ArchiveJuly 3, 2022

Save Our Soils

A few evenings ago, I had a phone call from Mc Minville in Tennessee. On the other end of a crackly line was a girl called Anastasia Titko inviting me to support the Save Soil movement.

To my shame, I was unaware of this movement despite being passionate about the crucial importance of the soil and the increasing crises of diminishing fertility even here in Ireland for many years.

In our hectic lives, preoccupied with our own day to day activities, few of us give a moment’s thought to the soil, we perceive it as an inert substance below our feet rather than a living organism where zillions of life forms thrive – the biggest ecosystem on the planet and  few of us know anything about it.

A few startling statistics:

  • 52% of agricultural soil across the planet is degraded.
  • There has been an 80 to 90 % drop in nutrient levels in fruit & veg in the U.S. in the past two decades.  
  • Over here we are fortunate if the intensively produced crops contain 50 % of the vitamins, minerals and trace elements they did in the 1950’s.

To get the same volume of micronutrients we got in the 1950’s from one orange we now need to eat 7 or 8 (Seek out organic produce for maximum nutrients).

Over 2 billion people suffer from nutritional deficiencies worldwide.

Many of you will already be aware that food grown in rich fertile soil is significantly more complex, nutritious and delicious. The microbial life in the first 12-15 inches of topsoil is the basis of our existence. Once again, I quote Lady Eve Balfour – one of the founders of the Soil Association, ‘’The health of soil, plant, animal and man is one and indivisible’’

Every responsible scientist in the world is telling us that at best we have only 80 – 100 harvests left, that means approx. 40-50 years of rich agricultural soil left on the planet.

By 2045 we’ll be producing 40 % less food than we are producing now for a population of an estimated 9.3 billion people.

The consequences are unimaginable, the food shortages that could manifest in the next 25 years and even sooner because of the Ukrainian War – social unrest, a flood of food and climate refugees.  Once there are food shortages, civil wars will unfold across the world.

It’s difficult to imagine such a scenario as we travel through the lush green Irish countryside in June but those of us who have even seen photos of worn out, parched soil in middle America see the stark reality of what has happened through exploitation in many countries, Save the Soil movement would say most countries.

50 % of the topsoil has been lost in the last 100 years.

In the words of Franklin D. Roosevelt ‘The nation that destroys its soil, destroys itself’.

Sadhgura, the driving force behind the Save the Soil movement, is embarking on a 30’000 km lone motorbike journey through 34 countries to raise awareness, generate support and bring about a policy change to regenerate soil.

He will urge every government on the planet to enshrine soil regeneration in their national policy. We have inherited this vital resource from our ancestors, we must pass it on as living soil for the survival of future generations.

We know what to do…Let’s make it happen…

Readers who sowed seeds earlier in the year will now be experiencing the joy and satisfaction of harvesting some of your own fresh, chemical-free produce from your garden, raised beds, balconies or windowsills…Continue to enhance the fertility of the soil with compost and seaweed and if you can get it, well-rotted farmyard manure preferably from an organic farm.

We ourselves have an abundance of beautiful fresh produce at present.  If you’d like to taste some, come to our Farm Shop here at the Ballymaloe Cookery School or check the stalls at the Farmers Market in Midleton and Mahon Point.

Rory O’Connell’s Broth with Broad Bean Leaves and Mint

The object of the exercise here is a light yet flavoursome broth, spiked with the best greens each season has to offer.

The secret to success is in the late addition of the green or defining ingredients to the broth. There is a bit to do though, before that stage is reached. Dice the onion and potatoes neatly, remembering that they will be clearly visible in the finished broth and cook them very gently so that they do not collapse before the stock is added. The broth should never boil rapidly, just a gentle simmer and crucially the saucepan lid stays off once the greens go into the saucepan. Careful tasting to perfect the seasoning, will make an enormous difference to the finished broth.

Serves 4-6

175g (6oz) potatoes, peeled and cut into neat 1cm (1/2 inch) in dice

175g (6oz) onions, peeled and finely chopped

50g (2oz) butter

2 cloves of garlic, peeled crushed to a paste

1.2 litres (2 pints) chicken stock

600ml (1 pint) of broad bean leaves

300g (10oz) small broad beans, cooked and peeled

2 tablespoons small mint leaves

salt and pepper


Drizzle of olive oil

50g (2oz) grated Parmesan cheese

Melt the butter in a heavy saucepan and allow to foam. Add the potatoes, onions and garlic. Use a wooden spoon to coat in the butter and season with salt and pepper. Cover with a butter wrapper or greaseproof paper and with a tight-fitting lid. Cook on a very low heat to allow the vegetables to sweat gently until barely tender. This will take about 10 minutes. Don’t overcook and allow the diced potato to collapse. Add the stock, stir gently and bring to a simmer. Replace the saucepan lid and cook for a further 10 minutes. The broth should be barely bubbling. If it cooks too fast at this stage, the delicacy of flavour of the chicken stock will be lost. By now the potato and onion should be tender but still holding their shape. Taste and correct seasoning. This is the base and can be put aside until later.

