The Lab – Experiments in Culinary Dissidence.

Since November 15th, Octopus Alchemy has been crowdfunding. To date, we’ve raised a staggering 55% of our overall target (about £2100) and the donations keep coming thick and fast. I’m completely overwhelmed by the generosity and interest in the project and it’s turned out to be a cracking experience in networking with other like minded folk and businesses. Special mention to Viridian Nutrition who pledged a whopping £500 to the campaign. But also, to the 68 other backers who have been inspired to take part.

So all being well, the crowdfunder looks to yield a brilliant start up fund to propel Octopus Alchemy to new and exciting heights next year. A significant portion of our crowdfunder was to secure some traditional tools and kitchen bling to improve our workshop experiences, but to also make viable a project to turn the city’s surplus veg into a superfood product for sale.

The interesting part of that process will be the actual production. Our current twice monthly workshops at Silo (and our fledgling workshops in Sheffield too) are well known for their fusion of food-politics, health education and food-skills – engaging and equipping people with radical knowledge and pragmatic skills in a fun and interactive environment.

Next year we want to take it further, creating a radical laboratory for the community; a co-created space where we can play with ideas, perspectives and most importantly, our food! Each workshop will be prefixed with a good natter about the politics of our health and food – with special guests from different ventures and projects that are actively challenging the status quo. Of course there will always be some focus on fermentation, with a whole range of new and innovative demonstrations to help you get fizzy with your food –  but we’ll have a wonder through other approaches and practices in food and medicine too; broadening our knowledge and therefore our resistance!

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Beyond that, the practical part of our workshop is where it will get even more interesting. At any given workshop, we hope to be working with ingredients intercepted on their way to landfill – an array of different ingredients to get creative with that would otherwise have ended up in the bin. This is where we’ll come together in utilizing our new fermentin’ toolkit in producing a distinct and quirky product for distribution and potentially, sale!

So come to ‘The Lab’ next year and let’s foment the next food revolution.

Our first workshop takes place on the 10th January – get your tickets now.

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‘More than a workshop on kimchi – it speaks to the politics of food, access & inequalities too.’

Over the next month of our crowdfunding, we’ll be checking in with people who have been to one of our workshops and drawing on some of their experiences to help illustrate the benefits of supporting our work. Below we speak to Aidan who came to one of our workshops in July.

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Aidan 🙂

What is your name?

Aidan McGarry.

What attracted you to the workshop with Octopus Alchemy?

I wanted to learn more about the politics of food. I am into cooking and enjoy knowing about different aspects of taste and production. I knew the workshop would educate me on a topic I knew little about.

Did the workshop play out as you expected it to?

Yes the workshop played out as I had hoped and expected. I appreciated the theoretical background to fermentation: ‘the science part’. If we didn’t have this underpinning it would feel as though something was missing.

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Octopus Alchemy at the Coniston Institute.

How do you feel that the workshop experience changed your perspective on health and nutrition?

What I really enjoyed about the workshop was how it changed my knowledge and understanding of health and nutrition. I think everyone should understand about the health benefits of fermentation. But more than that there is a clear social value to it too. As issues around food waste and inequalities become more pronounced workshops like this make people aware of what they are eating and why. The fact that it tastes good is a bonus.

Why should people support Octopus Alchemy’s crowdfunding campaign?

People should support Octopus Alchemy’s crowd funding because it is an excellent idea created by someone who is extremely passionate and knowledgeable of a topic which concerns us all. It is more than how to make kimchi (although that is a great reason to run a workshop!) as it speaks to the politics of food, access and inequalities.

 You can read another testimonial about OA workshops here.

Octopus Alchemy:

Activating communities. Reducing Waste. Creating superfood.

We believe that to ferment is a radical political act, the effects of which reverberate beyond the kitchen. Back our fermentation-based, waste-reducing project in Brighton & Hove of ‘Transforming Food Waste into Superfood’ and support us in continuing to have a creative impact on our local food culture and beyond.

Check out our wicked incentives. No donation to small. If you can’t spend, then please share.

 

 

‘Vessels of Dissent’ – Fermentation as politics from below.

It’s easy to misinterpret fermentation as some unremarkable practice, carried out by fuzzy old ladies in farmhouse kitchens in the back of beyond – and of course it is, but that’s not all of it. In fact, the potency of those few fizzing mason jars and cobwebbed crocks hanging out in your nan’s cupboard goes far beyond taste and an old wives remedy: they symbolise a kind of politics from below; a lively critique of the way we live our lives and how we understand our bodies and their place in nature.

It’s no secret that fermentation is making a comeback in the West or that knowledge(s) about the importance of the microbiome are resurfacing again (contrary to the arrogance and imperialism of biomedicine, this is not a new discovery or even particular to the West). Katz’s revivalist efforts are now complimented by a landslide of interest in the techniques of wild fermentation, of culturing and preserving. Every other week, peculiar and inventive little projects crop up in urban centres and beyond, preaching the lacto-gospel: fermentation on wheels, fermentation installations, fermentation festivals, blogs, podcasts and potlucks. In my home town of Brighton, fermented products now appear on swanky restaurant menus, with gourmet chef’s the world over crafting taste-experiences from this age old tradition. Sourdough bread, a novelty only years ago in the face of its cheap, white and easily processed rival, is (for the reasonably well heeled) becoming a staple once again.

