Virtuous circles: transforming waste

Categories: Behind the stalls

Fortnum & Mason food writer of the year Clare Finney on how Borough Market and its traders are taking a holistic approach to environmental sustainability. This time: transforming waste

“The medium is the message” is a phrase coined by Marshall McLuhan in 1964, largely to describe media: print, television, radio and so on. While his idiom rings truer with every year, the opposite could be said of food. The process of food—the production, the consumption and the discussion that results—shapes how we view the world. A particularly fine cheese might prompt us to ask who made it, for example. Meanwhile, the vegetable pulp crackers sold at nibs etc. will leave you pondering whence this vegetable pulp came—and how something destined for the bin wound up looking and tasting so good.

At least, that is Chloë Stewart’s hope: founder, head chef and sous chef of the stall selling crackers, granolas, cakes and brownies made with pulp collected from local juice bars. “The product is the medium. I love the products, don’t get me wrong, but the goal is to inspire people to think differently about how they eat and cook.” If customers consider pulp not as waste but an ingredient, “then they might extend that thinking to other things they might be throwing.” Chloë’s goal is to reframe food waste as potential ingredients: to encourage us to “think before you toss”, as her cheeky catchphrase runs. “Most people don’t think about anything they throw away, they are so used to associating it with waste,” she continues. “I have noticed the best way to remind people to think before they toss is to get them to sample that as food, ready-made.”

Hence the granola, sweetened and nutritionally enhanced with juice pulp; the banana loaf made with overripe bananas; and the crackers—savoury, with a pleasing crunch that cries out for creamy stichelton, but again made from pulp that would otherwise be destined for landfill. “I look at fruit pulp like I look at shredded veg: if you can make something from shredded vegetables, you can make it from fruit that has been juiced,” Chloë continues. “People talk about mindfulness; for me addressing waste is the epitome of being mindful about food.” Like sustainability, it’s a modern buzzword, but the theory dates back centuries—millennia, even. “Historically we would value every inch of our resources.” Only in recent years have we crowned convenience as king and allowed would-be nutrients to go to waste. 

Silken texture
Take dairy, for example. Remember that fine cheese we discussed earlier? Its production entails two by-products: whey and male calves. Whey is precipitated when milk is curdled. As the curds are pressed, it is drained away to be disposed of—and where tiny farmhouse cheesemakers might once have fed it to the pigs or spread it on the fields as fertiliser, these solutions are impossible at any sort of scale. “It is a problem for lots of producers. What people don’t tend to understand is that when you produce cheese you make loads of whey and spreading it on fields in large quantities could do damage,” says Martin, manager at Neal’s Yard Dairy turned cheesemaker in his own right.

Whey needs to either be used, or disposed of as industrial waste. Keen’s, of cheddar fame, use it to make butter. “They have a centrifuge which they use to whip up the whey, so the lighter particles of protein and fat separate out from the water,” Martin explains. You wouldn’t cook with it, but its rich, nutty notes and silken texture make for a sumptuous spread. 

But there are other ways with whey: ways which all of us can get on board with. A nutritious, tangy-tasting liquid, whey’s acidity and salt content lends it to a huge variety of uses, from sauces, salad dressing and even protein shakes, to tenderising fish and meat. It is a good sauce thickener, Nicolas behind the counter at Neal’s Yard tells me—and by adding it to, say, a basic tomato sauce, you can easily enrich its flavour. Meanwhile, Bill Oglethorpe of Kappacasein makes ricotta from his whey but has customers buying whey for fermenting vegetables—even making bread with it.

Dairy’s understudy
James Lowe of Flor is one of Neal’s Yard Dairy’s biggest whey buyers, dishing up dairy’s understudy in everything from butter and broths, to ice cream and sauces. “It’s a great product. We’re using it like crazy,” he enthuses. Ever a man to make a meal out of another man’s bin ends, Lowe has also devised “a ‘shoyu’ from old bread trim (kind of like a bread soya sauce), which we have started to use as a seasoning in salad vinaigrettes and garum from deer trimmings—imagine fish sauce but made with meat.”

And the bull calves? The young males who were once and still often are shot or electrocuted hours after they are born, having been deemed a drain on valuable milk and an unnecessary burden on the dairy farmer? They’re at Elpiniki. Though the stall is perhaps best known for its kid goat meat—same principle, but with goat dairy—it is the mass waste of male calves that co-owner Nadia Stokes finds most disturbing, “because in this country, dairy farming is far more entrenched,” she says. “The other week I spoke to Shane Holland from Slow Food, who grew up on a farm, and he remembers vividly the male calves being euthanised.”

Recent figures suggest the number of male calves being killed at birth is around 95,000 a year. But raised for six to 12 months on lush green pastures, these bulls make for richly nutritious and highly flavoursome meat. “We source exclusively from a female farmer in Worcestershire, who takes bull calves from dairy farmers,” Nadia continues. “It’s a way of highlighting the good, credible work agencies like the RSPCA have been doing in encouraging farmers to rear their unwanted dairy calves in an ethical, nutritious way.”

Slow roasted, married with smoky barbecue sauce and their house slaw and stuffed into either fluffy pita or bulgur pilaf, if Elpinki’s rose veal is a medium we can all get on board with, so too is their message: waste not, want not.