Taking Stock of UK Dairy Farming in 2019

Throughout February the dairy industry has promoted the positive aspects of dairy under the hashtag #Februdairy.  This was, at least in part, in response to the negative press that dairy has received at the hands of vegans, including the shocking revelation that a list of dairy farms to be targeted for abuse exists.  As if having to contend with bTB and prices so low that many dairy farms have already gone out of business weren’t enough, our farmers are now being persecuted for feeding us. The #Februdairy campaign was one that I was happy to support, mainly from my perspective as a cook but also as a long-standing protector of endangered foods.  One of the advantages of a month-long focus on one single aspect of food and farming was that I discovered several new producers and initiatives.  What follows is a summary of my findings over this month.

Milk – nutritious and affordable

The Campaign Mission4Milk was launched on 22nd February to continue the work of promoting the health benefits of milk post #Februdairy.  Dairy is now widely seen as fattening and dairy-free is a phrase all too frequently seen as a positive.  Yet rickets, a disease thought to have been eradicated in Britain, is again on the rise, and milk is one of the main dietary safeguards against this.  It is as near a whole food as we can get and personally, when I am struggling to get my young nephews to eat a balanced diet, I heave a sigh of relief that they will always drink milk.  The fact that it is so cheap (too cheap) makes it one of the best sources of nutrition for those on very limited incomes.  Whilst I have concerns about the effectiveness of blanket marketing of dairy products (see below), these attributes remain tremendously important.

Grazing as protection against the effects of climate change

The highest temperatures ever to be recorded in February occurred this year and most farmers were able to turn their cows out to graze.  Whilst one incidence of unusual temperatures is not proof of global warming, the subject did get a lot of coverage this month.  School children went “on strike” to highlight their demands for climate change to be declared an emergency and a book, The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells, was published stating that things were much worse than previously thought.  This brought the role of grazing in land management into focus.  Despite last year’s drought and predictions of similar this year, the UK climate is still one of the best in the world for growing grass.

Two-thirds of UK farmland is down to grass, much of it unsuited to growing any other type of crop.  Grazing it with livestock is the only way to convert grass into food for human consumption.  The degradation of our soil and its inability to hold water can also be restored by effective grazing, broadly termed “mob grazing”, which has is much more effective than random grazing or just spreading slurry.  The land and air quality can be further improved by Silvopasture – planting trees and hedges.  Far from being bad for the environment, grazing should be considered part of the solution

Whilst nearly all cattle and sheep in the UK are predominantly grass-fed, the amount of time spent grazing outdoors varies considerably, in addition the health benefits of grass-fed diminish considerably in a pretty short time of grain feeding.  Two organisations to look out for are Free Range Dairy whose Pasture Promise label guarantees a minimum on 180 days a year outdoors, and Pasture for Life, which certifies 100% grass fed meat and, for the first time this month, cheese.

The Ethical Dairy

Animal welfare is the first objection to dairy raised by vegans.  They believe that milking animals for the benefit of humans is an abuse of those animals and there is probably nothing that can convince them that dairy cows are very well looked after and happy.  However, there is one aspect that dairy farmers themselves are uncomfortable with, and that is what to do with the bull calves.  Finding someone to take them can be difficult and some farmers have to give them away but there is a slowly increasing market for veal and for some farms this is a profitable diversification.

An increasing number of micro-dairies are even affording to keep the calves with their mothers until they are ready to be weaned.  Obviously, this reduces the volume of milk available for sale, but people seem prepared to pay for it (up to £3.90 a litre) and Radio 4’s Farming Today programme recently discussed how this approach could be upscaled.

Marketing

“Business as usual won’t convince Millennials to consume dairy” is the title of an article by micro-dairy and beef farmer Alex Heffron, the full text of which can be read here: https://sustainablefoodtrust.org/articles/business-as-usual-wont-convince-millennials-to-consume-dairy/

It expresses perfectly the thoughts that had been gathering in my own mind.  As someone with a passion for food who can afford to pay for it to be produced in the way I prefer, I needed to question whether micro-dairies will remain a niche market or whether in fact they provide a way forward for dairy farming.

I have been fully behind Farmers for Action in their efforts to force a fair price for milk.  However, I believe that a system that has seen milk reduced to a mere commodity will inevitably see it traded as such.  Under this system there is no reward to the farmer who takes better care of his land or animals, whose milk might taste better or be more nutritious.  It all ends up, literally, in the same pot, with organic being the only significant differentiation.  Below are three extracts from Alex’s article, which is well worth reading in its entirety, but these points explain why I have concluded that his approach is right.

…I think the dairy industry needs to look at what’s underlying consumer concerns. Why is it, for example, that older generations say dairy is good for them, and younger generations say that it is bad for them? What’s happened in the last couple of decades that’s led to such a wholesale change in opinion? Dairy is still the nutritional food source it always was – after all, northern Europeans are very well adapted to consuming milk thanks to a chance genetic mutation thousands of years ago.

…Identity can lead to trust – or lack of it. If your milk is packaged in a bland, plastic bottle and you don’t know what farm, region or even country that it’s produced in and there’s no information about how it’s produced, then it’s hard to trust its provenance. I think farmers underestimate the importance of provenance, as they take knowing where their food comes from for granted. The general public are wanting to know more about their milk, as well as other foods. The dairy industry’s mass marketing campaigns for a nebulous product are missing the point.

…There are two basic issues that face farmers and they’re both intertwined. They’re paid too poorly, and they’re undervalued and under-appreciated. This is inevitable in a commodity market. The rebranding and re-localisation of milk is an essential first step towards addressing these issues. Farmers will feel better about the work they do, and rightfully get paid more for it. There is a revolution in dairy waiting to happen and some innovative farmers are already starting to reap the rewards. Those who are investing in bottling their own milk, producing their own cheese, yoghurt or kefir, and connecting with their customers are getting a head start in a completely uncontested marketplace. It can be done on the individual farm level or in co-operatives, but it won’t be achieved in supermarkets. This is a chance for farmers to take back some of the power from large corporations.

Unique Selling Points

To market your own milk you need to have a “unique” selling point.  In addition to the health and welfare angles discussed above here are some more things that people are willing to pay more for:

  • Breed – Most of the early adopters of direct selling have traditional dairy breeds. Several of these sell their milk raw. They have also been the most likely to have the alternative of selling their milk to a cheesemaker who will pay a higher price for the suitable fat structure.  There is a shortage of milk suitable for cheesemaking as Francis Gimblett found when he started his Surrey cheese business three years ago.   Of the 23 farms within a 30-mile radius, most couldn’t supply him, either because their contracts with the big dairies wouldn’t allow it, or the milk quality wasn’t good enough for making cheese.  When people can really taste the difference, they are far more likely to remain loyal to a brand.  There are fewer options for those who followed the high-yield path provided by Holstein, but it has been done!
  • Glass Bottles – Concern about plastic has led to a rapid rise in those who would like to buy their milk in a glass bottle, or even their own re-useable vessel.  Glass bottles stand out on the shelf.  A vending machine can give both options.  Josh Hares runs a 200 head herd of Holstein Friesians at his farm near Wells and the decision to install a vending machine as well as finding a market for his bull calves enabled that farm to turn things around following a long period of bTB.  Full article here: https://www.fginsight.com/vip/vip/making-dairy-pay–17994
  • Diversification – sorry to use the word, but I’m not talking Yoghurt not Yurts here!  I live next door to the headquarters of Yeo Valley Dairy, who made their name selling yoghurt when it was still a niche product.  Today’s equivalent would, I think, be Kefir.  Only a year or two ago it was only to be found in a health food shop but now even Arla are doing it.  Those really interested in health want a pure product but the price paid reflects that, e.g. Daylesford Organic Milk Kefir sells for £4.99 for 500ml via Ocado and their flavoured Kefir, via their own shop, for £3.99 for 250ml.  Ice Cream has proved another popular route to getting value from your milk and there is still plenty of potential for good butter, of which we are still a net importer.

