This review was originally written for the Londonist
An organic, vegan Japanese restaurant? Really? We’re intrigued. The organic, vegan bit fits well with our eco eating mission, the Japanese bit is something of a surprise. Organic loving vegans don’t get to eat sushi or noodles very often. Itadaki Zen in King’s Cross promises to be all three – in fact it declares itself to be Europe’s first organic vegan Japanese – so we head there feeling excited.
Visiting the website before visiting the restaurant itself, we’re braced for the medicinal messages that the menu is laced with. Unrushed and enveloped in delicious cooking smells, we enjoy spending a long time looking through it (and giggling a little at the promises of cleansed bowels and blood).
We try the three different sushi rolls on offer, priced at £2.90 for three pieces or £5.10 for six. Agesan, with fried bean curd, shiitake mushroom and some kind of radish, is very similar in looks and taste to Koya Tofu, which has freeze dried tofu instead of fried curd. The third swaps the tofu for red pepper. Our opinions are split a little, but the overall sushi verdict is nice, but a little boring.
Next we try three larger dishes – Ten-don (tempura on rice), Miso-nikomi udon (noodle soup) and Neba-Neba-don (vegetables and rice). The Ten-don is the best, an attractive and tasty dish piled high with carrot, onion and seaweed tempura. The udon noodles are suitably fat but the creamy miso and vegetable soup they’re served in is quite bland. The Neba-Neba-don is as sticky as the menu suggests, in fact we’d go as far as slimy. Again it’s a bit bland and the texture pretty odd.
While it’s possible to drink alcohol here, we decide to stick with tea as there’s an interesting selection. We try Siawese, made from gogi and jujube berries, and Sasou, made from palm leaves and buckwheat. The Siawese promises to improve harmony between our organs and the Sasou to powerfully clean our bowels, something that makes us nervous.
We arrive at 7pm on a Monday night and the small restaurant is busy and buzzing. By 9pm we’re the only ones left. While we linger over our meal – and are made welcome to – for most people this is more of a pit-stop kind of place. At £13.50 for two courses, tea and service, it’s cheap eat territory (if you avoid wine at £5 a glass).
In some ways our evening ends with a few regrets. We wish we’d opted for one of the bento boxes or had an adventure with some fried noodles made from sweet potato. It certainly isn’t the best meal out we’ve ever had, but we’d consider returning to try out more of the menu.
Itadaki Zen, 139 King’s cross Road, WC1X 9BJ; www.itadakizen.com
If I asked you to conjure up an image of a person in their twenties who lived and worked in a huge city, you’d be forgiven for thinking that they’d not be that interested in gardening. And you’d probably think that for lots of good reasons – lack of time, space and money perhaps, if not a lack of inclination. But actually huge numbers of young Londoners are really into gardening.
Growing your own is extremely popular in the capital at the moment, whether you have a traditional garden space or not. From flats and houses to tower blocks and boats, there’s much urban space that’s currently playing host to a plant pot or three.
Aerial, edible gardening
Happily moving back to London after a year working away, I spent a few long months hunting for a place where I could make myself a home. I finally moved into a tiny flat in Islington in late 2008, which came with a roof terrace, accessed through a narrow door in my bedroom. I knew immediately that this was a special thing, my very own little aerial garden, but it took me a year to decide to do something with it other than use it as a place to sunbathe in the summer and generally ignore in the winter.
2009 was the year I decided to turn it into a wildlife friendly veggie garden. I had no idea what I was doing, I still don’t really, but with a little bit of determination the roof has been transformed from bare and bleak into a thriving jungle, where I’ve harvested strawberries, tomatoes, beans, herbs and salads, and hosted all kinds of birds, bees and butterflies. It’s hard express how joyful the experience has been.
Green eyes and fingers
As a faintly impoverished twenty something in rented accommodation, it can be a challenge to be a grower. It’s the challenge that makes it exciting though, that ‘against the odds’ element and the fact it’s perhaps slightly surprising even to try. What I love most about London is its endless capacity to surprise me. With my new interest in urban gardening has come the wonderful discovery that I’m not alone, that loads of people are getting creative with the most interesting of spaces.
