Author Archives: Riverford

Guy’s news: Unknown unknowns, freak weather and screw-ups

Before Donald Rumsfeld gave the world ‘unknown unknowns’, Riverford had the Screw-up Factor. My early budgetary computations included an estimate of crop risk arising from poor germination, pestilence, adverse weather, market forces and human error. The estimates were based on experience to date. But what about the previously unexperienced; freak weather, unknown diseases or mineral deficiencies? These were accounted for in the Screw-up Factor.

My 30 years of growing have been a long battle to reduce the Screw-up Factor. It started at 30% of the budget, but with accumulating experience we have brought it down to about 10%. That victory, our success, and the affordability of our veg are all dependent on refining our practices to make the best of the conditions we know. If those conditions change, we are back to square one.

I am typing this on the train home from our farm in the Vendée, where our well laid plans were trodden into the mud by a wet start to the year. The last two very dry summers in France suggested our investment priority there should be a new reservoir; this year, we have barely used our existing water store, and 10% of our budget will not come close to covering the losses. At home in Devon, even 30% may not cover the consequences of a ten-week drought.

I am reluctant to attribute it prematurely to changing climate, but this pattern of longer and more frequent periods of extreme weather does fit the predictions for climate change. In temperate Devon, with enough time and investment we can adjust to substantial changes in the norm. What’s harder to adapt to is unpredictability; the widening variation that ‘the norm’ may become.

Having abandoned the frosted beans, some weed-smothered sweetcorn, and split kohlrabi and turnips, the remainder of the Vendéen crops look good. The first corn will be in your boxes this week, possibly along with a few grubs of the corn borer moth; once rare in our region, but moving north in hot years. The obviously affected cobs are graded out, but some will inevitably get through – let us know if you get one and we will refund you. We did release predators that achieve a good level of control over these pests, but it seems we should have released them earlier. Another screw-up, but at least this one we can learn from.

Guy Singh-Watson

Summer wines by Ben Watson

Guy’s brother Ben is somewhat of a sommelier. Each season he meticulously selects new wines for us to add to our drink offering. In this blog he talks through our summer wines, and why they made the cut. We hope you’ll enjoy them too.

Rosé
For many, the idea of a good summer wine is a light, crisp, salmon pink rosé and we’ve two old favourites to choose from. Mas de Longchamp’s rosé never fails to deliver and being (in Provence rosé terms) from the ‘wrong side of the tracks’, Bouches du Rhône, it is great value for money; £9 becomes £29 alarmingly quickly as you move east along the Côte d’Azur.

We also have Domaine Begude pinot rosé. Pressed immediately to give the faintest of colour, it’s a joy to drink on a sunny summers day. More manufactured rosés are often marked by sweet strawberry flavours, reminiscent of, dare I say it, Opal Fruits, or Starbursts as they are called today. With this rosé, the natural, intense wild strawberry mixed with a hint of acidic cranberry works a treat.

If rosé with bubbles is your thing, there’s never been a better time to buy our La Jara Rosato Frizzante. While Prosecco prices go through the roof, the Rosato Frizzante, enriched with a little red Raboso, can’t address itself as such because it’s not made from 100% Prosecco (Glera) grapes. Their loss is our gain however, because it’s the Raboso that lifts it to another level of food friendliness, and the fact that it also makes it cheaper is a wine win win.

Red
Growers in Western Europe had a bad time in 2017: late, bud destroying, frosts were followed by blistering heat, resulting in pathetically low yields. So our allocation of the red Domaine Begude Pinot Noir has been drastically cut. Low yields increased the intensity so what’s lost in quantity is made up for in quality and the price is pretty much the same as last year. Slightly chilled to around 14°C, it’s a match for all manner of poultry and vegetable dishes and salads.

Fedele
Sicily didn’t suffer as badly as most, and our Fedele wines really come into their own when the barbecues are lit. The Nero d’Avola has that sweet fruit edge that works with charred, caramelised meats and the Catarratto Pinot Grigio is a wine no fridge door should be without. Not surprisingly, they’ve been a big hit so, from the same winemaking team, we’re also offering the more boutique-y Santa Tresa Cerasuolo di Vittoria and Grillo Viognier.