An ‘archaic revival’ in food is occurring; less of us now blink uncritically at the waves of corporate propaganda of ‘tasty’ and ‘convenient’ food. A generation of medical refugees, sick and fatigued by denatured and contaminated food and the biased and mechanical prescriptions of their biomedical Doctors, are reaching into the past to reclaim life affirming knowledge and skills. Fermentation is one of those skills, with each dry-salt or brine having a cascade of effects beyond its container – they are ‘vessels of dissent’, the web of relations and effects extending from them into cultural, environmental and political realms.

Challenging contemporary food culture:

There are now endless texts rallying against our contemporary food culture, all with the same underpinning message, which is that the commodification of our food and the profit motive in food production has run amok and the system that prevails undermines the well being of our animals, the health of our people and communities and ultimately, the ecological balance of our planet too.

Every so often, (usually) independent media gives us a glimpse of the horrors of the industrialised method applied to food production: animals are treated like objects, workers no better and the 41k+yYzyf4L._UY250_food itself is engineered and adapted to predictable outcomes (usually lucrative ones) with no thought for the human, animal and environmental costs and consequences.

Curiously, just as globalisation encourages the spread of different cuisines and our experiential access of different cultures and their foodways, the homogenisation of our food: its taste, texture, appearance and content in Pollan’s words: rolls out like a ‘great undifferentiated lawn across the globe’.

Food has become a ‘private transnational commodity’, subjected to the whims and fancies of our market economy. The communities once built up around food have dissolved as ‘buyers’ interact with ‘producers’ and alienated ‘consumers’ attend brightly lit and sanitary halls, stocked with food-commodities – their origins, histories and stories of human / nature co-creation muffled and obscured by cellophane packaging and garish labeling; designed to say as little about the product as possible and c990dd4941eabdb4d49e7a2ec0f9f745everything about the dream of sunshine, clucking hens and the ‘good life’ that most of us rarely get to experience, never mind the food.

This violent separation of the urban consumer from food production and producers, means that (massively exploited) producers, no longer tied or responsible to their communities, shell out denatured food using all manner of toxic inputs and processes to please ever more stringent targets set by buyers. And consumers, distracted from the ‘non-economic attributes’ of food, approach it in the most objectifying way as to be almost apathetic about it beyond its superficial qualities.

Perhaps it is this disconnection from and appreciation of our food in its totality (as beyond just food; embodying a sacred web of relations and connections) that makes for such depression in our Foodcommunities, such listlessness and dissatisfaction at what should be a simple joy. The commodification of our food has created an artificial scarcity and exclusive hierarchy, where only the privileged eat and eat well – ‘routine hunger, malnutrition, premature deaths, famine’ and noxious amounts of waste are the byproducts of this system.

Fermentation then, is an ‘eloquent protest’ in the face of these circumstances, a reconnection with food-as-nutrition, which in turn encourages a respect for the nature of food itself and the people, animals and land that make it possible. The complexity of any one ferment, its inherent ecology of bacteria and enzymes, their innumerable interactions and bubbling byproducts puts us in touch with the wonder of food again. There’s nothing plastic, artificial or detached about sourdough, kefir, miso or kimchi – they are literally frothing with life and overflowing with life-force; ecologies of such spectacular diversity that our previous food-programming perishes under a radical remembering of the life and magic of our food.

The experimentation and play that accompanies fermentation represents a rejection of the predictable, affected and meaningless products churned out by the market – it is a celebration of distinctiveness, the peculiar, of artisanship and taste. The communities that thrive around Commodity-Tradingfermentation, mirroring the excitement of the ferment itself, branch out and swell – spreading knowledge, practices, skills and wisdom. Old food-economies are transformed by new energy and insights and new and alternative economies are born; where small producers and hobbyists deliver innovations and operate on different principles, such as the pioneers of the ‘sacred’ or ‘gift’ economies. Time and energy is reclaimed from the current ecocidal economy and trajectory to stage a revolution from our kitchens – ultimately, food is de-commodified and becomes meaningful again.

The biomedical monopoly and the mechanistic worldview.

Chronic disease have become a remarkably persistent feature of our contemporary medical landscape. Indeed, over 60% of deaths worldwide are now reported as resulting from a variety of chronic conditions. This phenomena goes someway to framing the explosion of interest in fermentation, as more and more people engage with the health benefits of these sour and whiffy creations.

Beyond their alleviation of various ailments and maladies, this popular engagement with fermentation as a healing modality shifts the way we relate to our bodies and how we perceive The biomedical approach.their place in nature, challenges the current biomedical orthodoxy on what illness is and how health can be attained and asks serious questions about what legitimate knowledge is when it comes to health and disease.

‘Biomedicine’ is another way, in anthropological parlance, of talking about the kind of clinical medicine, grounded in the scientific worldview, that has been the dominant mainstay of our medical landscape since the scientific revolution of the 19th century. Early on, biomedicine’s legitimacy was derived from its handle on bacteriology and the control of serious infections (no joke in the squalor of the sprawling and insanitary urbanism of the time). Its dominant position in the field of health the world over is in most cases underwritten by the State.

