It feels very special to be publishing extracts from the limited edition UK Version of The Land Gardeners, Soil to Table, with recipes by our SSAW cofounder Lulu Cox. With only 500 copies left we couldn’t recommend it more highly as a wholesome, fun, educational and inspiring Christmas present! The extracts chosen demonstrate the variety this unique book offers, from in-depth accounts of the importance of our soil to describing what food and the creating and then sharing of meals can mean to us. The text is broken up by Nancy Cadogan’s beautiful, playful paintings as well as a selection of photography by wonderful photographers such as SSAW friends Maria Bell and Sophie Davidson.
“Soil is the most important and essential ecosystem, linked to every function on the planet.” Nicole Masters
There is a world beneath our feet we cannot see. Soil is alive, teaming with life; astonishingly there are more microbes in a teaspoon of soil than people on earth. And it is upon this life–these billions of microbes–that our life depends.
Soil is a delicate ecosystem made up of minerals, water, air, plant roots, organic matter, insects and a complex web of microorganisms. We rely on its health for our food and our future but, rather than treating it with care and respect, we continue to damage it at an alarming rate, behaving as if it is an inexhaustible resource.
Deforestation, over-ploughing and over-grazing were practised by the Greeks and the Romans. The birth of modern agriculture has exacerbated the crisis. Justus von Liebig, considered the father of fertiliser, believed that nitrogen must be supplied to plant roots in the form of ammonia, and recognized the possibility of substituting chemical fertilisers for natural ones. Nitrogen is abundant
in our atmosphere but rare in the soil. It is naturally fixed by bacteria on the roots of leguminous plants, or by a strike of lightning.
The Haber-Bosch process was developed in the early 20th century to combine nitrogen from the air with hydrogen at high temperature and pressure to make anhydrous ammonia (NH3), the basis for all synthetic nitrogen fertilisers as well as munitions used in warfare. The majority of agriculture followed the chemical path, the Green Revolution, which became known as ‘conventional farming’. These new ‘wonder chemicals’ may have increased yields but they have had negative unintended consequences: they disempowered farmers and disconnected them from the soil and they started dancing to the tune of agronomists rather than nature.
Whilst thinking they were feeding the world’s exploding population, in reality they were producing nutrient depleted food, harming our health and destroying the microbial life in the soil. Furthermore, it is unsustainable for the world; huge amounts of natural gas (4% of the world’s entire gas reserves) are needed to produce ammonia, the key ingredient in nitrogen fertiliser. Russia also produces enormous amounts of potash and phosphate, both used in conventional chemical farming. As we write this, fertiliser prices are rocketing as war rages in the Ukraine. Farmers need to be able to nurture the land with what they have to hand.
In her book of 1943, The Living Soil, Eve Balfour recognised the damaging route that agriculture was taking and advocated an alternative, sustainable approach to farming. This was the birth of the organic movement and led to her founding the Soil Association in 1946 with a group of farmers, scientists, horticulturalists and nutritionists who shared her concerns. It was these concerns that had stimulated Rudolf Steiner in 1924 in Germany to launch his Agriculture Course in which he warned against the widespread use of chemical fertilisers, the decline of soil, plant and animal health and the subsequent devitalisation of food. His recommendations formed the basis of the biodynamic method of farming which recognised the interplay of cosmic and earthly influences on the earth.
The impact of chemical farming has been catastrophic. According to a recent UN-backed study a third of the planet’s land is severely degraded and fertile soil is being lost at the rate of 24 billion tonnes a year. The worldwide destruction of forests, over-use of land and over-reliance on the plough continues to erode our soils. The ongoing use of heavy machinery causes compaction damaging the structure of the soil, single crop farming sacrifices biodiversity and the widespread use of energy-intensive chemical fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides has disrupted the delicate balance of microbial and insect life both above and below ground. Irrigation and pollution have also taken their toll.
The key to soil health is humus - Graeme Sait explains this illusive yet essential process - ‘Humus can save the planet – it is the chocolate brown, sweet smelling substance that drives healthy, productive soils. It is created by soil biology but also serves as the living quarters for this vital workforce. Humus is the soil glue without which our rivers run brown and dust storms strip our thin veil of precious top soil. Humus provides the single most efficient storage of water, minerals and carbon and it is this trio that will most impact soil health, human health and planetary health in the coming years’. Humus is the end result of organic matter decomposition by microbes. Think of an ancient forest floor where the soil is wild and undisturbed, it is here where humus is in abundance. Decomposition of organic matter is largely a biological process that occurs naturally. Successive decomposition of dead material and modified organic matter results in the formation of a more complex organic matter (organic polymers) called humus. This process is called humification. These organic polymers are resistant to the action of micro-organisms, so they are stable. This stability implies that humus integrates into the permanent structure of the soil, thereby improving it.
