Tag Archives: fruit

Guy’s Newsletter: the economics of ecological mimicry

Last week I spent a contemplative afternoon picking crab apples. The trees, along with medlars, damsons, apples, blackberries and hazelnuts, were planted ten years ago as part of a hedge. Some would call it permaculture, but neglect would be more accurate. I sometimes wish I could disengage the calculator in my head, but, failing to reach Zen oneness with my picking, my mind whirred. Weighing my haul I calculated that the combined yield of appropriately designed mature hedge could hit 50 tonnes per hectare, with not a drop of diesel burnt or pesticide used; all while providing a rich, undisturbed habitat for wildlife, shelter for livestock and enhancing the landscape with genuinely sustainable farming.

So why does the huge majority of such fruit get left to the birds or to rot, while most of our country is condemned to a hedge-less monoculture? The problem is that it can’t be harvested profitably to meet the demands of our current food system. About 25% of the hazelnuts have been devoured by a grub, making them unmarketable; the blackberries carry too many bugs for most people’s (and certainly supermarket) taste; yields, size and ripeness are all too varied for conventional retailers, and too few people eat crab apple jelly, let alone make it. Most significantly, it’s hard to mechanise the harvesting of mixed crops, though given the ingenuity of agricultural engineers, it’s not impossible to envisage.

Across the valley, Andy, our farming co-op member is harvesting potatoes; his biggest crops might yield 50t/ha but with the best will in the world he is killing earthworms, damaging soil structure and burning diesel in the process. Almost all modern farming constitutes a brutish, unsustainable treatment of the land to mollycoddle weak annual crops; organic farming, while less flawed, is far from perfect. Truly sustainable agriculture is possible but will not happen while food is valued so little; just 2-3% of GDP goes to produce it. It will never be achieved through market forces; the changes needed are too radical. Ultimately we need to eat more plants that are happy in the UK (rather than those on the edges of their climatic tolerance, like tomatoes and wheat), and fewer animal products. We need to mimic ecology and use modern technology to make it economically feasible. An ambitious plan, but not impossible. We’re willing to experiment should any agricultural engineers be reading this.

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

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. 

 

 

top jam tips – now is the time for making jam!

The sky has turned an unusual colour (blue), the thermometer is soaring to new heights and at last summer fruits are appearing in abundance after the long cold spring – this is the time to make jam!

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ask Anna
Anna Colquhoun, our preserving expert, shares her jam-making tips below and talks about why now is the time to start bubbling up a batch of jam while summer fruit is in abundance around us. If you have any questions just comment on our blog, our Riverford Facebook page or tweet!

The one problem with summer holidays abroad is that you miss out on eating and cooking with local summer produce. (Every year I nurture a row of tomato plants for months only to be away for the bulk of the crop.) Our summer season is short, so to make the most of it I recommend turning your hand to jamming now.

We’ve just held my summer preserving workshops in London. It was so satisfying producing row after row of beautiful filled jars, including strawberry & rhubarb jam, stunning bottled cherries and glowing lemon curd. Many hands indeed make light work. So I suggest getting together a group of friends for a jamming session, or coming to my next Riverford Autumn Preserving workshops in October!

The flavour and beauty of summer treats like cherries, strawberries, raspberries, currants, rhubarb, apricots and gooseberries can all be preserved for months to come with nothing much more than sugar, jars and a large pan. Read on for my top jamming tips…

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fruit
It should go without saying that you should use beautiful, good quality fruit. Wash carefully, cut out any rotten patches and chop into even pieces. I’m not a huge fan of gimmicky jams. (You know the sort, like Tesco’s Cosmo and Daiquiri ‘Mocktail’ preserves.) However, judicious use of vanilla pods, fresh bay leaves or sprays of lemon verbena can work a treat in with the fruit.

pectin
You need pectin for jam to set. Some fruits are naturally high in pectin, such as gooseberries and currants. Others, including strawberries, rhubarb and sweet cherries, have very little so you need to add it. Apricots and raspberries are somewhere in between so might need a little if you want a firmer set. It’s easiest simply to substitute some or all of the sugar in your recipe with ‘jam sugar’, which has pectin in it.

sugar
To make a jam that will last on the shelf (unopened) rather than needing refrigeration, use approximately 1kg sugar for every 1kg of fruit. Regular, white granulated is best, or ‘jam sugar’ (see above). Don’t use caster; you might be tempted as you imagine it will dissolve faster, but it’s more likely to catch and burn at the bottom of the pan. The first step is to dissolve every last grain of sugar with minimal heat. You can even macerate the chopped fruit in the sugar in the fridge overnight to start the process. This works especially well for strawberries and helps preserve their shape in the finished jam.
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acid
For the pectin to work it needs acid. Most fruit is naturally acidic, but some need the juice of a couple of lemons to help the jam set properly, including strawberries, apricots, sweet cherries, raspberries and – rather surprisingly – rhubarb. Add it to your jam mixture in the pot.