Biomedicine is founded on certain principles, which defines health by the absence of symptoms and which focuses chiefly on the biological and physiological causes of illness and disease – to the detriment of social / cultural / political and environmental factors which are themselves significant determinants of health and which, notably, are considered in the more holistic modalities that biomedicine has spent most of its career trying to repress, humiliate and appropriate. In many ways, medicine should be one of the most robust forms of social critique we have – after all, where inequality, oppression, deprivation, isolation or a lack of social cohesion or personal fulfillment fester, disease will too.

In essence, the biomedical worldview is reductive as opposed to expansive – medical problems are observed as stemming from some biological pathology and treatment is usually oriented at particular malfunctioning cells or systems in isolation, via surgery or pharmacology – and more holistic interpretations of illness and disease are discounted as ‘quackery’.

Popular dissatisfaction with biomedicine is not a new phenomenon, the wave of lay disillusionment with the discipline began in the 1970’s with the rise of a medical counter-culture in San Francisco that saw a surge of interest in new magical and holistic approaches to health, as well as in ancient systems of health care from the East such as traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and Ayurveda.

Apart from biomedicine’s obvious biological determinism, people were and are fatigued at the iatrogenic effects of its interventions and medicines, its excessive medicalisation of all areas of life, the invasive nature of its procedures, its bureaucratic and high tech nature and its complete failure in the realm of chronic disease.  Nevertheless, its formidable material base, its legal / political protections and affinity with the capitalist outlook have allowed it to sweep any dissent under the carpet and appropriate any useful aspects of alternative medical models or systems.

Credit: Stephen Jeffrey.

The antibiotic has been one of the main modes of pharmaceutical intervention in the biomedical arsenal over the last 70 years. In 1940, antibiotics were heralded as a revolution in medicine and they have no doubt helped us to bring some very serious infections under control. But their abuse, both in human and in animals, has led to aggressive and drug resistant pathogens becoming a persistent feature of our microbial landscape. The consequence of this biomedical worldview is a cultural paranoia around microbes which equates to what Sandor Katz calls ‘the war on bacteria’; from ‘pseudo-medical’ practices like antibacterial hand washing to chlorine in our water supply, we have become almost neurotic about nuking these vital unseen ecologies.

Away from the proliferation of drug-resistant pathogens, no longer kept in check via the natural competitive environment of healthy microbial ecologies, there are even more sinister and pernicious consequences. The biodiversity and integrity of our internal microbiome (our resident ecologies of bacteria and microbes which ‘interact to form complex webs of mutual support’ and which promote optimum metabolic, immune and cognitive function) suffers irrevocably, with the consequences of this destabilisation only now becoming apparent. As Martin Blaser describes in his book “Missing Microbes’, the disappearance or extinction of a ‘keystone species’ of bacteria in the human microbiome means the overall ‘ecology suffers and can even collapse’.

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Check out: ‘Your microbiome may hold keys to cancer treatment’.

This is the context to the ‘modern plagues’ that are now a common feature of everyday life – obesity, diabetes, asthma, oesophageal reflux, hayfever, eczema and other skin conditions; inflammatory bowel disease, ulcerative colitis and Chrohn’s as well as various types of cancer have all been linked in some way to disturbances in the microbiome. Heart disease, hypertension, arthritis, multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia, osteoporosis and chronic fatigue have too become persistent features of the modern medical landscape – many no doubt accompanied by conditions of the gut, usually denied or at least rarely investigated by biomedical doctors, such as ‘leaky gut syndrome’, ‘gut dysbiosis’ or ‘small intestinal bacterial overgrowth’. Not to mention the increased frequency of all kinds of cognitive ailments such as anxiety, depression, dyslexia and autism – the book Gut & Psychology Syndrome by Natasha McBride will be a revealing read for anyone interested in the gut/brain axis here. Finally, food allergies, almost undetectable in indigenous communities engaged in pre-modern lifestyles, are at epidemic levels. It’s clear that something has gone badly wrong.

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Check out Blaser’s book!

The research on probiotic therapy is encouraging and many of the conditions above are indicated as improving and sometimes being wholly resolved by bolstering and enhancing our internal flora with particular focused strains. However, ideas about the appropriate composition of the human microbiome is yet more biomedical conjecture, with studies borne out in indigenous communities turning up strains of bacteria identified as potentially harmful in Western hosts. Reliance on commercial probiotics for healing, whilst definitely appropriate in some instances, also support the very same system and corporations that have a chequered history as regards to human health and the environment; Monsanto, Nestle, Pepsico and General Mills have all funded studies on the gut and the microbiome and the probiotic industry is set to become a $45BN market by 2018.

Fermentation and the new medical paradigm.

Fermentation then, comes into its own here too – of course, little official research has been done on nanna’s crocks in terms of their therapeutic application and effects: testing is a tightly controlled industry (with big pharma the usual benefactors) and no one is likely to earn money from age old techniques we can all have a bash at! But there is no reason why bacteria growing in home ferments cannot be as beneficial and resilient as commercially produced strains. Indeed, indexwhat is more important is ‘variety, diversity and incorporating the bacteria native to different raw ingredients’ and I would add, the local environment. In a world where the ‘randomised control trial’ has become the oracle of truth and legitimacy, through fermentation, subjective knowledge and experiences of healing becomes important once again. Nanna’s arthritic knee eased by her daily kombucha stays eased, irrespective of whether the result has been validated by a biased trial or not.

