Abi Aspen Glencross, co-founder of The Sustainable Food Story, on growing meat in a lab, heritage grains, and what to expect from the upcoming Borough Market supper club
How did you go from scientist, to farmer and supperclub host?
I’m a chemical engineer by trade and spent two years growing meat in a lab, underground. I’m not made for that—I’m from an agricultural background. I started to ask those difficult questions that no one was really asking: how do we feed ourselves, where is our food coming from, how is it being grown? I didn’t like the answers that I found. I turned into an environmentalist almost without realizing it.
I started a project called Our Field with three really cool ladies, in which 42 people co-invested in a field for a year, making decisions alongside the farmer as to what was grown and how. At the launch event we met Sadhbh Moore, chef at The Skip Garden in King’s Cross—and you know when you just meet someone, and you’re like wow, we’re really similar people, we should be friends. We got chatting about what we could do together.
How did The Sustainable Food Story come about?
When I was in America, I worked at Dan Barber’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns for three months: four days a week in the field, one day in the bakery. I really learnt how to team ecology with flavour. When I came back, I thought: what they’re doing there is exactly what we talked about, those principles are something I can take home. I talked about it with Sadhbh, and she and her friend Sam agreed to cook for us as part of a roving supper club, in which we cook food from waste and foraged ingredients, as well as food from the farm, with an emphasis on sustainability. We did our first pop-up in King’s Cross back in July, called Running Through a Field of Wheat, and it went from there.
Why the emphasis on wheat?
While I was at Blue Hill I got really interested in grains. We started looking at the monoculture that dominates our agriculture, and exploring diverse and heritage grains—we are environmentalists at heart, that’s why we do what we do, so we wanted to really look into what sustainability means, and the role grains have to play in that. We want to take people with us on that journey, by feeding them and telling stories. At first it was more for our own interest, but people started to really believe in what we did, which was so humbling and lovely. The support we’ve been given has been amazing.
Why do we need more diversification in grains?
Over the years we’ve bred wheat for yield, but the nutrient content—as for a lot of crops—has dropped off. The wheat we produce is a really hungry plant which, even if it’s organic, needs a lot of input. But actually, there’s so much more available than this modern wheat that we’ve created purely for quantity: there’s einkorn, which is much more nutritious and has this amazing flavour; spelt, an old variety that when made into sourdough breaks down the gluten, so it still has a nice texture and a nutty taste, but it helps more with things like the biome. Those are just two examples.
Diversification is also important in terms of food security. Each commercial plant is genetically identical to the next, which means if a pest attacks it, it attacks everything and the crop can easily be wiped out.
What can we do to help rectify the situation?
We’re producing and eating too much meat, and it’s not sustainable. People say you should eat less, but better-quality meat—but that’s quite a privileged position to be in. However, these old varieties of wheat have much more protein than modern wheat, so if we diversified what we grew for human consumption, rather than producing low nutrient crops en-masse and feeding them to animals, we could go some way to addressing that problem. We need to change our diet. We need to teach kids to cook with beans and pulses, and to eat a diverse range of fruit and veg—we don’t need such a heavily meat-based diet. We also need to learn how to use these different grains. Making things with them is so different—the flavour, the texture, the way it feels in your hands. You have to retrain yourself, almost. If we support the growing of diverse grains by buying and using them, maybe it will open up the market for farmers.
We need to create a movement, not a trend. We want to share this movement with everyone and spread it as wide as possible—chefs and people of influence are important in doing that. We’ve had a lot of support from some brilliant people: David Matchett from Borough Market and Tim Smit from the Eden Project are coming to our pop-up next week, Rosie Boycott supports us, as does Tristram Stuart. These people are at the top of their game, and we hope their involvement will have a ripple effect. We’re also running a dinner at the Oxford Symposium next year, which is just brilliant.
What can we expect from the Borough Market supperclub?
The starter is an adapted recipe from Blue Hill: a rye levain cracker made out of sourdough starter, which is usually chucked away; ‘salvaged pea dip’, made using peas from our farm that would’ve gone to dog food, as well as favas from Hodmedod’s saved from a similar fate; ‘root to shoot beetroot’, which we’re going to pickle and serve on a bed of its leaves and chard from the farm; and mushrooms grown on substrates like waste coffee grounds by Article No 25 in Elephant and Castle, with spelt crumble.
We’ve got a chef coming over from Berlin who’s going to make cornbread from an old recipe of his grandmother’s, with an aioli dip made using vegetable scraps which he’s smoked and infused with oil. For the main we’ve got croquettes made with einkorn, sage and carrots from the farm, and einkorn sourdough bread. Then for dessert, we’ve got Mexican marigold, seaweed and London honey panna cotta, using cream from pasture fed livestock so we can talk about how we shouldn’t be feeding grains to animals, we should be feeding them to people. Then we’ve got a variety of foraged fruit compotes with a cracker crumb and toasted oat granola, and blood macaron kisses—controversial, but delicious.
What are you hoping people take away from it?
An understanding of the fact there is so much more out there than the breads and grains we are used to. We want to explore what it means to be ‘organic’, and why a farm might not be. We also want to get the message across that the world is an edible utopia, and get people thinking about foraging, and veg and plant-led dinners. We never say we’re vegetarian—often we are, but it’s more about thinking about what we can do to support a better way of farming.
For more information and to purchase tickets, visit the Grub Club website