Beer, bread and threads: cottage industries grow in the city
by Helen Babbs
Andy Forbes from Brockwell Bake credit: Elkin Atwell
Micro brewers, bakers and textile makers are setting up in cities all over the country to offer a handcrafted alternative to bland, mass-produced goods. But the backyard business boom isn’t stopping there – some urban projects are also growing their own raw materials in nearby gardens and allotments to create products that are super-local from the ground up. Helen Babbs takes a tour of three London projects and finds out how we can all get involved.
Andy Forbes’ Lambeth home has a rough-round-the-edges kind of charm and a surprising secret. It houses Brockwell Bake, a community project that grows wheat, mills it into flour and bakes it into batches of bread to sell. Andy’s front room is stuffed with sacks, sieves and scythes, his kitchen is dominated by a large dough trough and flour mill, and the garden is home to a wood-burning oven, built to a Latin American design.
Brockwell Bake began as a ‘real bread’ baking competition, but an interest in heritage cereals saw the project expand into growing bread’s main raw ingredient on local allotments, community and school gardens and on farms. Very few types of wheat are grown commercially in the UK – the countryside is dominated by a genetically homogenous crop that relies on chemicals to prosper. Brockwell Bake actively challenges this way of producing food by focusing on rare, heritage varieties and using traditional techniques. “Last year there was more genetic diversity in the wheat in our couple of allotments in Lambeth than in the rest of south-east England. We have one of the biggest collections of wheat DNA in the country,” says Andy.
Brockwell Bake encourages schools and community gardens to grow grains, alongside their two allotment-based wheat fields in Lambeth. Their biggest urban wheat field is on Forty Hall Farm in Enfield, and they also work with biodynamic farms outside the city. All the wheat in their homemade flour is grown and harvested by hand. This year, they’re working with the Madeiran community in Stockwell to grow wheat native to Madeira, which will feature in an installation during London’s annual Feast on the Bridge.
Wheat is one of the UK’s main crops. “It’s important we have an understanding of how it’s grown and the processes involved” says Andy. For Brockwell Bake, small-scale urban wheat growing is mainly an educational tool. By supplementing their urban harvest with grains grown outside London, the project also helps to build direct links between the city and farmers in the surrounding area.
Mass-produced bread is often stuffed with additives and made in a couple of hours, while ‘real bread’ uses only natural ingredients and takes much longer to make. According to Andy, community and backyard baking are both on the increase, in part inspired by the Real Bread Campaign. The tiny bakery’s reputation is growing – Andy has recently been approached to bake bread for a Michelin-starred restaurant in the West End. The hope is to move Brockwell Bake to premises in Bermondsey soon, where there’ll be lots more room to manoeuvre.
Do it yourself?
While wheat is easy to grow, you need lots of room, not to mention equipment to turn it into flour. Andy explains that 1m² of space would produce enough wheat for 3kg of bread, and then that piece of land wouldn’t be able to support another crop of wheat for at least four years. It seems the best way to get involved is probably to help plant, harvest and mill wheat as part of a larger group. Or support local growers and bakers by seeking out their wares. Andy does suggest that wheat varieties have a place in the urban garden though, as striking ornamentals – try Pregana prata, a durum wheat that has big ears and a black beard.
Sustain’s Bake Your Lawn project is encouraging young people to grow wheat this year. Download their invaluable guide to growing, milling and baking. It explains why ‘real bread’ is important and has some delicious recipes. If you’re from a school or youth group, you could even get some free wheat seeds.
Dyework is a project devoted to traditional textiles, including cultivating dye-producing plants and using them to colour handmade yarns. Their dye garden at Vauxhall City Farm opened in 2000 and, twelve years on, it’s a well-established source of colour for local makers.
Dyework keeps close ties with the Vauxhall City Farm Spinners – wool from the farm’s sheep is spun and dyed with natural pigments grown on site. The threads are used to make clothes that are sold to help pay for the sheep’s upkeep.
The garden is designed as a spiral, which means many of the flowers are at eye-level during the spring and summer. It’s popular with farm visitors, bees and butterflies. “The public and urban setting of the dye garden is important” says Diane Sullock from Dyework. “We grow the dyes for our own practice but also to share our knowledge. We have lots of visits from schools and also from older students studying environmental textiles.”
Plants on site include: dyer’s chamomile, which has flowers that produce a buttercup yellow dye; woad, which grows to a height of 4ft and has leaves that give a gorgeous deep blue and hollyhocks that create a blackish-red dye. The dye is created by simmering the flowers, leaves or roots, depending on the plant, in water. Dyes aren’t stored in liquid form but blooms can be dried and then kept for later use.
Do it yourself?
Growing dye-producing plants in your space, whether it’s a window box or a backyard, is a lovely thing to do, especially as many of the plants have beautiful flowers. Diane says dyer’s chamomile, achillea, African marigold (the flowers produce a bright orange dye) and lady’s bedstraw (the roots produce a red dye) are all ideal for small spaces. If you’re interested in community projects, the London College of Fashion is looking for volunteers to help them turn a site in Hackney into a dye garden for their sustainable fashion students.
As well as paying a visit to the dye garden at Vauxhall City Farm this spring, you could seek out the small dye garden at the Geffrye Museum too. The Horniman Museum and Gardens is also creating a new dye garden that’s due to open later this spring.
The Brixton Beer Company
Very much in its infancy, the Brixton Beer Company plans to get Londoners growing their own ale this year. From March, they’ll be helping willing individuals and community gardens to grow and harvest hops. They will then take the hops to a local brewer to magic them into beer, which the growers will indulge in at a boozy harvest party.
“Our first year will be very informal and our first harvest very small, but it’s about the love of growing things and for people who are curious” says Helen Steer from the project. She has been inspired by a culture of micro-brewing in the US and a renaissance in craft brewing within London. After a meeting with the London Brewers’ Alliance, six breweries are interested in Brixton Beer, and experts are on board to advise on hop cultivation.
“I think it’ll be a really interesting growing project, and also one that will get more men interested in community gardening!” says Helen. “The urban setting is definitely important – the level of ignorance in the city about where food and drink comes from is staggering. This kind of project is a low pressure way to start conversations about sustainability. It’s also about having fun and drinking beer.”
Helen is part of a wider organisation called City Farmers, and she says that cottage industries are on the increase in London. “Sustainability is becoming more fashionable – and that’s a good thing” she says. More and more people are seeking out delicacies that are both local and unusual, which is something that Brixton Beer hops will certainly be.
Do it yourself?
The Brixton Beer Company is actively encouraging Londoners to start growing hops, with a plan to pool the harvest so a local brewery can process the shared crop into ale. They say that you don’t need much ground space to grow a hop plant, but you might need a wall as these perennial plants can grow rather tall. Hops like well-drained and fertile soil; they should grow in a pot as long it’s large and deep. One plant can produce up to 1kg of hops each year, and you can eat the shoot trimmings fried in butter in spring. The Brixton Beer Company are making it really easy – they’re putting together a starter pack and organising a planting event for the 17th March. Sign up on their website if you want to get involved.
The Urban Wine Company is a collective that encourages city growers to turn their outside spaces into vineyards. You grow the grapes, they press them into wine, everyone involved shares the alcohol made from the pooled crop.
Helen Babbs is a London-based writer. Her first book – My Garden, the City and Me: Rooftop Adventures in the Wilds of London – was published in the summer. It’s about the glory of growing things and urban nature: www.helenbabbs.wordpress.com | www.aerialediblegardening.co.uk