There is a very simple philosophy underpinning the organic approach to gardening – feed the soil. Plants need soil, along with sunlight and water, to synthesize the amino acids on which all we humans ultimately depend. Take away any one of these three elements and that process cannot take place.
Organic growers use sources such as compost and rotted horse manure to replace nutrients and enrich the soil in which they grow their plants. In contrast, modern industrial agricultural processes have neglected the soil and focused on feeding and protecting the crops themselves through the use of artificial fertiliser, pesticides, fungicides and herbicides. When it first began, post second world war, this technique had extremely good results, increasing crop production dramatically. But it is not a sustainable practice. Along with global warming, intensive modern agricultural practices are increasingly leading to desertification – the death and destruction of arable land – at an alarming pace.
In an era when countries are starting to look at food security and trying to grapple with the problem of feeding an ever-increasing population with finite resources, desertification is a very real and growing problem. A report commissioned by the United Nations earlier this year warned that 23 hectares of soil are being lost every minute to desertification. Over the course of a year this is equivalent to the loss of land that could have grown 20 million tons of grain.
I have four compost bins on my modest little allotment plot, the Circus Garden, and in these I compost all of my family’s vegetable household waste (which would otherwise go to landfill), along with tea bags, egg shells, shredded paper, cardboard, grass clippings, nettles and most of the weeds I routinely pull up from my plot. After two years of rotting down most of the compost is ready to be added to the soil in my raised beds, where it improves the soil structure as well as replenishing its nutrients. Every so often I have been lucky enough to get my hands on well-rotted horse manure which is ideal for soil improvement and I also sometimes use rock dust to help replace and enhance minerals in the soil. As a result, my soil is improving gradually year on year. Maintaining a healthy soil helps ensure strong, healthy fruit and vegetables which do not need applications of pesticides and fungicides in order to survive.
I love all of the vegetables I grow organically on the Circus Garden. Some of them require a little tender loving care to thrive but others, like beetroot just get on with it. Once it gets beyond the seedling stage (when it is vulnerable to attack by hungry birds) it is pretty much trouble free, and like most other root vegetables is quite happy to be left in the ground until you are ready to pick it. With careful succession sowing it is possible to have a steady supply of beetroot for at least nine months of the year.
Beetroot is also an extremely nutritious vegetable, containing iron, potassium, zinc and magnesium as well as folic acid, antioxidants, silica (which helps reduce the risk of osteoporosis) and beneficial nitrates (which help to reduce blood pressure).
I grow two varieties of beetroot on my allotment plot, the Circus Garden, a red, cylindrical variety called cylindra and a globe orange variety called Golden Detroit.
I’m using the latter in this week’s recipe partly because I love the fact that a beetroot flavoured soup can come out a pale golden colour but mainly because this soup is a great personal favourite. The addition of fennel seeds helps boost the aniseed influence of the fennel against the strong, earthy sweetness of the beetroot. Saffron adds both taste and colour to the dish. It’s a beautiful medley of flavours.
Of course, if you are unable to obtain orange beetroot you can use conventional red (organic) beetroot. The colour won’t be the same as here, but the lovely combination of flavour will work just as effectively.
golden beetroot, fennel and saffron soup
approx 500 g golden beetroot, peeled and chopped into chunks
approx 250 g fresh fennel bulb, chopped
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 tsp fennel seeds
4 tbsp olive oil
1 litre vegetable stock
½ tsp salt
1 tbsp fresh parsley, finely chopped
1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F, gas mark 4).
2. Place the beetroot in a deep baking tray and drizzle over 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Toss to combine. Cover with kitchen foil and place in the pre-heated oven for 40-45 minutes, or until just tender. Remove from the oven and set to one side.
3. When the beetroot is nearing the end of its roasting time, heat the remaining two tablespoons of olive oil in a large pan and add the onion. Cook for five minutes or so, until the onion becomes soft and translucent. Add the fennel, garlic, fennel seeds, saffron and salt, and cook for a further 3-4 minutes, stirring, until the fennel begins to soften. Add the beetroot and the vegetable stock.
4. Bring to the boil and then turn to the lowest heat setting. Cover the pan, and simmer gently for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove the pan from the heat and leave for 20 minutes to cool slightly before blending into a smooth soup.
6. To serve, gently reheat the soup. Ladle into bowls and scatter with the chopped parsley.