What’s brown and magic?


It is beneath your feet and grows the food you eat, but as a society we take it for granted. The good old brown stuff, soil, is one of our unsung heroes. Trees and bees get all the attention – they are, let’s face it, rather more active and endearing than soil. However, it is time for soil to take its turn in the spotlight… Ladies and Gentlemen, today is #WorldSoilDay.

So we all know that soil is essential for food production, obvs, but don’t forget that plants are also grown to provide fibre for energy, clothing, medicines and animal feed. Not only that, but according to the Soil Association, soil also stores most of the world’s carbon (beat that, trees) and is home to an incredible amount of living organisms, such as invertebrates, bacteria and fungi. In fact, just one teaspoon of soil can contain as many micro-organisms as there are people on the planet.

Soil is also vital in its role as storing and filtering water. This means that it increases our resilience against floods as well as droughts.

As if that wasn’t enough, the good bacteria in soil are also beneficial for our health. Contact with soil makes us happier and smarter and explains why activities such as gardening can help with mental health.

That’s nice then. Thanks soil for being there. I’m off now to find some buzzy little bees to save… Bye…

Except, stop. Soil isn’t ‘just there’ a static, immovable constant in our lives. In fact, our soils are in danger. They are disappearing at a rate that is alarming for future generations, with 2.2 million tonnes being lost and degraded in the UK each year. This is caused by factors such as expanding cities, transport infrastructure and pollution – either industrial or through the inefficient use of fertilisers.

Not only that, but climate change may increase rates of loss if drier conditions make soils more vulnerable to wind erosion, or if intense rainfall washes soil away. It’s much harder to put it back than it is to look after it.

The Soil Association campaigns for better protection for soil, including supporting organic farming practices and promoting best practice. We can all do our bit for soil too.

Organic may be part of the solution, but it can be more costly. As an alternative, seek out the LEAF marque (a symbol of a leaf) which indicates that products have been grown sustainably.

Next, think about your own patch of soil and how you can look after it. If you have a garden, however tiny, then get composting. Leaves, cut grass, fruit and veg peelings and tea bags will all mulch together in perfect harmony in a compost heap or bin. You’ll end up with lovely rich organic matter to spread onto your flower beds and help make healthy soil.

Don’t buy peat-based compost either. This is a direct way of digging up special habitats and valuable carbon stores. The peat-free alternatives these days perform just as well.

It is most definitely brown and at first glance rather boring, but soil is the very stuff of life and it needs our love.


Something to beef about


Image courtesy of Gualberto107 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I once ate a stone cold ‘roast’ dinner rather than complain in a restaurant. I have that terribly British affliction of too much politeness. It stops many of us making a fuss or asking questions unless something is really, really bad.

I’ve had to get over it recently, and become that demanding and slightly annoying customer. A recent volunteer role with the Soil Association involved discovering more about children’s food in restaurants. I was so shocked at some of the responses to my questions that since then I’ve made it my business to overcome my reserve and find out more about the food on offer.

Unless you are in a restaurant that makes a real selling point about their food sourcing, then the most uncomfortable question to ask is ‘Where does your meat come from?’. I’ve tried this in half a dozen smart eateries over the past month or so and it was awkward.

Either the waiting staff had no idea about the provenance of the meat, or they did, and sheepishly replied with a far flung location such as South America or Thailand.

It is evidently cheaper to raise and slaughter animals in Thailand, then fly the meat across the globe than it is to produce it here. Urm, does that reassure you about production methods and animal welfare abroad?

Many of us try to buy British when we shop for the Sunday roast or weekday Bolognese. A YouGov poll revealed that nearly 60% of UK consumers prefer to buy UK-sourced meat than imported meat. However, in some ready-meals and high street restaurants we are not given the choice. The meat is cheap, possibly mechanically reclaimed, unlikely to be free-range and from the other side of the planet. It’s this sort of situation that gave us horse meat lasagnes.

We’re too good at avoiding thinking about where our meat comes from. When you are out for a nice meal, it’s hard to be the difficult, fussy customer and we don’t like thinking about dead animals.  It should be the legal responsibility of businesses that we are trusting to feed us to make sourcing information easily available – then we can vote with our mouths.

This worked for eggs. Back in 2004 the European Commission made it obligatory to label eggs as coming from ‘caged hens’ which led to the growth of the free-range market and eventually the banning of battery chickens.

Every time we eat the cheapest imported meat we are messing up – we are failing to support our British farmers, neglecting animal welfare and risking filling our bodies with the nastiest form of protein.

A meal out should be a treat – not an exercise in interrogation of the waiting staff or blindly swallowing poor quality food. At the moment, the average high street caterer is relying on our ignorance. Until things change, I’m a restaurant vegetarian. I won’t give my money to supporting an unpleasant, cost-cutting industry.

First published in the EDP and EADT

Somewhere near you, a banana is in trouble.


Somewhere, in a fruit bowl near you, a banana is in trouble. Eric the Bananaman is busy, so it’s down to you and only you to save the day. Yellow capes at the ready, pants on the outside; you are the Banana Hero.

The banana is one of the most wasted food items. That perfect moment between too green and brown and squidgy can be hard to achieve. It’s a big shame to waste them, especially as they come all the way from the Caribbean or South America. This staple fruit comes with quite a carbon footprint when compared to locally grown apples or pears.

