Foodie green queen, Romilla Arber
Deliciously sustainable: food writer and Honesty Group founder Romilla Arber tells us all about her mission to be green.
Hey, we all love avocado on toast but the whole food guilt thing leaves a bitter taste. The science is telling us that if we want to save the planet, address the climate crisis, and have to be more sustainable, rethink our diets and take and an interest in the food eat at home and in restaurants, pubs and cafés.
But before you start brewing that nettle soup, we have some good news: hope is here. Gastro green queen Romilla Arber, founder of the Honesty Group (a local indie group of cafés, pubs, cookery school and bakery) is leading the sustainability charge. Zero food waste, an app that tracks the climate impact of their products, tips on how your can do your bit – and speedy, healthy pasta recipe, too.
What inspired you to get into the food industry and set up Honesty?
I’ve always been interested in food, how it is produced, how it gets to the consumer and how it is marketed. I have also always been extremely interested in the benefits that good food can bring to people. Honesty was really a reflection of this interest. I wanted to start a food business that is honest about how the food it sells is produced, what is in it and where it comes from. I also wanted to create a business that adds value to the community in which it operates and nurtures and develops employees so that their lives are improved by their occupations and not made worse.
Sum up its style/ food philosophy?
I would say that our style is modern, hopeful and honest. Our food is simply cooked using good ingredients. Our food philosophy is to make use, wherever possible, of local or UK produce – to create local economies around our sites so that consumer spend stays in those communities, rather than going into the pockets of anonymous shareholders who only care about the bottom line.
How important are issues such as food waste and sustainability?
It’s hugely important. We’ve almost reduced food waste produced from our cafés to zero by collaborating with the business TOO GOOD TO GO. We’re then having other food waste, such as vegetable peelings etc converted into biodiesel. We are looking at introducing an app so customers can see exactly what climate impact each of our products has on the planet. So far, we’ve got one electric company car, with aspirations to obtain electric delivery vehicles. Local sourcing is also very important and the concept of creating a local economy.
Did you always have a vision for Honesty?
You come to things gradually as you mature and your way of thinking changes. Being involved in a food business brings you closer to the food system and therefore makes you more aware of its fragility and you’re then filled with the urge to ensure that it’s protected and thrives.
Has sustainability caused any headaches for you?
I want to get to a sustainably positive point as fast as we can but we are hampered in many ways. For example, we’re only tenants in most of our sites and cannot therefore have much impact on investing in renewable energy sources. This is frustrating. Why are companies still allowed to construct buildings without solar panels? Using renewable energy sources rather than fossil fuel at our cafés, pubs, cookery school and bakery is definitely the goal.
Do you believe restaurateurs and chefs are doing enough to shake the sector up re sustainability?
Some are, some are not. I’ve had to help all of our chefs reach a mindset that we’re only going to sell dishes in our restaurants that are seasonal, using locally sourced produce where possible. There are so many restaurants who choose not to do this – pretending their produce is locally sourced when it is not. Eventually consumers will vote with their money.
Should customers ask more questions about provenance and sustainability?
There’s a lot of greenwashing going on at the moment. Customers need to educate themselves and rise above the bullshit, so they can be more discerning about where they spend their hard earned money.
How can people be more sustainable with their own food/ cookery at home?
COOK! Cook using seasonal ingredients. Stop buying ultra processed foods – vegans should eat vegetables not ultra processed vegan products that take money out of local economies into the pockets of shareholders and pension funds, often to people who do not even live in the UK. People should reduce their weekly meat consumption by one third. Eat less.
Most memorable moment at work?
Seeing our manufacturing unit up and running for the first time – a bakery and a kitchen producing the food for our shops. That was memorable. Not so positive moments? Having to stand in front of all our staff at the start of the pandemic and tell them all to go home for the foreseeable future. A very tough day.
Your biggest mistake?
I am very philosophical about mistakes in business. Opening the café in Lambourn was a mistake. It was never going to work there, but I learned a lot.
You’re tired, starving and impatient: what do you cook for dinner?
Pasta with a tomato sauce is the go to if time is short, tempers are short and hunger is rampant. If I’m on my own, an omelette or fried egg on toast.
What would you cook to impress?
I like cooking Sri Lankan food. Many people wouldn’t cook this themselves. Sri Lankan meals include a lot of vegetable based dishes. The table always looks amazing, with lovely colours and textures. Very impressive!
I admire Nigella Lawson – her writing is beautiful. I love Alice Waters for the same reason. She can evoke a dish through words. No pictures needed.
Apart from my two! I use Simple by Diana Henry quite often. My all time favourite would probably be Four Seasons Cookery by Margaret Costa – I used it a lot when the children were young. I got my understanding of the importance of seasonal cookery from there and it reminds me of my Mum.
Favourite type of cuisine?
Favourite kitchen gadget?
The pasta making attachment on my Kitchen Aid
Favourite things to eat when you’re on holiday?
Favourite ingredient and why?
Flour! = bread and cakes!!
Most overrated dish/ ingredient?
The dish you’re most proud of creating?
Our vegetarian sausage roll, about to hit the stores
Tell us your best ever cooking tip?
Everyone can cook – don’t try to create the “perfect” anything – just cook to eat – to enjoy life and to live.
Three dishes every home cook should master?
Soup, stews and pastry will see you most of the way.
SPEEDY COURGETTE PASTA RECIPE
This could be a recipe inspired by leftovers or veg that is easily grown at home. Most of us can grow courgettes in the garden – there’s usually a glut and only so many dishes one can make to use them all up. Here is one such recipe:
- 30g olive oil
- 30g buttter
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- 300g courgettes, cut into thin strips, mimicking the shape of the spaghetti
- salt and pepper
- 400g spaghetti
- 4 egg yolks
- 100g grated parmesan cheese
- 20g fresh basil leaves
Warm the oil and butter in a large frying pan. Cook the onion and courgette for 10 minutes on a gentle heat. Season with salt. Add the basil and put to one side.1
In the meantime cook the spaghetti. Drain but retain a little of the cooking water.2
In another bowl mix the egg yolks and parmesan cheese and season well with salt and pepper.3
Add the cooked spaghetti to the frying pan and return to the heat to heat through. Remove the pan from the heat and add the egg and cheese mixture and the retained pasta water. Serve with more pepper and cheese if required.4
Discover the Honesty Group for yourself: Honesty Cafés are in Hungerford, Inkpen, Donnington, Greenham, Kingsclere, Saddleback Farm Shop at Brightwalton, Beale Park in Pangbourne, Basingstoke, Overton, Dummer Down and Houghton Lodge in Stockbridge. Two pubs: The Hartley Arms in Donnington and the Crown and Garter Inkpen, plus the Honesty Cookery School in North Sydmonton, Hampshire, close to the Berks border and Newbury.
Words: Rachel Jane