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18/06/2009

Abel & Cole Organic Box [Review]

Abel & Cole Organic Box

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
organics@abelandcole.co.uk

www.abelandcole.co.uk

11 comments:

  1. Very well written and entertaining as always Oliver. Organic Veg boxes are a novelty to me, in fact the free one I recieved is the first one I've ever had, personally it's not something I'll ever subscribe to - but I can understand why people do.

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  2. I got a box as well Oliver (seems like we all did) and am currently working my way through. I agree that it is probably good for a family but just too much fruit and veg for one or two people.

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  3. Great post!

    I've worked my way through my box and posted some recipes that I cooked using the stuff from it.

    I'm still to post my conclusion but it will be about the same as yours. A good idea but not so sure how well it works for the smaller/more mobile household.

    // Mike

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  4. My God, man, how do you write so well? This is just wonderful.

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  5. Great post and very amusing. Looks like A&C are on a big blogger push I'm getting a box next week - so behind the curve of me. Am trying to be open minded (and think of new slant for write up). I hope there are no apples though as you rightly point out they are not in season - thus must have been shipped a zillion miles.

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  6. Dan - Thanks so much :) I agree with you: I admire the idea, and I can see it would work for lots of people, but it's not for me.

    Gourmet Chick - Yes, exactly. In fairness to them, a box of fruit would be a lot easier to get through each week than a box of vegetables. I could maybe see myself getting one of those.

    Swedish Mike - Thank you! I've seen your recipes: your soup looked lovely. It seems there's quite a lot of blogging consensus on this subject...

    Anonymous - Thanks so much. Really kind of you to say.

    Goodshoeday - Thank you as well! Yes, or at the very least they've been in storage somewhere. I don't know why they bother sending out apples in June - it's the worst time of year for them, and there's so much other stuff they could have sent!

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  7. Loved this post and I like your angle on what is often considered THE way to buy vegetables and support "local" farmers (ruddy cheeks or otherwise).

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  8. I know we discussed this a little the other day at lunch but I'll throw in my bit anyway...

    I recently cancelled the veg box as I got bored of a) the same vegetables turning up the whole time and b) having no control over which vegetables turned up in the first place. I know you can choose a little bit on the website but how am I supposed to know how I'll feel? So now I just get the fruit box but the apples - seriously, they actually make me angry. They are stored and as a result woolly and unpleasant to eat - what is the point?

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  9. I've never been a great fan of Abel and Cole. I used them for about a year a couple of years back. Quality and variety started off brilliantly, but after about 3 months it went down hill and stayed there.

    Very disappointing lot

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  10. Heh, I was away last week so my box is coming end of this week instead.

    I was in two minds about accepting as I was an A&C customer for quite some time and stopped because of quality issues. In the end I explained that situation and said I'd be willing to try again to see if they'd resolved the quality control problems and also to try other products in their range. We'll see!

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  11. Gill - Thanks! It's true, there's a lot of holier-than-thou talk around these things.

    Helen - You're right, the loss of control is the worst bit. Those apples were simply awful.

    Simon - Sorry to hear you didn't have a great experience with them. It seems a pretty typical response, from what I've heard.

    Kavey - I hope you get a good box, although judging by the responses to this post, it doesn't seem too likely! Best of luck :)

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