F ood & Drink: ABOARD NATURE'S BANDWAGON

Prince Charles at the Organic Food Awards, airlines buying organic croissants, organic junk food. Has the world gone mad, or simply come to its senses? Michael Bateman reports
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The Independent Culture
AFTER 12 YEARS of the Organic Food Awards, Prince Charles will be turning up for the first time ever. Odd that he's never been before, given that he's the country's most famous organic farmer. But that's partly due to the changing attitude towards organic farming. Twelve years ago it was considered pretty barmy, frankly - idealistic nonsense at best. Conventional farmers roundly dismissed as impractical the idea of discarding agricultural aids - chemical fertilisers to improve their yields, insecticides to see off the bugs, herbicides to destroy the weeds and so on.

But 12 years ago, BSE wasn't even a shadow on the horizon. It was two more years before Edwina Currie blew the whistle on salmonella in eggs. In the decade that followed, suspicions have continued to deepen about the safety, and the sense, of intensive farming.

The current government has played a modest part in supporting the Soil Association, one of five bodies which polices the organic movement. And today most supermarkets sell at least some organic produce. Shops such as Planet Organic in west London have been resounding successes. The smarter restaurants make a point of serving organic produce.

And so, at long last, Buckingham Palace advisers have decided it may be no bad thing to let Prince Charles off the leash, and allow him to proclaim his passion in public.

Not that it's any great secret. Last year I visited Duchy Home Farm, which adjoins his home at Highgrove in Gloucestershire. He bought this property of 1,083 acres in 1980, but it only qualified for Soil Association accreditation in 1996. He grows organic wheat, rye, oats and beans there, and supports a dairy herd of 130 Ayrshire cows, some Aberdeen Angus for beef, and various rare breeds of pig and sheep - Gloucester Old Spot and Mule Sheep from the north country.

David Wilson is the farm's manager; his brief was to create a model farm, and so it is. He drove me around the idyllic site in which the natural order has been restored, roses blowing in the hedgerows which harbour numerous birds, living off various insects - ladybirds, for example, which in turn clean up the sea of blackfly which alights on the spring beans, and the greenfly which weaken the ripening grain in the summer. No need to drench these field with poisonous sprays. But that might be easy with the country's richest landowner behind you. "We're out to prove that this is sustainable farming," protests David Wilson, "that it is commercial and profitable." Their books are open to scrutiny, he says; half a dozen research organisations are monitoring their progress.

And business is booming. Walkers of Aberlour in Grampian, Scotland, buy Duchy Home Farm oats and wheat for their biscuits. Organic wheat is bought by Shipton Mill for their lovely organic bread flours. The Q Guild of Butchers (that's Q for quality) buys their tasty organic beef and lamb. And there's even a line of Duchy Home Farm foods, biscuits and preserves.

One new and lucrative outlet which has opened up for some British organic producers is the supply of food to Swissair, the first airline to put organic food on the menu. Using exclusively British produce, the Swissair Gourmetgate kitchens at Heathrow now serve organic meals on all flights out of the UK.

The decision to switch to organic was made several years ago, and it has taken all this time to source the ingredients and perfect the recipes. Research showed Swissair that, all other things being equal, it is the food which leaves the most abiding impression of an airline journey. The food out of Heathrow is 90 per cent organic (and 100 per cent naturally-grown). And I had an opportunity to sample it recently.

I enjoyed my fruit, yogurt and croissants on the breakfast flight to Zurich at 6.30am and my light dinner - tortellini stuffed with ricotta in a cream sauce - on the flight back. Once at Zurich airport, I joined a group visiting the airline's clean, efficient kitchens and listened to the wise men who'd formulated what they call Naturalgourmet. They explained how a survey of 200 Frequent Flyers, as their most regular clients are known, revealed that these businessmen (some of whom spend up to half the year in the air) wanted lighter, fresher food, which is nutritious and easy to digest. More than half were concerned about food sources, and stated a positive preference for organic or at least naturally-grown ingredients.

The president of Swissair, Philippe Brugisser, says that they've delivered what their customers want. And he believes the provision of organic food satisfies more than nutritional needs; it gives customers a feelgood factor, allows them to think they're doing their bit for the environment. "Long- term, we want to promote natural farming methods, improve animal welfare, and promote the growth of fresher food with real depth of flavour, not just cosmetic appearance."

