World Soil Day falls on December the 6th this year. For me it’s the most important day of the year – perhaps that sounds as if I’ve gone slightly dotty but it’s really good to remind ourselves that we are all totally dependent on the four or five inches of topsoil around the world for our very existence. Our health and over 90% of our food comes from the soil. If we don’t have rich fertile soil we won’t have clean water or good food – think about it….! Soil also plays a vital role in regulating the climate and supporting animal and plant biodiversity.
In the words of Lady Eve Balfour: “The health of soil, plant, animal and man is one and indivisible” and the ominous warning from Franklin D Roosevelt – 32nd President of USA that “The nation that destroys its soil, destroys itself” – how prophetic was that!
Here in Ireland, we have little reason to be complacent – only 10% of Irish soil is at optimum fertility. According the Teagasc that means 90% of Irish soil is mineral deficient mainly as a consequence of overuse of artificial nitrogen, synthetic fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides which damage the soil and the earthworm population.
Soils are a limited natural resource; their formation occurs at an extremely slow pace. At the very least, it takes 100 years to build an inch of topsoil but can in fact take 500 years or more. Most current food production methods do not nurture the soil, instead they exploit it. There is a growing realisation among the farming community that we can no longer continue with ‘business as usual’ for a myriad of reasons not least the diminishing nutrient content of our food. The move by many farmers to regenerative farming as a means of improving soils, increasing biodiversity and mitigating climate change is to be welcomed.
I’m intrigued by the soil. Soil scientists confirm that there are more microbes, enzymes, protozoa and nematodes in a teaspoon of healthy soil than people on earth but there is so much, still to understand. If I ‘come back again’, I want to be a soil scientist…
As organic farmers, we are passionate about the soil. We continue to build fertility by adding well-rotted farmyard manure, compost, humus, seaweed and even seashells. Regular soil testing monitors progress. We eagerly await the introduction of a spectrometer that can measure the nutrient density of food so farmers who produce more nutrient dense food can be paid properly for the extra nourishment their food provides. That could surely be a game-changer. It’s not difficult to calculate that someone along the food chain is losing out when a bunch of carrots which takes at least four months to grow from seed are sold for 46 Cent. Despite economies of scale, if this continues there will be no Irish vegetable growers within a few years – they simply cannot any longer continue to produce vegetables below an economic level. In the words of one farmer ‘we would probably be paid more for stacking shelves in the supermarket’. This can’t go on – check out the brilliant French initiative C’est qui le Patron (cestquilepatron_ on Instagram) where the consumer gets the option to pay more having being told the story behind the production of that litre of milk, loaf of bread, carton of eggs…
Delicious, nutrient dense, wholesome food that helps to build a strong immune system and boosts our antibodies comes from rich fertile soil not from labs and test kitchens.
Late Autumn/Winter is the root vegetable and citrus fruit season, leeks and calcots too and all the stronger brassicas, kale, red cabbage…So here are a few recipes for nourishing Winter dishes – you’ll eat less and feel more satisfied – don’t believe me – Try it!
Swede and Bacon Soup with Parsley Oil
I love swedes, an inexpensive, super-versatile vegetable with lots of flavour and one that’s often forgotten. A night’s frost concentrates the sugar and sweetens them even more. This soup is an example of how swedes can sing. A little diced chorizo or some chorizo crumbs mixed with some chopped parsley is also delicious sprinkled on top.
1 tablespoon sunflower oil
150g (5oz) rindless streaky bacon cut in 1cm (1/2 inch) dice
110g (4oz) onions, chopped
110g (5oz) potatoes, peeled and diced
350g (12oz) swede turnips, peeled and cut into 7mm (1/3 inch) dice
900ml (1 1/2 pints) homemade chicken stock
cream or creamy milk, to taste
salt and freshly ground black pepper
50g (2oz) freshly chopped flat-leaf parsley
50ml (2fl oz) extra virgin olive oil
freshly ground black pepper
fried diced bacon
First make the Parsley Oil.
Whizz the parsley with the olive oil until smooth and green.
