Tag Archives: tomatoes

Guy’s Newsletter: tomatoes, badgers & bees

Last week we picked our first tomatoes of the year; all being well, each of the 15,000 plants will produce 3kg of fruit between now and September. These tomatoes are actually later than we planned; with so much sunshine recently it’s easy to forget that it was quite a cold spring. The only way to harvest any earlier would be by heating our polytunnels through burning fossil fuels on a huge scale. However much we’d like to support year-round local tomato growing, our environmental study with Exeter University (see http://www.riverfordenvironment.co.uk) suggests that in terms of carbon footprint, it’s many times better to truck (not fly) out of season peppers or tomatoes in from Spain where they do not require heat, than grow them here under heat, as the data below suggests. This was always my instinct and since completing the research, it remains our policy. It makes marketing tricky as simple messages are the most effective; but in reality, buying British tomatoes year-round is not as green as it sounds.

CO2-emissionsTo aid tomato pollination, we introduce bee hives into our polytunnels every summer. Last week, when the tunnel team started work at 5am they found the hives moved around, upturned and eventually destroyed. Paranoid theories about vandals proliferated until we realised that, as with our occasionally trashed sweetcorn and pumpkins, the omnivorous badger is to blame. It astounds me that they can eat live bees without ill effect but a quick internet search shows that it is not uncommon. We have now suspended our hives from the roof and set up a motion activated camera; keep an eye on our Facebook page for a video of the culprits.

Guy Watson

Tomatoes: apologies, explanations & excuses

About five years ago we took the decision not to sell crops grown under heated glass. Burning fossil fuels to maintain a temperature of 20°C inside a single glazed greenhouse in the depths of winter is environmental insanity. According to our work with Exeter University, even after accounting for transport, it is ten to twenty times less damaging to import peppers and tomatoes from Spain, where heat is not required (see www.riverfordenvironment.co.uk).

Many of us aspire to eat seasonally and locally. From July to October that is no great hardship, but as winter progresses, without heated glass or imports, a vegbox full of UK grown veg becomes dull and repetitive. If we were dogmatic about localism I think we would lose most of you; my ad hoc market research, nosing in customers’ and friends’ fridges, reveals that many people top up our local offering with imports from a supermarket anyway.

Over the last five years we have worked closely with two growers in Andalucia (Paco and Paco), encouraging them to grow winter crops of tomatoes, peppers, aubergines and cucumbers for flavour rather than cosmetic appearance and yield. We have had great success with peppers, particularly the long ramiros which consistently taste fantastic. Until this winter I thought we were getting there with the tomatoes, but recently they have been sadly lacking in flavour.

The problem is partly that these first pickings from the new crop are often disappointing (we have the same thing with our home crop in July), compounded by low light levels at this time of year. We are also swimming against the tide in an industry where there is constant pressure to focus on yield, shelf life and appearance. We are trialling some new varieties for next year which look like they will give some improvement, but if we cannot do better I would rather go without. I expect this year’s crop to improve quickly over the next few weeks as light levels rise. In the meantime, I’d like to offer this slightly lame apology.

Guy Watson


In search of the ultimate tomato

Longstanding customers normally tell us that flavour is the main reason they buy our boxes, so we have to deliver. Mostly we do (I am proud of about 80% of what we sell about 90% of the time), but flavour is very hard to manage and requires constant vigilance to avoid slipping into safe but bland mediocrity. Flavour comes from an interaction of variety, soil type and growing conditions. Peats and sands are normally the easiest soils to manage, but our experience is that loams, with a good mix of organic matter and minerals, produce the best flavour. As a general rule anything that speeds up growth (most notably excess water and nitrogen) detracts from flavour; a little hardship improves taste and longevity but too much produces bitterness, off flavours and premature ageing.

It is a frequently quoted rule of management that “if you can’t measure it you can’t manage it”; an irritating adage but, after 25 years in business, I have to admit, largely true. The problem with flavour is that it is subjective. Exceptions are pressure testing (quantifies squidginess of an apple) and brix testing (measures sugar content). Unsurprisingly, since the advent of these gadgets, apples have become sweeter and more juicy. We have satisfied these simple tastes but as is often the case with immediate gratification, the end result is ultimately boring; hence the rise in interest in heritage varieties with more subtle flavours.

