World Health Day


World Health Day is on Thursday, 7th April this year.  There’s a special day for virtually everything nowadays but it’s definitely worth reflecting on the source of good health.

It may come as a surprise to many but the reality is our health comes from the soil, from healthy living soil, not from labs, factories or anywhere else.  We are what we are from the moment of conception, a mixture of genes from our ancestors, an accident of birth that we have no control over but we can certainly influence our health and wellbeing by nourishing ourselves with vital living chemical-free food rather than with ultra-processed food that we now know damages our health and, in many cases, causes disease.   

Every bite of food we eat has consequences, not just on our health but also the environment and the livelihood of our farmers and food producers.  I trawled through the references on the World Health Day website and Wikipedia but I failed to find any reference to the importance of the soil.  Perhaps I missed something but I so wish this basic fact could be better understood and highlighted.  We are totally dependent on the varying layer of topsoil around the world for our very existence.  Sadly much of that soil is now seriously degraded.  Here in Ireland where we are fortunate overall to have a high percentage of good land, a recent Teagasc report concluded that 90% of Irish soils are deficient in one or more main soil nutrients.   Minerals come from the earth’s crust, if they are not there, they cannot be in our food.  The ‘green’ revolution unintentionally damaged the soil and contributed to the decrease in mineral density in many crops, not just wheat.

Numerous peer reviewed studies in the US, Canada and UK clearly show the steady decline in nutrient density in a wide variety of conventionally grown fruit and vegetables since the mid 1900’s. At present because of the ‘cheap food policy’, the price at farm gate is rarely enough to enable the farmers to produce the kind of healthy wholesome food we say we want. Farmers are paid for volume and yield rather than nutrient levels.  If this emphasis were to change and it urgently needs to , it would be a complete game changer – better to pay the farmers to keep us healthy than have to pay the doctors for a cure.

Agribusiness is called agribusiness for a reason; the primary focus is on making money…New varieties are bred and selected for particular characteristics that impact the bottom line.  Cultivars are chosen for disease resistance, high yields and physical appearance rather than maximum nutrient density.  Intensive farming methods strip the soil of nutrients, chemical pesticides are formulated to kill specific weeds and/or pests but they also kill beneficial microorganisms in the soil.  Microbes recycle and release nutrients into the soil, they are crucial to nutrient density.  Just as our health depends on what we eat, vegetables and plants depend on what they absorb from the soil – so in the words of Lady Eve Balfour whom I have quoted many times in this column ‘The health of soil, plant, animal and man is one and indivisible.’ 

Nutritionally deficient food, and that applies to much of the food we consume nowadays unless we are fortunate to have access to organic or chemical-free food, grown on rich, fertile soil, does not satisfy…This may well explain why even after eating big portions of food, one still feels hungry and can crave more contributing to the growing obesity problem…

Someone recently asked, ‘Why do I still feel hungry when I eat four pieces of sliced pan but when I eat one slice of natural sourdough made from organic wheat, I somehow feel satisfied?’  I don’t have to spell out the answer…

Many studies confirm that we are fortunate if fruit or veg contain 50% of the nutrients they did in the 1950’s.  Apparently, one needs to eat 7 or 8 oranges nowadays to get the same amount of vitamins and minerals one did several decades ago.  

So what to do…?

1. Seek out and support the small farmers and food producers at your local Farmers’ Market

2. Join an organic box scheme – Check your local area first but Green Earth Organics based in Co. Galway deliver to every county in Ireland.

3. Join your local branch of NeighbourFood.  If there isn’t one in your area, start one.  Founders Jack Crotty and Simone Crotty will generously share the model information with you – contact details,

4. Incorporate some wild and foraged foods that contain far more vitamins, minerals and trace elements into your diet – they are more nutritionally complex than many cultivated foods.

5. So as we move closer to the growing season, let’s redouble our efforts to grow some of our own food, even if it’s just one or two items. Get together with your pals and make a plan – you grow beets and scallions,  someone else grows tomatoes, cucumber, courgettes…Everyone grows salad leaves and radishes then share…

Listen to the excellent BBC Food Programme Podcast on the True Price of Food – unmissable and thought provoking. 

