When, in 2003, we brought out our Fruits of the Forest report, proposing a local food scheme for the London Borough of Waltham Forest, it might have been filed, close to News From Nowhere, under “Local Interest/ Utopian Fiction”. Some time ago it was relocated to Non-Fiction, the space it vacated providing a brief resting point, on the same journey, for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Leadership Bid. I still have to pinch my sideshoots when I see the unfolding of food growing enterprises in the city: our campaneros at Forty Hall, Sutton Community Farm, Growing Communities’ Patchwork Farm, and closer to home, Brandon & Michael’s Cheney Row site; and our nascent Farm Start programme.
Commercially speaking, we’re all just scraping by, but that counts as a commercial success in a sector, indeed a global economy, where producers are squeezed to within an inch of their lives, sometimes beyond.
The real growth businesses are not to be found out in town gardens, but indoors, cultivating the illegal herb Cannabis sativa for vast informal markets here. The illegality of the many weed growers presents something of a barrier to cross-fertilisation with their struggling vegetable counterparts. I assume the majority of operations eschew ecological approaches such as mixed plantings and rotations; and have an unhealthy reliance on glow lamps and hydroponics. But, peering through the closed curtains, there are a couple of lessons we could learn from them:
Firstly, drugs often work. Our weekly fruit & veg stall outside the Hornbeam Centre justifies its existence on various grounds, but its financial viability is quite possibly as dependent on its proximity to over-the-counter strong caffeine inside the Centre’s café as many of its customers. When folk describe our salad as “addictive”, I regard it as a complement: perversely perhaps, when you consider the lengths drink & tobacco manufacturers have gone to, to deny such accusations about their products.
Second, herbs are, by definition, powerful. We’ve harnessed the power by including culinary herbs in our salad mix and restaurant menu; last year Aimee developed our herbal tea range, based on herbs we were cultivating, or were growing wild on site. The launch of this year’s “Nourishing Nettle” blend took place with a herb walk and tasting on our last Open Day, to be followed into the cockle-warming season by our Calming and Strengthening blends. “Obtain A Yield” runs the permaculture principle. Biodiversity should be regarded as a yield in its own right, but there is great satisfaction to be had from our biodiversity areas also giving us a valuable crop from a light forage. Culture and wildness can be closer allies than we are led to believe.
If you’ll allow me to class garlic as a vegetable rather than an herb – and millions wouldn’t, but now’s hardly the time to get into an argument about it – then the cultivated herbs we grow and crop most of are sorrel and basil. Broadleaved Sorrel, in taste and appearance is only one small step for humankind removed from the wild form that you might stumble or munch on, hopefully both, on any stroll across acid grassland anywhere in Northern Europe. Yet our seasonal panel of Level 2 graduands awarded it Winter Salad Leaf of the Year 2014, and runner-up in the summer category. with its sharp citric twang, a mixed salad bag without sorrel is like a G & T without lemon.
Basil’s cultivation may be as old as culture itself. Native to India and the Middle East, it continues to be considered holy in Hindu, Buddhist and Greek Orthodox traditions. Our packing warehouse doesn’t resemble a temple, but there is something transcendental about the incense of basil that pervades the air there on summer harvest days. High on herbs and hope: Paradise on Earth.