Abel & Cole recently sent me a free box of fruit and veg. In case you’ve not come across them before (the company, that is, not the fruit and veg. I mean, you'd hardly be reading a food blog if you didn’t know what fruit and veg were, would you?) – they sell edible good life to people who might see two sheep a year. On the website, Keith Abel smiles beatifically from some blossomed idyll; and I’m sure Paul Cole is a merry old soul. The site is as lush and wholesome as Zac Efron. It’s a hymn to bucolic lolling, to dappled, arcadian days of Château Peyraguey and strawberries. There’s no mud, dung or flies in this countryside, just meadowsweet, flopsies and H. E. Bates. Their byword, repeated like a mantra, is ‘values’. Values are valuable to them, except value for money.
They started small and are getting bigger, and therein lies tension. Capitalism – greedy, grubby, vital – destroys the pastoral. It scythes the tree and tarmacs the valley, it stains the water clear. You can’t sell your vegan cake and eat it, and the wellied virtues of environmentalism sit uneasily with cold-blooded corporate self-interest. The bigger an eco-co. gets, the tougher it is to brand. Some, like Dorset Cereals, are fronts for huge conglomerates, ruddy-cheeked masks glued to the face of Uncle Sam.
So Abel & Cole faces a dilemma. As it evolves from flogging a few tatties to vanning shower gel round the country, its founding ethos necessarily becomes harder to live up to. Food miles mount, margins tighten, quality control goes out of control. A new link in a restaurant chain always weakens the sum of its parts: witness Subway, whose product is inedible, or Strada, where the food declines as inexorably as the outlets mushroom. Abel & Cole’s relentless expansion into organic Lebensraum cannot be without consequence.
I’ve experimented with box schemes in the past - both in Edinburgh, where I grew up, and down here. My difficulties with them are personal and threefold.
First, and most importantly, they made me waste huge amounts of food. I’d get a big bag of potatoes every week (as well as turnips or marrows or endless bloody squashes), which would form a soiled, accusing heap in a corner of the kitchen. Eventually, the potatoes would cover themselves in sprouty protuberances, like victims of some terrible skin disease. Or it would be onions, onions, onions, and I’d find myself making endless tarts (often this sublime one) and wintry soups. Lacking as I did a compost heap, a pliant pet or a handy tramp, a lot of it wound up in the bin.
Second, and related, is the emasculating loss of control. I realise that some people relish the treasure-chest effect, and treat their weekly delivery as a sort of mini Christmas. But I enjoy choosing what to eat. Just as I don’t do a ‘big shop’, planning every meal days in advance, I resent having to mash Jerusalem artichokes once asparagus is in the shops. It’s one of the reasons I live in the city; and, anyway, I already eat with the seasons.
Third, I go out too much.
But free food is free food, and the box duly came. Most of it was in good nick, though spring greens were as yellow and floppy as dead smoker’s fingers. A small watermelon was delicious, one of the best I can remember. Nectarines were weeny, but juicy once they’d ripened. What can you say about a raw onion? At least these haven’t sprouted. The apples were zombies: soggy wool with Babybel crusts. Their season is still months away.
It would normally have cost 16 quid, which may or may not sound reasonable. But it means that for a year's worth of weekly boxes, you'd shell out nearly a grand. For a family of four, with different commitments, I'm sure the system works well. It’s a noble, worthy idea, but it’s not currently for me.
Abel, of course, was Eve’s son, murdered by Cain. The message of that old story, as of this one, is to leave the apples alone.
Abel & Cole
Tel. +44 (0)8452 62 63 64