One of the London food scene’s most interesting characters, Bob Ring, aka ‘Crayfish Bob’, is a one man shellfish whirlwind, dedicated to ridding the Thames of invasive American Signal crayfish. His aim is to undo the environmental mess made by a decision in the 1970s to introduce American Signal crayfish to the UK, to be farmed (primarily for export to Scandinavia). The bottom fell out of the market, Bob explains, the stocks were abandoned and crayfish escaped into waterways, and all but wiped out our native species, damaging other aquatic life in the process. Bob sells young crayfish ‘smalls’ before they can wreak too much havoc
He made it onto the foodie radar last year with a pop-up café at the Two Degrees festival, run with food designers Blanch & Shock, which he followed by taking his shack to Glastonbury and the Thames Festival. Bob regularly supplies the London restaurants of chef Mark Hix, and is currently working with Beas of Bloomsbury, on a Louisiana-style Crawfish Boil down at Maltby Street, which runs throughout the summer. He’s also in talks with retailers, and some well-known sandwich shops, as part of his quest to persuade them to ditch their reliance on Chinese imports.
This year, Organiclea, a workers’ cooperative growing food in the Lea Valley, has been exploring cultivating some rather unusual sub-tropical fruits and vegetables in the UK. Its April ‘I Never Knew You Could Grow That Here!’ workshop, at the cooperative’s Hawkwood nursery, featured produce such as Tindora, Kadu, Amaranath, Dudhi, Tomatillo and Mooli, and they are trialling growing Kadu and Lablab in their glasshouse. Check out their market stalls for the results.
Grapes in your garden? The Urban Wine Company acts as a collective for local growers all over London and the South East. Anyone growing grapes, in the garden, roof terrace or allotment, can enlist their help to produce vineyard quality wine from the crop. Founder Richard Sharp noticed grapes growing in the garden were going to waste and – having seen how French villagers work together to bring in the grape harvest and the camaraderie it generates – rounded up a group of friends in Tooting, South London who pooled their grape crop and pressed the first 20 bottles of ‘Chateau Tooting - Furzedown Blush’ in 2007. Now tonnes of grapes are collected each year, resulting in hundreds of bottles of London vino.
How many supermarkets in London can boast salad grown eight metres away? That’s what the lucky shoppers of Crouch End are putting in their baskets, thanks to ‘Food From The Sky’, a collaboration between Thornton’s Budgens supermarket in North London and a community garden on the store’s roof. The group sells its vegetables, fruits, mushrooms and herbs - grown to organic standard - in the supermarket below and in the Belsize Park branch of Budgens, while providing an educational space for the community.
With its 17th century mill flanked by a Georgian mill house and offices, Ponders End Mills is one of the most complete groupings of historical industrial buildings still being worked in Greater London. However, appearances can be deceptive - behind the historic facade is a large, modern food-factory. “Wright’s believe in bread baked locally, from flour milled locally, from wheat grown locally, by local people and most of all, for local people,” says Managing Director and fifth generation Wright, David. “The farming family of E & K Benton’s Ltd have been growing wheat in Essex since 1926 on an area of low rainfall on fertile, ‘moisture trapping’ London Clay – ideal for the cultivation of Britain’s best quality bread wheat variety. The wheat is transported less than eight miles to our mill, with local bakeries, hotels and restaurants boasting that flour used in their establishment was not only grown but milled locally too. Chances are that if you are picking up a slice of pizza at the Olympics this year, it was probably made with Bravo, Wright’s pizza flour,” says David.
There are three genuine distilleries in the capital today. You probably know about London Beefeater. The second, Sipsmith, came to notice when it won a 2010 Observer Food Monthly Award. Flying a little more under the radar, Sacred Gin and Vodka are distilled by hand only 100 yards from the summit of Highgate Hill. Described as ‘operating out of the back room of a suburban house, with its vacuum plant in a wendy-house in the garden’, by former city headhunter Ian Hart. He began experimenting with distillation and came up with an award-winning gin. The company has a keen focus on independent stockists, says Ian, so you won’t find any of its 1,000 bottles a month sold in supermarkets, but instead in 50 bars and retailers across the capital. It uses English wheat spirit, distilled in Manchester, and recently introduced the first ever UK Vermouth, made with Three Choirs Vineyard, in Gloucestershire
In 2010, Dig This nursery, in Welling, London Borough of Bexley, started to grow a special collection of tomato seeds from all over the World, from Spain to Austria, Hungary to America. The idea for ‘Tomato World’ came from Hungarian horticulturist and forester Mihaly Herczeg, who arrived in London eight years ago. He now runs a four acre Soil Association-certified nursery growing 52 varieties of tomato and eventually intends to supply each of the 192 known varieties. “Most shops and street markets focus on the top three tomatoes – cherry, beefsteak Italian and moneymakers,” explains manager Claire Doherty. “We have all different types, different shapes, colours, flavours – mild and strong – and quite a few heritage varieties which have much more interesting flavours. We’ve currently got an English heritage tomato shaped like a pear which is really unusual.” They sell at several markets in and around London and in the nursery’s newly-opened shop in New Cross, South-East London, which also features an exhibition space for artists to show their work.
Established in 1975 by Alex Smith, Alara are true muesli experts. The company makes over 250 types of mueslis, manufactures almost 50 per cent of all the organic muesli produced in the UK, and is the only Fair Trade muesli manufacturer in the world. All in King’s Cross. Alara only buys English organic oats, and guarantees farmers a fair price for their crop.
Mwanaka Fresh Farm Foods is the brainchild of Zimbabwean writer and journalist David Mwanaka. Having grown up eating the South African staple white maize, when he came to Britain in the early 1990s David was surprised it was not grown or even known about, and started carrying out growing trials for white maize and sweetcorn. Though growing these tropical products “remains a challenge”, given the time they take to grow and requirements for plenty of sunshine, today, as well white maize and sweetcorn, he sells pumpkins and green vegetables from the farm’s shop in Enfield. And continuing the focus on South African specialities, he’s also about to launch a range of South African ‘Boerewors’ sausages made with 100 per cent British beef.
Based in North London, Urban Harvest describe themselves as a ‘non-organisation’: they run an event once a month and have a mailing list, but everything they do is free. Their web pages tell you how to find out more about foraging, how to dry fruit, how to ‘tap sap’ and how to make tea with foraged ingredients. Gemma Harris says there is a lot of food out there in the city that is surprisingly good. She’s been experimenting with acorn crispbreads, and also recently cured a couple of kilos of olives she spotted on a tree in someone’s Muswell Hill front garden.
Eating at the Olympics
Now the Games are upon us, which of London2012's bid promises about sustainable, British food have been kept and which have remained aspirations?
Green eggs and ham
During the Olympics, nearly a million hotel guests will be waking up to what London has to offer for breakfast. Clare Hill investigates whether they will be dished up food the capital can be proud of
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The butcher’s banger (39)
Thin end of the veg? (39)
The Hunger Game (38)