Eating in: Paradise regained

Amid a crop of gimmicky TV-chef cookbooks, writes Michael Bateman, comes something with a bit more soul. The book is `Feasts from the Place Below', and its author is Bill Sewell, who runs vegetarian restaurants in the crypts below two churches
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AT LAST, a seriously original cookbook. No pictures. Not even any line drawings. Just excellent recipes from someone who has spent 10 years running one of the most admired vegetarian restaurants in the country, accompanied by some interesting observations based on real experience.

It's not too much to ask, you might think. But food publishers seldom want to know about this kind of book nowadays, what with television tie- ins and "celebrity chefs" - a Nineties phenomenon which refers to chefs with a comic bent who have forsaken their kitchens for the easy option of mugging on a cookery game show. Their books have superb production values, glossy chocolate-box pictures taken by the best photographers, who are aided by professional food stylists. The books make fine presents for family and friends, and adorn coffee-tables up and down the land.

But Feasts from The Place Below by Bill Sewell is, by contrast, a book not to give away at all, but to keep for yourself. It is a grown-up cookery book, revelling in the sensuous joy of good food, and written with warmth and humour.

The author, Bill Sewell, may be something of an eccentric. He must be the only restaurateur in the country to have two restaurants that are both in churches. The first, The Place Below, which is in the crypt of St Mary-le-Bow in Whitechapel in London's East End, opened 10 years ago and became Time Out's Veggie Restaurant of the Year. Food from The Place Below, a book of recipes based on its dishes, was greeted with enthusiastic reviews from Sophie Grigson, Loyd Grossman and Frances Bissell.

Then, remarkably, Bill Sewell was headhunted by the vicar of All Saints, Hereford, who invited him to open a second restaurant - this one in the nave of the church. Bill Sewell agreed, moved to Hereford with his wife, and opened the Cafe at All Saints, now the hot ticket in the city, feeding some 400 customers every day. Heretically, Bill Sewell is a very un-veggie vegetarian cook. "I'm profoundly uninterested in the worthiness of being a vegetarian," he says; he enjoys all food. He even eats some meat and fish when he's out, though he doesn't cook it.

It was as a teenager that he became interested in vegetarian cooking, the last straw being a spell in a kibbutz during which he worked in a chicken factory. He saw it as being "debilitating to the people who worked there". Bill is a Cambridge graduate (one of a number - Alastair Little, Juliet Peston, Rowley Leigh - who gravitated to the restaurant business). He left university to work in a wholefood restaurant in London, a Cranks- alike, but rather more rough and ready. That was followed by a brief period working in Launceston Place as a pastry chef, which experience prompted him to wonder why vegetarian food was always so unsophisticated? Although he nursed the idea of one day running his own place, the practicalities of life intervened and he took a job with Price Waterhouse as an accountant.

Then one day, quite by chance, he attended an art exhibition in the crypt of St Mary-le-Bow, and it struck him that the place would make a wonderful restaurant. The next day he went to see the vicar, the Reverend Victor Stock, who did not hesitate to agree. He saw that the restaurant would be an excellent way of bringing more people into the church.

Bill Sewell's menu developed according to his own tastes and those of his friends. "People may think many of the dishes are original but there is no such thing as an original dish. They've all been done before, but some may have been forgotten."

He particularly enjoys bringing to life Britain's vastly under-rated winter vegetables. In our love affair with the Mediterranean (which he hastily points out is a love he shares) we tend to ignore some real glories: parsnip, turnip, swede, beetroot, leeks, cabbage, pumpkin. Neither the French nor the Italians rate the parsnip, for example; but a famous Bill Sewell recipe is truffled scrambled eggs with roast parsnips. That's style for you. And it's probably one of the first occasions on which truffles have made an appearance in a vegetarian cookbook.

Feasts from the Place Below is laid out seasonally, seasonality being a pet obsession with the author. Bill refuses to bow to supermarket tyranny: he blames them for all but banishing the seasons by importing from around the world. For him, each new season generates a sense of expectation and excitement, whether it's the first crop of asparagus from Cornwall, or new strawberries, or even elderflower and elderberry.