I have new eyes now I’m officially a London gardener, eyes that are attracted to pots balancing on roof tops and that see every spare space as a potential flower bed or vegetable patch. London is absolutely full of green spaces. There are the glorious parks that mean the UK capital is known as one of the greenest cities in the world. But there are also hundreds of smaller scale, more secret gardens that the discerning urbanite can seek out – community gardens and orchards, allotments, local nature reserves and borough growing projects.
‘Get Growing’ (www.getgrowing.org.uk) is such a project based in the London borough of Hackney. Set up at the start of 2009 by Hedvig Murray and her friend Sara, it gives people who sign up the equipment, guidance and moral support to start growing vegetables in their outside space, whatever shape or size it may be. They worked with ten households in Hackney last season, whose growing spaces ranged from window boxes and roof terraces, to front steps and back yards. The people involved were novices or gardeners who’ve become disheartened due to a lack of success.
Hedvig and Sara taught the group the principles of permaculture and gave them one-on-one practical tuition. Their enthusiasm for the project is infectious, Hedvig glows with the sheer joy of sharing growing know how and watching the people who’ve signed up become confident gardeners. It’s a community building scheme too – through it they’ve linked up with various local projects, all devoted to urban growing and outreach work.
Hedvig took me to visit one of the gardens that’s part of the ‘Get Growing’ project – a front yard belonging to a lady called Joanne, a ten minute cycle from Hedvig’s own house. Joanne’s front garden and steps were dripping with veg. There were beans, courgettes, aubergines, strawberries, tomatoes, herbs and salad. Neighbours had started shouting compliments across the street. She plans to install a wormery and a compost bin next. Suddenly her street seems a much friendlier place and she’s bubbling with creative confidence.
I’ve stumbled upon various little growing projects over the last year. Peering through a fence in King’s Cross recently, I saw that several skips had been planted with vegetables. Daydreaming on Waterloo Bridge, my attention was caught by a scrap of green space where supermarket trolleys have become planters. The Radical Nature exhibition at the Barbican saw a slice of wasteland in east London turned over to wheat last July and August. The temporary installation came complete with a working windmill. Fresh flour was milled and bread baked on site and shared with visitors.
Turns out everyone’s at it. One of my best friends has just moved to west London after spending most of her post university years on the road, most recently in Africa. In need of adventure and her own a little bit of wilderness, she’s taken to climbing out of her bedroom window and has been gradually turning the flat roof of her house into a plant nursery. Last summer she successfully grew everything from aubergines to marrows out there, though apparently the cabbages were a disaster!
Another friend created a heaving tomato plantation in a glass laundry room down in south London. While a friend in a Camden flat, with no outside space but lots of windowsills, tells me he’s been growing strawberries. Another friend has a gorgeous floating deck-top garden aboard her boat on the Thames, which boasts views of Tower Bridge. I even had the pleasure to explore a roof top garden recently that’s home to three chickens. London is turning into a city of young farmers, nurturing land and livestock in all kinds of strange spaces.
This article appears in the April issue of Kitchen Garden magazine (page 38!)
You can read more about my roof garden on the Kitchen Garden website and at www.aerialediblegardening.co.uk
My year of edible, aerial gardening
an extract from my blog on http://www.kitchengarden.co.uk/hb-blog.php
I just had a lucky escape. I’m currently teaching my runner beans about the world outside my flat, hardening them off and sending them on day trips onto the roof. Today it’s drizzled all day and by night fall they were looking luscious, their floppy big green leaves covered in damp. The snail just couldn’t hold itself back. But I spotted it in time. I swear I heard it scream as I plucked it off one of my glorious bean plants.
They’re in for the night now, safe and sound. I am incredibly protective of these guys after sharing the last six weeks in close contact with them, but it really is time I claimed my room back, it’s turning into a bit of a jungle. The plan is to move them outside permanently in the next few days.
One of those terrible mornings
Last month’s seed planting means there are now sprouts all over the place. Inside, I have a healthy crop of tomato seedlings that will need potting on soon, as well as my bean collection, which gets ever taller. I’ve got rocket, loads of chives, one nasturtium and a couple of tiny basil plants. The basil’s been through a lot so I’m pretty proud of these two particular plants.
