Friday 8 June. Today is World Oceans Day. It is a day where we should all come together and celebrate the sheer wonder of the oceans and try to give some sort of thanks for how they are paramount to our continued existence.
As you will all be aware, however, we treat our oceans like crap and we have been doing so for so long now that a lot of the damage we have done is irreversible. Thanks to David Attenborough and the amazing Blue Planet series, the world can no longer hide from the terrible impact that we are having on our planet and on wildlife. So it seems particularly appropriate that I dedicate today’s blog post to one of the current villains of the packaging world, and tell you all about a plastic-free supper club that I attended a couple of weeks ago, hosted by event caterers Peardrop.
At a secret, undisclosed location, just a 10 minute walk from Old Street roundabout, a group of chefs teamed up with some industry experts to host a supper club dedicated to raising awareness about the issue of plastics, particularly within the food industry.
Soaking up the last of the days sun rays by the canal side somewhere in Islington, our Plastic Pledge Supper Club started off with a complimentary date pisco sour. An alcoholic drink of Peruvian origin, this cocktail marked the beginning of our plastic-free journey by being served in an “upcycled” jar as opposed to a standard glass or an outdoor-safe plastic cup.
Having been asked inside to take our seats for the panel discussion, we each found our designated place setting and set about dissecting the evenings’ menu. The top of the menu introduced the five panelists taking part in the discussion; ranging from a marine biologist, to chefs, to business owners. A glass of gin & tonic appeared in my hand and we settled back to hear each participant talk about the impact that plastic packaging has had on their own lives, and the different measures each has taken to try and reduce usage of the material.
Underneath the menu for the supper club lay a checklist of pledges to go without certain plastic items for a certain amount of time which we were encouraged to fill out. Being the eco-friendly person that I think I am, I ticked every single one and pledged to go a lifetime without them all. My good intentions went straight to hell, however, as soon as the supper club was over as a post-dinner trip to the pub saw my second G&T come to the table with a straw in it. Damn.
Perhaps this in itself though was more thought provoking than making the pledges themselves. I can definitely say that in the last year I have striven in several areas of my life to actively try and reduce the amount of plastic packaging I accumulate. For example, I no longer buy my fruit and vegetables from supermarkets to avoid the dreaded excessive packaging, and instead buy my fresh produce loose from local market stalls. So to walk into a pub (which I do fairly often) and to immediately be presented with something as unnecessary as a straw almost reduces my own intentions to mean nothing. It therefore goes to show how reliant we are on each other and industry to help us lead more plastic-free lives.
The end of the panel discussion marked the start of the food. The first chef up was self-proclaimed “eco-chef” Tom Hunt of Bristol’s Poco. Tom has not only taken the bold decision to eliminate plastic from his restaurant, he also serves a menu of ingredients that are predominantly certified organic, sourced locally and in season. His amuse bouche of rhubarb oyster ceviche was the embodiment of this seasonal principle. Although wild oysters are only in season in months with an “r” in them, farmed oysters are available all year round and are one of the most sustainable production methods for farmed fish in existence.
Although the menu said sweet stem cauliflower, the next dish – courtesy of Anna Barnett – was changed to tenderstem broccoli dressed with a fresh parsley oil and cubes of rich, salty chorizo. The change was a result of supply issues, with TSB being far more readily available in May than sweet stem cauliflower. Anna, who is a healthy food advocate, currently writes the food pages for Grazia magazine, is a travel blogger and hosts a number of pop-ups and supper clubs.
The option to have an additional dish of tempura feta was an absolute no-brainer. I’ve had a lot of deep fried and oven baked cheeses in my life, but tempura feta was a new one for me and one which I had to try. The quality of the feta cheese used was apparent as soon as I bit into it, teeth crunching through that light and crispy tempura batter. Even though it was warm from the fryer, the cheese held its shape and it was salty but not to the extent that has you gasping for water. It was absolutely delicious and I would say a bit of a game changer in the world of fried cheese. Beautiful roasted cherry tomatoes added a sweetness and were sat on little dollops of Italian meringue, which added an unusual element to the dish but not much in terms of flavour. The final part of this dish was some fabulous long shards of tempura wild garlic, hitting those seasonal ingredients straight on the head.
