Friday, 30 March 2012


Good morrow all! And apologies for the huge interval since the last post. I trust you have enjoyed the unnatural, unseasonal but intensely pleasant faux summer.

'I think I'd be more comfortable and pull a less lugubrious face if someone would kindly remove the old fashioned terry nappy.'  A Malayan tapir Tapirus indicus, at London Zoo.  The Zoological Society of London has ongoing conservation projects in more than 50 countries, worldwide.
As usual, the pictures have nothing to do with the text, on this post. We just visited London Zoo, recently, with our daughters and grandchildren.   Click on pix for a larger view.

Three thought-provoking things in the last couple of days.

1. I'm increasingly worried about rare breeds.  
Not long ago the PG purchased, from a farmers' market stall, what looked like an excellent piece of rump steak.  It was dark, correctly matured and begged to be lightly seared in our cast iron, ribbed griddle and eaten with salad and really thin, rattly chips.  But the meat turned out to have the consistency of shoe leather and lacked what I call a proper steak flavour.

The steak came from a Longhorn, I believe, and was sold at a substantial premium because of being a rare breed.

In my experience, the finest steaks on earth, to this day, come from grass-fed, preferably Scottish raised Aberdeen Angus - until recently, the Western World's most popular beef breed.

And this morning, on BBC Radio 4's  Farming Today  I listened to a posh Chef from somewhere or other, saying that Middle White pigs provided superior pork because there was so much fat, and it had so much flavour.  Now in this age of health-obsession, where doctors blench and reach for defibrillator if you so much as hint that you might eat meat more than once a month – and only then, if there's an 'R' in it – isn't an excess of animal fat in cooking a very bad thing?

And didn't rare breeds become rare because they were superseded by better ones, in which geneticists have invested almost a century of careful selection to come up with animals which gain the right sort of weight - ie, more muscle than fat - in the most efficient manner possible?

Modern, well farmed pork is spectacularly lean.  Back-fat, on modern bacon, is about a centimetre thick, these days, which is healthier than the old fashioned couple of inches – if you dare eat bacon at all, because the Health Police want it made illegal, owing to the toxic preservatives and the fact that eating cured or salted meat is as self-destructive as jumping off Tower Bridge and seeing how far you can fly, by flapping your bare arms, before hitting the Thames and being swept off to Southend in the tidal rip.

Is it possible that rare breed meat is just a tad over-hyped? It's great for fanciers and hobby farmers to preserve and sustain such breeds. Those treasured and cosseted gene pools could have great future value, and I'm enormously in favour of that kind of conservation. Indeed, if taxpayers money must be squandered on farming subsidies, I'd prefer rare breed conservers to get the dosh, than pampered arable grain barons.

But whenever I eat a piece of topside, rasher of properly cured bacon, or a rack of lamb, I'd rather take what my butcher currently offers – meat acquired from local commercial farmers who make wise use of the remarkable progress made in animal breeding.

Tulipa 'Hearts Delight,' kaufmanniana or 'Waterlily' type of surpassing charm.  This one is flowering outside our back door.

2. The GM debate is opening again this year
 Rothamsted Agricultural Research Station is conducting a trial with wheat, genetically modified with material from the peppermint plant.  Pheromones from the modified wheat not only repel sap-sucking insects, but attract their predators.

If the trial is successful, it could lead the way to a new wave of cereal varieties which can match the yields of current high performers, but without the need for costly and potentially contaminating pesticides.

No doubt the arguments will polarise, with the anti-crowd campaigning to continue the ban on GM, and the 'science lobby' – whatever that may be – claiming that the only way to feed the world is with full-on, intensive, science-based agriculture.

But the world is closer to a crisis point than many of us care to believe.  Nations like China and India, with burgeoning economies – tomorrow's superpowers – seem to be adopting unsustainable 'Western' lifestyles.  Demands for cereals and meat continue to grow and, under current technology, it is not possible to continue the required growth in yields.

Modern, intensive agriculture is oil-based and there aren't the resources left, to achieve the growth targets as set out by UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation.  (If you want to take this seriously, have a look at this PDF )

So we have to find other ways in which to increase yields.  Organic production cannot be dismissed. But it does not, in its current form, appear able to produce the yield growth needed.  Indeed, if the world were to go all organic tomorrow, yields would plummet and commodity shortages would be catastrophic.  (You might say that serves Mankind right, but it's a bit difficult to think that way, when you see footage of children dying of thirst or starvation.)

If modifying genes could result in crops which can deliver high yields, without needing unsustainable inputs, would that not be an extremely good thing?  Should we not, therefore, follow this trial's progress  with interest, or at least, with open minds?