You can see Suzanne’s #Februdairy tweets on Twitter @RealFoodSuzie

Good Cooking starts with Good Ingredients

Anyone who cooks every day will at times lack inspiration about what to cook for the next meal.  Nature should provide us with that inspiration, offering up the best produce of the season. We will soon be entering the “hungry gap” – that time of year when even the stored fruit and vegetables of autumn and winter are well past their best and spring has yet to offer up much that is harvestable.

Yet it is not only during the “hungry gap” that people struggle, partly owing to us having become used to everything being available from somewhere or other in the world at any time of the year.   How I have laughed recently at those panicking at not being able to buy a courgette or iceberg lettuce this winter!

Supermarkets, for many varied reasons, are not good places to buy food. Even chefs, who rarely go out to shop but instead rely on suppliers to deliver produce to their kitchen, suffer when they lose their connection to the ingredients.  I have witnessed this many times, most recently observing at close quarters how a love of cooking can be rediscovered by reconnecting with produce and producers through personal shopping at farmers’ markets.  All good cooks will be familiar with the frustration they experience on holiday when they visit a market but don’t have a kitchen in which to cook the produce.  Every now and again it is helpful for all of us to shake up our buying habits to find that inspiration again.

To help you evaluate whether your food shopping has got into a rut, try the following review, which considers what you ate this past winter, from 1 December to 28 February.

Meat

  1. 1. Winter is peak time for wild game, how many of the following did you eat?
  • Pheasant or Partridge
  • Pigeon
  • Hare
  • Wild Venison or Boar
  • Wild Duck
  • Snipe/Plover/Woodcock
  1. 2. How many of the following did you buy, direct from the producer, as a whole, half, or quarter animal?
  • Beef
  • Lamb
  • Pork
  • Goose
  • Turkey
  • Chicken or Guinea Fowl
  1. 3. Whole (or part) carcass buying does not always include the “odd bits”.  How many of the following did you eat?
  • Ready-made Black Pudding, Haggis or Faggots
  • Tail, Trotters or Feet
  • Kidneys, Liver, Heart or other internal organs
  • Cheek, Tongue, Brain, Ears or other part of Head
  • Sweetbreads or testicles
  • Short ribs, Bavette or Feather-blade beef

Fish

  1. 4. We are an island nation and yet our fish consumption is low and very limited in variety, how many of the following did you achieve this winter?
  • Cooking a whole fish on the bone
  • Eating fish at least twice a week
  • Eating mackerel, sardines, kippers or sprats
  • Eating at home oysters, mussels or other bivalves
  • Cooking fresh squid, cuttlefish or octopus
  • Eating any of the following: sand eels, conger eel, gurnard, grey mullet or megrim sole
  • Eat any of these shellfish: hand-dived scallops, creel caught langoustine, British lobster

Vegetables

  1. How many types of vegetable or salad leaf did you have growing in your own garden/allotment/windowsill during the winter?
  1. 6. How many of the following did you grow or buy direct from the grower?
  • Kale
  • Flower sprouts, sprouting broccoli or other sprouting brassica
  • Celeriac, Jerusalem artichokes
  • Land Cress, Mustard and Cress or other micro leaves
  • Root Chicory, Radicchio
  • White cabbage
  • Cardoons

How did you do?

The above is not an exhaustive list of British produce available in the winter and some things are easier to source than others, for example if you ate cardoons you probably grew them yourself.  Snipe, plover and woodcock are all illegal to sell (although not to shoot) and hare, whilst legal to sell, is rare in some parts of the country.  So, you may not even wish to eat everything on the list, but it does highlight how we limit our choice if we source our food from only one place.  Here are some suggestions for widening your range of produce.

Meat

I could not eat such a range of meat if I did not own a chest freezer.  At the peak of the shooting season I can have half a dozen birds in a week.  Although I like to eat game close to the season, really just because it messes with my mind otherwise, I know there are plenty of people freezing down pheasant breasts for their summer barbeques.  Game is fantastic value and very good for you, being high in Omega 3 and low in fat.  Some of it is in such plentiful supply that numbers need active control – wild deer being the top example but pigeons and rabbits can also exist in such large numbers that they are a pest.  If you shoot yourself, there will be farmers who will welcome your help in controlling these.  If you don’t shoot, make friends with someone who does or look out for game on sale at Farmers’ Markets.

A freezer also enables you to buy farmed meat direct from the producer in larger quantities.  There are considerable savings to be made if you can buy, for example, a whole or half lamb.  For the farmer, it means that every part of the animal is sold, as when people buy single joints from a butcher there tends to be a big inequality of demand for different joints.  You don’t even have to live near the farmer to buy this way, many of them sell online.

Chefs have done a great job in popularising some of the lesser known cuts of meat.  Sometimes this results in a previously cheap cut becoming far more expensive – lamb shanks being a case in point.  Staying ahead of these trends is the way to continue paying less for your meat as well as helping ensure that every part is used.

Since we lost so many local abattoirs it has become increasingly difficult to find many of these less popular parts.  The offal has to be used whilst the carcase is still hanging.  Abattoirs are supposed to return any requested offal to the farmers but my local farm shop reports that they are constantly having battles because they can see that some of the things returned to them don’t relate to their own animals.  Apparently, it all gets quite mixed up at the abattoir, and that is if they comply by returning things at all, I have, for example, found fresh suet increasingly difficult to buy.

You will find many direct suppliers of meat online, here are just a couple of sites to start you off:

http://www.britishwildboar.org.uk/index.htm?Suppliers.htm

https://www.primalmeats.co.uk

http://pipersfarm.com/

Fish

Unless you live by the sea, finding a fishmonger can be very difficult.  Unlike meat, fish does not freeze well, but if you do have to go down this route it is better to buy it ready-frozen than to freeze your own – unless of course you have caught it, in which case you have little option.  Fish that has been frozen at sea has been frozen very fresh and very fast, which reduces the size of the ice particles that form – the major problem for texture when freezing.

Others methods of preservation are well-worth considering.  I get to buy fish just once a week but will often buy delicious Craster Kippers alongside my fresh fish in order to eat fish at least twice a week.  Smoked Mackerel or canned sardines are also excellent options for lunches, but you need to find a quality source.  I buy Connetable sardines online in bulk so that I always have a supply in my larder.

