Let there be soup

The clocks have gone back, heavy coats have been hauled from the cupboard, dark nights are drawing in… Winter is upon us. Good thing we’ve launched our new range of (almost) homemade organic soups to warm you through!

Soupy ambitions

Many moons ago, we set out to create an inspiring range of organic soups. This wouldn’t be the usual characterless supermarket fare, most often made with frozen veg, blended smooth, and given flavour with the conjurer’s trick of bouillon powder. Instead, we wanted to make a selection of recipes with a real Riverford twist. Chefs Bob and Kirsty set out to the kitchen, ladles in hand, with these aims:

  • Lots of our own fresh veg at the heart of every recipe
  • Meat (where it’s used) just as a seasoning, not as the main ingredient
  • Not all blended smooth, but some more like chunky pottages
  • Real depth of flavour from fresh herbs, aromatics and stock
  • A range that can change throughout the year to reflect the seasons

After a lot of experimentation, they whittled it down to four ideas: two veggie, two with meat, and all extremely satisfying.

Dreaming up soup recipes was one thing; working out how to make those same recipes on a larger scale, and keep the vibrant homemade flavour, was another…

A little help from Pegoty Hedge

Pegoty Hedge is a small kitchen owned and run by the Surman family on their organic mixed farm in the Worcestershire countryside, at the foot of the Malvern Hills. As fellow farmers, they share our belief that quality ingredients, treated with care and attention, will give consistently delicious results. Every one of their organic meals is handmade from scratch. The team already cook up our recipes for nut roast and chicken stock, so we were sure they would do the same wonderful job with our soups.

Having received our recipes, Oliver Surman kindly invited Bob up to the farm, to spend some time tasting and tweaking until he was happy that the soups had been faithfully translated into a bigger batch.

As they soon discovered, a chunky soup is much more time consuming to cook and to pack than one that’s blended smooth. The veg needs to be uniformly chopped, and the liquid and chunky bits must be equally divided into the pots. To make our chosen recipes, the team at Pegoty Hedge must prep the fresh veg by hand, and strain and portion each pot individually. But everyone agreed that the extra effort is well worth it for the homemade result.

All adjustments to the recipes were agreed over a civilised cuppa at the farmhouse table, before Bob headed back to Devon with a boot full of soup to unleash on our lucky tasting panel.

Beautiful soups

After all that pondering and tweaking, these are the recipes we’ve ended up with, all spot on for a hearty lunch or light dinner for two people.

Chicken, spinach and courgette laksa

A noodle-laced elixir shot through with fresh veg and slow-cooked chicken. The fresh chicken broth is flavoured with a restorative South Asian fusion of bright Thai-style spicing and deep, earthy turmeric. There’s enough chilli to make you take notice, but nothing too potent, and a good squeeze of lime to finish.

Carrot dhal

This smooth carrot and lentil soup is packed with sweet Riverford carrots and onions, fragrant Indian spices, coconut, ginger and chilli. We’d recommend serving it with warm bread or naan.

Moroccan vegetable harira

This soup is a true meal in a bowl. With all the fragrant flavours of North Africa, it’s chock-full of veg (including Riverford potatoes, carrots and red peppers), rice and chickpeas. A robust lunchtime repast for two, or easily teased into an evening meal with a poached egg, some shredded chicken or warm flatbreads.

Smoked bacon, kale and borlotti soup

A sturdy soup, reminiscent of an Italian ribollita. It has a backbone of Riverford onions, carrots and celery, and creamy borlotti beans, slow-cooked with plenty of sweet tomatoes and finished with robust black kale and smoked bacon. Chunky and filling – made to sate the keenest appetites.

Our new organic soups are available to order now – you can browse the selection here.

Small farmers feed the world

Small-scale farmers produce over 70 per cent of the world’s food on a quarter of the world’s farmland. That was one of the central messages of the We Feed the World exhibition, a pioneering global photography initiative that celebrated the diversity and expertise in small farming communities around the world.

