Category Archives: organic

Growing farms in the UK

Wicker basket with freshly picked produce on the ground

The day after my mother’s funeral (glitter and gold in her honour), I got my dream job, as marketing and communications manager for the Biodynamic Land Trust, a charitable community benefit society.

The Biodynamic Land Trust grows farms. Founded in 2011, it secures biodynamic and organic farmland for community-ownership, 300 acres so far.

I am excited to be with an organisation working at the grassroots. The grassroots is where it’s at.

How does a community get to own a farm? Through buying community shares.

With interest at an all-time low, many investors are thinking ‘outside the bank’. By investing  in (withdrawable) community shares in an ethical enterprise, money can do good. 

Three freshly-laid eggs in a child's hand at Huxhams Cross Farm

Take Huxhams Cross Farm in Devon. Secured by the Biodynamic Land Trust in 2015, it is achieving great things thanks to community investment. The farm is in conversion to biodynamic agriculture. Its previously-bare fields are regaining fertility through green manures and soil-nurturing biodynamic preparations. 

The fledgling farm has planted 900 orchard trees, two acres of soft fruit, and 3,500 agro-forestry trees. It has a hundred chickens and two Shetland heifers.

Run by food-growing and wellbeing experts, the Apricot Centre, it has also raised a new barn, developed access to parking and organises a weekly box delivery with fellow local farmers, offering vegetables, fruit, eggs, and spring water from Dartmoor.

Signpost at Huxhams Cross Farm

The farm needs electricity and to harvest water, and to build a training and wellbeing centre. The centre will enable cooking, on-farm processing, and on-farm therapy for children (being on a farm is incredibly de-stressing for kids and increases the therapeutic offering). 

Are you inspired to help Huxhams Cross Farm? Invest now in Huxhams Cross Farm community share offer.

Children helping with harvest at Huxhams Cross Farm

POST SCRIPT

I made marmalade on Sunday.

Preserving pan with warm marmalade

I was about to compost the pith and pips when Michael said: whoa, and now its citrusy-ness fibre goes in every smoothie.  By the way, if you can get organic Seville oranges, do. More orangey.

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For several years I have kept my mother, Fay Winkler, in marmalade.

She was my marmalade’s biggest fan.

Her testimony is below.

 

Real food lover, Fay Winkler 

Grandmother and granddaughter shelling peas at kitchen table, both focused on task

My mother, Fay Winkler, died on the 11 January 2017.  My mother is the original real food lover, who inspires her family with a love of cooking and an ancestral knowledge about what makes real food.

I have often referenced my mother on this blog. And I am not going to stop now. For instance, we have inherited a huge file of recipes including traditional Jewish dishes made by my grandmother. I can’t believe I have not yet posted about Fay’s chicken soup. 

Fay’s pavlova
Fay’s home made mayonnaise
My grandmother’s beetroot soup
Fay’s fish soup with fennel

In my 2010 blog on Fay’s fish soup made with wild sea bass, she talks about her fishmonger, Pat, in Tachbrook Street market, London: “If he packs up, I’ll pack up” she says.

Fay and Pat the fishmonger go back a long way. Here they are in the 1980s.

Fay Winkler shopping from Pat Wright fishmonger Tachbrook Street Market London SW1 in the 1980s

 

 

 

Fay believes, “good food begins with good ingredients”.

“You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear,” she says.

You have to buy the best – be it organic, free-range, fresh, seasonal, local and/or artisan – to make a good meal, she says.

If the ingredients are good, no need for complicated recipes (as her mother said before her).

Ingredients, ingredients, ingredients. The only three words you need to know when it comes to cooking.

My beautiful mother aged 93

I love you, Fay.

 

Brexit and GM food

“Waiter, waiter, where is the genetically modified food on the menu?”

Do you know anyone clamouring to eat genetically modified (GM) food?

One of the many reasons I voted Remain in the 2016 referendum was because the European Union (EU) largely protects its citizens against this unproven technology.

EU – a buffer against GM

Look, I am not saying the European Union (EU) is perfect. It needs reform. Obvs. 

But, in some areas, it has acted on my behalf.

