The drive down to Axminster is shrouded in fog. The further we move away from London, the less we can see. We pass Stonehenge knowing that it’s there, lurking in the mist, but it might as well be in China for all we can make out. Given that we’re heading for the famous River Cottage HQ – a farmhouse that has become synonymous with the farm to table approach to cooking, set in Devonshire hills that roll in from the sea – we’re starting to fear that we might miss the glorious views.
The murk stays with us right up until we arrive in the carpark. We can just about make out a tractor and and long wooden cabin, but beyond that all is white. One of us jokes that we hadn’t realised that River Cottage was on the edge of the Earth. We step into the office to meet the team, and then the miraculous happens. As we begin the descent into the valley, the sun cranks into full gear and the mist burns away before our eyes. It’s like a veil dropping, and there – sat gleaming, as if ready for a glossy magazine cover shoot – is the cottage itself.
So begins a day of cooking, photo snapping, eating and table-bound camaraderie. We’re here to meet the executive chef, Gelf Alderson – the man who is tasked with taking that famed farm to table philosophy and putting it into the River Cottage restaurants that dot the country. He’s part recipe magician, part campaigner, part businessman and part forager, and we take the chance to chat to him about all of those things, mostly while eating the exquisite food he knocks together while he rabbits away. It’s a hard life, isn’t it?
Let’s get straight into it with farm to table philosophy. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall played a huge part in how the general public became aware of that concept, didn’t he?
He was certainly one of the forerunners. I like to wind him up a little bit that I remember watching him when I was still at school [laughs]. So, he’s been going as long as I’ve been cooking. I’ve been cooking for 21 years, and he was right at that stage of doing Cook On The Wild Side when I was leaving school. He was certainly an inspiration to my generation of chefs, and a real eye-opener as well because nobody had really exposed modern farming methods, either. Agriculture was, and still is, quite cloak and dagger and they’re still not very open about what they do, but he was one of the first people who really dug into it and said, “This is all a bit rubbish – we need to stop doing this and we need to start moving into better ways.” It’s all about supporting proper farmers that treat the land, the animals and their crops in a respectful way. He still does that to this day. He still likes to get his megaphone out and shout at the supermarkets.
You haven’t been here since the very beginning or your career then, presumably?
No. River Cottage is 20 this year. I was only 17 back then and this place [the River Cottage HQ] didn’t exist. Hugh started very small – he only had an acre just outside Bridport, the original River Cottage – and then he moved here to Park Farm 12 years ago. I’ve been here for six-and-a-half of those.
Going back to the beginnings of your career – at 17 you started in the kitchen?
At 16, actually. Straight out of school and straight into the kitchen.
Where was that?
A hotel up in Worcester. I did my apprenticeship on day release.
[Laughs] Yeah, it was a bit like prison, to be honest. We used to work five-and-a-half days a week and then go to collage for one day, and then have half a day off. Back then, catering was still an 80-hour week. It was pretty hard graft but I managed to work in some pretty good kitchens under some pretty good chefs, and I learnt how to do things the right way. I was quite lucky in that the kitchens I worked in were very similar to here. They were buying whole-carcass animals; they were doing their own butchery. They were making everything from scratch which gave me a really good grounding – a lot of chefs don’t get that these days.
A lot of stuff’s brought in: the bread’s brought in, the meat turns up ready-packaged in individual plastic packaging, and you don’t really get that insight into what makes a quality ingredient. I had that from when I was a child. My dad grew veg and we were forever outside picking and going to health-food shops to get different grains and cereals, so I had a good grounding from childhood through to the beginning of my career.
Was your dad in the kitchen as well?
No, no. He was a groundsman and a librarian. My mum stayed at home when we were kids. We were pretty poor. It wasn’t like we had a luxury lifestyle. We were definitely only just above the breadline. But she cooked everyday and made bread from scratch everyday. She was a great baker – cakes, biscuits, all that stuff – and I started cooking with her before I went to school. My hands were forever ruining her bread. The bowl of risen bread dough is just a huge temptation for a child to stick their hands in it and knock the crap out of it [laughs]. So I started annoying someone who was cooking when I was quite young and then continued to do that throughout most of my career [laughs].
You said something just now about “knowing what makes a quality ingredient”…
Yes. That comes from dealing with it from its raw state, all the time. Especially when you talk about meat. I’ll talk about veg in a minute, but with meat you only get to know what makes a quality animal if you see that animal (A) when they’re alive, and (B) when they’re one piece when they’re dead. So you get to see the fat cover and the marbling through the muscle.
If it comes in from a butcher trimmed already, you don’t get to see any of that quality. You don’t get to see how long it has been hung for, for example, which is all really important. If you don’t know that process, how can you then go to a butcher and explain what you need from them? They’ll just give you what they want to give you. Butchers aren’t cooks. Butchers are butchers.
I have a great relationship with the producers that we have here and in the restaurants, because I can go to them and say, “This is exactly what I want from you: I want this animal raised to a certain age, I want it to have a certain fat cover, and then I want you to cut the muscle in a certain way at a certain point in the carcass.” If you haven’t been exposed to that you have to make an effort to actually go and do it yourself. And I did that – I went to work at a master butchers called FC Warrens, just to hone my knowledge of the animal, and also to talk to them about which bits they can’t sell.
Everybody wants the steak or the chops – the cut that’s easy to cook. It takes no skill to cook a piece of meat that’s already tender. And the bits that they couldn’t use… a lot of them are trendy now, such as the shin and the belly. Chefs like myself have gone to butchers and said, “Well, what can’t you sell? Give it to me at a good price and I’ll get it on my restaurant menu and make it popular.” Belly pork is a prime example. It’s now the most expensive cut on a pig, whereas before it was the loin. Without that knowledge, and without that interaction with your producer, you’ll never get the right ingredient. Chefs walk blindly into what they’re cooking half the time.
And with veg?
With veg as well… with mass-produced vegetables, they’re cross-bred to be successful, not to be tasty. The growers I use here, I go to those guys and say, “Can you grow me X?” I don’t just want a carrot, I want this variety of carrot or this variety of tomato; this selection of that, this variety of pea. And if you’re not doing that, they’ll just grow the peas that are successful because that’s good for them. Of course we want them to be successful as well, but what I want is flavour. And that’s the relationship that I’ve had here for six-and-a-half years.