So how can you save that past its best ‘nana from the bin? Read on…

  • If you have the luxury of time, then you can’t beat a banana loaf and you certainly can’t beat Mary Berry’s. This is a lovely recipe for kids to help with (mine do enjoy squishing the bananas by hand so extra clean paws are a must!) and they will love the results too. It uses two bananas, if you only have one then try this choc chip version.
  • If you have not a spare minute, so busy you might cry, haven’t even had a shower this morning, then this is your option. Simply peel and slice the banana, put in a little bag (one per banana) and freeze. Then when you want to make a quick sugar-free smoothie another less crazy day, your banana chunks will be ready. Try this healthy banana and strawberry smoothie (it works well without flaxseed and using cow’s milk too). Simply chuck the frozen banana chunks into the blender instead of the fresh ones. It will go super creamy and chill your smoothie to perfection.
  • For another frozen banana idea, it has to be the incredibly virtuous dairy and sugar-free banana ice-cream. All you need to do is food process the frozen bananas until smooth and creamy. This blog will talk you through it, as well as giving ideas for other flavours to add. The children will hoover it up and think it’s a naughty treat, although you could legitimately have it for breakfast.
  • If the banana has gone so far that it is beyond human consumption (this is often the case with the forgotten one in the bottom of a rucksack) then you can still save it from being wasted. Wildlife visiting your garden or balcony will be glad of the energy. Read here about creating an autumn feast for butterflies before they hibernate. Or, for a winter option, simply peel it and put it on the lawn. Blackbirds do enjoy a nice ripe banana.

Now, however busy you are, there is no excuse to chuck a banana in the bin. I’ll put my yellow cape away… until next time.


Farmers’ markets and first world problems

Feeling overwhelmed at a farmer’s market truly is a first world problem, rather like the milk frother on your coffee machine breaking, or your heated car seats giving you a sweaty bum. It’s easy to see these markets as the preserve of the wealthy; just for those who don’t have to think about whether the courgettes would have been cheaper elsewhere.

Bear with me though, because there is much more to a farmer’s market than occasionally overpriced produce. For a start, it doesn’t have to be a more expensive way of sourcing your groceries. Yes, there is often artisan sourdough bread priced at £7 a loaf, but there are also fresh fruit and veggies available for less than average prices.

Even better, whilst haggling in the supermarket would get you ushered to the door, at a farmers’ market it is permissible to ask for a better price if you buy more, or to cheekily enquire whether a lemon or bunch of herbs can be thrown in for free. Also, if you visit towards the end of the market you can get some great deals – store holders don’t want to take it all home with them. It’s a useful tip to take cash for easy transactions and to avoid spending more than you planned.

Compared to your supermarket, the farmers market is also fabulously eco-friendly. All produce should be seasonal and locally produced, so you won’t be tempted by blueberries from Chile. Buying seasonally should also help keep your grocery bills down and ensure that your food is super fresh because it won’t have travelled across the globe.

There will often be much less packaging too, and you can further increase your green credentials by taking your own bags.

Meeting the producers will also rekindle your connection to your food. Instead of shoving it in the trolley like an automaton, we are more likely to ask questions about provenance, recipe ideas or just have a good old fashioned chat. The traceable nature of most products means you are far less likely to end up with horse in your lasagne.

Farmers’ markets are both a playground and a school for children. They will love the colour, noise and array of produce (especially when tasters are offered) and will learn masses about their food too.

A few years back, chef Jamie Oliver reported that many children can’t identify even basic vegetables. Kids that visit farmers’ markets will get a head start in their food education. Not only that, but they can order and pay for you (working on their confidence, social skills and mathematics). After such an input, they are far more likely to eat the item you have bought.

Realistically, the farmers’ market is unlikely to replace the dreaded supermarket trip, but it can certainly complement your normal shop. It is an outing rather than just a chore and something the whole family can be involved in. But what to do with the artichoke you just bought? That’s definitely another first world problem.

First published in the EDP and EADT


It’s not fair! But we can change that…

Life isn’t fair. We all work that out by the time we are six or seven years old. Some people get all the luck and accolades; others work hard and never get rewarded. Whether you believe in science, religion or fate as your guiding principle, sometimes it is just the way the dice rolls or the cookie crumbles that determines certain details of our lives. No wonder many of us end up a little cynical.

Expecting life to be unfair, however, lets us fall into the steely grip of a capitalist mind-set. We forget to care about people and instead allow markets to rule. If that means that a tea farmer in Malawi is paid only a tiny fraction of the price his tea sells at back in the UK, then that’s just the way it goes. If that means he can’t afford education or medical care for his children, we may feel it is sad, but not our problem or something we can fix.

However, the Fairtrade Foundation doesn’t agree. They believe (and have twenty years of experience and many case studies to back them up) that giving a producer a reasonable and guaranteed price for their product is the right thing to do. This needs to be regardless of the many vagaries of the world market – its fluctuations can throw a community reliant on one export item into financial despair.

The Fairtrade Foundation has shown that a fair price leads to genuine improvements in quality of life for families and better long term opportunities for their children.

The cost increase on Fairtrade items for us is small change, often just a penny or so, and most of us could manage to pay a tiny bit more for a handful of items in our shopping trolley. Despite this, the Fairtrade Foundation reports that just 1.2% of cocoa and less than 10% of tea globally is traded on Fairtrade terms.

The next couple of weeks is Fairtrade Fortnight, running from 23rd February to 8th March and it’s a good opportunity to discover Fairtrade products. Look out for bananas, sugar, cocoa, tea, coffee, chocolate and cotton labelled with the Fairtrade logo. Often, they are of higher quality because they are at the premium end of the market and it is reassuring to know that the profit is not all going into the pockets of a supermarket fat cat.

And while we are thinking about what is fair… what about the power that supermarkets wield over our nation’s farmers too? The immense squeeze placed on the price of milk is the latest evidence of this. It’s a while since I was six years old, but I have the strong urge to stamp my foot and shout at the top of my voice, “It’s not fair!” Anyone going to join me?

First published in the EDP and EADT