The EU has also largely prevented the commercial growing of GM crops, only giving permission for one GM crop to be grown. 

In addition, European consumers can make informed choices about whether or not to eat GM thanks to the EU insisting that GM ingredients are labelled (unlike in North America, where its citizens are now campaigning for GM labelling). 

(Sadly, the EU does not label dairy and meat from animals fed on GM, but that is another story, and one that anti-GM campaigners are working on.).

GM is not popular in Europe. Over half of EU countries officially ban GM.

And British citizens have resoundingly rejected it. 

UK governments – Labour and Conservative – are, however, pro-GM. 

So far, the EU has prevented our green and pleasant land being turned into one giant biotech experiment.  

The question is: without the EU, how will our GM-free future fare?

Brexit uncertainty

The pack of cards is in the air.

The terms of Brexit have yet to be set in agriculture, as in all other areas.

Uncertainty creates opportunity.

Food and farming charities and organisations are wholeheartedly seizing this opportunity to lobby for sustainable farming.

However, the seed and chemical corporates are also seizing this opportunity, only in their case, to lobby for their profit-driven biotech future. 

And these multinationals have huge financial resources and well-oiled lobbying machines at their disposal.

In addition, a recent merger of Monsanto and Bayer increases their voracious drive for new markets.

To whom will our government listen, the sustainable food and farming groups, or the multinational corporations?

Hmnnn, I wonder.

Worrying signs

What will the UK government do? 

The UK government has signalled it will not be following the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). That is good – it needs reform. 

However, one of CAP’s merits is that it is strongly against GM. 

In a parliamentary written answer in October 2016, agricultural minister George Eustice said that “as part of preparations for the EU exit, the Government is considering possible future arrangements for the regulation of genetically modified organisms…Government “policy and regulation in this area” should be “science-based and proportionate”.

Possible future arrangements for regulation? From a government in favour of deregulation? Uh oh. 

Proportionate? GM Watch warns this may be a weasel word for “weaker.” 

Forgive my cynicism, but post-Brexit, I fear we are girding our loins for another fight to protect our fields and food from GM. 

Risks of GM

If the UK voted Brexit to strengthen sovereignty, then GM means a potential loss of food sovereignty.

Why? When a biotech seed company genetically modifies a seed, it gives the company the legal right to patent it. Whoever owns the seed (via a patent), controls our food supply. 

Yet seeds know no boundaries and naturally cross-pollinate. When a GM seed lands unlicensed on a farmer’s field, the farmer can be sued. 

The Guardian reports

“The agricultural giant Monsanto has sued hundreds of small farmers in the United States in recent years in attempts to protect its patent rights on genetically engineered seeds” 

Half of all seeds worldwide are now owned by a handful of multinational chemical companies, and their seeds are becoming increasingly expensive.

According to Charles Benbrook, chief scientist at the US Organic Center: “The $70 per bag price set for [GM] RR2 soybeans in 2010 is twice the cost of conventional seed and reflects a 143% increase in the price of GM seed since 2001”.

GM ties farmers into expensive arrangements because they have to buy the proprietary pesticide that goes with the GM seed engineered to not die when sprayed with these proprietary pesticides. 

GM alters the genetic make-up of seeds – a GM seed is not the same as its non-GM counterpart

We do not know if GM food is safe or healthy to eat.

There are rising incidences of allergies in the US where, due to the lack of labelling, consumers have unwittingly consumed GM for decades. There is a growing body of studies which suggests GM food can be harmful

Organic standards ban genetically modified ingredients from every stage of production – one of the many reasons I chose organic food. 

Citizens, be vigilant!

So, fellow real food lovers, I beg you, get informed about the risks of GM.

What do you think?

♫ Good, good, good, good bacteria ♫

A Kilner jar of sauerkraut made by Real Food LoverI wrote this long piece about good bacteria for the Sustainable Food Trust, which has given me permission to republish it here (slightly edited).

Thank you, Sustainable Food Trust.

♫ Good, good, good, good bacteria ♫

Recent research on the role of bacteria suggests we need a radical rethink about what makes us healthy.

