Category Archives: Ben’s meat blog

Ben’s Newsletter – How much meat?

ben-watsonEating no, or less, meat is all very well but it needs to be looked at within the bigger picture. The most depressing bit is that a lot of us are eating less but it won’t make a blind bit of difference to the 75% of the UK population who aren’t, or the vast numbers globally. I’ve always been a great believer that, given the information, people will make the right decisions. With most food related issues it seems that interest will precipitate a series of simple questions and consequent decisions. If only things were as simple with farming and greenhouse gases. There are lies, damned lies and statistics, but all we can do is give you the information and a few hints in as unbiased a way as possible. Guy’s doing that and I thought last week’s newsletter got it about right. Eating meat isn’t just about one issue – but nothing I’ve heard to date has come close to changing my opinion that organic is the best option for the taste buds, heart (in its emotional sense), body and the environment.

Unfortunately what we thought were the most natural of meats, beef and lamb, have been shown to be, in GHG terms, the worst. Enteric fermentation, resulting in methane emission through flatulence, has made ruminants the bad kids on the block, but would they be saying the same about the tens of millions of bison that roamed the North American prairies if we hadn’t wiped them out and substituted them with beef in feed lots? In the States about 22% of beef is grass fed – I would assume it’s a bit higher over here. Organic beef is almost always, by nature of being free range, grass fed. Permanent pasture or long term grass leys and their root systems obviously don’t sequestrate anywhere near as much carbon as rainforests but they’re a lot better than a field of, dare I say it, vegetables. Grass fed also means no nitrogen and energy heavy arable feed crops, or rainforest destruction. It’s also largely local and doesn’t get frozen and shipped around the world. I rest my case m’Lud and I hope you’ll take the similar cases of lamb and venison into account as well.


Pigs might not belch and fart in the bovine manner (as Guy wrote last week, in GHG terms, they’re far better than cattle and sheep) but as with beef, the more we eat, the worse it gets. The William Cobbett inspired picture of eating every bit of pigs but the squeal, fed on waste from the kitchen, is about as likely as pigs with wings. Since Foot and Mouth in 2001, feeding swill has been banned, so grain, supplemented by soya protein, has become the norm. More animal feed means more fertile land needed for cultivation and we all know where they find that. Pollution, antibiotic use and appalling animal welfare all go hand in hand with large scale pig farming. Organic is the only system and label that provides any worthwhile guarantees. Free range still has no legal meaning – they could be free to range around a 2m x 2m pen. Outdoor reared means they’ve had access to the outdoors (could be a small concrete yard) for half their lives and outdoor bred means just that – absolutely nothing from day one onwards. If the FSA pulled their fingers out and helped find a safe way of using food waste we could all eat a bit of ‘low impact’ pork without being told we’re putting the planet in jeopardy. Of all the meats, it’s pork that falls most readily into a, ‘meat as seasoning’ diet. In fact, it is the best use for organic pork. It’s full of flavour, a great meat for processing, curing etc, but it’s a different beast to fast growing intensively reared pork and needs to be treated as such.

For the most part, chickens fall into the same basket as pork. They’re naturally omnivorous and great scavengers, and until the second half of the last century, an affordable roasting chicken was unheard of. Chickens produce 300 eggs a year and this, coupled with intensive rearing, selective breeding and a good feed conversion ratio, meant cheap meat for the masses. Cheap chicken has come to define the modern food industry, and it tastes of virtually nothing. However, we all want it so the organic sector has had to come up with an acceptable alternative. The differences are enormous; double the age, flock sizes of 500 (rather than tens of thousands), constant access to pasture etc etc. I could go on but I don’t want to be accused of my own version of enteric fermentation so in a nutshell, if we’re going to eat less meat and, for the most part, treat it as a seasoning, I hope you’ll agree that organic fits the bill far better. It’s a bit like killing two birds with one stone, but we should only eat one.

Ben Watson

Ben’s blog: wine cellar overhaul – meet our new gutsy reds & classy whites


Ben Watson, Guy’s brother, has given our wine range a good overhaul  – here’s his blog about the thinking behind the new cohort of gutsy reds and classy whites.

Good wine from good farming might sound a little trite but most organic wine is as much a product of the vineyard as milk is of a cow. Great wines are made in the vineyard and after that minimal intervention is the name of the game.

Thirty years ago winemakers were tearing their hair out and crying ‘how can we make good wine from organic grapes?’ Now, with better practises in the vineyard and improved hygiene in the cellar they are asking the opposite; ‘how can we make good wine without using organic grapes?’