Cerasuolo di Vittoria is Sicily’s first DOCG wine (the highest designation of quality among Italian wines) – a curious, but successful, marriage of intense, ripe, dark Nero d’Avola and light, summer fruit flavoured Frappato. Best slightly chilled, it’s good with any tomato based pasta dish or dense, oily fish like mackerel. Cerasuolo di Vittoria’s are often north of £15 so an award-winning, organic version for £11 ticks all the boxes. It certainly did with wine critic Jancis Robinson who scored the last two vintages tasted 16 and 17 out of 20.

The Grillo Viognier also got a good write-up from her. With a bouquet of tropical fruits, hints of vanilla and a palate hitting that perfect balance between ripe fruit and racy acidity, it’s hard not to like. Again, it’s fantastic value at £9.95.

Quinta Das Maias
We also have a couple more, slightly less seasonal, new listings. Both from Quinta Das Maias in the Dao uplands, central Portugal, these are serious wines, punching way above their price tag. If the Douro is the Bordeaux of Portugal, the Dao is a combination of Northern Rhone and Burgundy; far less glitzy and more down to earth – and cheaper. The whole region is a high granitic belt so the wines tend to be lean, with a mineral edge. The white is a revelation. The high altitude gives lovely acidity, and crisp, yet soft, white peach-like stone fruits dominate with a zesty finish.

The red is equally good, tasting like a wine that costs a lot more than £10.45. It’s well balanced and fruity, but with a sense of the austere granite upland soil and a long savoury finish. A blend of Jaen (known as Mencia in Spain), Touriga Nacional and a few other grapes no one has heard of, it’s great with roast meats but fresh enough to serve a little cooler in the summertime.

Ben Watson

Shop our selection of organic summer wines here.

 

Guy’s news: Praying for thunder

Diving into the last swimmable reservoir is getting perilous. Carp are digging into the mud in those already empty. Two thirds of our irrigation water is gone, leaving only enough to water our vulnerable crops for another two weeks; had we not invested in sealing a leaking reservoir last year, we would already be dry. Now, with high pressure anchored over the Atlantic, only thunder can help us.

Our agronomist’s report makes grim reading: carrots, cabbages, lettuce, chard, potatoes, leeks… all are delayed or reduced in yield, with quality problems anticipated for what remains. The reasons are always ‘delayed planting due to the wet spring’ followed by ‘lack of water’. To give some sort of return to our co-op farmers and keep the boxes full, it is likely that we will need to be more flexible on specifications where eating quality is not significantly impaired. It is often better to harvest a struggling lettuce, cabbage or head of broccoli at a lower weight, than to leave it another week to limp on, gaining a few grams but becoming yellow, tough and bitter with dehydration.

We have had some nervous summers before – but the crunch has never come so early. We still have the right to draw water from a tributary of the River Dart under an abstraction license my father took out in the 1960s, but it would leave the stream bed virtually dry, and still not be enough to satisfy the thirst. Slate, our underlying rock, is relatively impervious, so boreholes do not work unless you are very lucky. The only commercially viable option (and the most environmentally favourable) is to build clay-lined winter fill reservoirs wherever there is a valley bottom wide enough. To invest in an asset that is used so unpredictably (on average every 30 years) is a bold move, but perhaps climate change is shifting the odds – and at least we will have somewhere to swim.

It isn’t all doom. The heat and sun-loving tomatoes are early and looking great. Cucumbers are massively ahead of schedule with heavy yields, and sweetcorn and pumpkins are also looking good. We have had a few thundery showers this week, amounting to a very welcome inch of water; enough to germinate the swedes and allow recently planted leeks, cabbages and caulis to get their roots down into the moisture reserves below. Now we’re just praying for more.

Guy Singh-Watson

Guy Singh-Watson on Desert Island Discs – what did he pick?