Organic revolution feeds Cuba’s capital

Can you feed an entire city through organic urban farms? Yes, if necessity calls, and that’s exactly what happened in Havana, capital of Cuba. Overnight, the city was faced with the challenge of growing enough food to feed itself after imports were banned following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent US sanctions. But it wasn’t just food that was banned, agrochemicals and fertilisers, as well as oil, were also on the list, meaning Cuba’s new food system had to be primarily organic. Urban farms called ‘organaponicos’ appeared across the city and offered training and jobs to those who were now out of work. One of the largest, Vivero Alamar, was set up in 1997 and now harvests 300 tonnes of vegetables, including lettuces, herbs, beans, tomatoes, mangoes, bananas and guavas, produced using agroecological methods. Most of this is eaten within the Alamar district, an area that previously had no fresh produce. Among its 150 workers are former sailor Jose Manuel, Fradel Martinez, an ex-tobacco worker, Juan Portal, worked in the petrol industry, and Juan Ramon, who used to be a fisherman. Today, almost 90 per cent of Havana, a city of two million people, is fed on organic food produced by 4,000 or so organoponicos within the city limits.

Michel Pou is a Cuban photographer from Havana.

Sourdough links mountain communities in Asia and Europe

Bhutan and Austria may not be the obvious countries to forge a connection but a pioneering partnership between an artisan sourdough baker and an organic farming community has done exactly that. Roswitha Huber makes her own sourdough bread from alpine rye, grown by her husband and his family, high up in the Austrian alps where it has a long tradition, and is passionate about passing on her skills. “I am convinced that for the self-confidence of a child, it is essential they have the feeling I can feed myself,” she says. News of Roswitha’s ‘school in the mountains’ spread as far as Asia, and it has now become part of a far-reaching exchange programme with Bhutanese farmers. Despite living seven thousand miles away, these farmers work on similarly small-scale farms in a similar mountain landscape. Tshering Wangmo wanted to learn how she could make use of buckwheat for bread baking, but after spending two weeks with Roswitha she learnt many other skills relevant for a profitable small-scale mountain farm, such as milk processing to make cottage cheese, herb cultivation and jam making.

Zalmaï works as a freelance photographer and has been published in the New York Times Magazine, Time Magazine, The New Yorker Magazine and Harper’s Magazine.

Tackling climate change one grain of rice at a time

Climate change and food security can seem overwhelming, but for one man in India they have become his life’s work. On a small farm in the eastern state of Odisha, Dr Debal Deb is singlehandedly preserving some of the most resilient rice varieties in the world, a process he sees as vital to the future of food and farming in an increasingly unstable climate. Incredibly, he receives no financial support and stands alone in trying to protect India’s genetic diversity in rice. It is estimated that the country has lost up to 110,000 local varieties since farmers started using commercial hybrid varieties, sold by seed companies with promises of higher yields and disease resistance. To date, Debal has cultivated 1,420 rice varieties on just two acres of forested land, some of which have the ability to grow for months under 12 feet of water, whilst others can tolerate high salinity. He says: “After 60 years and billions spent on gene mining, the GM industry still doesn’t have a single variety which can withstand a drought or seasonal flood or sea water incursion. But all of these characteristics are available in many of our farmers’ varieties.”

Jason Taylor is a photographer and filmmaker who met and became friends with Debal while he was living in India.

Haymaking preserves ecosystem and family traditions

The Borca family’s 40 haystacks high up in the Carpathian Mountains of northern Romania will feed their animals during the hard winter months to come, but that is not their only benefit. The ancient haymaking ritual, which is celebrated as an annual event that brings the whole family together, also preserves a rich ecosystem with more than 50 species of flowers and grass attracting huge numbers of pollinators. It’s a little-known fact that Romania has the highest levels of self-sufficiency in Europe, and its millions of small-scale farms are some of the last remaining areas practising traditional agriculture in the continent. Over 60 per cent of the countries’ milk is produced by families with just two or three cows and used by local people within the same village. But this traditional way of life is under threat as multinational corporations, agribusiness groups and banks see it as a good investment. Small farmers in Romania face having their homes, culture and livelihoods taken away as common land is sold off to foreign companies, left with the option of becoming landless labourers for big agribusiness companies. It is estimated that already around one million hectares (ten per cent of Romanian farmland) is controlled by foreign capital. Anuța Borca sums up the close connection that her family feels to their land: “It is our land. We have to take care of it. We have to teach the children the traditions,” she says. “It’s important because the tradition is a treasure. If they learn it, they will be richer.”