There was a time when Westminster City Council produced some of the finest bedding displays on earth.  But this one, in the Embankment Gardens just below the National Liberal Club, shows how low they have sunk.  And whose idea was it, not just to use heucheras, but with those tulips?  I blame Maggie.  It was her government which dumped parks' in-house nurseries and enforced competitive tenders by contractors.  You get what you pay for.

3.  Bees, synthetic nicotinoids and motivation.
Finally – and heaven bless you, if you've come this far – Channel Four News interviewed a British research team, recently, who have identified a stronger link between use of neo-nicotinoids, such as found in Provado, and bee behaviour.  

Species of bumblebee appear to lose their sense of direction and are unable to forage effectively when subjected to low levels of imidacloprid.  The research continues.

French work on honeybees and another neo-nicotinoiod, thiamethoxam, also points to a possible link with Colony Collapse Disorder, where worker bees lose the ability to navigate and, put crudely, just slope off, thereby cutting of the food supply.

Neither team have proven, conclusively, that the pesticides are responsible for the decline in bee populations but it's a pretty strong indicator.  

There are plenty of other causes of bumble bee decline, such as habitat loss and climate change.  BUT, after seeing a summary of Dr. Whitehorn's findings so far, I'm restricting Provado to my greenhouse from now on.  Shame about the beetles which will devour my lily plants, but I'd rather have the bees.

Narcissus 'Rapture' - one of the best of the Cyclamineus hybrids and loving life in my garden.

I'm listening to Bach's Saint Matthew Passion, obviously!

This week's film was Francois Truffaut's Les Quatre Cent Coups.  This is 'Nouvelle Vague' when it was still nouvelle and exciting.  A film with a strong story element, following the tribulations of a boy whose parents dislike him.

This day next week, I'll be at a concert performance of Wagner's Parsifal, in Birmingham.  Can't wait.  The tunes are so catchy, the story so amazingly fast-moving and the leading lady such a peach!  (Not) Do you think Wagnerians are closet masochists?  Now, where's that self-operated bastinado?

And I think that's more than enough for you to cope with.


  1. I understand that the whole fat is bad for you is total nonsense - and it has ruined our meat. I hate seeing the way any remaining flavoursome fat is cut off.

    This article adds the next bit - how fat fear has led us into sugar frenzy -

    I don't know about rare breeds. XXXX

  2. I tasted a couple of rare breeds a few years ago and was embarrassed to have to say that I couldn't taste any difference. I hate fatty meat, just my preference rather than a dietary choice, probably because my grandfather bred very fatty lamb that I was expected to relish but couldn't.

    GM - I'm on the fence, I really can't decide. Maybe there should be a quota for each country, 50/50 so that if crops fail there is always the GM to fall back on - even as I type that I know it's unworkable.

    As for the bees - we have no shortage of them around here as yet, but I have never used any chemical other than glyphosate, which makes me feel very relieved.

  3. I often find it difficult writing comments to your very thoughtful posts, one, or I, cannot just "shake something out of my sleeve" - bumroses: guess it's in the eye of the beholder, I sit on your side of the fence, but it seems most other people don't and what are garden centres to do, they have to make a living. GM, I've commented on that before, last year, I find it's very polarised - and I tend to dig my heels in against these backbone reactions against things. When reading about the decline of bees, yet again, and that it might have to do with "impregnated" crops, modifying plants so that no pesticides would be needed seems sensible. As Jane writes, I also hate the taste of fatty meat, remember gagging as a child, and much prefer today's leaner meats. Determining whether sugar or fat is most harmful based on an article in the Telegraph, well my jury is still very much far out on that one. But I also cannot understand this fad for breeds, or here in Switzerland, rare veggies that are being promoted in the supermarkets - surely many went out of fashion because new ones taste better, are easier to grow and need less pesticides. I'm not saying all new F1 ones are great, but neither are old ones better just by being old. Rant over - :-)))

  4. Now there's an interesting lot of arguments. Could keep me going all night.

    But I will restrain myself to weighing in only on the rare breeds debate, about which I have some limited experience as I have both rare breed chickens (Marsh Daisies) and rare breed sheep (Dorset Downs). And I grow a lot of heritage vegetables.

    It is correct that rare breeds are rare, but in my experience not usually because they don't taste at least as good as their commercial equivalents - it's because they're a pain in the neck to look after.

    Marsh Daisy hens take about twice as long as other hens to come into lay; Dorset Down sheep are notorious for having feet which need regular attention if they aren't to drop off. Neither fits well into an intensive agriculture system in which speed and efficiency are the main priorities.

    However once they're in lay, Marsh Daisies are prolific: they are also good do-ers so manage very well on a free range system (even if they are rather flighty and keep exiting my chicken run over the hedges).

    Dorset Down sheep are meat sheep: they are about twice the size of my neighbouring sheep farmer's Texcels and I cannot for the life of me think why you'd farm little sheep for meat when you can get big sheep instead.