Fundamentally, dabbling in the fermentation arts is to challenge the biomedical monopoly. Whereas biomedicine prefers itself as the sole arbiter of medical knowledge, our fermentivist communities know differently – our lacto-adventures encourage new understandings of the body, of health and disease and ultimately our relation to nature.

When we consider that the reality of our bodies is that we are just 10% human (bacteria outweigh human cells in the body 10 to 1), it dawns on us that we are not so much mechanical, individuated microbiome-title-890x395and self-contained as ecological, expansive and interdependent. We begin to approach the body as an ecology in and of itself, a vibrant system where all parts are interdependent: an ecology situated within a larger ecology, which is our environment, the planet and its lifeforms. We begin to realise that our symptoms are not genetically dictated but are epigenetic phenomena, which mirrors to some extent a rupture or impropriety in the way we relate, biologically or consciously, to our environment at large.

To take a case in point: recently a bit of research was released that showed how social anxiety in adults was relieved through regular consumption of fermented foods. What are the consequences for understanding social anxiety here? Is social anxiety purely a relational phenomenon between humans, born of some personal and internal imbalance or neurosis? Or does social anxiety have a more holistic foundation – does it stem also from a disruption in our unseen connection to nature: dependent on our internal mirroring of the microbial biodiversity external to us?

Fermentation and replenishing the microbiome is of course not a panacea – health involves a truly holistic perspective (social, political, environmental, biological, emotional and spiritual), not a limited one. But its practice and enjoyment raise important questions about humanity, culture, biopsychsocial-modelecology and healing. The revival of this ancient practice has significant consequences for the biomedical worldview, as it does for our economy and culture at large – lay interest in alternative approaches and systems of health creates a critical mass difficult to ignore by biomedicine, which in an attempt to diffuse the revolt is necessarily changed itself through its natural impulse to monitor, marginalize, control and appropriate. The emergence of the biopsychosocial approach to health from within biomedicine, or pyschoneuroimmunology is a product of this very same process.

The ‘gut as centre’ and beyond.

By now, I hope we’ve established that our fizzy concoctions are potent beyond their basic utility. Each forkful of our tangy treats is a kindly gesture of homage toward the unseen ecology and lifeforms with whom we live so interdependently. The recognition of this symbiosis does not just reverberate change into our food economy and conceptions of health, disease and approaches to healing – the circle expands to effect our politics, environment and communities too.

The art of fermentation is in many ways a way of placing the ‘gut as centre’ to our philosophy to life and healing – which may hold great transformational potential for our societies. The gut in eastern philosophy is understood as a store of great power and potential. Zen Monk’s will always motion at IMG_4794the gut if one asks, ‘from where do you think’? And this makes perfect sense, given that we know the gut, or ‘second brain’, boasts around 100 million neurons, uses more than 30 neurotransmitters (the same amount found in the brain), and harbours around 95% of the body’s serotonin (serotonin plays an important part in the regulation of learning, mood, sleep and other essential regulatory processes). It enjoys a unique communicative relationship with the brain and is a primary (and incredibly sensitive) interface with our external environment. It is also home to the largest colony of microbes in our bodies, totaling some 500-600 different species and weighing in at around 1.5-2KG – the harmonious balance and biodiversity of which is our best line of defence to the onset of the many ‘modern plagues’ that now ail us.

Looking after the gut as a source of vitality, health and well-being is paramount. Whether that’s limiting the amount of damaging foods you’re exposing yourself too, or attempting to support or re-establish a good flora via fermented foods. Indeed, nurturing your microbiome is a true recognition and practice of holism: it requires that we have a proper relationship with the external, germswith the ability to nourish our gut in particular ways – to bring that reality into alignment has ramifications beyond the individual, into wider social, political and environmental realms. A change in the way we relate to external structures, effectively impacts and transforms those structures in terms of what they do and are able to provide.

Ultimately then, along with other traditional forms of food prep and knowledge, fermentation is one of our key tools in honouring the gut as centre – and in this respect is a radical act: a form of activism on the margins, a DIY warfare of the unseen against the life-inimical forces of our ecocidal economy. Our cupboards don’t contain innocuous jars of mere pickled veg, they contain ‘vessels of dissent’, which symbolise a re-awakening to an ecological consciousness counter to the mechanical and toxic drudgery of the pharma-military-industrial complex.

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Octopus Alchemy in action.

Through the art of fermentation, the body is disassembled conceptually and we become infinitely complex and profoundly connected to nature; we rely less on biomedicine or biomedical knowledge, seeking to improve and nurture microbial ecologies rather than decimate them; pharmaceutical use declines; our individual relationship to food changes and so does the organisation of our communities around food, their connection to producers are changed and monopolies are shaken; alternative economies flourish and communities too; food waste declines and organic produce is sought; better land management occurs and biodiversity improves; soils enrich and carbon is captured; we enjoy better connection with each other and the land, more meaning and more truth; stress declines, happiness increases, cognition, immunity and health improve overall.

After an afternoon of scribbling out the web of relations that extend from the art of fermentation, I can say there seems hardly an area left untouched. If there’s ever been a more persuasive reason to get alchemical, surely this is it.

The Real Junk Food Project in Brighton – a radical reinterpretation of the problem of waste.