heat
Once all the sugar is dissolved, crank up the heat, boil furiously but watch that it doesn’t boil over. This is why you need a big pan! I found my beautiful old copper preserving pan in my parents’ garage by chance (thanks Mum), which is fortunate since they now cost a fortune. It’s true that copper pans work a treat, but any large stainless steel pot will work fine.
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setting point
This is the magical moment when syrup becomes jam! Fruits seem to behave very differently, even from batch to batch or year to year, so don’t believe a recipe that tells you to boil for X minutes and then pot. You need to test. A thermometer will give you a good guide – you’re after around 104 degrees Centigrade – but they’re never totally accurate. So I prefer to watch how the syrup runs off a wooden spoon – first in a long watery stream, then in sticky globs that seem to want to hang on – and then perform the ‘saucer test.’

saucer test
Have some saucers chilling in the fridge or freezer. Pour on a teaspoon of syrup then let it sit undisturbed while it cools. This is your window into the future – a sneak preview of the consistency your jam will end up. Push your finger across the jam and watch for bunching up and wrinkling. If instead it still feels and looks like a syrup, turn on the heat again and boil for another few minutes before testing again.

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You have now made jam!

Let it sit for a few minutes so that the fruit settles. Fold in or skim off any unsightly scum and pour into hot, sterilised jars right up to the brim. Carefully screw on clean, new lids and turn the jars upside down for 10 minutes to sterilise the insides of the lids. Just remember to turn them over again before they set!

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You can find more guidance here, including instructions for sterilising jars in the oven.

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.

Guy’s blog: cider & nuts

We have cabbage plants ready and waiting for a break in the weather, with lettuce due next week. The ground is too wet and with the outlook unsettled we must be patient and be sure to take our chances when they come. Purple sprouting broccoli is finally getting going in volume, but we are still suffering from last summer when the deluge leached out nutrients and stopped the plants growing the large frame that is needed to support a good crop. Even the rye, which we sow as a green manure in the autumn, is half the expected size.

Most of our agricultural crops are highly bred annuals, bred to grow, flower and seed quickly; in a ‘normal’ year they can be extraordinarily productive. However, yield is not everything. As our climate becomes less predictable and energy scarcer, perhaps we should be looking to more resilient crops, reducing the need to plough and create new seed beds each year. When my father took on Riverford in 1951, a good part of the farm was cider orchard, with sheep grazing the pasture underneath; an integrated system of two perennial crops. Each farm had its own press and it was reckoned that cider would pay the rent. 

Walking around the farm, I am struck by how resilient perennial plants are in this dreadful year, especially the natives that are happy in our cool and damp climate. Temperate agriculture is 99% dependent on annual crops (sown and harvested in the same year and not regenerating from roots). In nature, annuals are relatively rare, thriving on disturbed ground where they grow and bear seed quickly before being forced out by perennials, which take their time and prefer more stable conditions. An oak tree may take 20 years to produce acorns but is still producing them 200 years later. The result is that as farmers, we are constantly creating the instability that favours our annual crops; ploughing is costly in energy, CO2 emissions from oxidation of soil organic matter, erosion and loss of biodiversity. I would dearly love to ditch the plough, grow perennials and create stability but we would all have to live on hazelnuts, lamb and rhubarb washed down with cider; it could be worse.

Finally, today is the last day to vote in the Observer’s annual Ethical Awards. If you like what we do, please vote for us in the Retailer of the Year category.

Guy Watson

Planting, fishing & awards

Over half of you grow some of your own veg. Unfortunately, given our climatic limitations, you tend to grow the same crops as us. A few of you have even credited us with inspiring you to get the spade out. As a result, our deliveries can drop off in the summer and autumn before the gardeners return around November. There is no point in fighting the tide, so for the last three years we have been putting our experience of growing to use to supply plants and seeds as Boxes to Grow, helping you grow your own. There are a number of options, whether you have just a window box, a few containers or a full blown veg garden to plant in. There are herb, veg and cutting flower boxes which you can order now for delivery in April and May. The kits come with a planting guide to get you started and are suitable whether you’re a complete novice or you know what you’re doing. Plus, Penny Hemming, our resident gardener, is on hand to provide tips and assistance: see her blog here.

Another addition we have considered for our range is fish. Every time we investigate, I am put off by the controversy over what constitutes a sustainably caught fish and also concerns about being able to deliver it in the right condition. Unbelievably, a lot of fish sold as fresh has been dead for ten days or more and it is hard to know who to trust in an industry that routinely ravages the sea bottom with beam trawlers and scallop dredgers, while discarding vast quantities of the catch. A truly sustainable policy would define not just the species, but the method of catching and would ensure a market for the whole catch. I hope we will be able to offer fish before too long, but in the meantime I urge you to sign Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s petition calling for more marine reserves.

Finally, The Observer is calling for nominations in its annual Ethical Awards. If you like what we do, please vote for us in the Retailer of the Year category by Friday 22nd March.

Thank you.

Guy Watson

Harvest woes

As I write, a ridge of high pressure is edging in from the Atlantic and threatening to build into the high pressure system we have been waiting for all summer; too late for most schoolchildren’s holidays, too late for many a fair, festival and fête; too late for our stunted pumpkins and sweetcorn, blighted potatoes, mildew-stricken onions and rotten strawberries.