Guy Singh-Watson (photo – BBC & Amanda Benson)

This Sunday, our very own Guy Singh-Watson, Riverford founder, was the castaway on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs. Guy spoke to host Kirsty Young about his life in food, organic farming, and his quest for a more ethical way of doing business. In case you missed it, it’s available to listen again here – or read about his choices below.

1) Kenny Rogers, Lucille
For all that Guy is prone to a good rant, he can also be rather ‘soppy’; a trait that the emotional directness of country music appeals to. This first track Guy recalled singing sadly to himself, alone in his tractor, while his first marriage was hitting the rocks. At the time, he really did have four children (although they weren’t hungry) and crops in the fields!

2) Tofu Love Frogs, Vegetable Attack
One of the major perks of working at Riverford is the parties; we have two big ones a year, and they’re always a night to remember! Back in the day, they used to be even wilder. This track took Guy back to one of the best: a Halloween knees-up featuring magic mushrooms (nowadays we stick to pints of Prosecco), and memorable live music from Tofu Love Frogs.

3) Harry Belafonté, Chickens
Guy’s mother Gillian played a huge role in shaping Riverford: she passed her irrepressible enthusiasm for food and cooking on to her five children, all of whom now work in food and farming. Gillian grew up in Trinidad, and always loved calypso music – especially the devilishly handsome Harry Belafonté.
Throughout Guy’s childhood, the farm was always on the brink of bankruptcy. John Watson was years ahead of his time, determined to do things his own way, such as giving his beloved pigs a remarkably high standard of welfare. His way was often right, but it wasn’t often profitable. Belafonté’s line ‘This isn’t funny, we’re losing money…’ rang true.

4) The Sex Pistols, Anarchy in the UK
A ‘proper little farm boy’, Guy spent his youth outside, clambering up trees, catching rabbits, rearing his own pig and selling manure from the farm gate. This left him a little out of step with his generation… something that was brought home to him with particular punch when he was taken by friends to see The Sex Pistols. With no idea what to expect, he found himself, ‘probably wearing a tweed jacket’, in a crowd of spitting, pogoing Plymothians.

5) Jimmy Somerville & Bronski Beat, Smalltown Boy
After studying Agriculture and Forestry Science at Oxford and a brief return to the farm, Guy left for London to try something new. He bought himself a snappy suit, got a job in management consultancy – and much to his surprise, was such a success that he was asked to open an office in Manhattan. Those heady days, in London and New York, were when he ‘started living life a bit’ – and the gay clubs were where the music was always best.

This track, by the brave and highly principled Jimmy Somerville, was Guy’s #1 pick of the show.

6) Talking Heads, Once in a Lifetime
Management consultancy was ‘stimulating but morally bankrupt’. Eventually Guy gave up, chucked his office keys into the Hudson River, and moved up to a remote island in Maine to teach kids sailing. No drink, no drugs; just lots of sailing, swimming, running and rowing. He also spent a lot of time in the kitchen, listening to Talking Heads with the chef while they cooked up macrobiotic meals. Eventually Guy got his head screwed back on straight… and came to the conclusion that he needed to start his own business.

7) Leonard Cohen, I’m Your Man
In 2014, Guy married fellow organic entrepreneur Geetie Singh. This song – the epitome of Cohen’s coolness, sexiness and humour – played at their wedding.

8) Grace Jones, Pull Up to the Bumper
Guy’s final choice was the one and only Grace Jones: her originality, sass and strength, streaks ahead of her time, take him right back to the wild streets of New York.

Book choice: Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd. Guy has always admired the character of Gabriel Oak as a role model.

Luxury: A surfboard – Kirsty says he’s allowed it as long as he doesn’t use it to paddle to another island!

Guy’s news: “So how does it feel?”

I’ve been asked that question more than a few times in the three weeks since we became employee owned. The answer? I am starting to feel the soil under my feet again, my shoulders definitely feel lighter, and an unfamiliar smile keeps settling on my face. Maybe I’m imagining it, but I think my fellow co-owners are smiling more too, and everyone’s energy has gone up a gear.

