Rachel de Thample | food writer, cook, gardener, forager
Words by Fiona Symington. Photos courtesy of Rachel de Thample and Abel&Cole.
Rachel de Thample wants London to be an edible city. “I would love to see edible patches in all of London’s parks, especially the royal parks like The Regent’s Park and Hyde Park. We should be planting fruit and nut trees everywhere, and perennials like raspberries, herbs, and globe artichokes.”
A food writer, cook, gardener and forager, she’s doing just that through some of the city’s most inspiring urban food and gardening projects like Eat Your City, the award winning Edible Garden in Westow Park, and Patchwork Farm, all from her home in south-east London.
One of the UK’s most recognized food writers and cooks, Rachel has been writing about food for over a decade. A trained journalist with enviable stints in the kitchens of Heston Blumenthal, Marco Pierre White and Peter Gordon, her resume includes time at Waitrose Food Illustrated, co-authoring two Borough Market cookbooks, and her current role as food editor for the organic food company Abel & Cole.
But it was when authoring her book, Less Meat More Veg: The eco-friendly way to eat, that she began to think more about how and what we eat. “So many aspects of the way we eat is unsustainable and unhealthy. Just as I was finishing this book, the Transition Town movement swept into my community of Crystal Palace, which inspired me to set up an Edible Garden in my local park and become involved in many wonderful local food projects.”
Growing her own Christmas dinner within London was the first of many such projects- a truly adventurous culinary challenge that saw Rachel growing herbs and vegetables in her garden-less flat (think window boxes), foraging and sourcing produce from local artisans. What she discovered was that “everything from quinoa to hops for locally produced beers to grape for wine and wheat are grown within London”. All we have to do is go find it.
So inspired by what she found in her corner of south-east London that she created Eat Your City - an interactive dining experience based on food grown within walking distance of its venue - Brixton Cornercopia. It was a sell-out success.
“I think it is hugely exciting to see how much can actually be grown and produced within the city limits”, she says, citing the bread of Andy Forbes made from wheat grown in allotments, community gardens and even school yards, cheeses made by Kappacasein under the arches of Bermondsey and the micro-breweries of Crystal Palace. “So when I drink a pint, it’s not something brewed north of the river or even the East End. One of our local beers - Palace Pint is literally brewed on my doorstep by Penge-based micro-brewery Late Knights using locally-grown hops; but this is not unique to my area, it’s happening all over London.”
Closer to home, you’ll regularly find Rachel helping out at Crystal Palace Food Market’s Patchwork Farm. This is one of the market’s regular stalls that sells seasonal produce collected from local community gardens, allotments and back gardens. Explaining the thinking behind the stall, she says “it celebrates local food with the idea that anyone can be part of the farm, growing a little or a lot. Someone always has a bundle of Crystal Palace-grown food to offer. And the most exciting thing is that it’s inspiring people to try new things like Jerusalem artichokes, horseradish or kohlrabi.” The ultimate aim of the farm is to supply local restaurants with Crystal-Palace grown produce.
Such are the benefits of Patchwork Farm that she would like to see more projects like this across London - initiatives where communities are writing new food narratives by utilizing unused urban spaces and working collectively to promote health, well-being and sustainable eating. She is thus an admirer of Open Works in nearby West Norwood, the Edible Bus Stop in Brixton, and Grow It Yourself - a movement founded by Michael Kelly in Ireland in 2009, and now made up of over 50,000 food-growing people and community groups.
At present, she is preparing for the launch of Five: 150 effortlessly way to eat 5+ fruit and veg a day, her new book that encourages us to explore what’s possible when we cook creatively with fruit and vegetables. The inspiring recipes will help us to achieve more than the recommended five a day. It is due out on 5 February 2015.
london food secret
London is full of free fruits. In the autumn, if you see an apple on the pavement look up, there’s likely to be a fruit-laden apple tree overhead. Grab these fruits and make the most of them. From September to December my bag is always bursting at the seams with free fruit.
uk food hero
I adore Jamie Oliver, his energy, drive, enthusiasm. His recipes are always exciting. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall for his devotion to seasonal, local, sustainable food with a story. On the gardening front, I love Alys Fowler and Mark Diacono.
Honey from local friends and neighbours. Bread from Brockwell Bake. Herbs grown in my local park (I dry them so I have a year-round stock). Dried lemon verbena and peppermint from my local park’s Edible Garden for teas and puds. I always have a bundle of locally foraged sumac. Walnuts and pumpkins from my friend’s farm in Sutton. Rhubarb from local gardens and horseradish from local allotments (bought or traded via the Patchwork Farm stall). Chillies from Brockwell Park Community Greenhouses. Crab apple preserves from locally foraged fruit. Autumnal fruit-steeped vodka (blackberries, elderberries, rosehips, haws, apples, pears, quince…). Dried elderberries and elderberry vinegar (better than balsamic!). Rosehip puree for puds and tea. Sometimes acorns for a coffee-like drink but they’re a bit fiddly. I always try to have herbs and edible flowers, baby carrots, radishes and beetroot in my window boxes. Bay leaves (no one should ever buy these. I’m convinced London could be self-sufficient in bay). Caraway and fennel seeds grown in a shared garden (and foraged). Lavender flowers for baking and tea. Alexander seeds. Writing this list is making me realise why my kitchen is so cluttered!
inspiring local food producers
My ultimate food hero is Andy Forbes from Brockwell Bake. His bread is the most delicious, nutritious there is. You can buy it from Crystal Palace Food Market and it’s worth trekking across London (or the UK, for that matter) to try it.
for your address book
brockwell bake, t.@Brockwell_Bake, www.brockwell-bake.org.uk
brockwell park community greenhouses, Brockwell Park in Lambeth
brixton cornercopia, 65 Brixton Village Market, SW9 8PS t. @brixcornercopia
kappacasein dairy, 1 Voyager Industrial Estate SE16 4RP t. @kappacasein
late knights brewery, 21 Southey Street SE20 7JD e. firstname.lastname@example.org
Fiona Symington-Mitchell is an Australian freelance writer living in London and have been published with Modern Farmer, Remedy Quarterly, Countlan magazine, Food& and de Groot Media Australia across its food guide publications.