The fishmonger I use has a stand at the local Farmer’s Market and it always has the longest queue of any stand there.  Despite the fantastic selection that they have on display, and their skills in preparing it for you, I am always amazed by the number of people who seem to buy the same thing every week – usually fillets or sometimes steaks, salmon and cod being the most popular.  Cooking fish is quick and easy – the buying is the hard part.  If you are not confident, this is one subject where it really pays to do a cookery course.  Contact me if you would like to come to Somerset for a day learning how to cook fish. Or just buy yourself a good fish cookery book and work your way through that.

Vegetables

Everybody ought to grow something themselves, even if it is just mustard and cress on the windowsill.  Quite a few gardeners grow only in the summer and yet the active gardening, even for winter vegetables, has to be done whilst the day length is sufficiently long for the growing.  Winter vegetables then just sit there enabling you to harvest them over a long period and to always have something fresh you can fall back on.   If you want to try this for the first time, Cavolo Nero would be my suggestion – it looks wonderful and you can strip as few or as many leaves as you need, even when there is snow on the ground.  They will regrow, albeit fairly slowly.  Don’t forget a pot or trough, kept close to the back door, from which you can snip some fresh salad leaves – I grow Landcress for a winter supply.

More and more people now have a vegetable box delivered.  Try to make this from a local grower.  I think we have rather missed the point if the vegetables are being grown abroad and then transported all over this country.  Local growers will often offer a cheaper price if you are prepared to take a box of unstipulated vegetables, enabling them to pick whatever is at its best at the time.

I hope this has given you a few ideas for increasing the range of food you eat.  Your starting point should always be the produce, then find the recipe rather than the other way around.  Happy Eating!

Cooked Cheese

Melted cheese is perhaps the ultimate comfort food, ideally suited to cold weather – it is no wonder that the Alps have provided so many melted cheese dishes.  The prototype is Raclette, charmingly and simply described in the novel Heidi where the Alm Uncle melts cheese on a toasting fork held in front of the open fire.  In the Swiss canton of Valais, Raclette cheese is made specifically for this purpose.

Most cheese making countries have at least one cheese that is ideal for melting, Gruyère and Emmental in Switzerland, Cheddar and Cheshire in England, Caerphilly in Wales and Dunlop in Scotland. In Italy there is Fontina from the Alps, whilst from the south Mozzarella or Scamorza.

Melted cheese can take on a variety of textures from soft and creamy to elastic and stringy, depending on the cheese used and the method of melting.  Some, Vacherin Mont d’Or being the prime example, can simply be baked as a whole cheese, perhaps with an added flavouring of garlic, quince paste, or even slices of truffle.  Other examples of classic dishes of the soft and melting variety are the alpine Fondue and Fonduta, or Welsh Rarebit and Cauliflower Cheese in Britain.  The elastic and stringy are encountered in French Onion Soup, Croque Monsieur and Mozzarella in Carozza.

Cheese is notorious for being indigestible, keeping one awake at night or suffering bad dreams, and it is a good idea to pair cheese dishes with alcohol to aid the digestion. At all costs avoid drinking cold water with melted cheese as they will combine to form a ball in your stomach that will make you uncomfortable for hours.

Recipe – Tartiflette

Cupping

“Cupping” is the term used by those in the trade when tasting and comparing coffee beans. I recently attended a course with freelance coffee trainer Daisy Rollo to learn more about this.

When I teach cookery I am always urging pupils to taste more frequently – both the individual ingredients and the dish as cooking progresses.  The more you taste and evaluate the more attributes you will be able to taste. However, there is usually a method for tasting any food to ensure you can fully assess all the critical components and a tutored tasting with an expert is always worthwhile.  Here’s what I learnt about tasting coffee.

Aroma –  at least 80% of “taste” is actually experienced via the olfactory channel, after all we already known that the predominant pure taste of coffee is bitter.  But against this background it is amazing how many nuances of flavour can be detected.  We began our session just smelling different numbered bottles to identify some of these.
Chocolate, caramel and even peat probably won’t surprise you but wait – is that dark or milk chocolate? Caramel or butterscotch?  Then there were a whole host of unexpected flavours that might be detected when tasting coffee, including some that would indicate a fault in the processing (rotting potato for example) and numerous fruits ranging from prunes to red currants.

Process – the method of processing the beans and making the coffee obviously have an impact on the flavour so ideally cupping would begin with smelling the green coffee beans so that the process had yet to interfere.    We used the infusion method of brewing in glasses and ground our beans on a medium setting.  More precisely, 13g of coffee was steeped for 4 minutes in 210ml of water that had been heated to between 90 and 95 degrees centigrade, i.e. slightly below boiling point.

Remembering that your sense of smell is the most important tool in tasting, before the water is added to the ground beans make notes of your first impressions.  Does it, for example, smell fresh or stale?    Adding water will intensify the aroma, so the first step is again smelling, but this time the wet rather than dry grounds.  To do this use a soup (or cupping) spoon to break the crust by pushing the spoon away from you, inhaling as you do so.  Repeat this push three times as you continue to smell the coffee.  You should at this stage be able to assess something of the acidity, i.e. whether the coffee smells smooth or lively; fruity or sweet.  You might also detect some actual flavours from the aroma, i.e, fruits, herbs, spices, chocolate.

Having noted what you can smell it is time to actually taste some coffee.  For this you need to remove the all the froth from the surface (the grounds will by now have sunk to the bottom) and then slurp a spoonful of the liquid, ensuring it washes over the tongue to the back of the mouth and incorporating air as you do so.  This is no time for worrying about your table manners!

The taste often just confirms the aromas, but all manner of faults may be detected here, especially when the taste doesn’t correspond with your expectations from smelling.  You will also be able to comment on the “mouthfeel” or body  i.e. is it full and rich, thin or fat; and what about the aftertaste? You can continue slurping for up to three minutes, during which time the coffee will reveal more of its attributes, but if you are comparing several coffee beans you may prefer to spit the coffee out to keep a clear head!

I was little disappointed with my lack of ability to detect all of the flavours that the grower (or more usually roaster) had listed, but I guess that takes practice as my fellow pupils were also struggling to some extent. Sometimes however the discrepancy was owing to inconsistent roasting.

There were however one or two definite trends that I picked up on.  A coffee that tastes “tea like” was probably grown in Ethiopia for example.  It also helps to look for the different families of flavour, so that, for example, there will usually be some fruit association but is it citrus or red berry? Nuttiness is also frequently detected even if you can’t identify which nut.

As someone that limits their coffee intake to one cup a day I’m unlikely to progress to identifying my preference in coffee at different times of day, or even to accompany different foods, but the experience was nonetheless fascinating and instructive, as I always find it when in the presence of someone who is passionate about their work.  It was clear that finding equally passionate growers and roasters is critical to good coffee and Daisy is of the opinion that, although growing in number, there are still only a few that she would wholeheartedly recommend, all of whom buy direct from small, speciality coffee farms.  Sorry that all are in the south of England, but most sell on-line.

