A busy Sunday morning in Southwark, and there isn’t a free table for brunch. The crowds have come, bleary eyed, for some award-winning breakfast. Think classic full English, eggs any way you can think of, and sweetcorn fritters that have a following of their own on a menu that changes daily, all made from the freshest ingredients.
And some of the food served in The Table Café is even more local than you might think. The freshest fruit and veg on the menu comes from but metres away – courtesy of a community growing space on nearby Melior Street, run by homeless charity St Mungo’s as part of its Putting Down Roots project. That means super-local, ethical produce, grown so close it is delivered every week on a push bike, by an organisation that supports the community. This is urban food growing taken to the max.
“It’s about breaking down barriers, being creative, building confidence in people, often in green spaces that have been neglected,” says Ian Kavanagh, who runs the Putting Down Roots project. “Our primary objective is to get people who have been or are homeless to work in the gardens that we maintain, gaining experience, and enjoying what can be a very therapeutic activity.”
St Mungo’s used to rely on grant funding, but is now trying to make its projects more sustainable. “We initially set up a stall to sell our produce, and have built on this with the ‘Adopt a Plot’ scheme,” says Ian. “We sell everything we produce now, which is very satisfying. The beauty is that I can harvest something at lunchtime and it can be at The Table Café in just a few hours, if that.”
The link was made six months ago, as one of 20 groups in a new scheme that gets food produced in community growing spaces into local restaurants, with backing from sustainable food network London Food Link, the Mayor of London and Big Lottery-funded Capital Growth project and the Big Lottery-funded Ethical Eats project. It’s a match-making exercise, still in the early stages, but one that rethinks how central London restaurants buy their food, and shows the potential for supply and demand at the most local level.
Shaun Alpine-Crabtree, head chef at The Table Café, is pioneering the project from his kitchen. “I think it’s really important,” he says. “I see what produce I get and what dishes we can come up with, which works because our menu can change daily. It challenges us to be creative.”
Kelly Parsons, who runs Ethical Eats, says there has been some “real excitement from chefs” about the project, “particularly the opportunity to work with a grower to get hold of bespoke-planted fruit, vegetables and herbs – unusual varieties they find it hard to get through conventional suppliers,” she says.
The concept is so popular there is a 30-strong waiting list of restaurants, alongside the 20 matches made already. The scheme is expanding fast, with St Mungo’s now signed up to supply the London Bridge Hospital, and setting up growing spaces in Clapham and in a spot near the Imperial War Museum.
Not too far away in Tower Hamlets, Rocky Park Urban Growers has started supplying The Boundary, in a similar set-up. Only a week before we spoke, head gardener Nigel Marlow had personally delivered a batch of his super-locally grown baby chard, mizuna, sorrel and parsley to Peter Weedon, head chef at The Boundary, which has three kitchens including the popular Albion Café. “The deliveries have really exceeded my expectations,” says Peter. “What we would really love is for Rocky Park to be able to supply us twice a week and for us to put a Rocky Park salad on the menu throughout the summer.
“The project really makes sense for everyone in that we are encouraging people to grow in urban spaces, which gives them something interesting to do and a better quality of life,” he adds. “It brings money back to the community, it gives people who eat the food a better understanding of where their food comes from. It brings challenges that help us be more creative chefs and, best of all, it brings a bit of variety to life. It really does benefit everyone.”
Nigel is equally keen to build on the partnership. “I have already got my eye on expansion,” he says, with plans to convert more disused land into growing spaces. “I work together with Peter to see what he needs and what we can grow to provide something special.”
There are several similar partnerships springing up around the capital, including Urban Growth earmarking produce for the Charles Lamb pub in Islington, and North London’s Growing Communities linking up with Lardo Restaurant, which is set to open in Dalston this month.
Eloise Dey, project officer for Capital Growth, says these growing spaces, some of which are funded by grants, “can trade surplus produce, helping them to become more financially independent.” She explains, “the project has been very popular so far, with more restaurants than growing spaces signed up. The next step is to think about how we can increase productivity.”
Of course, very few growing spaces, if any, will be able to supply a restaurant with all the fruit, vegetables and herbs it needs. The restaurants have to be flexible, making the most of this community-grown produce alongside what they would normally order from their suppliers. It’s a challenge for chefs to push themselves to rethink the menu, and make the most of the produce on their doorstep, and that’s exciting, says Eloise. “Some restaurants put this produce on their specials board, some love to share what they are doing and others are quieter about it, but simply use this as a way to support their local community.”
The initiative makes sense. It gives growing spaces, many of which are funded by grants, an additional means to sustain themselves, and provides city centre restaurants with more local food than most, plus a chance to fit into the community food chain. At the same time, it gives community growing spaces an opportunity to make much-needed money. The Table Café, for example, pays up to £200 a week for supplies from St Mungo’s.
And here’s to many more arrangements just like it, for the freshest breakfast, lunch and dinner in town.
It’s time to sow many crops including beetroot, chard, chervil, dill, lettuce, peas, radishes and spring onions. Also, plant early potatoes. Beware, however, of starting more tender plants such as courgettes and squashes too early. They could be sown indoors at the end of the month, but otherwise wait until May.
For a steady supply, remember to make successive sowings - about a fortnight apart - of crops such as carrots, coriander, salads and radishes.
Harden off indoor-grown plants before moving them outside to acclimatise them to colder conditions. For a fortnight, for example, you can move them outside during the day, returning them indoors at night.
Basil is an essential herb and best sown now. The best varieties are Genovese, Thai and Purple. Green shiso is a more unusual herb to try and very popular in Japan. With both, pinch out the growing tips to keep them bushy.
Certain crops - like lettuces, coriander and many ‘oriental’ crops like mustards - dislike the heat and are best not sown during hotter summer months.
Pots and containers can dry out surprisingly quickly. Mulching the top helps to slow down water loss. Apply a thick layer of materials such as gravel, pebbles, garden compost or bark chip.
By Tom Moggach from City Leaf. His book, ‘The Urban Kitchen Gardener: Growing and Cooking in the City’ is published by Kyle Books. City Leaf provides expert food growing training to groups and schools. For more information, call 020 7485 9262 or email email@example.com. www.cityleaf.co.uk
Stephanie Dellner finds that community food projects are helping Londoners to grow in more ways than one
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