It’s just strengthening those bonds between us and the farmer. I always say that it’s not down to us how good the dish is. We get stuff hot. The dish is already good when it arrives in that box from your grower. If you know your trade, once you get that bit right, your bit is actually reasonably easy. You just treat the ingredients with respect, get them a little bit hot, maybe make them a bit more tender, season them nicely and that’s your dish. Here at River Cottage we’ve always been ingredients-led, and that’s the way our cooking stays to this day. We get good ingredients and we treat them with respect.
We’re sat here with this incredible view. What a tough place to work, Gelf!
[Laughs] It has its moments. Joking aside, we’re a busy place so it is hard work. The guys work really hard in the kitchen. We have big dinners every Friday and Saturday night, so there are a couple of big shifts a week. It’s by no means a walk in the park. But if you’re gonna spend time at work, you might as well spend it here. I’d rather do 60 hours a week here than 60 hours in a basement.
I go and work in other kitchens occasionally, and it’s funny… for the dinner we recently did at The Savoy, I was literally underground for two days. When you did step outside, you were straight into central London. I love spending my time here. I love being able to potter about and meet my ingredients.
That’s something I noticed when I came in today. I saw you out there foraging.
Yeah – that’s part of what we do and what we need to do. Wild food takes no input. Environmentally, it’s pretty sound. Something that grows wild always has better flavour than something that’s been cultivated. It’s just that natural hardiness – it has to grow without any kind of help. It just boosts that flavour up. And the hedgerows around here – we’re organic and we don’t spray – are packed full of great stuff, whether it’s wild garlic or flowers.
Are you planting stuff that you know you’ll want to use, or is it the other way around: it’s naturally there so therefore you’re going to use it?
The only thing that I’ve seeded here is a small patch of wild garlic close to the kitchen, because the other wild garlic is quite a trek [laughs]. But no, the stuff naturally grows. These fields are packed full of wild sorrel because we raise sheep in them, and wild sorrel tends to grow in sheep fields. In the hedgerows themselves the primroses are just there. The fennel is wildly seeded. The borage – we have planted some, but it pops up as and when. The only bits we cultivate are the obvious bits in the beds, under the polytunnels. But the rest is wild.
The dandelions, which you can see now flowering outside the window – we’ll use some of their leaves in salads, although, my mum used to tell me they’d make you wet yourself. I don’t think there’s any proof [laughs]. There’s a sloe tree just out there, some wood sorrel in that hedgerow down there, some wild horseradish over there, there’s burdocks… all kinds of stuff. If you know what you’re looking for you don’t have to go out and buy it.
Is this knowledge that you’ve picked up since you’ve been here? I know you said that your dad was very into this kind of stuff, but an understanding of what you’re foraging for is clearly something you have to nurture…
Yeah [laughs]… don’t blindly forage! It’s very dangerous! We’re lucky here because we’ve got John Wright who works alongside us. He’s an absolutely amazing forager. He has only poisoned himself once, which is the mark of a good forager [laughs].
There are certain things you can forage for without too much of a risk, like wild garlic. If it smells like wild garlic, it’s wild garlic. I’ve learnt loads since I started working here. I had a base knowledge of it before, but my knowledge has increased a hundredfold just by being surrounded by it, and people like John Wright or Hugh or Gill Mellor.
The other chefs in the kitchen are all keen foragers. Conor [a chef bobbing about in the background] will be down on the seafront today picking sea thyme and sea beets, all of which grow down in the estuary here. So there are a few things that if you take a bit of interest in, you can successfully forage. Just make sure you check out what you’re doing. I won’t ever talk about mushrooms [laughs]. There are a couple that you can identify really easily, but other than that you really need to be very careful with mushrooms. Leave them to the experts.
So, no hallucinogenic dishes on the River Cottage menu, then?
Only by accident [laughs]. Those mushrooms do grow on the farm, actually, but they all seem to disappear. I don’t know where they go [laughs].
That’s a joke, by the way, readers!
Yeah, that’s very much a joke [laughs]. They are very much an illegal substance! But to get back on track… this field hasn’t been ploughed since the Second World War, so the mycelium culture is very strong here. We grow a lot of parasols, a lot of field mushrooms, some blewits… we have a really strong wild culture because it has never been sprayed and it has not been ploughed for decades. It’s a really good piece of land for having that wild edge to it.
And all of this is what we’re talking about when we talk about the farm to table philosophy, right? You can ask the question, “What’s that philosophy all about?”, but it’s really all there in those three words.
It is straight from the farm, but farms can be good and farms can be bad. It’s all about the quality of the farmer. Not all non-organic farming is bad – some people are farming with good methods but choose not to be certified. For us, organic is just that mark of excellence. If you’re certified organic, you’re pretty insured that it’s going to be of a quality.
Is not importing is part of the farm to table philosophy?
We do have to import food. There’s no getting away from that. We don’t have enough land to feed the amount of people we have in this country. But it’s where that food is coming from that’s important. I had this real problem when quinoa burst onto the scene, for example. It was all being imported from South America where it was the base crop for the poorer people. So, what we were doing with our trendy superfood was starving a population of indigenous people by taking the only food they could afford and exporting it into the West. So I wouldn’t touch quinoa until it was British-grown.
And it’s grown not far from here, isn’t it?
There’s some grown not far from here but we work with Hodmedod’s, which is mainly based over in East Anglia. They’re a really great company. They started in 2012 and I’ve been working with them ever since, so we now get British lentils, British peas, British kidney beans… we’ve eradicated the need to import any pulses in our businesses now. Everything’s British-grown as far as pulses go. Every ingredient that we use is really thought about, no matter how small it seems in the grand scale of things. From salt right through to meat, everything has that thought process behind it, and it’s my job to think about that.
I’m sure we’re not perfect, but we really strive to make sure that it’s not just the quality we’re looking at but the whole ethical journey of that food. Are we taking it away from someone who needs it more than us, and if we are, where can we find a British-grown, next-door equivalent?
So the sourcing of the ingredients is just part of your job. You’re Executive Chef of River Cottage… what else does that entail?
Not sleeping very much [laughs]. I’m kind of the safeguard for what we do at River Cottage on a daily basis.
I thought that was John Wright, the foraging master!
Well, yeah… he safeguards me from poisoning myself [laughs].
