Author Archives: Riverford

Guy’s new book – Vegetables, Soil & Hope

Every week for over 25 years, Riverford founder and farmer, Guy Singh-Watson, has distilled his ruminations on ethical food, farming and business into a missive for our veg boxes.

We’ve pieced together a selection of them in a new book, Vegetables, Soil & Hope, alongside witty illustrations, to chronicle a quarter century of a life on the veg.

We have some of you to thank, for suggesting your most memorable newsletters for us to consider, and some of you who sent in ancient newsletters and helped us to fill gaps from the early years, when our file keeping wasn’t great.

Each piece promises to challenge the food on your plate, make you empathise with those who produce it, or celebrate Guy’s true vegetable loves, which include artichokes, bitter leaves and cardoons. And for some of you who have been customers for donkeys years, we hope the book might bring some veg box nostalgia.

The newsletters are brought to life with witty, colourful and inventive drawings, which we have Guardian Weekend artists, Berger and Wyse, to thank for.

“If any of its contents leads anyone to reconsider the nature of good farming or business, I will be happy. There are too many save-the-world books and most of them are too long. This one is short, and I hope, easy to ready.”
– Guy Singh-Watson

The book is available to add to your order now.

“Guy Singh-Watson has become well known for his “rants”… some may think his views extreme, but to me they make perfect sense. Anyone who thinks it matters where our food comes from, and what goes into it, will want to read this book. And anyone who doesn’t should be forced to read it!”
– Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall

Guy’s news: An ideal descent into autumn

The soil is still a little drier than ideal for some crops, but as the dews get heavier, the sun lower and the days shorter, most crops are growing well. The dry weather and good light make for healthy plants, good weed control and easy harvesting. Perhaps the one exception to the latter point is potatoes; very dry, fine soil runs away so quickly through the harvesting webs (picture vibrating sieves) that the emerging tubers can be vulnerable to bruising. If we are too impatient, this will show up in your kitchen as blackening under the skins.

Soil temperatures at the surface are already declining, but at depth they remain at their annual maximum. The warmth accelerates the activity of invertebrates, fungi and bacteria: feeding on residues of previous crops, manures and each other, breaking down large, complex carbohydrates, and releasing soluble nutrients that can be absorbed by roots. With so little rain to carry those nutrients away into the subsoil (and ultimately rivers), this is the time when organic crops look at their best; in some cases they can become almost too lush, making them susceptible to the fungal diseases that typically arrive with the dampness of autumn. For this reason we seldom apply manure later than June.

Soluble nutrients means vulnerable nutrients, especially with the approach of winter rains. As crops are cleared, it is critical to get the ground covered as soon as possible. In early September we sow rye mixed with quick-growing legumes like vetch or crimson clover; the rye grows rapidly and roots deeply, even at low temperatures, and will mop up any soluble nutrients near the surface and even bring some up from the deep where weak-rooting vegetables seldom reach. If left into the spring, the legumes will secure some valuable nitrogen as well. As we get into early October we will sow just rye, and by late October it is best to leave the weeds (we generally have plenty) to do the job. Have I written this before? Perhaps something similar last September, or the September before…

Vegetables, Soil & Hope, ruminations of a lifelong veg nerd

For those of you who enjoy Guy’s weekly rants, ruminations and reflections, we have put together a choice selection of newsletters from the last quarter century, in a beautiful volume illustrated by Guardian cartoonists Berger & Wyse. Yours for £9.99 at riverford.co.uk/book.

Guy’s news: Our reluctant but noble organic Lord

Peter Melchett, the reluctant but eminently noble Lord, environmental campaigner, and woolly-jumpered organic farmer, died last week. He had been policy director at the Soil Association for 17 years, having previously headed Greenpeace UK and been a Labour minister in the 1970s. It is hard to imagine anyone, whatever their politics, not being won over by his humanity, good will and charm; these, combined with his patient persistence and attention to detail, made him a fantastic campaigner who will be greatly missed. We didn’t always agree, but he invariably had research on his side, and time normally proved him right. I will miss the unfailing humility which ensured that, for all his charm, the issue always came first. If only privilege more often came with his modesty, and his sense of responsibility to the planet and its current and future inhabitants. As a vegetarian livestock farmer, he was also one of our most appreciative veg box customers and a loyal patron of our London pub The Duke of Cambridge.