In Switzerland, where they're keen to put Swiss francs into Swiss banks, the move is also seen as a profitable choice. Swissair says the changeover has added 15 per cent to their food costs, but they've chosen to absorb this rather than pass it on to customers. Given the higher costs of organic foods in the UK, 15 per cent seems rather a low figure, but the Swiss government has committed itself to generous subsidies to organic farmers.

Between my in-flight meals, there was time for a visit to Appenzell, the German-speaking heartland of Switzerland's organic farming. Toytown, I'm sure, is much like this. The grass on the man-icured green hillsides is as short as a fairway; indeed, the impression here is of a landscaped golf course which has erupted.

Houses as simple and square as nursery school drawings dot the slopes, while in the town the "umpha" of a brass quartet welcomes backpackers with alpenstocks. It's so picturesque, you half expect Julie Andrews to round a clump of firs singing "Climb Ev'ry Mountain".

Halfway up a flower-speckled green Swiss Alp above the town, we meet the Wettsteins, small farmers with a 90-acre farm, typical of the main beneficiaries of government largesse. They have only eight cows, for example, the number which generates the maximum subsidy. The reason the grass is mown to the top of the highest peak becomes apparent; it is cut for silage three times in the summer, and stored for the cows' feed during the snowy winters.

There are also free-range chickens, goats and honey-producing bees. A bucolic life, indeed. Susanna Wettstein plays double bass in a string quartet in the town.

To the question: "Does organic food taste better?" the answer is that on the Wettstein farm it does. We tasted great home-made bread and several rich cheeses, cider-cured smoked beef (which is called mostbrockli: most is cider, brockli means pieces) and drank sweet, fresh unpas-teurised milk, local organic beer, home-made cider and delicious apple juice. A resounding endorsement of organic foods.

So the organic bandwagon rolls on. I asked Lynda Brown, one of the organisers of the Organ-ic Food Awards, the same question I put to Sus-anna Wettstein. Lynda is the author of an essential directory, The Shopper's Guide to Organic Food (Fourth Estate, pounds 7.99). "It can't be guaranteed," she admitted, "but generally, yes. Organic beef, pork and chicken will taste different, and may be chewier, since the animals get more exercise."

Fruit and vegetables will taste better according to their freshness, the variety, where they've come from and who has grown them. "I do believe, though," Lynda asserts, "that if you were to eat only organic fruit and vegetables for a month, you'd notice the difference when you went back to conventional produce."

So how would you tell? "Organic vegetables have more flavour because they mature more slowly. Conventional vegetables are fed with nitrates, and nitrogen increases their water uptake, which means faster growth but less flavour. You would notice this most with organic oranges." (That's if you can get them: Swissair has hijacked most of the world's supplies of organic orange juice.)

Some of Lynda's favourite foods also happen to be organic: "Bacon and pork from a Gloucester Old Spot. Organic tomato ketchup is delicious. Whole Earth baked beans and Rocombe Farm organic ice-cream - both fantastic."

Lynda suggests that the best organic eating is snacks. "I used to turn up my nose at crisps and snacks and suchlike, but now I've become a junkfood junkie - tortilla chips, crisps, everything. Organic standards are so strict that they can't use hydrogenated fats, additives, artificial flavourings or refined white sugar."

A postscript: the organic taste sensation of the year has to be a box of fresh chillies from Peppers by Post. These are grown in Dorset by Michael and Joy Michaud, market gardeners. Michael is also an organic food inspector, who travels to far-flung destinations for the Soil Association, checking out tea in Sri Lanka and so on.

This year's crop of chillies, grown in plastic tunnels, is his first that is 100 per cent organic. For a modest pounds 15.95, postage and package included, you can treat yourself (and chillophile friends) to a colourful box of nine great chillies, some of which simply aren't sold in any stores.

The pack includes Poblano (the fruity Mexican stuffing chilli), petite green Serrano, blistering hot Habanero, sharp-flavoured Jalapeno, scorching Thai Hot, mild Mexican, green, orange and yellow Hungarian Hot Wax (medium hot), beautiful Yellow Heart, hot, round Cherry Peppers.

The peppers arrive a day after being freshly picked (and they keep well for at least two weeks). A leaflet of nine recipes is enclosed, along with with an encyclopaedic description of each chilli variety and its uses. For more details, write to Peppers by Post, Sea Spring Farm, West Bexington, Dorset DT2 9DD, or telephone the Michauds on 01308 897 892.

Overleaf, then, is a selection of tasty recipes from Gourmetgate in Zurich, a chilli bread (phew, what a scorcher!) from Peppers by Post, plus recipes for chicken, pork and an omelette from Lynda Brown's The Modern Cook's Handbook.