Obviously, Hugh doesn’t have time to be here from day to day, but I ensure that we stick to that kind of ethical food, producing ingredients-led dishes. Sometimes I have to reign the chefs back a bit when they get a bit too technical and remind them that what we do is all about flavour and not necessarily about getting the tweezers out and doing the itsy-bitsy stuff.
I’m also here to keep us current. I hate the phrase: not exactly “on trend” but we do need to move with the times. We can’t just stand still and say, “Well, we’re River Cottage, we’ve been here for 20 years, people will always want to come and see us”. We’re offering new things through out cookery courses, keeping that interesting. We’ve moved it into fermenting and gut health – the wellbeing side of things.
I’m tasked with taking the food that we do on the farm back out to the restaurants. So I spend a lot of time running around getting here into there. And then I go out and do dinners. I’m doing one for 400 at London Zoo in May; I’ve just done The Savoy; we’re going to cook at The Old Bailey. And I do stuff like this [the interview you’re reading] with companies like you, Real Kombucha. I recruit likeminded chefs to come and work for us. I have a large amount of paperwork to do, so there is a slightly boring side to my life! Staff welfare has never been forefront in our industry, so we’re trying to change that. We try to make sure our staff don’t work more than 48 hours a week, which is pretty good for our industry, and we make them take two days off a week. I’m on the phone a lot when they want a shoulder or a they want an ear to bend…
So, it’s not actually just coming up with amazing dishes.
That’s probably about 25% of my job. That’s the easy part. I come here and I’m surrounded by amazing ingredients. It doesn’t take long to figure out what to do with them. Writing the recipe is usually a lot harder because I’ll throw something together and think it’s amazing and then forget what I’ve put in it [laughs]. But a big part of it is getting the recipe into a format that can be delivered on a daily basis, because our restaurants are busy – they’ll do 300 covers on a Saturday – so it can’t be too technical. That’s a slightly challenging part of it.
What would be the one thing that underpins all River Cottage recipes?
Ingredients, really. That’s the real focus. Without the ingredients we’re nothing. There is technique going on, but it’s definitely all about the ingredients. We’re quite a complex food business. We don’t have an ethnicity to us – we’re not North African; we’re not specifically British. In all the books there’s cooking with spice and there’s cooking very traditionally. We cook however we can to make the ingredients sing. We’re not really pigeonholed into one area of cooking, which is nice.
You mentioned that part of your job is to have your finger on the pulse. You’ve talked briefly about gut health, but what else is the Next Big Thing?
Er… [laughs]. I’m not sure! We’ve gone through quite a number of rapid transformations. Cooking outdoors has been really trendy. [Gestures towards the courtyard] You can see we’ve got Big Green Eggs all over the place today. We’ve got a wood-fire cookery area out there…
Gill Mellor has just written an amazing book full of outdoor cookery techniques. We’ve also seen a lot of people wanting to go gluten free, so we run three or four courses on gluten free cookery, run by Naomi Devlin, and we released the River Cottage Gluten Freebook a few years back.
The health thing includes eradicating some staple ingredients, focusing on sugar and wheat and stuff like that, so we’ve seen a big rise in replacement cookery. And fermentation is obviously becoming a big thing. Preserving has come back with a force. I think that came on the back of the Great British Bake-Off. People started to bake at home and then went, “What else can I do at home? Ooooo, I can make jam”. I think that kind of triggered this interest in fermenting – things like kombucha. The Great British Bake-Off has some great things to answer for, actually. Rachel De Thample is currently writing our fermentation handbook, which will be published next year.
We’re also thinking a lot about waste. Hugh’s got a plastics programme coming out soon. Again, we’re not perfect on plastics, but it’s interesting… we’ve completely eradicated polystyrene from our business now, so when suppliers turn up with something in a polystyrene box we just give it back and say, “No thank you – please don’t bring that back here again”. It’s amazing what happens when you tell people you don’t want their packaging and they’ve then got to find something to do with it. It triggers a conversation, and they go, “Hang on a minute – let’s talk about this”. Our fish suppliers told us that if a fish weighs over 10 kilos they have to put it in polystyrene, and I said, “Well, that’s a load of rubbish!” So now we’re looking a lot more at non-single-use plastics.
Our veg supplies come in plastic crates that are collapsable, but they also come with a £20 deposit. If we lose one, it costs us that amount. So we’re incentivised not to lose it, and the suppliers are incentivised to pick them back up. It’s a really good system to have. Our butcher only vac-packs in quantities of 30, rather than individuals. Every business should do that. The first thing a chef does is take it out of its plastic packet and put it into something else. Vac-packing is something we’re really clamping down on. So it’s not all about food, the stuff we do. It’s putting pressure on big organisations to do better things.
Moving back to the foundations of River Cottage, I guess one of the questions many people have when they go to a restaurant that is heavily associated with a celebrity chef is just how much that person has actually been involved with the dish you’re eating. Take Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall for instance…
Well, all the menus have to be signed off by Hugh. I create them all and send them off to Hugh, then we’ll talk through the dishes and I’ll cook them for him. He’s got an amazing palate, so he’ll be like, “This needs X or Y”. It’s a process in which he’s involved in each step. That’s the important thing. Obviously he doesn’t cook them! He doesn’t do a 15-hour shift on a Saturday [laughs]. I think he’s done his time. Part of my job is to know his mind and his methods, so it’s not like every dish I create is thrown back at me with, “What are you doing?!” Most of the things we create get signed off and go into the restaurants.
So, he will have been drinking these glasses of Real Kombucha, then?
He has! And he makes his own. He dropped his scobies off here recently, actually. We had a big 20-year bash for which we brewed our own kombucha and did three different kinds.
Was it good?
It wasn’t bad, actually. We didn’t get it all that fizzy but it was pretty tasty. It’s an interesting thing to make – we hadn’t tried before. We read up a bit, Hugh gave us his scobies and we ran from there. You get some pretty interesting flavours out of it, depending what your scobies are like. I’ve had some pretty bad kombuchas in my time, I’m not gonna lie [laughs]. There are different palates for different things. Some kombuchas are… unique, shall we say?
So, what’s on the horizon for River Cottage, other than the hundred TV programmes that Hugh seems to be making?
