September Savvy: Go Organic Festival

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September is a hearty month. Autumn and harvest in a nutshell: with the gathering of food, warm colours, the landscape turning from green to orange and brown, summer heat seeping down to cool, resident birds beginning to sing again, and the influx of blackberries, apples, corn on the cob, squashes and pumpkins. Here in the UK, September and food have a particularly special relationship because this month is known as Organic September. It celebrates and promotes all things organic – a campaign to raise awareness and support farmers and producers of organic food with a sustainable, chemical-free and animal welfare focus.

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This weekend just gone 8th-9th September was the Go Organic Festival in Battersea Park, London, an event to bring together the organic foodies of Britain with chef demonstrations, talks by experts and loads of food stalls. It was a buzzing environment with lots going on for families and kids, free samples, an abundance of information, surveys, organic fruit and veg to pluck at, food trucks, a stage with music throughout both days and ‘meet the farmer’ chats.

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If you missed it I would say you ought to feel a little disappointed or envious as it was a great experience with such a positive, proactive atmosphere. It was cheering to see so many people interested in organic food come together and interact in a fun, engaging way with all types of people involved from kids to sales reps to chefs to campaign organisers to producers of plastic-free food wraps, organic chocolate, vegan burgers, baked goods and beauty products to name a few.

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It was particularly interesting to watch and listen to chefs such as Gelf Alderson of River Cottage and Emily Watkins as they made delicious meals right in front of their audience. As they cooked, they chatted to host Jay Morjaria, giving lots of tips, info about organic food, produce to buy, things to avoid and so on.

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The festival’s ‘Natural Talks’ were also absorbing, particularly those by Natalie Fee, Simon King and Helen Browning. Natalie Fee created the City to Sea campaign, helping to stop plastic pollution at source – something which is vital if we are to stem the huge flow of plastic being produced and polluting our environment, ending up in rivers, seas and landfill. As you may be aware, a high percentage of plastic doesn’t get recycled and so going to the source of the problem – the prevention of plastic being produced in the first place – is what’s required for any impactful, long term effects. It was truly inspiring to hear Natalie talk.

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Go Organic Festival was a fantastic event and particularly impressive seeing as this was its first year. I had a great time, coming away feeling more positive about the future of our food. I can’t wait to see what will be in store next September.

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Pertwood Farm: Truly Organic

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There’s a lot of discussion at the moment about the differences and advantages/disadvantages of conventional food versus organic food. A study published in The British Journal of Nutrition earlier in July stated that organic crops are up to 60% higher in antioxidants than conventionally-grown ones, and that there are significantly lower levels of toxic heavy metals such as cadmium and lead in organic crops, which, interestingly enough, contradicts a 2009 study commissioned by the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) that found there were no significant nutritional benefits to be had through eating organic food. And only last week a report was published revealing that 63% of bread in supermarkets contains pesticide residues, 25% of which has residues of more than one pesticide. It’s tricky to know what to believe and a large part of the problem is that lots of people don’t really know what organic food production means – myself included! To solve this problem, at the beginning of July I went to visit Pertwood Organic Farm in Wiltshire to see what ‘organic’ really looks like.

Lower Pertwood Farm has been organic since 1988, its entire 1850 acres certified by the Soil Association. Currently owned by Wilfred Mole, who also farms in South Africa at Sandstone Estates, Pertwood has its own range of wheat-free breakfast cereals, as well as supplying oats to muesli and porridge brand Alara, which is 100% organic. As soon as I go through the gate the farmland has an atmosphere of both tranquillity and energy, giving me the feeling of how alive it is. Immediately I spot buzzards and hear swallows chattering. Mr Mole is enthusiastic about the farm, pointing out ancient Celtic longbarrows (human-made mounds involved in crop rotation) in the nearest fields which he’s not allowed to touch, and high up a chalk strip which is a new pipeline being put in by Wessex Water. He shows me the long mound of topsoil that they dug up about six months ago.