Rena Effendi is a social documentary photographer, whose early work focused on people’s lives in Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey. She has worked with the National Geographic, The New Yorker, Marie Claire and more.

Colouring competition winners!

Thank you to everyone who entered our Pumpkin Day colouring competition – we were overwhelmed with the number of entries, and the skills on show!

Arianne, our designer (and illustrator of the blank picture), has picked her favourites. The two winners will both receive a Christmas dinner box, and, as it was so hard to choose, we’ve also picked some runners up (from age categories of 5 and under, 6-8, 9-11, 12-15, and 15+) who will receive an organic advent calendar. We’ll be in touch next week to arrange everyone’s prizes.


Under 15 – Erin from Oxford

Arianne says: Erin, everyone who passed your drawing on our wall studied it in awe. We all loved your imaginative concept, and the idea of a Stranger Things-style dark side to Riverford. Your concept was executed with real talent and passion!

Over 15 – Tom from Plymouth

Arianne says: Tom, your painting is really imaginative and I love the colours. You’re obviously really talented with ink and watercolour, and you really made an effort with staging your post.

(In no particular order)


Guy’s news: Grey, grim & muddy

November is the grimmest month. With one water-laden weather front after another driven in off the Atlantic, dumping their loads at the first landfall, we are constantly reminded of the proximity of the water surrounding us. Away from high ground, the oaks and beeches are hanging onto enough leaves to make a wonderful show – but the combination of wind, rain, frost and falling light levels have brought our tenderer outdoor crops to an end. Cime di rapa, spinach, chard, and the last of the salads are all now too diseased and wind-damaged for us to conomically sort the good from the bad. Hard frosts have felled the last artichokes, leaving the young heads bowed like ears of barley; even the normally hardy cardoons have lost their outer leaves. (Incidentally, to my glee, yesterday a visiting student told how in her village in Northern Spain, they cook cardoons with almonds for Christmas dinner.) Only the hardiest crops and pickers remain. It requires a combination of physical and mental strength, and a zen-like ability to rise above hardship, to survive a winter in the fields; very few can do it, and we should be hugely grateful to those who can.

Meanwhile, in our polytunnels, heat-resistant Sicilian Joe (who controls the irrigation taps) provocatively proclaims “I am god in here.” They are pretty flimsy structures; better not to provoke the big man’s wrath, lest He send a mighty storm to enforce some humility. There in the calm, dry warmth, we have completed the autumn turnaround: ripping out the last tomatoes, chillies, cucumbers, aubergines and so on, to replace with a mixture of landcress, rocket, claytonia, various mustards, ruby chard, dandelion, endive, baby lettuce leaf and radicchio. We expect to harvest 35 tonnes of leaves before cutting the first spring lettuce from outside. Dare I say that, after years of experimentation with varieties and growing techniques, we are now pretty good at winter salads?

We have been overwhelmed by your art. Thanks to all, young, old and in between, who entered our colouring competition. It was all inspired by our designer Arianne, who created a colouring wall for Pumpkin Day. There is a long wall in the office covered with glorious, chaotic colour, which makes me smile every time I walk past.

Guy Singh-Watson

Beating the cold with bitter leaves

Bitter leaves offer a welcome break from winter veg

Colder temperatures might get you reaching for the soups, stews and roast dinners, but sometimes you need a fresh taste alongside all that veg. Step forward winter salad, and more specifically, the bitter leaves such as dandelion, mustard, rocket and cress, whose peppery flavours warm you up in a very different way.

Farm manager Ed Scott is a veteran salad grower and polytunnel expert

Walking through the polytunnels, farm manager Ed Scott says even he was initially sceptical about growing salad in winter. “Everyone gets a lot of winter veg at this time of year, and actually a bag of salad once a month is really nice,” he says, crouching by the neat rows of dandelion leaves inside one of the big arched tunnels. The dandelion variety in question, Italiko, is different to the one found in most gardens, although they are also edible, as it grows vertically making it easier to pick and leaves are cleaner as this variety grows away from the soil.

The winter salad leaves are known as ‘cut and come again’, explains Scott, as they will be harvested around every four weeks, depending on the leaf, from November until March or April. A side-effect of this technique is that the more peppery leaves, such as cress or mustard, tend to get spicier on every pick – believed to be an evolutionary trait as the plant tries harder to deter predators.