Next make the soup.
Heat the oil in a saucepan, add the bacon and cook over a gentle heat until crisp and golden. Remove to a plate with a slotted spoon and keep aside.
Toss the onion, potatoes and swede in the oil. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Cover with a paper lid to keep in the steam and sweat over a gentle heat for about 10 minutes until soft but not coloured. Add the stock, bring to the boil and simmer for 10-15 minutes until the vegetables are fully cooked. Liquidise, taste add a little cream or creamy milk and some extra seasoning if necessary.
Serve with a drizzle of parsley oil, a grind of black pepper and a mixture of crispy bacon and croutons sprinkled on top.
For a vegetarian version use vegetable stock instead of chicken stock and omit the bacon.
a vegan option omit the cream or creamy milk as well.
Winter Lamb Stew with Bacon, Root Vegetables and Garden Herbs
A super tasty meal in one pot. Celeriac and Jerusalem artichokes can also be added for extra nourishment and deliciousness. Then perhaps one could reduce the quantity of lamb a little.
1.8kg (4lb) of shoulder of lamb chops, not less than 2.5cm (1 inch thick)
350g (12oz) green streaky bacon (blanch if salty)
seasoned white flour, preferably unbleached
a little butter or oil for sautéing
450g (1lb) onions, (baby ones are nicest)
450g (1lb) carrot, peeled and thickly sliced or 225g (8oz) carrots and 225g (8oz) of parsnips
750ml (1 3/4 pints) approx. lamb or chicken stock
8-12 ‘old’ potatoes (optional)
sprig of thyme
Mushroom a la Crème (optional)
a scattering of freshly chopped parsley
Cut the rind off bacon and cut into approx. 1cm (1/2 inch) cubes blanch if salty and dry in kitchen paper. Divide the lamb into 8 pieces and roll in seasoned flour. Heat a little oil in a frying pan and sauté the bacon until crisp, remove and put in a casserole. Add the lamb to the pan and sauté until golden then add to the bacon in the casserole. Heat control is crucial here, the pan mustn’t burn yet it must be hot enough to sauté the lamb. If it is cool the lamb will stew rather than sauté and as a result the meat may be tough. Then quickly sauté the onions, carrots and parsnips if using, adding a little butter if necessary, and put them into the casserole. Degrease the sauté pan and deglaze with the stock, bring to the boil, pour over the lamb.
Cover the top of the stew with peeled potatoes (if using) and season well. Add a sprig of thyme and bring to simmering point on top of the stove, cover the pot and then put into the oven for 45-60 minutes, 180˚C/350˚F/Gas Mark 4. Cooking time depends on how long the lamb was sautéed for.
When the casserole is just cooked, strain off the cooking liquid, degrease and return degreased liquid to the casserole and bring to the boil. Thicken with a little roux if necessary. Add back in the meat, carrots, onions and potatoes, bring back to the boil.
The casserole is very good served at this point, but it’s even more delicious if some Mushroom a la Crème is stirred in as an enrichment. Serve bubbling hot sprinkled with chopped parsley.
Mushroom a la Crème
15-25g (1/2-1oz) butter
75g (3oz) onion, finely chopped
225g (8oz) mushrooms, sliced
110ml (4fl oz) cream
1 teaspoon freshly chopped parsley
1/2 tablespoon freshly chopped chives (optional)
a squeeze of lemon juice
salt and freshly ground pepper
Roux (see recipe)
Melt the butter in a heavy saucepan until it foams. Add the chopped onions, cover and sweat on a gentle heat for 5-10 minutes or until quite soft but not coloured. Meanwhile cook the sliced mushrooms in a little butter, in a hot frying pan in batches if necessary. Season each batch with salt, freshly ground pepper and a tiny squeeze of lemon juice. Add the mushrooms to the onions in the saucepan, then add the cream and allow to bubble for a few minutes. Thicken with a little roux to a light coating consistency. Taste and correct the seasoning and add parsley and chives if used.
Note: Mushroom a la Crème keeps well in the fridge for 4-5 days.