On one of those mornings where pretty much everything that could go wrong did, I collided with my pot of basil sending it flying. Soil everywhere. And on a morning when I really didn’t have time to hoover. Ugh. So a setback for the basil and some loud cursing from me, but it’s determined and so am I. We’re both doing OK, considering…
Roots, shoots and much basking
It’s so lovely out on the roof now the evenings are longer and the days warmer. I spent a good few hours doing nothing other than basking last weekend, the roof being transformed into an all day early April sun trap. The seeds I planted directly outside are coming along nicely. The beans and tomatoes are a lot smaller than those planted inside, but I think they’re going to be super tough.
My radishes are flourishing, as is my coriander. The parsley is starting to appear now and I have four little sunflower shoots. My strawberries have at least doubled in size and have buds, and the mint is going mad. I decided to try growing some cucumber to complete my Pimms cocktail planting plan but that hasn’t worked, there’s nothing happening in the cucumber pot sadly. I’ll try again.
Come on love, jump on board
I went to Columbia Road in east London a couple of weeks ago. It’s a half hour bus ride from where I live and you know you’re getting close when you start spotting people with arms full of plants or cars driving past with foliage spilling out of windows and sun roofs.
Columbia Road is a street in Hackney that hosts a flower market every Sunday from 8am til 2pm. It gets absolutely packed with all kinds of people. You have to steal yourself slightly before braving the crowds surrounding the stalls but it’s worth it. “Come on love, jump on board” shout the Cockney vendors, flaunting their vegetal wares.
It’s a fantastic place to pick up a bargain. I’d decided that I wanted a small tree for the roof, a native that wildlife would like. I picked up a lovely little hazel there for a fiver. I named him Hugh and we had a fun bus ride home. Londoners are often accused of being an unfriendly bunch but you always get lots of smiles when you travel with a large plant.
Before heading home though, Hugh and I walked over to Hackney City Farm and met an absolutely enormous pig. The pretty, wildlife friendly garden at the farm is really inspiring, they grow all kinds of fruit, herbs and veg. I’ve planted Hugh in a large deep blue ceramic pot on the roof with a couple of heathers. Hugh and the heathers are doing well – he’s looking very jolly covered in springtime buds.
Non human visitations
I’ve started getting some visitors to the roof of the non human variety other than pesky squirrels (who have been especially pesky of late, after deciding to have a good dig at my radishes). I have a blackbird who visits daily, and I’ve seen blue tits and robins along with the wood pigeons. The most exciting sighting was a pair of jays, looking stunning in the sycamore tree that is in one of my neighbour’s gardens. The birds are so noisy at the moment, in the evenings and again at silly-o-clock in the morning. I’ve had a couple of bees buzzing about and I’ve spotted more foxes recently, down in the gardens that I get a brilliant view over from the roof.
Dreams of summer moonbathing
I’ve been thinking and writing about night gardening again and I’ve decided to have a night corner on the roof. I already have jasmine and honeysuckle plants, which are all sprouty at the moment and will soon be fragrant in the evenings and loved by moths. I’m also going to plant some evening primroses and tobacco plants. Moths are attracted by sugary scents and pale colours, using both to navigate.
Last summer I went on a very urban moth spotting evening in King’s Cross and discovered how intricately beautiful and varied they are. Some of our native species look like tiny birds, with exotic bright feathers and stunning markings. Moths are precious pollinators and a vital food source for other garden species, so being moth friendly makes sense. It will also be lovely to have a garden full of flowers that glow after dark. I’m as much a fan of moonbathing as of sunbathing.
I’m hoping my design for the roof garden will begin to take more shape over the next month, as my seedlings turn into larger plants and I start getting a bit more organised about where everything lives. I’ve drawn out a final flat plan of how I’d like the roof to look, I’ll post it up here next month.
My main concern at the moment though is that I’m going to be leaving the roof to fend for itself for a while. I’m off on holiday for a couple of weeks soon. Luckily my flatmate has agreed to babysit, although I think she’s feeling the weight of this responsibility and is rather nervous! I’m sure all will be well.
This month I’m reading ‘Let us now praise famous gardens’ by Vita Sackville-West and checking out the ‘Garden Pieces’ season at the British Film Institute http://www.bfi.org.uk/whatson/bfi_southbank/film_programme/april_seasons/garden_pieces
http://columbiaroad.info/ – more about the market
www.hackneycityfarm.co.uk – down on the city farm
www.wildlondon.org.uk – love London’s wild side
Read more on http://www.kitchengarden.co.uk/hb-blog.php