New York Wild food: duck liver ramsoms
We’re going to have to stretch the definition of “Suffolk” a bit this week as Mrs Ermine is visiting an old school friend from Suffolk who now lives in New York. Ermines are reasonably adventurous creatures, but for some reason this one had never got around to crossing the Atlantic due to a mix of lack of funds (at times), a bad reaction to friends’ descriptions of cities where no-one walks (which sounds to me like something akin to hell) and more recently, simply due to being tied to The Oak Tree Farm.
But the glamorous Natalie, invited me to visit enough times that I assumed she wasn’t just being polite, and made the place sound like a fantastic adventure that would make a much needed change to horizons limited to the hedgerows of my 12 acres.
And here is fried duck’s liver and ramsoms (known here as “ramps”) from the local farmers’ market with leftover takeaway rice and endless supply of earl grey tea from the supplies that I stuffed into my luggage to keep my expat friend in supplies.
It is a big improvement on my first culinary adventure yesterday. Which was a trip to MacDonalds. Not a good experience, frankly.
Aldeburgh Ingredients Orford Recipe Suffolk Coast Uncategorized: oysters seafood valentines
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The busy season at The Oak Tree Farm is well under way. While I love my work (most of the time!) it is good to get away from it all from time to time, and think about something totally different. Fortunately Mr Ermine and I live close to the particularly lovely Suffolk coastline, and we are also the proud owners of a baby camper van, which means we can enjoy fine local food without paying restaurant prices.
First stop: Aldeburgh for Fish and Chips. Of course.
Then on to Minsmere, the RSPB Nature Reserve, where I was delighted to watch an Oyster-catcher fussing over its nest in just the same way as a chicken (you can take a girl out of the farm, but you can’t take the farm out of the girl…). I was then really quite shocked to watch the boy bird (I’m guessing which was which here) take over sitting on the eggs!
Mr Ermine explained that some bird species do this, which astonished me. You’d never catch a self respecting cockerel or domestic gander sitting on a nest of eggs. They are far too busy showing off. Delighted by this display of equality between the sexes, I announced a craving for seafood, so (Mr Ermine being an obliging chap) we continued to Orford. This is not an original thing for the Ermine household to do on a sunny day, if I am honest, but I did have an original idea. Well, fairly original.
I like oysters. Mr Ermine does not. At least we assume he doesn’t. Or can’t.
You see, Mr Ermine is allergic to mussels. He first found this out in Brussels. He ate a large pile of mussels and then imbibed a large quantity of strong beer, as is traditional in the city. And was then violently sick afterwards. There was always the suspicion that it was the beer you see, but, as a measure of precaution, he avoided mussels and other bivalves for many years after that.
He bravely tried one or two of my mussels on a romantic weekend away a couple of decades later: no problem, hooray! So, he tried a whole bowlful of his own for lunch the very next day. All went well until mid-afternoon when he started to feel a bit queasy. Then a lot queasy. Then he was hanging over the comfortable pub bedroom’s toilet bowl sounding anything but romantic, to be honest, poor chap. Unsurprisingly he announced he didn’t need any dinner that evening. Which was terribly unfortunate as we had booked a fancy Valentine’s dinner complete with pink fizz and oysters to begin with. Frankly my company wasn’t much fun for him, and vice versa, so I pottered down to eat my dinner alone. It is testament to my love of good food that the lure of it was greater than the embarrassment at eating a Valentine’s dinner alone.
Curiously, I have eaten an oyster-related dinner alone in a restaurant on Valentine’s day once before. I used to work as a traveling company rep in France (a very long story…) so I would routinely eat out in basic French restaurants. I was incredibly fortunate to be doing this in France, not Britain, as basic restaurant food in France is frankly, much the same standard, if not better, than “posh” food in Britain, only served in more generous quantities. I was halfway through the meal before I realised why there were so many dewy-eyed couples dining that evening. I had been too busy enjoying my cooked oysters.
Now, I do enjoy raw oysters, and in France they are considered to be a very nice, but almost routine, food. Available in supermarkets for a very reasonable price and particularly plentiful and popular at Christmas. Oyster knives are a regular kitchen implement that cost anything from a couple of euros, not ten quid minimum like here.
