Tang Hall Big Local invited Louise Tickle, journalist-at-large, behind the scenes at their food project – she discovered a community which is nurturing self-esteem and encouraging local enterprise at the same time as laying on delicious food.
Joe Fennerty slings a couple of string bags bursting with unfamiliar greenery on to the kitchen countertop at Tang Hall Community Centre in York. Delving into one of them, he pulls out what looks like a miniature frilly cabbage. “Kalettes” he announces with a grin. “They’re a really good crop because they don’t mature till late December or early January when there’s nothing much else going on.”
The tiny green and purple plant is so beautiful it would look perfectly at home in a bridegroom’s buttonhole. Instead, it’s about to be roasted along with trayfuls of other veg that are bursting with freshness – Fennerty picked them himself yesterday afternoon, at a farm where he trades labour for produce.
There are sprout tops, undersized “but perfectly good” fennel bulbs that wouldn’t have sold even to a wholesaler, fat leeks and some very muddy carrots and swedes: in various inspired combinations, they’ll play starring roles in today’s “pay as you feel” lunch which is put on weekly by Tang Hall Big Local over the Christmas, Easter and summer holidays.
Watching Fennerty finalise his menu plan, it’s immediately clear that these lunches are created with an uncompromising determination to offer the highest possible quality of food to residents from the area – and as word has spread, increasingly from further afield.
Tang Hall Big Local’s insistence on providing first class catering isn’t only about fabulously flavoursome food: it’s about social justice and encouraging aspiration says its former chair, and now project lead Anna Bialkowska.
“There’s this thing in deprived areas that people shouldn’t expect too much, and then they internalise it – that’s what we’ve been trying to counter,” she explains. “If you don’t, then people don’t believe they deserve anything good.”
Standing in the carpark outside the community centre, is Kat Djali, founder of the Food Co-op, also supported by Tang Hall Big Local (see more at the end of this article). Tucking her hands under her arms – it’s cold out here – Djali says:
“This is the opposite of what poverty is usually offered – the leftovers or the handouts. We’ve designed this so it’s the best, not what other people don’t want. That might fill a gap of hunger, but it doesn’t fill a gap of self-esteem.”
Immense thought has gone into the way that food is both conceived of and offered at Tang Hall Big Local, and it shows. Fennerty, who has been involved with the project for the past two years is a chef at Skosh, one of York’s top restaurants. He is also deeply committed to an approach he describes as a “food circle”: a sustainable food system whereby farms are encouraged to sell produce as locally as possible, to customers who are confident in cooking and eating fresh vegetables that aren’t usually to be found in supermarkets. This increases people’s choices and enhances their nutrition, while reducing the waste that results from mass market demand for unblemished vegetables of a particular size, shape and weight being driven up and down the country’s motorways.
The residents’ partnership at Tang Hall has also invested in Fennerty’s social food business concept, commissioning him to cater for a variety of Big Local events and expeditions, and most recently, funding a six-week cookery course taken by six local residents. This included a trip out to a nearby smallholding to glean unwanted vegetables left in the soil after commercial orders had been fulfilled.
Over the last half an hour, three of Fennerty’s tutees – Jo Lamb, Liz Deighton and Tracey Waddington – have arrived in the kitchen to help prepare today’s lunch: having completed the cookery course, Bialkowska tells me, they’re now being paid for the cooking skills they gained. “I came on the course because I’m not a very good cook,” says Waddington, who is chopping apples.
“Weren’t!” calls Fennerty tartly, from across the kitchen.
Waddington smiles a little shyly. She has three children, she explains, for whom, inspired by what she learned on the course, she’s just made apple fritters for the first time. “They loved that.” As a busy mum, she points out, she doesn’t have time for fancy recipes,
“but I’ve realised it can be quick and easy to cook from scratch, especially if you batch cook. The nice thing about coming here is you get to try things out. It’s learning new ways of doing things, rather than just boiling a leek.”
Tossing the sprout tops in oil, Lamb agrees. “I eat different veg after doing the course. There’s usually a celeriac in our house now – I cut them into cubes and say to the kids, ‘look at these roast potatoes!’”
Back in the kitchen, tension mounts as the minute hand on the clock ticks towards midday. Residents who’ve been quietly arriving in the community hall begin edging hungrily towards the serving hatch. “Is there a pudding?” asks one hopefully. “Quince crumble” answers Deighton, who has just finished making the custard to go with it. She’s serving, and it’s soon evident from the cleared plates that the food isn’t just good – it’s great.
Three women are sitting at a table with their toddlers milling around. A baby wriggles on the floor.
“It’s different ingredients to the norm, really colourful,” one of them says. “For me, it’s just trying to get get veg into the children.”
“The atmosphere is really friendly and welcoming,” says her friend. “And there’s some provision for the children,” says the third woman. “They can run around. You’re not stressed!” Tang Hall appears to have got the recipe for these lunches spot on – moreish food, plenty of company for those who want it and a warm welcome.
The quince crumble – despite a slight crisis with the custard, Fennerty whispers, which luckily no one has noticed – has gone down a treat. In the kitchen, the team are clearing up and packaging whatever remains for residents to take home.
Back in her office, Bialkowska reflects on how Big Locals might build a legacy in their communities that goes beyond any individual food initiative, no matter how delicious it might be at the time. “Legacy might not be concrete,” she suggests. “It might be abstract. It might be about having been treated with dignity and respect, so you remember what that feels like. And so you start to come to expect that.”
To underscore the need for excellent food being accessible to everyone, Tang Hall Big Local has invested in an idea suggested by Kat Djali, a health researcher in a previous life: a Food Co-op offering seasonal, locally grown and organic groceries that’s open to anyone who drops by. Also supported by the community centre manager Stephen Collins, and operating out of a stylishly decorated container in the carpark, for the past six months the Food Co-op has provided vegetables – supplied by Fennerty – and other fresh produce, as well as offering recipe demonstrations, and cooking lunch together as a group every Thursday. Partly run by volunteers, local people can pay what they want for veg that is attractively displayed, and other wholefoods will soon be available at cost price.