To what degree does the end justify the means? If your cause is just and well researched, does its pursuit justify dogma-based evidence selection and manipulative presentation? There is no right answer; in the shouty, impatient world we live in, purity counts for little and everyone must make their own judgement as to acceptable compromise. I think Peter Melchett consistently got it right; he didn’t always go for the headline, but was sufficiently canny to be effective while commanding lasting respect. It was his analysis of the GM industry that kept me campaigning on the issue, long after feeling compromised by the sometimes extreme views and actions of the antis. As I was mounting a legal challenge to a local GM maize trial, Peter, as head of Greenpeace UK, went one step further and spent a brief time in jail for destroying a GM crop. Long may his campaigning spirit remain with us.

This is being typed on a ferry back from my farm in the Vendée, led into Plymouth by a pod of dolphins. After a wet spring and a weed-ridden start to the season, we are now seeing some good late crops. Peppers, aubergine and physalis are all doing well, our best ever crop of borlotti beans will be on sale for another month; their flavour and texture is great in salads.

Guy Singh-Watson

Guy’s news: Glyphosate part 2 (following on from last week)

Gunpowder, nuclear bombs, PCBs, DDT, burning fossil fuels, antibiotics fed to animals as growth promoters, factory farming and overconsumption of meat, overfishing, deforestation… If we can, and someone can benefit from it, we will. Can we ever learn to balance public benefit against as-yet-unquantified public and environmental risk, and then implement the necessary global restraints?
Will we ever put wisdom ahead of cleverness and greed? I heard a philosopher asking why, given our infinite universe, we have not found any sign of intelligent life on other planets. He argued that intelligent life would inevitably destroy itself, and would therefore be gone in a blink of geological time. Is it inevitable that our incredible powers of innovation combined with our voracious appetites will destroy humanity, taking most other life on this planet with us?

Coming back down to earth, I spent the morning wrestling with the perennial weeds that threaten to engulf some trees we planted last spring. The only effective organic way to control them is exhaustive cultivation: tilling the area three or four times, at two weekly intervals. It takes time, fuel, and beats the life out of the soil, depleting organic matter and releasing CO2. Is that better for me and for the environment than applying 0.5g/m2 of glyphosate? Actually I doubt it, especially as it would only take two applications, just around the trees (10% of the area), in a two-hundred-year cycle. But this would be a tiny fraction of the glyphosate used globally. Most is used to make large-scale arable farming a bit easier, particularly as a pre-harvest desiccant of grain crops that will be harvested just two or three weeks later and are often destined for human consumption (the reason why most of us have glyphosate in our urine). Given the small benefit to a small number of people, and the risk to so many and to our planet, this seems an example of failure to balance risk and benefit.

How can such a balance be achieved? For now, I have more faith in fear than in wisdom. Last week I mentioned the legal challenge being put up by Client Earth. A customer has brought to my attention the attempts of an international group of lawyers to designate ecocide as an international crime arbitered by international courts, as with war crimes. Learn more at eradicatingecocide.com.

Guy Singh-Watson

Two new Lancashire cheeses

Over the years we’ve taken our time finding small-scale producers across the country who make exceptional organic food to complement our veg. Our cheese range is full of moreish hand-crafted cheeses from people who share our core values and who have honed their specialist skills and passion over the years.

New to join the range are two classically British cheeses from Leagram Dairy, run by the Kitching’s family. Their small organic dairy is set in the beautifully remote Trough of Bowland countryside, Lancashire. It’s a very traditional operation: their organic milk is all sourced from local cows, and the cheeses are lovingly made by hand with tools that are over 120 years old. Dipping the cheese in hot wax seals in the texture while the cheeses mature, before the team cut each wedge by hand.