So when I saw cooked oysters on the menu I jumped at the chance to try them. And very good they were too, cooked with white wine and cheese, as I recall. Bigger and tastier than mussels, and less of a challenge than raw oysters. So I thought I would try cooking them myself. I bought half a dozen oysters from Pinney’s in Orford for £3.20, which isn’t bad for a change from everyday food.
As soon as we got home (the campervan grill isn’t hot enough for this) I grated some cheese and mixed it with homemade bread crumbs.
After opening each oyster I drained off the excess water , then sprinkled a generous layer of the mixture over, and put them all under a really hot grill for five minutes or so until the topping started to brown.
They were really very good indeed! Recommended.
Better value elsewhere Homegrown Hungry Gap Ingredients Philosophy Uncategorized
I don’t buy veg much as I get reject veg as part of my wages. I’m second in the “veg hierarchy” at The Oak Tree Low Carbon Farm, which goes like this:
- the best veg for farm members’ veg share boxes.
- ok but fiddly to prepare (small, slugged, carrot flied…) for farm growers, including me.
- veg trimmings & truly ropey veg for the chickens and pigs.
- waste that even the pigs wouldn’t eat (or I don’t want them to eat for fear of piggy belly ache) goes on the compost heap.
So a walk round the veg department of a large supermarket in my company can be a rather explosive experience. Mr Ermine has already spoken on the subject of the freshness of vegetables, perhaps “inspired” by my rantings, but on a recent trip to a large supermarket to buy a bottle of whiskey as a leaving gift for a colleague, Mr Ermine made mistake of letting me wander through the veg department.
“HOW MUCH!?” I was genuinely shocked. I guess I had always hoped that our veg boxes at The Oak Tree represent good value, particularly given that our lovely members help to grow them, but in this one visit I realised that they might offer excellent value.
So lets revisit a recent veg box from The Oak Tree Farm at around the time of this supermarket visit:
I should say straight away that being a member of The Oak Tree Farm is a very different experience to shopping at a large supermarket. To give you an idea:
Large supermarket: open 7 days a week/choose what you want/you just need cash/big range of produce all year round.
The Oak Tree: veg box harvested once a week/ultra fresh local veg/community of friendly people/commitment and work needed/only seasonal veg/parties and other social events thrown in.
…so it is daft, really, to compare the two. We are also in the hungry gap, so frankly if our veg is as good value as the supermarkets right now we are doing really well: this is a low point of the vegetable year at the farm.
Just so as you know… The Oak Tree is not certified organic, and here is why from our website, “All cultivation at The Oak Tree is done without artificial fertilisers, pesticides or other chemicals, and we use only natural non-chemical pest control and fertilisers. Organic certification costs around £500 per year and imposes considerable paperwork overhead, and would sometimes mean we need to transport things further and thus increase our carbon emissions.”
But what the hell, I can’t resist doing the comparison anyway…. so let’s go through this recent veg box step by step, and compare. Some of the prices I am looking up today (20th April) some are taken from that fateful trip a fortnight ago.
500g carrots: I’m going to compare with organic carrots as this is one vegetable where I would actively avoid the flavour of “conventional” supermarket veg. They taste vaguely of washing up liquid to me. Equivalent price £1.42/kg, so 61p
400g parsnips: neither of the two major retailers I checked offer organic parsnips at the moment, so let’s settle for the normal ones. Equivalent price £1.49/kg, so 57p
2 leeks: Do we take organic ones or not? There is a big price difference. Our leeks taste good and are fresh, so I am going to take the organic price of £2
200g sprouting broccoli OR 1 cauliflower: Frankly our caulis are just as good, and almost certainly fresher, than that organic one, and that sprouting broccoli looks a bit on the large size to me… so lets call the equivalent price £2.
150g borecole flower sprouts: this is our fancy name for the buds of kale before it flowers. They are very similar to sprouting broccoli, a bit nicer in my opinion, so let’s make them the same price as the “organic tenderstem broccoli” at £2.50/200g, so £1.87
150g perpetual spinach: I don’t know of any supermarket that sells this useful winter crop. It is similar to Swiss chard but not as pretty. Not even Abel and Cole stock it. Do you mind if I call it £1? It takes quite a while to harvest!
200g mixed salad leaves: hmm, let’s see. The ones that looked most similar to ours were these, but then we don’t throw in a little sachet of salad dressing. However I doubt these were picked on the same day they were sold… so let’s call it quits, eh? Our salad leaves are very popular! Equivalent price £2/90g, so £4.45
small bunch of radishes: A supermarket bunch was 70p, and it is sure to be bigger than this, so let’s call ours Equivalent price 40p.
