“Cowslip wine, dandelion and burdock, raspberry wine, potato wine. I do remember, we even made parsnip wine.”
Eighty-nine-year old Vi is telling me about being evacuated during the war from the East End of London to Catcott, a tiny village in rural Somerset. She has an impeccable head of white curls and a smart blue coat pulled tight against the blustery May day. She remembers sunburnt afternoons spent scrumping for apples and blackberries and brewing wines at home.
Nearly 75 years on, Vi is still making drinks, although we couldn’t be further from the splendour of the Somerset countryside. We’re huddled around a hawthorn tree in Eastbrookend Country Park, way out to the east of London where the urban sprawl fades wearily into the Essex countryside. We’re on a foraging expedition – me and a group of volunteers – traipsing along rough gravel tracks, around lakes and through tussocky grassland in search of hawthorn blossom. The flowers we gather today will be made into drinks by Company Drinks, a Barking-based enterprise whose offerings range from elderflower lemonade to green hop tonic and rosemary cordial.
Established in 2014 by artist Kathrin Böhm, Company Drinks is a drinks company, obviously, but it also draws on that other definition of company – companionship, being around friends – to reimagine what a food business might look like. Where a typical business calculates labour as a cost, Company Drinks asks what it would mean for labour, from foraging, to picking, growing and gleaning, to be valuable in its own right. What if, it asks, the making of food was as valued as the eating?
And so every so often, volunteers like myself (a newcomer), Vi and Kathrin’s three children come out on picking trips just like this one. Sometimes there is a coach trip to the countryside, volunteers descending en masse on a hop farm or blackcurrant field. Other times, like today, are a low-key affair, people drifting in gradually, swept in from all corners of the borough in buses and on foot. In the country park, we trudge in search of elderflower in vain, but are buoyed when we come across a couple of the hawthorns, festooned in delicate ivory flowers. Another volunteer, Joyceline, who lives near Barking, meditatively picks the flowers into an old yoghurt carton. “It’s very, very therapeutic,” she tells me. “It always lifts my spirit up.”
In the country park’s Millennium Centre, Kathrin demonstrates how the hawthorn flowers that we have picked will be infused with sugar and water, creating a sweet, lightly floral drink, which will be bottled and sold. All of flowers, herbs and fruits picked by the Company Drinks volunteers are made into drinks – sold cheaply in the deprived Barking and Dagenham where most of its volunteers live and work, and more expensively in stockists elsewhere in the capital. The idea is that food production can be communal, and that its profits should be directed back into the communities that create the drinks. Company Drinks aims to forge a space, its mission statement reads, “where we can meet to produce something useful with and for each other.”
There’s a danger here of slipping into a distinctly middle-class foodie daydream of reconnecting with your senses, of the magic of working with your hands after a long day of office work. The romanticisation of farming and cooking tends to overlook the tangled intersections of who gets to enjoy cooking as a leisure activity, and who works in the difficult, often poorly-paid business of feeding people, day in, day out. But the Company Drinks agenda isn’t indulgent. Nor does it gloss over the lines of class, gender and race along which food divides – between production and consumption, server and served – tend to emerge.
In spite of its city status, the East End of London has a rich rural history. In summer, there would be an exodus of a working class populace out to the Essex and Kent countryside to pick hops or help with the harvest, travelling from the city into the fresh air on a working holiday. Many of the Company Drinks volunteers are of a generation that still remembers that labour. In one of the city’s poorest boroughs, projects like the foraging trips are vital reminders of an undervalued culinary heritage.
This convergence of the rural and the urban is at the heart of Company Drinks. “You know, it looks like countryside here,” confides Böhm, “but it isn’t.” This undulating landscape of lake and meadow at Eastbrookend Country Park was, until 1995, a wasteland left behind from the construction of the Becontree Estate, a vast social housing development built to replace the East End slums after the First World War. The still, pewter lake fills the footprint of an old quarry pit; the hawthorn now raining petal confetti is younger than most of today’s volunteers.
This is an in-between place, neither urban nor pristinely rural. “It is more useful to look at the rural as a way of living rather than a space,” Böhm says, and this is precisely what she has done with Company Drinks, reconnecting an East End population with a countryside from which they have been largely alienated. The countryside is brought into the city, the city dwellers are taken out to green spaces. People of all ages, mostly working-class, many who live alone or unable to work or socialise much, are gathered together in a collective, social, unhurried food-making process.
In this verdant, flourishing open space, we come across a second hawthorn, so thick with blossom that seems to shimmer as the sun breaks through the heavy, scudding clouds. We pick them slowly and socially, talking in little clusters before reconvening for a leisurely lunch. Vi has made a Victoria sponge nearly as tall as it is wide. We take far longer eating than we spent foraging, but away from the exigencies of profit and productivity, this doesn’t seem to matter.
I ask Vi what’s kept her coming on Company Drinks trips, time after time, for the past five years. “Well,” she muses, “it’s company, isn’t it?”