Check out the Sustainable Food Trust podcasts… inspirational… 

The food is medicine movement has been around for decades advocating that healthy, wholesome foods could be prescribed in many instances to prevent, limit or even reverse illness by changing people’s diets.  However, many doctors feel that they are not being equipped at medical school with the knowledge on nutrition they need to advise their patients to change their diet rather than resort to supplements. 

Here are a few inexpensive and delicious recipes to boost your family’s immune system and spread joy.

Potato and Wild Garlic Soup

At present,  the air in our local woods  is heavy with the smell of wild garlic. Both the bulbs and leaves of wild garlic are used in this soup and the pretty flowers are divine, sprinkled over the top of each soup bowl. Gather some on your next walk… 

Serves 6

45g (scant 2oz) butter

150g (5oz) peeled and chopped potatoes

110g (4oz) peeled and chopped onion

salt and freshly ground pepper

900ml (1 1/2 pints) water or home-made chicken stock or vegetable stock

300ml (10fl oz) creamy milk

125g (4 1/2oz) chopped wild garlic leaves, (Allium ursinum)


wild garlic flowers

Melt the butter in a heavy bottomed saucepan, when it foams, add the potatoes and onions and toss them until well coated. Sprinkle with salt and freshly ground pepper. Cover and sweat on a gentle heat for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile prepare the wild garlic leaves. When the vegetables are almost soft but not coloured add the stock and milk, bring to the boil and cook until the potatoes and onions are fully cooked. Add the wild garlic and boil with the lid off for 4-5 minutes with the lid off approximately until the wild garlic is cooked. Do not overcook or the soup will lose its fresh green colour. Puree the soup in a liquidiser or food processor. Taste and correct seasoning.  Serve sprinkled with a few wild garlic flowers.

Everyday Dahl

Taken from ‘How To Cook’ by Darina Allen published by Kyle Books

This truly delicious dahl comes from Ahilya Fort in Maheshwar, one of my favourite places to stay and eat in all of India.  They call it Usha Mem Sahib’s dahl.  A delicious vegetarian option or serve with pan grilled fish or a lamb chop or just with flatbreads…

Serves 6

900ml (1 1/2 pints) water

200g (7oz) split red lentils

3 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced on a mandolin

1 ripe tomato, peeled and chopped

110g (4oz) finely chopped onion

2 tablespoons tamarind water (see method in recipe)

3 teaspoons ground coriander

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon ground turmeric

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

2 teaspoons granulated sugar

3 tablespoons fresh coriander, coarsely chopped

To Serve

natural yoghurt and cooked rice

Tamarind Water

40g (1 1/2oz) tamarind

150ml (5fl oz) warm water


50g (2oz) clarified butter or ghee

3 teaspoons cumin seeds

1 dried red chilli, broken into 5mm (1/4 inch) pieces, or 1 teaspoon chilli flakes

1/4 teaspoon, ground coriander

1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

3 tablespoons fresh coriander, coarsely chopped

natural yogurt

To make the tamarind paste, soak the tamarind in the warm water for at least 30 minutes or several hours or overnight if possible, until softened.  Push through a sieve and discard the pips.  Save any leftover tamarind water in a covered jar in the fridge for another recipe – it keeps for up to 3 months.

Put the water, lentils, garlic, tomato, onion, tamarind water, ground coriander, cumin, turmeric and salt into a saucepan on a medium heat.  Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and cook for 18-20 or until the lentils are completely soft. 

For the tempering.

Melt the clarified butter in a pan over a medium heat and add the cumin seeds.  When the cumin pops, add the chilli and cook for a minute. Stir in the ground coriander.

Carefully pour the tempering over the lentils as it will sizzle and splash. Cook over a low heat for 3 minutes, add the lemon juice, sugar and chopped coriander and season to taste.  Serve with a dollop of natural yogurt on top and some rice alongside.