I started writing without having worked out the equivalent total price, so I am as curious as you to know the “supermarket equivalent” total price. It is £12.90. Compared to our current weekly share price of £7.50, which is set to increase to £8 this June. I shall stop worrying whether or not we offer good value.
For the sake of accuracy and fairness, we do ask our members to stick with us (for a minimum membership of one year) through good seasons and bad… this has been a good hungry gap. Last year was not. Thank you to everyone who stuck with us through the bad times, so we can all enjoy the sunlit uplands together. Community Supported Agriculture: sharing the risks and rewards of farming.
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In my days as a cash till operator in shops, before all the fanciness of bar codes, you used to select a category for the item you were ringing up on the till. Even for a summer student job, it was bloody boring, but repetitive enough that one of the category names stuck in my mind: “non-food items”.
I won’t labour the topic of this post, as it isn’t strictly within the remit of a blog called, “Simple Eating…” But if you’re going to save money on everyday items, you won’t be limiting price-watching to food. Even a girl with simple tastes like Mrs Ermine needs some basic toiletries and so on, so I thought I would share my choices with you. I’m not claiming to be the best groomed girl in town, I’m most certainly not that. But I brush up at least clean and non smelly on a very low budget.
Shampoo – I use supermarket basic stuff. It is fine. It turns out that Mr Ermine helps himself to my shampoo, and his fur looks shiny enough. I don’t think he bothers with conditioner.
Conditioner – I use something a bit above the basic range, but wait until it is on offer an buy it in bulk. Last time this lot was on half price offer I spend about £25 on over 10 bottles.
Split end control – Coconut oil, neat, rubbed in to the ends of my hair when dry. A small pot costs next to nothing from Superdrug and lasts ages.
Soap - Imperial Leather, the original stuff, from Wilkinsons in town which is the cheapest I’ve found, though I haven’t checked for a while. It is nicer than really cheap stuff and it reminds me of my grandmother.
Bubble bath – an essential thing for any lady farmer, though a bath is even rarer than a shower here at Ermine Towers (see below). I get pretty cheap stuff from Wilkinsons and add proper lavender oil bought from a nice lady on ebay.
Deodorant- I used to find buying deodorant an absolute pain in the arse. Basically roll-ons didn’t work (as a farmer I sweat a lot) so I needed a pretty powerful solid deodorant. Most of the time these are really expensive so I used to wait for a special offer and clear the shelves, but I still ended up hunting round and paying too much in between times.
But now, I am happy to say, I simply buy thai crystals from a nice person on ebay. I hope they will forgive me using their picture. This set of four lasts forever and costs under £14 including postage. Every so often after a little too much red wine I give one away to a friend with much enthusiasm, which means the set of four doesn’t last as long as it could, but it is good to share the love.
I tried not bothering with face “skin care” to save money for a while but my face got irritated, oily then flaky in succession. I have sensitive skin which periodically reacts badly to something, most recently some washing powder that we finally had to chuck out when the source of the back itching was pinned on that rather than something nasty picked up from the chickens.
I tried various cheap and expensive “skin care” items before I finally settled on this lot:
Facewash – one thing I actually spend some money on, though it last for ages: Clarins foaming facewash which seems to go through various iterations, extra ingredients and whatnot, and makes my face feel comfortable and not itchy, unlike cheaper stuff I have tried. I only use it when I shower which is <shock> not every day, normally I strip wash each morning, washing my armpits and ladies bits with a flannel and basinful of water. My mother used to call it “top and tailing”, like a bean.
Toner - according to some Guardian thing I read people don’t use toner any more, they use serums. Well I use a house plant spray filled with soft water from the water-butt that collects rainwater from the roof of Ermine Towers. Free, effective and avoids any skin reactions.
Moisturiser - again used only after a shower. I get it from Aldi, again it seems to vary, but it always costs £2 for a pot that last ages. It has won awards, but I didn’t know that when I first bought it, I just couldn’t afford anything else.
Spot control - tea tree oil bought from the lavender oil lady on ebay. Very useful for all sorts of skin eruptions and so on.
