In Be Kind on 01/10/17

Live Life on the Veg

“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” Virginia Woolf

My fabulous friend Fiona and I indulge in all manner of new experiences and events – mini-breaks, outdoor cinema, craft markets… So when she spotted a cooking class conveniently hosted in my local pub in Hamble, I was game.

The evening would be hosted by Riverford, an organic farm delivering veg boxes and more to your home. We’d learn new skills to turn a box of freshly picked veg into an inspirational organic feast.  The class was only £25 and included dinner – we’d eat our creation.  Marvellous!

A frying pan with spices and a cinnamon stick

On arrival I suggested we take a glass of wine into the class, Fi replied “sod that, get a bottle”.  So we joined the class, bottle in hand to a warm welcome from Natasha and Tom of Riverford.  The table was groaning with beautifully ripe, colourful veg, chopping boards, knives and hot plates.

Introductions revealed our small group was made up of a wonderful mix of characters, including the lovely Clive, founder of The Poetry of Curry, an outdoor event ‘festival wagon’ – he serves a poem with every curry.

And so we began preparation for our three dishes; romanesco, spinach and chickpea curry, herby kale and rice salad and roasted beetroot, spiced carrot and cannellini dip.

First we were shown how to hold a knife and chop an onion.  Natasha’s demonstration, far from patronising, explained why I have so much waste and an unusually high consumption of finger plasters.

Fresh cut bread in a basket with a cardboard punnet of cherry tomatoes sad amidst place settings and a wine glass

We all got busy chopping garlic, chilli, carrots and peppers while Natasha dry fried cumin, coriander and turmeric.  Little cardboard trays of cherry tomatoes were set on the table – these were surplus stock from the farm for us to nibble on.  You can tell a lot from a tomato, too often people lament their lack of taste which tells me they buy budget veg from supermarkets who sell under-ripe stock to meet their need for a long shelf life.  As the book Shopped says, anyone under the age of 40 in this country doesn’t know how fruit and veg are supposed to taste.

Our red, yellow and purple snack tomatoes were firm when gently squeezed, bursting open at first bite to release vibrant fresh flavour.  I was sold on Riverford right there.  I don’t normally snack on tomatoes but I ate my fair share, eyeing up how many were left around the table to see if I could get away with gobbling even more.

The feast: our group tucking into our dinner at a big wooden table with our dishes spread between the place settings

The art of cooking is full of innuendo, and as the wine slipped down I found myself giggling a little too often at Natasha’s innocent remarks about getting your fingers right in there and deliciously moist specimens.  The whole evening felt like a jovial dinner party with friends rather than a class.

Cooking complete, we sat down to eat our creation – a gorgeously colourful spread of our curries accompanied with chunky fresh bread and pots of fresh butter.  The food was delicious, the perfect demonstration of why fresh, quality ingredients are so important.  Even better, we’d cooked enough for leftovers which were decanted into recyclable containers for us to take away.

A sample veg box with sprouts, celery, carrots, sweet potato, parsnip, swede, leek and potato

There was no sales pitch but for a sample veg box on display, with my taste buds suitably delighted I was sold. I’ve been aware of veg boxes for years but never signed up because they inevitably contain unfamiliar items I haven’t a clue what to do with. However the evening inspired me to be more adventurous.

My small ‘less roots’ veg box duly arrived containing a butternut squash, cabbage, mushrooms, salad leaves, runner beans and carrots caked in mud. I had also ordered a bottle each of the organic Sicilian red and French white wine on Tom’s recommendation (the easiest sell he’s ever had, I imagine).

The delivery included an A-Z guide to storing and cooking the veg varieties I will receive year round.  A newsletter from Guy Watson, founder of Riverford, was a great read with insights into varietals and delightfully candid opinions on the damage and waste the likes of Tesco impinge on the industry.  He’s a man after my own heart.

The cover of the book Shopped by Joanna Blythman

Riverford was started by a farmer with a vision.  Today they deliver veg, fruit, meat, dairy, wine, bread and all manner of treats to thousands of homes across the country.  Along with Riverford, I have discovered the delights of my local farm shops who sell the most delicious fresh food.  The strawberries in particular were the best I’ve ever tasted, grown less than a mile from my home and sold to me by the farmer herself.

Now this is where I would like to share my views on the benefits of small businesses over greedy giants like Tesco, but I fear it would go on for pages.  Let me just say that the larger supermarkets are focused on profitability at the cost of small suppliers and, indeed, quality.  We all like to save a buck, but given how many farmers and small producers have gone out of business in the last few decades, it’s worth considering the resulting cost to our economy, communities and health.

If you’re interested to learn more, read the book Shopped, one of the most insightful books I’ve ever read and rated by the Financial Times as “a compelling wake-up call”.  Riverford’s website is also worth a good browse, it’s full of useful information, events and recipes, and Guy Watson is delightfully candid on the subject of food and farming.