Cornwall-based Origin Coffee www.origincoffee.co.uk

Round Hill Roastery near Bath

Extract Coffee Roasters in Bristol

James Gourmet Coffee in Ross-on-Wye

In London:

Climpson and sons

Union Hand Roasted

Monmouth Coffee

Ozone Coffee

Small Batch (also on Brighton Station)

For courses see Daisy Rollo at www.coffeaarabica.co.uk

Monday’s Supper

Some of the world’s most delicious dishes evolved as a way of using up leftovers. Such a mainstay of our culinary repertoire have a Shepherd’s or Cottage Pie become that many people buy fresh minced meat to make them forgetting that they too originated as a way of using up leftover cooked meat.  Technically I believe a Shepherd’s Pie should contain lamb whilst a Cottage Pie contains beef, although the two names are frequently interchanged – even in the following rhyme which comes from Dorothy Hartley’s Food in England.

Vicarage Mutton

Hot on Sunday,

Cold on Monday,

Hashed on Tuesday,

Minced on Wednesday,

Curried on Thursday,

Broth on Friday,

Cottage Pie on Saturday.

Actually the use of the name Cottage rather than Shepherd’s Pie is not the only strange thing in this rhyme, for this particular dish comes at the very end of the week even though it actually contains quite a large proportion of meat – or perhaps that too is only the modern incarnation?  An 1894 recipe required between half and three-quarters of a pound of cold meat to a pound and a half of potatoes.  But the sentiment behind the rhyme is what is really important.  It shows us that although the British culinary culture is predominantly based around meat it was considered a very precious item and one joint (albeit this must have been a very sizeable one) was eked out to feed the family for a whole week.  This rhythm of cooking is the foundation of every soundly managed kitchen, domestic or commercial, although it is sadly followed less frequently in modern times.  The grandfather of restaurant cooking in Britain, George Perry Smith, whose Cold Table was created as a method of using up leftovers but which became the most eagerly anticipated part of a meal at The Hole in the Wall, must be turning in his grave observing modern restaurants’ portion-sized meat orders – x fillets rather than whole-carcase.

When I give cookery lessons one of the frequently bemoaned aspects of cooking is thinking what to give the family for everyday suppers.  This difficulty is often compounded by choice and certainly by a tendency to leave the decision until after work, when the cook is already hungry, and tired.  When you cook with the seasons, using the ingredients that are to hand locally, the largest part of the decision has already been made for you.  Couple this with planning your meals for the week, as in “Vicarage Mutton” above, and the rest falls into place.

Perhaps the biggest change of mindset required is to cease seeing the meat as the central focus of every meal.  One of the tastiest leftovers from the Sunday roast comes from the bones – extracted by slow simmering and a procedure conducted on “auto-pilot” in my kitchen every Sunday evening.  The resulting stock, stored in the freezer so that it is always to hand, makes the best risottos and soups even where the main ingredient might be vegetable.  Although the meat part of our “Meat and Two Veg” culture remained a luxury for most people until relatively recent times it was still the aspiration.  There are many more examples of predominantly, if not strictly, vegetarian dishes if we look abroad for our inspiration.  A stir-fry, for example, is a perfect example of a mid-week supper dish where meat is only a minor component with vegetables the star players.  Greek-style stuffed peppers or other vegetables are another.

When re-heating cooked meat it must be hot through to the centre to ensure that all bacteria are killed and cutting it up small aids this process.  A “hash” (Tuesday’s supper in Vicarage Mutton) usually means that the meat is diced into cubes to be fried with leftover potatoes, similarly cubed, with the addition of onion and spices.  Mixing the meat with mashed potato and onion, then frying the resulting potato “cake” is another variation.  Topping the hash with a fried or poached egg adds further protein when the meat content is low.

The uninspiring sounding Rissoles are one British solution to using up small amounts of cooked meat.  When mixed with breadcrumbs (one of the most important leftovers in any cuisine) the meat stretches further and in fact if one looks to other cultures for spices and perhaps dipping sauces, rissoles can make a very tasty supper indeed.

My recipes for the above and other mid-week supper dishes, all based on using up cooked meat left over from the Sunday roast, can be found here.

Horticulture that Feeds People All Year Round

Profile: Charles Dowding

Charles Dowding

Because it requires less land and capital outlay than livestock farming, horticulture is often the entry route for first time farmers. However, like all farming, horticulture requires a forward-thinking approach if it is to be financially viable.  In a previous article I looked at how one couple had chosen to specialise in herbs and then set about adding value by making beauty products from them.   This month I examine the lessons that can be learnt from the highly respected grower Charles Dowding.

Charles had even less land to work than the Lyons with their herbs – just a single acre.  He realised that if he was to make a living from this limited amount of land he would need to focus on growing crops that don’t take long to mature so that he could take repeated harvests from the same land over the course of the year.  If this is already ringing alarm bells about soil depletion then I should explain that he also pioneered the “no-dig” method that relies on planting straight into the layer of compost with which the soil is always copiously covered. So whilst specialising in salad leaves that are sold to shops, pubs and restaurants within just a four mile radius, Charles was also testing the no-dig technique for other vegetables for his own consumption.  A barn adjoining his farmhouse was converted to provide bed and breakfast accommodation and Charles was able to share his experience via courses and two books –  “Organic Gardening the Natural, No Dig Way” and  “Salad Leaves for all Seasons” .  During this time the single acre cultivated on by the No-Dig method yielded almost £30,000 at wholesale prices, four-fifths of the sales being of bags of mixed salad leaves.

I have been on one of Charles’ “No-Dig” courses, the principles of which I have applied in my own garden with mixed degrees of success, the greatest of which was to bring back into production a previously difficult bed that we have now given up digging entirely.  It has been particularly suited to growing squash but this year we are planting strawberries on it for the first time.

“Salad Leaves for all Seasons” opened my mind to the possibilities of winter leaves, of which Winter Purslane and Land Cress have become firm favourites, but more importantly it got me questioning what else I could produce during the winter months.  Luckily Charles must have been thinking along the same lines because, to my mind his greatest book yet, “How to Grow Winter Vegetables”, addresses what I believe is one of the biggest challenges for small-scale growers selling direct to consumers – undertaking to feed them all year round.  The solution to meeting the “hungry gap” between the last of the stored winter root crops and the first spring vegetables has, in modern times, been to buy in produce from abroad.  But if you want to retain customer loyalty, and demonstrate the benefits of eating locally that will underlie the whole business for the rest of the year, turning abroad should be a last resort kept to the bare minimum.

By being adventurous in their choice of what to grow, planning meticulously to have something to harvest every week of the year, and utilising different growing techniques (Charles is currently testing out “hot beds”), growers can really demonstrate what it means to take responsibility for feeding people.

Footnote:

Charles no longer sells his produce commercially but continues his experimentation, writing and teaching. A fourth book “Charles Dowding’s Vegetable Course Book” was published in 2012.

Getting a taste for the terroir – or How an American learned to love British food

There are nearly 14 million acres of farmland in my home state of Ohio, USA. I grew up surrounded by some of these acres – a green expanse of soybeans to my left, and a waving field of corn across the street. Yet I have no concept of my home state’s goût de terroir – literally the ‘taste of the Earth’. This is the term winemakers, farmers and the otherwise food-inclined use to describe the relationship between a food and the place it comes from, and how the soil, sunshine, rain and other conditions infuse a food with its unique characteristics.

