Sustainability Spotlight: How Riverhouse Barn turns food destined for the supermarket bins into a delicious lunchtime menu

Whilst visiting Riverhouse Barn in Walton-on-Thames ahead of the 2 summer productions house are touring to this pretty riverside town, we were introduced to the wonderful Community Café run by the 2 foodies Sasha & Sarah. With a strong focus on cutting down on food waste and helping the centre keep to its sustainable vision, it stood out as a great example of how to run a venue food operation which is inspiring and engaging with it’s local community. It’s also a great excuse to share some pictures of delicious food which would have otherwise been destined for the bin!  Sasha Nash tells us more…

How long have you been running the community café and what made you decide to run it with a sustainable vision?

I started the Community cafe in March 2019 with the support of Emily Boulting (Director of Riverhouse Barn Arts Centre) who recognised a Climate Emergency, and produced our Climate Emergency mission statement. Having worked as a volunteer in a local church hall producing weekly community lunches (from Supermarket surplus) for those in need, I began to realise just how much wasted food there was out there.

I’ve always had a passion for cooking (and usually without a recipe book) and love creating new dishes with the ingredients I have to hand. Minimizing food waste had always been a concern of mine, so combining my two interests made perfect sense.

With an ever changing and totally unreliable food supply, we decided we did need a couple of menu items that were consistent. We buy in cheese (to make cheese toasties) and bacon (bacon baps). With these basic menu items in place, it enables us to “play” with any other ingredients that we receive.

How do you go about creating the partnership with M&S food and other local businesses?

Very simple – you just go to the store, and talk to the manager.  All supermarkets are very keen to reduce their food waste, and many use an online platform to make the logistics simpler.  Marks and Spencer’s use Neighbourly, which enables businesses to help communities not only donate surplus food, but money and volunteer time too.  Online platforms are useful, but nothing can replace the personal touch.  I have made sure that the staff at our local store are aware of exactly what we do, and we have been able to give them free tickets to come and see various shows and comedy evenings.  The Marks and Spencer’s staff are very much a part of our community.  Word of mouth is fantastic in this local community, and in addition to supermarket surplus, we often have people delivering gluts of fruit and vegetables from their own allotments.

How do your audiences react to the café menu?

Most are very supportive, but to be honest, there are a few that need persuading!!  If the ingredients look unfamiliar there is a tendency to go for the cheese toastie option!  The demographic is fairly old,  and some are very set in their ways!  However, after some gentle persuasion, they are often won over and delighted that they chose the celeriac & blue cheese soup, or the chick pea, carrot and leek tagine.

Sarah and I see ourselves as an inventive cooks, and in our eyes a “salad” can be so much more than lettuce/tomato and cucumber.   We use lentils, grains and couscous as the base of many of our summer salads, and roast many of the vegetables (even beetroot and carrots!) and make delicious dressings using ginger, soy, and tahini.

What’s the best dish you have created for the café? What was the most challenging set of ingredients?

There have been so many! Our homemade tomato chutney (which elevates the humble cheese toastie); we make a huge pan every week. Orange and almond cake has a very loyal following, as does our bread pudding.

Our super green smoothie is also very popular – contains kiwi/cucumber/kale and who knows what other secret ingredient?!

Finding novel things to do with several crates of potatoes has been tricky, but we came up with a recipe for potato pastry. Boxes and boxes of bananas can be overwhelming too…once we have done the obvious banana bread/banana cake/banana muffins!  However, we love a challenge, and have now created a delicious banana chutney, which we bottle up and sell in the cafe. It must be good as the jars disappear the day they go on sale!

If all this food chat has whet your appetite, you can enjoy a spot of lunch at the café around enjoying the house tour of Bucket Club’s Catch That Beast! which is visiting the Riverhouse on Sunday 7th August. I can’t tell you what will be on the lunch menu but I am sure it will be delicious!