The business was originally started and run by Bob Kitching, whose passion of the art form of making cheeses lead him to travel the country with his wife, reviving the wonders of British cheeses. He had a keen interest in the traditional methods of making cheese. Despite Bob’s passing in 2013 this small family business has continued to thrive, with his wife Christine and daughter Faye sharing their passion and knowledge and the family business being awarded gold medals at the British Cheese Awards and the International Cheese Awards.

We’ve selected our two of our favourites: the Crumbly Lancashire for its creamy taste and crumbly texture, with a subtly sharp taste. It’s is a beautiful melter and so easy to eat. Tumble over fresh summer salads, or bubble into a decadent cauliflower cheese.

Next up is the Wensleydale which is a mild, delicately honeyed cheese. Pack this handsome white wedge into your picnic basket with some oatcakes and sweet chutney for a portable ploughman’s, or pair with apples on a summery cheeseboard.

Both cheeses are available to add to your order now.

 

Guy’s news: If polar bears could sue

Dewayne Johnson, a 46-year-old former groundskeeper suffering from non-Hodgkin lymphoma, was awarded $289m in damages from agrochemical giant Monsanto this month. A San Francisco court found Johnson’s terminal cancer was attributable to his use of glyphosate, the world’s ‘favourite herbicide’.

Monsanto has a long history of suppressing evidence of risk to extend the life of profitable products, and then ducking the consequences. From the 1920s, they led in the manufacture of electrical coolants called polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). PCBs are hormone disrupters that cause reduced fertility. As early as 1937, Monsanto were presented with evidence of PCBs’ danger, but continued to sell them until they were finally banned in the 1980s. By then 150m tonnes had been manufactured: highly persistant, leaking into the environment, and accumulating in animals at the top of the food chain – most significantly marine mammals and polar bears. Monsanto’s other products include Agent Orange, DDT, bovine growth hormone, and a dominant role in GM technology (alongside others that have been safe and of genuine benefit).

Monsanto has now merged with Bayer who, if possible, have an even more questionable history: stretching from the use of forced labour and human guinea pigs in trials in Nazi Germany to, more recently, knowingly causing thousands of haemophiliacs to be infected with HIV, through a plasma product known to be contaminated but deemed too costly not to sell.

We will never banish risk if we are to progress, but government, legislation and the law have repeatedly failed to balance the risks and the benefits of progress, and to hold accountable those responsible for diffuse and long-term pollution. Corporate interests have too loud a voice, placing shareholder value above a broad and balanced assessment. Should glyphosate be banned outright? Actually, I am not sure (more next week perhaps), but its use certainly needs tighter regulation. Monsanto will appeal and Johnson will probably be dead before he gets a penny. Encouragingly, there is a movement led by clientearth.org to use the law to challenge corporate and government environmental performance; I reckon they are worth supporting if you have some spare cash.

Guy Singh-Watson

5 Riverford recipes for August

As the heat of the summer lingers, we’re making the most of our seasonal veg and enjoying some Mediterranean inspired meals. Our basil crop is starting to slowly wind down now after growing so well this year. We are still using it in lots of dishes, such as bright, basil scented Tuscan panzanella – a beautiful salad in which the taste of ripe tomatoes really shines through.

The courgettes on the farm have rallied through the drought and grown away nicely, producing some fantastic plants that are yielding good quality courgettes – they seem to really like the sunshine. Pea shoot, courgette & whipped feta toasts are an interesting way to combine them with other stronger notes such as caramelised lemon.

Farinata (also known as socca) is wonderful discovery and a great gluten free option. A dense chickpea pancake, often baked in shallow trays in wood-fired ovens, it is perfect to drag through and mop up sauces. We have paired it with a rich but simple Ragú of green beans with tomatoes and olives.

Tomato & White Bean Panzanella

Traditional Italian panzanella is a way of turning stale bread into a salad that manages to be fresh and filling. Tomatoes, vinegar and oil soak into the bread and revive it, but if you don’t have stale bread, you can simply dry it in the oven for a while. We’ve added everything that’s good towards the end of summer – any extra ingredients are open for debate!

See the full tomato & white bean panzanella recipe here.

