Open the box

FOOD A fresh way to buy organic vegetables

Organic box schemes bear an uncanny resemblance to the television programme Ready, Steady, Cook. As a participant in a local scheme, at a specified time on a specified day each week, you go to a pick-up point where a box of fresh vegetables awaits you. The farmer knows the contents, you don't.

Protocol has it that the box should contain some carrots, onions and potatoes, but the remaining eight or so items are a surprise. Having rummaged in your box you can then build the rest of the week's shopping around what you find. Cart before the horse.

Now three years old, Local Food Links is the Soil Association's initiative to help set up independent box schemes in order to bypass supermarkets and link consumers directly to the produce. A variety of initiatives with this ideal have caught on in America, but it is the local box scheme that has become all the rage here. Thirty per cent of organic producers are now involved, and there are about one hundred schemes countrywide.

Good ideas catch on, and Thoby Young of the Fresh Food Company, a one- time supplier of fish to the restaurant trade, launched the first nationwide scheme last October. Basically he plays piggy-in-the-middle between the consumer and the co-op ECOP (Eastern Counties Organic Produce), who pack up and dispatch the produce directly.

Mr Young's scheme is not a cheap option and he admits that most of his customers are fairly affluent. A sample box costs pounds 24.95, and a box delivered fortnightly the same. Weekly delivery lowers the price to pounds 22.95. But this is the box scheme deluxe in terms of packaging and delivery, and, true to the Nineties, Mr Young plans to use the Internet as a way of informing customers what they will find in their box.

Being a businessman, Mr Young also offers year-round availability by supplementing local produce with imports during the tough, cold months, when some local schemes close down.

Generally, I found the amount of sustainable chitchat surrounding these boxes rather overshadows the produce itself. We have yet to heed the example of California, Ireland or France where "organic" is aspirational, not least because cooks and chefs shout loudly about its performance in the kitchen.

So just how does the cook fare in all this? Big-time freshness, certainly; much of the produce will be harvested within 48 hours of you receiving it. The downside is that you are probably buying a week's supply and organic produce tends to deteriorate more quickly than other produce. And while having your box delivered may be convenient, you cannot exchange anything if it is bad.

The contents of a Thoby Young box recently offered up 11 vegetables: one pound courgettes, three-quarters of a pound tomatoes, one pound new carrots, three pounds new potatoes, half a pound mushrooms, one packet of "Little Gem" lettuces, half a pound garden peas, one packet of cabbage, one bag of beetroot, a six-ounce cucumber and one pound onions. Also a bag of parsley, two Anjou pears and half a pound of cherries.

With this particular selection I made a little casserole of the carrots, some of the new potatoes and garden peas in a cream, wine and herb sauce (serves 4). I roasted the beetroot and made it into a salad with walnut oil, chicory and smoked eel, inspired by a wonderful lunch at Ransome's Dock on the Thames at Battersea (serves 2-3). With the remaining potatoes and onions, I made Jansson's Temptation (serves 2), a delectable fusion of matchstick potatoes and onions with anchovies and cream.

The cucumber and tomatoes formed the basis for a salsa for barbecued chicken (serves 4), and the cabbage I shredded and sauteed with a pinch of five-spice as the base for salmon teriyaki with pickled ginger. The courgettes and mushrooms sat nicely in a frittata, layered with finely sliced Parmesan (serves 2-3). And the lettuces I smothered with hot butter, a squeeze of lemon and toasted almonds.

My frustration was the comparatively small amounts of most veg - there weren't enough tomatoes, for example, to make a gazpacho, and once the peas were shelled there was only one serving. Box-cooking does demand a certain approach where vegetables can either be stretched or combined: lots of frittatas, and casseroles or soups with pulses, risottos and pasta dishes. Family supper-time stuff.

Overall conclusion: great idea to which I would definitely subscribe. A word of warning though. These schemes are local in origin, but already Eric Booth of the Soil Association says "the ability of local producers to provide local produce has peaked, from here on we will see the organic wholesalers moving in." At this point it becomes a different ball game, particularly if the supplier increasingly relies on imported produce

The Fresh Food Company 0181-969 0351. E-mail address 100600.3527@compuserve.com. The Soil Association's booklet 'Farm Shops and Box Schemes Directory' costs pounds 3.00 inc. p&p, 86 Colston Street, Bristol BS1 5BB 01179-290661. On average, these boxes cost pounds 10 to pounds 15

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