When I first became a vegetarian, over thirty years ago, it was normal to have to explain to incredulous omnivores why you didn’t eat meat. These days, with plant-based diets officially one of Britain’s fastest growing lifestyle movements, you’re more likely to find yourself explaining to incredulous vegans why you still eat dairy.
As a twenty-first century vegetarian, I have begun to feel like an anachronism; a pallid stick of driftwood that the flood has flowed on past – coddling my cheese and eggs – too stiff and too wary to joyously divest myself and join the tide of history’s onward march. Few things make you feel older than this: an ideal you embraced in your youth as part of the solution, now condemned by self-righteous twenty-somethings as part of the problem.
According to its website, The Garden Shed is ‘the only 100% vegan restaurant in Warwickshire, Coventry and Birmingham’. It’s a tiny and very intimate venue that – and I mean this in a good way – feels only one step removed from eating in your friend’s comfortably cluttered kitchen-diner (I sat next to the vacuum cleaner) while her mum carries on cooking.
The homely feel is intensified by the menu, described by the café as ‘good karma comfort food’. I had the daily special, which on the day I visited was Thai curry with salad or garlic bread. It was was perfect sofa food. The mini sweetcorn, red pepper and mange tout were fresh and intense, and the butternut squash was utter delight – soft and melting and caught right on the cusp of disintegration. The whole thing was bathed in a sauce creamy with coconut. Since being faced with a notorious offering that I swear had been flavoured with lemon washing-up liquid, I’ve always been slightly nervous around green curry. Here though, notes of lemongrass and coriander added nothing more sinister than freshness and balance.
I wish it had come with rice. It would have made a worthier and more satisfying partner than salad. On the up side, although I’m not usually a much of a pudding-fancier, I was left with enough room for one of the vegan cakes, which, in keeping with the comfort food theme, seemed to be something of a speciality.
It was perfectly enjoyable – although in a blindfold test, I’m not sure I’d have identified what I was served as chocolate cheesecake. Lacking the claggy acidity that’s the hallmark of the classic, it was more like a lumpy biscuit case filled with dense, faintly minted chocolate crème pâtissière. On a more positive note, on taste alone I’m not sure I would have identified it as vegan either; for what it was, it was very convincing. How ironic – given veganism’s hair-shirt reputation – that desserts are the area where mainstream is beckoning.
On a good day – OK, on a very good day – I could probably have made something almost as good as the curry I had here in my own kitchen. But that’s not the point. The point is that I actually could try it for myself one day because the cook-cum-waitress-cum-substitute-mum who was running the show single-handed sociably shared the recipe with me: it’s based on one of Jamie Oliver’s. I tracked it down online when I got home. Generosity of spirit is what typifies this place: caring for each other, and caring for the planet are all part of the same endeavour. I left feeling truly nourished.
Anyone who thinks ‘vegan comfort food’ is a contradiction in terms should come here. But was the experience enough to bring me round to full-on veganism? Probably not. I do eat a lot less dairy these days, but I don’t know how I’d cope without my two convenience-food old faithfuls, eggs and Greek yoghurt. On the other hand – and listen up, all you strident young bloods, with your scary all-or-nothing schtick – if vegan food could always be the warm and soothing cuddle I had here, maybe I could be persuaded to finally cross the divide.
The Garden Shed Café, 7 Regent Place, Leamington Spa CV31 1EH. Daily special £6.95. Cakes and tarts £1.50 – £3.25