Do you ever feel you've heard enough about organic food? If you were on the mailing-lists of the food firms' PR departments you would. But, while hardly a day goes by without a new product announcing its presence on the market, how many of us really understand what we're being sold?
These days, admits Lynda Brown, the food writer and organic movement pioneer, "organics is a brand image to die for". Supermarkets turn whole aisles over to these high-priced items, which boast loudly of their safety credentials: meat that hasn't been treated with hormones, crops grown without artificial fertilisers or pesticides and sold without preservatives. You'd be forgiven for thinking that the whole world had been converted to this noble cause.
Nothing, says Brown, could be further from the truth. Certain kinds of consumer may finally be getting what they want from supermarkets (at a price), but as a country, Brown says, Britain has not considered putting organic farming at the core of agricultural thinking. The government, the National Farmers Union, the food establishment, food science, medicine, nutritional bodies all are united, she believes, in planning to do nothing. Organic food may be booming in Britain (where annual sales are predicted to reach £1bn by 2003); but this, says Brown, is no thanks to government. Rather, people are simply fleeing a biblical plague of diseases, such as salmonella, BSE and foot-and-mouth. And we remain as confused about organic food as ever.
Now, a new book, Organics (Headline £25), by William Black and Sophie Grigson, goes a long way to sorting out the issues. Grigson provides the modern, tasty, healthy recipes leaning towards making the most of fresh vegetables. Black spells out the arguments for the four Ss sustainability, stewardship, stakeholding and soil. The book also addresses the question that Black and Grigson are most often asked: do organic foods taste better than conventional foods? It is tempting to say yes, admit the authors, and often they do; but, in truth, it doesn't necessarily follow. Flavour depends on so many factors: variety, soil, climate, freshness, storage. In general, organic fruit and vegetables have a more concentrated flavour because they tend to take up less water. But even this is not always a good thing.
To help you decide for yourself, here, from Organics, is an edited version of Black and Grigson's alphabet of organics, and a favourite recipe.
Sophie Grigson's roast tomatoes
Roast tomatoes are among my favourite accompaniments. And they are superb tossed into pasta with garlic and olive oil, fresh basil and plenty of Parmesan. Once you are hooked on the joys of roast tomatoes, this will become second nature, which is why I give only a method, rather than a precise recipe.
Preheat the oven to 220C/425F/Gas 7. Halve the tomatoes and arrange cut side up in an ovenproof dish that has been generously anointed with extra virgin olive oil. Tuck a small handful of unpeeled garlic cloves in among them, and then slip in a couple of sprigs of thyme, and/or a sprig of rosemary.
Season with coarse salt, freshly ground pepper and a sprinkling of sugar (unless your tomatoes are brilliantly sweet). Drizzle over a little oil, then roast, uncovered, for 40 to 45 minutes, until sizzling and soft, and touched with brown here and there. Serve hot or warm.