Big eats in the Big Smoke

Alice Whitehead finds out more about the growing and eating events at this year's Urban Food Fortnight.

Big eats in the Big Smoke

Photography by Sarah Williams.

It's estimated some 380 tonnes of homegrown fruit and veg is reaped every year from London's growing network of urban gardens and allotments – and for two weeks every September the capital plays host to what's become the UK's biggest harvest festival.
Urban Food Fortnight, 9–25 September, celebrates everything grown, made and cooked on its doorstep, connecting more than 2,500 amateur urban growers and small food producers with the capital's restaurants and retailers, so they can take their homegrown treasures from garden gate to plate. And it promises to be a beast of a feast. Among the 140 events planned each year, there are beer and ice cream pairings, pop-up pickle workshops, botanical cocktail making workshops, crayfish racing, cheese making and community brewing, with people creating bespoke beers from their homegrown hops.
This year, Urban Food Fortnight will also be offering the ultimate in 'fast food' at a Dinner in Our Back Garden supper with an alfresco feast at the Melio Street allotments using the gardeners' produce. Cooked on site by creative chefs from The Table Café, Southwark, all the proceeds go towards helping homeless people at St Mungo's gain garden skills. 'It's all about diversity within the local economy – creating skills and promoting food that's good for people, communities and the environment,' explains Clare Gilbert, from the London Food Link, the campaigning group behind the fortnight. 'It's a chance for people – whether they are growers, chefs or school children – to come together over good local food in their own neighbourhood.'

Green therapy

Indeed, aside from the tasty treats and eats, there is a serious message to Urban Food Fortnight. Not only does it give producers a shop door for their homemade food and drinks – big names such as The OXO Tower Bar & Brasserie used vegetables from Sutton Community Farm in its most popular dishes last year, for example – it's also about improving the mental and physical wellbeing of Londoners.
Passionate about passing on the therapeutic element of food growing is Natalie Mady, a former engineer who swapped building design for garden design when she set up community gardening project Cordwainers Grow, in Mare Street in 2014. Starting off as just a hobby, in a radical career change her spin off Hackney Herbal scheme – which aims to get more people growing, using and understanding the benefits of herbs – has taken off and she's now working on it full time, along with co-director Sarah Lo.
Growing herbs at different locations across East London – from the rooftops and balconies of Hackney houses to raised beds in Hackney City Farm, and a grey car park turned apiary at The Bee Garden, Dalston – the pair make a range of teas from handpicked herbs and blend by hand, 
selling them at local cafés and restaurants, including Tiosk on Broadway Market and Save the Date café.

Herbal workshops

The funds from the teas go towards their main focus – hands-on herbal workshops – which show communities how to make teas from herbs, but also cosmetics such as lip balms and soaps, herbal cleaning products and even first aid such as cough syrups and bandages. 'A lot of people have a patch of herbs in their garden, but few know what to do with it, and we wanted to show people how easy it is to use herbs,' says Natalie. 'They can have an incredible impact on people's mental health and physical wellbeing. What's more, while growing veg can be a bit intimidating for some, herbs do well in pots, are easy to grow and many of them, such as rosemary and mint, are perennials so they're very forgiving!'
For this year's Urban Food Fortnight, Sarah and Natalie will be creating a very special seasonal tea blend with tastings at local cafés and delis, and they'll be putting together a 'Herbal Map' – a collection of stories, memories and photographs about herbs from the people they meet at their workshops. 'Like many of the Urban Food Fortnight events, we want to recapture a bit of the life and knowledge our grandparents had – and above all reconnect city dwellers with nature.'

For more on Urban Food Fortnight, go to; for more on Hackney Herbal go to To support the work of London Food Link, become a member via

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