords and Ladies leaf in a bag; unfortunately wild garlic, known as ‘ransoms’ locally, shares its habitat with a number of mildly poisonous plants, most notably Lords and Ladies and Dog’s Mercury. Today our pickers are very careful and a second team sort through the leaves again in the barn before packing it into bags; even so, please keep an eye out for any odd leaves and if in doubt, discard them. Having said that, last year I nibbled the tiniest corner of a Lords and Ladies leaf as an experiment; it felt like a fox had sprayed in my mouth and I’d washed it down with sulphuric acid. Indeed a search of the web suggests the sensation in the mouth (caused by needle-like oxalate crystals) is so rapidly unpleasant that it would be hard to eat enough to cause lasting harm.

Meanwhile we have planted most of our early potatoes but it will be May before lifting starts even in the most favoured parts of west Cornwall and the Channel Islands; faster varieties like Rocket and Swift can be ready in April but they are invariably a disappointment when it comes to flavour. The remaining potatoes from last autumn’s harvest are being stored in the dark at 3°C and the most dormant varieties (mostly Desiree and Valor) will slumber on until May, as if they were lying dormant underground believing it is still winter above. We bring them up to 10°C before grading and bagging and you will find that from now on they will have a growing propensity to sprout; keeping them in the fridge helps if you have the space, but don’t worry about sprouting; they will still eat well provided there is no greening of the skins. They may even be sweeter.

Guy Watson

Guy’s newsletter: unruly cabbages; the last stand

I hope you are enjoying the spring greens that have started to appear in the veg boxes. They may look a little pale and unruly, with the occasional weatherbeaten leaf, but please don’t let them linger in the back of your fridge; they are a delight simply cooked for two mins in plenty of salted, vigorously boiling water. A small knob of butter might help, but I’d implore you to do nothing more.

You may notice that the individual spring green plants vary from 50-200g; this is partly from fighting off weeds and pests, but also a result of genetic variation as they are among the few remaining open pollinated crops which are not grown from ‘F1’ hybrid seeds. For thousands of years, farmers have saved seeds from the best of their crops, thus exerting a selective pressure which led to incremental genetic improvement. In the 1930s, American maize researchers found that if you created two intensively inbred, and therefore relatively uniform strains, and then crossed them, the first (‘F1’) generation could combine the best of both strains while maintaining uniformity and adding hybrid vigour. Hybrid plant breeding helped boost yields and reduce production costs through the late 20th century, and has contributed to the low food prices we have today.

When I started growing vegetables in the ‘80s, my crops were perhaps 20% hybrids; now it’s 90% plus. Mostly it’s a change for the best as we have benefited from better disease resistance, more vigour and increased yield. On the downside I suspect that we have lost some flavour in a few crops. Bigger issues are that hybrids often need near-perfect growing conditions to thrive (hence our open-pollinated spring greens still win out in the tough depths of winter) and most significantly, hybrids do not breed true; this means that farmers cannot harvest their own seed but must buy new seed in every year. Over the last 20 years the GM companies Monsanto, Syngenta and DuPont have bought up seed companies so they now control almost half the global seed trade; I would argue that this monopoly is a bigger issue than GM. Everything around food starts with the seed, so do we really want its future controlled by companies that have risen on the backs of manufacturing PCBs, Agent Orange, bovine growth hormone and glyphosate tolerant GM crops? Long live the unruly greens I say.

Guy Watson

Guy’s newsletter: frozen patience

Looking up to the north there is snow on the moors, while in the valley the emerging wild garlic and snowdrops are frozen into the ground. After months of warm, wet Atlantic air giving a mild start to winter and an abundance of green veg, high pressure has anchored itself over Ireland. This is bringing bright skies and cold winds from the north and east; a mixed blessing for a vegetable farmer. Our southern-facing banks (the same fields we plant with our early crops) are not clear of frost until 10am, and we are unable to harvest leeks, cabbage, kale and the first of our purple sprouting broccoli until that time. Meanwhile our north facing slopes hold frost all day, and the sun is equally welcomed by crops and pickers. Any growth encouraged by longer days has stopped and I suspect we will be short of cauliflower, purple sprouting and anything green by the end of the month.

On the positive side it is lovely to see the sun, and, though there is nothing as sticky and slippery as recently thawed ground, most of the time there is less mud on your boots. It is also possible for the tractors to move without damaging our soil, especially in the morning when the frost is hardest. In my younger days we would have been hitching up the muck spreader and even the plough, but I soon learned that ploughing down frost was like thawing ice in a tea cosy; impatience just cooled the soil and delayed spring. Spreading muck on frozen ground is also a bad idea, partly because of the danger of run-off polluting water courses, and partly because we now realise that 60% of the precious nitrogen can be lost to the atmosphere as ammonia. In warmer conditions this is avoided by swiftly mixing the muck into the soil by ploughing or shallow cultivation, which helps the nitrogen attach to soil clay particles where it is held until a plant root absorbs it.

We are busy planting in France but in Devon we must be patient a little longer. As soon as the frost is out of the ground we will busy as nesting swallows; spreading muck, ploughing and planting the first early potatoes, carrots and spring broad beans. 28 years on, my heart still quickens a little at the thought.

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: 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: bean battles, bad onions & hungry crows

As the shortest day approaches, our minds turn to the next season; every box for every week to May 2016 has been planned, crops allocated and most plants and seeds ordered. A dry spell last week allowed us to spread muck, plough and sow the over-wintered broad beans, both in France and Devon. We have given up with bangers and scarecrows and now cover the whole field with a tough net to keep off the smart and hungry crows until the bean plants are established.

Meanwhile temperatures have finally dropped, which, combined with low sunlight levels, will slow the growth of our precocious leeks, kales and cabbages which had threatened to get away from us. Typically nothing grows very much for the next six weeks so, by the end of January, we should be back on top and will probably find ourselves short of greens by February.

After years of struggling with fungal disease in damp, drizzly Devon, most of our onions are now grown on well drained land at our farm on the edge of the Fens; with lower humidity and half the rainfall, the odds are more in our favour. This year we have been feeling smug with a fantastic crop of dry, firm, good-sized onions to see us through most of the winter. They were ‘topped’ (ie. had their foliage mowed off) and then lifted in August, before being finished with hot air in the barn. Having got them dry, with good skins and a well sealed neck, the plan is then to blow cold night air through the clamp to prolong dormancy and slow any rots; a dry 1°C is the ideal for storing an onion. However, with night time temperatures of 13-14°C in October we never managed to get them cold enough; their clocks kept ticking and they think it is spring already with internal sprouting in some, and rots in others. We are grading out any that are obviously bad but this is a rather longwinded plea for tolerance; we reckon they are OK (just) but if you disagree let us know and we’ll replace or refund. We have already decided that next year we must spend the cash and the carbon and cold store any destined for use after the New Year; it’s that or import. Few things smell worse than a rotten onion, so we’re going for the lesser of two evils.

Guy Watson