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“Look at that,” Mr Mole says, grinning. “They just pile up this crummy soil and the plants love it to bits. The mound’s got every sort of plant known to man growing on it – crops, weeds, flowers. It would actually be interesting to do a plant population analysis to see what’s there.”

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The plant life is unbelievably impressive, and I can’t help feeling it wouldn’t be so teeming if the farm wasn’t organic. Amazingly, Mr Mole has made a deal with Wessex Water to turn the pipeline land into an RSPB reserve when they’re finished. It’s a running theme here; following the ethos of farming ‘with nature’s best interests at heart’, this year 30 acres of land are being turned into wildflower meadows in order to create an ideal habitat for bees and butterflies. This, with a bit of luck, will have the added bonus of increasing crop yields.

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Mr Mole shows me one of the fields which is going to become a wildflower meadow, just beside the main road. “It’s never been a great field,” he says. “It’s really high up, on the crest. We can probably break even with the crop but you may as well plant flowers on it instead.”

As we bump along the fields in his battered 4×4, Mr Mole explains how organic farming works. They rotate their crops with livestock and clover lay, and there are no chemicals or fertilisers involved other than muck from cows. “What you do in organic is to build the fertility of the fields you rotate. You keep about a third of the farm in grass and clover which reinvigorates the land and it’s good for the livestock.” A lot of the fields I see are what’s called fallow, where after a crop has been harvested and ploughed, they leave the grass or clover to grow for a year, during which time they cut it for silage and re-grow it (all the while letting sheep or cattle graze on it), and only then do they plant seed for the next crop. Doing all this continually replaces nutrients, improves soil fertility, helps control pests, protects the soil from erosion and supports biodiversity.

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“If you look at that field there the grass grows like mad and then you look at what grows in a classic example of a conventional farm; it’s not nearly as vibrant. When you walk through conventional farms you see how brutal they are – there are no hedges, there’s nothing. I’m growing a hedge now, in bits and pieces, but in total there will be 2 miles of it.”

Stopping beside an oat field, we get out to have a closer look at a typical organic crop. I am astonished at what I see – at first glance it looks like a field full of weeds. When we lean in closer, I literally can’t see the earth below. There are daisies, poppies, charlock, grass and loads of other plants I can’t identify. I instantly realise I’ve never seen a crop like this before; every other crop I’ve ever walked past or run through has been a conventional one.

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Mr Mole points to the long wispy stems, a pale but shimmering green. “These are the oats and if you look here you’ll lose count of the plants. There are flowers, there are weeds. It’s very natural, that’s the first impression you get, whereas a conventional crop is spotless, abnormally so. The good news is that the oats have generally outgrown the other plants and because it’s been such a good year they’ve been totally unaffected – they’ve got sun on their back and they’ve got wet feet, so what more do they need? The fact they’ve got a neighbour doesn’t matter.”

When the crop is harvested it has to be cleaned, meaning that if there are any remaining seeds from plants other than oats, the mix is put through a screen so they’re left only with oats to turn into porridge or muesli.

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The other thing I notice is that there are no track-mark lines which are usually so prevalent in conventional fields. Because Pertwood’s fields aren’t sprayed with pesticides or chemicals, there’s no need for tractors. Mr Mole has actually sold lots of his tractors because they were sitting around all day doing nothing. “From the day we plant the crop there’s nothing we can do,” he says. “We just leave it.”

He admits that sometimes there are traces of disease within the crops, but this is no bad thing. “The plants might get slightly ill but every time you’re slightly ill you’re building your immunity for it not to happen again, and every time you’re given artificial, synthetic things for combating that your immune system is pushed to one side. Why not just see if the plants can cope on their own?”

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Carrying on to another field Mr Mole remarks that the oats in it are much thicker. “We don’t always know why; it could be muck related. There are fewer flowers and the weeds are suffering more because the crop is so strong. It’s all about light. It’s a win win in organic – if you can get it right, the crop deals more effectively with the weeds.”

I comment on the abundance of insects hopping, flying and fluttering around, many of them butterflies, and immediately Mr Mole tells me it’s because the crops and fields aren’t sprayed. They really do have such a natural and buzzing feel to them which is lacking throughout most farmland in Britain.

