A pub on a mission

Britain's first organic gastro-pub has converted two breweries to its creed, so you can eat, drink, be merry and do your bit for the environment
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Geetie Singh can trace her interest in organics back to the days when she would run away from the crop-dusters that flew past her childhood home in Worcestershire. But when she and her lifelong friend Esther Boulton opened Britain's first organic pub in 1998, the Duke of Cambridge in Islington, they were reluctant to advertise it as such.

"There was little understanding of what 'organic' meant then," says 33-year-old Singh. "The image was still of sandal-wearing hippies, and we wanted to steer away from that. There was a lot of interest from the press who muddled 'organic' with 'vegan'. We kept having to tell them: 'Meat, booze, fags. Meat, booze, fags!' And we were fed up with people asking us if the beer was alcohol-free."

There was only one organic draft ale available in the UK at the time, and no draft lagers. They persuaded two breweries to become certified. Freedom brewery made the UK's first organic draft lager for them and the local Pitfield brewery created London's first organic draft bitter, Singhboulton, in their name. Pitfield now brews a wide range of organic ales and one organic stout. By 2001, an organic beer festival at the Duke's sister pub, The Crown in Hackney, saw 30 entries from all over the country.

Almost everything you would buy in a regular pub - right down to the tampons in the ladies' toilets - is available in organic form in the Duke of Cambridge (30 St Peter's Street, London; 020-7359 3066) and The Crown, on Victoria Park (223 Grove Road, London; 020-8983 9893). Even the cigarettes, though not organic, are made from additive-free tobacco grown on a native American Indian reservation.

Chalked on a series of blackboards are messages explaining the management's philosophy. A disclaimer on one says the venison is killed in the wild by hunting, and cannot be classified as organic due to strict European laws on the use of the word. Another carries a message from the Dalai Lama on the individual's role in looking after the environment. Some might find ecological discourse over a pint of Ecowarrior - one of the Pitfield ales - a tad earnest for a night down the boozer, but it's all very discreet, and quite refreshing, and needn't politicise your experience overly.

With wide windows, a stripped wooden floor, reclaimed wooden furniture and no music, the Duke of Cambridge is an airy everyday's-a-Sunday pub. Its small patio garden adds to its charm if you can nab an early table. The food is pricey for a pub, but award-winning: among a string of accolades, the Duke boasts the Time Out Best Gastro-pub Award 2000, and has been named Les Routiers' Real Ale Pub of the Year 2003.

A typical menu might include wild duck, apple and celeriac salad with hazelnut dressing (£7) for starters and braised oxtail with swede purée (£12.50) for main course. Finish off with pear and honey polenta cake with cream (£4.50), and wash it all down with one of 40 organic wines on offer, from around £13 a bottle.

The menu changes twice daily, not least because of the problems of supply and demand for the carefully selected small farms. "You have to be on top of your ordering," says Andrew Holland, the 33-year-old Australian head chef who caters for around 150 people on a Sunday lunchtime. Though the organic creed is new to Holland, he is used to cooking with organic produce. He explains: "Most chefs use organic food. Any chef worth his salt takes care in tracing the ingredients back to the source. They like to know how the animals are kept."

So why go to all the bother of certifying a restaurant if good chefs use organic produce anyway? Singh explains that uncertified restaurants by law cannot label their food as organic, even if some of it is, because it risks being "contaminated" by non-organic ingredients.

On the verge of Soil Association certification is the Axis restaurant at the One Aldwych hotel, in London (020-7300 0300). "We use as much organic produce as we can," says Rory Duncan, the head chef. "From the end of this month, all our food will be organic. This is mostly for ethical reasons."

But do these ingredients improve the flavour of the food? Duncan is candid: "Sometimes. Fresh eggs for instance are far superior." Singh agrees. "It's a myth that organic food unconditionally tastes better than non-organic food. Just like you get good and bad conventional ingredients, you get good and bad organic produce. There's a scale and the trick is buying at the right end of that scale. By serving good organic food, we offer a holistic approach to eating out. You can be sure of the finest produce, and know that you are helping the environment."

The Soil Association's list of certified restaurants in London is remarkably short, comprising Pizza Organic - one in Ealing and one on the Old Brompton Road (020-8397 5556) - and The Ritz hotel, Piccadilly (020-7493 8181). Outside of London, try Penrhos Court Restaurant in Kington, Herefordshire (01544 230 720); Juice Café Organic in Bournemouth, Dorset (01202 314 143); or the Kai Organic Café in Brighton, East Sussex (01273 620104), to name a few.