Tag Archives: cooking

Guy’s Newsletter: FE & food: an employer’s plea

Finding chefs, butchers and growers is the bane of most food businesses. Despite years of celebrity TV cooks and gardeners and all the blogs and newspaper columns devoted to food, there is a dearth of good practitioners in the nation’s fields and commercial kitchens. It’s true that many of the skills needed can be acquired on the job, but there’s always a place for classroom study to give perspective and depth, and add status and thus pride in work. How can we expect a teenager entering a profession (farming and cooking are professions, just as much as law, medicine and media) to value what they do if we won’t invest even modest sums in their training? Employers could certainly do more, (Riverford is no exception), but there is a crisis of funding unfolding in our Further Education (FE) colleges which threatens to undermine many professions.

FE colleges educate more 16 to 19 year olds taking A-levels than school sixth forms, yet, bizarrely, are excluded from the funding ‘ring fence’ protecting education; it could only happen in the class-ridden UK. Nowhere else in Europe is there such a blinkered view of what constitutes education, or are such teaching institutions so marginalised. One senior civil servant is reputed to have suggested FE could be cut “without anyone noticing”, while Boris Johnson confused FE colleges with secondary moderns in one of his speeches; such is the Westminster bubble that it appears to barely register the existence of FE. As a result, FE colleges have been an easy target, suffering funding cuts of around 35% since 2009, with a further 24% cut due in 2015/16. Imagine the outcry if schools were cut like that. Meanwhile the resulting skills shortage holds back economic growth, and it’s only going to get worse.

We are all born with different talents, which is just as well because the paths through life are as broad, varied and constantly changing as the needs of our economy and society. To restrict education funding and therefore career options in this way is as shortsighted as it is inefficient; ask almost any employer. It’s not just what’s on your plate that might suffer.

Guy Watson

PS. In another misguided narrowing of opportunities, all A-level food topics are to be axed. Visit www.savefood.tech to sign the petition.

References and further reading:
http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/mar/26/adult-education-funding-cuts

“The Association of Colleges warns that 190,000 adult education places will be lost next year as funding is slashed by 24%. Since 2010, the adult skills budget, which funds non-academic (university-based) education and training for those 19 or over, has been cut by a staggering 40%.”

http://feweek.co.uk/2015/03/25/government-cuts-could-decimate-adult-education-by-2020-aoc-warns/

“Continued cuts to the adult skills budget risk wiping out adult education and training in England within five years, the Association of Colleges (AoC) has warned after research showed 190,000 course places could be lost in 2015/16 alone.

The AoC has published research based on data from its 336 member colleges which points to a bleak future for the FE sector, which has faced adult skills budget cuts of around 35 per cent since 2009 and is now gearing up to deal with the consequences of a further 24 per cent cut in 2015/16.
According to the AoC, adult education and training provision could disappear completely by 2020 if cuts continue at the same rate as they have in recent years…..”

Skills shortage articles
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/jobs/11724149/Shortage-of-skilled-workers-drags-down-UK-jobs-market-driving-up-pay-inflation.html

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2948908/Britain-hit-worst-skills-shortage-30-years-means-earn-100-000-year-plumber-aged-just-19-prepared-graft.html

Guy’s Newsletter: has cooking become a spectator activity?

The best conversations I can remember having with my mother were while shelling peas and beans. Keeping the hands busy, and having a reason not to make eye contact, is a great way of taking conversation into areas that you would normally skirt around. If you need to have a potentially difficult chat with adolescent children, a pile of beans is a great way to bridge the silences.

When Riverford delivered its first veg box in 1993, before the current media frenzy around local and seasonal, our typical customer ordered a weekly box of seasonal vegetables and cooked them with little fuss, probably much as their parents had, perhaps with the addition of the occasional curry or stir-fry. For generations, we learned from our parents how to make the best use of local ingredients, and cooking from scratch continues to be the norm for most veg box customers. They appear to be in the minority however; changes in home cooking have been historically slow, but in the last 40 years it has rapidly moved in the wrong direction, aided by the advertising budgets of food manufacturers and supermarkets. We’re now raising a generation many of whom will rarely see their parents cooking and even more rarely with local, unprocessed ingredients.