“You can also cook with these types of leaves, every now and then we might leave the dandelions to grow a bit longer and put out a recipe to cook with them, or you can do things like a risotto with rocket,” Scott continues, walking through the rows of tunnels which in summer are bursting with the heady smell of tomatoes, chillies and basil, and tropical-looking vines of cucumbers.

Under a cosy-looking layer of fleece are the green shoots of baby ruby chard, covered in the early stages to encourage it to grow. Then there’s the bright green frilly mustard leaves with their distinctive taste, and land cress, a cousin of water cress but grown in soil so it is safe from any risk of water-borne bacteria that water cress growers have to be so careful about.

Salanova is a red variety of Butterhead lettuce

And it’s not just bitter leaves that are selected for winter cropping – Butterhead lettuces are also a popular choice, explains Scott, holding up a beautiful dark red variety called Salanova, with its bi-coloured leaves bright green at the base and dark red at the head.

“They have a longer shelf-life and thick velvety leaves that are more cold resistant than something like a Cos lettuce, which is more watery so it doesn’t do too well in the frost because all the cells freeze and then burst,” he says.

Cut by hand, the bitter leaves and winter lettuces are harvested by teams of pickers through the day before being whisked off to the packhouse at Riverford HQ, less than a mile away. When it comes to food miles, there’s certainly nothing bitter in these tunnels, and as Scott says: “Every bag of salad we can produce here is one less lettuce that we have to import from Spain.”

How much meat?

We’ve known for a long time that many of us eat more meat than is good for us and the planet, but the recent IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report has emphasised the urgency to collectively change our diet before it is too late.

At Riverford, we’ve always made vegetables the star of the dish, with a little bit of good (organic) meat as a treat; less and better is our guide. But when scientists claim this warning is the ‘final call to save the world’, it prompts us to question: should we all turn vegetarian or vegan? Unfortunately, the answer isn’t straightforward.

Pigs, poultry and intensively-produced (grain fed) cows compete with the world’s poor for grain produced on fertile arable land. In turn this increases the pressure for deforestation and intensification of production on existing land.

For forage-eating ruminants (grass-fed cows, sheep, goats) the argument is much more complex for several reasons:

They can graze on land that is unsuitable for growing crops for human consumption; as such it could be argued that they produce some food where there would have been none. With a growing population to feed, this is important to consider.

By eating grass and clover they are an important part of a balanced rotation, allowing fertility to be maintained without using energy-consuming fertilizers. On our land it would be very difficult to farm organically without growing forage legumes and using the manure from the livestock that eat them.

Ruminants belch and fart, releasing large quantities of methane (about 20%) of the world total. As methane is 21 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide it has been argued that ruminants contribute substantially to global warming. Indeed it has been calculated that around 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions are the result of farm livestock, compared to around 13% for transport, so this is obviously a huge issue. Furthermore it also seems to be true that extensive, grass-fed animals (such as we like to promote, for reasons of health, animal welfare and flavour) cause higher emissions per litre of milk or kg of meat than intensive ones, though we think some of the calculations used to argue this are flawed.

The calculation is made even more complex by the fact that the cultivations (e.g ploughing) needed to grow arable crops promote the breakdown of organic matter in the soil, releasing CO2. Under grassland, carbon is normally sequestrated, locking up CO2 from the atmosphere as soil organic matter. It could therefore be argued that maintaining grassland for animals to graze has the effect of reducing global warming.

Confused? There are no simple or authoritative answers to this question. We certainly do not feel qualified to give a definitive answer but there seem to be a lot of reasons for eating significantly fewer animal products. If we’re going to eat meat and dairy, let it be better quality, eaten less often, in smaller quantities and with complete confidence that the animal has been treated respectfully. And above all, let the veg be the star of the show.

Guy’s news: Respite, planning & ostriches

A thin layer of ice formed this morning on the rising waters of my newly built irrigation reservoir, and hung around all day; a week of frost and northerly winds has brought an abrupt end to two months of sun, warmth and unexpectedly luxuriant autumn growth. The plunging temperatures give our veg box planners relief from the tidal wave of greenery that has been coming off our fields and competing for a place in your kitchens over the last two months. Cauliflower heads that would have matured in a week will now take four to fill out; firm cabbages will stand for a month without splitting, and kales will hold until needed, while leeks plod on steadily, gaining weight regardless.