[Laughs] This year we’re celebrating 20 years, so we’ve got lots of different events. We’ve just finished renovating the rooms in the farmhouse, so they become available to the public very soon. We’ve had some people there trialing it out, so this’ll be the first time you can actually come and stay at River Cottage and rent the whole house out. That’s something new for us – it’s quite a big thing to have people onsite 24 hours a day. We’ve got books keeping us busy, too. It’s a pretty busy year.
For more information on Gelf Alderson, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, the farm to table food philosophy and River Cottage, head to www.rivercottage.net.
We’re whipping through the year at what seems like a crazy rate. So let’s slow down a little, grab a chair somewhere nice and savour the flavours of an exquisitely brewed kombucha. Not sure where to start? We’ve got a few recommendations for you…
Kombucha bars, pubs and restaurants – the best of April
Whole Foods Market (outlets across London) may seem like an obvious choice, but it just became a whole lot more interesting. Yep, Real Kombucha is now in stock across all of their stores, which means that the foodies have finally got something non-alcoholic that pairs superbly with the freshest produce. It’s what you’ve all been waiting for!
Vinoteca (outlets across London) does all the good things right. They dedicate their energies towards creating enticing spots for wine, conversation and food. But how does a wine specialist cater to a crowd that’s drinking less? In this case, they’ve started serving kombucha – a real alternative to the usual non-alcoholic options, and something that demonstrates their sense of adventure.
The Blue Boat (Fulham) is a great spot if you like gorgeous London sunsets over the water (who doesn’t?!) It’s dedicated to life on the water, so make sure you get there relatively early and secure yourself an outdoor table port or starboard. The pub is also a Fullers Kitchen, so it’s a top spot for a Sunday lunch – and if you’re on for a roast, we recommend the Smoke House.
We love Chard (Brighton) for its back story as much as its rustic simplicity. It’s a family-run business that grew out of a successful pop-up. Now with its own permanent location, they deliver food crafted with real love and care, with each of the dishes made from locally-sourced Sussex produce. You see? What’s not to love?
There are two branches of Bumpkin, although you’d be forgive for wishing there were more. We’ll start with the South Kensington restaurant, where you can wash down your very British fayre (Bumpkin pie made with ox cheek, anyone? Hold us back!) with a very moreish kombucha. From the dessert menu, we’re big fans of Adrian’s Choc Fudge Brownie – it pairs wonderfully with our Smoke House. That’s a hint, by the way.
You’ve been able to get Real Kombucha at The Botanist venues across the country for a few months now, but we’ve got our eye on The Canal House (Birmingham) this weekend for a couple of reasons. Firstly, various members of our team are slightly obsessed with Peaky Blinders, and The Canal House looks like it might have seen a Shelby Family member or two in its time. Secondly, they’ve got their very own festival. Head on down to the Waterfront Festival later this month, and grab yourself a booch while you’re at it. By order of the…
If you’re up in Cambridge and you’re after a healthy but hearty chowdown, head to Doppleganger Burger. They specialise in American diner food done the vegan way. With no less than seven vegan burgers on the menu, they’re a huge hit with the plant-based community, and the ideal spot to get your booch on over lunch.
We love somewhere that knows its art from its elbow, so we’ll take any opportunity to drop into Sketch (Mayfair, London), where you’re literally elbow to elbow with some truly mind-blowing pieces. If you’re not in a drinking mood as you take in this part gallery, part tea room, part wine bar establishment, you’ll be pleased to hear that they’re now serving a kombucha of real artistry. Not that we like to blow our own trumpets or anything…
One of London’s best-loved coffee shop chains now stocks one of its best-loved kombuchas. Yep, we’re talking about Notes, which now has establishments in Bond Street, Victoria, Bank, Gherkin, Kings Cross, Canary Wharf Crossrail, Canary Wharf Jubilee, Moorgate and Trafalgar Square. Just as you’re never far from a decent cup of Joe when you’re near a Notes, the same can now be said for a decent kombucha.
Regular readers of our blog will know that we’re all about offering non-alcoholic options to foodies who want something sophisticated to pair their food with. So you’ll understand why we’re so delighted when we find a restaurant that thinks along the same lines, just as the Felin Fach Griffin (near Hay On Wye) does. Some of their supper clubs look like the mother of all FOMO. Thank goodness they have bedrooms. We’ll see you there!
One of the biggest hurdles that a non-drinker faces is choice. Non-alcoholic drinks have long been limited to sugary, unsophisticated offerings – so much so that they often say they feel overlooked. Real Kombucha is brewed with that at the forefront of our minds. We offer a genuine, sophisticated, exquisitely prepared choice for people who are keen to rejoin the party.
If you’re a restaurateur, a hotel manager, a caterer, a pub owner, a chef or a bartender who recognises that it’s time for change, take a look at our video below. You can contact us via our kombucha stockists page, which also contains all the info you need in terms of wholesalers we work with and other stocking options.
Spring is upon us and the booch is tasting amazing. It’s been a while since we did our last roundup of kombucha bars, and since then there’s been a booch explosion across the country. You’ll find Real Kombucha all over the place, so where to begin?! To answer that question, we thought we’d start a regular column rounding up some of the places you’ve simply got to go and get your booch on.
Boasting one of the best beer gardens South of the river, but also one of the cosiest fireplaces should the weather stay wintry, we love The Duke of Sussex in Waterloo. As well as serving Real Kombucha, it has an amazing menu – most famous for its spit-roasted chicken, brined and marinated for 24 hours to hold the flavour. A perfect place to #RejoinTheParty if you’re not drinking.
There is nothing quite like a B&L combo, served alongside a glass of Royal Flush. Bring your biggest belly – the combo is an amphibious beast of gargantuan proportions – but it’s well worth the prep. Any branch of Burger & Lobster will do, but for a touch of class, head to the Harvey Nichols restaurant in Knightsbridge. No reservations at weekends, but take your chances. It’s worth it.
The perfect Sunday spot. Take a sunny morning stroll through Portobello Market and then make your way over to The Tin Shed, where cuteness and amazing all-day breakfasts reign supreme. Wash it all down with a glass of Dry Dragon and you’ll emerge sharp and sprightly from your boozeless brunch, ready to make the most of your day.
The next time someone tries to tell you that plant-based food is unadventurous, truss them up and cart them off to Wulf & Lamb. Their menu for “ferocious herbivores” ticks all the boxes required of a thorough and gratuitous graze, with comfort food to the fore. They’ve been serving Real Kombucha down on Pavilion Road for as long as we can remember. One of our faves.
