Are city start-ups a help or hindrance to local food?

I am pleased to share with you my latest article, re-published with kind permission from Sustainable Food Trust, the global voice for sustainable food and health. I added images. 

Are city start-ups a help or hindrance to local food?

In the last few decades, there has been a quiet revolution in food as more farmers have increasingly sold their produce direct to the public. By circumventing the supermarket system, farmers are strengthening local food systems, rebuilding connections between people and the source of their food.

This direct sales home delivery model has long been the domain of the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) movement. However, thanks mainly to online technology, this revolution is ratcheting up a notch with the arrival of a raft of new companies backed by city finance.

HelloFresh, founded in 2011 and now active in seven countries, was valued at around £2 billion in 2015; Gousto, founded in 2012 and backed by Unilever, recently drew an additional £28.5 million from backers; and Farmdrop, founded in 2012, attracted £7 million from investors in 2017 including Skype co-founder, Niklas Zennström.

The question that arises, is whether these new models enhance or weaken sustainable local food systems? On one hand, the idea of encouraging people to cook – from ‘scratch’ using recipe boxes for a fantastic array of meals, with exact ingredients and directions provided – is to be celebrated. On the other hand, could this very choice seduce the public away from supporting their local farmer?

Small-scale farmers are the foundation of a sustainable food system. Organic, biodynamic and other sustainable agriculture systems regenerate soil, support wildlife and produce a variety of fresh local food which increases local and national food security. Selling direct enables farmers to keep their small-scale values – and their profits. By buying directly from a farmer, a food citizen is supporting economic and environmental sustainability.

Entwined organic carrots with a label saying: I carrot leave without you!

Pioneered by small-scale organic farmers in the 1980s, the CSA model of direct sales and home delivery by-passes the supermarket system and its pulverising demand for industrial uniformity. The humble veg box has been crucial in establishing a direct connection between shopper and farmer – as well as reducing plastic waste and fuel miles.

The CSA reinforces this bond. Members support the farmer come rain or shine (literally) by paying up front for their share of the harvest. It is not a one-way relationship. A CSA member gets fresh local produce, knows exactly where their food comes from, and has opportunities to volunteer or socialise at the farm.

Adapt to survive

Wheelbarrow in foreground, members of the Community Farm working on the land, background

The idea that well-endowed home delivery companies could threaten CSAs is nothing new, according to Maresa Bossano of CSA UK Network.

“Small organic veg box schemes in the UK went through the same thing quite a few years ago when [box schemes] from Abel and Cole and Riverford first came on the scene, mainly because they offered customers more choice and better customer service; in many cases, smaller box schemes couldn’t compete and closed down. Others expanded and changed the way they operated by also providing imported fruit and giving customers the option to choose which produce, not just a set box, like some community-run schemes such as the Community Farm (pictured above).

Biodynamic farmer, Marina O’Connell, of Huxhams Cross Farm. Image: Biodynamic Land Trust

Marina O’Connell (pictured above) who grows and sells produce at 34-acre Huxhams Cross Farm, two miles down the road from big box company Riverford Organic Farmers, has also adapted their CSA offering.

“We offer a regular veg bag home delivery to customers in a 30-mile radius. We do top-up the fruit bag with produce, particularly citrus in the winter. We find that people choose to come to Huxhams Cross Farm because it is small, local, and our produce is really fresh. People come, look around the farm and meet the farmers. And, as a biodynamic farm, this makes a difference to those who want it.”

Marina O’Connell sees the so-called competition as positive: “I think all organic farms – big or small – are good. They all build the market for organic produce, and the more offers there are, the more people will take them up. I think that, as a whole, the large organisations have done a great service for the organic movement.”

National organic box schemes

It could, certainly, be argued that big national schemes encourage sustainable food production. Abel & Cole, founded in 1987 and now owned by William Jackson Food Group, may be a middleman but it sources 95% of its fruit and veg direct from organic growers.