Thanks to advances in genetic sequencing, scientists are starting to discover, categorise and understand the importance of the vast universe of microbial organisms that lives invisibly on, in and around us.

In May 2015, results from studies conducted by Tim Spector, professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London, showed that a ten-day diet of junk food caused the loss of 1,300 species of beneficial bacteria in the intestines.

Professor Spector said: “Microbes get a bad press, but only a few of the millions of species are harmful, and many are crucial to our health.”

Instead of bacteria being our deadly foe, it turns out the vast majority are really our best friends – and our oldest.

According to the Human Microbiome Project, our ‘live-in’ molecules – the single cell organisms including bacteria and fungi that are neither plant nor animal but in a category of their own – have evolved symbiotically with us and our pre-historic ancestors since time began.

Like the best of relationships, we are inter-dependent. We provide energy via food to our single-cell friends: in return, they perform a myriad of life-giving activities.

As it is in our gut, so it is in the soil. The idea articulated by Sustainable Food Trust, director Patrick Holden, that healthy topsoil thrives because of microbial activity – functioning in a similar way to human digestion – illustrates the interconnectedness of everything.

In the dark of topsoil, microscopic microbes perform vital tasks to maintain the health of soil life. Meanwhile, in the dark of our digestive system, trillions of tiny microbes are likewise busy keeping our bodies healthy.

The role of beneficial bacteria is multi-functional. A key role of both soil and gut bacteria is digestion. These beneficial bacteria break down nutrients into digestible forms that can be assimilated by the plant’s roots, or the gut lining in our intestines, enabling both plants and humans to thrive.

As well as bacteria being an essential component of digestion, beneficial bacteria also help to repel disease and are a key component of a healthy immune system.

The number of microorganisms living invisibly in the world is mind-boggling: one teaspoon of rich garden soil can hold one billion bacteria along with fungi and other microorganisms.

As for the bacteria in a symbiotic relationship with us, the majority live in the walls of our intestines. This community of diverse bacterial species, called the gut microbiome, weighs about two kilos.

There is a clear analogy between soil and human digestion and, according to nutritionist and author Daphne Lambert, there is also a direct relationship. In her book Living Food: A Feast of Soil and Soul, she traces the origins of soil eating for health, drawing on recent studies to argue for increased exposure to soil to build immunity.

Daphne Lambert writes, “Today our food industry kills off these organisms and together with our excessively clean households this means few if any of these soil-based organisms manage to find their way into the human digestive system.”

According to Daphne Lambert, there is evidence to suggest that the ingestion of soil-based organisms from a vibrant, healthy soil enhance the functioning of our gastrointestinal tract.

But our modern lifestyles break the link between healthy soils and healthy humans, with fewer people than ever before working on the land and every last trace of soil washed off the vegetables we buy.

But what about the scary bugs? Small children are naturally drawn to soil but it’s usually us adults who start freaking out about the dirt. Take heart that the benefit of handling soil far outweighs the risks. First, the good bacteria outnumber the bad. Second, we develop the capacity to deal with the bad ’uns by the very practice of being exposed to microbes in the first place.

Initially proposed in 1989, the hygiene hypothesis in medicine shows that we do small children a disservice by keeping them in a sterile environment. Getting down and dirty is how our immune system learns to defend us from disease.

Children who develop healthy immune systems in this way will doubtless be better able to resist infections. However, a word of caution: a great deal of our soil has had its inherent health degraded by intensive agricultural methods and intensive farms can be breeding grounds for dangerous bacteria such as E.coli O157, so hand washing hygiene is called for in some situations.

Ideally, we should be able to ditch our antibacterial cleaners too. Rather than obliterating all bacteria, we could take a leaf out of traditional Asian cultures and clean our houses with a fermented solution of probiotics that feeds good bacteria, which then eat up the bad smells, dirt and grease caused by harmful bacteria.

(Yet, in our spoiled and imperfect world there will be exceptions here too, and caution is needed, especially when preparing chicken, which is so often a source of campylobacter infections).

Good bacteria in food

Just as we can colonise our homes [I swear by Libby Chan probiotic cleaner!] and soil with good bacteria, so we can restore health to our gut.