So, with this in mind, and the fact that it’s a natural partner to all things Riverford, we’ve been having a good look at our wine list.

Thanks to the chancellor’s avarice value for money lies in the £8-10 bracket so that’s where we have been concentrating our efforts. Once you’ve knocked off the duty and VAT, wine for £7 or less doesn’t offer much value.

So far we’ve added six; a very classy white and red from a top producer in Pic St Loup in the Languedoc,  a lovely rosé from the southern Rhône, a gutsy medal winning Corbierès and two meat and stew friendly ‘Reserva’ reds from Chile.

Top of the pops will be a red and a white from the Marche region of Italy. Wine writers have been ‘bigging up’ Central Italian whites as the next Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc and the Saladini Pilastri Falerio, a blend of Trebbiano, Pecorino, and Passerino, doesn’t disappoint. Floral on the nose with a touch of mown grass with an apple and herbal flavours, it has good body and acidity and a slight but noticeable bitter almond finish – perfect for vegetable, fish and poultry dishes. The Rosso Piceno is 90% Sangiovese and 10% Montepulciano and spends a month or two in large old oak prior to bottling.  This is more than just good quaffing wine – it’s made for Bolognese or a hearty ragù.

Once the Italians arrive, we’re putting the new wines (minus the Chilean Carmenere and Rhone rosé) in a mixed case of six for a bargain £44.75 (20% off on deliveries from 4th November).

So far we’ve been concentrating on the winter reds. After Christmas we’ll start thinking about the whites and lighter reds …

venison season: Ben’s blog – going back to my roast – whoops, roots

Occasionally, for whatever reason and in whatever way, we all feel the need to get back to our roots. Genealogists can spend hours on the internet. For organic food lovers, venison is the way to go. It’s about as natural and unadulterated as meat gets. Truly wild animals can’t, by definition, be organic, but farmed venison, whose breeding and life cycle has hardly changed in the last thousand years, can. In fact, without the likes of Bad King John and James I and their bloodthirsty chums chasing them, a deer’s life is on the up. These days they’re born in the spring, live a stress free ‘park life’ and are dispatched in the field, eighteen months later, by expert marksmen, before the stress of autumn rutting.

losing the stigma

Across the pond, venison is all the rage with followers of the Weston A Price Foundation, but you don’t have to be an earth mother to enjoy it. The season for farmed venison actually starts in August, but despite it shining on the barbecue, it’s much more suited to autumn eating. Why we don’t eat more of it is a mystery, because on health, welfare and sustainability grounds it can’t be beat. It’s taken a generation for venison to divest itself of its toff nosh/cute bambi/’no I deer’ jokes image. It’s been a tough nut to crack, but finally the health benefits (high in protein, iron and Omega-3, low in fat and cholesterol), availability and our endless quest for something new has won it its rightful place on our plate.

‘v’ is for versatile

When I think of venison, I see comforting casseroles and chunky red wines, but it doesn’t have to be like that. Firstly, it’s just like any meat: some cuts grill, some roast, others stew. Secondly, venison is worldwide and totally adaptable – it takes rogan josh and stir fries in its stride. It also lends itself beautifully to my current favourite ‘dish of the day’, Bo Kho/Vietnamese Beef Stew. My top tip is, in a casserole, once you’ve browned your meat and added the liquid, don’t even think about letting it boil. Slow cookers/crock pots are best but, failing that, the oven on minimum setting is your best bet. Lean meat always needs TLC.

To keep the venison company, we’ve got some exciting new wines coming your way in October. Nativa Cabernet Sauvignon will work with roasts and steaks and Nativa Carmenere is perfect with casseroles and stews. There will also be a rustic Rosso Piceno for ragus and an award winning Corbières, so watch this space for our new Autumn wines.

Ben Watson

Ben’s blog: Meet our new sauces

Ben’s blog: Meet our new kitchen cupboard favourites: Captain’s masala curry paste, beer mustard, tomato ketchup & herby harissa

As a keen, but not particularly good, cook I’m always looking for ways to make things easy.

Ready-mixed seasonings seemed like the way to go, but everything I bought was either unpleasantly bland and salty or sweet and vinegary – the flavour was controlled by the method of preservation. Caught between that, and unidentified half-used packets of spices losing their flavour in the back of the cupboard, I started making my own ‘compound’ sauces to keep in the fridge.