Increasingly soil research has focused on the complex biological biome beneath the ground and the concept that soil is, in effect, the stomach of the plant. The billions of microbes that exist in the soil, about which we know so little, live symbiotically with plants, acting as their digestion system. The plants excrete carbon ‘exudates’ from their roots to feed the micro-organisms which in turn ‘feed’ the plant roots with minerals from the soil, thus releasing insoluble soil nutrients into plant-usable form. The days of just considering nitrogen, phosphate and potassium (NPK) as plant foods are over.
Nature is so much more complex and intricately balanced than this and we now know that, just as caring for the gut flora within our intestines is vital to human health, so caring for the microbes in the soil is the essence of soil health.
At The Land Gardeners nurturing these soil micro-organisms is at the forefront of our work. Rather than focusing on adjusting the chemistry in our soils we are healing the biology within our soils. Across the world, we have taken our soils for granted and their importance cannot be overemphasised. The health of our plants and ultimately animal and human health rests on how we nurture the life below ground.
Photo credit: Clive Nichols
‘People often think cooking is a chore. But if food is fresh and has come from good soil, you don’t have to do much to it. Those who do cook have got used to opening a recipe book, deciding to cook X and then going out to buy Y. We believe in turning that process on its head, in making the ingredients you have seasonally available your starting point. It’s about reconnecting with what the earth gives us in a given moment.’ Henrietta Inman
How we treat our soils and how we grow our food determines the nutrient density, the taste, and the variety of what we bring to our table. As growers we can help to heal our soils and as consumers, we can try to make choices that support those who are caring
for the land.
One of the silver linings of lockdown was slowing down momentarily to hear and feel nature around us – no airplanes, few cars. Were there more insects and birdlife in the garden or was it just quieter, and we had time to listen? With this appreciation of time there came a nostalgia for the past and Lulu’s cooking reflected this. We harked back to the comforting food of our mothers and grandmothers, to a period when we had time to make pastry and pies, to let stock bubble on the stove and to a time when we sourced our produce locally. Perhaps we had forgotten our priorities somewhere along the way and we yearned for a simpler yet richer life.
We want to share Lulu’s recipes with you, and recipes from friends and family, where we have mentioned them by name. And we encourage you to think about how the food on your table was produced and by whom.
‘I first came across The Land Gardeners when they texted me after I had organised a Regenerative Agriculture gathering in Cornwall in 2019. Lulu Cox had come to the first gathering and Bridget and Henrietta had heard about it and were keen to be involved in our next event. Having heard about their work nurturing soil health, I wanted to know more about these two amazing sounding women working in this space. I had also come across their first book in a bookshop and had spent many hours planning bulb orders pouring over the ravishing photographs of swathes of tulips. But the next Regen Ag Gathering was put on hold as we were locked down as the pandemic gripped the world, and we started texting rather more urgently about the distribution of food. Bulbs and borders went out the window, instead as Catherine Chong and I and a small team of like-minded volunteers set up Farms to Feed Us. We swapped the outdoors for hours pouring over spreadsheets and maps, creating a database of farmers and growers countrywide trying to help connect them to their communities in the crisis. Well farmed nourishing food which equalled the medicine we all so urgently needed was flowing from the fields of the regenerative farmers in our networks, and we needed to get the word out. Bridget and Henrietta set too growing as many vegetables as they could and started their own market with their characteristic let's just get on with it and do it approach. Inspiring. Nearly two years later we have met in person now many times and a deep friendship and alignment has grown out of respect and a shared love for community, for the sharing of food and information and for caring deeply about the health of our soils.
Buying direct from the people who have grown and produced our food, people who have worked with nature, not against it, is at the heart of what we all do. Another thing we share is a love of eating and I am excited we will have Lulu’s recipes all in one place in this book which is a thing to cherish alone’
Cathy St German, Farms to Feed Us, 2022
Lulu’s Recipes & Ingredients
My inspiration and desire to cook is centred around the joy of bringing people together. These recipes have all been written with that in mind. It’s food that nurtures us, makes us feel comfortable and nostalgic. The ingredients should be used generously, whether that is reflected in the presentation of the recipe or its boldness of flavour, which is achieved through seasoning, balance and depth of flavour and the ingredients used.
A few key ingredient tips to note. Where possible cook with organic ingredients or from sources you trust. When olive oil is listed in recipes, it always refers to extra virgin. I urge you to explore different flour varieties, and if using plain white I recommend sourcing one from an independent or local mill. Always use generous handfuls of freshly cut herbs. Slice them using a sharp knife, never with a blender which will bruise the leaves and dilute the flavour. Make time for stocks, they carry depth of flavour which will transform your food, they are highly nutritious and mean that no part of the animal goes to waste.