Odo, adored revolutionary in Ursula Le Guin’s ‘The Dispossessed’, in her manifesto for a new world, envisions a system of perfect efficiency and diligence when she proclaims, ‘waste is excrement’. Closer to home, Doug McMaster of Silo, chef wizard of waste would agree – albeit in less crude terms – when he insists, ‘waste is a failure of the imagination’. Both perspectives may be read as a meditation on the devastating failure of our global food economy – which, corrupted by the cold pursuit of profit, creates a vast polarity of scarcity and abundance, and which brings only discord and disease to our communities, and to the intricate ecologies on which those communities depend.

Indeed, waste in the context of our globalised food system is no small thing – each year, 1 billion tons of the stuff gets wasted, whilst 805 million people go hungry. In the UK, we waste an average of 7 million tons per year, with half of this waste being perfectly edible. This amounts to about £60 worth of food, per month, per household. 50,000 of those tons are produced by Brighton alone, 11066785_337837106411999_2620144285110076773_n20% domestically.

This excessive and wasteful production of food has significant environmental costs too – the global food economy emits a third of global greenhouse gas emissions. Indeed, food waste alone is the third biggest contributor of GHG’s to the atmosphere. Set against a backdrop of a rapidly expanding population and runaway climate change, we have a situation that threatens not just the health and dignity of the individual, but the survival of our species.

The political situation in the UK is grim. The false flag austerity agenda of our incumbent government persists in forcing millions deeper into poverty – the fact that ‘food poverty’ is an issue in the 7th richest country in the world speaks to an endemic economic and political corruption, where the rich as ever continue to gorge on a privileged and spectacular cuisine, whilst millions are destitute to the handouts of charities, and the goodwill of food activists throughout the UK. It is estimated that over 20 million meals were 11096391_337836696412040_6075739430478836594_ngiven to the hungry between 2012/13 by three main food providers, a dramatic 54% increase from previous years – a figure that likely pales considering the added handouts from fringe community projects.

The Real Junk Food Project in Brighton (TRJFPB) is an example of the kind of creative resistance and grassroots transformation of the problem of waste that is emerging in the UK. Hoovering up our food waste in Brighton and putting it in peoples bellies, where it belongs. Last week, I visited the project and the launch of their new crowdfunding drive to raise funds for a permanent junk food cafe in Brighton. Although, looking around the ‘one church’ – pop up home to the project every Friday afternoon between 1 – 3PM – resistance seemed an unlikely word to describe the chirpy collective busying themselves around food prep and service, or sat grazing over their salvaged tucker.

I arrived early to an almost empty church hall, not expecting the place to pack out so fast and with such numbers (the project has fed around 150 people a week since its launch in January, fluctuating to a whopping 300 for the crowdfunding launch). It takes a while for the significance of the abundance and diversity of the food on offer to sink in – community members of all ages ladled steaming goodies from huge trays down one side of the room, for omnivore, vege and vegan alike; with at least six or seven different salads on display. To the other side of the hall hissed and 11032763_337837129745330_8446880961472547821_nwhirred a well outfitted coffee station and at the back, two little islands, one packed with sweet treats and another with raw juices churned through a proper masticator.  A veritable food utopia – all destined for landfill without the ingenuity of this plucky tribe.

Sitting down with my meal, a turkey round and stuffing with a trio of dressed salads and some dried mango, I tried to suss out what felt so peculiar about the atmosphere. The capitalist doctrine of profit and transaction doesn’t hold here – the usual web of relations that make up an eatery were dissolved. I wasn’t a consumer here and the lovelies running the ship, weren’t staff either. We were participants – kin to a counter-culture of food making a radical statement of ‘not in our name’. At the end of the servery, a modest collection box stood stating ‘pay as you feel’, the slogan that has come to embody the egalitarian philosophy of the junk food movement. Pay in ideas if you want, volunteer, contribute a song or a poem – and if it’s one of 18402_337836263078750_8788323449661410477_nthose days where you just have nothing to give, your presence and smile will do. This radical principle of equality and mutual aid creates diversity, and therefore a resilient and capable community – people are brought together despite their ‘status’, to sit, eat and dream together, to go on to create a different world.

Adam Buckingham, progenitor of TRJFPB, seems to take all this in his stride. He glides around the church hall like a waste guru, greeting people with hugs and smiles; one of those guys that your Mum would love. In political debate, he’s principled, alert and engaging – you can see how, with his sheperding, the project has established itself. The other volunteers, with obvious care, stop him in mid flight to nourish him with ‘junk’ food and juice. Adam 10389427_337836043078772_574006537719531771_nis one of six ‘directors’ of the project who are driving forward an ambitious plan to secure a permanent commercial residence in Brighton; building on the success of other waste cafe’s in Bristol and Leeds they are trying to found a full-time creative outlet for Brighton’s food waste, and a hub for food-activism and learning.

In Brighton, we’re lucky that waste-activism is pretty well established thanks to a network of dedicated activists – and the success of Silo here, the UK’s first zero-waste restaurant, has helped even more to popularise the message and encourage a strong community ethos around food. A RJFPB cafe in Brighton is important beyond its utility in reducing and redistributing waste of course – it creates a radical space of alterity, where a community comes together to think differently about society through food. In short, it’s much more utopian than full bellies – it’s about a different way of life: eco-conscious and from the grassroots up, potential that you don’t get served up in starbucks. Beyond that, its success will mean a full-time hub of inspiration that serves to influence (agitate?) the ethos and practices of Brighton’s wider food enterprise.