I am convinced that a lack of skills, time and confidence in the kitchen is the main issue. Cookery programmes are a poor substitute for assimilating skills over years of growing up in an active kitchen, and in some circumstances have made cooking seem unattainably distant. I know what a struggle it can be to cook a stress-free meal among the chaos that is real family life, especially when both parents are working. Though there are signs of change that should be credited to those food writers, bloggers and celebrity chefs who champion accessible home cooking, there is a real danger that, as the gap widens between what is on television and the reality in our kitchens, cooking will become a spectator activity. The nation will slump back with a takeaway and watch it on TV instead.

Guy Watson

Guy’s newsletter: french flings & devon dalliances

The boxes are still looking fresh, varied and full; not a bad achievement in the depths of the hungry gap, and largely down to a good harvest on our farm in the French Vendée. After a parched and sunny six weeks, April ended with a 100mm deluge making me very glad of the money invested in drainage here last autumn. We have lost some squash (wrenched out by the wind) and spinach (dying in a bog) and I fear for sweetcorn and sunflower seeds germinating in waterlogged seedbeds, but with luck the water will subside before the drowning soil becomes anaerobic and toxic to our crops.

Despite gales, mud, striking dockers and four French bank holidays in May (all staunchly observed with Gallic militancy), the veg boxes must be filled and harvest must go on. With 35 largely novice recruits picking lettuce, chard, turnips, garlic and cabbage to fill a truck a day we are stretched to breaking point. Thankfully the first lettuce will be harvested in Devon this week, allowing us to catch up on weeding before the sweetcorn and peppers disappear under fat hen, red shank and nightshade. By mid-June, as harvest in the UK gets in full swing, our French farm will be cast off like a jilted lover until next April when the hungry gap leaves holes to be filled in your boxes once more.

Back in Devon we are running a four day, hands on, growing, harvesting and cooking course in partnership with neighbouring Schumacher College this June. Teaching will be by their chefs and growers and ours in their kitchens, gardens and our fields. Geetie (my ethical pioneer wife and founder of our pub, the Duke of Cambridge) and I will also be contributing. The college might be a step or two beyond us on the spectrum towards the cosmos (pre-breakfast meditation is optional) but we have had our hands in the soil for 30 years so you can be assured the course will be well rooted on planet earth and there should be some healthy debate as well. Visit www.schumachercollege.org.uk for more details.

If you would rather cook in your own kitchen with a little celebrity help then for the next two weeks Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has created some guest recipe boxes with us, and very good they are too; visit www.riverford.co.uk/recipeboxes to order.

Guy Watson

guy’s newsletter: glamour & cabbages

When food and farming rubs up against fashion and celebrity I get the urge to bolt for the cabbage patch; then again, recipes from a fry-up chomping leek puller aren’t going to shift the kale and cauliflower. With that in mind, let’s leave prejudice in the fields and bring on the irritatingly young and gorgeous Hemsley sisters. They might be more commonly seen smiling from the pages of Vogue promoting stomach flattening, bowel curative, gluten-free cooking, but I met them two years ago in proper farmer’s wellies, picking samphire in the mud and rain with one of our farming co-op members. Despite the glamour and lifestyle photography, away from the cameras the sisters talk sense and are pretty down to earth; more to the point I like their food and we share an enthusiasm for lots of minimally cooked vegetables to the extent that this week’s recipe for lamb curry (on the reverse) is from Jasmine and Melissa. Another thing that makes me want to break for the cauliflower patch is anything approaching a faddish diet; something that might have led me to resist their mission to banish starch (gluten in particular), but when rice is replaced by grated cauliflower, who am I to argue. I doubt it would get me into Vogue but I am pretty sure that I would feel better for a bit less stodge anyway.

We have been selling our recipe boxes (everything for three quick meals in a box) for six months now; they are a waste free way of cooking tasty, affordable, healthy meals while expanding your cooking repertoire; it’s the only way I can get my son to cook me supper. For the next two weeks we have a guest box featuring recipes from the Hemsley sisters, ideal for those who are after a hassle-free way of trying their style of cooking. Having honed our skills on the southern guinea pigs, our recipe boxes are now also available to those of you in the north and east, so there’s no need to feel left out.

