Guy’s news: Still waiting… and starting to worry

I know it’s getting repetitive, but it’s also getting serious; we are still waiting for the wet weather to give us a break longer than 36 hours, to allow tractors to travel and planting to begin. Brassicas (cabbages, cauliflowers and the like) can wait weeks in the yard, with leaves going yellow and roots brown, and still grow well when finally planted. But lettuces grow tall in the tray, become vulnerable to damage and disease, and, beyond a certain point, will never really recover. Then there is the added problem of six weeks’ plants being concertinaed into a few days of planting, which will inevitably result in gluts come harvest time.

In my frustration, I took an old plough out last week during a brief dry spell. My mission was to plough a small, steep but well-drained slope and plant a spinney of beech before the buds burst on the saplings. For all my efforts, it was simply too wet; the soil was soon clinging to the mouldboards (curved blades of the plough), resulting in poor inversion and frequent blockages. I could imagine John Scott, who taught me to plough as a teenager, berating me that I had “left holes big enough to bury pigs in”. Despite my shame, my wife Geetie and I planted the 500 trees; their roots will soon emerge to support them. The beech will be inter-planted with artichokes, which we will feast on until the trees grow too tall and the ground beneath too shady. At that point I will scatter wild garlic seeds from nearby woods, which will flourish in the shade. It is my own version of agroforestry. Thank you to the person who sent in an oak to replace the fallen one – we have planted it at the corner of the new wood.

April is peak wild garlic season. It will make one or two appearances in most boxes, and be available to order through to early May. If foraging for it yourself, be careful to avoid the toxic Lords-and-Ladies and Dog’s Mercury which share the same habitat. We have an experienced team of five in the woods, and another five in the barn painstakingly sorting out any toxic leaves the pickers miss. Wild garlic leaves, or ramsons as they are known in Devon, are great in omelettes, risottos or pastas. Or simply whizz with fresh lemon, olive oil and salt, for a pistou that will lift the dullest soup, stew or grilled meat – and cheer up the most frustrated farmer.

Guy Singh-Watson

Guy’s news: Anxiously awaiting utopia

Easter has passed without a seed going in the ground. With no sign of let up from the weather fronts sweeping in off the Atlantic, it is starting to get serious. A knot of anxiety is growing in my stomach; it could be impatience to plant, but I suspect a larger part is the momentous change just two months away.

After twelve years of research, thought and consultation, Riverford becomes 74% employee-owned on the 8th June (with me holding onto 26%). It all seemed so straightforward when I was planning my utopia, hoe in hand, with only a field of unquestioning artichokes for company. The reality involves lawyers, governance, banks, and hardest of all for me, lots of listening, questions and communication. I have no doubt that it is the right path but, as with sowing my first organic leeks, I never stopped to consider the journey.

I want so much more for Riverford, its staff, suppliers and customers than I have been able to deliver while owning it myself. Management should be about getting the most from staff while giving the most back. Yet in so many organisations, particularly in the UK, people are estimated to achieve only one to two thirds of their potential – resulting in low pay and unfulfilled staff. This is a miserable indictment of the short-term, narrow-minded management so often demanded by conventional ownership.

Too many managers are excited by the numbers and technology that offer predictable returns on investment, but understandably scared of the emotional complications and unpredictable results from investing in people. I should know; I am one of the (mostly male) managers who made it this way. But after thirty years, I am frustrated by the result and want to be part of something less wasteful of our human potential. Over the last year, as we approach employee ownership, we have taken the first steps towards more people-centric management. It will be a long, scary and exciting journey, full of learning, along an unmarked path. But if each of us at Riverford achieves three-quarters of our potential we will fly – and we hope others will follow. I find myself as excited about my involvement in this next leg of Riverford’s journey as when I sowed those first leeks.

Guy Singh-Watson

A little plastic packaging update

Our packaging technologist, Robyn, has written a little update on some recent changes that you might have spotted in your box. Read Robyn’s previous blog post to find out more about her role at Riverford.

You may have seen a few changes to our packaging over the last few weeks. I thought I’d write a quick blog to let you know what we’ve changed, and why.