Positive appropriation and transformation of waste, full bellies on a ‘pay as you feel’ tariff, skills exchange and learning, community development and empowerment, and radical politics all under one roof – all run on voluntary steam, for 15K?

That’s a steal in anybodies books – Odo, would be proud.

(Photos by Louiza Hamidi of CURB: Southampton’s Junk Food Kitchen).

Milk No Sugar – Pho-licious.

I’m not a fan of cringeworthy double barreled words – but for ‘Milk No Sugar’, the quirky little Viet-styled cafe on Trafalgar Street, I’ll put up with the discomfort. Pho-licious is the word.

After lamenting only a few weeks ago about how ‘Pho’, the chain of Vietnamese street food restaurants, had the monopoly on Viet-cuisine in Brighton – on my way to the train station I noticed a sign outside of ‘Milk No Sugar’ (which has a pretty unassuming shop front) declaring their sale of Pho – how had I missed this? I ventured in a few days later and have since eaten there four times and thought it was time to put a few words to their operation.

If you’ve eaten at ‘Pho’ on Black Lion Street, you’ll know how consistent their taste is and how uniform their dishes (and don’t get me wrong, that’s not always such a bad thing at the level of taste and expectation), as is the nature of any chain where only homogenisation will do. You’ll also probably notice the tired character of their staff. Put it one way, I wouldn’t venture into that kitchen uninvited.

But at Milk No Sugar there’s a different vibe and that’s all through the smiles of Hugo, who I’m assuming is the cafe’s proprietor. He’s bouncy, chatty, says awesome a lot and falls over himself to tell you about their food.

The first time I dined there, just recovering from a few days of feeling under the weather, I demolished two bowls of their Pho: large, meat stock but with tofu (£5.50 a piece). I also sat for Milk No Sugar, Brighton.a few hours writing, soaking it all up: the little cafe has a wicked style – quirky signage hangs from a ceiling that resembles a chalky upside down ice-cube tray, like the interior of some cafeteria chiseled into a starship hangar on some hollowed out moon somewhere. Plumen light-bulbs float over the counter and low-lying sun-scorched metal chairs, characteristic of the smoggy road side tuck-shops in the East, host bums from every walk of life. The eyes glance over the curious beverages and treats on sale – like the ‘nutella-latte’ for instance: sure to make your teeth ache.

My Pho brings all the boys to the yard.. Okay, I'll stop it now.

My Pho brings all the boys to the yard.. Okay, I’ll stop it now.

But the grub is pleasing. The stock of the Pho is well rounded and warm, with tones of cinnamon, roasted ginger and star anise brought out from a well tended stove. Garnished simply, but maybe with not quite enough fresh roughage, it’s nevertheless a dish you’ll return for and a taste you’ll want to share with friends. Hugo took great pride in boasting about the vigour of his vegetarian stock next to the meat and after trying both I agree, they’ve put some thought into getting the tastes right.

Pho @ Milk No Sugar

The rice paper rolls are everything a rice paper roll should be: sticky and crisp for all the right reasons, and shot through with fresh mint and fresh leaves – and not served in bloody cellophane, which is nice. The accompanying condiment, a syrup of heat and tang to drench the dinky rolls in is a treat and Hugo’s obvious pride and joy, as he stood encouraging us to dunk, saying ‘yes, homemade – awesome, yeah?’.

At the end of my meal I turned to my other half and speculated about the ingredients and their quality – for a food-politico, good food means food with Rice Paper Rolls @ Milk No Sugarintegrity at every level, not just in the mouth. But I have to say I don’t think I could bear a reveal of some MSG additive, or some questionable supply chain – which undoubtedly exists: it’s a high street munchery trading at killer prices after all. On leaving, one of my friends muttered along the lines of: well, there’s a lot of love there innit – that makes the food okay, even at the molecular level. He’s woo. I was wooed.

I think for now it’s got to be my guilty little pleasure, my little starship hangar of smiles – coz if it’s sci-fi, it’s okay isn’t it?

Don’t answer that.

Itsu: Food oasis or dangerous mirage?

Itsu

Eat, beautiful.

Some months ago, Itsu opened in Brighton. Apparently, the opening was a red carpet affair, inviting food writers and local businesses from around town to gorge upon their novel food stuffs and to mingle, network and whatnot. Of most reviews of Itsu I can find, they are mostly reproductions of the menu on offer (which for a fast food store, is undoubtedly impressive) – but other substantive reflections on the venture are noticeably omitted. In fact, the trend of reporting on Itsu borders on the sensational – whether celebrating the entrepreneurship of Julian Metcalfe, CEO and co-founder of the ubiquitous ‘Pret’’ or applauding the array and craft of exotic treats on offer. Itsu has fast become a veritable takeaway Eden in a nexus of otherwise stale, dull and redundant alternatives.