Perhaps this is, in part, food snobbery. Sweet and juicy can be good, but so can a whole range of unquantifiable flavours and textures that are being lost as growers manage their crops to achieve the measurable at the minimum cost. Last week we ran a tomato tasting panel using staff (who we have tested and selected for their palates) and volunteers who were lunching in the Field Kitchen. A small minority liked the slow-grown, outdoor, more deeply flavoured (I thought) Marmande varieties from a loam soil but, to my horror, far more went for the sweet and juicy, indoor-grown cherry tomatoes. Maybe I’m a snob. Maybe I am just wrong. For now we will stick with the cherries, but like all frustrated pollsters, we will ask again next year.

Guy Watson

What’s what in the Riverford box – 19th July 2010

This week Guy talks about sugar snap peas, tomatoes, spinach, hispi cabbage, carrots and kohl rabi.

Sugar snap peas
To prepare, break the end and strip it down and it will take the string out. Take the string off each side and then you can steam or boil (for 3-5 minutes). You also can eat them in a stirfry or raw.

We’ve just come into the tomato season and have had good sunlight so they taste really sweet. Try making your own fresh salsa by chopping them, adding red or fresh onions and a green herb and well as a squeeze of lemon, vinegar and a bit of sugar, salt and pepper. It’s great with tortilla chips or on a courgette fritter.

Bunched carrots
They are tasting fantastic. Don’t bother peeling them. If you want to cook them, theyre great if roast them with kohl rabi. Peel and chop the kohlrabi and roast with the carrots for around 30 minutes.

True spinach has fine and succulent leaves. Wash it, leave the water on and cook it in a pan, turn it over, take it out push it into a colander, chop it up finely and then you can use it in all sorts of ways.

Hispi cabbage
Shred these finely, blanch and drain. You could add a squeeze of lemon as well as a little bit of butter and pepper.

What’s what in the Riverford box – 12th July 2010

This week Jane talks about bunched carrots, radish and cucumber, cherry tomatoes and french beans.

bunched carrots (0 mins, 12 secs)

Rather than peel bunched carrots, you can just wash them. Try roasting them in the oven with a bit of cumin and then mashing them before adding olive oil and feta.

radish + cucumber (0 mins, 39 secs)

Try thinly slicing the radish and cucumber and mixing it with a bit of smoked fish. You can bind it with some creme fraiche and horseradish.

cherry tomatoes (1 mins, 1 secs)

You don’t have to do too much with these. They go well with mozzarella, so you can slice them up with mozzarella, olive oil and basil.

french beans  (1 mins, 42 secs)

The season’s just started so you’ll see a lot more of them over the coming weeks. Top and tail them and blanch in boiling salted water for a couple of water. They need to have a squeak when you bite into them. Try tossing them with shredded slow cooked tomatoes, diced olives and fresh basil.

what’s what in the Riverford box – 5th July 2010

This week Kirsty talks about kohl rabi and tomatoes. kohl rabi (0 mins, 7 secs) To prepare your kohl rabi, trim off the top leaves and stems, trim the base and if it’s large, peel the outer leaves. One way to use it is to slice it thinly but you can also grate it and put it into an asian coleslaw. If you have pointed cabbage in your box, you can use that instead of the kohl rabi. Tomatoes (1 min, 30 secs)

Bird’s eye food

Nesting among the toms
More proof – if proof were needed – that organic farming is good for wildlife, Martin found this bird’s nest lurking down among the tomatoes in one of the polytunnels…

Organic tomatoes better for your heart

Reported in The Times* and The Telegraph* today are the results of a 10-year study comparing organic tomatoes with rival produce suggests they have almost double the amount of antioxidants called flavonoids that protect the heart. According to the findings, levels of quercetin and kaempferol were found to be on average 79 per cent and 97 per cent higher, respectively, in organic tomatoes.

Peter Melchett, Soil Association policy director, is quoted in The Times, “We welcome the now rapidly growing body of evidence which shows significant differences between the nutritional composition of organic and non-organic food. As further scientific evidence emerges from new research looking at differences between organic and non-organic food, the Soil Association will be asking the FSA to keep their nutritional advice to consumers under review.”

*please note: as this is an older blog post, some of the original links in this article have been changed or removed