Now then. Time for some real luxury. If you’re up for a touch of snazz and fancy bumping shoulders with a few A-listers (see the Rami Malek post above), head to the award-winning bar at the Chiltern Firehouse. The garden area is gorgeous, but it’s the swanky, New York-esque interior that has jaws dropping, with its high ceilings, huge mirrors and hanging lights. Oh, and the kombucha is pretty spesh, too…
Another great one for lazing the weekend away, One Over the Ait is a striking Fullers pub nestled just next to Kew Bridge with commanding views over the Thames. The food’s good (and the booch is unbelievable!) Get the right window-seat table and you could almost believe you were lounging riverside in subtropical climes.
Everyone loves an independent coffee shop, don’t they? We’re huge fans of The Nest, a great little spot in Bramley, Surrey, that serves Real Kombucha alongside its fluffy jacket potatoes. It has a great little kids play area, meaning that there’s decent respite for parents looking to read their morning papers in (relative) peace.
Straight back into central London, and this place is about as good as it gets if you’re on the hunt for a classy kombucha cocktail. Officially a “cocktail pub”, Hercules is known for its extraordinary selection and the seemingly unending limits of its imagination. Award-winning bar king, Charles Roche, may have something to do with the latter.
If you’re in the market for a boozeless brunch with a banging view, you’ll want to get yourself along to the B&H Garden Room by Bourne and Hollingsworth. Located 10 floors up, just behind the National Gallery, you can expect a rooftop bar with a brunch menu to die for. It doesn’t get much more #LivingMyBestLife than this! They don’t call it the Garden Room for nothing, either. Orange trees abound, and a river of booch floweth forth.
While most of the choices on this week’s list are kombucha bars in London, we wouldn’t want you to think we’re caged in by the M25. You can get Real Kombucha all over the country now (check out our nationwide booch map), and one of our favourite spots outside the capital is The Gallimaufry on Gloucester Road, Bristol. Great food, amazing live nights, and the best alcohol alternatives in town. Get on it!
Check back in the next few weeks for another selection of amazing kombucha bars, pubs and restaurants across the UK. Drop us a line via our social media channels (Insta, FB, Twitter) if you fancy making a suggestion.
The language around being a non-drinker is ultimately insubstantial. In this week’s Real Podcast, Jon Wilks chats to Ruby Warrington about the ways in which communication can hinder someone new to a less alcohol-dependent life, just as much as a lack of choice can. On the way, they discuss the demise of ladette culture, the differences between US and UK drinking culture, and the ways in which the world is now opening up to alternative drinking and eating habits.
Click on the player below to listen. Alternatively, scroll down to read the full interview.
“‘Oh god, you’re not drinking? Don’t be so boring. Oh, you’re ruining everything. Oh, go on! We were meant to be having a nice night out.’ Suddenly, your simple choice – three simple words: I’m not drinking – can mean everyone else’s night is ruined. And that just seems crazy when you take a step back and look at what’s really going on.”
A familiar sounding scenario for many people who, for whatever reason, choose not to drink. And that’s why we’re talking in this week’s Real Podcast with Ruby Warrington. Formerly the Features Editor on the Sunday Times Style Magazine, Ruby has recently written Sober Curious, a fascinating book that offers a non-preachy take on our relationship with alcohol. Through her own experience, she details the benefits she has discovered from unlearning what she calls “the mindless habit of drinking” and pursuing the possibilities offered by a sober curious lifestyle. And, as you’ll hear, that doesn’t necessarily mean giving up alcohol entirely, but instead taking an active interest in what a sober life might offer to you. We met up in Central London to find out where the sober curious life has led Ruby so far.
Getting Sober Curious with Ruby Warrington
You were telling me before this interview started that sober curiosity is something you’ve been talking about for three or four years.
Outwardly vocalising and encouraging other people to get sober curious for about three and a half or four years, I suppose. I think I wrote a blog post for my blog about being sober curious in the summer of 2015, maybe. I don’t know the exact date.
My definition of what it means to be sober curious is to literally question every impulse, every invitation or every expectation to drink, whether it’s on your behalf or in the eyes of others, rather than just go along with the dominant drinking culture. And so, based on that description, I have been sober curious for about eight or nine years now – really just bringing this questioning mindset to all the different situations I’ve found myself expected to drink. It has been quite a long journey. The lessons learnt and the experiences along the way are all shared in my new book.
It has been very interesting to witness what began as such a personal thing now really begin to blossom. I see so many other people getting sober curious, too. It’s really fascinating. When I wrote for magazines I was always really most interested in writing those kind of zeitgeisty, social trend pieces – I think I’ve always just had quite an antenna for what’s in the public mood, I suppose. This was definitely not something I approached in a calculated way, like, “what’s going to be the next trend in drinking?” It was just very much feeling attuned to my own instincts about this mindless drinking culture that we’ve been consumed by for probably the latter half of the 20th century, up to now. It just started to feel out of alignment with our values collectively, as well as my values as a person. It’s a personal story and a mission and a quest, I suppose, that reflects a much bigger shift societally.
And if you pick up the book you get the sense straight away that it’s not a zeitgeisty thing because it’s something that you have lived. Again, we talked before about our similarities before the interview [we both come from a journalistic background and we both found ourselves having difficult relationships with alcohol], but you talk in your book about being in Camden in the 90s, and ladette culture and that kind of thing. While I wasn’t part of the ladette culture, I was certainly in Camden in the mid-90s and…
…But you would’ve been part of the male equivalent, which was the Nuts, Loaded thing. Similarly, it was very much about this life of debauchery and it being a kind of badge of honour, in a way, wasn’t it?
Absolutely. And yes, that Britpop era where your icons were heavy drinkers: your Liam Gallaghers, your Graham Coxons…
Exactly. Have you read Kill Your Friends? That typifies, in a very exaggerated, bombastic way, this culture of excessive consumption. And it was a reflection of excessive consumption that was happening in terms of material goods as well. It’s all wrapped up in the same vibe.
There’s a really interesting quote in your book… let me just find it. You talk a bit about the idea of the modern woman at that time being, “emancipated by having a pint of beer in her hand”. What do you think happened to the ladette?