My mother briefly flirted with growing beefsteak tomatoes and kohlrabi when I was very young, and I dabbled in gardening in early adulthood and had a brief stint working on an organic farm. Otherwise most of the food I ate was from California. No doubt much of that food included soybeans and corn – as fillers in burgers and sweeteners in processed foods, like fizzy drinks – but that hardly qualifies as ‘eating locally’: California is as far from Ohio as England is from Azerbaijan.

After thirty years living in Ohio, I came to live with my British husband in Oxford. What I knew about British food at that time came from a few chuckle-worthy spotted dick stories and a mention of turkey curry in Bridget Jones’s Diary. I hadn’t given it much thought, but was sure of one thing: I didn’t want to look, sound or eat like an American. These were the years of President Bush, Jr, and Americans were taking a hit in the popularity department. I decided that my ambassadorial contribution would be to experience my new home with an open mind, and ‘gustatorially’ that meant I wouldn’t insist on every dish being saltier, sweeter, fizzier and faster … or served in front of the television.

I failed. Despite my best efforts, I missed the salt, the sweet, the fizz. Some evenings I even scoffed nachos while watching Friends on Channel 4. During the first couple of years my impressions of British food culture consisted not of what it offered, but what it lacked … or rather what I missed. This included big slices of New York-style pepperoni pizza, made by independently owned pizzerias and delivered steaming hot to my door. It also included Tex-Mex and ‘interior’ Mexican food: fresh corn tortillas, black beans, fish tacos, and mole poblano (a blend of chocolate, chillies and as many as 20 spices, simmered with chicken).

I also started to crave the garlicky Polish kielbasa (sausage) my grandmother served at Christmas. The kind I found in Britain just didn’t taste the same (and now I’m committed to eating high-welfare pork, making most imported Polish sausage off-limits). I missed my all-time favourite dish – veal paprikash. My Hungarian-descended mother would make it for me when I visited: thick egg dumplings and chunks of veal simmered in a thick soured-cream gravy. (For the past 20 years my mom made this dish with chicken instead of veal, after discovering that veal calves were under-fed and raised in crates.)

I also craved my paternal grandmother’s green-jelly ‘salad’. (My husband rolls his eyes incredulously when I call jelly a ‘salad’, comparing it to Ronald Reagan’s reclassification of ketchup as a vegetable.) The dish is green jelly with a tin of fruit suspended in it, and cream cheese mixed in when the jelly is warm, causing the cheese to float to the top and create a solid layer of sweet, pale-green ‘icing’. While not the height of sophistication, that dish takes me right back to Christmas dinner in my grandmother’s tiny dining room in east Toledo.

Though I missed many things, I grudgingly got on with my new life in England, including trying to like the food. I joined the local Slow Food group, and heard about a box scheme that offered fresh vegetables each week.  While I was no stranger to vegetables, I hadn’t spent much time with parsnips or Jerusalem artichokes, and I was only mildly acquainted with leeks. I liked beetroot, but felt cooking it demanded a lot of my time. Yet I was determined to cook what was in that box every week. My husband took pity on me and handed me The Cookery Year, which his mother had given him. It’s handily organised by month, with recipes using a lot of local, seasonal ingredients. Along with additional support from Constance Spry and Jamie Oliver’s more British recipes in the Ministry of Food, I was soon roasting parsnips and swede and experimenting with lamb joints (lamb being expensive and hard to come by in the USA). Eventually I whipped up a somewhat puffy toad-in-the-hole and even attempted a few (flat but tasty) Victoria sponges.

My British food education was also helped along by the traditional food tastes of my husband’s Welsh mother and English father. From the first meal I had at their house, we sat at a properly ‘laid’ table (in America, we ‘set’ the table), and I learned to eat with the fork in my left hand and knife in my right (in America we hold the fork in our right hand to eat). I sampled boiled tongue, Yorkshires and beef, kippers in tomato sauce, and beetroot (boiled expediently in a pressure cooker).

A few years later I started shopping at two local farmers’ markets, one of which sources food from within 30 miles of Oxford. Along with the box scheme, cookery books and my in-laws, I was gaining something I never had in my 30 years in Ohio – an understanding of the goût de terroir of my adopted home. I found myself dipping soldiers into the golden yolk of a soft boiled egg, which was from a chicken who lived in a village down the road. I was eating toast topped with damson jam which my husband made from the fruit trees in our garden.

Fortunately, I also learned to adapt some of my favourite dishes from America to the ingredients native to Britain. A chat with my local butcher revealed spicy Toulouse sausage, which is a fine substitute for garlicky kielbasa (Toulouse sausages are from a French recipe, but widely produced in Britain). One of my favourite comfort foods – macaroni cheese – is an even more comforting dish here, made with cheddar and leeks. And getting educated about ‘rose’ veal – crate-free and well-fed at North Aston Dairy – means veal paprikash is back on the menu after two decades. I’ve even had some inspiration for great Mexican dishes by eating at Wahaca Mexican Market in London, where they use as many British-sourced ingredients as possible.

“Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you who you are,” wrote the 18th-century gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. To my surprise, I think Jean might look at what I eat today and think I’m British, even if my passport says otherwise. I still haven’t managed to make a decent green-jelly-and-cream-cheese ‘salad’ the way my grandma did, and occasionally I eat crisps while watching CSI. But I also fantasise about roast parsnips, carrots and potatoes in the middle of winter, and look forward to nettle and red onion omelettes in spring. And, yes … I do like Marmite, smeared on bubbly cheese-on-toast.

By Wendy Knerr, MSc – author of Ethical Relish: the pleasures, places and politics of food www.ethicalrelish.wordpress.com

Wendy Knerr, MSc
The Write Effect
research and communications for health, rights and development
www.thewriteeffect.co.uk

Herb of the Month – Chervil

Chervil, Anthriscus cerefolium, can be cultivated for most of the year, although, unlike most herbs, it does not like hot sunny weather and at such times quickly bursts into flower and then runs to seed.  Why have I chosen February to feature it?  Well, predominantly because of its association with Lent – it is thought to have blood cleansing and restorative properties that classified it as a “Lenten Herb”, eaten throughout the period and especially in the form of a soup on Maundy Thursday.  But also because it makes a refreshing change to the other woody perennials that we consider winter herbs.

Chervil is usually classified as a hardy annual although some consider it biennial, and by making a late sowing towards the end of summer (end of July/early August) you should have a worthwhile supply throughout the winter and into the spring when you can begin sowing again.  The seeds themselves do not keep well, so buy fresh each year.  This has probably been the reason for failures I have experienced in germination and it is frustrating to waste time waiting for a sowing to materialise before eventually realising that you need to make another.  So sew seed in late summer and then again in the spring once the soil has warmed up – directly into the growing position as it does not like being transplanted.

Which growing position?  The good news is that this herb is one of only a few that likes the shade.  You may want to use a cloche to warm the ground before the first sewing of the year, and to cover it in the harshest weathers, although mine has survived this mild winter without any cover.  It may also be grown in outdoor pots or window boxes (provided they are not south facing).