Riverford Organic Farmers, also founded in 1987, has similarly created outlets for organic produce. A family business growing 30% of its produce in Devon, it works with a farmer-owned cooperative of 16 small-to-medium organic farms. From June 2018, Riverford will operate as an employee-owned business, with its founder, Guy Watson retaining only 26% of it.

Organic farmer and campaigner, Guy is aware of the risk posed by Riverford’s wide offerings such as organic Spanish broad beans in spring. “We offer 70% of UK produce round the year but perhaps we should put more pressure on ourselves to offer a more edited content. I would love to sell only UK organic produce. But the mood is towards specifying what is in the box with a bespoke order.”

Millennial-driven

Technology is the driver in this current phase of online food offerings. It is, for instance, creating new ways of selling local food with initiatives such as the not-for-profit Open Food Network, an open source online food distribution system, and The Food Assembly, a cross between a buyer’s group and a farmers’ market.

At the driving wheel are tech-savvy millennials: “We’ve certainly seen all our fresh organic produce grow,” Adam Wakeley of Organic Farm Foods told the Smallholder. “One reason is down to an evolving consumer profile – millennials are now our biggest customer group, and they show a huge interest in food provenance and health. They understand that having food grown in an environmentally friendly way is a good thing. We believe their attitude is here to stay and will continue to drive growth in the future.”

Transparency and fair pay for farmers

Let’s hope the start-ups are listening to the millennials because HelloFresh has a disturbing lack of information on its website. “Our veggie box is bursting with tasty new ingredients and adventurous recipes that will make your taste buds sing.” This slogan makes no reference to provenance or seasonality and tells you nothing about where the produce comes from or how it is produced. Perhaps the real risk to sustainable food is the lack of transparency with marketing messages which may not live up to their promise?

In the online advert bidding wars, HelloFresh and Gousto are positioning themselves as alternatives to the established organic box schemes, Abel & Cole and Riverford. However, apart from featuring Yeo Valley Organic yogurt, I could see no other reference to organic produce on Gousto’s website.

I contacted Gousto, Hello Fresh and Farmdrop about their sourcing policies but only Farmdrop replied. Billed as the ‘ethical grocer’, with hubs in London, Bristol and Bath, there is a lot to like about Farmdrop: its search boxes for organic and pesticide-free; its mobile app (instead of a weekly subscription) which links farmers and customers; and its stated mission to “fix the broken food system”.

Farmdrop van and van driver with lettering: The food we are delivering came from a local farm this morning. Fresher food for you, a better deal for them."

Farmdrop also believes in a fair price to farmers. Its policy is to pay local suppliers “at least 70% of the final retail price. The exact amount will vary depending on the producer. Milk suppliers for example usually take a higher margin of around 75%,” says a spokesperson for Farmdrop. According to its website, farmers would be lucky to receive 50% from supermarkets.

A fair price could be the ballast for these city-financed companies, ensuring their financial growth is not at the expense of small-scale organic growers. “There is definitely interest in different ways of buying food, and we expect this trend to grow – online shopping, for example, could make up a quarter of all UK sales of organic products in the next five years,” says Soil Association, head of horticulture, Ben Raskin. “We welcome new models of delivery services – if they do things properly. There is potential for this to bolster the market, but the key is farmers and producers being paid a fair price.”

According to the Soil Association Organic Market Report 2018, alternative models of shopping for organic food are expanding: online shopping sales grew by 9.7% and home delivery (i.e. box schemes and recipe boxes) grew by 9.5%.

CSAs do not need to lose out, if cooperation can be encouraged: ”It would be good to see some of the platforms develop a section for CSAs, perhaps working with the CSA Network UK to help develop this,” says Ben.

CSAs build relationships

Community-supported Bennison Farm. Image: CSA Network UK

Although CSAs may not be able to compete on choice, they continue to flourish, with over 100 CSA farms listed on CSA Network UK and over 15 new ones in 2015-17.

“The new online marketplaces may take business away from some box schemes but,” says Maresa Bossano, “they generally appeal to busy working people who aren’t so confident with cooking. Whereas generally CSA members love cooking and experimenting with vegetables, and to be a member of a CSA, they have enough time to participate in some way.”