Oh, the ladette maybe over-indulged a bit and had to go, “What’s going on here?” [Laughs] It’s funny: someone sent me a picture of Zoe Ball from that era the other day. She’s kind of my doppelgänger in many ways, particularly when we were both that age. I think Zoe Ball doesn’t drink now. When drinking to excess has been your norm, I think there naturally will come a point – whether it’s your classic rock bottom that we hear about often in terms of people’s recovery stories – or a subtler rock bottom, which might look like an inability to feel optimistic about life, or feeling really pissed off and angry that your entire weekend is given over to hangovers and you don’t actually get any real time off.
There are degrees of crisis point, I suppose. I think for anyone who has been drinking to excess for a long period of time, you’ll reach some kind of a crisis point that’s like, “No more! I just can’t continue with this!” For a long, long time, the only language or the only path that we’ve been presented with if you reach that point is, “Well, there’s AA for you and you’re an alcoholic. Have this label and that’s a done deal. Goodbye.” I never felt that was very fair, actually… although fair isn’t the right word. It didn’t feel to me inclusive enough. I felt that, for myself and for many people in my community and my peer group, we were having this question with alcohol but didn’t necessarily see ourselves as alcoholics or candidates for a 12-step programme. And so the sober curious idea came about when we said, “well, what if we all just spoke about this openly? Perhaps we’d find some other solutions.” You know, collaboration is how we breed ingenuity and progress. So it was like, let’s just talk about what’s going on here and see what comes out of it.
The alcoholic thing is a really interesting point. Obviously, you will know – and anyone who tries to take a break from drinking for whatever reason will know – that doing so comes with a huge amount of inquisition. So you can’t go to a pub with your friends without being treated almost as a sort of pariah. One of the things that I always find myself having to explain is that I wasn’t an alcoholic. There’s no description for myself. The only description for myself comes with a lot of explaining, that tends to be along the lines of, “I didn’t wake up in the morning desperate for a drink, but I couldn’t go out to a bar without having four.”
Right. There’s this grey area which doesn’t really have language around it. I’m still making it up. People often say to me, “So, are you sober now?” And I say, “I’m not sober but I don’t drink.” Even the word sober has so many connotations. If I said I was sober, people would automatically assume – and I would actually feel that I was implying – that I’m completely abstinent from alcohol because I’m recovering from the disease of alcoholism. And that’s not my story. I’m not sober. I may occasionally have a sip of wine at a toast during a wedding. I wouldn’t consider that a relapse, whereas if I was sober that might be termed a relapse and it’d have all these other kind of implications. It’s complicated. I think there needs to be even more language around it, which is what I’m attempting to stimulate by having this discussion.
Again, this comes across a lot in the book, and it’s obviously attached to what you do in other parts of your life: there’s a lot of conversation there that overlaps with what you might call mindfulness. The idea of having stories [about yourself, and being aware that they’re just stories] is a fascinating one. You go out and you have to present a story, for whatever reason – you feel pressured to present a story as to why you aren’t drinking. And actually you’re presenting that story to yourself on a daily basis.
There isn’t a succinct way of phrasing it, right? I’m a human being and that means I’m biologically very susceptible to becoming dependant on alcohol – a beverage which meets many of my biological needs in terms of my emotional needs.
In the book, I quote from a brilliant book called The Biology of Desire, which is by a guy called Mark Lewis, who is a former opioids addict turned brain scientist. He can really speak to what’s actually going on in our brains when we develop an attachment to something. (The subheading is, “Why addiction is not a disease” – which is highly controversial [laughs]. But without controversy, how do we have progress?) He talks about the desire function of our brain, which shows that we’re biologically hardwired to seek out and repeat any experience that either brings us pleasure or takes away our pain.
Alcohol, on a very superficial level, can appear to do both of those things. As a human being with a complicated life, especially considering the billions of pounds of advertising and marketing revenue spent by the alcohol industry every year to make sure that we perceive alcohol as the answer when we desire pleasure or when we are feeling pain, it’s really hard not to become dependent on it.
So, what am I? I’m a valuable human being [laughs] who happens to live in a culture where alcohol is celebrated.
And we’ll come on to that, because I think that finally we’re starting to see real change.
But before we go there… some of those questions [that you pose in the book] that are really worth emphasising, because I think for some of the people who listen to this, these will resonate. You ask these questions: “How come I feel like an outsider? A weirdo?” This was an interesting one: “I sometimes feel that I’m a problem to other people if I don’t drink.” Without wanting you to paraphrase the book entirely, how do you go about answering some of those questions?
This is really the peer-pressure piece. When the group activity is drinking, for many of us in our society, we grow up in a culture where most of our group activities outside of sporting occasions revolve around alcohol. And even when the sporting activities have finished, many of us will drink. How many of my friends have run a marathon, and the first thing they do is go to the pub? [Laughs] By simply saying, “I’m not going to drink”, you’re marking yourself as an outsider, and that can be very uncomfortable.
Again, we’re biologically hardwired to fit in, to be accepted, to not want to make ourselves stand out or be ‘other’ or ‘different’. So, of course, by marking yourself as different by saying “I’m not drinking”, immediately you become a mirror for everyone else to look at their drinking – a mirror for them to examine their own drinking habits. So, very often, you’re going to have all of their insecurities and their own subconscious questions about their drinking projected onto you, and that’s a really uncomfortable place to willingly put yourself.
You must be familiar with One Year No Beer? They were telling me about some research that they did recently. For 93% of people in their survey, peer pressure was the number one reason why they chose not to take a break from drinking, or even stop completely. They just didn’t want to have to be answering all of those questions.
The thing about being a problem for other people when you don’t drink, the number of times (and thankfully, maybe because the way that I’ve approached it, my friends have never made me feel this way, but I’ve heard it from lots of other people), “Oh god, you’re not drinking? Don’t be so boring. Oh, you’re ruining everything. Oh, go on! We were meant to be having a nice night out.” Suddenly, your simple choice – three simple words: I’m not drinking – can mean everyone else’s night is ruined. And that just seems crazy when you take a step back and look at what’s really going on.
Absolutely, and I think it comes down to the ingrained culture, certainly in this country. Another thing that really resonated in your book was the fact that you were introduced to alcohol at the age of eight!
[Laughs] You know, I’ve seen other people with their three-year-old child: “Oh, he’s having a sip of beer. Isn’t it funny!” It’s seen as quite normal. I think my parent, my dad in particular, thought he was doing the responsible thing by not making alcohol this glamorous, exotic, forbidden fruit that I would then binge on as soon as I looked old enough to acquire it. But the hidden implication in that is that it was inevitable that I would become a drinker. It was like, “Ease her in gently rather than making it this forbidden fruit that then becomes something that I binged on or did to excess. I did that anyway!