When it comes to the human diet, nutritional therapists commonly agree that the best way to create good gut bacteria via what we eat is to eat more as our ancestors ate and adopt a three-step approach: reduce sugar, raise fibre and eat fermented foods.

Take sugar first. Or rather don’t! Bad bacteria feed on sugar and they start complaining when they don’t get it. Based on a review of recent scientific literature, US researchers found that gut microbes may cause us to crave the very nutrients they need to grow, by releasing signalling molecules into our system.

You can diminish bad bacteria by giving your good bacteria a boost with prebiotics, or fibre on which good bacteria feed. As Daphne Lambert explains:

“The intestine lacks the enzymes necessary to break down oligosaccharides so they move through to the colon where they serve as food for beneficial existing bacteria so they grow and multiply, squeezing out bad bacteria. Oligosaccharides are found in many foods but there is a major one for each season: onions in winter, asparagus in spring, leeks in summer, and Jerusalem artichokes in autumn. Nature really has got it right.”

Finally, fermented foods are important. Bacteriology may be in its infancy, but, according to author and food campaigner, Michael Pollan, every traditional food culture has fermented food in its diet. Think sauerkraut, chocolate, tamari and kimchi.

“Fermented foods not only produce amazing tastes, they also increase nutrients,” says Daphne Lambert. “Growing colonies of microbial cultures makes nutrients more available, and also increases them, including vitamins and especially Vitamin B.”

Fermented foods are low-energy – they require no cooking or refrigeration. By preserving summer foods throughout long winters or saving food from decomposition in tropical heat, humans have survived inhospitable climates. Captain Cook famously took sauerkraut (fermented cabbage) to reduce scurvy on his sea voyages.

Check out fermentation workshops including by Daphne Lambert, [and Annie Levy who turned me on to the joys of fermentation by sending me a jar of kimchi through the post!].

Most bacteria are notoriously hard to culture in a petri dish, so our knowledge of bacteria’s many uses is still severely limited. One of the most widely known bacteria is Lactobacillus acidophilus – the Latin for acid-loving milk bacterium – which predigests food, transforming, for instance, milk into yogurt.

“The more foods you eat that aid digestion the better, and in many cases these foods are beneficial because of bacteria,” says Daphne Lambert. “It is about understanding our relationship with bacteria – not annihilating them. By declaring war on bacteria, we are declaring war on life itself.”

The following is from a collection of over 80 recipes  from Daphne Lambert’s excellent book, Living Food: a Feast for Soil and Soul, which celebrates a gastronomy that is good both for human and planetary health.

Fermented vegetables

Cabbage is cheap to buy. Once fermented, it adds complex and delicious flavours – one of the joys of life.

Sauerkraut

3 medium-size white cabbage heads (about 2 kilos)

1 four-litre clean glass jar

2–3 tablespoons sea salt

Shred the cabbage and place it in a large metal bowl. Sprinkle over one tablespoon of salt and pound gently with a wooden rolling pin to help pull the water out of the cabbage. Cover with a cloth and leave overnight. The next morning, place about two inches of cabbage into the glass jar and press firmly down, sprinkle with a little salt and repeat until the jar is full. As you layer up you can add spices and herbs to flavour.

Firmly compress the layers of cabbage. Place a weight on top like a jam jar filled with water to make sure the cabbage is completely submerged by the brine (if necessary add a little water). Cover with a cloth to protect from flies. Every day, push the cabbage gently down. Let the jar sit at room temperature. After a week the cabbage has fermented sufficiently to be eaten, but you can leave it for a further couple of weeks. If you are not going to eat the cabbage straight away, fit with a lid and store in a cool, dry place where the tangy flavour will continue to develop. Once you start eating the cabbage, keep it in the fridge.

[Here is my take on Making Sauerkraut.]

Fermented grains

Many grains in different parts of the world are made more digestible through fermentation: in Japan, the soya bean is fermented into traditional fermented foods such as tempeh, soy sauce and miso. In Africa, millet is fermented for several days to produce a sour porridge called ogi, and in India rice and lentils are fermented for at least two days before making idli and dosas. Corn was fermented before using in Mexico, and, throughout Europe, grains used to be soaked overnight in soured milk ready to make porridge in the morning.