Ditching some plastic
Cucumbers, cauliflowers and romanescos bought separately (not as part of a veg box) are all now free from their plastic bags. We did some tests and found that, by and large, these items are well-enough protected by the cardboard veg boxes. They might be more at risk of the odd bump and bruise during handling, so we’ve put measures in place to make sure they are handled extra carefully.

We’re glad to have identified some unnecessary plastic – it’s another step on our journey towards reducing all our packaging. Over the course of the year, we expect to save a significant amount of plastic by not putting it on these popular veg. However, please be aware that at certain times of year cucumbers can be more prone to dehydration; in those cases, you may see the plastic bags return for a short time, to prevent spoilage and food waste.

No one likes a limp lettuce
I often get asked about salad and leafy greens – why are they packed in plastic rather than paper bags? Salad and leafy greens are examples of vegetables that dehydrate. If we were to use paper bags, the paper would very quickly draw moisture from the leaves, reducing its shelf life and quality, and ultimately leaving it inedible! By packing in plastic, we can prevent water loss – and thereby food waste.

Swiss chard bag test. These gorgeous greens will remain in bags due to the severe dehydration when tested without.

Why don’t we use biodegradable plastic?
We are currently looking at moving to biodegradable plastic bags – but with caution. There are some downsides to biodegradable plastics; before we use them, we need to make sure they are the right solution.

Here are the current main issues with biodegradable plastics:

1) Some don’t break down in home composting.
2) If land is being used to grow the crops used to make plastic (e.g. corn, often GM), then it isn’t being used to grow food.
3) Most biodegradable plastics don’t break down if they end up in the ocean. This creates the same problems as traditional plastic.
4) If biodegradable bags are mistakenly put into plastic recycling, then they can degrade the quality of the recycled plastic.

Not sure what to do with the plastic packaging you’ve received from us? Pop it in your box for your local veg team to take back, and we will recycle it at the farm.

Guy’s news: Still waiting

For the second time this month, the snow has melted from our fields just in time for more rain. The plough, greased and ready to go, must stay in the shed, and the plants must stay in the greenhouse, or at best be moved to the yard.

We can’t put off ploughing forever; already we are clearing the last of our kales, and cabbages and leeks will soon run to seed. There is one cheering sight in the fields: Red Russian kale is having a last hurrah, telescoping upwards with a superbly tasty stem that we will pick for the 100% UK veg box this week. Looking at sales of this box – formerly known by some within Riverford as the ‘Dogma Box’ – I am delighted to see that last week they were approaching 6% of all veg box sales. This may seem modest, but it is 50% up on last year and treble the year before. I have been known to despair at the gulf between the often-professed enthusiasm for all things local and seasonal, and the contents of many proponents’ fridges, but it seems things are changing; I commend the 2000+ of you who have taken the plunge and are embracing the UK seasons. We have another month before things get really hard in the ‘Hungry Gap’ of May and June, before improving as tomatoes, cucumbers etc. start in July. If you find the 100% UK box too challenging, consider a pragmatic weekly alternation with one of the other boxes. Sometimes it’s better to bend than to break; by voting with your box choice, you are putting a welcome pressure on us to up our game and do all we can to maximise what we can grow at home.

Another homegrown treat has survived the snow to liven up all our plates: we have started foraging for wild garlic in local woods, mostly bordering the River Dart between Totnes and Dartmoor. As always, our skilled and eager-eyed pickers do their best to avoid the toxic Lords-and-Ladies and Dog’s Mercury which share the same shady habitat under mature deciduous woodland. We then sort through what we’ve picked again in the barn to give 99.999% confidence; even so, if you see any unfamiliar leaves, please discard them and let us know, preferably with an emailed photo. As an added reassurance, in the name of honour and science I have eaten small quantities of each and lived to tell the unpleasant tale.

Guy Singh-Watson

Green tomato… beer?

A special new brew has recently been added to our shelves: Barnaby’s green tomato saison, made just for Riverford using our own surplus organic green tomatoes. How did this unusual – and very tasty – tipple come about?