The next thing I see is a field that’s just been ploughed, at the edge of which is something called a beetle bank separating it from the next one. This is one of the requirements of HLS (Higher Level Stewardship), which gives subsidies to organic farmers based on measures they take to benefit the environment. Pertwood Farm’s rotation of crops with livestock is also part of HLS, and they have to plant certain crops in certain places. They even have to plant certain things in the beetle banks. All of this might sound controlling but it’s carried out with the aim of maintaining the environment, diversity of life and sustainability.

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In organic farming you’re not allowed to use conventional synthetic pesticides or chemicals (not even to clean the storage areas, which are usually fumigated but Pertwood vacuums them instead) and because of this organic farmers save a huge amount of money.

“Here at Pertwood we’ve broken the mould that it can’t be profitable to be an organic farmer – it can be profitable because of the cost savings. When you look at the price of chemical fertilisers now, we don’t have any of that. For the average farmer that’s his biggest cost. He’s being taken for a ride – chemical companies and all sorts of people state things like ‘you must spray that’, and everyone trusts them. But as I’ve learnt with my farms, most of what you’re told is wrong.”

The final part of my tour takes us to the edge of an adjacent farm which has been recently acquired by Lower Pertwood Farm. A field we pass is wheat and Mr Mole highlights how the stalks are grown very close together, saying that it had been sprayed with pesticides and given chemical fertilisers in order to achieve uniformity and the appearance of good health. Manor Farm has always been conventional, and when Mr Mole first bought it many of the crops were diseased. Those who worked on it were spraying them and spraying them, but he told them to stop. Why? Because all 250 acres of the farm are being converted from conventional to organic.

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“It’s very good for me to see farmers in desperation just throw chemicals at something to try and make crops grow, to try and protect them from pests and diseases, and then to be able to say to them: ‘Did you know that we’re converting a conventional farm to organic?’ Everyone I’ve told looks at me in horror.”

It’s against the trend to convert from conventional to organic, but Pertwood Farm proves that it’s not only profitable to farm organically, but it also benefits the soil and a myriad of life forms, all of which are a vital part of the food chain. “I’ve got infinite, infinite faith in nature,” Mr Mole says seriously. There may be lots of little details to organic farming, but the ambience of natural energy and array of wildlife at Pertwood is amazing, and this positivity surely must filter down into the food we put in our mouths and so affect us and our bodies in beneficial ways.

At a basic level our cells are made up of various vitamins and minerals, and soil requires approximately 52 minerals, but artificial fertilisers contain only nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Without the other 49 minerals (such as manganese and zinc) the soil becomes deficient, which makes the plants deficient and weakened. So, in conjunction with all the pesticides and herbicides sprayed onto conventional crops, a lot of the food we eat cannot help but be deficient and toxic. But, with organic, this can be rectified, as Pertwood reveals.

“I’ve asked for a full-scale test to be done on Pertwood this year,” Mr Mole tells me. “From a few quick tests, the indications are that the fertility has improved hugely while we’ve been here. We’ve really corrected the levels – it was deficient in potassium, in magnesium and all these things. But not anymore. It’s pretty magnificent.”

Peach, Pistachio & Watercress Salad

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Salads can be so simple, and, more often than not, can end up being a little boring, especially if you get stuck into the habit of always using traditional ‘salad’ ingredients like lettuce, tomato and cucumber – which I’m guilty of! I probably eat some form of salad almost every day of the year so it’s easy to fall into a routine. Not that I want to knock cucumber or tomato – they’re great and can be so delicious with a lot of things. There’s a reason why the Greeks gobble so much of them with feta and olives..! But you can be so much more adventurous with salads and create the most interesting and unusual combinations. Pistachios and peaches are far from traditional and they make such a refreshing and tasty salad.