Ingredients offal Recipe Uncategorized: liver paté. pate
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Every cook who aspires to improve their skill needs an honest critic. Particularly a cook who is pushing the boundaries of how little they can live on. Mine is Mr Ermine. I confess that, at times, I struggle to be gracious about my good fortune in having such an honest commentator on my cooking, but in my calmer moments I am grateful as he helps me to keep the “well” in “eating well for less”.
One such time was when I served New Zealand lambs’ liver for tea. I can’t completely convince myself, but generally it looks as if New Zealand lamb is reasonably ok on welfare. Please correct me if I am wrong on this. The liver must be frozen for the journey (I just can’t see any other way it can get here without having rotted) and is then sold in a defrosted state in vacuum packaging. Somehow it is ok for re-freezing. I don’t know all that for a fact, by the way, I’m just having a reasoned guess. Generally I either produce my own meat at The Oak Tree Farm or I buy my meat from local farmers, but I was in Sainsbury’s, I needed some main meal ingredients, and there was the temptingly cheap New Zealand lambs liver, each packet under a pound in price. I bought two, and froze one.
Liver, you see, is an excellent ingredient for the impecunious cook who wants nutritious food that costs less. Don’t trust me (and I make no apology for plugging this fine book once again) trust Sally Fallon in her masterwork “Nourishing Traditions”:
The modern person’s squeamishness about “innards”, and general aversion to anything that has actual flavour, has led to a general decline in offal consumption in the UK, which is a dreadful shame for the health of the nation, but bloody great for Mrs Ermine’s bank balance.
I didn’t mention the origins of this particular liver to Mr Ermine. Liver is a borderline food for him anyway: no ox liver, no pigs liver (though I suspect he knows I sneak small amounts of both into mince-based dishes such a chilli and bolognese sauce) but calves’ liver and lambs’ liver are deemed “alright for a change” which is diplomatic code for “don’t serve it up too often”.
As he began to eat this particular lambs’ liver tea there was an almost imperceptible crease across the ermine snout.
An exhalation that was just a little to close to a sigh to ignore. And then there was the longer-than-usual pause of the fork en route from plate to mouth. This wasn’t “alright for a change”. It just wasn’t right. I repeat, he had no clue to indicate that wasn’t from the local farm shop, except the flavour, so he wasn’t being a food snob. I had pushed my money saving too far. He ate it that one time, considering it rude to reject a meal I had cooked for him unless utterly repulsive, but he wouldn’t do so again.
So I was left with the second packet of this pesky liver in the freezer. I guess I could have liquidised it and put it in a chilli, but I fancied trying my luck once again with the ermine palate. The flavour needed to be diluted, and I decided to try making liver paté.
Reject lambs’ liver paté ingredients
- Reject lambs’ liver
- Plenty of onions
- Plenty of butter (if you’re feeling extra hard-up you could use lard).
- Very fatty bacon
- Thyme (of course fresh is nice, but dried from Aldi is fine, and cheap)
- Proper salt
You could add all sorts of other things: mushrooms, other herbs, sausagemeat… the key thing is to have fatty pig meat, liver, breadcrumbs and flavourings. If I had had port to hand I would have added some, but I didn’t.
Reject lambs’ liver paté method
- Set the oven to gas mark 4, 180°C, 350°F.
- Chop the onions up (roughly if you like) and slowly fry them in plenty of butter.
- Once the onions are translucent, add the chopped up bacon.
- Soak the breadcrumbs in enough milk to make a stiff paste.
- Put the cold ingredients into a food processor then add the hot ones – yes, everything.
- Liquidise it all until smooth (I like smooth paté).
- Put the kettle on.
- Butter an ovenproof dish.
- Put the mix in the buttered dish, cover with foil or a lid, and put in the oven for about an hour and a half in a deep baking tray containing boiling water reaching up the dish to half the height of the paté.
This is the sort of thing you can slice to put on bread or toast on its own. It is very cheap to make. Mr Ermine’s verdict? “Good”.
Better value elsewhere Ingredients
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I like Kikkoman soy sauce. I always have, from my student days making that classic late 80′s dish, stir fry.
From my local Indian grocers it costs £4.29 for one litre. A certain large supermarket has this exact same product, yes, a one litre bottle of Kikkoman Soy Sauce, on sale for £6. Need I say more?