I’ve always had a weakness for an English pub curry (like my mother used to make), so the Captain’s masala paste was my first foray into a homemade version. Lo and behold, it also made great kedgeree and coronation chicken (and even turkey at Christmas). A bit of Moroccan/Maghreb heat is always good but every harissa paste I bought was red hot. I wanted the mint, caraway and cumin with a milder heat, so I started making my own and, again, I couldn’t believe how versatile it was. Soups, tagines, meatballs, salads and marinades – all were improved by a judicious tablespoon of herby harissa. You can add it to virtually anything but I like it best with chicken in this recipe: Chicken, Chorizo, Chickpea And Butternut Squash. It just won’t go wrong.

Our sweet chilli sauce has been around for ages. It’s a great dip, marinade and ingredient. Mix a couple of tablespoons with soy sauce, miso and stock and you’ve got a broth for soups, – meaning dinner is five minutes away; just add noodles, julienne vegetables and meat. It’s the sort of thing you actually want to find in the back of the cupboard.

Our new Riverford pastes & spices are all a good, easy way to jazz up your supper – even the ketchup has a bit of spice as well as the obligatory tomato, sugar and vinegar. The ketchup is as good an ingredient in cottage pie as well as on a burger. The beer mustard works as well in a beef carbonnade as a ham sandwich – if you do decide to try one we’d love to hear what you think, either comment here or send us an email, we always like to hear what you have to say.

Ben’s meat blog: why beef prices are going up


The cow jumped over the moon, and organic beef prices are going in the same direction.
Horse-gate has been good news for food businesses whose core values centre on known and proven provenance. Organic certification is by far the clearest way of demonstrating this, but the problem now is that everyone is trying to muscle in on the act. Supermarkets, who for years have paid little more than lip service to organics, treating it more like a loss-making inconvenience they could do without, are all reportedly desperate to re-list as much organic produce as possible – particularly beef. However there just isn’t enough to go around.

Last year’s poor harvest and growing conditions has meant that even low input, extensive organic farmers haven’t had enough fodder (grass, silage and hay) so they’ve turned them out to wait for the sun to shine and the organic spring grass to grow and give them a rich enough diet. Poor supply is compounded by the fact that until recently, premiums for organic beef have been minuscule (as low as 5%) and many farmers have decided that the challenge of producing their herds as fully organic has been too great, so have surrendered their organic certification as a result. If the supermarkets had supported organic farmers over the last five years, rather than giving them the cold shoulder, supply wouldn’t be so tight now. Now the premium has risen to a stonking 30% with no signs of levelling off. Rearing organic beef, even on grass, does cost more money, but not that much. Most farmers would be happy with 12-15%, which I would hope you would be happy to pay. It seems like a small price to pay for the peace of mind guaranteed provenance brings and the good work organic farmers do looking after our green and pleasant land.

At Riverford we have a good relationship with our suppliers. We pay a fixed price based on an average of the last quarter and this has worked well. Obviously they want to make an honest buck, but our farmers would much rather deal with us than buyers for the multiples. Most of them have been around for long enough to have experienced first hand the fickle whims of ‘those who must be obeyed.’ They didn’t start farming, and convert to organic, to see the fruits of their labour disappear into an anonymous black hole to be blended with 25% horse meat.

However, no farmer will go on selling beef for significantly less than market price for long, so we’ve shortened the last quarter by a month to hurry up the process of bringing our prices into line, so we can still pay a competitive price for our suppliers’ organic beef.

I’m afraid the inevitable outcome will be a small rise in our prices for all things beefy, but rest assured, we will keep increases to a minimum. We want to work with, and support our farmers as much as we want to deliver the best priced, best quality food via the shortest supply chain. That’s the Riverford way.

Ben’s meat blog: ‘Horsegate’ a few months on

It’s been a tough start to the year for the conventional meat industry – ‘horsegate’, closely followed by more research showing that a diet heavy on processed meat products isn’t a good option.

Two seemingly separate issues, in practice closely connected. Now that we have had a month or two to reflect, and the emotional outrage has dissipated, we are left with a murky picture of duplicity and dodgy dealings. The food ingredients industry is partly made of unaccountable, offshore, often privately-owned trading companies with tentacles extending all over the world. Containers of frozen and chilled product crisscross Europe, and the world, controlled from an anonymous computer in a hidden away office – these people don’t want a high profile. Given that this is the world we live in, and governing international traders in offshore locations is nigh on impossible, you could argue that we all got off lightly – this time.