Peaches are my favourite fruit, hands down. I sometimes waver about whether I prefer nectarines, but peaches usually win. They seem more ‘natural’ too, because nectarines are peaches with a recessive allele that makes their skin smooth, which humans have cultivated over the years. Peaches are rich in vitamin C which is a great antioxidant and can help fight against skin damage and improve overall skin texture. They are also a great source of potassium which helps support heart health. I also love peaches because they’re in season at the moment and they come from Spain, so they haven’t had to travel too far. Similarly, pistachios are grown abundantly in the Mediterranean which is pretty good for those of us living in Britain. It seems like pistachios are often forgotten about in favour of almonds, cashews or peanuts. But they’re a great source of protein, especially when eaten raw, and they are rich in mono-unsaturated fatty acids like oleic acid as well as being a storehouse of minerals such as copper, iron, potassium and manganese – all of which are essential trace minerals.

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Watercress is amazing stuff and I’m so lucky that it’s grown locally in Hampshire about fifteen minutes away from home. It’s been grown near Winchester and Alresford for hundreds of years in the little chalk streams scattered around the Itchen Valley – proven by the fact that there’s an old steam train railway (which still operates and you can take rides on) called the Watercress Line (I can sometimes see the smoke from its funnel from the top of my garden!). Eating watercress is a great way of getting your daily amounts of vitamins K, A and B. In fact, in a recent study in the CDC Journal Preventing Chronic Disease watercress was named the top ‘powerhouse’ food in a table of fruit and vegetables, with the highest nutrient-dense score. So there are so many great reasons to eat watercress! It has such a delicious peppery taste, and its spiciness complements the sweet peach and subtle yet distinctive flavour of pistachios. I considered a dressing for this salad and have actually tried it with a balsamic-based one but it really doesn’t need it – the juiciness of the peaches and the flavours of these three simple ingredients are perfect on their own.

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Serves 1:

  • 1 peach
  • A handful of raw pistachios
  • A couple of handfuls of watercress

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Simply slice the peach into crescent-shaped pieces and mix together with the pistachios and watercress. Serve and enjoy with a cool glass of water!

Sun-dried Tomato & Chive Hummus

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I wouldn’t mind betting that hummus is one of the most widely eaten foods in the world today. Fifteen years ago, it was probably only known to a select few who had visited the Middle East. But now you can find it in literally any supermarket, corner shop or health food shop in Britain. And not only that but the sheer variety of hummus flavours is tremendous. Sweet chilli hummus, lemon and coriander hummus, red pepper hummus, caramelised onion hummus… the list goes on. This probably has something to do with the emergence of ready-made, processed food on British supermarket shelves, but you also can’t deny the fact that hummus is just so incredibly tasty.

However, it’s important to get hummus right. The original blend made with chickpeas, garlic, lemon juice, tahini and oil is often unbeatable but adding other flavours can make the most delicious dip. I’ve tried a lot of different types of hummus but this is my favourite at the moment. Sun-dried tomatoes have the most amazing flavour and what’s so great is that even though they’ve been dried in the sun for a few days, they keep their nutritional value – still rich in vitamin C and lycopene. The chives give a subtle taste which isn’t overpowering like raw onion, blending perfectly with the rich sun-dried tomatoes. As well as this, chives are pretty good for you, containing many antioxidants which help destroy free radicals. They’re also rich in the nutrient choline which helps with so many things in the body such as sleep, muscle movement, absorption of fat and inflammation reduction – all of which are pretty great. More significantly, chives are SO easy to grow! In our garden they’re scattered across a big area, just poking out amongst the grass, as well as growing in a sprout from our herb patch.

Like a lot of people I know, I adore hummus and eat it almost every day. It just goes with everything: as a dip for carrots and peppers; spread onto rye bread; dolloped on top of a rocket, avocado and sunflower seed salad; stirred into quinoa. The trouble is lots of shop-bought hummus has mysterious ingredients and, more often than not, added sugar – which is never a good thing. Combining this with the fact it’s one of the easiest and quickest things to make, I can’t really think of an excuse for not giving it a go at home. I hope you can’t either..!