Pea Shoot, Courgette & Whipped Feta Toasts

You can treat this recipe as a posh open sandwich or a starter. The pea shoots are the first delicate stalks of a pea plant. More than just a garnish, they are sweet and succulent with a definite pea flavour. Charring the lemon really intensifies the flavour and gives it depth and warmth that cuts through the saltiness of the cheese as well.

See the full pea shoot, courgette & whipped feta toasts recipe here.

Ragú of Green Beans with Farinata

If steaming your green beans is the ‘go-to’, here’s a different destination for them. Green beans don’t always have to be bright and squeaky, they are more than happy to be given a little extra time and heat. What you lose in colour and bite, you make up for with a melt-in the-mouth tenderness. Served with Farinata (also known as socca) a dense and protein rich chickpea pancake, it makes a great vegetarian main or simply omit the Parmesan for a vegan option.

See the full ragu of green beans with farinata recipe here.

Spinach, Olive & Feta Tart

This is a really adaptable recipe and a great crowd-pleaser. Using the pastry case as your base, you can vary the fillings as much as you like. Use a good ready-made shortcrust to save time if you prefer.

See the full spinach, olive & feta tart recipe here.

Spinach Linguine with Roasted Tomatoes & Breadcrumbs

In Italy, ‘pangrattato’ or ‘poor man’s Parmesan’ (breadcrumbs with garlic and chilli) is traditionally sprinkled over pasta to give flavour and texture. This is another recipe that makes use of any leftover bread: here it is dried and blitzed into crunchy crumbs. Any extra can be kept in a bag or tub in the freezer where you can use directly, sprinkled onto gratins and other dishes for a little crunch.

See the full spinach linguine with roasted tomatoes & breadcrumbs recipe here.

Guy’s news: Packaging: Doing our best in the world as we find it

As promised in February, we have spent the last 6 months reconsidering our packaging, with particular emphasis on plastics. Our conclusions and actions are as follows (and in more depth at riverford.co.uk/future-packaging):

1. We will continue to reduce the amount of plastic we use. Our research suggests that our veg boxes already use less than a quarter of the packaging of a major supermarket. We think we can reduce this further to nearer a tenth in the winter, when produce is typically less perishable.

2. By 2020, 95%+ of the single-use plastic we do use will be home compostable (fully degradable in 12 weeks under the temperatures typical of home composting). After polling our customers, it turns out that a staggering 83% of you home compost. We will ask those who can home compost to do so, and those who can’t to return all packaging for us to compost at the farm and use to grow our next crops.

Although not a perfect solution, it is a huge improvement; we are doing our best in the world as we find it. With that in mind, I have two comments:

1. Anthropogenic climate change is unquestionably the biggest environmental threat our planet faces. We must not allow the plastic debate to detract from this. Reducing plastic use does nothing to address climate change; in some instances, it can make it worse. We need pragmatic policies that balance all environmental impacts.

2. It is impossible for citizens or companies to instigate good packaging practices while every local authority has a different approach to kerbside collection. Of all the ‘recyclable’ plastic used in the UK, only a third is actually recycled. We desperately need an intelligent, long-term, national policy on what materials will be recycled, composted and incinerated or landfilled. In the current vacuum, effort is being wasted on ill-informed company policies and headline-grabbing claims that will deliver little of value. To abandon policy to individual choices and market forces is an abdication of responsibility and a failure of government… Time for action, Michael Gove.

Guy Singh-Watson

5 vegetarian BBQ recipes

To plan a BBQ during a typical British summer you need to have a dash of optimism and good waterproofs. However, this year has been an exception. Although the hot weather is a challenge in the fields, the evenings are long, warm and ideal for gathering with friends and family to share an alfresco feast.

Sweetcorn is a sign of late summer; an iconic seasonal star. It’s also great vegan option if you are looking for something a bit different to put on the grill. We deliver it with the leaves intact to keep it fresh – natural packaging at its best.

