Gelf Alderson, River Cottage HQ: Smoke, umami and golden syrup:
Head Chef Gelf Alderson explains some of the cooking techniques that make the restaurant a plant-based heaven loved by everyone, meat-fanatics included
If you stop for a minute to think about it, vegetables are so much more exciting and interesting than meat — both for a chef to work with and for people to eat. You have the four mainstays of meat, pork, beef, lamb and chicken — and yes, they all have their individual flavours — but in the veg patch there could be 50–60 different vegetables which can be more flavoursome and beautiful and make a far more exciting dish.
At River Cottage, we’ve always had a strong veg focus. In fact, on the menus of the restaurants half of the dishes are veg-based; it’s something Hugh is really keen on and as someone who was brought up as a vegetarian, I am really committed to it too.
The key to ensuring people are tantalised by plant-based dishes is to make them look, sound and taste delicious. First up, we have to make sure everyone stops boiling vegetables. Most of the veg we serve is either sautéed or roasted. It’s these techniques that harness the best flavours, keep it all packed in and enhance it. So, for example at the moment, we’ve got beans on the menu and we cook them in a smoking hot pan with a bit of salt and the lid on. Just a couple of minutes — delicious. People forget that you can eat pretty much all veg raw anyway, so it really won’t hurt if it’s undercooked.
I think that another key factor in getting people to eat more vegetable dishes is not making a big song and dance about it being vegetarian or vegan. So, here at River Cottage HQ we do a four-course dinner and meat only appears on one dish. By treating the dish with the same level of effort and love and care as the meat dishes and making them sound delicious, people lap them up. To me, chermoula carrots and labneh sounds so much more interesting than a simple hanger steak. We’ve been using green strawberries in dishes a lot this year and it’s really grabbed everyone’s attention.
Flavour is really important, particularly for meat eaters when they have a vegetarian dish. That’s where chefs come into their own. I’ve been doing a lot of smoked onions this year, over oak chips — they provide a really ‘meaty’ flavour. And I’ve made a really exciting discovery too. Our friends at Hodmedods are making us a special soy sauce with British-grown fermented fava beans. We’ve been trialling it over the last few weeks and I’m really happy with it because it provides that all-important umami flavour.
For the meat dishes we do serve at HQ, which incidentally use only organic meat, we’re always experimenting with new ways of enhancing flavour — so it blows you away in a couple of mouthfuls and you really don’t need that much. I think we can change the mindset of those people who just expect to have a slab of meat on their plate. Our sticky beef for instance, the neck and shoulder, braised for 24 hours in stock and then broken into chunks, painted with golden syrup, glucose, stock and aromatics and put back in the oven has such an intense flavour that even the most carnivorous are satisfied after a few mouthfuls.
I think we’re going to see a slow but certain sea-change in people eating less meat. The writing is on the wall. Whether that’s about them becoming all-out vegetarians or vegans, or going back to how our parents used to eat, where meat was once or twice weekly event. The change is on the horizon.
Interview by our partners, the Sustainable Restaurant Association