May 17th, 2013
“Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food
I have to admit it, I was nervous. A month on an organic farm in the middle of nowhere, eating a largely vegan diet cooked by other people? For a touring cyclist who has spent most of his waking hours over the past two years plotting his next food hit, surely this was, well, food suicide?
The vegan bit didn’t bother me – our diet on the road is almost entirely vegetarian, and I figured I could cope for a few weeks without eggs and cheese – but the other people bit did. Imagine handing over control of my daily calorie intake to a group of people I’d never even met, most of whom weren’t even cyclists? Forget riding centimetres from enormous 18-wheel trucks, or wild camping at the mercy of imaginary thieves or murderers, this felt by far one of the riskiest things we had done all trip.
Get a grip, I told myself – surely it can’t be that bad. Challenge yourself. Get out of your food comfort zone. And so, with a pannier stocked with bread, jam and bananas – the hungry cyclist’s international safety blanket – I set off in trepidation. As we rode through the last few villages before the farm, I made a mental note of the nearest bakeries – distance, road surface, elevation – and calculated how long it would take to ride there in a crisis situation. Better to be prepared, I thought.
I really had nothing to worry about. Over the past month at Rhinannon, I have eaten some of the most delicious, healthy and inventive food I have ever eaten. If I feared a food crisis before I arrived, then I left with a food education.
Cooking at Rhiannon is a communal affair, with a group of typically three volunteers responsible for cooking each of the three meals a day for between 20 and 25 people. There are no rules, no set menus, no real recipes to speak of – improvisation is the key, and as long as it tastes good, and there’s plenty of it, no-one will be complaining. We were lucky enough to be there at the same time as a group of volunteers who shared our passion for food, and at times it resembled some kind of International Masterchef as people competed to out-do previous meals. For a couple of food junkies like us, it was the very best kind of competition to be involved in.
Iin the spirit of Ready Steady Cook, every meal is concocted from whatever is available on the day. The larder is always stocked with a vast array of grains and pulses: rice, lentils, oats, various beans, chickpeas and quinoa.
To this is added a daily harvest of salad leaves and vegetables from the garden, plus a weekly delivery of fruit and vegetables to top up Rhiannon’s own fledgling production. For flavour, there is a good range of herbs and spices, plus plenty of flour and panela for pancakes, bread and pastry.
I had thought that cooking vegan food would be tough – but it really wasn’t. Firstly because there were no non-vegan ingredients in the kitchen, there was no temptation. If it came out of the kitchen, it would – by definition – be vegan. And secondly because there really are so many good alternatives to dairy. Making really good pie pastry without butter, and delicious pancakes without milk or eggs made me realise that often the dairy element is added just out of habit – and not always because it is really necessary. For cycle touring, where we very rarely have access to a fridge, learning some vegan recipes and alternatives to dairy ingredients really was invaluable.
So what exactly did we eat during the last month? In no particular order, here are our top ten favourite Rhiannon dishes – all of them 100% vegan:
- Flora’s carrot cake with lemon icing – a rare cake success in the fire
- Roasted rosemary and garlic potato wedges, served with spicy tomato ketchup and lentil salad – myself and Sarah
- Crepe basket with pineapple and banana, courtesy of Guillaume and Sara, the often imitated but never outdone French duo
- Root vegetable pie with sweet onion gravy – a British team effort
- Matt’s banana pancakes with panela and cinnamon syrup
- Sarah’s chocolate and avocado mousse, served with panela flatbread and uvillas (a sour-sweet berry) from the garden
- Jaco and Stefan’s South African firepit feast: marinated vegetable kebabs, stickbread, salty bean salsa and salad
- Lentil bangers with mustard mash and greens – another British creation aimed squarely at the comfort food sweet spot
- Spicy peanut butter sauce from Sauce Queen Laura
- And last but definitely not least, Rhiannon flatbread – so good we’ve decided it deserves a blog post of its own to share the recipe.
Having both recently read Michael Pollan’s excellent food books The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food , our food experience over the past month has simply served to underline his eminently sensible eater’s manifesto: “Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
At Rhiannon, it’s simple to follow his rules. There are none of Pollan’s dubious, “edible food-like substances” – those you find lurking in the middle aisles of your supermarket, with an ingredients list as long as your arm. There are just simple, fresh and tasty ingredients – and when you combine those with just a dash of invention, it becomes easy to keep even the hungriest cyclist happy.