As well as appealing to these different kinds of shoppers, the CSA subscription model also protects the farmer, as Danny Steele of Bennison Farm (pictured above. Image: Bennison Farm) in Thorrington near Colchester explains:

“We pack around 115 veg shares per week with produce harvested the same day. The difference for me, is that our members can only get a regular share of our harvest by subscribing; I think I feel less threatened by the big box schemes precisely because we are a CSA.”

If you like chai, Hot Earth is the real thing

A cup of Hot Earth chai ☕️ from above

If you like real chai, you have try Hot Earth chai.

Disclaimer: I am writing this blog post fuelled by Hot Earth chai but for no other gain.

Thorsten emailed me out of the blue with his offer of chai samples. He has been developing his own chai tea blends, serving them after giving yoga workshops. It has proved so popular, he has set up a Manchester-based business.Thorsten in Yoga pose

Thorsten (above) in an Elbow Balance yoga pose.

I first tasted chai at a festival years ago but have not found a good one since. Mainly insipid tea-bags or sickly syrups.

As soon as I opened the packet, I knew from the fresh aromas I was in for a treat.

Handmade in the UK from organic and fair trade ingredients, Hot Earth is the freshest, subtly-spiced chai I have tasted.

It stimulates, refreshes, stimulates and soothes.

Thorsten has perfected three different blends: Chai Onyx (classic chai with black tea) and two without caffeine, Chai Gold turmeric latte, and Chai Ruby with spiced red bush.

How do you make real chai?

Saucepan on hob with 4 teaspoons of Hot Chai per 1/2 cup of water and some chopped fresh ginger. Boil and simmer for 5 minutes. Add full-fat milk (I also used almond milk). Boil again with the milk.

This is important as this is when the flavours of the volatile oils merge with the fat of the milk. And why full-fat milk works better than skimmed milk.

Strain, sweeten if you like (Hot Earth Chai is already lightly sweetened with coconut blossom sugar), and sip.

Hot Earth masala spiced reddish tea Chai Ruby

How did Thorsten manage to get chai to taste so wonderful? After first tasting it in Switzerland, he knew that tea and coffee would never satisfy again.

He travelled in India stopping at every place that sold chai. But, disappointingly, it was usually black tea with milk and lots of sugar.

“Sometimes there was a clove or a lonely cardamom pod swimming in the tea but nothing matched the awesomeness of my first experience. I began to wonder it I had imagined it.”

Eventually Thorsten found a place in Rajasthan which sold real chai.

“Every sip was a sip of bliss. It focussed all my senses into my taste buds – a few minutes of pure presence. I was hooked. I rented a place next to the restaurant, and had at least three cups of chai every day. The owner became a good friend and I learned how to make real chai.”

It turned out it was the owner’s mother who prepares the spice mixture by hand, and had done so weekly for 50 years.

“That’s how I do it now” says Thorsten, adding: “Only 45 years to go.”

After two weeks, Thorsten left with a bag of the mother’s spice mixture.

“Now I was able to cook my own chai, but not forever. Once the bag was empty, I would be in trouble.”

Over several months, Thorsten visited spice merchants to buy spices.

“Some were hard to find, especially without speaking Hindi. Every week I prepared a spice mixture and compared it to the one I got from my friend’s mum. I was getting close. But I still felt there was room for improvement.”

Once back in Switzerland, Thorsten found an organic spice supplier whose quality standards matched his. Then over the course of a weekend, Thorsten devoted himself to making chai.

“Equipped with weight scale and calculator, I adjusted my recipe over and over: increasing one spice and cooking a cup of chai to taste. Decreasing another spice, and trying again. Finally I achieved what I wanted. All the flavours merged to create a new one. Not one flavour stuck out or was hidden. They were rounded into one taste. I had made it: chai. The real stuff. My daily cup of meditation.”

When he moved to England, Thorsten was amazed how many places sold chai. “And guess what, they all sucked. Excuse my language, let’s say they were different.”

So he started sourcing spices again in the UK, shipping some in from Switzerland.

