Rory Spowers

A Forest Garden by Rory Spowers

Extract adapted from A Year in Green Tea and Tuk-Tuks by Rory Spowers, Amorevore’s Head Curator.

‘Modern man talks of a battle with Nature,

forgetting that, if he won the battle,

he would find himself on the losing side.’

  1. F. Schumacher

My passion for trying to grow and source high quality organic produce, evolved from a passion for cooking, which in turn evolved from my passion for eating. Maybe it all just comes down to greed.

I started to cook when my parents separated. My father’s culinary talents stretched to opening tins of baked beans, or throwing pre-cooked meals in the oven. I began to dabble, moving from oven-ready chips to a level of over-ambition, spending entire weekends assembling rare ingredients for the longest, most involved recipes I could find.

At university, I would spend hours walking the length and breadth of Edinburgh, looking for particular cheeses, hams and wines. With my ‘foodie’ friends, I roasted whole suckling pigs over open fires, smoked haunches of venison inside overturned dustbins and baked whole salmon coated in salt and buried under turf. While cycling through Africa with friends in my early twenties (the subject of my first book, Three Men on A Bike), we had perfected Bicycle Spoke Kebabs and ‘Peaking’ Duck, stuffing the cavity with potent local herbs. Back in England, I invited friends for absurdly ambitious dinner parties, taking on complex recipes for unfeasible numbers of people. Slowly, I learned to simplify my tastes.

Friends offered me a job as the chef in a pub they were opening on London’s Fulham Road. I had a lot to learn. I had no idea how to cook an omelette, or make a burger. (For more on these abortive culinary forays, please see The Fig Tree Diaries.) Over the following years, I cooked in a number of London restaurants, learning the basics of running a restaurant kitchen while living on a diet of espressos, red Marlboros and red wine. This proved far from healthy.

During a particularly destitute phase, I was offered a job as a waiter at the River Café in Hammersmith. The restaurant had been open for a couple of years and was just starting to gain fame. The waiters and waitresses all worked with the kitchen staff to prepare ingredients. We picked tiny leaves of thyme off the stalks, shaved parmesan into wispy curls, stripped large red anchovies off the bone. We were handling exceptional ingredients, many of them organic and sourced from small artisan producers. The finest prosciutto, exquisite fresh porcini, stalks of wild rocket.

Soon I was ensconced, applying Zen-like concentration to the art of chopping vegetables, slicing gloves of garlic so thin they were transparent, learning to make some of the restaurant’s signature sauces. My attention to prep work did not go unnoticed and, when a vacancy appeared in the kitchen, I was offered the job. Rose and Ruth, the dynamic partnership that had started the restaurant, were patient and long-suffering as I grappled to come up to speed.

I learned a lot about this style of cooking. The rustic simplicity, the emphasis on fresh, seasonal produce, the robust Mediterranean flavours, all resonated well with me. This was real food, authentic, not messed about with.

As my love of food grew, so did my desire to grow it. Part of what propelled me to go and live in Wales for four years was the fanciful notion of growing fruit, herbs and vegetables. The conditions were challenging to say the least. The growing season for most things was a tiny window of two or three months at the height of summer. Slugs were vast and prolific, gobbling up prize lettuces overnight. Rabbits razed whole beds when we went away for the weekend. I was not deterred.

If we had stayed in Wales, my long-term plan was to create a ‘forest garden’. Yet we had barely made stage one in this process when the decision was made to move to Sri Lanka…

The forest garden is, of course, a much more viable proposition in the tropics, where more time is spent cutting things back than encouraging them to grow. On one trip to India in the mid 80s, I spent time in the hills of Kerala, living in a small mud hut surrounded by a thriving forest garden. Papayas, passion fruits, pomegranates and pepper vines were all within arm’s reach of the window. Never in my life had I seen such abundance. I could have spent the rest of my days there, feasting on the exotic tropical bounty that encircled the hut.

The forest garden concept is well established in various parts of the world. Some ethnobotanists now believe that the complexity seen in parts of the Amazonian rainforest was caused by people intercropping the jungle with useful trees and plants. There are many examples of the high productivity that can be achieved. Rather than felling the existing trees, the Chagga settlers on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro planted bananas, fruit trees and vegetables in their shade. Now the individual plots, which average 0.68 hectares, fully sustain a family of 10.

Kerala, the most densely populated area in India, has some 3.5 million forest gardens. One plot of just 0.12 hectares has been found to support 23 coconut palms, 12 clove trees, 56 bananas and 49 pineapples, with 30 pepper vines trained up the trees. Associated industries in the area include the production of rubber, matches, cashews, furniture, pandanus mats, baskets, bullock-carts and catamarans, along with the processing of palm oil, cocoa and coir fibres from coconuts. Many families meet their own energy requirements through biomass systems fed by human, animal and vegetable waste, while the forest gardens provide full-time occupations for families.

Kerala contradicts many of the current assumptions made about wealth, quality of life and standard of living. On an average annual income of around $350 – 70 times lower than his American counterpart – the life expectancy for a Keralan male is only two years less. Kerala’s birth rate is reducing from 18 per 1,000 to fall in line with the US figure of 16. Kerala is now considered 100 per cent literate. According to the Physical Quality of Life Index, Kerala rates higher than any other Asian country except Japan.

