This post originally appeared on the Culture Vulture blog
“A food-loving vegetarian? That’s an oxymoron, surely?” “You’re missing out on the best part of any meal!” “Where do you get the flavour from?” “WHAT’S WRONG with you?!”
Oh, the joys of being a vegetarian. New acquaintances eye us with suspicion, their faces contorting with confusion when we mention that dreaded ‘v’ word. Many restaurants just don’t get us at all, thinking it’s ok to only provide one solitary vegetarian option, usually the clichéd ‘spinach and ricotta lasagne’, or something equally unimaginative. Even our best friends think we’re ‘weird’, assuming that although it’s been 15 years, we’re bound to grow out of this ‘phase’ any day now.
But there’s so much more to fine food than meat, and over the past few years it’s become increasingly clear that Leeds gets this. It recognises that ‘food lover’ and ‘vegetarian’ aren’t mutually exclusive terms, that vegetarianism is not going away and that, shock horror, vegetarian food can actually be pretty damn good. As a result, more and more Leeds food purveyors are excelling in providing vegetarian experiences that not only equal, but rival their meaty counterparts, even those purveyors that you’d traditionally associate with more meaty affairs.
Purveyors like The Greedy Pig.
The Greedy Pig is a small café with a big reputation. Run by husband-and-wife team, Jo and Stu, it’s become renowned for the superb quality and amazing value of its offerings, whether that its highly acclaimed cooked breakfasts, home-made vegetarian scotch eggs, or its pulled pork that’s often described by the good people of twitter as the stuff of legends. The Greedy Pig might not be somewhere that you’d immediately associate with innovative veggie cuisine, but Jo and Stu are proud of their veggie credentials, which they celebrated this week with their first ever vegetarian supper club. Five vegetarian courses inspired by food from around the world, crafted using fine Yorkshire produce and served in the beautiful Handpicked Hall. When Jo kindly invited me to go along, I’m sure you can guess my response…
Arriving just before 7pm, a group of us hovered in the Grand Arcade before the doors were opened and we were welcomed inside Handpicked Hall. The door was bolted behind us and as we walked through the empty store, it felt very clandestine, as if we were being let in on a wonderful secret that only a select group of us had been deemed worthy of hearing. But I’m rubbish at keeping secrets, so if you haven’t been to the Handpicked Hall yet, you must go. Immediately. A unique department store with a mission to bring the independents back to the high street, it’s a visual feast of trinkets, food stuffs, crafts, art, vintage goodies and many other delights, all wonderfully curated to give the impression that the entire building is like an enormous gallery, or even a work of art itself.
We were led to the second floor, where three large tables were laid out in a cavernous space beneath a huge, arched window still seeming to bear the original brickwork and carvings from when the arcade was originally built in the 1800s. It was an intimate setting, arranged to encourage mingling, conversation, and enjoying the experience as a group. And it worked, with all guests freely chatting with each other, hungrily sharing their excitement and anticipation for the evening ahead. It was interesting to meet non-vegetarians too, there for the prospect of a night of good food – because good food doesn’t have to include meat! Who’d have thought…
At the centre of each table was a framed menu, proudly declaring the sublime feast that awaited us. Now, we’ve all heard the age-old adage ‘you eat with your eyes first’. We often associate this with food visuals, but I’m a firm believer that there are few things more powerful than a beautifully-crafted menu. The language of food can be incredibly seductive and stirring, and the Roots to Shoots Menu was a fantastic example of this. Each course was a sequence of intensely evocative words, arousing tummy rumbles, salivation and impatient twitches as I awaited the moment of food gratification. Over the top? Maybe this is why my friends think I’m weird…
That moment of gratification finally arrived, as our first course was laid before us: a Carpaccio of Vegetables. I loved the menu’s playful use of oxymoron, which in reality described a dish that exquisitely demonstrated the virtues of the raw vegetable. Crunchy slivers of raw cauliflower, radish and beetroot were contrasted with creamy chunks of avocado, drizzled with a salty but well-balanced black olive dressing. The real surprise of the dish was the ‘Avocado Cream’, a luxuriant, avocado-based sorbet which confidently crowned the dish. The combination of bright colours, contrasting textures, heats and flavours was jubilant, and a fitting start to a celebration of meat-free cuisine.
Ravenously awaiting our second course, The Greedy Pig’s command of the language of food beguiled us once again as we tried to unpick what ‘Kitcheree Balls’ could be. Collectively channelling our inner sleuths, our table deduced that it must be curried risotto balls, inspired by kedgeree. And we were right! Sort of. We were told that kedgeree was in fact inspired by kitcheree, a traditional Indian superfood of mung beans and rice. So there you go. The kitcheree was encased in perfectly rounded golden balls that perched on a bed of creamy, lightly curried mayonnaise, crunchy cauliflower with a mild acidity and sour lemon confit. Inside the balls was a silky yellow mixture of rice and beans, delicately flavoured with curry powder. They were absolutely divine; a sensational introduction to a dish I’d never even heard of before.