I knew it was the right choice on the day: when we had the best party the farm has ever seen, full of spontaneity and joy; when my staff gave me a seat fashioned from the remains of last winter’s fallen oak; when we all signed a giant scroll as witnesses to the occasion; when several staff, old and new, spoke movingly of what Riverford means to them and their hopes for our future, to rapturous applause; when I found myself standing on the shoulders of two acrobats with a rose in my teeth… but most of all when I staggered off, inebriated and overwhelmed, to take a few minutes on my own and enjoy dusk falling into the valley. For years I have loved that view, across the fields that I have walked, planted, and hoed so many times – over the reservoir where my children learnt to swim, to the wood-shrouded Tor Hill. After a few moments, I saw that I was not alone: four equally inebriated, previously landless co-owners were also taking in the landscape. I shook myself when I realised it was no longer mine – to do with as I pleased, to share if I wanted, or not if I didn’t. Now it was ours, forever, with no going back. To my surprise and relief, in the last light of a perfect day, that felt perfect – and it still feels perfect three weeks later.

My smile stems from the conviction that together we have taken action and made a small change. I often return to this quote from Chomsky: “If you assume that there is no hope, you guarantee that there will be no hope. If you assume that there is an instinct for freedom, that there are opportunities to change things, then there is a possibility that you can contribute to making a better world.” To have sown a seed of hope and made a step towards the world I want to live in seems a very good reason to smile. So… it feels good. Some rain would make it even better.

Guy Singh-Watson

Packaging update: recyclable meat trays

Here’s our packaging technologist, Robyn, with an update on some changes that are on the way to your box. Read Robyn’s first blog post to find out more about her role at Riverford.

Hello packaging enthusiasts!

Following our move to beech nets and ditching the plastic wrapping on some popular veg, another packaging improvement is on its way. If you buy our meat, you may already have spotted the change in the last few weeks; we’re working on phasing out the non-recyclable black trays, and replacing them with recycled and recyclable clear PET.

Why are black trays a problem?
Many recyclers can’t detect the black plastic due to optical sorting systems being unable to see it. While work has been done to change this with the introduction of new pigments, we’ve decided to move away from black plastic altogether and have found a clear alternative. Our new meat trays are made from clear food-safe recycled PET, which can be recycled with rigid plastic pots, tubs and trays.

Please bear with us while we use up the last of our stock of black trays. We hope to have moved to the clear recyclable trays for almost all meat products over the next few weeks. However, we still have a larger stock of black meatball trays (these are a specific shape designed to protect the product), which we will be using up until later in the year. At that point, they too will swap to a clear recyclable and recycled PET alternative.

But why plastic in the first place?
I often get asked why we use plastic rather than a wax paper wrapping for our meat. The short answer is to make sure the meat has a good shelf life once it gets to your kitchen.

How to recycle your new meat tray

  • Remove all the film on top of the tray and the pad from underneath the meat. Please dispose of these in your general waste bin; the film is not currently recyclable (there aren’t any top film solutions that are recyclable yet, but we are always searching for alternatives)
  • Recycle with you kerbside recycling or at your local recycling centre

To find out more about our existing packaging and research with the University of Exeter, visit our packaging manifesto.

5 recipes to celebrate The Veg New Year

Each season brings its excitement and pleasures in the kitchen; spring starts with scarcity (The Hungry Gap), then follows with abundance and variety, and what we call The Veg New Year. Each year, by June, a new crop is starting every week. Even after 30 years Guy gets excited by the first broad beans and their symbolism of plenty.

After the last month or two of relying on our French farm and other trusted growers overseas to help us fill boxes and offer variety, our boxes are now bursting with homegrown greenery.

Now’s the time to really embrace a life on the veg and celebrate the wealth of colourful, flavoursome veg, fruit and salad our fields and polytunnels have to offer. Here are 5 recipes to bring the best of the season to life.

Crushed Broad Bean Bruschetta


A delectable vegetarian starter. If you make this early in the broad bean season, while they’re still small and soft, you can skip the double podding that broad beans usually call for. Two lovely additions: spread your toasted bread with a little fresh ricotta before piling on the beans, or top the crushed beans with crispily fried pancetta or bacon lardons.

