Colchester’s getting health conscious

PUBLISHED: 09:41 15 September 2016

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As a nation we are increasingly aware that what we eat directly impacts on our health. And in Colchester, the concern to eat healthily is being manifested in a growing vegan community that has grown from the thriving café culture. Petra Hornsby finds out more

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Few can argue that the character and commercial ‘health’ of most UK town centres has changed markedly in the past decade or so. Many well-known high street names have fallen victim to the recession and the switch to online shopping. However, one area that remains strong is café culture, with both chains and independents setting up and serving those who still wish to meet and eat. It would seem customers’ tastes and requirements can be far-reaching and, in Colchester’s case, the owners of the ever-growing café trend are happy to oblige. In particular, there is a growing vegan community that is proving to be something of a hook in this progressive north Essex town.

Veganism, a plant-based, meat and dairy free diet has often courted controversy with ardent meat-eaters and some nutritionists claiming it to be unnatural or even unhealthy. However, a recent report based on research carried out by scientists at Harvard has concluded that replacing meat with plant-based proteins can significantly increase life expectancy and that can be achieved by just cutting out even a modest amount of processed red meat.

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Vegans argue that switching some meals to include beans, nuts, lentils and seeds, which are good sources of protein, is not only healthy but also environmentally essential as methane gases produced by livestock are thought to contribute hugely to global warming. Replacing meat with other sources of protein is also beneficial as it will reduce the over-farming of animals to meet the high demand for cheap meat.

People of all ages, creeds and cultures are choosing to embrace a fully vegan diet including celebrities such as Ellen de Generes, Pamela Anderson, sporting legend Mike Tyson and even three members of Black Sabbath. Although these big names might not struggle to find vegan alternatives due to their status, it can be a challenge for the lower profile vegan to have any options at all when trying to find a light lunch-time bite, let alone have any menu choice in a restaurant.

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Happily, this is not the case in Colchester, with one enterprising couple leading the way. Jennifer and Rob Dunn opened The Den at 23 (Crouch Street) in March 2015, a venue they describe as offering vegan friendly comfort food. It’s a good description, as the menu comprises different burger choices, toasties (paninis or bread) and sandwiches – all made with plant-based, non-dairy ingredients, served with choices of mayo and optional extras including vegan cheese, avocado and even pineapple!

Before The Den opened both Rob and Jen worked in retail and Jen ran a vegan cake business. Now, regulars to the café find it hard to resist her delicious cupcakes, brownies and on special days, cheesecakes, which are the perfect accompaniment to the wide range of hot beverages served with a choice of non-dairy milks.

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Those unsure of taking the plunge into a vegan dining experience should take heart. ‘Lots of times we’ve had customers wary of trying soya milk, but most will give it a go and many have commented on how much they like it and have returned to drink it again,’ says Jen. ‘Similarly, we have lots of customers who aren’t veggie or vegan but love our burgers. Rob’s barber in particular loves them and has sent quite a few of his customers around to give them a go!’

Visitors to the town have also been keen to check out The Den and some of them are rather famous, namely newly-vegan Ashley Banjo (from Diversity and Love to Dance), Strictly Come Dancing’s Ian Waite, Chris Lesley from the rock band Fairport Convention, world record- breaking runner Fiona Oakes and founder of the charity Animals, Asia Jill Robinson.

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One successful, independent café that bridges many dietary gaps is Caffe Sala, based in Colchester’s Eld Lane. The café opened four years ago and has gone from strength to strength. Manager Elaine Jiggins explains how they have managed to survive in a very competitive market. ‘We realised that there are many people who have specific requirements, whether through preference or for medical reasons, and we wanted to offer something for everyone,’ says Elaine. ‘Our menu includes gluten-free choices and vegan options, too. We are all fans of the vegan cakes supplied by our excellent baker – you really wouldn’t know that they are dairy-free. The inclusive menu means that people can eat out together more easily as it can be hard for those following a special diet to feel catered for.’

The barista staffed café is very relaxed and has a charming ‘shabby chic’ styled décor, accommodating mums and children in its upstairs seating area, but also offering quieter seats for those catching up with friends or work emails.

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Like Caffe Sala, Timbers restaurant in Trinity Street also offers gluten-free, organic and vegan options. Organic is also a key word for one family, the Nunns, who opened their café, Decouverte, in December 2015. Mum Joan, son Roderick and daughter Johannah, are all vegan, but to them their concerns about GM foods and use of pesticides are also of great concern.

Joan says: ‘It can be hard sourcing organic ingredients for our menu, but we are committed to providing 100% organic products, from our salads and breads to our pure fruit juices.’

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All the hot drinks are made with filtered water and Decouverte offers gluten-free choices too. The café itself is cosy and traditional with displays of pictures, china and brasses. Upstairs is a shop selling gifts and vintage items.

The Waiting Room, situated at the town’s old bus stop behind the Firstsite art gallery, has also embraced Colchester’s penchant for eating out, combining an alternative and independent image that reflects the town.

The venue organises pop-up dining experiences including evenings with Organic Alex, a vegan chef and health coach. They also host the annual vegan fair – a perfect opportunity for intrigued locals to sample a great variety of foods including pulled jackfruit which is a convincing alternative to pulled pork.

By being adaptable to changes in diets and habits and by being flexible enough to meet the needs of those seeking an alternative, many of these independent venues will continue to succeed. The number of people in and around Colchester opting to explore plant-based foods is likely to rise and this reflects national trends as more of us explore vegetarianism and veganism. This trend is certainly good for our health and it’s good for local business too.

‘We think it’s really promising to see the vegan movement continue to flourish in Colchester,’ adds Jennifer. ‘Other businesses have obviously noticed that the demand is there and many non-veggie places now display signs boasting that they have vegan options. We think that there are now at least 15 vegan businesses based in Colchester in some form or other. Not bad for a fairly small town.

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