It’s very similar. I don’t know what age I would have been, and I think most people have a memory of a similar ilk, but just being allowed to try wine at the table…
And then I have a vivid memory of probably being around 11 and going to a family party with everybody drinking, and you [the children] almost being expected to have a shandy.
Right! Exactly! So my version of shandy, which I wrote about in the book… I discovered at some kind of family picnic… Do you remember Lilt? I don’t think we have Lilt anymore do we?
I can’t picture seeing it anywhere recently.
It was quite delicious, though.
Well, Lilt mixed with white wine! I was making my own alcopops at the age of nine or 10.
It’s no wonder!
It is no wonder [laughs]. But this is not about placing blame on parents or society. This is just the way things are. For me, the sober curious conversation is not about being right or wrong, or good or bad. It’s just about acknowledging what’s happening, and then cultivating enough trust, self awareness and self belief to know it’s OK to make choices that feel good for you, no matter what’s going on around you, no matter what the pressures might be.
In your Sober Curiousbook, and as someone who is promoting sober curiousness, you’re not preaching in any way. When you hear about people not drinking, as you say, quite often it’s like a mirror being held up to them. So their natural reaction is to become slightly defensive and to feel as though, “Oh, god! They’re harping on about that again!” And it’s absolutely not that, is it? The word ‘curious’ takes you away from that in the first place. How do you balance that fine line between a largely non-alcoholic lifestyle and not preaching about it?
I try to show, not tell. Just by modelling and by behaviour. I would never see it as my place to tell anybody, “You know what? You’re probably drinking a bit too much.” It has happened maybe on one occasion. A close friend was going through a very difficult time in his marriage and I made the subtle suggestion, “You know, if you’re really confused about this, maybe take a break from the drinking. It has really helped me in situations just to feel more clear and more confident.” And so, offering advice but in that same breath saying, “Because in my experience this has been really helpful.” And just being super selective.
Alcohol ended up presenting as a problem for me, but there are tonnes of people who drink as much as I did who’ve never experienced it as a problem, and that’s fine. It’s about bringing it back to my own experience and really just modelling… like… “life’s great!” [laughs self consciously] … without wanting to appear smug!
Going back to this idea that it might be a generational thing… at the moment we’ve got this new generation of non-drinkers. Amazing stats. Around 30% of Londoners between the ages of 18 and 24 claim to be teetotal.
It is. And the other day I was reading about students. 38% of students in Britain now don’t drink. I don’t know what they’re doing! [Laughs]
38%?! That’s amazing.
So, this Sober Curious Movement… it certainly resonates with me, because I come from that age group where life was seen as better if you were pissed up and having it large, or whatever the terminology was back then.
And that’s just not the case now. At Real Kombucha, we work with a lot of younger people, and it’s much more about life being about experiences. You have that Instagram phrase, #LivingYourBestLife…
[Laughs] It’s funny, though, because we would’ve thought that living your best life meant cocktails on the beach at sunset in Ibiza. What constitutes “best life”? There’s a shift in values, which is the larger piece I was talking about. We’ve moved away, I think, from this idea that over-consumption or conspicuous consumption is a status symbol. It actually now seems a bit sad and a bit selfish. It just doesn’t fit with out more collaborative, collective, nurturing mentality in general now, you know?
Well, you used a phrase… I think it was something like “living a more vital life”, or something like that? Or have I got that wrong?
I might have used something like that. It sounds a bit too #wellness for me, and I’m not really into that. I really don’t like that idea of #LivingYourBestLife. I don’t like this hierarchical terminology that implies that some life is better than another. Because actually, I’m not living a better life. I’m living a life that’s right for me.
I’ll be honest, I don’t like it purely because it sounds too much like marketing speak. But if you had to have a hashtag around that kind of thing, I quite like it being about living… maybe not a vital life, but the idea that you can do a little more with your life – you can experience a lot more – if you’re not drinking.
Yes. I prefer, for example, the term “conscious drinking” rather than “mindful drinking”. For me, I want to be conscious. Choosing consciousness means awakeness and awareness. Being really aware of what’s happening in the world, and how I can respond and interact with it. That, to me, is the kind of life I want. I love the fact that you’re called Real Kombucha. It’s about an authentic life for me as well – an authentic life meaning a life that’s aligned with my values – what feels good to me.
Back in New York (because you’re based in the States), you’ve got your Club SÖDA, which is not the same as London’s Club Soda…
No, we call it Club SÖDA NYC specifically to get around that. But yes, we’ve been doing the Club SÖDA NYC events for just over three years. We always have a different theme at the events, and generally we’ll have featured speakers or a panel discussion on the theme. We may have some kind of interactive activities to get people talking. The whole point of that was to bring this conversation out of the closet and actually make it the focus of the event. Getting people together in a social way where we were specifically saying, “this is about not drinking, and it’s not about being at an AA meeting. This is a different approach to not drinking.” We’ve had dance parties, we’ve had a boozeless brunch, we’ve had all sorts of different, fun ways for people to get together.
And the book itself? You’re here [in London] to promote it…
Yes. Not surprisingly, actually, the press response here in the UK was really, really great. And so it just felt like a good time to come over here and do a bit of a launch. It’s my hometown. I did most of my most excessive drinking here [laughs]. And it’s very curious to me how, like you were saying, the alcohol-free movement is moving at warp speed here. And I want to see what’s going on!
Is that the same in the States?
It’s definitely picking up speed. The States is so big and, in a way, so segregated. A mass movement will, I think, take longer to gain traction in the US because there are so many different pockets and so many different things happening. But at our events, when we started off at our first event I think we had 70 people, and at the last one we had over 200. Maybe that’s just because more people know about it, etc, but to me it also speaks to the fact that more people are interested in sober socialising.
To go back to the point that the UK is growing at such as speed, I think that has to do with choice. Before we turned the tape on here, we were talking a lot about things not being black and white. In the foodie world, people are much more interested in having a vegcentric approach, or certainly giving people those options. I always joke (although it’s not really much of a joke) that when I came to university in London in the mid-90s it was unusual to find an avocado in a Tesco. The choice that we have now, both in terms of drinking and eating, has to have an effect on that, don’t you think?