It has been a wonderful autumn to work outside, with good light and low humidity helping most crops go into winter strong and relatively disease free. There are still lots of potatoes in the ground; harvest has been delayed by their reluctance to set the firm skins that will protect them during harvest and help them store through the winter, so we must hope for an unusually dry November. Green manures are sown and have grown vigorously, soaking up the soluble nutrients that would be susceptible to loss by leaching from winter rain. Our last task in preparation for winter is to rip up any tractor ruts that have damaged the soil structure and reduced percolation rates (the speed water enters and moves down through the soil), to prevent run off and the risk of soil loss.

No sooner have we finished than it is time to plan for next year. Idealised contents of your boxes have been planned through to May 2020; it never works out perfectly, but (since I stopped doing it) reality comes remarkably close to the spreadsheet. Seeds must be ordered, rotations planned, manure and compost stockpiled and staff hired. Will we be able to get our crops back from my farm
in the Vendée, or from Pepe and Paco in Spain? Will Milan be here to drive the tractor? Can we trust that sanity, in some form, will prevail over vitriol, political egotism and collective madness? Despite the all-pervasive uncertainty, we are trying to mitigate risk with our Brexit plan – but with no firm ground to stand on, my leadership has crumpled. I can only sulk and bury my head like a
(mythical) ostrich. Please someone tell me when it’s over.

Guy Singh-Watson

Riverford hosts first-ever plastic debate

The anti-plastic movement is a milestone gateway that could prompt both businesses and consumers to start thinking on a larger scale about their environmental impact.

That was one of the key messages that came out of the first-ever plastic debate hosted by Riverford at its farm headquarters near to Totnes. The event took place last weekend as part of the company’s legendary Pumpkin Day festival, which this year was a sell-out attended by almost 2,000 visitors from across Devon.

Panellists on the debate included founder Guy Singh-Watson, Sian Sutherland, co-founder of campaign group A Plastic Planet, Jackie Young, head of the campaign to turn Plymouth plastic free, and Robyn Copley-Wilkins, packaging technologist at Riverford, who has spearheaded the company’s upcoming move to home compostable packaging materials.

Sutherland, who runs a campaign to try and get supermarkets to turn one aisle plastic-free, said: “What has been very interesting on the plastic pollution front is that it’s almost a gateway for people to start thinking, well hang on, if we’re doing this, what else are we doing that is harming the planet?”

Speaking about her work in Plymouth aiming to reduce plastic use, Young said: “Small businesses are quite risk averse, so if they make one small change that gets a good response, that then encourages them to look a bit further ahead. So it might be that they then look at their energy supplier, or their carbon footprint, and they start to realise that the potentially small action they took on plastic is part of a bigger programme.”

Riverford packaging technologist, Robyn Copley-Wilkins, has spent the last eight months researching sustainable packaging materials as part of the company’s move to home compostable. The company will be switching to cellulose-based packaging to replace plastic, and it has already replaced its plastic netting for citrus and onions to beech wood.

“By the end of 2020, Riverford is going to move to home compostable. It’s actually a real alternative to plastic so there’s no falsified materials or oil in there – what it will be made from is cellulose from trees,” she said. “When a tree is made into paper you can keep stripping it down, and what you end up with is molecules that you can join together into something that has a very plastic-like feel, but is more breathable, so it has properties we can use on our fruit and vegetables but we can also use it with our usual packing machinery.

“One of the really great things that has come out of this movement against plastic is the funding and opportunity for universities and research organisations to really get involved in packaging alternatives,” she added.

Paper will be the next material to come under scrutiny, according to Copley-Wilkins, as people start to ask how far paper has travelled, and whether forestry systems are sustainable.

Speaking at the debate, Guy Singh-Watson, who was interviewed on Radio 4’s Costing the Earth programme on the subject of plastic recently, said he believes home compostable packaging is the right way to go.

