It may be less well known than its US counterpart, but the UK food movement is no less vibrant, youthful and keen to change the world.
This year has seen big developments across the country, all of which involve young, determined people who are well aware that it’s high time for sustainable food to move away from notions of worthiness or dull food. The first Food Sovereignty conference took place in July, bringing 130 producers, distributors and campaigners from around the UK to OrganicLea (a brilliant farming co-operative on the edge of London) to talk about how to better value food and the knowledge and time taken to produce it. 2012 is also the key year for Capital Growth, which aims to create 2,012 new growing spaces in London by the end of December (nearly 2000 have been found so far).
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has campaigned for LandShare across the UK, uniting food growers with empty plots, while Reclaim the Fields has run country-wide workshops on growing food. The Campaign for Real Bread, one of the Sustain group’s many foodie initiatives, has gained real momentum and Take the Flour Back groups demonstrated against GM cereal trials. Hundreds of other projects, small and large, from living walls of salad to supply restaurants to grassroots education programmes are taking place the length and breadth of the UK.
So who are the individuals involved? Each campaign, each market stall, product or kitchen needs dynamic people to make sustainable food happen. We meet four of them here.
Trendily bespectacled Carl Clarke, 44, aka Disco Bistro, is an itinerant chef and keen forager who literally pops up all over the place – pop-ups are one of his specialities – and who was behind the hugely popular punk-styled events God Save the Clam, Rock Lobsta and the English Laundrette, all in London. He has also worked for Simon Rogan at Roganic, a high end London restaurant that takes obsession with provenance and hyper-localism to new levels.
“For me, work is all about food, music and art, all left field and done in great spaces,” Clarke explains – he often curates the music side of his events as well as the grub. “But it’s also about nature, so I use lots of foraged and wild ingredients. For a long time I looked abroad for ideas, but now I look here more and more, as more artisan suppliers and people who care are there for me to work with, on the same journey as me.” You’ll see ingredients like sea buckthorn, wild garlic, deer and a now-famous soda bread on his menus. Right now though, he’s focusing on the season. “It’s time to pick and preserve – elderberries, bilberries and wild plums,” he says, enthusiastically. “And wild mushrooms are coming in. It’s my harvest time.”
In the West Country, a couple of travelling cooks have found their permanent home already. Jack Bevan and Matthew Pennington founded their restaurant – along with Paûla Zárate, and Iain Pennington, Matthew’s brother – The Ethicurean, at Barley Wood Walled Garden in Somerset after the food they’d been buying, cooking and then serving at local farmers markets gained plaudits enough for them to realise they need a proper venue.
“Often it takes a restaurant years to set up a network of trusted suppliers,” says Bevan, 25. “But we had all the contacts already because we’d been working with farmers and local producers at the markets. The rest of our ingredients are grown in the walled garden by Mark Cox, the gardener here. Everything we use is in season and around us – if the food isn’t from the garden then it’s from our community, particularly from a community-supported agriculture project, the Community Farm at Chew Magna, where you volunteer and donate £250 a year for a veg box scheme. “They take staying local seriously, avoiding using things like citrus fruit where possible – “we use rhubarb or under-ripe white raspberries in cocktails” – and they’ve developed a long list of food-matched ales, beers and ciders, as well as carefully picked natural or biodynamic European wines.
Another ingredient they are very pleased to have sourced is goat. “We found a supplier called the Cabrito Company, which takes unwanted billy goats (they would otherwise be wasted) from Somerset goats’ milk farms for £10 each and raises them, first on milk and then on pasture. They are slaughtered at three months and we take one carcass a week, turning the loins into bacon and the legs into a cured goat ham. We use the rest for meatballs.”
There’s certainly no compromise on taste or technique here – expect complex dishes like griddled chicory with macerated strawberry, strained ewes’ yoghurt and cinnamon, 45-day aged sirloin of Gloucester beef or cured and smoked roe deer loin with carrot and black cardamom, wild rocket and wood sorrel. “We’re so pleased that so many people now seem to aspire to have a bill-board outside their restaurant, reading ‘local, seasonal food’.”
A small producer who is at the beginning of his journey, David Jowett, 21, will release his first products to market next spring. Jowett cheese will be similar in style to the mountain cheeses found in the Comte region of France, one of the places he was sent on an internship during his cheese-making diploma at the School of Artisan food. “I originally trained as a chef,” say Jowett. “But I felt disconnected from food and agriculture. When I went to Comte, I loved everything about the way they made cheese – they were lots of links in the chain and it generated a huge amount of local employment. Now I’m back in Stratford-upon-Avon, setting up a dairy ready to bring Alpine-style cheese to the UK. I’m going to work with unpasteurised milk and a traditional whey starter rather than lab cultures and I’ll make around 80 kilos of cheese a day, three days a week.”
He’s already lined up a local farmer, Michael Stacey, to supply the milk. “He’s organic but that’s not why I chose him. He’s really sustainable, only milks 70 cows at the most and grazes them in ancient perry pear orchards. Funnily enough they are also Montbeliarde cows, the same as they have in Comte.” Jowett hopes to start making cheese in November, to sell next March, but also has grand ideas for the future. “I love to the idea of rearing pigs alongside the cheese-making, to be fed on whey which I’ll otherwise have to pay to have taken away, and then turned into secondary pork products.”
Dominika Jarosz, 27, is a full-time food campaigner. “I’ve worked for Pig Business for the last three years. I started off providing legal advice when the film Pig Business was being threatened with legal action by the meat company Smithfield (the film is about high-intensity, low welfare pig farming) but now I’m de facto running the campaign against the opening of a mega pig farm Foston, Derbyshire by Midland Pig Producers Ltd. We’re collaborating with local campaign groups and the Soil Association. It’s been a year and a half now, and it’s still not opened”.
In her spare time Jarosz also helps to run Plan Zheroes, which aims to reduce food waste by match-making businesses with excess food to charities who need it. “We don’t distribute it like Fareshare does, we connect people instead.” She feels as though something major has changed in the food world recently. “In the last six months more and more projects have appeared and people have started to talk to each other at the national and European level too, rather than working just on their own small parts.”
Matt Chatfield, 39, is similarly obsessed with connecting people. His family have owned the same small beef farm in Cornwall for the last 500 years and his focus is on helping Cornish farmers become more sustainable though his website. “The aim is to get people – chefs and home cooks – to spend money on Cornish produce so that we can take the profit back to Cornwall,” says Chatfield. “To that end I run crazy events like the Cornish Grill where I get famous chefs to cook with me once a month at Redhook restaurant in London and I also have a stall on Maltby Street market in London every Saturday.” Here and on the website, he sells meat from Cornish butcher Phillip Warren who works with 100 farmers on and around Bodmin moor, as well Dorset fish and salad, vegetables and edible flowers grown on Keveral Farm by the legendary Sean O’Neill, who advises all sorts of growers on creating green businesses.
“Sean is incredible,” says Chatfield. “He has a polytunnel with a carp lake at the bottom, then layers of plants in a structure above it, so the plants are fed the fish waste and it’s completely sustainable.” Chatfield also supplies Cornish meat to 20 of London’s best restaurants. “We work with places like Pollen St Social and the Ledbury and they push us to be better. I also look for the chefs of the future, like James Knappett, the team behind the 10 Bells in Spitalfields and Tom Adams from Pitt Cue in Soho. Between us all, there’s very some very cool stuff going on.” We couldn’t agree more.
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