To finish the soup, bring the base back to a simmer. Add the broad beans and leaves and allow the leaves to wilt and take on a melted consistency and the beans to warm through. Then add the chopped mint leaves and again watch the cooking time very carefully, two minutes should do it. Taste one last time to ensure the seasoning is spot on. Serve immediately just as it is or with a drizzle of olive oil and a nice sprinkling of grated Parmesan.

Pickled Beetroot and Onion Salad

A simple pickled beetroot that is a revelation when you taste it.

Serves 5-6

450g (1lb) cooked beetroot

200g (7oz) sugar

450ml (16fl oz) water

1 onion, peeled and thinly sliced (optional)

225ml (8fl oz) white wine vinegar

Dissolve the sugar in water, bringing it to the boil. Add the sliced onion and simmer for 3-4 minutes. Add the vinegar, pour over the peeled sliced (diced or cut into wedges) beet and leave to cool.

How to cook Beetroot

Leave 5cm (2 inch) of leaf stalks on top and the whole root on the beet. Hold it under a running tap and wash off the mud with the palms of your hands, so that you don’t damage the skin; otherwise the beetroot will bleed during cooking. Cover with cold water and add a little salt and sugar. Cover the pot, bring to the boil and simmer on top, or in an oven, for 15-20 minutes (in May/June when they are young) depending on size (they can take 1-2 hours in late Autumn and Winter when they are tough). Beetroot are usually cooked if the skin rubs off easily and if they dent when pressed with a finger.  If in doubt, test with a skewer or the tip of a knife.  Use in chosen recipe.

David Tanis’s Cucumber with Feta, Mint and Sumac

New season’s Irish cucumbers are now in the shops.  The sumac can be found at Middle Eastern shops and is available in many supermarkets now.  It adds a pleasant sour flavour that lemon juice alone does not provide.  To keep the cucumber crisp, don’t dress them more than 30 minutes before serving.  

Serves 6

900g (2lbs) cucumbers, peeled

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 garlic clove, grated

1 tablespoon lemon juice

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

110g (4oz) feta, cut into rough 1cm (1/2 inch) cubes

1 tablespoon sumac

2 tablespoons freshly chopped mint

2 tablespoons freshly chopped parsley

pinch of crushed red pepper flakes

1 tablespoon marjoram

Halve the cucumbers lengthwise and slice into 1cm (1/2 inch) pieces.  Season generously with salt and freshly ground black pepper.  Add garlic, lemon juice, extra virgin olive oil, feta and sumac and toss to coat.  Taste and adjust seasoning. 

Transfer to a serving platter.  Just before serving, sprinkle with fresh mint, parsley and crushed red pepper flakes, then dust with marjoram. 

Zucchini Parmigiana 

I love this Summer supper dish – a riff on Parmigiana di Melanzane.

Serves 6-8

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

110g (4oz) sliced onions

1 clove of garlic, crushed

900g (2lbs) very ripe tomatoes in Summer, or 2 tins (x 14oz) of tomatoes in Winter, but peel before using

salt, freshly ground pepper and sugar to taste

900g (2lbs) zucchini or courgettes (same thing, different name!)

flaky sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes or more if you fancy but don’t overdo it

1 tablespoon basil, chopped

110g (4oz) of grated Parmesan

1 x 25 x 30.5cm (10 x 12 inches) rectangular gratin dish

First make the tomato sauce.

Heat the oil in a stainless-steel sauté pan or casserole.  Add the sliced onions and garlic toss until coated, cover and sweat on a gentle heat until soft but not coloured – about 10 minutes. It is vital for the success of this dish that the onions are completely soft before the tomatoes are added.  Slice the peeled fresh tomatoes or chopped tinned tomatoes and add with all the juice to the onions.  Season with salt, freshly ground , sugar and red pepper flakes (tinned tomatoes need lots of sugar because of their high acidity).  Cover and cook for just 10-20 minutes more, or until the tomato softens, uncover and reduce a little.  Cook fresh tomatoes for a shorter time to preserve the lively fresh flavour. 

Preheat the oven to 230˚C/450˚F/Gas Mark 8.

Meanwhile, slice the zucchini lengthwise into 5 – 7mm (1/4 – 1/3 inch) strips.  Arrange them in a single layer on a couple of oiled baking trays.  Season with flaky sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, another drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.  Roast in the preheated oven for 10-12 minutes.

Add the freshly grated chopped basil to the tomato.  Taste and add a little sugar if necessary.

To assemble.

Spoon a quarter of the tomato sauce over the base of the gratin dish.

Arrange a third of the zucchini strips over the top.  Add more sauce, a quarter of the grated Parmesan.  Repeat with two more layers finishing with the last quarter of the grated Parmesan and any juices from the tray.  *Can be prepared ahead to this point.

Reduce the oven to 190˚C/375˚F/Gas Mark 5.

Pop in the gratin and cook for 25-30 minutes or until bubbling and golden.  Allow to sit for 5-10 minutes before serving with a green salad and lots of crusty bread to mop up the juices. 


Past Letters