Chervil seems to be grown in Britain most often as part of a pre-mixed salad selection.  Until these really took off it had become quite rare here, although remaining very popular in France.  The flavour is mild aniseed, and indeed as a component of a green salad is my favourite way of eating it.  In France it is one of the indispensible collection known as “fines herbes” – the others being parsley, chives and tarragon.   Although both tarragon and chervil have an aniseed flavour, chervil is much milder, hence you can eat large quantities raw. Whilst its flavour is never dominant in the blend, it does seem to bring out the best of the other herbs.   But before you can use this collection, you will have to wait for tarragon to make its appearance, which won’t be until April.  Fines herbes are often used with eggs (see omelette fines herbes) or are good chopped into butter for coating vegetables such as broad beans.  Sauce Gribiche is my favourites egg/fines herbes combination.   This is a cold, mayonnaise based sauce, which also has cooked egg white, gherkins and capers folded into it – a variation on Tartare Sauce for fish but more often eaten with Charcuterie.  Try it with my Breaded Sweetbreads recipe.

Chervil was almost certainly introduced into Britain by the Romans and is now found wild in the form of Anthiscus sylvestris, commonly known as Cow Parsley, and one of the earliest of the flowering umbellifers to appear each year.  The flavour of the wild version is however inferior to the cultivated, and, because there is also a danger of confusing it with poisonous Hemlock, it is safer to cultivate.  It is a member of the carrot family, and the two marry well in a soup, better, I think, than the more usual pairing of carrot with coriander.

Apart of Chervil Soup, it is rare to find recipes where this is the dominant flavour.  The flavour is quickly diminished in cooking and therefore it is best added just before serving.  So my version of Chervil Soup is really just a base of leek and potato, with a generous quantity of chopped chervil added at the end of cooking – see Green Soups.

In addition to the cleansing and purifying properties already mentioned, Chervil is credited with a host of medicinal properties – an infusion is suggested for circulatory disorders, liver complaints and chronic catarrh and the fresh leaves can be applied to aching joints in a warm poultice.

Beef: Pasture or Grain Fed? – a question of taste

That grazing cattle on pasture rather than grain is better for the environment, better for the animals, and better for your health has been thoroughly and convincingly debated by the Pasture-Fed Livestock Association so I don’t intend to go over these topics again here.  But how does pasture-fed beef compare with grain fed from a cook’s perspective – and assuming that the aim of the cook is to delight the diner?

I am often told that since taste is subjective, there is little point in discussing it.
True, the acid test is to taste it for yourself, as attendees of the recent Real Farming Conference had the opportunity to do.  However, I believe that the British reticence to talk about taste really needs to be overcome if we are to develop a strong food culture.  And with regard to the preference for grain or pasture fed beef, this in itself seems to demonstrate some cultural differences.

Fat, Exercise and a Variety Rich Diet

Fat is the first consideration and new research has discovered that fat is actually the sixth Taste (after salt, sweet, bitter, sour and umami). Scientists have discovered that we have a taste receptor, more pronounced in some people than others, that will determine our ability to recognise fat as a taste and thus influence how much of it we want to eat.  Those who are more sensitive to fat have their desire for it satiated more quickly and, correspondingly, a lower Body Mass Index.

Cattle put on weight more quickly when fed grain than on their natural pasture diet.  If grain is what they are fed throughout their life, this fat will be seen marbled throughout the flesh. This marbling helps keep the flesh moist during cooking and fat does give flavour, but the degree that is desirable is much more subjective.  Even cattle that spend the majority of their lives on pasture are usually fed some grain during the last six months of their life, at which time the fat is seen as a covering layer.  This fat is especially desirable to protect the meat whilst the carcase is dry aged (of which more in a moment).

Some breeds are more prone to putting on fat than others – like humans I suppose.  The Wagyu breed, which originates from Japan but is also particularly favoured in Australia, is characterised by a flesh so heavily marbled with fat that the overall colour is almost white.  The texture is, reputedly, as soft as butter, but texture is not flavour.  It is widely recognised that tenderness and flavour in meat are usually at opposite ends of the same continuum, with the most flavoursome joints being those that need the longest, slowest cooking to render them tender.  This has more to do with the work the animal has done during its life than what it has been fed.  So the muscles of cattle that have ranged freely around a pasture will have been exercised more than those stood around the feed trough in a shed.  The meat will be leaner, but despite the fact that fat does contribute flavour, the flesh itself will have a more complex flavour owing to the variety in the diet.  I relate this best to game.  A truly wild duck, for example, has almost no fat, unlike its domesticated cousins.  In between the two are the “wild” mallards that are actually semi-tame.  The ponds on which they live are so generously fed with grain that the birds need never fly very far in search of food.  I always feel thoroughly short changed if I am sold one of these when I had been led to believe that the ducks were truly wild.  Yet, I do occasionally enjoy eating a domestic duck, although flavour wise it is not in the same league as wild duck.

Another game example would be the difference between partridge and grouse.  They are at completely different ends of the flavour spectrum, the partridge having been largely reared on corn, despite the freedom to search for its own food, and the grouse being a bird that completely defies domestication and lives entirely on foraged food, mainly heather.  I would serve partridge to someone not used to eating game, but save grouse for a real aficionado.

Age at Slaughter

There is another consequence of grazing cattle on pasture that affects their flavour – age.  Going back to my earlier point about grain being fed to fatten up a beast, pasture fed traditional breeds will take around three years to reach their optimum slaughter weight.  However, since BSE in the 1980s, slaughtering animals beyond the age of 30 months involves a lot more bureaucracy, which most farmers would obviously prefer to avoid.   Cattle over 30 months have to be sent to a specially licensed abattoir that will only be killing older animals on that day, then their backbone and spinal cord are removed and a sample sent to be tested by DEFRA.  Only when the results come back clear is the beef allowed to leave the abattoir.  Consequently the typical age at which even pasture fed beef will be slaughtered is 29 months, 3 weeks and 5 days.  Age equals flavour (as well as a denser texture) and whilst 36 months might be the optimum point for many traditional breeds, 30 months is still at least 6 months older than most commercial cattle, and the very cheapest “bull beef” (intensively reared, uncastrated, male dairy-cross calves) are slaughtered before they are a year old.  This represents a very large percentage of the beef sold today, particularly to the catering sector.  So checking the age of the animal at slaughter is a vital component of taste.

Breed

Due to the differences in the agricultural roles traditionally performed, British Breeds have a higher proportion of “slow-twitch” muscles than the faster growing continental breeds.  “Fast-twitch” muscles are good for sudden intense bursts of energy, but they are tougher, and contain less flavour than the “slow-twitch” muscle flavours, which are also higher in myoglobin (the substance that makes the meat read).  You can taste this difference in poultry, where the darker meat of the legs contains more flavour than the paler breast meat.  In the mid-eighteenth century, a gentleman farmer, Robert Bakewell, began making systematic records of the characteristics of various breeds, and then cross-breeding them for specific purposes.  The British breeds were known for flavoursome beef and so exported worldwide, whilst continental breeds, with higher milk yields, were imported here for use in the dairy sector.  You wouldn’t expect the beef from animals bred specifically for milk yield to be as flavoursome as beef breeds, but our traditional breeds have been so widely exported and cross-bred that it is now difficult to find pure strains.  Under UK law, for beef to be classified as, for example, “Aberdeen-Angus” it needs only to be, genetically, at least half Aberdeen-Angus.  Because of the amount of cross-breeding that has gone on in the past, most will be close to this 50% mark. Longhorn is however the one breed that was never exported and is thus becoming a popular pure British breed.

