The wellness boom has made eating more naturally cool. Biodynamic and natural wine has gone big (the RAW wine fair has expanded into New York and LA, as well as London and Berlin; while Ocado has started selling Lanson organic champagne). The Hemsleys got people boiling bones for broth. Sales of organic food are at their highest for a decade.
But Riverford at the Duke of Cambridge, Britain’s only certified organic pub, located in Islington, London, has been all this stuff since opening its doors in 1998.“My mission was to prove restaurants can be sustainable and profitable,” founder Geetie Singh tells us. “And I have. And I’m very proud of that.”
Singh grew up in a commune, in a “huge, beautiful house in the Midlands countryside”, and attributes her passion for sustainability to her childhood.“We considered our impact on the environment and society from every angle. Every meal time, and there were sometimes 30 of us, was full of political discussion, where our voices, as children, were respected and encouraged.
“When I started working in restaurants, and then planned to open my own, I knew I could only do it if it embodied the principles I lived and utterly believed in.”
The commune, founded by her uncle, strove to be self-sufficient. “We had a huge vegetable garden and I was nicknamed ‘the rabbit’ because I loved the garden and used to graze in it,” Singh recalls. “We thought about where all our food came from and we made as much as we could from scratch. We ate whole grains, made our own yoghurt and bread and foraged for food too. It was an incredible education.”
But it wasn’t just growing up in a commune with her mother and brother which steered her towards the food industry. After moving to London aged 19, her father and stepmother educated Singh in fine wine and took her to “the most amazing restaurants”.
“It was like finishing school. I put the two upbringings together and knew I was onto something.” So the 47-year-old opened her pub, applying everything she’d learnt from her childhood. “There was absolutely no way I was going to open this business without the values I was indoctrinated in.”
The pub’s ethics don’t stop at food. All the furniture is second hand, repurposed or recycled; all waste glass, cardboard paper and tins are recycled; and the pub’s food waste is collected and used to generate energy via an anaerobic digester – a sealed, oxygen-free tank which breaks down food to produce biogas and biofertiliser.
The pub offers an ever-changing menu, depending on what food’s available. But Singh faces a number of challenges in ensuring all the pub’s ingredients are organic – due to term not being protected by EU law within the catering industry.
“The most stunning part of the change is I don’t have to explain the reason why we are doing this anymore. I used to have to explain even the most basic stuff, like what organic is, to staff and journalists alike. The assumption that we were bean sprout sandal wearing vegetarians was annoying then. Now all of that is fashionable. It’s heartening to feel the wealth of knowledge people have gained in sustainable food.”
And, as for advice for the everyday shopper, Singh is keen to reinforce the fact organic “absolutely” doesn’t have to be more expensive.“I think the media and supermarkets have a part to play in constantly reinforcing the myth that organic has to much more expensive,” she adds.
“You may have to be more savvy with your groceries, but that is only going to release you from the hell of supermarket shopping.”