Much of the success of forest gardens lies in diversity and intercropping. Many traditional agriculture systems controlled pests through diversification, planting a mixture of crops rather than the intensive monocultures of the modern agri-business. Companion planting, or intercropping a variety of species, has many benefits: it protects against pests; makes use of synergistic properties, like deep-rooted crops that bring water and nutrients up from below; modifies micro-climate conditions; encourages cross-pollination and preserves genetic diversity.

For me, this has all the qualities of a genuinely ‘intelligent’ approach. Monocultures of GM crops cannot compare in sophistication, howver ‘clever’ they may appear. Diversity in an ecosystem is what builds resilience. Left to itself, the traditional paddy field will yield for thousands of years, maintaining inherent fertilization and insect control processes. The introduction of just one chemical however, will unravel the entire system.

Few things connect people more than food. Food brings us together, unites us in a common experience that is perhaps our most direct contact with the rest of the natural world. It comes as no surprise to find that most of the people I meet who share a passion for the issues in this book, should also share a passion for food.

It is only natural that we should be concerned about the levels of toxic chemicals we are ingesting, or the additives linked to hyperactivity in children, or the provenance of the meat we serve at Sunday lunch. Food is part of our essence. One only has to look at the revolution in British attitudes to food over the last two decades to see the direction of public opinion – the rise of the celebrity chef, ‘foodie’ TV programmes, the endless supplements in Sunday papers. More and more people now accept the link between healthy soil, healthy food and healthy people. Good nutrition is recognized as an important aspect of preventative medicine and the rapid rise in allergies has forced many to reconsider their diets.

Through informed shopping and eating choices, the consumer has increasing influence over corporate global decision-making. Despite the bleatings of government and corporate funded scientists defending research budgets, the case for GM is unravelling. Overwhelming research has shown that not one GM crop has made commercial sense to date, none has produced the promised high yields and farmers across the world are suffering as a result. Far from being the hysterical over-reaction of an ignorant public to so-called Frankenfoods, the GM debate has shown that the power of activism is forcing a major re-evaluation throughout the biotechnology industry. It is concrete evidence of our power.

Biotechnology is just one of myriad issues. Most of us are now aware of the many other horrors caused by mass production: the legs of over-fed chickens breaking beneath their own weight; pigs or farmed salmon in atrocious cramped conditions; the prolific use of hormones and antibiotics in the meat industry; the over-exploitation of fisheries by inappropriate technologies; the food miles inherent in globalized trade. The average UK Sunday lunch travels 26,000 miles, or once round the equator.

Many of these problems are daunting. But, as we have seen with the GM debate, they are far from insurmountable. There are many things we can do to bring food back under our control. Local food initiatives, like using farmers markets and organic box schemes to connect the producer directly with the consumer, reduce food miles and leave us with a clear conscience about the provenance of our food.

Food is the area in which, as consumers, we have perhaps the greatest power to effect change, simply through our shopping patterns. If we shop only at supermarkets, even if we are buying organic produce, we are always contributing to food miles, the embodied energy that has gone into the processing, packaging and transport.

But if we buy most of our food locally, we not only reduce food miles and our overall Ecological Footprint, but support the local economy. We are also ensuring a higher level of nutrition, since our food will be fresh, seasonal and free of chemical preservatives. As ever, the rule is: ‘Think global, act local.’

Farmers markets have been springing up in the US and Europe for some years. The ethos of farmers markets is that growers and artisans are selling produce direct to their local public. ‘In terms of accountability and transparency there’s no better way to shop,’ says the UK’s champion of ‘real food’, British TV chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.

There are legitimate excuses for not boycotting supermarkets and relying purely on farmers markets and organic box schemes. The area in which you live may not be serviced by such enterprises and, even if they are, supermarkets still provide products that you cannot find easily elsewhere.

One way to overcome this is by starting or joining a local food group. The idea is that, by pooling together with neighbours, you can make bulk purchases at wholesalers. A study once conducted by The Ecologist compared the costs of a wholesaler with Tesco’s online store over a range of 10 basic products and found the wholesaler’s price 29 per cent cheaper. Not only will you be saving nearly a third of your average spend, you will also be saving the planet by cutting down on food miles, processing, packaging and, as a result, on carbon dioxide emissions. These sort of initiatives just make sense – both economically and ecologically.

Rory Spowers is a writer and campaigner who first came to live in Ibiza and work with BBC presenter Bruce Parry, on the recently released and highly acclaimed feature documentary, Tawai.

In addition to curating Amorevore, Rory is Creative Director of the Tyringham Initiative, a new paradigm think-tank specialising in consciousness research.

This article was adapted from one of Rory’s books, A Year in Green Tea and Tuk Tuks, which tells the story of creating Samakanda, an ecological sanctuary and ‘forest garden’ in Sri Lanka.

For more on Rory and his work, please see his website at Fig Tree Diaries.

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