With an abundance of summer veg, it’s great to have some new takes on old favourites: everyone loves potato salad, so here is a fresh version of a classic BBQ side, and a vegetarian salad niçoise featuring sweet, rich roasted cherry tomatoes makes a wonderful accompaniment. We also look forward to the first Padron peppers (pimientos de padrón). They originally hail from Galicia but we’ve discovered they also like growing on our farm in France. Some are hot and some are not – it’s impossible to tell which is which. Always great fun to eat and easy to make, serve them alongside your BBQ feast or as a starter.

BBQ Sweetcorn with Chipotle & Charred Limes

Smoky corn, spicy mayonnaise and zesty-sweet caramelised limes make a delectable trio that’s even better washed down with a cool beer. If it rains on your parade and you need to take your BBQ inside, this recipe also works well roasted in an oven.

See full barbecued sweetcorn with chipotle and charred limes recipe.

Padron Peppers

Play Russian roulette with Padron peppers grown by Guy’s team on our farm in France. These small green peppers are all the rage in tapas bars – fry or grill until blistering and serve with sea salt. Most are mild, some have moderate heat – and watch out for the occasional lurker with a real kick.

See our simple how to cook Padron peppers recipe

Courgette & Halloumi Kebabs with Green Tahini Dressing

A great vegetarian option for a BBQ or a simple summery lunch. Try with zephyr courgettes, grown on our co-op farmer Antony Coker’s farm, to add a dash of yellow to the table. It’s worth making extra of the nutty, creamy tahini dressing; it goes well with most roasted veg.

See full courgette & halloumi kebabs with green tahini dressing recipe.

Broad Bean, Saffron & New Potato Salad

This warm salad combines two of the best veg Britain has to offer at this time of year. The bright red saffron threads add a wonderful colour and subtle flavour but use it sparingly, or the flavour can be cloying. Try using a small handful of chervil for a slightly different flavour to parsley, or alternatively some chopped chives.

See full broad bean, saffron & new potato salad recipe.

Roasted Tomato Niçoise Salad

This is a substantial, flavour-packed French summer classic, with the roasted cherry tomatoes add extra intensity. At this time of year our tomatoes come from our polytunnels; you can’t beat them on taste. Each season we trial and test new varieties to be sure we are always growing the most flavoursome ones.

See the full roasted tomato niçoise salad recipe.

Guy’s news: Is this how it starts?

Ever hotter, ever drier, with empty reservoirs and no sign of respite. ‘Stay calm,’ says John, our serene farm manager – but I feel myself becoming increasingly unhinged in the heat. It feels personal. Tantalising but ever-receding suggestions of thunder are torture as we watch stressed lettuces run to seed for lack of water and normally robust cabbages retreat into themselves, attempting to hang on to what they have. Those who have seen Gérard Depardieu as the tax inspector turned farmer in Jean de Florette will have the picture: he loses his mind while his farm collapses around him for lack of water. Gérard’s drought turns out to be caused by nothing more than a covered spring, maliciously blocked by his covetous neighbours. I am not sure our problem is so simple.

The sun, normally welcome, becomes a cruel and unforgiving enemy when water is short. Is the driest and hottest summer since 1976 mere weather, or anthropogenic climate change? Our primitive ancestors might question whether they had buried enough corn dollies or worshipped the right deity. If all else failed, they might sacrifice a goat. Of course, we know better; we are so clever and enlightened that we burnt millions of years’ worth of fossil fuels in one generation, dashing for growth. Is this an early manifestation of the predicted resulting climate change? Perhaps it is too soon to say with authority – but by the time we have that authority, it will be too late; the melting regions of permafrost will be emitting methane in a positive feedback loop with consequences the most accomplished climate scientists can only guess at.

So, is this how it starts? Is this how it will be when our self-regulating natural planet, that has looked after us and tolerated (even compensated for) our abuses, can no longer take the punches? As the crops wilt and the ground cracks, I must remind myself that no one here will die; this is a matter of convenience and bank balances. But it is also a window into the world where food security and seasonal rains are already matters of life and death for subsistence farmers. There will be no spring to unearth; corn dollies will not help. For those farmers and for ourselves, we must learn to share more and live with less. It is our appetite for cheap and convenient energy, not goats, that we must sacrifice.

Guy Singh-Watson