It’s easy to start soaking grains and this simple process is an enormous aid to digestion. Soak your chosen grain in water for a minimum of eight hours at room temperature. You can assist the process by adding a little fermented (sauerkraut) vegetable juice or yogurt.

Fermented whole oat porridge

By fermenting the whole oat grouts (whole oats) before cooking, the flavour of the porridge is enhanced, the grains are more digestible and there is greater nutrient bioavailability.

Place oat grouts in a bowl, just cover with water and leave at room temperature for two days. You can leave for longer if you choose to create a more intense acidic flavour. To assist the process, add a tablespoon of sauerkraut juice, apple cider vinegar or kefir to the water.

Strain the oats, saving the soak water, then simply eat the grains as they are with soaked nuts and seeds and seasonal fruits. Alternatively, you can cook the grouts, either in the soak liquid or fresh water, depending on your flavour preference. Gently heat the oats and cook very slowly until thick and creamy. Add a pinch of salt and serve with whatever you fancy.

May your good bacteria flourish!

Beetroot and feta salad 

A bowl of cooked beetroot and feta cheese
There was a time I barely knew you, beetroot. I thought I had your number (only good for borscht) but oh your hidden depths. 

Raw in beetroot and carrot salad, roasted for caramelised sweetness, sumptuous in chocolate brownies

Beetroot’s unequivocal colour makes it a natural dye. Bear in mind beetroot turns  everything red. (Including your urine). 

Red is fitting because iron-rich beetroot helps make red blood cells. Its powerful pigment is due to the super-nutrient, betacyanin. Beetroot has been used medicinally for centuries because it helps detoxify the liver. 

This is my current fave way to eat beetroot. 

Beetroot and feta salad 

The feta adds creamy saltiness to beetroot’s natural sweetness, while the raw red onion adds succulent crunch and freshness. 

You can substitute crumbly white cheese such as Caerphilly, or fried tofu, for the feta.

Two large beetroots or a few small ones 

1-2 small red onions or shallots sliced/chopped 

Packet of feta cheese 

Olive oil and balsamic to taste 

Scrape or peel beetroots. Cut into chunks or cubes, cover with cold water and bring to the boil then simmer for about 25 minutes or until beetroot is easy to cut but not too soft. 

Drain the beetroot (drink the cooled cooking juice!), and put into a serving bowl. Add the cut-up red onion and diced feta. Drizzle the beetroot with oil and vinegar. 

Beetroot grows in the UK, and stores well – a perfect winter vegetable, and very versatile. 

What are your fave ways to eat the beet? 

#Soil 

img_1073-1This pic of healthy soil was taken on Holt Farm, Yeo Valley’s organic farm in Somerset.

Its 240-herd  of black and white British Friesian provides 1% of the organic milk used for Yeo Valley’s organic yoghurt. (The rest of the milk comes from organic milk cooperative, OMSCo which Yeo Valley farm owners, Mary Mead and her late husband Roger, helped form when they started making organic yogurt in the early 1990s).  

Holt farm – where Yeo’s Mary and Roger Mead first started farming in  1961 – was fully converted to organic by 2009. 

John Wilson has been managing the farm for 22 years. The soil had been damaged by the use of non-organic farming methods: it flooded in winter and cracked in the summer.

The soil had too much magnesium, and not enough calcium. By correcting it with gypsum, it led to more open and crumbly soil. The process took two to three years.
Soil! I am mad for it. Some think it is worthless because it is under our feet.  But without it, we cannot eat.

We grow most of our food on this thin strip of soil perched on earth’s crust.

And, one of the biggest differences between organic and non-organic farming is the way the soil is fed.

Non-organic farming uses chemical fertiliser. This is like feeding a child vitamins out of a bottle. It may give the nutrients needed but it does not nourish. 
In contrast, organic farming uses a variety of biological ways to replenish and nourish the soil including nitrogen-fixing plants such as clover, rotted-down animal manure, and/or green compost.

This is like real food to soil.