“I realised that everyone who drinks this liquid magic gets instantly addicted. I could not keep giving it away. So I decided to turn it into a business, and Hot Earth was born.”

I am grateful to Thorsten for his dedication to supplying real chai.

Try a free sample of Hot Earth chai and tell me if I lie.

Kill the cling-film with eco-wrap


Cling-film, how I shun you.

You are pervasive (enough bought every year in UK to circle the planet 30 times), unnecessary and costly to purse and planet.

A single-use plastic, chemically-treated with god-knows-what to be pliable, and – unless disposed-of in an ever-growing landfill – likely to end up in the belly of a sentient being with fatal consequences.

Enter our new hero: eco-wrap.

Made from cotton covered with beeswax or soy wax, eco-wrap performs all the same tricks as cling-film (air-tight and malleable) but grace.

Made from natural materials, it can be re-used, and cut-up and composted at the end of its life (a year or more).

With cotton designs (vintage and recycled, natch), prettiness adds to its charms.

Where can you get these darling things?

I first came across eco-wrap as a gift from Australia (bought in Apollo Bay to be precise), Eco-wrap Byron Bay.

How come I have never come across eco-wraps before, I exclaim?

Following which, I spotted eco-wraps (below) from Cotswold-based, Beeswax Wraps, in  local natural and organic food shop, Better Food Company right here in Bristol. Fancy! 

It turns out that Bristol also has an eco wrap business, Eco Bee Wrap, which uses Fair Trade material and trades on Etsy.  

Eco wrap zeitgeist!

Etsy has a great choice including vegan eco-wrap made from soy wax. 

You can make your own. Top tutorial from Newcastle-based, Phoenix Green Store, which also sells eco wraps, and videos galore on YouTube such as this one from Aannsha Jones.

Happy eco-wrapping!

Eco wrap hanging out

Eco wrap in my kitchen (must post a better pic!) Note: people do not use eco-wrap to wrap fresh meat or fish. Use a good old bowl and plate to cover instead.

Homemade limoncello

Peeled organic lemons assemble in front of last batch of homemade Limoncello

Or, more accurately, vodka plus loads of lemons.

Limoncello is an Italian lemon liqueur made by infusing a clear spirit (such as vodka) with lemon zest, then adding sugar.

I am partial to making DIY liqueurs.

So I was intrigued to read about home-made limoncello in Appetite Magazine, which I picked up in Newcastle (a fave city, not to mention home of middle daughter, Sarah – one of her projects is Girl Kind).

The recipe did not mention what to do with the lemons after removing their zest. I could not countenance wasting them! 

*So I blitzed the peeled lemons (pips and all, being more domestic slattern than goddess) with my trusty wand blender,  adding their strained lemony goodness to the concoction. The white fibrous pitch can be bitter so I removed as much as possible before whizzing (see pic above). 

Alternatively, squeeze the peeled lemons for lemon juice, adding to the potion at the point when you add the boiled sugar and water.

Use organic lemons if possible because organic lemons are juicier and, (the domestic slattern in me again), do not require washing/scrubbing before use in order to remove traces of chemicals. A recent report from Pesticide Action Network UK found 100% of soft citrus fruit had pesticide residues.

Ingredients1 litre of vodka

8 – 10 lemons

675g sugar

1 litre of water

Method
Peel lemons with a potato peeler, adding the zest (or thin peel) to a litre of vodka.

Leave for 10 days – 1 month in a dark place to infuse the vodka with a citrus flavour.

Strain and consider adding fresh new zest.

Add 675g of sugar to a litre of water in a pan and bring it to the boil, simmering for 15 minutes. Add the cooled sugary water to the infused vodka. 

For added lemony-ness, add the juice from the peeled lemons to the concoction.

*Or whizz the peeled lemons as I did for additional fresh tangy fruitiness.

Cool and bottle.

Here is a pic of my late mum, Fay, aged 93 at Carluccio’s. My mother died in January 2017 the same year as Carluccio’s founder, celebrity chef, Antonio Carluccio

Fay once told Antonio that his restaurants were not the same since he sold the brand. How did he respond, I asked? He shrugged, she said, non-commitally.