See full crushed broad bean bruschetta recipe

Summer Ham Hock Hash with Cucumber Pickles


The hash is a tick-list of the summer season. We have included some wet garlic which is, essentially, just young garlic, picked before the cloves fully form. It looks like an oversized spring onion or an undersized leek and only needs a very light cook to mellow any raw pungency. If you are an allium aficionado, you could even add it raw and finely sliced. The cucumbers, quickly pickled, make an ideal condiment to the salty ham hock.

See full summer ham hock hash with cucumber pickles recipe

Courgette, Fennel & Kohlrabi Salad


This fresh, summer salad uses crunchy raw courgettes, fennel and kohlrabi, paired with citrus and spices. The fennel seeds accentuate the fennel bulb’s natural flavour, while the caraway is a good match for the brassica flavour of the kohlrabi. If you don’t have all the spices just use those which you do.

See full courgette, fennel & kohlrabi salad recipe

Broad Bean Fritters


These simple fritters make a good vegetarian main course but you could also serve smaller ones as starters or canapés for a summer party (they can be made in advance and gently warmed through in a low oven). Kids generally love them, particularly the dinky-sized ones.

See full broad bean fritters recipe

Tomato & White Bean Panzanella


At its simplest, a traditional Italian panzanella is a way of turning stale bread into salad by mixing it with tomatoes, vinegar and oil. We’re aping stale bread by drying it in the oven for a while. The tomatoes and oil soak into the bread and revive it. Any extra ingredients are open for debate; try mini cucumbers, broad beans, peppers and whatever else takes your fancy.

See full tomato & white bean panzanella recipe

Guy’s news: Not an easy start to the year

After less than an inch of rain in seven weeks, and nothing much forecast for the next three, crops beyond the reach of irrigation are starting to suffer. I wish we had ploughed and made our seeds beds earlier to save some moisture; but, after a waterlogged April, it was hard to switch mindsets so quickly from drying and aerating the soil to conserving the wetness we were recently lamenting.

Most years in spring, as soon as the soil is dry enough we plough and create a ‘stale seed bed’ – an ancient technique that creates beds with a loose, fine top layer. This prevents capillary action from drawing water to the surface of the soil, allowing any rainfall to accumulate and reducing water loss to near zero. Stale seed beds also encourage weeds to germinate, so we can kill them with ‘weed strikes’ (shallow cultivations) every ten days until the crop is sown. In a good year, when it is dry enough in March-April to make seed beds, but wet enough in May-June for weeds to germinate, this technique can reduce handweeding costs on crops like carrots from a crippling £2000/acre to almost nothing. Very wet then very dry has made this the worst of years for our carrot-growing co-op members; hand-weeding teams are moving at a painstaking 30m/hour up the rows, making organic farming, with its rejection of chemical solutions, seem close to the pedantic, luddite madness its detractors accuse it of being. Fortunately these are exceptional circumstances.

More positively, we are moving from an average winter-sown broad bean crop into an excellent spring-sown crop. Cabbages, chards and greens are doing well, and the courgettes have started – helped by our co-op’s purchase of a water wheel planter. This wonderfully simple but highly effective device gives each plant a drink as it is planted, helping it get off to a quick, stress-free start (more than we can say for ourselves this year).

Guy Singh-Watson

No longer freaks from the fringe? Guy on Desert Island Discs
Riverford founder Guy Singh-Watson will be on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs on Sunday 1st July at 11.15am. Host Kirsty Young will be talking to him about his life in food, organic farming, and his quest for a more ethical way of doing business.

5 Riverford recipes for June

June is the start of The Veg New Year. The Hungry Gap has ended and our fields are suddenly bountiful with all sorts of greenery and vibrant veg; new potatoes, spinach, British asparagus, broad beans and more are in abundance.

Make the most of them in these gorgeous summer dishes, picked by legendary Riverford cook Kirsty.