Meanwhile, we have been obliged to make a lot of substitutions to our planned box contents recently due to unexpected quality and transport problems, so apologies if you have been disappointed. We seem to be through it now and as our spring crops are looking really good, there’s plenty to look forward to.

Guy Watson

guy’s newsletter: with oranges & fennel this good, who needs meat?

I spent New Year in Sicily; mostly for pleasure, but Italy is always a good place for vegetable-based inspiration. As things turned out I got snowed in up a mountain, but not before going a little crazy at the markets in the narrow streets of Palermo. While waiting for two foot of snow to melt, I amused myself by cooking endless dishes with cardoons, fennel, artichokes, wild asparagus, escarole, wild fennel and cima di rapa, along with mozzarella and pecorino.

No-one comes close to the southern Italians when it comes to skill with, and appreciation of, vegetables. OK, they are blessed with a fantastic climate, but more significant is their cooking culture and enthusiasm to embrace a range of flavours and not immediately reject anything bitter; their willingness to occasionally chew also helps. With the exception of some wonderful prosciutto, the meat was boring. This is no bad thing as, according to chair of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, livestock production contributes up to 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions – more than every single car, train, and plane on the planet. It’s a truly staggering statistic if even close to being true and adds fervour to our veg crusade and makes me feel a little better about my flight, but questions localism and food miles. More on this next week.

We get most of our oranges from Ginés in Andalucía, a grower who we’ve worked with for many years, alongside a co-op of Italian growers based around Mount Etna in Sicily. The Sicilians invariably grow the best blood oranges (something to do with the volcanic soil, they claim); they are fantastic juiced, in a salad with thinly sliced fennel or on their own; the season is short but they should be available for the next six to eight weeks. This year Ginés has a poor crop so we will buy more from Sicily, but our Seville oranges will as always come from Ave Maria Farm located just south of Seville, whose organic groves are tended to by a delightfully eccentric family. The first fruits have just arrived and will be at their best for the next month, so get your preserving pans out.

Guy Watson

guy’s newsletter: easing life with a vegbox

I hope you are rested, fortified and full of good intentions for you, your family and the world at large. In my drowsy fireside perusings of the yuletide press there seemed to be a growing acceptance that we would live happier, better lives by focusing on experiences rather than possessions; bring it on I say. While this generally led on to suggestions of the ultimate holiday in the papers, I would suggest an even better place to start is with cooking and sharing food.

We know that life with a vegbox is not always easy; from last year’s customer survey (thanks to those who filled it in) only 22% found it really easy; 25% struggled to identify all the contents and 39% didn’t know how to cook some of them. Clearly you don’t have to jump off a bridge with an elasticated rope tied to your ankles to get a challenging experience. Some may relish the gentle testing that life with a vegbox brings, but a busy weeknight evening may not be the time you want it, so we clearly need to do more to make it easier.

One of the most heartening emails I recently read was from a customer whose cantankerously carnivorous, non-cooking, organic-sceptic husband had finally relented his Riverford resistance on grounds of flavour, and then went on to become a convert to cooking with our recipe boxes. Apparently he is now a full blown apostle. I’m really proud of our recipe boxes, in particular I love the empowerment they give to less confident cooks; even my junk-food-loving 16 year old has managed to cook from them. Many people buy them to provide quick, healthy and affordable midweek meals without having to plan and shop, or to widen their cooking repertoire. This year, all being well, you can expect some guest chef boxes from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and the Hemsley + Hemsley sisters too.

Cooking from a vegbox will never be a bungee jump but we do like to provide some gentle stimulation through the occasional mystery vegetable; this year look out for puntarelle (a type of chicory), make-your-own-popcorn-on-the-cob, corn nuts, huitlacoche and probably a few things even I don’t know about yet. One thing that will be unchanged is that whatever it is, it will all be 100% organic.

Guy Watson

Five fresh ideas for alternative Christmas puddings

From a sophisticated chocoholic dessert to something simple, warming and homely.  If you’re looking for something a bit different to finish off your Christmas day feast, we’ve got some fantastic suggestions right here.