Gratin of Potato and Mushroom

If you have a few wild mushrooms e.g. chanterelles or field mushrooms, mix them with ordinary mushrooms for this gratin. If you can find flat mushrooms, all the better, one way or the other the gratin will still be delectable on its own or as a side… Mushrooms are super nutritious. 

Serves 6

1kg (2 1/4lbs) ‘old’ potatoes, e.g. Golden Wonders or Kerr’s Pinks

225g (8oz) mushrooms or a mixture of cultivated mushrooms, brown mushrooms, oyster mushrooms and shitake


1 clove garlic, finely chopped

salt and freshly ground pepper

300ml (10fl oz) light cream (200ml (7fl oz) of cream and 100ml (3 1/2fl oz) of milk)

3 tablespoons grated Parmesan (Parmigiano Reggiano), or Irish mature Cheddar cheese

Ovenproof gratin dish 25.5cm (10 inch) x 21.5cm (8 1/2 inch)

Slice the mushrooms. Peel the potatoes and slice thinly into 5mm (1/4 inch) slices.   Bring a large saucepan of water to the boil.  Add the potato slices to the boiling water.  As soon as the water returns to the boil, drain the potatoes.  Refresh under cold water.  Drain again and arrange on kitchen paper or a clean tea towel. 

Grease a shallow gratin dish generously with butter and sprinkle the garlic over it. Arrange half the potatoes in the bottom of the dish, season with salt and freshly ground pepper.  Cover with the sliced mushrooms. Season again and finish off with a final layer of overlapping potatoes.

Bring the cream almost to boiling point and pour over the potatoes. Sprinkle the cheese on top and bake for 1 hour approx. at 180°C/350°F/Gas Mark 4, until the gratin becomes crisp and golden brown with the cream bubbling up around the edges.

This gratin is terrifically good with a pan-grilled lamb chop or a piece of steak.

Slow-Cooked Lamb with Cannellini Beans, Tomatoes and Rosemary

Bean stews make the perfect one-pot meal – comforting, filling and inexpensive. Gremolata is a fresh-tasting mix of chopped parsley, garlic and lemon zest. I use it to sprinkle over roast or braised meats, pastas or anything pan-grilled – delicious! If you’re short of time, you could replace it with some
chopped parsley instead.

Serves 6

500g (18oz) boned shoulder of lamb, trimmed of fat and cut into 3cm (1 1/4 inch) cubes

plain flour, for dusting

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

50g (2oz) onions, finely chopped

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

225g (8oz) carrots, finely diced

1 stick of celery, finely diced

2 bay leaves

a couple of sprigs of fresh rosemary

2 x 400g (14oz) tins of Italian tomatoes, chopped

300ml (10fl oz) white wine

300ml (10fl oz) homemade lamb stock or water

2 x 400g (14oz) tins of cannellini beans, rinsed in cold water and drained (*see note at end of recipe)

flaky sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the Gremolata

4 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley

1 generous teaspoon grated or finely chopped organic lemon zest

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

flaky sea salt, to taste

Dust the cubes of lamb with flour seasoned with salt and pepper. Heat the olive oil in a casserole and fry the lamb in batches until brown. Remove the lamb to a plate and set aside.

Add the onions, garlic, carrots and celery to the casserole and cook over a medium heat for 3–4 minutes until the onions are beginning to soften and are slightly golden. Add the lamb.

Reduce the heat to low and put in the bay leaves, rosemary, tomatoes, white wine and lamb stock or water. Bring slowly to the boil, cover the pan with a lid and simmer very gently for about 1 1/2 hours, or until the lamb is tender. Add the cannellini beans 15 minutes before the end.  Remove the rosemary sprigs and bay leaves from the lamb and check the seasoning.

To make the gremolata, mix all of the ingredients in a small bowl, season to taste with salt and serve soon.

Serve sprinkled with the gremolata and a big bowl of buttery scallion champ. 


If time isn’t a problem, soak 400g (14oz) of cannellini beans in lots of water overnight, they will double in volume.  Drain, add to the pot with the tomatoes, wine and stock and continue to cook until both the beans and lamb are fully cooked.