Fay would always finish a meal at an Italian restaurant with a limoncello (or two). The pic below was taken at Carluccio’s in 2016, livening up a hospital appointment at Chelsea & Westminster.

Fay Winkler at Carluccio’s 2016

Christmas gift idea – invest in a farm

Farm school in crocodile formation on sunny fields of Huxhams Cross Farm
Confound Christmas consumerism with a gift for the world! 

Huxhams Cross Farm (above) needs investment and here’s why. In the UK and Europe, small farms are getting swallowed up by big ones – 3% of farms own 52% of EU land.

Ecological farms such as 34-acre Huxhams Cross Farm in Dartington, Devon benefit the bigger picture.

Unlike industrial farms, they practice farming in a virtuous cycle. Every good thing leads to the next.

For instance, the farmers at Huxhams Cross Farm are alleviating climate change by capturing carbon in the soil. Carbon-rich soil is fertile soil full of too-tiny-to-see-with-naked-eye microbial creatures which break down nutrients to feed it to the crops, and build fertility year-on-year.

Fresh biodynamic veg and local food for local delivery near Totnes

As well as alleviating climate change and healing the land with biodynamic farming methods, the farmers (below) are producing healthy nutritious local food. Talk about a win-win-win solution.

Farmers, Marina O'Connell, Bob Mehew and Dave Wright on the land at Huxhams Cross Farm

Apricot Centre co-directors and farmers Marina O’Connell and Bob Mehew (centre), joined by their grower, Dave Wright. [IMAGE: Beccy Strong]. 

Tenanted by sustainability experts (above), the Apricot Centre, Huxhams Cross Farm has two cows, Damson and Daffodil, and a mobile flock of 100 White Leghorn chickens (below) whose biodynamic eggs are much in demand.

White leghorn chickens at biodynamic Huxhams Cross Farm

Human-scale farms do more than produce good food. Along with a band of volunteers, Huxhams Cross Farm has raised a barn, and planted over 3,000 trees and over 2,000 soft fruits plants using permaculture design methods, building community with purposeful activity. 

The farm grows wheat for local flour and trees for Dartington’s agroforestry  project which is pioneering ways to make farming viable. Not to mention the  farm’s weekly farm clubs and local food delivery service. 

Huxhams Cross Farm has got this far thanks to community investment through  Biodynamic Land Trust not-for-profit community shares. (Am the charity’s communications manager, she says, declaring an interest).

Now the developing farm needs further investment to build an on-farm centre for many worthwhile purposes. 

Preserves made by the Apricot Centre

The low-carbon centre will offer a kitchen for farm-to-fork cookery activities for children and adults, as well as jams, juices and chutneys production. It will be a training space for permaculture and biodynamic farming methods and a base for the Apricot Centre’s well-being service for vulnerable families.

Invest in Biodynamic Land Trust community shares for Huxhams Cross Farm to build this centre.

Do you know you can also invest in community shares on behalf of others, including children? Once you have invested, the Biodynamic Land Trust will send your recipient a card, followed by a share certificate in the name of the shareholder to be transferred to the recipient’s name when they reach 16. If they are interested they may also receive quarterly updates from the farms by email or post.

Together we can change the world for the better, one farm at a time.

Migrateful – sharing food makes us human

“Some anthropologists say that sharing food is what makes us human.”

So says Jess Thompson, co-founder of Migrateful, where asylum seekers, refugees and migrants teach their traditional cuisines to the public.

Personally, I bless migration for transforming modern British eating. Can you imagine a world without pasta, curry or houmous?

Jess has spent the last two years supporting migrants and refugees in Morocco, Dunkirk refugee camp and Tower Hamlets. 

She points out that the word “companion” is derived from the Spanish “con pan” meaning “with bread” – a companion is someone with whom you share your bread.