Sticky toffee pudding

A complete favourite in the canteen here on the farm where it’s known as rocket-fuel!  This sticky toffee pudding is not easily forgotten and you certainly won’t have any leftovers for long.

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Seville orange marmalade pudding

For a bit of zing after a big festive feast, this pudding is just what you need.  It’s light and fluffy and even more tempting when served with oodles of cream.

Baked eve’s pudding with homemade custard

A simple classic.  This dessert is warm, satisfying and great for sharing. Served with custard, this is pure comfort food and just the thing for Christmas day.

baked eve's pudding with home made custard

 

Chocolate pots

These little pots of chocolate heaven can be made well in advance of the big day and are perfect for bringing out just before, or with coffee.

Chocolate beetroot mousse cake

Nothing will please chocoholics more than this recipe for chocolate beetroot mousse.  Its deep, dark chocolate flavour is coupled with the moistness of the beetroot to keep it light and airy.  It’s also gluten free!

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River Cottage day out: From field to fork

We pulled our wellies on and headed down to Park Farm near Axminster, home to River Cottage HQ in Devon, to spend the day getting a taste of how the folks at River Cottage are inspiring people to explore the journey of our food from field to fork.

We joined guests on the River Cottage Experience course, created to connect people to home-grown, home-cooked food and inspire people to get the best out of seasonal and ethical produce by cooking from scratch.

bread rb

How to bake your daily bread: just use the basic ingredients
The day started with an introduction to bread, setting the scene with a reminder that a true loaf should only contain 5 basic ingredients: yeast, water, salt, flour and sugar. We couldn’t agree more.

Head Chef, Gelf, got the class mixing and kneading dough for a simple white loaf which we left to prove whilst heading out around the farm to see the livestock and crops based on the farm.

rc landscape

From field to fork: fruit, veg and livestock
Set in 65 acres of rolling Devon hills, the pebbly soil and steep gradient of the land surrounding Park Farm lends itself best to livestock and grazing. The flatter parts of the terrain is put to good use: unheated polytunnels and allotment areas dedicated to cultivating fruit and veg, and carefully managed traditional hay meadows designed to provide feed for livestock and act as a biodiversity haven for bugs, bees and butterflies.

garden

Fruit & veg
Hugh’s famous kitchen garden was brimming with autumnal seasonal veg – cavolo nero, curly kale, runner beans, broccoli and more. Destined for the River Cottage kitchen, roots, brassicas, legumes and salad crops grow up set against the backdrop of the famous River Cottage farmhouse. The crop types are rotated around four quadrants of the garden each year to minimise crop-specific pests and diseases and nutrients.

poll sheep

Livestock
The team at River Cottage rear their own livestock – cattle, sheep, poultry and pigs. All are cared for to the highest possible organic welfare standards and kept within a stone’s throw of the kitchen – the food chain doesn’t get much shorter than this.

Sheepy facts
Busy grazing on clover-rich organic pasture, Farmer Dan introduced the group to River Cottage’s flock of Poll Dorset sheep. A thrifty breed, the Poll Dorset has a long breeding season and can live on tougher pastures. Here Dan explained the definition behind the different types of lamb meat you can buy:

new season lamb – lamb born in the current breeding season
old season lamb – lamb born in the previous breeding season, but still under a year old
hogget (or two tooth) – over a year old
mutton – a sheep who has lambed and is over 2 years old

RC kitchen

Back to the kitchen ….
Staying true to the season, we started prep on an autumnal game casserole pie that we would be tucking into together later on that day. An earthy mix of meat including hare (net caught), wood pigeon, duck, grouse and beef reared on the farm and hung for 6 weeks, the flavours rising in the River Cottage kitchen had everyone sneaking an extra mouthful to ‘check the flavour’ just one more time (!). We left the casserole to reduce while we headed outside to make our own pizza for lunch in River Cottage’s outdoor wood-fired oven and soak up the breath-taking Devon views.