Barnaby’s Brewhouse is a small organic craft brewery based at the Riverford Dairy’s Hole Farm in South Devon. It benefits from natural spring water that rises on the farm; the water has a very low mineral content and is therefore perfect for brewing organic craft lagers.

Barnaby’s Brewhouse has close ties with Riverford, having brewed special batches of ‘foraged beer’ for our award-winning Devon farm restaurant The Riverford Field Kitchen. Their crisp, refreshing pilsner lager and distinctively tinged Red Helles lager are both available in our online shop and have gone down a treat with customers.

After a grey and gloomy summer last year, we ended up with a glut of green tomatoes that just wouldn’t ripen. While visiting Barnaby and the team, we jokingly asked if they could use any green tomatoes in a brew?

Much to our surprise, the brewers rose to the challenge and came up with a recipe for a green tomato saison – almost certainly the first of its kind in the UK.

‘Saison’ is a Belgian farmhouse style of beer, so called because it was brewed at the end of the farming season when temperatures were ideal for fermentation. It had to be strong enough to last through the summer – when farmers were back working on the land – and so typically has an alcohol content between 5 and 8% ABV.

Traditionally, Saison beers have often been made with spices and botanicals; a range of fruit varieties still exist on the market including apricot, strawberry, raspberry and cherry. It is a very distinctive rustic beer, light yet earthy and spicy in flavour. Saison also typically has a high level of carbonation and is sometimes sold in champagne-like bottles.

Using green tomatoes in Barnaby’s saison gives it freshness and a hint of sourness. Because of the amount of fruit that is used, it also has a slightly wine-like quality. This means it pairs exceptionally well with a range of foods.

According to Garrett Oliver, author of The Brewmaster’s Table, it ‘… seems to go with almost everything. The combination of dynamic bitterness, scouring carbonation, bright aromatics, spicy flavours, pepper notes, dark earthy underpinnings and racy acidity gives these beers a hook to hang their hat on for a wide range of dishes.’

We’ve found it to be delicious with peppered steaks, Thai dishes, spicy sausages, creamy goats milk cheese – the list goes on and on. Give it a try and let us know what dishes you pair it with!

Barnaby’s green tomato saison is now available online – save 5% when you buy a case of 12.

5 vegan recipes for March

Not only does March (hopefully!) mean a little welcome sunshine and the start of longer days, on the farm it also means the arrival of wild garlic, foraged from the woodland around our Devon farm, and purple sprouting broccoli (PSB), which has been long awaited this year; we usually start picking it in late January but the weather decided otherwise for us this season.

As we approach the Hungry Gap, we’re grateful for the root veg harvested and stored through the winter, and continue to make the most of beautiful vibrant beetroot and our sweet, iconic carrots.

Here are our 5 vegan recipe picks for the month.

Wheatberries & Purple Sprouting Broccoli with Crispy Garlic & Chilli

A hearty and healthy dish combining toothsome wheatberries, PSB and crispy fried onions. Wheatberries are the entire wheat kernel except for the hull. They take a while to cook but have a good nutty texture, lending real substance to a dish.

Read the full wheatberries and purple sprouting broccoli with crispy garlic and chilli recipe.

Red Pepper Paella with Wild Garlic & Almonds

Want to sound authentic and well-travelled? Learn to pronounce paella properly. Essentially the trick is to stifle the ll sound in the back of the throat and replace it with a y sound instead. pie-eh-ya. This recipe makes the most of wild garlic during its short season, and is topped with toasted flaked almonds for an added crunch.

Read the full red pepper paella with wild garlic, almonds & an olive & orange salad recipe.

Indian Masala Roast Carrots with Coconut Red Lentils & Flatbreads

The sweet earthy qualities of the humble carrot make it an ideal vehicle for a whole world of spices. Set against this simple dahl-like bowl of lentils they are best roasted with a little bite left to them.

Read the full indian masala roast carrots with coconut red lentils & flatbreads recipe.