While he is not a Little Englander, Bill likes to come up with British equivalents to foreign dishes. Consider, for example, the classic Spanish dish which combines quince paste (membrillo) with manchego, the sheep's cheese. Bill's mouthwatering answer was to take the well-set sweetened puree made from damsons, and spread it on a slice of homemade olive-oil bread (baking is another of his passions). The puree is covered with a thin layer of brie, and the whole is topped with another slice of bread, and baked in a very hot oven for about a minute, until the cheese begins to melt. "It is also delicious with Vacherin, which generates a wonderful farmyard smell," he says.

But Bill Sewell's recipes speak for themselves. The three published here - beetroot and red onion ragout, leek and Caerphilly potato cakes, and fig and banana tarte tatin - are taken from the November section of Feasts from the Place Below. They all use seasonal ingredients. When you make the ragout, bake more beetroot than you need and the next day, make a simple gratin with sliced beetroot tossed in some creme fraiche and Parmesan, topped with a little more Parmesan mixed with breadcrumbs. This is delicious served with some blanched broccoli tossed in a little seasoned olive oil or butter; or with some beet tops with butter and mustard. If you're hungry, boil a few potatoes as well.

`Feasts from the Place Below' is published by Thorson, price pounds 9.99. The Place Below, St Mary-le-Bow, Whitechapel, London EC2. Telephone: 0171 329 0789. The Cafe at All Saints, High Street, Hereford. Telephone: 01432 370 415


Serves 4

500g/1lb raw beetroot

200g/7oz red onion (one medium-sized onion), halved and sliced

2 cloves garlic, crushed

2 pieces stem ginger (from a jar of stem ginger in syrup) or a small knob of fresh root ginger, finely diced

175ml/6oz red wine

50ml/2fl oz creme fraiche

The day before you want to make this, put the beetroot on a baking tray and cover tightly with foil. Put in a 375F/ 190C/Gas 5 oven for two to three hours until it is very tender. When it is cooked, allow to cool, and peel. The next day, put the onion in a heavy-bottomed pan with the olive oil, garlic and ginger, and cook until the onion is soft. Add some salt halfway through the cooking. Add the wine, bring to the boil and cook with the lid off on a high heat for about 10 minutes, to reduce the liquid by about half. Add the creme fraiche, bring back to the boil, and remove from the heat. Serve with the potato cakes (below).


Serves 4

600g/1lb 5oz potatoes, peeled or not depending on your preference, cut into large, even-sized chunks

200g/7oz leek, sliced

50g/2oz butter

1 bunch spring onions, finely chopped

1 good dessertspoon English mustard

175g/6oz Caerphilly, grated

2 eggs, beaten

100g/4oz breadcrumbs

about 15 leaves of fresh rosemary, chopped very fine

1 egg, beaten

sunflower oil for frying

Boil the potatoes until they are well cooked but have not collapsed. Drain and leave to dry. Sweat the leeks in the butter with salt and pepper until they are tender. Turn the potatoes into a large mixing bowl and mash with a hand masher. Mix gently with the leeks, onions, mustard, cheese and two eggs. Mix the breadcrumbs and the rosemary. Form the potato mixture into about eight even-sized balls. Dip them into the egg, and then into the breadcrumb mix, flattening them slightly as you go. About 15 minutes before you are ready to eat, put three to four tablespoons of oil in a large heavy-bottomed frying pan on a high heat. When the oil is quite hot put in some of the potato cakes and turn the heat down to low/medium. Don't overcrowd the pan or you won't be able to turn the cakes over easily. (If you are doing them in batches keep the first lots warm in a low oven.) After seven to 10 minutes turn them over. They should be a lovely crisp brown on the cooked side. Cook them for a further five to eight minutes on the other side and serve straight away.


Serves 8

juice of half a lemon

50g/2oz dark brown sugar

50g/2oz butter

450g/1lb bananas (3 medium ones)

6 largish purple figs

400g/14oz puff pastry

Pre-heat oven to 475F/240C/Gas 9. Put the butter, lemon juice and sugar in a deep heavy tarte tatin tin. Put on a medium heat and stir. Take off the heat and slice the bananas (lengthways) and the figs (in quarters) and arrange with the uncut surfaces downwards in the butter mixture. Return to a medium heat until the mixture begins to bubble. Put in the oven for about 40 minutes until the juice has become quite syrupy. Roll out the pastry and put over the fruit. Bake for about 20 minutes until puffed up and golden. Turn upside-down and serve with creme fraiche.