Friday 7 September 2012

The Only Thing That Matters About Organic Food

Organic food doesn't use chemicals.

This is inarguable fact; organic certification standards are stringent. And it has several benefits; chemicals are not manufactured, not transported around the country/world, they don't pollute the soil and waterways, they don't harm the wildlife, they don't harm agricultural hired-hands in the fields, and they don't harm us. It's possible - perhaps likely - that organic produce may pick up other pollutants already in the environment or somewhere along the way to the supermarket shelf, but without the direct use of chemicals in its production, you are guaranteed to reduce your exposure by choosing organic food.

So I'd love to know why this week's headlines regarding a recent US study on organic foods proclaim that organic is "not healthier" than the alternatives.

If you've read these articles you'll have noted that despite the condemning headlines, they note that organic food doesn't use chemicals, so choosing it reduces your exposure to pesticides, antibiotics and the like. Which is exactly the point of it. They also note that organic produce is less likely to be contaminated with bacteria, such as e-coli. More good news. So why the negative press?

Oh, apparently an organic carrot contains just the same nutrition as a non-organic carrot. So THAT's why it's not good for us! But hang on - did anyone actually think an organic carrot was more nutritious in the first place? I've certainly never heard organics promoted that way, and the hundreds, perhaps thousands of comments on the news articles repeat the same sense of surprise again and again: we never thought it was more nutritious - we just don't want to eat chemicals! Are these media outlets missing the whole point deliberately, or is this lazy, thoughtless and misleading writing across the board just coincidence? With the vote on labelling of GMOs in California approaching, the timing of this astounding attempted smear on organics certainly couldn't be better for big industrial producers such as Monsanto.

Roger Cohen of the New York Times went as far as to label "the organic ideology... an elitist, pseudoscientific indulgence shot through with hype" and driven by the "narcissism of the affluent". Yup. Read it here. Bizarrely, he did actually note that organic food doesn't use chemicals, as well as some other benefits, while claiming it was a cultish fad of no use to the world. Again, is he missing the point deliberately, or is he just stupid? Does he have shares in big ag? Or a particularly nasty grudge against a hippy somewhere? Can anyone tell me how the desire to eat food not tainted with toxic chemicals is pseudoscientific? Thought not. He goes on to claim that only GMOs can end world hunger, ignoring the facts that GM crop yields are lower and GM crops are falling, one by one, to their self-created super-pests and super-bugs. And he obviously doesn't realise just how much food can be grown in a small space with traditional organic methods.

As for affluence, elitism and narcissism... Sure, organic may be more expensive (not always; some items are the same price or just a few pence more than their organic counterparts these days), but these accusations outright insult all those working hard to grow their own organic produce for a fraction of the prices in the shops. I don't always buy organic, but I won't be labelled a snob because I support it, I grow it, and I choose it when I can. The world has thrived without industrial chemicals for thousands of years and I reject the idea that pouring poisons on it now can possibly be a good thing.

Admittedly, some of the articles do raise one negative effect of organics; apparently organic meat and grain production produces slightly more greenhouse gasses. Not good news, but with a choice between further chemically polluting the earth or increasing greenhouse gasses, it seems to me we're avoiding the real issue; our overconsumption of meat and grain (consider how much grain is grown for animal feed, junk foods and alcohol production).

The Huffington Post got it right, eventually, sort of, in one little blog post which you can read here.

So kids, if you want more nutrition, eat less junk and fill the gap with more fruits and vegetables of all the colours in the rainbow, and add some undomesticated wild greens such as nettles to your diet too - they tend to be far richer in vitamins and minerals. But if you want to reduce your exposure to pesticides, fungicides, chemical fertilisers and systemic herbicides, eat organic. Because organic food doesn't use chemicals.

EDIT: There's an excellent article here examining the study a bit closer, which exposes some rather significant and misleading flaws. Do take a look.

Wednesday 5 September 2012


When you start growing food, one of the first pieces of advice you get is to grow those foods you eat a lot, and those that represent the best value; things that are expensive to buy in the shops. Well, I don't eat figs very often but it's purely because they're so expensive - I love them. So when I wanted to expand my fruit plant collection this spring I splashed out on a fig tree.