O foolish world! Why do we go to the expense of producing factory-made fertiliser (which is also resource-intensive and produces tonnes of greenhouse gas) when you can replenish the soil far more effectively with natural fertilisers?

Healthy soil has more life in a teaspoon than there are people on the planet.

As the nature poet Helen MacDonald says about our poor grasp of the interconnectedness of everything: “The things that live in soil are too small to care about; climate change too large to imagine …”
Holt Farm now has more moles because there more earthworms in the thriving healthy soil for the moles to eat. You see…everything IS connected.

Happy Organic September!

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Raw green herby sauce and Organic September

bowl of cooked new potatoes with green vinaigrette dressing

This deliciously green sauce or vinaigrette is versatile in many ways. You can use a variety of fresh herbs or salad leaves such as baby spinach/rocket/chives/dill/ mint, and also combine them. Further versatility comes because the green sauce will zazz up many a dish.

Here it is (see pic) poured over new potatoes. Just cooked, the warm potatoes soak up the fresh, green zinginess.

My idea behind this sauce is to put the greens/herbs centre-stage. They do not merely flavour a vinaigrette but positively overwhelm it. By using the greens raw, you get freshness and taste, and as well as many nutrients as possible because they are not lost by cooking. The raw garlic cloves add further immunity-boosting power, and sparky taste.

I use my trusty blender wand to whizz it all up. About £20,  this is an excellent investment, takes up little room in the kitchen and is fab for smoothies. 

Raw green herby sauce or vinaigrette

Trusty hand blender in blender pot full of greens, with gartlic, lomon juice, balsamic and olive oil standing by

The amounts below are approximate. Natural yogurt is also superb whizzed into this dressing. Or add a spoonful or two of tahini. The greens will produce their own moisture as you whizz it all up, but if you want more liquid, add olive oil – not water , which will make it too watery. 

About 50g of fresh herbs/greens 

1/2 raw peeled cloves of garlic, roughly chopped (I use 3/4 cloves) 

Olive oil  3/4 tablespoons to start

Natural yogurt / 1-2 dessertspoons of tahini (optional) 

Balsamic/ lemon juice (half -1 lemon squeezed)

Add the leaves and roughly-chopped garlic to a measuring jug (something with tall sides that will contain the liquid while you whizz).  Add in a couple of glugs of olive oil, and start blending. Add natural yogurt or tahini if desired or more olive oil until sauce is creamy and pourable. Add vinegar or lemon juice, and salt to taste.

The sauce is a glorious green colour.

If possible, use organic, or unsprayed, ingredients.

Why organic?

Growing with nature increases a crop’s nutrient content, and thus its taste. Let your taste buds be the judge of this statement, but your brain may be interested to know that an international team led by Newcastle University found organic crops are up to 60% higher in a number of key antioxidants (nutrients) than ones grown the chemical farming way.

There are two reasons for this. One is related to how the soil is fertilised, the second is how plant fights disease. 

1) Using factory-made chemical fertiliser draws more water into the plant. The crop may grow quickly but is also more sappy than crops grown with natural fertiliser. Food grown the natural way has more density. (Chemical fertiliser is banned in organic farming, which instead uses biological methods, such as composting and crop rotation, to create healthy soil).

2) Plants naturally produce valuable antioxidants to keep disease and pests at bay (which we in turn benefit from when we eat the plant). When plants are sprayed with pesticides, they produce fewer antioxidants because the chemical spray is doing the work for them. (Killing pests with pesticides is a crude way of protecting a plant because it involves lots of nasty chemicals and kills beneficial insects too, such as bees. The organic way is more creative, using a host of natural and biological methods to keep pests away.).

The way we farm affects the food we eat. You get more carrot for your carrot. In fact, the Newcastle team suggests that switching to organic fruit and vegetables may have the same benefits as adding one or two portions of the recommended “five a day”. Just switching a few of your fave items to organic will add nutritional joy to your life. 

So, why not organic your September?

 

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Hard boiled eggs in raw herby vinaigrette sauce

Thank you, my dear acting colleague, Nichola Taylor, from the Barded Ladies, for asking for the recipe.