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A Lunch With... the food- and flower-focused SSAW Collective

Over a seasonal spread, the growers and chefs behind SSAW Collective told Inigo about conscious creating and their soil-to-table ethos – and taught us how to make sustainable Christmas decorations

Photography
Ellen Hancock
A Lunch With... the food- and flower-focused SSAW Collective

Seasons’ greetings from SSAW Collective. That’s right – with this lot, all the seasons are worth celebrating. SSAW, which stands for Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter, is an ethical events company comprising of florists and growers Olivia Wilson and Jess Geissendorfer, plus chef Lulu Cox. The three came together in 2020, shortly before the pandemic took hold. “We were all used to working at events where, say, the food was carefully sourced from independent regenerative farmers, but the flowers were imported or out of season,” Olivia says, “or the flowers were British, but the meat wasn’t high welfare – and some of these were for ethical brands! It seemed obvious to us that there should be a connection between the two.” Their motto is simple: seasonal is sustainable, whether you’re talking food or flowers – and many are rightly taking notice. Clients of SSAW’s include House of Hackney, Newcomer Wines and Groundswell Agricultural Festival.

In the last two years, the collective has been developing its holistic approach to events – and they feel privileged to be doing it in a way that is resourceful, considered and doesn’t cost the environment. Though all based in London, the trio has plots of land in Essex and Hertfordshire on which they grow both flowers and produce (they also sell floral subscriptions – a diversification effort that saw them through lockdown). The flowers they use at events – both their own and other growers’ – are strictly British. “The climate here is incredible for growing,” says Jess. “There’s zero need for flowers from Holland – but only if you change your mindset. Instead of thinking: ‘I want this flower in December’, we should aim to be thinking: ‘What flowers can I get in December?’” It is, she says, not actually that hard a mental leap. “Just think if someone gave you a mince pie in August. You’d think they were mad!”

Speaking of December, it seems sustainable flowers are for life and for Christmas. Below, they’ve shared instructions on how to make your own pompom decorations, using little more than foraged ginkgo leaves and compostable wire. Hang them on trees and hooks – or simply dot them on your festive table arrangement.

SSAW’s approach to food, while no less compromising on sustainability, is less stringent on the British thing. It’s for good reason, Lulu insists. “For instance it can sometimes be better to use carefully sourced olive oil – like the regenerative Two Fields – than rapeseed,” she says. “Rapeseed isn’t easy to grow in the UK without the use of chemical nitrogen, herbicides and pesticides. With rising temperatures, it’s only going to become more difficult to manage without using harmful chemicals.” Those are the kind of things we need to be thinking about, she says. Through spending time on their plots, growing flowers, vegetables and herbs, as well visiting and working on other farms, the three have a deep understanding of what’s in season in this country and when. All this knowledge goes into shaping their menus, table displays and all-round creative vision.

Lulu isn’t anti-meat either – as her meatball recipe below proves. “You just have to engage with the process. Ask the questions, work out where things are coming from.” One thing she finds particularly heartening is that the disconnection between soil and table “has only happened in the last two generations. It’s reversible!” SSAW doesn’t proselytise, but Lulu, Olivia and Jess are passionate that education and open discourse are crucial to a more sustainable, land-focused future. As well as being a joy, working together as a three has, they say, made them feel braver about sticking to their principles. “But we’re not perfect,” Olivia adds. “What we’re really aiming for is transparency and for the conversations to be happening in public so that everyone – including us – can learn and grow. It’s not about telling people what they can’t have, it’s about working out what we can all enjoy.”

Tips and tricks for making ginkgo pompoms, from Jess Geissendorfer and Olivia Wilson

Preparation

“Now is the perfect time to find ginkgo leaves, as they’re starting to fall. Normally, a ginkgo loses all its leaves in one day, so look out for piles of fallen yellow on the floor. Ginkgo biloba L. is one of the oldest trees on earth and is amazing at absorbing carbon dioxide, which means you can find one in virtually every green space. Often, park rangers are quite happy for you to take them – you’re saving them a job! It’s always best to ask, though.

“Before you start making the pompoms, leave the leaves to dry for a day or two. You want them free of water but not brittle, as otherwise they won’t be easy to use. Once the pompoms are finished, however, they’ll continue drying, turning this lovely Christmassy golden hue. They can stay up for the whole festive season – even longer if you like!”

Construction

“There are loads of ways you can make these. The nice thing is you don’t have to be creative. All you need is some common sense and some thin and malleable wire – we use reel wire, which is very easy to find and is absolutely wonderful, as it’s compostable. It just rusts and eventually breaks down.

“The easiest method of making a pompom is in a bow shape. Start with about a metre of wire in one hand, and then build a small posy of about 10 leaves, stems together. They can be different shapes, sizes and colourations, and they don’t have to lie flat – in fact, it’s quite nice if they don’t. Wrap with a couple of twists of wire and repeat the process, this time laying the new posy on top of the old, facing the other direction – like a butterfly. Bind them together and repeat until you can’t fit any more in. You can trim the stems at any point after binding if it makes it more manageable – just don’t go too short.”

Decoration

“The steps above will leave you with a full and frilly pompom, but with quite a tough centre with all that wire, and with no way to hang it. Our favourite thing to do is to gently work some ribbon between the ruffled leaves to cover any unsightly wire and secure. A bow at the top looks lovely. Use a long enough piece and you can fashion a loop from which to hang it. Et voilà!

“Our preference is for cruelty-free, plant-dyed silk ribbons. They’re not as hard to come by as they sound! We use some from Etsy, which come in such pretty colours. They have a gentle stiffness to them, which means the bows hold really well. Just make sure to use some really sharp fabric scissors to avoid frays.”

Veal and pork citrus meatballs, from Lulu Cox

“There are dairy farms in the UK producing the most delicious veal in an ethical way. The male offspring are kept with their mothers until natural weaning, which happens at 8-10 months. Horton House, a Pasture for Life-certified farm in Wiltshire, sells beautifully produced and ethically sound veal through Farmdrop, which we highly recommend.

This recipe works really well served with a simple but hearty risotto made with chicken stock and parmesan or Berkswell, a delicious ewe’s milk cheese stocked by Neal’s Yard Dairy.”

Serves 6

Ingredients
500g veal mince
200g pork (or chicken) mince
50g grated Berkswell cheese
3 tsp salt
Grated zest of ½ a lemon
½ tsp grated nutmeg
50g stale white sourdough
90ml whole milk
250ml chicken stock
2 lemons

Method
Place both minces into a large mixing bowl, add the cheese, salt, lemon zest and grated nutmeg. Tear the bread into rough chunks, place in a separate smaller bowl and pour the milk on top. Leave for a few minutes to let the bread soak up the milk.

Once all the liquid has gone, add the bread to the mince and mix everything together really well. Leave in the fridge for at least three hours, preferably overnight.

Preheat the oven to 220°C.

Roll the meatballs into approximately 70g balls – this will make 12. Slice the lemons into rounds around 1cm thick and place one on top of each meatball – a festive citrus hat! Then get the chicken stock on the stove to heat up, before placing the meatballs in a ceramic or cast-iron dish that they fit snugly inside, leaving, if you can, a centimetre or two in between each ball.

Place in the oven and cook for 10 minutes, until the hats are starting to colour and slightly catch in places. Lower the oven temperature to 150°C and pour 250ml of hot chicken stock into the dish, so that the meatballs are semi-submerged. Place the lid on top and cook very gently for 40 minutes.

Serve with parmesan risotto and a seasonal salad, or tenderstem broccoli with caper butter.

Further reading

SSAW Collective

SSAW Collective on Instagram

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