Cake and guilt traditionally go hand-in-hand, but two pioneering Edinburgh cafes are making a move towards sweet treats that’ll keep your conscience smelling of roses.
Raw Food, as a movement, is normally associated with the blue skies and bright lights of California. Luminaries of 90s Hollywood like Demi Moore and Alicia Silverstone are devotees of the diet, which claims innumerable physical and mental benefits of consuming unprocessed, undiluted,’living’ foodstuffs- over 400 raw outlets can be found across the US.
It is, in fairness, the last food concept you’d expect to find launching in Scotland, even if it is in Edinburgh’s mellow, shabby-chic Stockbridge. To enter Red Sugar, you have to battle through the snaking queue waiting to buy bridies and yum yums from the Greggs next door, as owner Steve Montgomery wryly notes.
An architect by training, and originally from Shetland, Steve got into a raw diet due to health reasons, around seven years ago. Enthusiastic to an evangelical degree, no one could doubt the positive effect it’s had on him- anyone who’s been working 18 hours a day for six months without a break has no right to be this bright eyed and animated. Small but welcoming, the superfood haven he has created is calm and contemporary- it certainly shies away from the tye-dyed stereotype many people harbour when faced with a niche food culture. ‘I want raw to be introduced in an easy way’ he says ‘I don’t want to take people out of their comfort zone. This is fresh, handmade botanical food’.
Currently the menu is largely a shrine to the cacao bean in its many forms. As Steve points out, cacao has been a foodstuff for hundreds of years and it was only in the commercialised 20th century that it became associated with candy, drowned amongst skimmed milk powder and refined sugar. The raw cacoa nut he gives me to nibble has over 300 nutrients in it and packs the anti-oxidant equivalent of a punnet of blueberries. He also makes his own chocolate bars (98% pure cacoa plus a pinch of Himalayan pink salt, making it ideal for diabetics and those watching their cholesterol) and, if you’re willing to wait 15 minutes, you can have a raw hot chocolate- 100% cacao tempered below 30 degrees until it crystallises, giving you an energy hit as allegedly intense as that other well-known South American, er, pick-me-up.
The cake cabinet wouldn’t look out of place in the Dean Gallery- these are immaculate, labour-intensive constructs, raw ingredients re-configued into perfect likenesses of gateau, brownies et al. Whilst this artifice may sound a trifle unpalatable, my slice of chocolate cake passed the taste test. A dark concoction of Ecuadorian beans mixed with virgin coconut oil and hand-cracked cashews (cashews are traditionally roasted open, so that’s a raw no-no) it gave a rush of pleasure minus the ususal palpitations, headaches and comedown sluggishness I usually get post- hot toffee choc fudge binge. To wash it down I try a downright blissful Skin Pleaser smoothie- fresh-pressed pear juice, camu camu berries (wild harvested from the Amazon), cashew nut-based iced cream and coconut water; frothy, milkshakey and top lip-lickingly delicious.
Perhaps the biggest criticism Steve faces is that most of his ingredients are from the further reaches of the world- the shelves are packed with agave nectar, and pots of spirulina powder, all of which trumpet their rainforest origins. These are big food miles, but he practices a real commitment of working closely with the smallscale suppliers, visiting sites personally to ensure non-exploitative working conditions and shipping, rather than air freighting, stock. What’s more, there’s a consistent ethos throughout the business- be it the composting of all waste, biodegradable packaging or sustainable bamboo chairs from Finland- even the post-its by the till are made from recycled elephant poo.
They have major plans for menu and Empire expansion. Steve’s chocolate is about to be launched in the retail market, from September they will have a full savoury menu to complement the sweetness which can be delivered to your desk for a Pret-free lunch and they will be actively encouraging people to get the raw ingredients and have a go at making their own chocolate bars. As Steve points out, the idea of chocolate as unhealthy is essentially a marketing construct, convincing you that shovelling Galaxy-style crap down your hole is a decadent treat, something to do with the girls in between glasses of Blossom Hill.
Up the road at beloved patisserie The Manna House, a very different type of superfood is on display. Boozy pistachio mousse, perfect ovals of rhubarb cheesecake and crusty artisinal breads spill off the shelves-it’s a world away from the minimalist vibe of Red Sugar, but behind the scenes they are also looking at their impact on the world. As co-owner Fabio Borreani points out, their food is deliberately free of sinister shelf-life improvers and flavour enhancers and ‘we want to extend this healthy ethos to the way we treat the environment’
Fabio moved to Edinburgh from Italy and was frankly horrified by the standard of the local diet and the mantra that if it’s cheap, we’ll eat it, regardless of quality, taste or anything else the Italians hold dear. The bread was ‘a trauma’, he confides. So The Manna House was born and instantly embraced by foodie Edinburghers (you try getting a table on Saturday). One such regular customer was Charles Henderson, director of Edinburgh-based Climate Futures, a specialist in environmental business consultancies. Curious to know the impact of a bakery (having worked with conglomerates like Reebok and Scottish Power), he conducted a full eco-audit that has set them on the way to becoming the UK’s first carbon neutral bakery.
‘We have always made a conscious effort to recycle and it really just grew from there’ says Fabio’s business partner Drew Massey. Everything was totted up, from the electricity used to power the ovens to the miles travelled by both their ingredients and their staff. Suggestions now implemented include working with farms literally down the road for seasonal fruits, eggs, honey and flour and getting energy from a more ecologically-sound supplier. They then make up their small deficit by purchasing the theoretical surplus of another carbon neutral company to the tune of a few hundred quid.
It’s a clean conscious that also makes financial sense, says Drew and presents itself as a model that could be adopted by other smallscale producers. ‘This is an ideal chance to get one up on the big boys’ grins Drew.
Red Sugar, 27b Raeburn Place, Edinburgh, EH4 1HU 0131 332 8455 www.red-sugar.co.uk The Manna House, 22-24 Easter Road, Edinburgh EH7 5RG 0131 652 2349 www.manna-house-edinburgh.co.uk