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Asparagasm: Life in raw

PUBLISHED: 20:35 12 June 2017 | UPDATED: 20:36 12 June 2017

Asparagasm's head chef Lauren Lovatt

Asparagasm's head chef Lauren Lovatt

© Thousand Word Media

Nailsworth’s newest café Asparagasm is winning diners over to its delicious vegan, gluten- and refined sugar-free dishes. Would Katie Jarvis like to take a cookery class from manager-chef Lauren Lovatt? Absolutely. It’s a (Medjool) date

So, listen: I get to the café for my early evening cookery lesson and I’m straightaway handed a nice cup of tea and some chips.

Perfect.

Woah, woah, woah! Hold on a mo. What are you imagining here?

I’m not talking about a mug of builders and a plate of fries. No, siree. This is a pretty china cup of ginger and goji-berry tea; and some kale chips, straight out of a dehydrator. Because I’m not in some anonymous branch of Costa Coffee; I’m in Nailsworth.

In a café called Asparagasm.

Woah, woah, woah! Hold on a mo. What are you imagining here?

Yes, yes, I know it’s an interesting name for a café. And, no, I don’t know exactly what goji berries are. But I do know that, in Asparagasm, only the earth moves. In the sense that it’s vegan (and also, by the by, gluten- and refined sugar-free).

And I also know – as of this moment - that ginger and goji-berry tea is sweet, slightly peppery, very refreshing; and that kale chips are tricky to make if you don’t have your own dehydrator.

“You can do them in the oven, but I never have as much luck that way,” says Lauren Lovatt, general manager and chief chef at Asparagasm, and our tutor for the evening. “You can put them in for 10 minutes on super-low, but you have to watch them like a hawk.”

A butternut squash dish made by Lauren LovattA butternut squash dish made by Lauren Lovatt

To be honest with you, I’ve always believed that kale is best overcooked and then abandoned – works for me – but I’m rather liking Lauren’s kale chips.

“So easy to make,” she says, filling a bowl with kale, a couple of tablespoons of olive oil, and a teaspoon of salt. “And now you massage it,” she says, pushing it my way.

I give her a hard stare. Asparagasm? A vegetable massage parlour?

“A vegetable spa,” she prefers.

And it is strangely fun, running kale through your fingers until the hard fibres become malleable and silky and the leaves look somehow even more vibrantly green than they did before. Is there such a thing as a kale whisperer? (Nicholas Evans made millions out of doing something similar with horses.)

“You’re very good at that!” Lauren approves. And then it’s into the dehydrator for 12 hours. (A slightly disappointing snack if you’re feeling peckish there and then.)

The thing is, Asparagasm has crept up on Nailsworth since it opened in October 2015. “Who on earth is going to patronise a vegan, partly raw-food café?” thought the masses, as they dashed past on their way to scrapping over the bargain designer-wear in Emmaus next door.

But, gradually, Asparagasm has won them over: the young, the older, the already-converted, the meat-eating doubtful. And much of that is down to Lauren herself. She’s an incredibly good advert for this healthy-eating café – which, as you ask, is owned by Kate Lewis, who also has Tetbury’s Royal Oak.

Partly, Lauren’s glowing good looks are enough to convince anyone they should consider going vegan. And, partly, she’s so well researched. A marketing graduate, she spent her final year examining the effect of diet on mental health. Her conclusion was an obvious but clever one: to get people to eat well, you not only have to make food delicious; you have to make it cool.

A lemon posset made by Lauren LovattA lemon posset made by Lauren Lovatt

Asparagasm, with its spot-on lunches (some raw; many cooked: my own particular favourite is the chickpea pancake with pesto-smothered veg, cashew cheese and superfood salad; utterly superb), is super cool.

“When people focus on mental health, they’re often looking at being more open and talking more about depression and other problems,” Lauren says. “And that’s great. But if people could learn about diet and nutrition, too – about being more sociable and finding things they love doing – and if they could be persuaded to pursue those paths in terms of caring for their minds, it would stop them struggling so much.

“There are all sorts of books being written about the gut and imbalances, and how that could cause depression. And that’s pretty obvious, really; they say the gut is the second brain.”

