Urban farms: can you source a complete meal from inside the London’s M25?
King’s Cross beekeeper Orlando Clarke Photograph: Suki Dhanda for the Observer
From quail in the East End to honey bees in King’s Cross, Carole Cadwalladr goes in search of all the ingredients for a meal sourced as close as possible to her London home
By Carole Cadwalladr
20 June 2010
It’s an exhausting and not very environmentally friendly business tracking down London’s urban farmers. I criss-cross the city spending what seems like the entire bank holiday stuck in traffic, wondering why this had ever seemed like a good idea.
Which is also pretty much what Oliver Rowe, the chef at London restaurant Konstam, says when I tell him I’m writing about urban agriculture, and am planning to source a meal from within the M25. “Somebody told me you’d rung,” he says. “And I thought, that’s what we do every day.” It’s true, localism is one of food’s most fashionable buzzwords these days, alongside seasonality and provenance, and Konstam prides itself on sourcing 80%of its ingredients from the Greater London area.
Its food is wonderful, but Rowe’s list of suppliers also includes Southend, Kent and Oxfordshire, and I’m confining myself to the limits of the M25, largely, it seems, to ensure that I sit in the maximum number of traffic jams. But really it’s because I can. Every day brings a new discovery. There is so much food being produced in London, in so many inventive ways, some of it on commercial farms, some in community enterprises – there are urban orchards, floating allotments, gardens on the roofs of high-rise estates and any number of things going on in back gardens.
My first trip is to a quail keeper, Ronnie Hudgell in Newham, east London, who turns out to be a 15-year-old schoolboy. He started with some quail eggs when he was 13 which a woman he found on the internet sent him through the post, and he now raises chickens, ducks and geese, all in the not-large back garden of his mum and dad’s terraced house. “I tried to hatch out an ostrich,” he tells me. “But it didn’t work.” Which I think his mum, Dawn, might have been secretly quite pleased about.
And on my last day I find myself interviewing Orlando Clarke, a beekeeper, next to a high-speed railtrack in King’s Cross. It’s already a somewhat surreal experience – he’s demonstrating the difference in taste between his Peckham honey and his King’s Cross honey (“You see how the Peckham honey is all light and limey whereas the King’s Cross one is so much more complex?”) – and then Alex Smith, who owns the land he keeps the bees on (it’s a garden created in the grounds of a factory depot) asks me if I want to see his vineyard.
Your what, I say? But we walk into a loading bay, and in front of half a dozen men moving boxes with a forklift, there is what is undeniably a small vineyard. “It’s a south-facing slope, so it’s perfect for vines. Look at this – I only planted that last year and it’s grown 12 feet. Chateau King’s Cross – we’ll have our first harvest this year.”
But then, when I speak to Rosie Boycott – Boris Johnson appointed her to be the head of London Food, spearheading the city’s efforts to sustainability – she says: “Oh there’s vineyards all over London these days. Tooting. Canning Town. Islington.” Chateau Tooting, made initially by a group of neighbours in south London, has now grown to become the Urban Wine Company, and in Enfield, at Forty Hall farm, London’s first commercial vineyard (“since Roman times,” its press materials claim) was planted out last year.