Sourcing and preparing food is a creative process

Threading Together

Victoria Pasquino owner of The Allotment tells us what has inspired her to go into the restaurant business:

My grandparents had a local bakery, which was passed down to my uncle on their retirement, and stayed in the family for over 50 years.  Mum worked their when I was a child, and my grandparents and youngest uncles lived above the bakery, so I spent a lot of time there.  Baking, although following a recipe and process, is an incredibly intuitive thing.  Its hard to define how the baker knows when something is right, you just know.

Many recipes are easily available online today, but often are incorrect in the balance of ingredients or the method.  The family recipes were never written down, but passed down through the generations through the act of making.

I have wonderful memories of the smell of fresh bread, and warm hot cross buns.  Of helping to decorate the rich fruit Christmas cakes, which had been made months earlier and frequently drizzled with brandy…Granny would call it ‘feeding the cake’.

There was a strong sense of community around the bakery.  Locals would place regular orders, and it was my job on Saturday to deliver the orders to any elderly or frail customers who couldn’t make it to the shop.  Grandad used to tell stories of when customers used to bring their Turkey or  meat on Christmas eve, in a baking tray, for him to pop in the oven once baking had been done for the day.  They would collect it once it was cooked.  Apparently this was a common service as people didn’t have an oven, and it would save on fuel.

I’m trying to think how we know, when cutting a cake, whether its good or not…again, its an intuitive thing.  There are qualities that can be observed, texture, aeration, moistness.  But its more than that.  Its an inherent knowing.

I have always loved cooking, and feeding people. I love finding new and unusual ingredients, but I love making use of seasonal, local produce the most.  I’m at my happiest at a farmers market, or fish market.  Sourcing ingredients and putting a meal together, usually created around one simple ingredient.  I love foraging, always have.  There’s nothing quite as relaxing as becoming lost in the pastime of blackberry picking, or Porcini foraging.  I think it feels like the most natural activity.  Alert and relaxed, scanning for the best specimens.  Its one of those activities that is so absorbing that a few hours can fly by.

Sourcing and preparing food is a very creative process.  And a never ending one at that, as there is always new produce, and new cuisines and recipes and methods to try.  Experimentation with food, once you’ve got the basic skills, can lead to wonderful surprises which often become firm favourites.

I have fond memories also, of fresh fish and shellfish.  My other grandfather kept fishing boats on Shakespeare beach.  We would often visit him and have trips out in his small boat to bring the crab pots in.  I remember sitting with my feet up on the edge of the boat while live crabs and lobsters scuttled around the bottom of the boat.  Us kids would be squealing!  Mackerel season was great fun.  Grandad would tie 6 or 8 hooks to the fishing line, and let us pop it in the sea,  within a minute, we’d pull the line in and it would have 6 or 8 beautiful mackerel hooked.  Mum made wonderful mackerel pate with them.

We are a large family, and large families have big get togethers where food is enjoyed with the company.  I think that’s why I decided to buy the restaurant, my love of cooking, and offering a social space where people can get together, around food, and spend quality time together.  I meet people from all walks of life and have made many friends with local regular visitors.  I’ve met Channel swimmers and their family and support teams, celebrating their achievements.  People from all across the world, who have walked our famous White Cliffs and head to us to be refuelled.

Favourite foods as a child?  Fresh bread, still warm from the oven.  Fresh crab and fish…we never got the lobsters as those were sold to local restaurants.  One of my mums best dinners was smoked haddock with a rich cheddar sauce, mashed potatoes and spring greens.  I often put a haddock Florentine on the menu, and its a best seller.

We didn’t have ready meals when I was a child.  I don’t recall even seeing them in the supermarket.  Everything was fresh, local, seasonal.  Food was healthy, balanced and prepared with care, and time.  I continue to shop and eat this way, using small local suppliers.  We’re so lucky in Kent, to have local game merchants, and fishmongers, and Kentish produce.

Image: Drawing by Wendy Ward

The Allotment is at 9 High Street, Dover