Roasted Beetroot, Carrot, Lentil & Cumin Seed Salad

This colourful, hearty salad has sweet notes from the roasted carrots and beetroot, and a mild, earthy flavour from green lentils. We’ve finished it with a simple zesty dressing made from lemon and olive oil. Try other root veg in place of carrots and beetroot; parsnips or celeriac would work especially well.

Read the full roasted beetroot, carrot, lentil and cumin seed salad recipe.

Jerk Chickpeas & Roasted Peppers with Callaloo

Jerk spice is a Jamaican style spice mix traditionally used to flavour meat, but it also works for vegetarians with pulses and beans. We’ve swapped the blow-your-socks-off Scotch bonnet chillies for some paprika. This makes the flavour more aromatic rather than too hot to handle, as there’s also chillies in the callaloo spinach and coconut sauce. Callaloo is a Caribbean dish which uses an amaranth leaf native to the area, but spinach or chard work well as an alternative.

Read the full jerk chickpeas & roasted peppers with callaloo (spinach & coconut sauce) recipe.

Guy’s news: Waiting for the plough

A pair of pigeons is edging closer on the branch outside my room. She is tolerating his wooing… from a distance. This is no weather to be starting a brood – or planting vegetables. Like the pigeons, we are in limbo, waiting for the sun to make its appearance; they could be building their nest, and we should be ploughing in readiness, but nothing is happening.

Ploughed ground usually dries faster, provided the furrows stand up and allow air into the soil; should we have taken our meagre chances and ploughed last month? Plough too soon, and the furrows will slump in heavy rain, reducing to an airless pudding which is slower than ever to dry and can go sour. The ideal is to plough far enough ahead to allow soil fungi and bacteria to start breaking down the residues of previous crops, compost and manures into soluble nutrients, but not so early that those nutrients are leached by the rain before crops can use them. Achieving such perfect timing is not so easy when grabbing whatever opportunities the weather provides.

Ploughing is a well proven, but deeply flawed, pragmatic compromise; by inverting the soil and leaving it bare, soil life is damaged and the danger of soil loss is multiplied many times. Against this, the new crop is given a weedfree start and the aeration can provide a short-term fix for soil compaction, therefore aiding root growth. The truth is, we don’t know how to grow many crops without ploughing – especially without the aid of chemical herbicides. This year, working with other members of our co-op and a research initiative called Innovative Farmers, we are experimenting with only cultivating narrow strips to plant into. The idea is to give the crop enough competitive advantage without ploughing the whole field. Like most innovation, it will almost certainly fail first time, but I hope it will provide experience to build on and be the first step towards a less compromised, more sustainable growing system. It seemed like a great and worthy idea in the calm of January; I suspect I may be cursing my enthusiasm in the heat of June.

Guy Singh-Watson

New Easter cheeses; handmade and full of flavour

We’ve spent years scouring the country for the best handmade organic cheeses and are pretty confident we offer some of the best tasting cheeses around from a range of small scale producers.

We’ve introduced two rather special cheeses for Easter. One from High Weald Dairy in West Sussex, and one from Bath Soft Cheese.

We’ve worked with High Weald Dairy for six years now. The family run dairy supply us with organic halloumi and sheep’s cheeses, and we’re excited to now introduce their St Giles cow’s cheese. It’s an English equivalent to the continental style Saint Paulin or Port Salut style of cheese found in France. It’s a semi-soft creamy cheese, with a rich, buttery texture, a creamy mild flavour and a gorgeous edible orange rind.

The cheese gets its name from the Norman village church in Horsted Keynes where High Weald Dairy is based. It takes eight hours to make, but ten weeks to mature, and uses almost 9 litres of whole organic milk to make 1 kilo of cheese. After grading, the orange coating (made from organic carrots!) is applied, and the cheese is ready to go. It’s previously won Best English and Best British Cheese at the World Cheese Awards.

Our second addition is Wyfe of Bath, from the Bath Soft Cheese company. The Padfield family have milked at Park Farm in Kelston for four generations and made cheese using traditional methods for almost 30 years.

