Our 100% UK veg box returns this week after its hiatus for the Hungry Gap. We’re celebrating its return with the story behind our most local, seasonal offering.
Birth of a box
Back in 1993, when we packed our first veg box, what little imported organic produce available was fit only for the compost heap by the time it got here, so our veg boxes were UK-only by default.
25 years and many, many veg boxes later, we’re happy to be part of a broader church. While the majority of our veg is still homegrown, it is supplemented with imports, mostly from Guy’s French farm and a group of organic growers in Spain, with some from further afield (transported by sea or road; never airfreighted). Together they provide things that have come to be regarded as year-round staples in most households – tomatoes, peppers, bananas, citrus, and so on – without the environmental disaster that is UK heated glass production, and without losing the closeness to our growers.
We reckon we strike a pretty good balance between principles and pragmatism in what we provide. Having said that, we do believe in a sustainable as well as a pleasurable diet wherever possible, and wanted to provide a truly local veg box for anyone who sought to minimise their food miles and embrace the UK seasons.
The first time we tried to launch the 100% UK veg box, it barely sold at all, and we had to withdraw it. But following lots of customer requests, we decided to give it another go a few years later – and this time, it has been a steady success! Sales of the UK-only box have now climbed to 6% of all veg box sales; that’s 50% up on last year, and treble the year before.
Easier said than done
It might seem like filling a box with local veg would be easier, because there’s no need to deal with importation – but actually, it presents a totally different set of complexities.
The Hungry Gap
The Hungry Gap is the hardest time of year for UK farmers: a few weeks, usually in April, May and early June, after the winter crops have ended but before the new season’s plantings are ready to harvest. In the early days of local veg boxes, all deliveries would stop during this time of bare fields.
25 years later, there is still no way around the Hungry Gap apart from the use of heated glasshouses. For every kilo of tomatoes grown in a glass hothouse in the UK, 2-3 kilos of C02 are released into the atmosphere… we’d far rather go without. So the 100% UK veg box must vanish from our shelves for a few weeks every year, and its buyers temporarily swap onto one of our other boxes.
When we plan the contents of our veg boxes across the year, we work hard to avoid repetition. The team look carefully at how often each box has contained all different varieties of veg, so that no one ends up bored with the same items week after week, or overwhelmed by a mountain of cabbages.
That thinking has to totally go out of the window with the 100% UK veg box. In winter, you will get heavy root veg every week; just right for hearty cold-weather cooking. In summer, you will feast on sweet, fresh salads – but not see a tomato again for the rest of the year. We expected more complaints about this, but people have been very understanding of the limitations; they know that it represents a real seasonal diet. And because the vegetables are being eaten in their natural seasons, they are always at their best.
While there are obvious benefits to eating 100% local veg – most prominently the confidence you can have in the sustainability of your diet – there are further benefits to the box that we hadn’t anticipated.
Veg that grow together, go together
Another reason that the repetitive contents of the UK-only box might not bother customers is that the flavours of each season tend to complement each other very well.
Every week, our chef Bob looks at the planned contents of each veg box, and offers his culinary perspective: can these veg be easily combined into a week of flavoursome meals? Often, Bob will suggest changes to make the selection more harmonious. With the UK box, he barely ever has to make any tweaks; the veg, grown in the same local season, usually go perfectly together without any intervention.
Grown by us!
More so than any other box, the UK-only box is packed with veg from our own Riverford farms. It’s the box that is most representative of our fields – which gives us a little extra affection for it!
The 100% UK veg box is now back from its hiatus for the Hungry Gap. Going into summer is a great time to give it a try: on the horizon, a bounty of homegrown delights, from new season bunched carrots, asparagus spears and tangy rhubarb, to juicy tomatoes, award-winning mini cucumbers and freshly picked salad leaves.
Order the 100% UK veg box online today. If every week is too much of a plunge, why not try a pragmatic weekly alteration with one of our other boxes?