Whilst every breed of cattle has its own characteristics and you may develop your personal preference for one above another, many are regional and thus particularly suited to the local terrain.  The Devon Ruby (or North Devon) is, for example, the traditional breed of Exmoor and the one with which I am most familiar, but any of the traditional breeds should be well suited to pasture rearing and require a similar time to reach maturity.

Dry Ageing

I promised earlier to return to the subject of dry ageing.  After slaughter the meat needs a period of ageing during which rigor mortis will set, pass, and then gradually the molecular structure will break down, releasing the essential umami taste.  Umami, which roughly translates as “essence of deliciousness” is the fifth Taste, and is attributed to glutamates being freed up as food, particularly meat, matures.  Whilst alive these glutamates are bound together in protein molecules, but are released as these molecules break down.  During the ageing process connective tissue also breaks down, tenderising the meat, so on this occasion there is no trade-off between tenderness and flavour – well hung meat will have both attributes.

But what about the term “dry ageing”.  This means allowing the carcase (or the two cut halves of it) to hang in a cold room with the air circulating freely around it.  If you are of a certain age yourself, having grown up with this a familiar sight in your butchers, you probably thought all meat was aged this way.  Sadly, it now happens for only about 10% of the meat sold in this country.

The best that the rest of is likely to receive is an electric current running through the carcase for up to half an hour, which apparently does something towards tenderising it.  After that it is cut into joints whilst the carcase is still warm, and transported to the supermarkets where it will be on the shelves within a few days.  No ageing at all.  Or it might undergo a period known as “wet-ageing”.  This means that the joints are vacuum packed and left, sitting in their own juices, and becoming sour in smell and flavour.  Beware; this beef can still be sold labelled “aged for xx days”.  I have had several producers tell me that the meat is improving during this time in a vacuum pack.  What they really like is the fact that this method does not allow any evaporation of moisture.  After 35 days dry ageing the carcase will have lost about 20% of its weight.  That’s an expense that has to be covered in the selling price, but well worth it for the increase in flavour.  Dry-ageing does however require the meat to have a good covering of fat as it will develop some mould on the surface as it ages.  This mould is harmless, in fact it releases its own enzymes which further help in the tenderising and flavour development process, however being only on the surface fat they are easily trimmed away before sale.

As to the exact length of ageing, again like game, it depends partly on your personal preference. Some producers tell me that their customers don’t like it to develop too much flavour, so stop at just 14 days.  The Hobgoblin beer advertising line “What’s the matter Lagerboy, afraid you might taste something?” comes to mind.  But it is true that there are cultural differences in how long the meat should hang, so that whilst 28 days is considered a good period in this country, properly hung meat in Argentina would usually receive twice as long.

Cultural Preferences

Individual preferences regarding taste can be summarised as cultural differences between countries or even regions.  Even in Britain, where the population has been very mobile since the Industrial Revolution, regional taste preferences can be identified and are said to be evident in differences in the taste buds on the tongue.  There is a definite North/South divide in this respect, with the North (especially Scotland) having a greater preference for fat.  It will be interesting to see whether the preference for leaner but “gamier” flavoured pasture fed beef over the fat-marbled but blander grain fed beef follows along similar North/South lines.  The Japanese and Americans both value tenderness over flavour.  Whilst the British cook knows that a good steak knife is essential, it seems that the Japanese want something that can be cut with chopsticks, and the Americans want to use just a fork!

If you would like the opportunity to compare the taste of different production methods one of the growing number of restaurants in London specialising in quality steak would be a good place to do so.  For example, 34 on Grosvenor Square www.34-restaurant.co.uk features a giant Argentine parrilla – the charcoal grill on which the steaks are cooked.  You can compare organic, pasture fed steaks from Argentina with Australian reared Wagyu fed on corn.  Britain is represented by a number of breeds, reared in Scotland on summer pasture and silage in winter, and then there is USDA certified Black Angus steak reared in America, which is pasture grazed for most of its life but fed mainly on grain for the last six months.  So if you can find a group of four people willing to share their steaks, you should be able to do a fair comparison between the feeding regimes.  It has to be admitted that pasture fed beef is less consistent in results than grain fed, varying depending on the quality of the pasture and weather conditions (which in turn affect the quality of the pasture).  This is something I have most often experienced with unpasteurised cheese, which can taste very different from one day’s milking to the next.  But for me the highs outweigh the lows and both are far preferable to a consistently bland product. So your tasting exercise should ideally be repeated a few times before you make a final decision about your preference.

From Field to Plate

Because dry ageing has such an impact on both taste and tenderness, it would be a crying shame for farmers who have reared their animals with the utmost care and attention to fail at this final hurdle.  Traditionally the farmer’s role in the food chain ended when he took his livestock to market.  Now, if they are to enjoy a premium for producing something special, farmers need to remain involved with the chain almost through to the consumer’s plate.  Pasture fed beef, from traditional breeds slowly reared to full maturity, must be slaughtered without stress, dry aged for an appropriate time (which, I personally would want to be at least 28 days) and then butchered to the customer’s requirements.  Butchery skills are themselves dying out, and whilst supermarkets are part of the reason, I trace the butcher’s demise back to the Foot and Mouth crisis. Whilst BSE was viewed as being relevant only to those eating burgers, the Foot and Mouth crisis impacted on everyone living in the countryside.  Even farmers were shocked to find out just how far the animals they had sold at market had actually travelled before slaughter.  This was a massive wake up call to us all, although not it seems, sufficient to have changed some of the worst aspects, such as the distance livestock travelled for slaughter for the convenience of supermarket centralised processing.  Instead, we saw the closure of so many of our small local abattoirs, changing forever the butcher’s role in the food chain as few now choose their animals when live, taking over the process from slaughter.  Instead, they more often buy from wholesalers, who learnt that in order to reassure the public it was important that butchers could still tell them which farm their meat had come from, so this information was provided and often displayed proudly on boards.  But scratch the surface by asking just a few questions about the way that the animal had been reared and the subterfuge was evident.  This, I hope, is where the “QR” codes will step in.  I hope too that they can be updated with information about how the meat has been aged.

Not only does a good butcher need to have sourced the finest pasture fed beef from a traditional British breed and dry aged it for at least 28 days, he then has to know how to cut it.  This is not as simple as it sounds.  Peter Greig of Piper’s Farm in Devon, who rears Devon Ruby cattle, found it so difficult to get his meat butchered as he wanted that he went to France to learn the skills and then built his own on-site butchery.  And whilst buying direct is one way of ensuring the provenance of meat, I have frequently found the cuts are only offered vacuum packed, and then often not cut as I would like them.  So please do support those few remaining skilled butchers.  Because the taste of beef depends not only on how it is reared but how it is cooked it makes sense to provide tips for this too.  I have given some of my own here.