Bake off! Rough puff pastry
In a scene similar to a Bake Off, it was back to the kitchen to make up a block of rough puff pastry, carefully creating layers of butter and flour which we used to top off our casseroles.

pig2

Profiteroles & thought-provoking pigs
Simpler than some might think, we cracked straight on to whipping up a batch of profiteroles which were popped into the oven, then it was time to learn about butchery and home-curing bacon techniques using a pig reared by the River Cottage team at Park Farm.

How often do you see pigs in a field?
Did you know that we rear as many pigs in the UK as sheep? How many pigs have you seen in a field in the countryside? Next time you pick up a cheap packet of sausages in a supermarket, spare a thought for the pigs. You see plenty of sheep grazing in the fresh air, but the majority of our pigs spend their lives reared indoors in enormous barns, fed only feed and pumped with antibiotics to meet low prices demanded by consumers. You can choose to support high-welfare farms and happier pigs who have had the chance to snuffle around for tasty morsels in the outdoors.

rc views

From field to fork: time to enjoy the fruits of our labour
After a great day on the River Cottage Experience course seeing how food gets from the farm to our plate, the end of the day marked a time to sit down with a glass of wine, discuss what was learnt and enjoy the fruits of our labour … with a dash of River Cottage sparkle added to the food by their team of chefs.

All in all, everyone enjoyed what was a fulfilling, fact-laden day – taking home a feeling of being better connected with where our food comes from and a bag full of bread, profiteroles and casserole!

If you’d like to join the River Cottage team for a day on the farm cooking, eating and drinking (or think it’d make a great Christmas present), you can see the full range of courses here.

guy’s newsletter: spring greens & immortality

It appears I am going to live forever. According to researchers at University College London, up to 3 veg a day decreases mortality by 14%, 5 by 29%, 7 by 36% and 7+ by 42%. As I live and breathe the stuff I reckon I must be immortal. Maybe I should buy an annuity after all, just for the pleasure of getting one over on an insurance company. Will the actuaries now start asking how much cabbage you eat alongside how much you smoke and drink?

I am generally cynical about headline-grabbing research as scientists and university chancellors have often had PR training and become media tarts like the rest of us. That said, like most people I am always partial to research that backs up my own prejudice. Never mind wonder diets, cholesterol-busting superfoods and antioxidants; my abiding belief is that the closer our diet is to the one we evolved to eat, digest and assimilate over millennia, the healthier we will be. A varied diet including moderate quantities of animal fat and protein, minimal processed food and additives and loads of fresh fruit and veg with as little cooking as possible is a good place to start. If you can combine that with enjoying your food while not worrying about it, so much the better.

My current veg enthusiasms include spring greens, though quantities are limited due to some unplanned foraging from our cows. After a long winter the greens are small and look a little rough but are the tastiest we have ever grown. Lightly cooked they are so tender it’s almost sacrilege to add salt, butter or lemon. From the woods my children and friends are busy picking wild garlic; great in a pesto with hazelnuts, folded into an omelette or, for the hardy, raw in salads. However my absolute, liver-cleansing favourite is dandelions, blanched, lightly cooked with garlic and chilli and tossed with pasta (recipe overleaf). We have a few cultivated ones from our polytunnels for sale on extras, or pick your own.

Meanwhile for those among you with a garden of your own, we have used agricultural fleece available to keep the insects and the worst of the weather off your veg; roughly 30-40m2 for £4.99, with proceeds going to Send a Cow.

Guy Watson

preserving blog: time for a citrus fest

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For Anna Colquhoun, Riverford’s Preserving Guru, January and February mean one thing in her kitchen.  Citrus.

Kilos arrive from Riverford, all lugged in crates by local driver Richard who always smiles and never grumbles.  The Seville oranges, blood oranges, lemons and clementines are fantastic  – bright, ripe, full of juice and flavour and of course unwaxed.  

ImageThey are some of my favourite things to preserve, as their colours stay true in the jar – a citrus rainbow of red, orange and yellow – and the boiling vats perfume the whole house. 

In my classes coming up in Feb we will make marmalade, spiced pickled oranges, blood orange and port jelly, clementine jam and Moroccan preserved lemons. 

