Somehow I suspect it won’t end the debate, but it is worth noting that a recently published study by Newcastle University – the biggest of its kind ever undertaken – has reached the very clear conclusion that organic foods are significantly healthier than their non-organic counterparts.
The international team which conducted the research not only found that organic foods contained up to 60% more key antioxidants than non-organic, but also far lower levels of toxic heavy metals.
This stark difference in food quality can be explained very simply by the way organic and non-organic food is produced.
Non-organic produce may be grown legally using a vast armoury of chemicals – in the form of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and artificial fertilizer. Often the soil on which it is grown is devoid of natural nutrients (because of the impact of prolonged exposure to harmful chemicals). In some intensive agricultural regions such as the Ica Valley in Peru and Murcia in Spain, the unsustainable resource requirements of non-organic farming means that farmers are running out of water and seeing their land slowly dying and turning to desert.
By contrast, in order to earn the label “organic”, a crop must have been produced without pesticides or other potentially harmful chemicals, and the farming practices used to grow it must encourage both soil and water conservation and reduce pollution.
Over time, organic farming both enriches and increases the quantity and quality of the soil. Intensive agriculture eventually destroys it.
The tide is turning, but is it turning quickly enough? Thanks to consumer pressure and sustained pressure group influence, nearly all supermarkets today include organic produce in their shopping aisles, and the amount of agricultural land devoted to organic farming is increasing year on year.
As consumers we must continue to drive change. Yes, organic does cost more, but that is only because the true and terrible environmental cost of intensive farming is not factored into the price of the inferior foodstuffs it produces.
On to the recipe.
I’ve used some “Sanguina” beetroot from my allotment plot, the Circus Garden, to create this hearty soup, which is given a bit of added punch by the addition of home-grown horseradish.
The horseradish plant can be quite a prolific grower if it is not kept in check, and it is quite a tricky business pulling up the roots. If, as often happens, part of the root breaks off in the process, then a new plant will eventually grow from the root left behind.
Almost prehistoric in appearance, the long tapering root of horseradish has a rather musty fragrance before it is grated, a process which releases its sharp, hot, pungent aroma, a great match for rich, sweet, earthy beetroot.
beetroot and horseradish soup with thyme and caraway croutons
500 g beetroot, peeled and chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
10 g fresh horseradish, grated
1 litre vegetable stock
1/2 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp sea salt
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
for the croutons
100 g day-old ciabatta or sourdough bread, cut into approx 1.5 cm cubes
40 ml extra virgin oil
1/2 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp caraway seeds, crushed in a pestle and mortar
1 tbsp fresh parsley, chopped
1. Preheat the oven to 150°C (300°F, gas mark 2).
2. For the croutons, place the bread cubes, olive oil, thyme and caraway seeds in a bowl and gently toss together with your hands. Put the oiled bread cubes on a flat baking tray and place in the pre-heated oven for 10-15 minutes, until crisp and golden. Check periodically to ensure the croutons don’t burn.
2. For the soup, heat the oil in a large pan over a medium heat and when the oil is hot add the onion. Cook, stirring every so often, until the onion has become soft and translucent. Add the salt, thyme, beetroot and horseradish. Stir to combine then add the stock.
3. Bring the contents of the pan to a simmer then reduce the heat to its lowest setting and cook for 20 minutes, or until the beetroot is cooked (use a sharp knife to check). Remove from the heat and leave to cool slightly.
4. Use a blender to process the soup until smooth (you will need to do this in batches).
5. Return the soup to the pan and heat gently. Do not allow it to boil. Serve the soup sprinkled with a few caraway croutons, a little fresh parsley and some good quality crusty bread.