Our last plate before the main course came from Jasmine Hemsley. Known for her cookery show with sister Melissa, these sisters are committed to eating food and living a lifestyle that promotes positive wellbeing. Jasmine’s ethos towards food is very much centred around naturalness and simplicity. The dish she designed for this supper club came out on sharing wooden boards and looked pretty as a picture. Braised baby gem lettuce was topped with a fennel seed and sesame gomashio – a Japanese inspired dry condiment – and was served with little spoonfuls of carrot top and anchovy pesto. It was great to see that the green ferny carrot tops, which are usually discarded, were being used in this course; a lovely bit of inspiration for reducing unnecessary food waste.
The main course for us non-vegetarians (or vegans) was a gorgeous plate of Suffolk wood pigeon served with roasted carrots, on a spoonful of rhubarb labneh (a strained yoghurt) and a pistachio dukkah. This dish came from our host of the evening Rose Lloyd Owen, head chef of event caterers Peardrop. Rose is a chef dedicated to healthy food which, for her, goes beyond the topline associations with watching what you eat in terms of nutrition, but includes eating sustainably and ensuring that meat and fish is ethically reared. Being game meat, the Suffolk wood pigeon is not raised in captivity and leads a normal life in the wilderness that is the English countryside…until it is shot by a farmer.
Game meat pairs extremely well with fruits and the rhubarb labneh that this wood pigeon sat on was no exception. Around the edge of the wood pigeon lay several yellow flowers which turned out to be gorse flowers. These flowers had been pickled so that they had a nice little acidic kick which provided a lovely contrast to the iron-rich pigeon and the heady gravy that came with it.
For the non-meat eaters among us, they had the pleasure of digging into this dukkah spiced tartlet, which came with the same garnish as the pigeon and a watercress salad. The spice mix dukkah originates from the Egyptians and usually consists of toasted coriander and cumin seeds, along with other herbs, nuts and spices. I didn’t get to try this dish, but the vegetarian in our group had a rather big smile on his face as he tucked into it. Although that could have quite easily have also been the effect of the fourth bottle of wine arriving at our table.
The supper club was brought to a close by dessert courtesy of chef Chantelle Nicholson, who runs Marcus Wareing’s Tredwells in Covent Garden. She had made an entirely vegan chocolate mousse, served with passionfruit and cubes of chamomile jelly. While not being a vegan or even a vegetarian herself, Chantelle wrote her cookbook Planted: A Chef’s Show-stopping Vegan Recipes back in 2016 to advocate the benefits of eating a plant-based diet. The book showcases recipes that use plant-based alternative ingredients such as aquafaba (the juice from a can of chickpeas) to make foods that have traditionally used animal-derived ingredients. This chocolate mousse was no exception, using aquafaba which acts as the egg whites, giving the mousse its light and fluffy texture.
So what did we learn from our Plastic Pledge Supper Club? Personally, nothing that I wasn’t already aware of in terms of our plastic use and where it ends up. For me, I think the most eye-opening part of the night was how difficult it is to keep the pledges we make to stop using plastic, especially when our usage of it isn’t even always determined by our own behaviour. It was fantastic to see some high profile chefs really getting behind and supporting this type of cause, and of course, getting to eat all that delicious food didn’t harm the evening either. It would have been interesting to hear how the chefs have worked with their suppliers to try and eliminate the use of plastic, particularly as how many greens – herbs especially – usually arrive at restaurants all trussed up in plastic bags. I also would have liked to have seen some sort of follow up from the event to see how everyone has been getting on with their pledges, as I suspect many people have also found them nigh-on impossible to keep. There is a long, long way to go in changing how we currently use and dispose of plastic in the UK and indeed, the rest of the world. Hopefully, though, we are on the precipice of some real change and, whatever you do today, make sure you do something to support the oceans #WorldOceansDay.