It’s made the multiple retailers shout about provenance and buying British, but in practice that won’t extend beyond meat cuts on the shelves. They can set up supply chain audits to their hearts’ content but when the main driving force is price and the quest for cheap food, what are they worth? They might get the right species but that still leaves plenty of scope for abuse. Drugs and antibiotics, concealed fat, mechanically recovered and tenderised meat, animal welfare etc aren’t going to show up in a DNA test. And don’t get all NIMBY and say it’s only our continental cousins who are to blame.

Question: Where does all this dodgy meat end up?

Answer: In processed meat products. Hence,including both in this blog.

Question: Is food processing and technology for the benefit of the industry or the customer?

Answer:We might convince ourselves that it’s making our lives easier and bringing us food that we can’t make at home, but the main driver is adding value, extending shelf life and making money – so the answer for ten is industry. The contents of a factory made sausage or pâté bear no resemblance to what you might make at home. Obviously we don’t make turkey twizzlers and the like, but I wouldn’t want to. I can’t believe that I would be writing this if all processed meat products were made with a view from the customer perspective rather than that of the food industry.

At Riverford, and in much of the organic world, things are different. Food technology does have its place in organic food but, thanks to the Soil Association, it is mainly for the benefit of the consumer. The list of ingredients in our sausages, burgers and bacon is short. You can fit them and product costings on the back of an envelope, which was about as close to a business plan as I got.

As one of our butchers said – ‘with our burgers the mincer is only saving work for our teeth’. Now that is the ultimate example of food processing for the customer’s benefit – very much the Riverford way.

Lamb is to Easter what turkey is to Christmas but why?

Despite being a relatively recent import from the Americas, at least Christmas turkey marks the culmination of a natural ‘season fitting’ yearly cycle. Paschal, Passover, ‘lamb of god’ significance is something of an anachronism and doesn’t really fit in with farming reality. However there’s nothing wrong with a bit of pagan ritual to remind us of our past – especially when it tastes so good.

Most flocks of ewes naturally lamb in late winter/spring and take four months plus to grow, meaning that eating new season lamb at Easter definitely doesn’t fit into any rationally conceived farming calendar – even less so this year with Easter in March. However, like sheep, farmers are an adaptable breed and if you want to eat lamb at the time they would normally be born, then lamb you shall have – albeit outside of the natural lambing cycle.


Officially, a lamb becomes a sheep when it grows four teeth (after about a year). With culinary trends happily favouring slightly older, more flavoursome lamb (approx. 9 months – 1 year old), many of our farmers are able to lamb later, in mid-summer, for the Easter market. This means a lamb which is a little older, but season fitting. Carefully managed, separating slow-growing triplets from faster-growing singleton and twin lambs, means many of these older lambs are at their prime now.

Our Easter lambs are all Devonian, born and bred from Peter Howlett at Moorhuish Farm, Brixham, David Camp near Totnes and Nigel Eggins on the River Tamar. All are three of our top farmers that we have worked with ever since we started offering meatboxes at Riverford. The Camps are an old Devon farming family with fathers, uncles and cousins all over the place – their lambs grow just over the hill from Riverford in Totnes, and on a big strip of National Trust land overlooking Hope Cove on the coast.

Born in late spring/summer last year and raised traditionally, our lamb may be a little older than the 4-month old slightly forced, mainly indoor reared, ‘sucked lamb’ available. This makes for a happier, healthier lamb that is older but much, much tastier.  Chefs love their milky, sucked lambs as a vehicle for their sauces but, for a roast, older is definitely better.

Here are a few ideas for your Easter lamb:

The classic roast lamb with rosemary and garlic: Takes a lot of beating but for flavour and easy cooking, slow roasted shoulder is equally good – particularly when the lamb can share the oven with a dish of potato dauphinoise or gratin while you relax or build up an appetite.  If there is just the two of you, or you really want to push the boat, out try a rack or two. For guaranteed foodie brownie points rack of lamb can’t be beaten – half an hour in the oven, sliced into cutlets and artfully arranged and we’re all queuing up for Masterchef.

Given the seasonal scarcity of fresh greens, a flageolet bean cassoulet with a few carrots mixed in is the ideal Easter accompaniment for roast lamb. Again it can be done in advance so Easter lunch can be as easy as you want to make it.  Just leave room for a chocolate egg or two.

Thanks for reading.

Ben Watson