For Lauren, it’s all or nothing. Always a foodie, she’s thrown herself into the Asparagasm philosophy with gusto; she’s trained under raw-food gurus such as Kate Magic and Deborah Durrant (“the Nigella of the raw food world”) (though with refreshingly fewer heaving bosoms). In a couple of weeks, moreover, she’s off to spend a month in California, learning from American celebrity chef Matthew Kenney.

So it’s hardly surprising that the food Lauren now produces is absolutely delicious: I’ve never eaten any dessert better than her raw-food cheesecake. It’s also light; I can eat here until I’m bursting, but I never feel my digestion is anything but loving it.

“And I really like the Asparagasm philosophy,” Lauren says. “The inclusiveness of it. The fact that the food is something everyone can get – not just vegans, but vegetarians, the v-curious, everyone!”

Enough of this chatter. We’re now going to make nut milk.

“Some of the almond milk you get in supermarkets can be as little as two-percent nuts,” Lauren explains, “whereas mine is a third.”

She shows us how to soak the nuts first – “You can use anything: nuts and seeds – hemp seeds are the only ones you don’t have to soak if you get the shelled ones; but that’s quite a strong-tasting milk.”

Asparagasm head chef Lauren Lovatt leading the workshopAsparagasm head chef Lauren Lovatt leading the workshop

Strong?

“I love it – I’d have it on granola – but it is quite grassy!”

We’re using soaked almonds – one part nut to three parts water – which we rinse very well before blitzing in a blender. “You need to get the bad stuff out of them. Nuts and seeds are designed to go straight through you, so they’ve got enzyme inhibitors and phytic acid – and you don’t want that!”

With the resulting milk, we make a gorgeous hot chocolate – using raw cacao powder and a pinch of cinnamon, as well as some melted coconut oil, a pinch of salt, and a couple of whizzed up dates for sweetness.

We also use soaked and blitzed cashews to make a lemon cheesecake, with agave, lemon juice, vanilla, coconut oil, melted cacao butter, another pinch of salt (“It brings out the nut; we use a little salt in all our cakes”), and a good dose of turmeric to give it a splash of colour.

“I’m in a really weird turmeric mood,” Lauren laughs.

The creamy cashew base tastes heavenly: “Cashews are your friends – so versatile. Great with curries; full of goodness; nature’s Prozac.”

And then it goes into the fridge to set – no setting agent involved.

But the best – most delicious – fun is had making the ‘life-changing loaf, Asparagasm style’, (with a healthy and acknowledged nod to Sarah Britton’s excellent My New Roots recipe); a mix of seeds, nuts and almonds combined with psyllium seed (“It’s like a replacement for egg”), which is one of the best yeast-free, gluten-free loaves I’ve ever tasted: nutty, seedy, crisp, crunchy. Perfect for serving toasted with mashed avocado. (‘We’ve continued to make this continuously at home.)

Katie Jarvis and daughter Ellie with head chef Lauren Lovatt during the workshopKatie Jarvis and daughter Ellie with head chef Lauren Lovatt during the workshop

“Experiment with this bread!” Lauren encourages. “Add courgettes. Add molasses - full of iron – for a sweet loaf. What’s the worst that can happen? If you get it wrong, it might go a big squidgy, but it will still taste great.”

And then it’s on to a raw cherry tomato, pepper, carrot, sundried tomato, date, tamari, cider vinegar, olive oil and garlic tomato sauce, and a sour cashew-nut cream, which we serve – along with a hemp and cavolo nero pesto - with roasted butternut squash slices, which we arrange, as if straight from the French Impressionism school, artistically on a plate. It looks, and tastes, divine.

What I love about this food is its guilt-free wholesomeness. The fact that it’s easy to do; it’s moral-dilemma-free; it’s without taste compromise; and – without a doubt – even the Daily Mail would have to declare it unambiguously good for you.

Because, let’s face it, people are still confused about what is genuinely healthy.

“Always,” Lauren says.

“And it’s not surprising. There’s more information out there than ever – from recipe books to really good blogs – but it’s too much. And the point is that everyone’s different. People write books, saying, ‘Alkaline is the way forward’ – but that’s only because it’s worked for them. It doesn’t mean it’s going to work for you. All you can do is to try it.”

OK. But if there were three golden rules to healthy eating, then they’d be?

“Eat more plants: an abundance of green stuff.

“Eat healthy fats – avocado, olive oil, coconut oil, nuts, seeds.

“And hydrate. Not just water, but coconut water and goji-berry tea.”

Good. Very v-good.

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