Kate Wills tells the story of Elsie’s Cafe…
It was a conversation that has been shared across the land.
On this occasion, it took place at the NN Café in Guildhall Road, where keen foodies
Shena Cooper, Sheila Cox and Jan Willetts found themselves sharing tables, and
opinions on food waste. Why, they wondered, couldn’t there be some kind of food
In the space of a few decades Britain’s food supply has gone
from famine to feast. Rationing finally ended
in 1954, and food became cheaper and more plentiful, continuing to decline in price,
and as percentage of the weekly family budget. So far, so good, but the rise of
the supermarkets, and their stranglehold on food production, transformed our
diets and our buying habits. As an example, vegetables that do not meet the
supermarkets’ strict requirements for shape and size are routinely ploughed
back into the land. Less than half of any one crop might be taken for sale,
with consequent financial loss for the farmer. Many have gone out of business due
to the supermarkets’ insistence that housewives demand such standards, when of
course the demand is the supermarkets’ own for a continuous beauty parade on
the vegetable shelves.
Things might have stopped there with much tutting and
shaking of heads, but that idea of a food exchange began to take flight. Shena
became aware of the pioneering work of chef Adam Smith and the Real Junk Food
Project in Leeds, whose mission was to reduce the astonishing amount of food
waste across the western world. One third of the world’s food is lost or wasted
in any typical year, amounting to around 1.3 billion tonnes. In the meantime
around 800 million people go hungry, that’s approximately one ninth of the
Earth’s population. The Real Junk Food’s motto is simple: ‘Feed bellies, not
Matters are not helped by the tyranny of sell-by dates. Shena
cites the example of a tray of green beans languishing in the bin at the back
of her local Co Op: “Those beans had been planted and nurtured in Kenya,
prepared, and flown all the way to the UK to be thrown away”.
The original threesome was joined by experienced caterer
Simon Poon, and they formed Fruitful Abundance, a non-profit Community Interest
Company that raises awareness of the food system, promotes local produce, and
tackles food waste. Fruitful Abundance has revived the much-loved Northampton
Town Show as part of the Umbrella Fair, and created ‘Seedy Saturday’ a new
gardening event held in February, and Elsie’s Real Junk Food Café, now housed
in the Market Street Community Room in Exeter Place.
Within the space of two years Elsie’s Café has become one of
the best-loved and most revered eateries in town. Elsie’s team rescue food, cook,
and serve it to a growing clientele on a Pay as You Feel basis, allowing
customer to pay according to ability, and to consider the broader value of
their meal in terms of the energy and voluntary effort from rescue to plate. In
addition to meals Elsie’s has a ‘food boutique’ offering the latest surplus rescues
for a donation. Every Saturday morning the café opens its doors to food bargain
hunters. So, you may ask, if the food is free, why the need for donations?
Put simply, without donations Elsie’s would cease to exist. There
are costs in transporting the rescued food, fitting the kitchen and paying rent
and energy bills, insurance, Health & Safety requirements, catering
equipment, crockery and breakages, and buying ingredients to complete recipes.
“Some things are never donated but always needed, such as cooking oil and sugar”
explains Shena; “and an ever-increasing expense is storage. The more we rescue,
the more fridges, freezers and storage space we need. We have several stores
around town, such as garages, and we are hoping to acquire a shipping
Elsie’s statistics are impressive. Here are the numbers for
the third week of May 2017:
Food rescued – 880 kg
Plates of food served: 174
People fed in cafe: 100
Volunteer hours worked – 178 hours, 47 minutes
Elsie’s also depends on volunteers, who do everything from driving
around town at unsocial hours to designing posters. Meals are created on site, though some cooks
prefer to make dishes at home, such as former teacher and professional cake and
pasta-maker Barbara Everest “Thanks to Morrison’s, Sainsbury’s and other
donations we can produce a varied and tasty menu during the week. It’s so rewarding seeing customers eating my
food, made from ingredients otherwise going to landfill. What made it more
rewarding was when a regular volunteer shook me by the hand and thanked me for
my mixed fruit crumble saying it was a cherished memory of his childhood. I’m
pleased he enjoyed eating it as much as I enjoyed making it”.
Julia Sironi is another professional cook who now plies her
craft for Elsie’s Café. Julia had the task of cooking for food writer and BBC Masterchef judge William Sitwell at last
year’s Northampton Food Festival at the County Ground. Sitwell was promoting
his book Eggs and Anarchy, about food
on the home front in WW2. It included mention of Lord Woolton’s Pie, created as
nourishing everyday meal during rationing by the head chef of The Savoy. Julia’s
historic creation was served free to attendees, and proved a popular success;
it was also the first time William Sitwell had tasted the dish he had recounted
in his book.
Elsie’s has come a long way since it first opened in April
2015. One early comment in the visitor’s book admires the way “Elsie’s has come
on in leaps and bounds in a few months from sausage sandwich to haute cuisine”.
Little wonder then that Elsie’s has won several major awards. Shena Cooper
became Northampton’s Inspirational Woman 2016, and Elsie’s won the Food Heroes
Award in the Northamptonshire Food & Drinks Awards, held at a glitzy
ceremony earlier this year.
All sorts of weird and wonderful foods have been rescued, everything
from chewing gum to venison and caviar. Is there a culinary use for chewing
gum? If you know of one, please tell Elsie’s. The gum didn’t go to waste though,
but was offered for a donation. The venison came from a local butcher, and made
a hearty Hunter’s Stew. The caviar became
an entrée at a binner.
That’s a dinner
destined for the bin, and another of Elsie’s imaginative ways of using the food
to perpetuate the project. Guest chefs from around the county produce a
high-class four course meal, with entertainment, at a local pub, often The
Albion in Kingswell Street. Diners pay a reservation fee. At the time of
writing, preparations are in full swing for Elsie’s latest venture, a Binquet.
This is binned food transformed into a banquet by the county’s foremost chefs
working with catering students from Northampton College. The ratio of chefs to
diners will be similar to Michelin-starred restaurants.
Elsie’s practices what it preaches regarding waste, which is
kept to an absolute minimum. Bread, fruit and vegetables are taken to a local
farm for pig feed, and compostables are taken to Elsie’s allotment in
Kingsthorpe, which produces organic vegetables for the café.
In an age of snatched meals, there is something nostalgic
about Elsie’s Café. Diners linger and converse, and often sing along with Chris
Stobart and his guitar, usually to favourite Beatles songs. Shena Cooper and
the team can be proud that they are changing the food system, and should you
want Elsie’s to come to you, it is worth getting in touch, as several brides
have done to request wedding buffets.
So, from the bin to the happy ever after, it’s bon appetit from
Elsie’s Real Junk Food Project.