! In the garden: have organic ideals gone too far? Nigel Colborn shrugs off the tyranny on page 85

CHICKEN BONNE FEMME

Serves 4

1.5kg/3lb 8oz free-range chicken

4-6 medium parsnips

4 large carrots

4 leeks, trimmed and washed

8-12 whole unpeeled garlic cloves (optional)

16 smallish waxy potatoes, peeled

1 glass dry white wine (about 100ml/312fl oz)

2 bayleaves

1 sprig of thyme, or lemon thyme if available

Wash out the insides of the chicken with water and remove any fat in the cavity. You will need to keep all the vegetables big for this dish: cut the parsnips and carrots in half, or into sizeable chunks as appropriate, and cut the leeks into halves or thirds.

Arrange the parsnips, carrots, leeks and garlic with the bayleaves and herbs in a heavy casserole. Sit the chicken on top, then tuck in the potatoes round the sides. Pour in the wine and enough water to cover the vegetables by half their depth; if you have no wine, use extra water.

Bring to simmering point on top of the stove, then cover tightly and cook in a moderate oven, around 330F/180C/Gas 4, for around an hour and a quarter, or until the chicken is cooked: test the thighs - the juices will be clear. Check halfway through that the liquid is no more than gently simmering, adjusting the heat accordingly.

Remove the chicken, tipping the juices from the cavity back into the pot. The simplest way to do this is to stick a carving fork into the cavity and lift the chicken. Blot up any excess fat from the cooking juices with kitchen paper.

Serve the chicken on a board and carve at the table, with the vegetables and their juices in a separate dish, garnished with parsley.

FENNEL PICCATA WITH ROCKET NOODLES & TOMATO SABAYON

Serves 4

4 fennel bulbs

2 eggs

50g/2oz each of Parmesan and Pecorino, grated

plain white flour

25g/1oz butter

2 tablespoons olive oil

salt and pepper

200g/7oz fine, rocket-flavoured noodles (if you can't find these use green spinach noodles)

2 tablespoons rocket puree

For the sabayon:

100ml/3fl oz tomato juice

splash of dry white Vermouth

splash of lemon juice

sea salt and freshly ground pepper

1 egg yolk

olive oil

1 medium tomato, peeled, seeded and diced

Cook the fennel until just tender in boiling, salted water. Drain, pat dry and cut into 12 slices about 0.5cm (14in) thick. Beat the eggs together with the Parmesan and Pecorino.

Season the fennel slices slightly and dust them with flour. Dip them in the egg and cheese mixture until well coated. Heat the olive oil and the butter and fry the slices until golden brown. Cook the noodles in boiling salted water until al dente.

To prepare the sabayon, put all the ingredients together in a bowl and beat over simmering water until thick and foaming.

To serve, drain the boiled noodles and arrange them on four heated plates. Lay the fennel slices on top and spoon the sabayon around. Garnish the dishes with the tomato cubes and drizzle some olive oil over them.

BEEF TOURNEDOS WITH PEPPERS & BLACK BEAN SAUCE

Serves 4

4 tournedos, cut from a fillet of beef, each about 150g/5oz

1 each medium red, yellow and green pepper

200ml/7fl oz dark veal (or other meat) stock

4 teaspoons fermented black beans

2 small garlic cloves, peeled

2.5cm/1in piece of fresh ginger, peeled and roughly chopped

1 tablespoon olive oil

3 tablespoons red wine

2 tablespoons chopped fresh coriander leaves

salt and freshly ground pepper

Trim the tournedos well. Roast the peppers in a hot oven or grill or sear them over a gas flame. Rub off the skin under running water, remove the cores, seeds and ribs and cut into even strips. Boil down the veal stock until reduced by half.

Rinse the black beans under cold water and squeeze dry. Put half into a mortar and grind to a paste with the garlic and ginger.

Season the tournedos and fry them in hot oil for two to three minutes on each side. Remove from the pan and keep warm. In the same pan, fry the pepper strips quickly. Season and keep warm. Remove any excess oil from the pan, deglaze with the wine, then add the reduced veal stock and black bean paste. Stir together for a few minutes, then add the remaining whole black beans.

Coat the tournedos with the sauce and top with the pepper strips. Garnish with the coriander and serve at once.

FILLET OF PIKE-PERCH, FARMHOUSE-STYLE

Zander or sandre is the Swiss name for the lake fish we call pike-perch. You can use trout or salmon fillets instead.