Jules and Jess, co-founders of Migrateful
Above is a pic of the co-founders, Jess Thompson (left) and Jules Mazza-Coates whom I have known since she was little. Jules was brought up to believe the act of sharing a meal helps build human relations, and that preparing home-cooked, fresh food can be simple and cost-effective. After working with refugees in Calais refugee camp, Jules supported their integration 
in the UK. 

Every Wednesday at the Migrateful chef training in London, the chefs – from Syria, Iran, Lebanon, Nigeria, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Ghana, Ecuador, Cuba and Pakistan – take it in turns to teach the group how to prepare their cuisine.

Majeda shares Syrian cuisine with Migrateful

Majeda (above) leads a Syrian cookery class for the group. A mother of two, she arrived in the UK a few months ago. “I wish I were in Syria now, I know my country needs me and I miss my two boys and husband so much”.

What is her story? Majeda was working as a children’s therapist in the capital when war broke out in Syria. Thousands of Syrians fled to Damascus after their homes were bombed by the Syrian government. Majeda organised an initiative to feed her displaced countryfolk. The Syrian government imprisoned her for four months for feeding Syrians from areas under occupation. 

After her release, she continued her support for the displaced Syrians. Eventually, threats from the state became too much. For the sake of her family’s safety, Majeda had to leave Syria. 

At Migrateful, Majeda cooked a Syrian meal. She said: 

“I believe there is a relationship between cooking and love and that preparing a meal for the one you love, combining your skills and your feelings to create something, can convey a lot to the person. I have a real passion for cooking and I think that passion is one of the things that makes me a good wife, mum and friend”.

Migrateful’s next class is a vegan Ethiopian cookery class in Brixton, London, on Monday 30 October. 

Ethiopian vegan cooking in action with Migrateful

Migrateful comes to Bristol on Monday 6 November to teach Argentinian cooking with José (see pic below).

José teaches Argentine cookery class to interested group at Migrateful

When we break bread together, we become companions.

Viva companionship! 

Vegan Taster Menu at the Agape

So Nadia persuaded Julian to cook us a vegan meal. Not just any vegan meal. Julian made it a fine dining experience, concocting a taster menu that took us on a gluten-free vegan tour of the classics. 

Julian Miles in chef's whites

Chef Julian Miles

Loved this door-opening moment with Julian in his chef’s whites. Turned out Julian worked at Demuth’s, Bath (a vegetarian and vegan cookery school whose pioneering vegetarian restaurant is now with new owners, Acorn Vegetarian Kitchen).

Julian’s partner, Ellen, is vegan (and most of us were gluten-free). This night was a playful response to their experience of restaurants which barely cater for a free-from clientele.  

Where is the gourmet vegan food? Where is gastronomy for coeliacs?

Here is a taste of Julian’s taster menu.

Amuse gueule: Arancini, BBQ houmous with garlic chutney on melba toasts and smoky tempura

Chive and mushroom consommé with tamari-smoked and paprika-roasted mushroom slivers

Those tamari-smoked and paprika-roasted mushroom – I want the recipe.

Carrot lox, cucumber sushi rolls with tamari pearls, tofu ‘fish’ with curd bean skin, triple cooked chips, fresh pea mousse and apple cider vinegar jelly

A complex crispy succulent and fresh experience with taste sensations. Real Food Lover fave.

Another pic of my fave

I have no image that does justice to the refreshing bliss of Julian’s aromatic gin herbs and lime sorbet. Another keeper.

Tofu and vegetable fajitas, nachos and guacamole with home-fermented sriracha cream

Home-fermented sriracha cream with chilli, onion, and garlic  – want this recipe too.

Little gem lettuce, coconut ‘parmesan’ biscuit, and miso dressing

A kind of mayonnaise on the lightest crisp biscuit – using coconut was brilliant (instead of the ubiquitous soya).

Vegan creme brulee, light and dreamily-delicious

Crème brûlée

I adore cream but it does not love me so this creamily-delicious yet dairy-free crème brûlée was a dream.

Thank you, Julian and Ellen, for a creative taste-tastic evening at the Agape (as we dubbed it) Living Room restaurant.