Brighton’s Alice Hart: Pushing meat-free cooking into the mainstream

Alice Hart © Rahel Weiss

Alice Hart © Rahel Weiss - Credit: Archant

Think you know your onions? Think again. Brighton food writer, cook and stylist Alice Hart has pushed meat-free cooking into the mainstream with innovative dishes that will help your veg bear fruit in the kitchen.

There’s a quiet revolution taking place in our kitchens. Gradually, we’ve realised that meat and two veg isn’t the only option: those delicious greens on our plates deserve centre stage, too.

There are also compelling health and environmental reasons why we should ease up on the red stuff. Compared to omnivores, vegetarians tend to live longer and are more likely to ward off heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cerebrovascular disease and certain types of cancer.

And the UN has revealed that our love affair with meat is putting a huge strain on our eco-systems. Behind most joints of beef or chicken dinners is a phenomenally wasteful land and energy-hungry system of farming that devastates forests, pollutes oceans, rivers, and air, and is significantly responsible for climate change.

Food writer Alice Hart, who has just brought out a new cookbook, The New Vegetarian, says we are finally getting the message – and nowhere more so than in her home city of Brighton, which is brimming with good vegetarian restaurants and cafés. What might surprise you, though, is the speed of change – she argues there have been huge strides in meat-free cuisine in the last five years.

“We can’t deny it any more – we can’t all eat vast quantities of meat and animal protein because it just isn’t sustainable,” she says. “And rather than being relegated to the sidelines or dismissed as problematic, vegetarian food is now, rightly, widely celebrated for its diversity and myriad benefits.”

The trouble is most of us are a bit stumped when faced with that weekly veggie box delivery. Thankfully, Alice, 34, has done all the hard work for us and her book is packed with suggestions for every occasion – from quick and easy snacks and recipes on a budget to more ambitious fare to cover the convivial way we eat at weekends. Recipes include gnocchi made with purple potatoes and baked with goat’s cheese and kale, or vegetable-filled potsticker dumplings with a black vinegar and chilli dipping sauce.

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The key to satisfying vegetarian cookery, she says, is in contrast – most evident in East Asian recipes where the balance of hot versus cool, crisp versus soft, sweet versus sour, chilli heat versus refreshing herb, is all. “But why stop at these ingredients?” she adds. “Tomatoes are sweet, so why not balance them with sea salt, and add vinegar or citrus notes for a sour dressing?”

There is also a strong nutritional theme running through her book and she is a keen advocate of wholegrain and unrefined ingredients, which means plumping for wholemeal flour instead of refined white, or reaching for proper, jumbo oats instead of instant porridge. “If you can choose ingredients with a lower glycaemic index and more fibre, your body will take longer to break them down, ensuring blood sugars remain steady,” she says.

Additionally, she recommends replacing sugar with naturally sweet vegetables and fruits, and using just enough unrefined sugar in lieu of refined versions. “I’m a great fan of carrots and other root vegetables; I also love pumpkins and squashes. I grew up with a mum who had an Aga, so I do a lot of roasting which concentrates naturally sweet flavours. Relishes, sambals and fresh chutneys like sweet pepper and chilli jam or roast tomato and pickled lemon relish also sing with flavour and aren’t packed with sugar.”

But demonising foods is an utterly joyless experience, she adds – “far better to eat natural and unprocessed most of the time and let life take its enjoyable course for the rest. Assuming you eat enough vegetables, I find the ‘trick’ with vegetarian food is to give thought to protein – all found in nuts or seeds, pulses, eggs, dairy yoghurt or cheese, wholegrains or soy products.”

Alice’s love affair with all things leafy was nurtured while growing up just outside Lewes. She sums up her bucolic childhood in one poetic sentence – “ponies, running through fields and woods, barefoot and making trouble”.

“My mum, Jasmine, is a great plantswoman, so we always had homegrown vegetables, and I inherited my love of cooking from my maternal grandmother, who is a prolific baker,” she says.

After her A-levels, Alice begged her way into the restaurant kitchen at the Griffin Inn in Fletching, but still trooped off to read neuroscience at Bristol (“I like to think a good knowledge of anatomy and dissection has helped me out in the kitchen”). At university, she began cooking for local events companies and had to be ‘bribed’ into completing her degree by her concerned parents.

The incentive was a helping hand with the deposit for Leith’s School of Food and Wine, where, she says, she learnt the ‘proper’ way to do things so that she could be a cowboy later. She went on to work as chef Tom Kime’s “right-hand girl”, rustling up private dinner parties for the Notting Hill set. But her real ambition lay in publishing, so when a job came up for a cookery assistant on the now defunct monthly women’s magazine, Family Circle, she leapt at it.

Two weeks in, her boss left and she was plunged headfirst into the top job as food editor. Quickly proving her worth, she was never replaced. She went on to edit Waitrose Food Illustrated and worked as a freelance food stylist before writing her first cookbook in 2010, taking inspiration from her extensive travels.

Alice moved to Round Hill, Brighton, in 2014. “I was previously in Battersea, but wanted to do more writing and food testing at home, and was drawn to Brighton,” she says. “Lewes is my home town, but Brighton was always the place to go when I was growing up. I don’t want to get too Pollyanna-ish about it, but people really are happier and friendlier down here, and there’s a better life/work balance.”

She has high hopes for this, her fourth cookery book, but stresses that food writing is not for the faint-hearted. “The unglamorous truth is that the hours are appalling. Food shopping, prepping, writing and testing into the small hours are an all-too-familiar occurrence. It’s not something that particularly bothers me; I love the work, but the notion of cookery books being a money-spinner is only true for the big names.”

Given her evident marketability, would she be receptive if TV came a-calling? “If people wanted to see the recipes I could cook, why not?” she enthuses. In the meantime, she is renovating her house with the view to running workshops from home. “As well as classic cookery classes, I’d like to pass on food writing and styling tips.”

She is also setting up a pop-up restaurant business called The Hart & Fuggle with her near neighbour and fellow Leith’s graduate and food writer, Georgina Fuggle. “We’ve tried it in disused restaurants in London; now we’re planning something Brighton-centric. This way, we get all the glory of running our own restaurant and then can pack up and never do it again, if we choose,” she jokes.

Behind her levity, however, lies a quiet determination. “My family taught me that if you smiled, worked hard and made yourself indispensable, then, provided you had a good start in life, you could do anything.”

The New Vegetarian by Alice Hart is published by Square Peg at £25.

My favourite Sussex

• Restaurant: Silo in Brighton’s North Laine is doing exciting things. Nothing is wasted and they always give vegetarian options equal billing. I particularly love their house-made kombucha tea drinks.

• Pub: The Griffin Inn in Fletching. The food is excellent and they have a beautiful beer garden and cosy log fires in winter. I’m slightly biased as I worked there years ago.

• Shop: I love the impossibly stylish homeware and clothing shops, Flint and Freight, in Lewes. The town has become a lot more chic since I was at school there.

• View: Apart from the breathtaking view across Brighton from my house, I’d say the Weald from the top of Blackcap on the South Downs. On a clear day, I can pick out my parents’ and grandparents’ homes.

• Place to visit: I love walking through Cuckmere Haven to the sea, although, at weekends, it pays to go early before the crowds descend.

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