Warm Potato, Radish & Bean Salad

When new potatoes and radishes are in full swing, how better to celebrate than with this superlative salad. The herbs and capers create a salsa verde – a perfect match for the beans and eggs too. Just be careful with your seasoning, as the capers and olives both lend a saltiness to the finished dish.

See the full warm potato, radish & bean salad with eggs, olives & saffron mayo dressing recipe.

Frying-pan Spinach Soufflé

The word soufflé seems to strike fear into the hearts of even competent cooks, but this version is simple and accommodating. All you’re looking for is to get the eggs to rise slightly, then crisp a little on top, like a puffy omelette. The two things to get right with any form of soufflé are to whisk your egg whites until you can tip the bowl over your head without them falling out (really!) and to fold them in gently to keep as much air in the mixture as possible.

See the full frying-pan spinach soufflé recipe.

Gnocchi with Courgettes, Broad Beans & Peas

The gnocchi and courgettes cook fast, leaving you plenty of time to pod your peas and beans. Podding has a meditative quality to it (for anything less than a kilo!). If it’s speed rather than enlightenment you’re after, split the pile in half and race someone. You can use the broad beans with their skins on, but if you have time it’s worth slipping them from their skins to reveal the bright green bean inside.

See the full gnocchi & crème fraîche with courgettes, broad beans & peas recipe.

Asian Raw Green Bean Salad

Raw beans can add a great crunch to a salad, but they don’t hold a dressing well when kept whole. Slicing them finely creates more nooks, crannies and surface area for all the flavour to cling to. Here we’ve dressed them with an Asian dressing and added radish and peanuts for a satisfying crunch.

See the full Asian raw green bean salad recipe.

Asparagus & Portobello Noodles

Seasonal asparagus is brought to life in this quick, simple stir-fry dish, with Asian flavours from ginger, sesame oil, hoisin sauce and chilli. The cooking for this dish is done at such a pace that it is vital to have all your ingredients prepared and to hand before you start, preferably in the order they are to be used. Peanuts finish the noodles with a salty hit and satisfying bite.

See thefull asparagus & portobello noodles recipe.

Guy’s news: Soil, analysis & hope

“Low pH, low or very low Potassium and Phosphorous … lime and adequate fertiliser application essential”. According to the soil analysis on my desk, my pumpkins should be dead, or at least stunted. I am kicking myself for not sending off the samples earlier when we could have limed, spread some muck or even chosen another field. I shouldn’t be surprised; this is thin, grade three land where no conventional commercial grower would dream of planting veg.

Too late now; the crop is in the ground. Yet the five-week old pumpkins are romping away with good leaf colour despite only 1cm of rain since planting. I suspect they are having to work hard to find their nutrients; a scrape at the soil shows roots already stretching over 40cm with growth of 2cm a day and accelerating. A little hardship can make for a healthier, tastier and more nutritious crop which shrugs off pests and stores well, though it may not produce the highest yield. It is a long way to harvest but, walking the field, I have a good feeling despite the lab’s suggestions of doom.

One would be a fool to ignore measurement of soluble nutrients (available to roots now) and total nutrients (possibly available later), but they are just one indicator of how well a crop might do and offer only a snapshot of a dynamic situation. Further information can be gleaned from leaf colour, how previous crops have grown, which ‘indicator weeds’ dominate and their leaf size/colour (if docks and chickweed look strong you can be pretty sure most veg will do well); the feel, structure, colour and even the smell of the soil also help. How easy it is for the roots to extend and form intimate contact with the soil is just as important as concentration of soluble nutrients. much will depend on the microbial activity breaking down and releasing the nutrients from the previous crop and mycorrhizal fungi that form a bridge between the roots and the soil. A soil analysis is one small indicator along with others that come for free.

Despite my confidence we have applied a top dressing of sieved compost and cultivated it into the top, most active, 10cm of soil with our first inter-row hoeing. Next year, I will get the samples done earlier. But ultimately, like a growing number of crops, what these pumpkins need most of all is rain.

Guy Singh-Watson