I nipped in to Itsu quite unconsciously a few months back. Not really taking the experience in I ordered a ‘detox miso’ and slurped it whilst jogging on to the next event. I mean, I definitely wasn’t expecting anything too robust, with any kind of live ecology or anything – but I do remember a kind of treasure-hunt glee, digging past my fragrant soggy dumplings into its misty depths to reveal a sparkling wormery of glass noodles and seaweed entrails. Obviously, I didn’t touch the soybeans – that’s like dropping marbles into the gut. But nevertheless, much like Will Self’s first time – I felt soothed and satisfied. Like I’d stumbled on a little food oasis in the middle of dessert-storm.

Afterward, I was determined to do a little reading around Itsu. Despite the mirage of rhetoric around health and complete overkill of the phrase ‘eat beautiful’, I resisted its manicure and allure to remember some politics. Health in the context of chain stores is a complete misnomer after all: whether that’s about individual health, health of the producers that support it, the staff that work it, the animals that stock it or the environment that sustains it.

Armed with a litany of reasons why Itsu was just another corporate monster, set to gobble up the planet, I ventured out once again to sample its Asiatic delights. Doing so, in full knowledge that my resolve could crumble at any moment, faced with what equates to my soul-food: Sushi.

The day had been a testing one by all accounts, so wondering into Itsu off the damp and raucous North Street was disarming – you’re suddenly propelled into a sharp, glassy, neon cube; ‘world music’ spinning in the background and hanging bamboo-style lamps down-light smooth wooden islands, topped with familiar Asian-eatery condiments. Looking around at the clientele, young hipsters with over-sized specs and pale complexions, I felt suddenly transported into a kind of sci-fi sushi shop – living out the strange feeling of reading my own experience in a copy of ‘all tomorrows parties’.

After cruising the brightly lit cooler spanning the left hand wall of the shop, and the array of uniform and very deliberately looking nutritious treats, I went for an ‘Itsu Best’. I approached the counter and the beleaguered looking serving person with my prize, and almost automatically, splurted out: ‘oh, and a detox miso too’. I asked the person on the counter about pasteurization; whether the miso had its proper ecology of bacteria live and present (the sachets of powdered miso on sale at the counter suggested otherwise). They didn’t know – neither did the ‘expert’ chef behind the McDonald’s style servery.

I tried hard to maintain a critical gaze when sat down, eyes scanning suspiciously: an inner snort at Itsu’s ‘raw smoothie’ machine cashing in on the middle class obsession with ‘toxin busting’. But I began to soften. I cracked open the dead(?) ‘miso’ which was a basic clone of my one before it – nothing astray, nothing different. My plate of sushi too, was tasty: surprisingly so. Not a grain of rice out of place: a white and fleshy rainbow manufactured with precision. At under a tenner, the toasted sesame infusion on that rice just shouldn’t be so good. Neither should the tastes be so clean and present, the experience so ready and fresh. The salmon of course was a translucent pink perhaps too feeble to pass Itsu’s own panetone colour test – but dipped in the salty single serving of soy and sharp wasabi, it can be easy not to care.

And that’s the alarming significance of eating at Itsu – the ease at which the entrancing charm of a well styled brand, the infallible (violent?) uniformity and the call to health can fuse to create an impenetrable mirage. Eat now, ask no questions later. But there are questions to be asked of Itsu’s model – it’s cheap (too cheap) and fast paced, but still keeps up an appearance of grace, beauty and the extraordinary. Essentially it’s a metaphor for the food economy at large – bright, booming and plentiful on the surface, but without mention of the vast externalities it creates. Not a hint to the cascade of effects on workers, producers, our health and the environment at large.

To take just one example – Itsu’s salmon is farmed in Scotland. Scotland is the world’s second largest salmon producer, and exports have grown 500% in the past 20 years – making up 40% of Scottish food exports overall. The industry, set to serve the plates of an expanding middle class in China, is to expand 50% by 2020. Itsu imports 9 tonnes of salmon a week – determined in their literature that this makes more ecological sense than depleting wild fish stocks. However, the implications on wild fish stocks and the ocean ecology in general are astounding – wild Atlantic Salmon in particular are facing extinction because of diseases and parasites leached into the ocean from intensive farming operations. Farmed salmon themselves experience dire conditions: infectious diseases, sea lice infestation and mass mortality abound – conditions which are only set to worsen, with sea lice threatening to spiral out of control. It’s like the ocean equivalent of the plague of flesh eating zombies – but everyone would much sooner deny any problem exists. Itsu won’t even declare what these sea creatures eat. Apparently it’s legitimate and safe according to some bureaucrat. I’ve heard that before, haven’t you?

Intensive Salmon farming - destroying our oceans.

Intensive Salmon farming – destroying our oceans.

The nature of a business model like Itsu’s is both to expand, and buff up their bottom line – already they are set to conquer the American high-street. Their success will depend on a dictatorial line with producers and staff to ensure peak-performance and output at low-cost – totally out of touch with what human and animal resources, or the environment can afford. Indeed, for all its chiqué exterior and futuristic charm, it’s merely McDonald’s with a wasabi-coating – intent on fluffing the externalitiies of their trade and with a keen and predatory sense of their target audience.

Will Self, in typically acetone style, got the problem of Itsu in just a few lines: ‘that food should be subject to the most ruthless commoditisation under late capitalism is only to be expected, but that we should for one second allow ourselves to enjoy it is a miserable and gut-wrenching experience’ – And yes, I’m inclined to agree. But even critically loaded the mirage can be hard to deconstruct. This is about more than better informed consumer choices. Reducing the reliance on convenience means restoring our right to freedom and time – time to re-engage with our personal nourishment and its nuances, from plant to plate. In short, a new way of life for us all.