Scallion Champ

A bowl of mashed potatoes flecked with green scallions with a blob of butter melting in the centre, add the butter just before serving so it melts into the centre. ‘Comfort’ food at its best.

Serves 4-6

1.5kg (3lb) unpeeled ‘old’ potatoes e.g. Golden Wonders or Kerr’s Pinks

110g (4oz) chopped scallions or spring onions (use the bulb and green stem) or 45g (scant 2oz) chopped chives

350ml (10-12fl oz) milk

50-110g (2-4oz) butter

salt and freshly ground pepper

Scrub the potatoes and boil them in their jackets.

Chop finely the scallions or spring onions or chopped chives.  Cover with cold milk and bring slowly to the boil.  Simmer for about 3-4 minutes, turn off the heat and leave to infuse.  Peel and mash the freshly boiled potatoes and while hot, mix with the boiling milk and onions, beat in the butter.  Season to taste with salt and freshly ground pepper.  Serve in 1 large or 6 individual bowls with a knob of butter melting in the centre.  Scallion mash may be put aside and reheated later in a moderate oven, 180°C/350°F/Gas Mark 4. * Cover with parchment paper while it reheats so that it doesn’t get a skin and add the lump of butter just before serving.

Darina’s Favourite Rhubarb Tart with Custard

This is a gem of a recipe – a real keeper. The pastry is made by the creaming method so people who are convinced that they suffer from ‘hot hands’ don’t have to worry about rubbing in the butter.

Serves 8-12


225g (8oz) soft butter

50g (2oz) castor sugar

2 eggs, preferably free range

350g (12oz) white flour, preferably unbleached


900g (2lbs) sliced red rhubarb (about 1cm thick)

200g – 370g (7 – 12oz) granulated sugar depending on whether you are using forced or garden rhubarb

egg wash-made with one beaten egg and a dash of milk

castor sugar for sprinkling

To Serve

softly whipped cream

Barbados/soft dark brown sugar


tin, 18cm x 30.5cm x 2.5cm (7 x 12 x 1 inch) deep

Preheat the oven to 180°C/Gas Mark 4.

First make the pastry. Cream the butter and sugar together by hand or in a food mixer (no need to over cream). Add the eggs one by one and beat for several minutes. Reduce speed and mix in the flour slowly. Turn out onto a piece of floured greaseproof paper, flatten into a round wrap and chill. This pastry needs to be chilled for at least 2 hours otherwise it is difficult to handle.

To make the tart

Roll out the pastry 3mm (1/8 inch) thick approx. and use about 2/3 of it to line a suitable tin. Place the sliced rhubarb into the tart, sprinkle with sugar. Cover with a lid of pastry, seal edges, decorate with pastry leaves, egg wash and bake in the preheated oven until the apples are tender, approx. 45 minutes to 1 hour. When cooked cut into squares, sprinkle lightly with castor sugar and serve with softly whipped cream and Barbados sugar and/or with lots and lots of custard.

Crème Anglaise (Custard Sauce)

This basic sauce is usually flavoured with vanilla but can be made with any number of other ingredients, such as lemon or orange rind or mint.  It is used in many recipes including ice-cream, though in that case the proportion of sugar is much higher than usual because unsweetened cream is added during the freezing. 

600ml (1 pint) milk

vanilla pod or other alternative flavouring

6 egg yolks

50g (2oz) sugar

Bring the milk almost to the boil with the vanilla pod.  In a Pyrex bowl, beat the egg yolks with the sugar until thick and light.  Whisk in the hot milk in a slow and steady stream.  Replace in a clean saucepan and cook over very low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until the custard thickens slightly.  Your finger should leave a clear trail when drawn across the back of the spoon.

Remove from the heat at once and strain.  Cool, cover tightly and chill.  The custard can be kept for up to 2 days in the refrigerator. 

Note: The mixture is replaced in a clean saucepan to avoid the mixture catching on the bottom of the pan).

About the author

Darina Allen
By Darina Allen


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