Photo credit: Brittany Overgaard
Always value well-made cooking utensils and equipment. These are your tools and friends, they also ooze character and speak of tradition. I’m far happier with an old-fashioned food mill, or a copper pot than I’ll ever be with the latest blender. My love for traditional equipment goes side by side with my desire to make everything from scratch, respecting and embracing techniques, tricks and wisdoms that have been passed down through generations.
Rollright Cheese & Potato Pie
Photo credit: Sophie Davidson
The perfect pie for Christmas morning. It uses Rollright cheese, a French inspired washed-rind cheese from Chedworth, Gloucestershire, which we used for our pop-up dinners at Wardington. Alternatives would be Cornish Gouda, Ogleshield or Morbier. It’s that slightly squeaky texture when melted, that is key.
This recipe came from the chefs at St. JOHN. We loved making it at Rochelle Canteen. It’s a process, but a satisfying one for sure. It’s well worth reading the recipe from beginning to end before you start.
Serves 8 to 10
shortcrust pastry (see recipe below).
120g unsalted butter, melted
4 golden skinned onions, sliced
2 bay leaves
800g large waxy potatoes, such as Nicola or Yukon gold
100ml dry white wine
500g Rollright, Cornish Gouda, Ogleshield or Morbier cheese
1 egg, whisked
21cm loose-bottom cake tin
Preheat oven to 160°C.
First make your pastry (see recipe below).
Prepare your cake tin by evenly buttering the sides and base. Add a tablespoon of flour and tap the flour around the tin until you have an even layer of flour clinging to the butter.
Melt the butter in a medium saucepan, add the onions and bay leaves and sweat down over a low heat for at least 20 minutes. When the onions are totally soft, add a generous glug (approximately 100ml) of white wine. Use your nose to distinguish when the booze has burnt off. You’ll be left with a delicious, silky liquid which clings to the onions. Once cooked, allow to cool.
While your onions are sweating down, peel your potatoes and cut them lengthways. They should be at least 1 cm thick. Place in a pan of cold salty water, and over medium heat, bring to a boil. Once cooked, the potatoes, when prodded with a sharp knife, will fall away. Drain, season with salt and pepper and cool in a single layer on a flat tray. Cut the cheese into long lengths, 1cm thick. Arrange on a plate with a little space in between each piece. Keep in the fridge until needed.
Remove the pastry from the fridge. Lightly dust your work surface and roll out the main piece to the thickness of a pound coin. Using your rolling pin, back roll the pastry and then carefully unroll it into the tin. Gently pressing into the corners to ensure you have 90-degree angles, allow for 2cm of pastry to hang over the sides.
Now comes the assembly. Before starting, make sure each component is cool, then layer onions, potato, and cheese. Keep adding until you’ve used up your ingredients - you should end up with around two layers of each. Don’t skimp on cheese as it may make your pie dry. Next roll out your pastry lid, which again should be pound coin thickness.
Brush the rim of the pastry with your whisked egg and place the pastry lid on top, gently pressing the lid and sides together with your thumb and index finger. Finally, brush the egg on the top and using a knife cut a 1cm cross in the centre to allow steam to escape. Trim the sides and chill for at least 1/2 hour before baking.
Up to here could be done the day before.
Cook for 45 minutes until you have a deep golden colour on top. Allow to cool for 10 minutes before removing from the tin and placing onto a serving platter.
This is the simplest and most rewarding recipe that I used at Rochelle Canteen when making tarts, cheese and potato pies, and sometimes pie lids too. If you struggle with pastry, please try this. It will keep in the fridge for 3 days, and in the freezer for 6 months. It is called ‘short’ because it has a high proportion of fat to flour, which creates a crumbly texture with no raising agent. It is perfect for constructing robust cases for pies and tarts.
500g organic plain white flour
300g unsalted cold butter, cut into small pieces pinch of salt
100ml whole milk
Weigh the flour and salt into the bowl of your Kitchenaid (or Magimix). Weigh the milk into a lipped jug. Add the cold butter (cut into small pieces) to the flour. Turn the mixer on. This stage shouldn’t take longer than 20 seconds. The blade or paddle will quickly cut through the cold butter, giving you a breadcrumb texture. Stop mixing and check for the breadcrumb appearance. When you’re satisfied with the texture, start the mixer again and steadily pour in the milk. Allow the pastry to just come together before stopping and turning it out onto your work surface. Divide the pastry into two discs weighing approximately 600g and 300g. Rest the pastry in the fridge for at least half an hour before using.