If you’d like to join me at the courses in London, the dates are: 

Sat 8th Feb (waiting list only)
Sun 9th Feb (waiting list only)
Sat 15th Feb (places available)
Sun 16th Feb (places available)

If you’d rather have a go in the comfort of your home, here are a few tips…

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Preserved lemons:

These are easy to make and something special to add to your pantry of ingredients.  They are distinctive of Moroccan cuisine and go brilliantly with roast or braised chicken and fish, in chickpea and couscous dishes, and in salad dressings and salsas.  Chicken, olive and preserved lemon tagine is a classic, but why not also try spiced squash with preserved lemon or shoulder of lamb with preserved lemon.  You can find my recipe here.

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Preserved lemons are ‘lactofermented’, like some of the world’s other best foods – sourdough bread, yoghurt, chocolate and kimchi, to name a few.  Friendly bacteria enjoy the salty conditions, multiply, squeeze out any unwanted micro-organisms and produce lactic acid and carbon dioxide.  The former gives the lemons their distinctive texture, flavour and aroma, and the latter displaces the air in the jar.  The clever clip-top preserving jars let excess gas escape, so they don’t explode.  The bacteria like pure fine salt, that is to say not contaminated with those mysterious ‘anti-caking agents’.  Find it in wholefood and heathfood shops, or buy one of those expensive flaky sea salts and grind it in a mortar or processor. 

Fermentation takes around a month at warm room temperature.  Make sure the lemons stay submerged in the salty juice.  You might notice the jar fizz or sputter – good signs it’s working.  After fermentation keep the jar somewhere cool and dark and try to wait another month or more as they improve with age.  In Morocco I met a women who proudly showed me her syrupy seven-year old specimens.  (Not that I’m recommending that here.)  Fish out a lemon with a clean utensil, give it a rinse, cut away the flesh as it will be too salty and dice the translucent rind. 

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Marmalade

Pick up a Riverford Kit, some jars and granulated sugar and you’re away.  Bitter oranges are inedible raw, but deliciously bittersweet when transformed into marmalade.  They originated in China and later became popular in the Arabian empire, through which they spread around the Middle East and Mediterranean, as far as Spain, which remains a main production area.   

There are different methods for making marmalade, but all have several things in common.  First, the rind is boiled before it’s cooked with sugar, since the quantity of sugar involved will stop it softening.  So make sure the rind is tender enough to easily penetrate with the tines of a fork before proceeding.  Second, the all-important pectin is in mostly found in the pith and pips, so these are retained and used to impart their setting power, although strained out so as not to cloud the jelly.  Third, all the sugar must be gently dissolved before you boil, since stray grains on the side of the pan can cause a whole jar to crystalise.  Nothing wrong with crunchy jam, but perhaps not what you were after.  For a darker, richer ‘Oxford style’ marmalade, stir in a couple of tablespoons of black treacle.

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You need a big pan so the marmalade has space to boil furiously to reach setting point, which happens at around 104C.  Jam thermometers are not perfectly accurate, so better to use the cold saucer test – see my preserving guidelines for details.  Watch as the steam dies down and the bubbles seem slower and less watery – signs you should be testing.  It could take as little as 15 minutes or as much as 50.  When ready give it a few minutes so the rind disperses before pouring into jars, or they will be top-heavy with rind.  If there is scum, gently fold it in, skim it off with a spoon or dissolve it by stirring in a knob of butter.  For those so inclined, now is the time to add a dash of whisky.

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Of course, there’s no need to limit your marmalade to your breakfast toast.  It’s great in bread and butter pudding, on steamed puddings and cakes, as a glaze for meats (ham, chicken, duck), in ice cream, and even in cocktails (marmalade whisky sour, anyone?).

Look out for our next preserving kit for clementine jam, which is probably my new favourite citrus preserve as it’s so ridiculously easy to make and retains so much of the raw clementines’ bright colour and flavour.  I promise you’ll love it.  

Whether you’re an experienced or novice preserver, please let me know how it goes, ask me any questions and share your own tips by commenting on this blog below, writing on our Facebook page or sending a tweet to @Riverford with the hashtag #cooksquestion.