Helen Stiles meets Rachel Demuth at her cookery school in the heart of Bath
PUBLISHED: 01:16 10 June 2011 | UPDATED: 19:31 20 February 2013
In recognition of National Vegetarian Week (23-29 May), Helen Stiles meets the queen of the vegetarian cookery scene, Rachel Demuth, at her cookery school in the heart of Bath
As I step into the sunny kitchen of The Vegetarian Cookery School my eyes are drawn to the dazzling display of fruit and vegetables piled up on the table. Fire-engine red peppers, acid yellow lemons, glossy purple aubergines, plump crimson tomatoes and fragrant green bunches of mint, coriander and flat-leaved parsley. Forget the nut cutlets and heavy bean stews of the 70s, this is vegetarian cookery for the 21st century. Set up by one of the countrys finest vegetarian chefs, Rachel Demuths cookery school has been spreading the word about vegetarian cuisine since 2001 and last year moved into purpose-built premises overlooking Bath Abbey.
The eight students on the Middle Eastern Mezze course, including myself, settle in for a morning of seriously delicious cooking. First Rachel gets us to smell and taste the spices well be using. As we do this she talks of her travels in these countries, bringing the whole gamut of Middle Eastern cookery to life. She asks us what we want out of the day and it turns out that only one of us is vegetarian. This, she tells me, is not unusual.
Rachel wasnt brought up as a vegetarian, though her mother had a real passion for vegetables and was a great cook. She had this huge garden where she grew all kinds of vegetables including unusual ones like sea kale and artichokes. The highlight and the stress of the year was the local vegetable competition would she win first prize? she laughs.
It wasnt until Rachel went to university in the late 70s that she became vegetarian. It was in the days of Womens Lib and it was fashionable to be quite militantly wholefood. Lots of brown rice, kidney beans and brown flour, she grimaces.
After obtaining a degree in African history and unsure of what to do next, Rachel went to Neals Yard in Covent Garden to work as a baker. It was going to be a summer job, but I got so involved in the co-operative at Neals Yard that I stayed on and trained as a baker and pastry chef. Rachel stayed there for four years and through the co-operative learned how to run a business. For six months youd be doing all the accounts and wages, then six months on the baking shift and six months on the pastry shift. Everybody got paid the same and we all had shares in the business.
By 1984 she had had enough of living in London and took her baking and business skills to Bath where she set up the Broad Street Bakery and quickly made her mark. We were making rye bread, cheese bread, walnut bread, sour dough and olive breads, which was unusual at that time.
The bakery and the caf she opened in it were a huge success but it was a punishing schedule. After a few years she extended her empire further and opened Demuths Restaurant. Late nights cheffing at the restaurant combined with early mornings at the bakery was too much, even for a dynamo like Rachel, so she sold the bakery.
Situated in the elegant surrounding of a Georgian town house in North Parade Passage, Demuths has carved out a reputation for fine vegetarian dining, winning numerous awards, including most recently Best Vegetarian Restaurant by Gourmet Britain. The food is a world away from the dishes Rachel cooked in her student days. Instead she is inspired by tastes and flavours gathered on her global travels. January was always a down time at the restaurant, so that was my time to travel, she smiles.
As she backpacked around countries like India, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia she gathered local recipes. Its great being a woman because you get invited into peoples homes; with a man that would be impossible. Recipes arent written down and often there was a language problem, so I did a lot of watching, copying and cooking. Many of these recipes ended up in Rachels Green World Cookbook and regularly appear on Demuths menu.
Rachel was particularly taken with India, which she says is a joy for a vegetarian because being vegetarian is the norm.
One thing Rachel loved was being able to see the spices she used in her cooking growing in the wild. During her travels in Indonesia she came across fresh turmeric, where its also used as an antiseptic for cuts. You see kids running around with bright orange knees! Fresh turmeric is actually a small orange rhizome that looks like garlic. When you break it open it has a wonderful smell of earthy carrots. It gives a totally different flavour when used fresh.
Good vegetarian cooking is all about flavour and the art of using herbs and spices. Rachel tells us that the Middle Eastern mezze draws on a combination of Turkish and Lebanese dishes using spices like cumin, cinnamon, paprika, cayenne and sumac (a lemony-flavoured spice common in Middle Eastern cookery). They also use bucket loads of flat-leaved parsley, mint and coriander. With Middle Eastern food you have to be incredibly generous with your herbs, use a good olive oil, and some nice zesty, juicy lemons.
Another key ingredient is pomegranate syrup. She gives us some to taste a sweet hit followed by a kick of sourness, like nothing I have tasted before. Rachel then sets us to work on making the mezze. By the end of the morning we have made lavash flat breads, muhammara dip, fatoush salad, spinach and feta kibbeh, imman bayaldi, herby tabouleh, a Persian lentil pomegranate salad, lebneh and a divinely fragrant basboosa semolina cake with blood oranges in an orange blossom syrup.