“I don’t think it’s a perfect solution, but I think it’s the best we can do seeing that only nine per cent of plastics are actually recycled. There is no point producing recyclable plastic and saying we’ve done our job, if 91 per cent of them aren’t recycled anyway, it’s useless.

“Treating our environment as a receptacle for waste is just unacceptable, and I do really welcome the campaign around plastic as a signal that it’s becoming less acceptable,” he said. “But I will continue to say that the single biggest challenge facing our planet by a long, long way is climate change, and I do have some concerns that the campaign around plastic is a distraction.”

Calls for local MPs to support organics

People are being urged to ask their local MP to back an amendment to the upcoming Agriculture Bill that would help fund organic and other environmentally-friendly farming systems post-Brexit.

Amendment 41 was proposed by three MPs, including Labour MP Kerry McCarthy, Zac Goldsmith of the Conservatives, and former leader of the Green Party Caroline Lucas.

The Agriculture Bill is a major policy that will determine the future of food production once Britain leaves the European Union. It is currently making its way through parliament with the next report on progress expected on 20 November.

The proposed amendment would ensure that environmentally-friendly farming systems, including organics and other agroecological processes, receive financial assistance to continue and expand their activities following Brexit. This would help deliver what is described as “public goods” in the Agriculture Bill, the amendment states.

A statement said: “Agroecology is recognised by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation as the basis for evolving food systems that are equally strong in environmental, economic, social and agronomic dimensions.”

A full list of local MPs plus details on how to contact them can be found here.

There’s no such thing as cheap food

By Dan Crossley, executive director The Food Ethics Council

From price wars to round pound deals and special offers, we are surrounded by the notion of cheap food. But what we pay for food at the checkout rarely reflects its real, or ‘true cost’. Our cheap food system is currently being propped up by environmental damage, low wage workers, farm animal suffering and the costs of diet-related ill health to the National Health Service.

Take an avocado, flown from Peru to the UK, refrigerated in a distribution centre, then packaged and driven to your local supermarket. The price tag may reflect what it cost the supermarket to purchase it but how about the greenhouse gas emissions that result from air freighting it, or the long-term impacts of irrigating this (very) thirsty crop? For every £1 we pay for food and drink at the checkout, it’s been suggested that there is (at least) £1 of hidden costs – externalities that the taxpayer picks up. So, should we move towards ‘true cost’ food?

Reluctantly I think the answer has to be yes. I say reluctantly because it’s sad that we have to put a financial value on things like the health of our environment, when we should value it for its own intrinsic sake. But I say yes, because genuinely ‘true cost’ food would, with one fell swoop, mean that healthy, sustainable, fair, humane food becomes (relatively) ‘less expensive’ than unhealthy, unsustainable food. Organic food and farming would be one of the winners in this scenario. If we rely on price signals, then that’s surely a sensible way to go. Arguably the government has made a baby step in that direction already via the sugary drinks levy (internalising a fraction of the diet-related ill health costs currently picked up by the NHS). With ideas such as a meat tax being banded around, will we see further moves towards paying a true cost?

Even more fundamentally perhaps, we need to get beyond the notion that ever cheaper food is somehow a good thing. The reason so many people can’t afford to eat in this country is not because prices aren’t cheap enough – it’s because there are too many gaps in the social security net, because people aren’t paid a real living wage and because we are slipping into a two-tier food system. Rather than being stuck in ‘let’s make it affordable’, let’s reframe the debate to be about how we can help everyone shape a food system that works for all.

Crucially, one of the main benefits of a true cost approach would be that the environment and social costs are no longer hidden, and there is therefore a ready-made incentive to drive negative impacts down. So, in the long-run, moving to true cost food could benefit people, animals and the planet.

It will take time, public support and political backing to move away from the cheap food narrative. Taxing those who pollute more, or who use damaging farming or employment practices, could go some way to open up and address the issue. But for people to favour foods with lower ‘true costs’ we need truthful answers about where our food comes from and how it’s produced. This transparency test could be the catalyst for much needed change.

Dan Crossley is the executive director of the Food Ethics Council. He has worked on food sustainability issues for over a decade, leading projects on food and farming, sustainable diets, animal welfare, carbon labelling and household food insecurity. The ‘true cost of food’ is a growing movement to account for the social and environmental impact of food production and consumption when thinking about prices.