Ingredients Main dish Pulses Uncategorized: bean and pork stew cassoulet peasant
I was going to call it cassoulet, that classic french peasant dish. But having ranted about the whole business of anyone in an urban UK setting claiming to make a French rural peasant dish, I thought it wise to drop the idea. So here, Dear reader of Simple Eating in Suffolk, is my Suffolk semi-urban, semi-rural cheap-ingredients-from-shops-I- have-found-to-be-good-value along with some of what remains of my side of Oak Tree pork peasant cookery. None of the ingredients whatsoever come from a large supermarket. Not particularly on principle, but because they are better value elsewhere.
- 1kg white dried haricot beans
- 4 fatty pork chops with rind on
- a six pack of half decent sausages from the co-op
- two smallish home-made salamis
- A few carrots, with bits of carrot fly damage excavated out (as a grower at The Oak Tree Farm, I eat the reject veg).
- thyme (dried, from Aldi)
- decent sea salt
- Some left over gravy because I had it to hand
- Most people would add garlic to this, and no doubt it would be delicious. But Mr Ermine doesn’t like garlic, and if I eat garlic Mr Ermine doesn’t like me. I like Mr Ermine more than I like garlic, so I don’t eat it.
The point is that you can use a whole range of meats that you might have to hand. I just happened to have these ones.
Note about preparing the beans
Soak the beans in warm water with a little lemon juice added for a long time, draining and then covering with warm water again, each time with some lemon juice added. This is the method recommended by Sally Fallon in her masterwork:
After a couple of days they’ll have lost a fair bit of the stuff that make them hard to digest, and they will be far better for you. I can’t remember exactly why, you’d need to read the book to find out.
- Cut the fat & rind off the pork chop and chop it into small pieces. Do not discard.
- Chop the salami into shortish lengths
- Drain the beans and cover with fresh cold water. Add the pork fat and rind, mix well, and bring to the boil.
- Skim off any froth while the beans boil vigorously for about ten minutes then simmer for a while
- While the beans are cooking, fry the chopped up pork chops and sausages in a frying pan. Only turn from time to time – leave them to brown on one side before turning (credit for this technique goes to Raymond Blanc)
- Once the bits of chops and sausages are nicely browned (but not necessarily cooked through) add them to the beans and mix up.
- Add chopped onion, and lengths of carrot, to the frying pan and soften for a while.
- Once soft, add some of the bean cooking liquid to lift the browning from the bottom of the frying pan.
- Tip the entire contents of the frying pan into the bean mix.
- Add thyme, salt and pepper to the bean mix, sir well.
- Simmer for ages. I left mine all day until the beans had cooked enough to thicken the cooking liquid. Watch that the bottom doesn’t burn. You can cook this in the oven rather than simmering after the initial preparation if you prepare.
- You can serve it with whatever you like, but I strongly recommend red wine.
I learned to cook on an extremely dangerous gas cooking ring that I plugged into a “Bunsen burner” style gas outlet in my student accommodation, and I still feel more comfortable using a hob than an oven. You can be quite sure that health and safety will have outlawed that fine gas cooking device years ago, which is a shame because you could get an unbelievable heat with it. Stir-frying was all the rage in the 80s when I first went to University, and that gas ring was, as Mr Ermine would put it, the dog’s bollocks for making a decent stir-fry.
Philosophy Wild food: peasant
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I am intrigued by the column “How to cook the perfect…” in the Guardian. For example, the latest installment How to cook the perfect cassoulet had me interested enough to cast an eye over it, but with a background irritation: this isn’t what cooking is about, particularly peasant French cooking, of which cassoulet is a prime example. The lady writer clearly spent quite a bit of time scouring specialist shops for the ingredients, though she did choose cheaper, though less “authentic”, beans as a nod to the thrifty origins of the dish.
Peasant cooking is entirely based on taking local, abundant and sometimes difficult-to-use ingredients and transforming them into something wonderful and delicious. My nettle soup is a local example. But you can be sure that whoever devised the original recipes (and this would have been a collective effort, with local rivalries and stiff village competition) they wouldn’t have bought many expensive ingredients to improve the overall effect. They would have made better use of what they already had. That was the whole point. They didn’t have much cash, but they had initiative and some plentiful ingredients to hand having worked hard for them. Thinking about it, there was quite a heated debate at last year’s Wild Food Walk at The Oak Tree about the best way to make nettle soup so I like to think we are continuing the tradition.
