I recently chanced upon an interesting research paper, originally published in the Journal of Applied Ecology in April 2014, in which the quality of soil found on UK farms was compared with soil sampled from allotment sites.
The researchers found that industrialised farming practices had seriously degraded soil quality, whilst in contrast the allotment soils they sampled were consistently found to be of significantly high quality. The research also noted that allotments provide yields “rarely matched” by commercial growers.
Much of the reason for the superior soil quality on allotment sites is due to the use, by allotment plot holders, of compost and rotted manure to improve soil structure and fertility.
Like most allotment holders I have several big compost bins on my allotment plot (the Circus Garden) – four to be precise – where I compost nearly all of our vegetable household waste, along with shredded paper, grass clippings and pretty much anything else that will compost down. After a couple of years this organic waste evolves into a high quality compost, which I can then add to the soil in my raised beds. Not only does this process improve the soil structure and quality on my allotment plot, it also dramatically reduces our overall household waste.
The allotment soils sampled by the researchers was found to have 32% higher rates of soil organic carbon (organic matter, essential for soil structure and plant growth), 36% higher carbon to nitrogen ratios (which impacts on the ability of plants to produce protein) and 10% less bulk density (the higher the bulk density, the more restricted root growth becomes).
Industrial-scale agriculture with its high dependence on artificial fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides and fungicides delivers proportionately poorer yields, and at a serious long term cost. In the past decade or yields from such farming techniques have begun to shrink. They will continue to do so because this overuse of chemicals, combined with the erosion that accompanies large-scale, intensive farming, is depleting the health of the soil.
We need to introduce change, while we still can. In the longer term it is only through farming practiced based upon nurturing the soil, maintaining and enhancing its quality, that we will be able to continue to grow the food we need and to support the natural cycles, the ecosystems, so vital to that process.
As spring gradually announces itself, so plants begin to come to life. On the Circus Garden I am already harvesting oregano and chives, as well as spring onions and in a few more weeks I can look forward to more herbs springing into life, followed by early crops like asparagus, broad beans, peas and strawberries.
I’ve used some of these herbs and spring onions in this recipe, which is based loosely on a traditional Sicilian street food, panelle, a type of fritter made from gram (chickpea) flour, a relative of the southern French socca pancake.
In Sicily, panelle are usually eaten plain, often wrapped in bread, but I think the addition of herbs, spring onions and a little Parmesan lift them to a new level.
These fritters are simple and very quick and I do hope you will be tempted to give this recipe a try – their wonderful melt-in-the-mouth texture is guaranteed to delight.
herb and spring onion panelle
6 spring onions, white and green parts, finely chopped
60 g fresh mixed herbs, chopped (I used oregano, chives, French tarragon, parsley and basil)
35 g vegetarian or vegan Parmesan, finely grated
extra virgin olive oil, for frying
for the batter
140 g gram (chickpea) flour
60 ml extra virgin olive oil
300 ml water
pinch sea salt
1. To make the fritters you will first need two large rectangles of baking parchment. Have these ready but set to one side.
2. Pour the water into a large saucepan and bring to the boil. Reduce to a simmer. Add the olive oil and sea salt, then gradually add the gram flour, whisking constantly to prevent lumps. As soon as all the gram flour has been incorporated, immediately remove the pan from the heat. Quickly stir in the spring onions, Parmesan and chopped herbs. Pour the mixture on to one of the sheets of baking parchment. Place the other sheet on top. Use a rolling pin over the top layer to roll the mixture to a thickness of about a quarter centimetre. Leave to cool and harden.
3. Using a pastry cutter, cut rounds out of the cooled batter. Alternatively, cut the batter into strips or triangles using a sharp knife
4. Pour olive oil into a large frying pan to a depth of about half a centimeter and place over a medium heat. Once the oil is hot, carefully place the fritters into the pan. You will need to cook them in batches.
5. Cook the fritters for around 3 minutes per side, until golden brown and crispy. Drain on kitchen paper and serve hot (although, in the unlikely event that you end up with any left over fritters, they are also very good cold!)