Definitely. And you would expect the same in America, right? However, another reason I think it’s gaining traction faster here is that alcohol is just woven more into everyday life here. So, whether that means more people have found themselves at that crisis point of, “Hold on, I’m drinking a bottle of wine a night – how did that happen? I’ve got to pull back”, in the US I see a lot more hard liquor on a Friday night, and that’s how people drink. There’s less pressure to drink wine with dinner during the week. I really noticed when I first moved there: nobody would order a bottle of wine in a restaurant – it would always be ordered by the glass. And I think that just speaks volumes. If I was going out for dinner with a friend here it would be a bottle of wine, of course, between the two of us. But there, that would be seen as very excessive on a work night. But people will drink heavily and they’ll do lots of shots and hard liquor when it’s time to drink. They’ll go for it harder.
But that’s in cities like New York. Across the rest of America, it’s such a driving culture, a lot more drinking happens at home. And so there’s not really this social drinking situation – there’s a lot more drinking behind closed doors, and so I think that alcoholism is a huge problem. But there’s not been such a consumer demand and need for other options in bars because a lot more people are drinking at home.
It’s really interesting. Even alcohol-free beer… there’s not much of it there. I’m like, “Please Brewdog! Bring me Nanny State!” [Laughs]
Well, hopefully we’ll get over there eventually.
Yes! And there is quite a lot of kombucha. Kombucha has exploded off the back of that healthy eating, gut health trend that has been huge there for a while. There’s a lot of kombucha now.
I always talk about kombucha in this way: you can take a grape and turn it into a Shloer – a sugary soft drink – or you can turn it into champagne or a very fine wine. Neither of those things are any better or worse than the other; they’re just different drinking occasions. In the same way, you can take tea and ferment it into something that’s a health drink, you can add flavours to it and turn it into a flavoured soft drink, or you can take great tea and ferment it into something that doesn’t require flavouring and actually suits non-alcoholic drinking occasions. And that’s really the differentiator between what we’re doing and other brands.
Yeah, absolutely. I actually tried some unflavoured kombucha recently in Berlin – my brother has been working in a restaurant there. The guy who was running the bar was making his own kombucha. It was so delicious and subtle, compared to what I’m used to in the States. There, it’s about all the flavours, and the maximum different combos. Pink lady and basil was one of my favourites recently! It’s all about what’s new and novel and next. CBD kombucha is now the next big thing.
But I like the subtleness of this [drinking Royal Flush]. This feels to me like a genuine alternative to a glass of wine, whereas a lot of those heavily flavoured ones feel much more like it’s an alternative to a Coke or a lemonade, or a flavoured soft drink.
Well, you’ve said all the right things, so you’ve got the job.
[Laughs] But we’re tasting it now and I can still smell it. It’s really delicious. One of the reasons I love alcohol-free beer is that it was a crutch for me on those occasions when, initially, I was feeling awkward in a bar. The alcohol-free beer quietened that voice in my brain and made me realise I was actually just in a bar and it didn’t matter. For anyone who loves wine (because alcohol-free wines tend to be not very good – although that might be changing), I think this would be a great alternative for someone who’s looking for… “What can I have that’s almost a placebo effect on my brain while I get over the initial hump of awkwardness into it becoming my new normal?” Because it does become your new normal. Not drinking in bars is so not a problem for me now. I don’t even think about it. But in the beginning it can be tricky.
Well, I think there are two things. Certainly, there’s that perception of having something to drink. I always found that if you were able to pour something into a wine glass the questions didn’t happen, because nobody sees that you’re just having a Coke, or whatever. So you don’t have to deal with that social pariah status. And then there’s the slight placebo effect, as you say, of having something to calm your own nerves, your own anxiety. But the third thing is this: if you don’t drink alcohol (and a lot of people find this, whether they’re not drinking because they’re pregnant or they’re the designated driver), the options that you’ve traditionally had are dull. You have one orange juice…
…I hate orange juice! [Laughs]
I’ll throttle the next person who gives me any elderflower!
I actually quite like elderflower.
I’ll have the orange juice, you have the elderflower. The idea of having something that’s complex, sophisticated, interesting in flavour profile as much as anything else… that’s what we’ve been missing.
It’s similar to having been a “plant curious” eater, which I have been for around a similar amount of time – you start to feel like a bit of a second class citizen, and a bit pissed off. “Oh, another risotto. Great.” And that can be off-putting if you really want to make a sustainable change. It’s like, “God! Is this the future of my eating out, being confined to choosing the one thing off the menu?” It’s just a bit miserable.
Absolutely. And while you’re back in London, find a way to eat the cooking of Joey O’Hare. She’s pretty interesting.
Where does she cook?
She used to do pop-ups, so at the moment you’d have to go and knock on her door and beg her! She writes recipes and she’s very much about fermentation, using things like kombucha. She talks about how animal meat under heat does interesting things, but vegetables don’t. But actually, if you use fermentation, you can bring some really interesting flavours out.
And the other person I was chatting to and interviewing the other day is a bloke called Jamie Park. He cooks around the corner from here in a place called The Frog. It’s a very cutting edge, Michelin restaurant, and it’s at the forefront of trying things out. As he says himself, he wants vegans and vegcentric diners to come and be blown away by what they can do. So you should go there.
Yes, absolutely. It has been really exciting to see those sorts of things happening in food as well. There’s a restaurant in New York called Dirt Candy. If you ever come over you should check it out. It has got the Michelin star look and feel, but it’s all vegetables. They do these sliders – what Americans call mini hamburgers – and they do these carrot sliders in these little brioche buns. I don’t know how they do it!
And this is what’s exciting about the world at the moment, no?
It is! And this is what I mean about… the more of us who start asking for what we actually want, the more innovation will happen. The more choice there will be.
Thank you so much for chatting to us.
Thanks for having me!
This week’s Real Podcast was brought to you, as always, by Real Kombucha: Non-alcoholic fermentation at its finest. Our thanks, of course, go to this week’s guest, Ruby Warrington – make sure you buy her book, Sober Curious, available now at all good bookstores. Our thanks also to The Drift Bar for their hospitality during the interview. We’ll see you again in the next couple of weeks for more great foodie and modern drinking podcasts. You can find out more about Ruby Warrington at www.rubywarrington.com.