Raymond Blanc is one celebrity chef that I have time for. He freely acknowledges his debt of gratitude to French peasant cookery, particularly that of his mother. His upbringing was far from wealthy, but his parents knew how to make the very best of the countryside they lived in, foraging for wild foods and growing vegetables in the garden. For a diverting read I recommend his autobiography:
He also acknowledges that he takes that knowledge and creates fine cookery from it. It is an inspiration for something different, namely fine cuisine. I took inspirati0n from his childhood stories to create my own “peasant cookery” here in my semi-urban, semi-agricultural situation. Use the best of the shops around me, and the food I produce myself, to eat well for less.
Raymond Blanc’s cookery book “Simple French Cookery” again takes these recipes, which are often pretty complicated, and offers them in the context of a largely urban UK. Fair enough. Just don’t kid yourself that this is authentic peasant cookery in the context we find ourselves in.
All this got me to thinking about the word “peasant” (according to the Oxford English Dictionary “A poor smallholder or agricultural labourer ….”) which is generally used as mild insult in English, which says a very great deal about our fucked-up culture. I am a peasant, but to say so, particularly given my voice has something of what my ex-husband, and now good friend, Paul, would have described as a “ten bob twang”, makes me sound pretentious and pretty ridiculous. Hell, I’m even a member of the largest organisation in the world, the international peasant’s alliance La Via Campesina via it’s local wing, the Land Workers Alliance.
From time to time, when people first meet me running The Oak Tree Farm, they assume I must be a bit simple in the head. I recognise this as I used to get it all the time as a young woman in the IT industry in the 1990s – I was the first woman engineer in most of the companies, or at least departments, I worked in. I’d be sent out to do the photocopying while discussing software specs with a customer, be told “women can’t program” etc etc. For a while it really upset me and undermined my confidence, but with time I learned to just carry on until I was accepted in a group. Only a few people couldn’t get over themselves, and I could usually work around them. If I couldn’t I would move on to a different job. So I recognise the symptoms: people using simpler language, assuming you won’t “get” subtle references, and generally being a just a bit too nice and over-explaining things.
So when it happens now I confess I let slip something about my education/previous work experience etc etc because it is time consuming and annoying to be treated like an idiot. Generally this solves the problem and people cease to treat me that way. Sometimes they even look a bit sheepish. And if they don’t change their behaviour I feel justified in simply getting them out of my way as quickly and politely as possible.
In the IT industry people treated me like an idiot because I was a (then) young woman, and there just weren’t many of us about. I actually felt quite sorry for some of the blokes that simply didn’t know what to make of me. It usually helped when I swore loudly (and unintentionally) over some mistake I’d made coding. They would have been desperately trying not to swear in front of “the lady” in the office.
But in smallholding my gender isn’t the issue, or at least not often, rather it is my profession that leads a minority of people to make assumptions about me. Small scale farming is for stupid people, right? Certainly large scale farmers often dismiss small farms as quaint or just plain ridiculous. It must be easy, eh? I am forever being told I should employ people with learning difficulties, implying that this is a job that they would master easily. I find this particularly irritating as it is hard for me to avoid sounding like a complete bastard if I say “that wouldn’t work”, and of course there is the implication that I myself might have learning difficulties.
Small scale farming is hard. Not just physically hard (which it most certainly can be) but brainpower hard. There are a thousand and one details to juggle. You need to make judgement calls quickly and with inadequate information. You need to ignore lots of “standard” advice and read obscure books for clues on the best way of doing things. Peasant farming skills have been all but lost in the UK, but if we are to grow decent food in the future without totally screwing our soils and atmosphere up, we need a good few people to re-learn small scale mixed farming techniques.
This isn’t just the rantings of an over-caffeined lady farmer early in the morning. It is official. The UK government signed up to the IAASTD report Agriculture at a crossroads, although I am told that it is treated with scorn in government departments now. I confess I have never read the entire thing, instead I turn to my food policy hero (poor bastard, I was cheering and hooting when he came on stage at a conference a couple of years ago!) Tim Lang to give me a summary. I hope I am not distorting his option in when I take this quote from a paper of his.
In 2008, the World Bank initiated IAASTD countered those who believe in GM as the new magic bullet, arguing that sustainable food systems could be built around supporting the social not just ecological infrastructure of small farmers.