Forcing the early shoots of Spring

Forcing Chicory

It is understandable that in the depths of winter, with a global market now on our doorstep, we turn to warmer climes for our fresh produce.  Even many home gardeners don’t bother much with winter produce.   Yet home produce at this time of year does not have to be all swedes and cabbages.

The close of the Victorian era marked the zenith of the kitchen garden in the UK.   Following the abolition of glass tax in 1845 and the development of plate glass just three years later, greenhouses were built against the south facing walls of the garden, heated by coal, which was still plentiful.  By this means wealthy Victorians, and even those of comparatively modest means, were able to enjoy many of the exotic fruit and vegetables that they had discovered whilst travelling the Empire.

The First World War put an end to this forever.  Whilst we will never return to the labour intensive gardens and heated greenhouses of Victorian times, there are nonetheless some aspects from that period worth reintroducing.  In this article I look at forcing, which not only protects plants from the cold but also excludes light, a combination of factors that encourages plants to produce early tender shoots.

The history of forcing

Forcing was not a Victorian invention but they certainly popularised the practice. Who knows exactly when it was first discovered that where the tide and wind cause shingle to pile up around our native seakale tender shoots would eventually force their way through?  Certainly the Italians were growing seakale under cover in the Middle Ages and its delicate flavour was known to John Evelyn in Britain when he wrote Aceteria in 1699.  By the early decades of the 18th century it was being widely grown in English gardens, transferred there from its natural habitat.  For quite some time after it had been domesticated, people living close to the sea, particularly in Sussex and Hampshire, also continued to help nature along by piling sand and stones around the plants on the sea shore so that they could harvest it for market.  So popular was this, that it became illegal to harvest the plant in the wild in order to preserve depleted stocks.  There is scarcely a single gardening book from the Victorian era that does not devote considerable space to the art of forcing seakale.  A pre-Christmas crop could be obtained by forcing them close to the pipes of a heated greenhouse.  Unheated outhouses provided the next crop and the final early spring crop came from outdoor plants, covered by terracotta pots, which were surrounded by horse manure or straw to increase their temperature.

Discovering to which other plants forcing would be beneficial seems largely to have been an accidental process.  Rhubarb, brought to Britain from Siberia and grown at the Chelsea Physic Gardens for its medicinal benefits, is thought to have been accidentally forced when a crown was covered with leaves by a gardener in the early 1800s.  Belgian Witloof Chicory is the result of a remarkably similar story.  The wild Chicory plant was grown at the Brussels Botanical Garden when, in 1850 and, again probably by accident, some stored roots were covered and sprouted what we now call chicons – tight heads of white leaves.   The technique has however subsequently been deliberately employed in Italy with several of their red leaf chicories.  The great benefit for chicories being that the exclusion of light prevents the formation of chlorophyll, which causes the leaves to become overly bitter.

Forcing Commercially

On a commercial scale, the principle stumbling block today is the heat required to bring about an early crop.   Rhubarb, an important food source to Britain in the winter months, was grown commercially from around 1830, in the “Rhubarb Triangle” formed between Bradford, Leeds and Wakefield.  The heavy clay soil here suited this Siberian plant, and there was plenty of fuel in the area, both as a bi-product from the wool trade and also from coal mining.  The area also benefitted from excellent transport links to get the rhubarb to markets, particularly in London and Scotland.  Initially these transport links were provided by canals, then came the railways and today with motorways.  This area continues to produce most of the rhubarb sold in Britain, but the number of growers is down to only a dozen and when the current huge heated sheds need replacement the number is likely to dwindle further.  However, there is hope that heating from wind-turbines might provide a way forward.

Seakale production has all but died out on a commercial scale.  Just one grower remains – Sandy Pattullo in Argyll.  The previous main grower, Paske’s of Lincolnshire, found it uneconomic to continue. The decline of seakale is especially sad because it is a real delicacy. Seakale is sometimes called Winter Asparagus, presumably because it is cooked and eaten in a similar way, usually with nothing more than melted butter.  The taste is, however, far more delicate than asparagus and perhaps more akin to Globe artichokes.

There is one large scale UK grower of chicory – based in Lincolnshire.  Several of the Italian Radicchio’s are however registered under the Protected Food Names scheme, so that, although they would grow well here, what you see for sale has usually been imported.

Forcing Domestically

Whilst commercial forcing has its difficulties, all of the above forced plants would be a valuable addition to the domestic garden in winter.    You don’t even need a greenhouse.   The first principle to understand is the difference between forcing in situ and uprooting the plants for forcing in a warmer environment.  Forcing is draining on a plant even when not uprooted, but when this is added to the equation, the plant is spent following forcing. For example, with commercially forced rhubarb, the crowns grow outdoors for a couple of years until they are strong enough for forcing and  are then dug up and replanted indoors where they crop for just one season.  For domestic growers, although still needing to allow the plant to establish before forcing, because this is usually done in situ, the plant will recover and can then be forced in alternate years.  In this way, the crown will last for around 10 years.  Exactly the same is true for seakale forced in situ.

Forcing pots, although expensive, are ideal for rhubarb and seakale.  Old chimney pots covered with a tile make a good substitute, although nowadays these are likely to be just as expensive.  An upturned bucket or dustbin will do the job, albeit less aesthetically, and you will also need to weight them down to prevent them blowing away.

The Chicory family (including radicchio) are most often transplanted even in a domestic situation.  The Italian red chicories, or Trevise, will however withstand temperatures several degrees below freezing, so forcing in situ is an option.  Belgian Endive (Witloof) ideally needs a temperature of around 10˚C for forcing, but until that time the roots, which are dug up at the end of the summer, can be stored flat in a box covered with sand.  I then plant them in 8″ pots (as close together as will fit) and bring them inside to utilise the heat already there.  A cupboard is ideal, as it will also be dark, but the pots should also be covered, either with an upturned pot of the same size (drainage holes blocked) or within a black refuse bag.  They take about 4 weeks to grow large enough for cutting, so a succession of four pots will give you a weekly supply.

Recipe Suggestions

See here for suggestions for serving Seakale, Chicory and Rhubarb.

Useful Contacts

Chicory & Radicchio

Radicchio seeds: www.seedsofitaly.com

Witloof: more widely available including Garden Organic www.organiccatalogue.com

Seakale

Crowns: Garden Organic (0845 1301304 www.organiccatalogue.com) or Jekka’s Herb Farm www.jekkasherbfarm.com

Forced shoots: Sandy Pattullo of Eassie Farm, Glamis, Argyll call 01307 840303 to arrange mail order

Rhubarb

Timperley Early is a widely available variety dating from the 1920s, which has an excellent flavour and is particularly well suited to forcing.  If you are looking for an older or more unusual variety Brandy Carr Nurseries (www.brandycarrnurseries.co.uk 01924 291511) near Wakefield have over 100 varieties.