Serves 4

4 fillets of pike-perch, each about 100g/312oz

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons whipping cream

250g/9oz potatoes

25g/1oz butter

1 courgette, cut into cubes

1 carrot, cut into cubes

2 tomatoes, skinned, seeded and cubed

juice of 1 lemon

100ml/3fl oz whipping cream

1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley

1 tablespoon finely chopped chives

2 tablespoons brown veal glaze

salt and freshly ground pepper

Season the fish fillets. Mix the olive oil with the two tablespoons of cream, spread it on the fillets and leave to marinate. Peel the potatoes, cut into cubes, blanch and drain well. Fry till golden brown in some of the butter. Cook the courgette and carrot in boiling salted water until barely tender.

Fry the fish fillets briefly in the rest of the butter until golden brown, turning them once. Lift onto heated plates.

Sweat the tomato cubes gently in the same pan, add the courgette and carrot cubes, season to taste and stir in the lemon juice, the 100ml of cream, parsley and chives. Heat the veal glaze. Spoon the vegetables over the fish and sprinkle with a little veal glaze. Scatter the fried potatoes on top.

SHREDDED SESAME OMELETTE

Serves 2

A favourite stand-by - good to accompany any stir-fry. You can make it with one egg or several.

Beat a couple of eggs with two to three tablespoons of sesame seeds. Heat a little oil in a non-stick frying pan. Keeping it fairly hot, pour on enough mixture to cover the base and cook until the bottom is set but is still moist on the surface. Lift one edge and pour in a tablespoon of sherry; it will sizzle violently. Roll up like a Swiss roll and cut into strips. Repeat with the rest of the mixture and keep hot in the oven - this crisps the edges - while you make a stir-fry. Serve scattered over stir-fried vegetables and noodles. It's also good with stir-fried rice and to pad out strips of stir-fried chicken or beef.

SOY-BRAISED PORK WITH STAR ANISE

This Chinese-style braise works very well for belly pork and is excellent reheated. If you like pork rind, leave it on: otherwise, remove most of it and use to enrich other meat dishes.You can also use this recipe for shoulder or knuckle of pork.

Serves 4

450g/1lb lean belly pork, in one piece

1 whole star anise

1 thick slice of fresh ginger root (about 7mm/14in thick)

2 tablespoons each dark soy sauce and tomato puree

1 clove garlic, crushed (optional)

Put the flavouring ingredients in an ovenproof dish which will just take the pork snugly, adding enough water to cover the base by about 1.25cm (12in). Sit the pork on top. Cover tightly and cook in a low oven, 300F/150C/Gas 2, for two to three hours, or till the pork is meltingly tender; turn halfway through.

Cool, take off the fat, and reheat when required, cutting the pork into thick strips. Serve with Chinese noodles and stir-fried vegetables.

FRUITY SEMOLINA PUDDING WITH A BLACKBERRY SAUCE

Serves 4

325ml/11fl oz milk

50g/2oz brown sugar

pinch of agar-agar

35g/1oz semolina

grated zest of half a lemon

500g/1lb 2oz blackberries

150g/5oz brown sugar

1 tablespoon lemon juice

12 slices kiwi

4 strawberries, stalks intact

12 small pieces of melon (skinned)

Put the milk, 50g of sugar and agar-agar in a saucepan and bring to the boil; add the semolina and lemon zest and simmer for four to five minutes. Pour hot into buttered ramekins or moulds and chill for 12 hours.

Cook the blackberries with the 150g of sugar and lemon juice, stirring. Push through a sieve to eliminate pips, bring back to a boil and simmer for a few more minutes. Cool.

Pour some sauce onto plates, turn out the semolina puddings on top and garnish with the prepared fruit.

CHILLI CORN BREAD

Serves 4

175g/6oz strong white flour

110g/4oz corn meal

1 teaspoon salt

3 teaspoons baking powder

1 tablespoon sugar

2 medium eggs, well-beaten

300ml/12 pint milk

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

2-3 Jalapenos or 5-6 Serrano chillies, chopped

splash of oil for frying

Fry the chillies in the oil until soft. Set aside to cool. Mix all the dry ingredients together. Add the eggs, milk and vegetable oil to the dry ingredients, and beat until the mixture is a smooth batter. Add the cooked Jalapenos to the batter, and pour into a well-greased, 22cm (10in) square baking pan. Place in a moderately hot oven (400F/200C/Gas 6) for about 20 minutes. Best eaten with butter while still hot.

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