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Makes one large bowl of hummus:

  • 1 cup/230g cooked chickpeas
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • 1 tablespoon of garlic-infused olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon of olive oil
  • 3-5 tablespoons of water (depending on how thick or creamy you like it)
  • 1 tablespoon of tahini
  • A handful of chives
  • Approx 10 sundried tomato pieces (depending on size)
  • 1 lemon
  • A pinch of salt and pepper

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Squeeze out the lemon juice using a citrus juicer and then place all of the ingredients into a food processor and blend for about 3 minutes until smooth. It really is as simple as that! Serve immediately with anything you fancy (or just eat with a spoon) and savour the wonderful flavours.

Crispy Falafels

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Anyone who knows me vaguely well is undoubtedly aware of my passion for falafels. I LOVE them. They are probably my favourite food, especially when served with a good dollop of hummus and fresh salad. This was all sparked off during my art foundation in Falmouth, Cornwall where the most delicious falafels in Britain (and I should know – I’ve sampled my fair share) are sold from an amazing little company called Falfalafel. For those who don’t know falafels are made from whizzed up chickpeas (or sometimes broad or fava beans) with a tasty blend of garlic, onion and spices.

Chickpeas have been around for a long time, with evidence of their use and consumption in Neolithic Turkey and Greece, and in Bronze Age Italy. Today they are grown in a variety of places such as India, Australia and Ethiopia. I like to buy organic chickpeas from Turkey, which is one of the largest world producers of chickpeas. These little seeds (chickpeas are actually the seed of the plant) are such a great source of protein, which is ideal for vegetarians and vegans. They also contain manganese and high levels of iron which are good for boosting energy levels and defending antioxidants. Along with this chickpeas have a low GI (Glycaemic Index) value meaning their carbohydrate is broken down and digested gradually. They also contain lots of soluble fibre which helps to balance blood sugar levels and provide lots of slow-burning energy for your body.

Chickpeas are so fantastic and what better way to get them into your body than rolled up into little balls? Falafels are widely available in supermarkets but they almost always contain E numbers and other weird additives which are anything but healthy. I’ve been making falafels for a long time now, trying to create the best recipe for them – it’s an ongoing process but this is the most delicious one so far. It’s also vegan and gluten free. Falafels are super easy to make and honestly the yummiest thing so I hope you enjoy them as much as I do!

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Makes approx 10 falafels:

  • 1 cup/230g cooked chickpeas (canned chickpeas are fine, but they are so much tastier if you buy dried, soak them overnight with chopped garlic and then simmer for 45 minutes-1 hour with an unpeeled clove of garlic, sprig of rosemary and a couple of bay leaves)
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 1 small red onion
  • ½ tablespoon of sunflower oil
  • ½ tablespoon of garlic-infused olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons of chickpea flour
  • 1 teaspoon of cumin
  • 1 teaspoon of turmeric
  • ½ teaspoon of cayenne pepper
  • ½ teaspoon of paprika
  • A handful of fresh curly or flat-leaf parsley
  • A good grinding of salt and pepper

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Start by preheating your oven to 180°C and roughly chopping the onion and cloves of garlic. Then place all of the ingredients in a food processor and blend for about 20 seconds. Be sure not to over blend the mix – you want it to be fairly bitty, not totally smooth. If necessary blend for 10 seconds then give the ingredients a stir before blending for a further 10.

Next scoop out a small amount of the mixture in your fingers and roll between your palms to make fairly smooth balls. Be gentle when doing this as the texture is really important – if you tightly press the balls as you form them they can turn out too dense inside. You want that incredible light crumbly texture when you bite into them.

When you’ve formed all of the mixture into balls rub some sunflower oil into your fingers and palms and gently roll each falafel so they’re lightly coated. Place on a baking tray and bake for about 30 minutes, turning them every few minutes to make sure they have a lovely golden hazelnutty colour all over.

Finally remove them from the oven, allow to cool slightly then serve with hummus and salad of your choice (inside a wholemeal pitta pocket is best and the most traditional, but for a gluten free option I like them on oat cakes). Bite and enjoy!