    Added to which the meat is wonderful: but that might just be because the sheep in question are kept along more or less organic lines without being pumped full of antibiotics and pre-emptive medication to keep them healthy on an intensive system (and sheep are relatively benignly kept by modern standards: don't get me started on pigs).

    I think you'll find many heritage veg, and rare breed sheep and poultry (don't know as much about cows or pigs but I can guess it's similar) are largely rejected by modern-day farmers not because of their flavour or quality but because of their ease of management.

    We all know that supermarkets demand blackcurrants which can be picked mechanically, store well without bursting and keep in refrigerated conditions. I prefer home-grown, often heritage varieties rejected by the commercial growers but full of flavour and juice: they often burst on picking but since you're eating them straight away, as they should be eaten rather than after two weeks in the fridge, you don't mind a bit.

    And that's without even mentioning preserving the diversity of the gene pool. So I will defend both rare breeds and heritage vegetables to the hilt, and do my best to practice what I preach, as long as I draw breath.

    So there. Rant over from me too :D

  5. I was surprised by the lack of comments to this post so I did comment, mainly to say how I enjoyed reading your blog but couldn't think of an intelligent response other than you could be right on the rare breeds meat front. And then my comment got lost in the ether!!!

  6. PS you don't have to eat the fat on the outside of meat to benefit from the improvement that it brings to it overall.

  7. Gorgeous photo at the top - all good but the Tapir rocks my world as ever.

    I ve said it before and I ll say it again... Lets hear it for the three toed ungulates...

    Nice Blog.

  8. For me, for both the meat and GM points, we need to bear in mind the "P-word" - profits.

    The reason large farmers (in part due to the pressure of the supermarkets) use certain breeds is because they are quick to grow and cheap to look after. This increases profits compared to the rare breeds which are often slower to grow, and can be more problamatic. It is not about flavour, or cooking quality, but money.

    Fat is not bad. In Japan we ate Kobe beef. Highly marbeled and looking like there was more fat than lean. However, as it cooked, all that fat melted away basting the meat internally as it cooked , resulting in something incredibly tender and delicious. Look at most foods in this country labelled as "low fat" or "light". They may have (a little) less fat, compared to the "normal version", but fat has flavour, so to compensate the manufacturers increase the sugar. "Light" perhaps, but not necessarily "healthier".

    The problem with GM, in my opinion, is the lack of governance. If you or I were to choose the GM foods, no doubt we would choose strains which need less chemicals and are kind to bees. However, it is corporations and governments which make these decisions, and the key to them is "profit". To me, the classic example of this is the "terminator gene" (see In the early days of GM, this was developed. When people found out about it, the corporations promised it would never be used, but they seem to have found a way around that. For me, the killing argument against GM is that these types of things are thought of to increase profits, not to benefit starving people or impoverished farmers. I don't want to live in a world where things like the terminator gene exist.

  9. Thank you all for such thoughtful replies. I had expected a torrent of opinions but this was obviously a slow burn post.

    Bed sock – I didn't mean to claim that fat was bad, but rather, that it is expensive and inefficient to produce and is deemed bad by the health police. I take the point on GM, and wholeheartedly agree about the terminator gene which I railed about in Gardens Illustrated, as 'Mole' yonks ago. It's an obscenity which should never be allowed. However, long term, I believe that GM could benefit starving people and impoverished farmers by enabling crops to be grown with fewer unsustainable inputs.

    Suze - I'd hoped for better Tapir piccies, but as so often happens, when looked at closely, most of my shots were rubbish.

    Constant Gardener - Little sheep for little cuts - as preferred in Europe. I love both, but when we ate Texels, we enjoyed them less than the Blue Faced Leicester crosses which did so well on the limestone land which we farmed. (Not my own sheep, I hasten to add. In the 1970s & 80s, sheep growing was as profitless as lighting the fire with £5 pound notes.

    Helle (and others) Heritage vegetable varieties are unlikely to bear much resemblance to the originals because of the difficulty in maintaining open-pollinated stocks. I grew 'Gardeners Delight' tomatoes, for example, last year, and was bitterly disappointed. They are quite unlike the originals which we loved 30 years or more ago.

    Anne Wareham - I find that if you wait long enough, things that were said to be bad for you become good for you. Viz red wine, cheese, fat and so on. Moderation seems to work pretty well all round, I find, but usually I prefer quality lean bacon to poorly cured fatty bacon. Then again, I've been known to fry streaky, American style bacon and then fry slices of bread, soaking up all bacon fat, to make a bacon butty of aldermanic unhealthiness. We call such creations 'cardiac surprises' and gobble them up with sinful pleasure and a good dollop of HP Sauce.

  10. I'm not going to comment on GM, rare breeds or bees. I just wanted to say that we have a tapir at work. He's called Ernie. Sadly, I work in a different department to the one in which Ernie resides.