Organic quality and freshness all the way to the plate

Growing the most divine fruits, herbs and vegetables is only half the fun. If like me you grow your own because you love good food then the harvesting, storage and cooking must also be first rate. It is no good spending all year working hard to cultivate those prize crops if you eat them when they have gone past their best, or cook them with poor ingredients that spoil their flavour!

I grow the finest varieties organically as I have found this gives the highest quality crops. These fine foods demand extreme care on their way to the table so all my effort is not wasted. And as I grow organically I also store, cook and buy organically so that I do not adulterate or contaminate my exquisite fare with anything poorer.

I earnestly believe a delicious 'natural' taste is how our bodies inform us of which foods we should eat more. Ideally, almost all our food should be absolutely fresh, and raw; ensuring no lose of flavour on the way to our palate. This would certainly give maximum nutrition but few want to live with such strictures.....

Anyway because of the seasons and to give us a broader diet we all store some foods and purchase others, and then cook most of them more than we probably need to. It is near impossible to have everything you desire truly fresh even if you grow it yourself. However when you have the opportunity do not squander it! Eat what is ready right now, those peas will be tough next week, that lettuce will bolt. ( Sowing and transplanting smaller batches will spread the harvesting window for many crops.)

Most vegetables are best plucked straight from the garden even the tougher roots which can be pulled a day or so before do not improve by lying around in a hot kitchen for a week! Some, especially asparagus, peas and sweet corn need to be in boiling water within minutes of picking or they are noticeably less sweet. I jest not; I run in with cobs of corn and hurl them into a boiling cauldron! French beans, courgettes and new potatoes are less slow to deteriorate so can be gathered when convenient to use the same day.

Salad crops are nearly all best gathered as soon as the dew has dried, certainly before they have warmed up. They may be kept in a cool place to serve that day - but no later. Only harvest what you need; lettuce and salad leaves can be picked piecemeal, throw your leftovers onto the compost and treat yourself to a new fresh salad every day. A cabbage can have slices removed while it remains in the ground; keep it wrapped with foil and the rest will stay far fresher for far longer than it will in the refrigerator.

Sun warmed fruits can be wonderfully aromatic and most are best eaten when they can be gently shaken off their tree or bush. But many pears and late apples need timely picking, careful storage and accurate ripening. I have found that a dead refrigerator in a cool shed provides the constant climate needed to keep apples in near perfect condition for up to nine months. A few inches of the door seal is removed to allow a little ventilation and the fruits are gently laid on clean paper in trays. Trays of pears need warmer more humid conditions; under the bed or with the horses are traditional places. In the bathroom of a modern house is likely better but only if you use no strong perfumes to taint them. In any place daily inspection is essential as pears are green yesterday, ripe today, and gone over by tomorrow.

Other crops such as main crop potatoes and roots can also be stored for many months in exceptionally good condition in dead deep freezers which act as root cellars. (You could even set one into the ground.) Again the door seal needs partly removing to allow a little ventilation though light must be excluded. Storing these crops in trays, paper bags or packed in sand in a dead freezer in a shed or garage not only maintains a constant climate but effectively isolates them from most air borne taints and contamination which they could otherwise pick up. Cabbages and cauliflowers can also be kept in surprisingly good condition for many weeks if they are dug up roots and all and suspended upside down in a dead freezer. Needless to say these various items should not all be in the same container or they may cross contaminate but several dead freezers can go in one shady shed, with the onions hanging in the roof above.

However I have found for the very freshest carrots, beets and cabbages all winter the best solution is to surround and cover them with a really thick layer of straw and keep this permanently dry with plastic sheeting. Covered in November they then stay really fresh till mid-spring, though once the days have started to warm again it pays to put some slug traps under the straw!

Dried pulses and other seeds are effectively fresh, as long as they can still germinate. Most keep freshest longest left in their pods on the shrivelled plants hung up in a cool dry airy room. Alternatively they can be shelled and stored in paper bags in a similar place. Again a dead refrigerator can make an ideal store especially if some silica gel desiccating bags are used to keep it really dry. If there is the possibility of some insect infestation do not use a pesticide simply ensure the bags of seeds are completely dry and seal them in an airtight container just big enough to hold them.

Of all methods of preservation drying seems to retain the most nutrition and is environmentally efficient but the final product does not always resemble the original very much, e.g. prunes are dried plums! Freezing is convenient and especially suits soft fruits, juices and 'freezer jams'. And at least no additives are required though almost all vegetables need blanching before freezing.

Most fruits and vegetables can be preserved by pickling, chutneying, jamming, etc. These methods involve a necessary diminution of freshness, flavour and texture and the addition of many non-home grown items. Though of course in most cases it is well worth the exchange; strawberry jam, pickled onions, piccalilli and tomato ketchup just for examples. However this is where without a little thought we can spoil everything.

It is foolish to have exquisite ingredients and let them be overpowered by a rancid cheap oil or a mouldy spice! Quality produce requires quality adjuncts to do it justice. I don't want mouldy spice and I cannot believe anyone else wants old once mouldy spice that has been radiated and re-refreshed! Organic products have an inspection system that prevents most adulterations and deceptions and I've generally found organic certified products delicious beyond compare. (Certain wines and cheeses excepted.) And by using them you confidently avoid most pesticide and preservative residues , G.M.O'S and a whole plethora of suspicious additives.

I have now replaced almost every culinary ingredient in my kitchen with the organic option. Right down to the sugar for the jams and the vinegar and spices for the pickles. I even buy Organically almost all the products I can't grow or make: tea, coffee, breakfast cereals, baked beans, digestive biscuits, ice cream and even the cat-food are all available. Indeed almost the only non-organic foodstuff I still use is golden syrup.

But this search for absolute quality does not stop with the ingredients; the containers and utensils must also pass muster. Plastic containers that have a smell are likely to taint and contaminate food, plastic films for wrapping the more so and re-using non-food grade plastic bags for food is likely very foolish! And aluminium foil is thought to be even more dangerous. Likewise aluminium, copper, brass, non-stick and coated pans, and implements, are all considered by many to be risky if not poisonous especially when cooking acid or salty foods. Probably the best options are enamel, stainless steel or cast iron pans. Wooden boards and spoons are now adjudged more hygienic than plastic, the former can be sterilised by baking them in the oven, if you feel the need. I regard as some sort of schizoid paranoid anyone who feels obliged to spray disinfectant biocides on culinary work surfaces and around food. And of course I hardly need tell you to avoid vaporising fly killers, air 'fresheners' or smoking tobacco in your kitchen.

So now I am totally organic. Not only do I grow organically but every step of the way I guard and preserve that quality and freshness I esteem. I doubt it is possible to get better fare than I find at my table whether home grown or bought in. Nothing in my kitchen lets the side down and thus even my wastes on their way to the compost heap are also entirely organic. Well they are the fertility for next year so rightly they should be.