Many years ago a friend of mine used to wear a tee-shirt emblazoned with a native American proverb. It said, “when the last tree has been cut down, the last fish caught, the last river poisoned, only then will we realize that one cannot eat money”.
There are some things – food, water, air – that we literally cannot live without, but our lives have become so sophisticated that it seems we have almost lost touch with their fundamental importance.
Money – an artificial construct designed to standardise exchange – has become so central to our lives that it has become our principal priority, as well as that of our governments.
For example, the UK government is one of a number of countries in the developed world currently taking painful steps to reduce its huge economic debt in the wake of the global financial crash of 2008. The main UK political parties all agree that the deficit needs to be tackled, and the only debate between them appears to revolve around the pace and depth of the measures needed to address the financial deficit.
And yet there is another more real and far more serious deficit that we face. It is a debt which grows year on year at an alarming pace. It is a debt that remains neglected and unaddressed by our politicians.
It is our debt to the soil.
So serious has this problem become that the United Nations has chosen to declare 2015 “International Year of Soils”.
This is a hugely symbolic decision.
Soils are a fundamental part of our ecosystem, not only providing the food that we and other creatures eat but also storing and filtering water and providing resilience to floods and droughts.
But our soils are being degraded and destroyed by human activity across the globe at an alarming rate. Deforestation, pollution and intensive farming are all gradually turning once arable land into desert.
It is only organic farming techniques that understand and nurture the role of the soil, our “silent ally”.
But organic farming does not enjoy the same taxpayer subsidies as the giant intensive agriculture businesses. Indeed, the worst of these agribusinesses effectively enjoy a “double subsidy” from the taxpayer, because not only do our taxes help keep the price of their products artificially low, it is also our taxes that are used to pay for cleaning up river and other pollution, for benefits to workers paid unacceptably low wages and dealing with the other messes they create.
A recognition of this madness will surely come, as will a change in our appreciation of the soils in which our food grows. Of this I have no doubt.
The question is whether it will come through a managed process of system change or whether it will be forced upon us through environmental or humanitarian catastrophe.
If we are to choose the path of managed change, then what is needed is:
– current agricultural subsidies to be turned on their head, so that they encourage and reward truly sustainable practices;
– legislative change to protect the environment from the consequences of harmful intensive agricultural practices;
– true cost accounting principles to be applied to all food production, so that the price of that food reflects the real cost, including external impact, of producing it;
– finally, and very importantly, individual and collective consumer behavior needs to become more informed, with decisions based on the quality and provenance of food, not on how cheap it is. Remember that native American proverb: collectively, we could rise above money-driven choices to become an overwhelmingly powerful force for change and for good.
Right, away with the soap box and on with the striped apron because it’s time to crack on with the recipe.
For this sumptuous tart with its melt-in-the-mouth hazelnut pastry I’ve used leeks grown organically on my allotment plot, the Circus Garden.
This dish goes beautifully with my red cabbage, apple and cranberry winter salad, for a really good veggie comfort food combination.
leek tart with hazelnut crust
for the pastry
130 g plain organic flour
40 g hazelnuts
85 g organic butter, cut into small cubes
1 free range organic egg
pinch sea salt
for the filling
200 g organic leeks, washed and sliced
1 onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
200 g organic double cream
4 organic free range eggs
85 g vegetarian Parmesan
1/2 tsp dried thyme
1/2 tsp sea salt
1. First, make the pastry. Grind the hazelnuts in a food processor or blender until they have the consistency of course flour. Put the flour, ground hazelnuts, salt and butter into the bowl of a food processor and mix at the lowest setting until it produces a mixture that looks like fine breadcrumbs. Add the egg and continue to process at the low setting until the mixture forms into a pliable ball. 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 filling. Pour the olive oil into a frying pan or skillet over a medium heat. When hot, add the onions and cook for 5 minutes or until soft and translucent. Add the garlic, leeks, sea salt and thyme. Cook, stirring, for a further five minutes or until the leeks are tender. Remove from the heat and set to one side to cool.
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. Prick the base and sides of the 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 double cream 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 leeks at the bottom of the finished tart. Start by pouring into the base a third of the egg and cream mix. On top of this evenly sprinkle a third of the Parmesan. Next, distribute half of the leek and onion mixture in an even layer.
6. Repeat, starting with the next third of the egg and cream mixture, then another third of the Parmesan followed then the remaining leek and onion mixture, and finish off with the remainder of the egg and cream mixture and then the remaining Parmesan. Sprinkle with a pinch of dried thyme over the top.
7. Place in the pre-heated oven for around 30-35 minutes or until set and golden. Leave to cool slightly. Serve while still warm.