Any day now I will be asked to fill our local church with bounty for the harvest festival, as we have for twenty years, but the Big Man is pushing his luck. We could decorate the font with parsnips, which although notoriously fickle germinators, have taken well to the rain this year. Our carrots, swede and beetroot are also looking good, as are most of the winter crops of brassicas and leeks. Perhaps our mistake was ever assuming the sun would come out to nourish those semi-tropical plants that only begrudgingly tolerate even a decent British summer. If we had left the solanacae and concurbits in the Americas and stuck to our turnips & swedes, things would have been so much easier.

With a few exceptions, fruit has been equally disastrous. The farm team has sworn never to plant another strawberry unless in tunnels. Plums have been disappointing in yield and flavour. The apple season has started with the first Discovery; eat them quickly to enjoy them at their most flavourful. We should now have a good supply of English apples through to the end of March, with pears until the end of January. We are also pleased to have finally managed to grow a decent crop of juicy melons down in the Vendée. It took three years and though I am not completely satisfied with the flavour, they are almost there and definitely good enough to make me try again next year.

What will next year bring? How will that jet stream and its trail of depressions meander? Should we blame our gas guzzling and carbon burning rather than the Big Man for its deviations southwards? Another bad year would sink many of our growers. As we start to plan our cropping for next year the prevailing concern is how to cope with risk and uncertainty.

Guy Watson

Organic persimmons from Spain

organic persimmon fruitYou may find organic persimmons in your box this week. These are yellowy orange fruit with a sweet fragrant flesh and are grown in the South of Spain by Joaquin Pérez.

Joaquin has been farming organically for 10 years and bio-dynamically for 2 years. He also grows apricots and peaches on his farm, 60km south of Valencia, which he sells in the local area.

Persimmons are best eaten fresh, when still fairly firm. Eat them on their own or try in salads, with poultry, lamb or pork or in desserts.

Have you tried them?

Feeling fruity

New season fruit for tempting puddings.

Here’s a preview of some of the fruit we’ll have over the next couple of months.

 

discovery apples
The earliest apple variety that grows well in the UK, Discovery is refreshingly sharp with a good level of sweetness and a crisp pink and green skin. The warm, sunny spring this year has caused a few problems for our apple grower, Paul Ward in Kent. The weather made the trees blossom and fruit up earlier than usual and a late frost took out many of the fruitlets. However this also means the crop will be with us around two weeks sooner than usual, in early August.

nectarines
A sweet, orange-fleshed nectarine that springs with juice at the first bite is one of the sticky-fingered delights of summer. If you’ve been put off by floury out-of-season imitators, have your faith restored with our naturally flavourful fruit. They are ideal for picnics, packed lunches and puddings, but try them in a salad with ricotta (try the buffalo version from our website) and prosciutto and you’ll never look back. Ours are grown under the Spanish sun and reach you by road and sea – far more ecologically sound than transporting by air freight.

apricots
Another peach-like darling of the summer, apricots can lift dishes with their delicate flavour and perfume. A pocket-sized snack they may be, but miss out on their pudding potential and you are selling yourself short. The classic is to poach them in a sugar syrup with lemon and wine for serving with dreamy ice cream, but they also pair beautifully with pistachios. Our chef Jane Baxter’s favourite is to use them in place of pears in her pear and almond tart – see our website for the recipe.

order fruit from Riverford

 

Fruit hero – gooseberries

There are some foods that need a little work to get the best from them, and in this hot-stepping world of ready meals, phone apps and instant gratification, at times it can seem an inconvenience. Spending time podding broad beans when a bag of pre-prepped supermarket veg could have you plonked in front of the TV in minutes seems madness to some, but history has shown that when the body is kept busy with a task that does not demand great concentration, the mind is freed to flex its lesser-used muscles in ways that a blaring TV will not allow. If you’ve hit a bit of a wall with a problem, give it a try. We’re not suggesting you’ll find the answer to world peace, but you might surprise yourself in other ways.

Gooseberries fall into this category of ‘too much of a hassle to bother’ for many. Their appeal is not instantly apparent, as anyone who has eaten one of these tart and rather hairy berries straight from the punnet will testify. However, those who do take time to discover the extent of their culinary possibilities reap many rewards. Don’t be fooled into thinking that gooseberries are only good for pud; nature has laid some helpful hints to help you plug their hidden depths of flavour in other ways. They ripen more or less as the first mackerel arrive off our coast, and a simple gooseberry sauce brings out flavours in both of these ingredients that you probably didn’t know were there. See our website for this and many more gooseberry-liberating recipes.

The gooseberry bushes on our Devon farm are also something of an icon of what organic farming is about for us. When Guy planted his first acre, a fair few people predicted that without an arsenal of chemicals, disaster would come in the form of sawfly, a pest that attacks only gooseberries. For the first three years the bushes were indeed stripped bare, but eight years on, nature has established a balance and we have a mystery predator keeping the larvae in check. Overall, it’s evidence of the virtues of a long-term understanding of farming ecology, the subtle management of our environment and a little faith, as opposed to beating nature down with chemicals and sprays. It does not always work out so well, but we are very thankful that it has in the case of our gooseberries which, after all, are a very British harvest.