So you see, the cultural assumption that small-scale farmers are a bit ignorant and most certainly behind the times and unrealistic is very dangerous, and insidious. The latest changes to the EU Common Agricultural Policy mean that The Oak Tree, at 4.96 hectares in size, isn’t even eligible for agricultural subsidies (the threshold is 5 hectares). So we are officially “not a proper farm” just as a peasant “isn’t a proper farmer”. I had a heated disucssion with a local council official a couple of months ago when she told me that a farm of under 200 acres can’t be financially viable (I’m not 100% sure of the 200 acres figure, but she was certainly talking about a farm size far bigger than The Oak Tree). Yet we look set to employ two people full time, and feed 50 households with veg, meat & eggs. And we’ve only just got going – in the future we’ll be growing fruit, nuts and firewood too.
Yep, all the rules are against us. Waste regulations, planning regulations, hygiene regulations designed to cope with unsanitary factory farmed animals not healthy free range ones. All too complicated and expensive for a small scale operation. We get no subsidies, while my big farm competitors do. Planning rules are more stringent for farms under 5 hectares in size. But despite all this crap we keep going at The Oak Tree , and, wonderfully, many many people value the opportunity to get involved in producing their own food. Thanks to real people believing in what we do, we survive. In time, maybe, we’ll thrive.
Better value elsewhere Ingredients: onions
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I have grown most of my own vegetables for a very long time with just two exceptions: onions and mushrooms.
Mushrooms are just too much hassle to grow, requiring prepared composts or logs and no sunlight, although I will forage for wild mushrooms from time to time.
My original motivation for growing my own veg was to save money. I didn’t like working in an office, so the less money I spent, the less of my life I would have to spend sitting in one. And indeed this tactic enabled me to buy The Oak Tree Low Carbon Farm in my late 30s, and now I no longer have to sit in someone else’s office. I am so very glad I didn’t spend that money back then.
I swiftly learned that it wasn’t worth growing onions to save money. They take up a lot of space, need lots of weeding and you need loads of them. Actually saying that I learned “swiftly” may be a little ambitious. I remember cycling a bike trailer full of onions home from my allotment, much to the amusement of local school kids, only to discover, on one of the few steep hills in Suffolk, that my bike’s brakes weren’t up to the job. Perhaps my aversion to growing onions today is partly a hangover from the trauma of that day.
In any case, I still maintain that it isn’t worth growing onions to save money. They are fabulously and ridiculously cheap.
So it makes me more than a little sore to see how bloody expensive “value” onions are in a large supermarket. Two of the big ones (you know who I mean) charge 63p for a kilogram of “value” onions, which are small and fiddly to prepare, and given the increased surface area to volume ratio compared to larger onions (you were awake in biology classes, weren’t you?) there is less useful onion per unit weight.
Let’s compare this price with a bag from my local Indian grocers. OK, this receipt is dated from 2102, but I bought some more the other week and they hadn’t gone up much, if at all.
When I went to school, that makes one kilo of (decent sized) onions cost 35p, that’s to say just over half the price of the “cheap” supermarket ones. If you buy a larger sack from Afro and Asian, they are cheaper still, but I can’t easily carry them, and I don’t eat quite enough of them. As my hero of Self Sufficiency John Seymour said, “good cooking is inconceivable without onions”. Indeed. But there is no need to be ripped off.
Better value elsewhere Drinks: tea
In addition to red wine and coffee, Mr Ermine and I enjoy a cup of Lapsang Souchong tea from time to time. This is another thing that I have found to be far cheaper from somewhere other than a big supermarket.
We don’t drink a lot of tea, but you don’t need to drink a lot before you run up a considerable bill when a packet of 50 teabags from a major retailer (who appears to be under pressure to cut its prices at the moment, surprise, surprise) costs £2.79. The weight of the tea is 125g.
So I took a look at how much Lapsang Souchong tea would cost from my favourite coffee people, Garraways (I repeat: I have no financial interest in this outfit! That’s just a plain old link )
means we can use their loose leaf tea. This is slightly more hassle, but not much, and the tea tastes better.
So how do the the prices compare? Garraways charge £10.49 for a kilo of tea. Order this along with plenty of coffee, as is the custom at Ermine Towers, and you’ll get the delivery free.
Major retailer price per kilo of tea = £22.32
Garraways price per kilo of tea = £10.49
so less than half price. No wonder those “two for one” offers are so ubiquitous…