I chose 'Brown Turkey', apparently the most reliable in our climate, bought it in March and potted it up by the back wall, where I hope in the spring and autumn the house can provide it a bit of extra warmth and shelter. Figs thrive in pots, with their roots restricted, so this is where it will stay - and I'll perhaps move it into the summer house over winter for frost protection. It was not much more than a stick in a pot when it arrived, but after a few weeks and a bit of sunshine, it began showing buds and its first little fruit. How strange to see fruit forming without first seeing flowers and leaves!

Leaves followed, of course, but no further figs, sadly. The brown spots on a couple of leaves appear to be rust, due to too much moisture either in the pot or in the air. It's not spreading, but I think I'll pinch the worst offenders off to be on the safe side, and give it some extra seaweed treatment. Apart from this, the plant has been healthy and trouble free, and its proximity to the house means it's unlikely to get any attention from birds (fingers crossed).

Now, when I first looked into fig-growing, several sources informed me that figs forming this year would not be ripe until next year. The tree starts to produce tiny figs throughout the summer, and at the end of the growing season any small ones which have formed late should be pinched off to concentrate energy on the earlier-formed ones and get them ripe next season. At least that's what they say. As you can see, my fig didn't hang around, but to my surprise, ripened up over the last couple of weeks!

A few days ago, the fig was hanging straight down and its skin starting to look papery and wrinkled - the signs that it was ripe. It seemed a little small still - elongated rather than plump. I guess I must have underwatered or underfed it at some stage although I have been careful to give it plenty since it started ripening. (I just now read that too much water during ripening can make them split - whoops!)

I ate my one fig all on its own, savouring every moment, and it was wonderfully fragrant, earthy and sweet. I only hope I get to savour more than one next year! I'll be feeding the plant often to encourage it...

My own fig harvest may have been small, but while I was still in a figgy kinda mood I noticed Sainsburys has an offer on Turkish figs at the moment - just £1 a pack! - and, inspired by a fig and dolcelatte tart recipe I spied in Delicious magazine, I rushed out and bought some.

Figs pair well with smoky meats, ripe cheeses, nuts and bitter greens, as most will know; figs and ham, or stuffed with goats cheese, are classics. In our house ripe cheeses are a bit risky (blue? "too socky", goats? "too farmyardy"), so I went for a nice safe bit of brie instead of the dolcelatte, and there's lots of Swiss chard in the garden and leeks are in season, so I added some extra greens to the recipe. And I didn't have any walnuts for the nutty pastry, but I did have a handful of pistachios... Well I never really follow a recipe; I just use it as a starting point... The bacon in the recipe is entirely optional - this would be great without it as well.

Chard and Fig Tart
(serves 4 or more)
  • Combine 250g plain flour, 50-80g finely chopped walnuts or similar and a big pinch of salt, and rub in 150g cold unsalted butter with your fingers until it resembles fine breadcrumbs.
  • Combine an egg yolk with 2 tablespoons cold water, and add gradually to the butter/flour until it comes together (you may not need it all). Knead briefly to combine, then chill for 15 minutes.
  • Roll the pastry out (it's very crumbly - try rolling it out between two sheets of greaseproof paper for ease) and transfer to a 30cm square baking tray or flan dish. Prick the bottom all over with a fork, and chill for a further 15 minutes.
  • Trim the edges, line the flan case with greaseproof paper and fill with baking beans or uncooked rice, and bake for 10 minutes at 180C. Then remove the paper and beans/rice and cook for a further 10 minutes.
  • Finely slice 4 baby leeks and fry gently in a little oil over a medium-low heat, along with a handful of lardons, or 3-4 rashers of smoked bacon, chopped. Meanwhile, strip the leaves from the stems of around ten large chard leaves, finely slice the stems and add them to the leeks. Chop the greens and add them after a couple of minutes. Cook gently until the chard is wilted and any juices are reduced away.
  • Time to assemble the tart: Spread the leek/chard/bacon mixture evenly over the pastry base. Beat two eggs and the extra egg white with 100ml milk, season, and pour evenly over the veg. Quarter 4-6 large figs and arrange them on top. Finally, slice/tear up 100-150g cheese (blue-veined, goats cheese, or brie) and scatter over the tart.
  • Bake for 20 minutes at 180C, until the figs are caramelised on top and the cheese is oozing and golden.

This was delicious - a perfect combination of crumbly nutty pastry, tasty greens, salty bacon, sweet figs and oozy cheese - and certainly passed the family supper test, with the additional of a few roast potatoes to make sure no-one could possibly go hungry. Lil sis discovered a new food she likes and lil bro (I probably shouldn't call him that) told me it was good three times without being asked!

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