110g (4oz) butter
110g (4oz) flour
Melt the butter
and cook the flour in it for 2 minutes on a low heat, stirring
occasionally. Use as required. Roux can be stored in a cool place and used
as required or it can be made up on the spot if preferred. It will keep at least a fortnight in a
Roast Jerusalem Artichokes
It has to be said that roast whole Jerusalem artichokes don’t look that appealing, but don’t let that put you off. They are particularly good with goose, duck or pheasant, birds which enjoy eating Jerusalem artichokes themselves – which may or may not be a coincidence!
They are in season from November to March and look like knobbly potatoes. Jerusalem Artichokes are a very important source of inulin which enhances the growth of beneficial bacteria in our systems, particularly important after a course of antibiotics.
Jerusalem Artichokes are called sunchokes in the US, they are a member of the sunflower family.
450g (1lb) Jerusalem artichokes, well-scrubbed
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
flaky salt and freshly ground pepper
a few rosemary or thyme sprigs, optional
Preheat the oven to 220°C/425°F/Gas Mark 7.
Cut the well-scrubbed artichokes in half lengthways. Toss them with the extra virgin olive oil and season well with salt. Transfer to a roasting tin and cook cut side down for 20–30 minutes, when golden, flip over and continue to cook for a further 5-10 minutes. Test with the tip of a knife – they should be mostly tender but offer some slight resistance. Sprinkle with thyme or rosemary sprigs, season with pepper and serve.
Nordic Kale Salad with Lemon and Cream
You must try this; the flavour is such a surprise and will convert even the most ardent kale refuser. It is reminiscent of my grandmother’s dressing for lettuce, sounds a bit shocking but you are not going to eat the whole bowl yourself. Half natural yoghurt could be substituted for full cream.
Serves 10 – 12
450g (1lb) curly kale (225g/8oz) when destalked
lemon, finely grated zest and juice of one lemon
25g (1oz) sugar
250ml (9oz) cream
sea salt – scant teaspoon or to taste
Strip the kale off the stalks, chop the leaves very finely and massage well to release the juices. Toss in a bowl. Grate the zest of the lemon directly onto the salad. Add the freshly squeezed juice, a good sprinkling of sugar and some sea salt. Toss, pour over the cream and toss again.
Taste and add a little more seasoning,
if necessary, needs to be a balance of zesty and sweet – totally delicious.
Fresh Orange Jelly with Mint
Everyone loves jelly – you can imagine how good the spearmint is with the orange – we sometimes substitute mandarins or tangerines here, use 10 or 12 depending on size.
sunflower or vegetable oil, for greasing
6 organic or unwaxed oranges
225ml (8fl oz) syrup – (175ml/6fl oz) water and 150g/5oz sugar)
freshly squeezed juice of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon Grand Marnier
2 rounded teaspoons powdered gelatine
2 tablespoons cold water
225ml (8fl oz) freshly squeezed orange juice
caster sugar, to taste
2 tablespoons chopped mint
sprigs of mint or lemon balm
Brush 6-8 x 100ml (3 1/2fl oz) oval or round moulds with a tasteless oil.
Using a stainless-steel grater, very carefully grate the zest from two of the oranges. Segment all 6 oranges and set aside.
Mix the syrup, orange zest, lemon juice and Grand Marnier together well. Then strain the liquid off the orange segments and measure 300ml (10fl oz). Add the measured orange juice to the syrup mixture and set aside the remainder for the sauce.
Sponge the gelatine in the cold water in a small bowl for a few minutes. Put the bowl into a saucepan of simmering water until all the gelatine crystals are dissolved. Mix with the orange liquid, stirring carefully. Add the orange segments and pour into the moulds. Transfer to the fridge for 3–4 hours to set.
To make the sauce, measure 225ml (8fl oz) orange juice, taste and sweeten with caster sugar, if necessary, then add the mint.
To serve, unmould the jelly onto individual plates. Pour a little sauce around each jelly and garnish with mint leaves or variegated lemon balm.
Blood Orange Jelly
Substitute 6-8 blood oranges and follow the above recipe.