The question is, do Self’s ‘keyboard riflers’ and quick fix health connoisseurs, in fact any of us, have the appetite for this yet? My view is that it will take a collective interest in a menu for change much more subversive, one that offers potential beyond the lunch hour limits of ‘Itsu’s Best’ before we’re all ready to put our throwaway chopsticks down.

Helmston: A tiny tuck-shop packing a punch of taste.

Helmston is a small vegetarian eatery on the boundary of the North Laine in Brighton – an unassuming little place on the outside, you’ll miss it for some of the more superficially chique, but predictable cafes on Trafalgar Street if you’re not careful.

Tiny Tuck Shop Packing A Punch.

Tiny Tuck Shop Packing A Punch.

This bountiful little trove has been trading for around 7 months now – growing from its humble beginnings as a food stall on Gardner Street’s Saturday market, it’s now tightly packed into a decorative sandwich-bar-style venue, and doing what looks like a good business. The punters who drifted in off the street seemed to know Jazz, the lovely counter man by name – which is always reassuring. Good eats make good community. My mate was already sat munching in the corner – she’s Israeli, knows life and gets food. It was a good sign.

The charming but pokey little venue is dripping in beautiful little oddities: hanging faux-wall lamps made of kitchen utensils, a rolling pin fixed as the door handle and hyper-colour menus draping the limited wall space promote a multitude of vegan / vegetarian fare that seems almost impossibly diverse and plentiful in a space so small. A small shelf in the corner boasts a wonderful selection of raw honey – some sourced in and around Sussex. With spices on sale such as sumac from Palestine: a fizz of a herb, that is tart, zesty and invigorating – apparently good for chicken dishes. In the background ‘chef Andy’, the progenitor of this exotic little tuck shop whistles cheerfully along to the radio as he tends to each meal by order in what looks like an immaculately polished kitchen.

Fun food and novel window displays. Very Brighton.

Fun food and novel window displays. Very Brighton.

But what about the food and beverage? On recommendation as a first-timer, I went with the ‘gado-gado’ (yum-yum) described as ‘hot saute potatoes with spinach, beansprouts, peanut-sauce, broccoli, coriander, tamarind, lime, chilli and more’. And what a recommendation! Served in a quaint little wooden-bowl, it was an opulence of flavour, perfume, colour and texture. Every mouthful was a variation on the one before: a literal firework display of sweet banana and pomegranate, complimenting the more earthy accompaniments of sprouts, spinach, brocolli and peanut – all carried by a kind of dark and rusty undertone of tamarind and pepper and excited by a bite of lime and popping of sumac. It made me sweat pleasingly – not so much from the heat, but from the startling complexity of flavours and texture that made me think ‘how the bloody hell can I put words to this?’.

Indonesian Lushness. Taste Explosion. Legendary Eats.

Indonesian Lushness. Taste Explosion. Legendary Eats.

Then on to the cakes – Jazz on the counter gave me a brief run down of the cakes and pastries on offer before I chose (most of them dairy and gluten free and some savoury too!). I’d reiterate the options, but was so lost in the visuals that I’ve forgotten the body of what he put across. Eventually, I decided on a spelt tart of rhubarb and custard and a raspberry, coconut and chocolate ‘bon-bon’.

Now you know what to do with your redundant kitchen bits. Very Marwood-esque (insider observation).

Now you know what to do with your redundant kitchen bits. Very Marwood-esque (insider observation).

For me, a more traditional grain used in baking shows consciousness and artisanship that encourages my trust as a wary participant in sweet and baked goods (damn food sensitivities). So I was pleased to see spelt used for the tart pastry – and the result was a predictably light, gentle but texture-ful case boasting a buttery summer-glow. The spelt basket was filled with a light custard that to be any more potent would have suggested some artificiality, and topped with a few delicate slithers of pert and cheeky rhubarb that had me sucking my teeth. The little bon-bon was encrusted in a jewelled-pink coconut coat, which when crisped open revealed a sunny yellow center – taste wise: sweet coconut with a hint of rose, which the silk and bitterness of the chocolate tempered well.

Drinks? I had a wheatgrass shot with ginger to begin with – great combination which softened the harshness of the wheatgrass and made me feel super-green. And in the end I finished with a coffee, with hemp milk (God I love Brighton), which was a pleasing finish and sent me well on my way.

Only pink shards remain. We hope Helmston will let us show you some food photos soon - but visit their facebook page in the meantime, it's all there!

Only pink shards remain. We hope the Helmston will let us show you some food photos soon – but visit their facebook page in the meantime, it’s all there!

Overall, smashing little place, intoxicating food and priced well for its location (you can eat well for £5.50 and if you have a tenner, you’re living the dream). Chef Andy wishes to maintain an “air of mystery” around the delights flowing from his kitchen and was a bit sensitive about pictures. To feast your eyes, you’ll have to feast in person. And we reckon that all things considered, that’s not such a bloody bad thing 😉

I asked Jazz about their supply chain ethics and organic considerations before leaving – he gave me his email! I’ll report back.

Overall Octopus Alchemy rating: 9/10

Visit the Helmston’s facebook page here.