The Court Circular investigates a local arts centre café’s fight back against food wastage.
Words | Orin Carlin
In the UK, almost £1.2bn worth of fruit, veg and bread is binned every year. Terrifying isn’t it? But on tackling such a pressing issue, it’s difficult to know where to start. My ideas on minimising food
waste begin and end with helpfully polishing off the remainder of the Christmas biscuit selection. Needless to say, for the sake of our planet, it’s a good job I’m not the one in charge. Thankfully, a local community arts centre got cracking a few years ago when they launched their sustainability-focused café, which transforms surplus food into tasty treats.
For over 30 years, Riverhouse Barn Arts Centre, based on Manor Road in Walton-on-Thames, has celebrated the arts and served the local community. It provides an annual programme of events, jampacked with opportunities to immerse yourself in music, drama, comedy, cabaret and art. The centre’s café used to be run by various external organisations before long-term volunteer Sasha Nash had a lightbulb moment.
She floated the idea of bringing the café in-house and relaunching it with a new emphasis on sustainable practices. The café’s fairy godmother(s) came in the form of an army of dedicated volunteers who gave it a makeover and thus, Community Café @ Riverhouse was born!
Open from 10am to 4pm daily, the café is run by a friendly team of paid and volunteer staff. There are some staple options on the menu which are always available, but otherwise the offering changes daily in response to whatever produce is delivered to the kitchen.
Through a platform called Neighbourly, the café regularly receives food donations and produce which is either past its sell-by date, wrongly labelled, damaged or unsellable, from the local Marks & Spencer.
“It’s a personal relationship that we’ve built up with them,” Sasha says, referring to the M&S team. “They’re really lovely, lovely staff there. They get what we’re doing, and we’ve also invited them as a thank you to have free tickets to comedy events and other occasions.”
“This is just a slightly different, individualistic way of cooking, which makes it fun.”
As far as the quality of the food goes, after tasting I am seriously impressed (and not just because I am yet to master the art of boiling an egg). In between mouthfuls of a generous slice of cherry and almond cake, I ask volunteer Sarah Van Hesteren about the magical transformation process that exists between receiving produce and serving it to customers.
“I’ve always liked cooking; I’ve always been a really keen cook. This is just a slightly different, individualistic way of doing it, which makes it fun,” she says. “It’s quite instinctive, even intuitive.”
Welsh rarebit, fruit smoothies, tomato and cardamom chutney, spicy Thai-inspired curries and homemade hummus: it seems their collective creativity knows no bounds. Being old friends, Sasha and Sarah, as you’d expect, have a great working relationship. The pair become particularly giggly over a certain ‘experimental’ soup flavour, and I’m sold by their passion.
On the subject of a sustainable future, Sarah says: “I think people have to stop this disposable attitude, because there is nearly always something you can repurpose for something else.”
“It’s just that it’s easy, it’s throwaway, it’s the way we’ve always done it and we need to start thinking a little bit more. On a fundamental basis, people should be made much more aware of their waste.”
What better way to positively support this ethos, contribute to the environment and support a local initiative than to pop by Community Café @ Riverhouse for coffee and a sweet treat then? If you’re after a recommendation, Sarah reliably informs me that Sasha’s orange and almond cakes are “legendary”.
“They’re very moist, it’s a flourless cake.” Sasha explains. “They’re surplus oranges, they come to us from M&S, we boil them whole and purée them with eggs, sugar and ground almonds and then I bake them in little muffin tins.”
“They’re very popular.” Sarah says, proudly. “Very instagrammable!” Sasha adds.
Although it’s impossible to predict exactly when the orange and almond cakes will be on the menu, one item of produce that is never in short supply is the humble banana.
Sarah is ready to extoll the virtues of this ever-present fruit. “If it’s a bit bruised, it doesn’t matter. You can cut that bit off. We make lots and lots of banana bread because we have so many bananas but the blacker the better!” she adds. “Lots of people would put them in the bin, but actually they’re really tasty and work really well in cake.”
If you’re intrigued by the work championed by Sasha and Sarah, there are plenty of opportunities to get involved - and with the arts centre too. “We’re always looking for volunteers,” says Sarah. “There’s a real wealth of people with all sorts of talents locally and we love to meet them.”
Indoor and outdoor seating is available, alongside a take-away service if you would like to enjoy your coffee and cakes whilst taking in the riverside surroundings.
Riverhouse Barn Arts Centre
Manor Rd, Walton-on-Thames KT12 2PF
For phone enquiries 01932 253354