After discovering the wonder of my own weekly veg box, I speak with Riverford Vegman, Patrick Blandford, to get his take on what it means to ‘live life on the veg’…
It would be fair to say that vegetables have never been that high up on my agenda. I wasn’t overly keen on the limp steamed veg we were served for school dinners, and I never really jumped on the kale smoothie bandwagon. But things all changed when I started ordering my own organic veg boxes. Suddenly, every meal became an exciting game of ‘what’s for dinner’. Rather than making endless trips to the supermarket, I found myself flicking through recipe books on mission to discover what could be made with that week’s colourful selection of produce. Every new ingredient is a new dish to discover – from vibrant graffiti aubergines, ready for stuffing, to generously filled bags of purple runner beans. Dinnertime is exciting once again and these days I’m positively evangelical about the power of veggies. But don’t just take my word for it. Patrick Blandford delivers Riverford Organic veg boxes to doorsteps all over East Somerset. He’s just as enthusiastic about the green stuff and is on a mission to convert you too!
Meet Patrick: Riverford Vegman and all-round veggie enthusiast!
Patrick, what kick-started your passion for vegetables?
When I was very young, my dad (who was a GP) was a member of the Soil Association and the Henry Doubleday Research Association. He gave himself a project to see if you could produce enough veg on a typical garden or allotment to provide all the amino acids necessary to get a perfectly balanced diet with nothing else added. This meant that I watched him spend quite a lot of time in the garden, growing crops and many evenings pouring over spreadsheets. Spoiler alert: he didn’t quite achieve his goal – it turns out you’d need a massive allotment!
What’s your first memory of cooking with veg?
We always grew sweetcorn in the garden and I vividly remember enjoying it freshly picked and briefly boiled before being served with melted butter.
What attracted you to Riverford Organic?
I was born and bred in Somerset and was very keen to move back to my roots. We had a young daughter and were keen organic veg box users, living in London. Riverford was a farmer owned business which was 100% organic and had great ethical credentials. We found that they were looking for someone to help them to sell and deliver their veg in Somerset, so we leapt at the chance. That was almost 15 years ago and we, and Riverford are still going from strength to strength. Last year Riverford became employee owned, which means that its ethics can never be diluted.
Why do you feel it’s important to be organic?
There’s a myriad of reasons. Organic means that no artificial fertilisers – made by burning fossil fuels – are used. Likewise, we will never airfreight or use heated glass (if you want tomatoes out of season, a lorry from Spain causes 20x less emissions than heating a greenhouse). There’s been a massive decline in bio diversity, but being organic means that no artificial pesticides are used and there is less intense farming, allowing for fields to regenerate. The fertilisers we do use are natural, such as animal and green manure crops. What’s more, there is absolutely no GMO. Conventional farming takes fertility from the land, whereas farming organically depends on creating fertility to add to the soil and enable us to be sustainable.
Are you starting to notice more people taking an interest in the provenance of their food?
Yes, we are! People are really becoming more and more worried about their world, whether it be Donald Trump, global warming or wildlife. Many people are concerned about packaging and would like to recycle or reuse, or even better, not use excess packaging at all. They also worry that Food Standards may be eroded with future trade deals that the UK may undertake. Going organic offers reassurance that no artificial fertiliser or pesticides are used and it can guarantee that your food is GMO free.
There is also lot of concern about the loss of bio diversity caused by industrial scale farming. Likewise, more and more people are conscious of the increase of production of cheap meats worldwide. We feel that increasing the amount of veg you eat and eating less meat (that is ethically produced) is really important.
With many reports suggesting that mass produced, processed food can be bad for you, we find that many people are keen to cook from scratch. Hopefully, they will find that our cookery demos will help them to do this. We’ve certainly had lots of people say to us that the food we make ‘tastes just like it used to when they were kids’. Sadly, flavour isn’t always a priority for many retailers. They’re more concerned about how it looks and if it is able to stand being transported long distances. I personally believe that looks are secondary, FLAVOUR is most important.
You run regular veg cookery demos. What sort of skills do your students usually possess?
To be honest, the level of skills is incredibly variable. Some people can dice and slice like fury and others find it difficult to chop an onion. This is why every demo includes tips and advice on how to make life easier in the kitchen. I do think that, in my lifetime, general cooking skills and knowledge of veg and where food comes from have declined. The supply of ready meals, ready prepped and washed veg flown in from all over the world means that fewer people are eating with the seasons.
The decline of school meals and teaching of cooking skills at school have not helped either. However, we do have a growing number of people coming to us to help them to eat sustainably with the seasons.
For an absolute beginner, how would you suggest experimenting with vegetables in the kitchen?
Roasting is a really easy way to use loads of different veg. Basically, you can use whatever roots you have. Once it is in the oven you can leave it and go and fettle the kids or have a glass of wine while you wait.
Any advice for a family on a tight budget who want to get more veg into their diet?
Eat with the seasons, put up with a bit of mud, and not every meal has to have meat in it. Dried lentils and chickpeas cost very little. Likewise, potatoes are much cheaper than rice and pasta. There are loads of different ways to cook potatoes – not just plain mashed, roasted or boiled!
Aside from fresh veg, what are your store cupboard essentials?
Where do I start? Legumes (such as lentils and chickpeas), tinned tomatoes and coconut milk, spices (see below), pasta, rice, flour, stock cubes or bouillon powder, oil and wine vinegar (plus some balsamic if you want to splash out, it adds a lovely layer of flavour). Also, I like to use fresh herbs, which you can grow on the patio or in a tray on the windowsill. We often freeze some herbs, so that they are always available. We have a basic herb and spice pack which we take on holiday, containing hot chilli powder, ground coriander and cumin, oregano, a couple of bay leaves from the garden (dried if not available) and sweet paprika.
What would your desert island dish be?
We have been experimenting with making wholemeal chapattis and if I say so myself, I am quite proud of the results. Riverford’s wonderfully vibrant Balinese Beetroot Curry goes with them really well. I like to serve it with a dollop of yoghurt on top.