I was ready to declare the Kitcheree Balls my favourite, but then course three happened. OH MY, course three. Freshly procured from Leeds’ newest fine cheese shop, George and Joseph, Barncliffe Brie took the centre stage, truffled Barncliffe Brie no less. Mustard yellow, oozy and full of earthy depth, the brie was loaded into a crispy filo pastry case, generously topped with wild mushrooms and served on a nest of leaves woven with walnuts. If that wasn’t sensual enough, the truffled brie was served with an Old Winchester Pesto. Now, if you’re a regular at Leeds’ Cheese Club, Homage2Fromage, chances are you’ll have encountered Old Winchester. Old Winchester is a sensational cheese. My good friend Rachel even had a borderline religious experience whilst tasting it. It’s THAT good. A hard artisan cheddar, it has a salty, nutty punch that, when used as a key component in a home-made pesto, produced a result akin to magic. So yeah, course three was pretty special.
Course four intrigued me. I adore empanadas, having fell in love with them during two months spent travelling in South America. I have fond memories of cheesy, savoury fillings encased in a crisp pastry wrapper, but I’d never tried plantain before so I wasn’t sure what to expect. My first bite introduced me to an unusual blend of flavours and textures, dominated by an intense sweetness. This sweetness permeated the soft bean mixture that filled the empanada to the point that I couldn’t distinguish what was plantain and what wasn’t. The pastry also tasted different, its texture softer and more cake-like. The intrigue was shared by others on our table, until a chef among us revealed that the pastry itself was actually made of plantain, a puréed plantain that was fused with the mixture. And whilst the empanada was very sweet, it was served with green rice; a fried rice mixed with chilli, garlic and herbs including coriander and parsley, which cut through the sweetness perfectly. A very unusual dish.
I had hit my food-endurance wall by this point, but it’s a scientific fact that we all have a second stomach designed specifically to accommodate desserts. The science behind this might be a little shaky, but you can’t argue with the evidence – the total demolition of our final course, the Honey and Chestnut Cheesecake. Yet another intriguing description, I really wasn’t sure if I’d like this. I use chestnuts when I make my own nut roasts, but I’ve always seen them as a savoury ingredient, not a sweet one. Wrong, again. The use of chestnuts in this cheesecake was a revelation. Puréed chestnuts wove through the cheesecake mixture to give it a unique, grainy texture, whilst the cheese and honey ensured it was rich, sweet and completely decadent. Topped with soft, squidgy whole chestnuts and a pear and cranberry relish, it felt festive, begging to be accompanied with a steaming mug of mulled wine and your cosiest Christmas jumper.
Five courses devoured, all that was left was the obligatory after-dinner coffees before we said our farewells. But as you’d guess, even the coffees were special at Roots to Shoots. Our baristas for the evening were the guys behind newly-opened North Star Roast, which they proudly introduced to us as Leeds’ first micro-roaster. Dedicated to sourcing, roasting and supplying the best quality coffees that they can find, it was completely inspiring to meet the boys and hear them talk so ardently and knowledgeably about coffee. They presented us with two options for our coffee, an Ethiopian and Colombian variety, and after we’d made our choices we watched them retreat to a corner where, like a pair of scientists in a lab, they expertly used a range of coffee apparatus to produce small glass tumblers of black gold. I chose the Colombia Villa Esperanza on the basis of their description of it as rich, buttery and acidic, which was spot on. Another brilliant new addition to Leeds’ burgeoning coffee scene, I look forward to seeing much more of these boys in the future.
After our meal, I thanked Jo and she took me around the corner from our tables to show me the ‘kitchen’ that they been cooking in. I was flabbergasted. There were just a couple of microwaves and portable stoves, washing up bowls filled with hot soapy water, and not much else. I can’t even comprehend how they managed to create such a feast in that space, and that’s a testament to the enormous skill and talent between the two of them.
Roots to Shoots was an incredible evening. A vegetarian voyage around the world, it introduced us to unique and unusual flavours, pairings and recipes, whilst celebrating the incredible produce to be found in Yorkshire. Proof that vegetarian food IS exciting, innovative and utterly delicious, Jo and Stu should be very proud of what they achieved. Restaurants take note – there’s more to vegetarian food than spinach and ricotta! And with an appetite for more vegetarian Pop up Pigs in the future, The Greedy Pig is definitely somewhere to keep firmly on your fine food radar, vegetarian or not.