Is it right – morally, never mind environmentally – that we fill our shopping trollies with asparagus from Peru or Mexico, green beans from Senegal or Kenya, mangetout from Zimbabwe and peas from Guatemala, when we know that these are countries that face problems of food shortages and poverty?
Farms in these countries holding contracts with UK companies are high tech, commercialised operations that are required to produce food to very high standards. They employ large numbers of labourers but often pay them very low wages and they cause environmental damage through water pollution, excess irrigation and a heavy reliance on pesticides, herbicides and artificial fertilisers.
By contrast, poorer farmers in these same countries growing food to supply local markets often struggle to produce sufficient food as a result of unreliable rainfall, a lack of technology and the small sizes of their farms.
Yet every single day the UK imports hundred of millions of tonnes of fruit and vegetables from poor countries, most of it destined for supermarket shelves.
Has this extended range of “choice”, with its barely hidden true cost, actually improved either the quality of the food we eat or the quality of the decisions about food that we make as shoppers?
Ironically, no, it has done the reverse – not only has it led to reduced numbers of fruit and vegetable varieties being available to the shopper, it has also led directly to more insipidity in taste and quality and – perhaps most damaging of all – to a lost understanding of seasonality.
There are so many beautiful, wholesome homegrown seasonal vegetables that never appear on the supermarket shelves. The illusion of “consumer choice” provided by the supermarkets’ imported produce is gradually choking off these seasonal, locally grown alternatives.
This recipe is based on one such vegetable: rhubarb chard. I always have some growing on my allotment plot, the Circus Garden. It is fairly hardy, with a long growing season, rather like spinach but – to me – far superior in every way.
It is a strikingly vegetable with a bold crimson stem and a deep, iron-rich earthy taste.
Here’s a recipe for a sumptuous, savoury tart that I think properly celebrates this most beautiful of brassicas.
The recipe can be easily adapted for any other variety of chard, or indeed spinach if you are unable to source rhubarb chard.
chard and Parmesan tart
for the pastry
250g organic plain flour
125g unsalted organic butter, chopped into cubes
2 tbsp cold water
1/2 tsp sea salt
1 organic free range egg
for the filling
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
250 g young rhubarb chard leaves
250 g Mascarpone
4 organic free range eggs
125 g vegetarian Parmesan
1/2 tsp dried herbs de Provence (if not available use a pinch each of dried thyme and dried basil)
1. First, make the pastry. Put the flour, salt and butter in bowl of a food processor and mix at the lowest setting until it looks like fine breadcrumbs. Add the egg and the water. The mixture should form into a pliable ball. If necessary add a very small amount more water, a little at a time. Remove from the food processor bowl, flatten the ball slightly to a thick disc shape (this makes it easier to roll out later), wrap in clingfilm and put it the fridge for 30 minutes.
2. In the meantime, prepare the chard. Using a sharp knife separate the stalks from the leaves. Steam the leaves for 2 minute or until until they wilt. Steam the stems for 3-4 minutes until they are almost tender. Drain and immediately refresh the stalks and leaves under cold water before draining again.
3. Pre heat the oven to 175˚C (350˚F, gas mark 4). Grease a flan dish. Retrieve the pastry, roll out thinly and carefully place it into the flan dish. Trim the pastry so that there is a slight overhang of about 1 cm. (Any unused pastry can be frozen for use in the future). Prick the base and sides of the flan pastry base with a fork and line it with parchment and baking stones or beans. Bake blind in the preheated oven for 10 minutes. Remove from the oven, leave to cool slightly and then remove the parchment and baking beans. The edges of the flan will have shrunk slightly, but now you can trim them neatly to the height of the flan dish with a sharp knife.
4. Whisk the eggs with the marscapone until smooth and creamy.
5. Now to build the flan. The key is to do it is stages so that we don’t end up with the chard at the bottom of the finished tart. Start by pouring into the base a third of the mascarpone and egg mix. On top of this evenly sprinkle a third of the Parmesan. Next, evenly distribute half of the chard leaves in a thin layer.
6. Repeat, starting with the next third of the mascarpone and egg mixture, then another third of the Parmesan followed then the remaining chard leaves. Finally, place the chard stems in a radial pattern on top of the chard leaves, followed by the remainder of the mascarpone and egg mix and the remaining Parmesan. Sprinkle the herbs across the top.
7. Place in the pre-heated oven for around 35-40 minutes until set and golden. Leave to cool slightly. Serve while still warm with a simple salad.