Wyfe of Bath is a semi-hard cheese, echoing the types of cheese farmers’ wives would make with the soured milk. It is creamy and nutty and harks back to Old England, hence the Chaucer reference. They handmake it using the traditional method of placing the curd in cloth-lined baskets, which gives the final product a wonderful basket shape.

Try our special Easter additions for a show-stopping cheeseboard to finish your bank holiday feast.

Add St Giles to your order
Add Wyfe of Bath to your order

Guy’s news: Grey bananas & early lettuce

As the last vestiges of snow retreat into north-facing hedges, we are counting the cost brought by the tail of winter that arrived at the beginning of spring. Despite valiant efforts from our drivers, we had five lorries loaded with 30,000 items of produce stuck in the snow, plus many Riverford vans that had to abandon their rounds. Over the last few days we sorted through the returned orders, re-using hardy, unharmed veg like carrots and potatoes in this week’s boxes, and did our best to find homes for what was too ripe through local schools and charities. Bananas were the biggest casualty; they got too cold and turned an unappetising grey.

On the land, the thaw combined with heavy rain and has left our soils sodden, re-opening springs that have been dry all winter. The target dates for planting the first cabbage, lettuce, peas, broad beans and potatoes have passed, and the backlog of plants is building up in the greenhouses and hardening-off yards. With no sign of settled weather ahead, the chances of planting this month seem remote. It is frustrating not to be able to make a start, but the soil is still cold; experience has so often seen later plantings quickly catch up and often overtake those planted weeks earlier in poor conditions. We must be patient; at least it allows time to complete our winter tree planting and maintenance, though mercifully our polytunnels, which are not designed to support heavy snow accumulations, survived largely unscathed. We often lament the steepness of our land which challenges mechanisation and so adds labour cost, but it does have the virtue of draining rapidly and drying quickly; something we are glad of this year.

Meanwhile, 250 miles further south we have been planting crops in the sandy, well drained land on our French farm for two months already. We had nights of -6°C last week but, with the help of crop covers and low-level tunnels, the first lettuce will be ready for your boxes in just two weeks, thanks to the superior light quality and milder conditions. It has not been an easy year, but the growing experience of our team there has helped us to make the best of it by grabbing what weather windows we get.

Guy Singh-Watson

Meet Patrick, the new Riverford Field Kitchen head chef

We recently found ourselves with a big role to fill in our farm restaurant, The Riverford Field Kitchen, as we said goodbye to head chef, James Dodd, who returned to his home town of Liverpool.

It can be a challenge to find chefs who are as obsessed with vegetables as we are, and even more so when the predecessor was such a veg nerd that they had a whole arm tattooed in dedication to the green stuff, but we’re delighted to have found one, in the form of Patrick Hanna, whose Riverford journey first began in 2008.

“When I moved from Belfast to London, I took a job washing dishes in this weird pub turned restaurant in Islington, serving organic food.  The pub was called the Duke of Cambridge.  This led to a short stint at the Riverford Field Kitchen. I had no idea what an amazing journey of fascination with food and farming this would get going.  Ten years on, I’m back and excited to be cooking these big, heart warming dishes again.”

After that initial year, Patrick’s food journey went worldwide with stints cooking on a farm in Spain, at a biodynamic vineyard in Australia and on fishing boats. This experience of cooking at source ultimately circled back to where it all began, here on our south Devon farm.

As well as the nostalgic feeling The Field Kitchen and Devon give Patrick, another love for the restaurant stems from the unique connection the food served has with the surrounding fields. Coming up with a daily changing menu dependent on what is being harvested at the time is a daunting task for many, but Patrick welcomes it and is excited by the challenge.

One of his fondest food memories is picking apart an artichoke as a child and dipping it in vinaigrette, not really knowing what to do, but enjoying the tactile experience and its resemblance to its organic form. He believes in the power of simplicity and quality ingredients, and hates food that is unrecognisable from its natural form, specifically referencing cubed carrots.

It seems like a return to Riverford was meant to be for Patrick, especially as someone who shares a unique love of artichokes and cardoons with founder Guy Singh-Watson. Either that or our big, colourful sharing platters of organic veg and infamous sticky toffee pud are too good to stay away from!