manna's supplier of organic fresh leaf & root vegetables. locally produced, urban community project. delivered by bicycle!
by Esme McAvoy
It’s empowering stuff, eating food that you’ve sown, grown and picked yourself. And I’m just talking from my own limited experience aged eight, growing strawberries in the back garden. We were self-sufficient all summer long in sugar-sweet baby strawberries to the extent that my big sis once gorged on so many in a single sitting that she almost turned into one, coming out in berry-red blotches that left her out of strawberry-eating action for the remainder of the season. Lucky me.
Fast forward to summer 2011 and, back in London for a few months, I stop in at manna for a soya latte and a natter. Roger and Robin start telling about one of their newest suppliers – a food growing co-operative cultivating organic salad leaves of all colours and flavours on the edge of Epping Forest and delivering them to customers by bicycle. I’m intrigued and it’s quickly agreed that a visit is in order.
Which is how I found myself on a train to Chingford one unseasonably sunny morning in October, earnestly towing my battered bicycle in case I was roped in to help with those salad leaf deliveries. I spend the journey musing over the craziness of today’s plastic-wrapped and sterile supermarket world, where people getting together to grow healthy, organic food is so out of the ordinary and novel that people like me are going to visit them.
After all, if we all agree that food is fundamental to life itself and that fresh, wholesome food is key to good health, then isn’t it a bit mad that virtually all of us choose not to grow our own food? Instead, it seems we’d rather leave it in the hands of multinational agro-industrial corporations, even if it means paying over the odds for chemical-laden fruit and veg that doesn’t taste of anything.
Organiclea’s food-growing site, Hawkwood Nursery, is some 12 acres perched on the edge of Waltham Forest, tucked away at the end of a quiet residential road. A former council-owned plant nursery, it still has a string of giant glasshouses once used to grow plants and trees to line the streets and cheer up public spaces. The nursery was sold off during the dark days of Thatcher and Organiclea, a local food co-op already growing food on a smaller allotment nearby, took over the derelict site in 2009.
Upon arrival I’m proudly shown the site’s mighty salad terrace by one of the group’s friendly volunteers. It’s deemed to be the longest salad terrace in London and it’s certainly impressive. Rows upon rows of neatly planted, colourful salad leaves – Organiclea’s signature crop - mean they can provide a good mix of salad leaves year round. Over 30 varieties are grown, and I spot a favourite of mine, the cheerful rainbow chard, with its thick green leaves like pak choi and stalks in bright shades of buttercup yellow or magenta.
Clare, Organiclea’s energetic outreach manager, explains that the site is designed following permaculture principles – a system of growing food that works with nature rather than trying to fight against it. No chemical pesticides or artificial fertilisers are used and, instead, the site has various wildlife habitats, home to natural predators that keep pest populations under control. There’s an on-site apiary to encourage lots of pollinating bees and plenty of recycling, from the harvesting of rainwater to the creation of compost heaps as natural fertiliser.
I’ve arrived on a Tuesday, one of the most popular days for volunteers and I soon find out why. Tuesdays are ‘harvest lunch’ days, when the pick of the day’s veg is cooked up into a wholesome lunch. Clare invites me over to join the day’s volunteers, at least 25-strong and of all ages, lining up for lunch after a good morning’s work in the fields. There’s a grand pot of pumpkin, potato and green pepper coconut curry with nearly all the vegetable ingredients coming straight from the fields, served with rice and a cup of aromatic tea poured from a giant old teapot. Clare piles my plate high and I go join some volunteers sat at picnic benches where there are plenty of salad leaves to add to the mix.
Offering a harvest lunch was something Clare wanted to start as many of the volunteers, some long-term unemployed or with learning disabilities, are ‘vegetable shy’, rarely eating many of the vegetables grown on the site. “It’s great to cook and eat lunch together and show people how easy it is to cook the veg they’ve been growing,” says Caroline, in charge of the cooking with the help of volunteers. A cookery teacher in community settings and former café owner, Caroline is perfect for the job. “I usually print copies of the recipes for anyone wanting to try it out at home.” Talk turns to good pumpkin and chilli soup recipes and how to turn a glut of beetroot into beetroot cake.
The volunteers hail mainly from nearby Hackney or further east and are diverse bunch, from environment and sustainability students to local retirees wanting to take part in a community project. The Organiclea mission is simple: a belief that more food can and should be grown locally and sustainably, and that working together is better than working alone.
The site’s storage area and office, with walls built from straw bales and heated by a boiler fuelled on reclaimed wood, is a hub for courses and workshops on permaculture and sustainability.
Post-lunch, I help out with a little salad leaf packing. Thanks to many hands, most of the leaves for restaurant customers, including manna, are already packed up and ready. A quick nosy reveals bunches of freshly-picked beetroots are also destined for manna and will be delivered tomorrow morning by bicycle. Recycling some old carrier bags, we bag up the remaining leaves for volunteers to take home. It’s a colourful mix including bright, edible flowers.
Organiclea runs a veg box scheme with around 80 locals picking up a weekly box of fresh veg from the nearby Hornbeam café or the Organiclea site itself and produce is also sold from a local veg stall every Saturday.
I head out in the late afternoon sun for a stroll of the site, passing through the giant ex-council greenhouses that cover half an acre and are now used for growing yellow and tiger-striped tomatoes and where most seeds are germinated and nurtured before being replanted outside. Lesley, a local volunteer that found out about Organiclea through a cycling group, shows me the tomato varieties. “One is an heirloom Essex variety that is virtually extinct but it’s grown really well this year.” The co-op supports the growing of non-commercialised varieties – diversity is a key principle of permaculture. Walking through the greenhouses, I spot plenty of pumpkins, the last of a season of an unusual variety of purple french beans left hanging on the plants to provide next season’s seeds and a crop of chilli plants.
I head past a group of conscientious volunteers with wheelbarrows full of soil to build new beds for asparagus and come to the site’s peaceful woodland area. Here, the co-op has planted baby apple and hazel trees among the existing, centuries-old oak and beech trees that formed part of the area’s ancient forest. There are blackberry bushes and wild flowers in the shady areas between the trees and, not far away, I come across a newly-planted vineyard. “We should be able to harvest the grapes for our first organic wine in 2013,” says one of the volunteers with a grin.
As the sun lowers in the sky, I’m told I’m let off from bicycle deliveries today and instead head off to catch the train back to north London swinging a bag of salad leaves, feeling happy to know that projects like Organiclea exist in the world. We need more of them.
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