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Paul Brand peels the Satsuma to discover the zesty brains behind Chester’s unique pop-up bistro

Less than one generation ago, the concept of a vegan restaurant or café would have seemed laughable, the butt of a joke from the unrefined likes of Roy Chubby Brown. These days, they’re popping up in every major town and city. Vegan options have become a major selling point for nationwide chains such as Bella Italia, Zizzi, Papa John’s, Yo! Sushi and Nando’s. It surely won’t be long before a vegan franchise joins those household names.

As somebody who names a traditional Sunday roast and meat-packed BBQ as favourite meal options, I’m not a natural cheerleader for veganism’s mainstream takeover. But no matter how mouth-watering I might find a bacon sandwich, it’s impossible to remain deaf, dumb and blind to the grievous impact that animal agriculture and meat consumption are having on global warming. It is partly for these reasons that I’ve been observing meat-free Monday for a number of years and, after venturing beyond bland Quorn alternatives to accumulate a healthy stock of appetizing recipes, have recently made Thursdays vegetarian too. It’s still a long stretch to go from part-time veggie to full-time vegan but if there’s anybody who could tempt me into giving up chicken wings and rump steak for good, it’s Clare McCormack and Cath Bryan, the dynamic duo behind Satsuma Pop-Up Bistro.

Satsuma has been “popping up” since 2014. The original idea was conceived – as most revolutionary ideas are – after a few pints and with the gentle encouragement of a friend. Sat around a bowl of (fried in the right fat) chunky chips in Telford’s Warehouse, the conspirators bemoaned being an afterthought in nearly every establishment. As delicious as those chunky chips were, they agreed, a side order of thickset fries should not be the pinnacle of the vegan dining experience. Born of frustration, the intention behind Satsuma was to offer vegans what any other person would expect of a nice meal out. Going almost back to where it began, I met co-founder Clare in her local pub The Goat and Munch – sans chips – to discuss the ripening of Satsuma.

With the idea planted, Cath and Clare’s first challenge was to find host premises for their pop-up bistro. And the solution – which gave the venture an extra-special edge – was right under their noses. Or at least Clare’s, “I was coerced into hosting,” she says, “The dog was shipped off for the weekend, my son was farmed out, there were no cats then – three now! There were lots of logistical challenges to create what we needed.” That included a kitchen free from cross-contamination and space to seat sixteen. Achieving the latter in a Victorian mid-terrace was no easy feat – furniture was piled into a chaotic front room to make a cosy environ in the back room, adjacent to the kitchen, with the two impresarios acting simultaneously as chefs and maître d’s.

That aforementioned edge came from the peculiar experience of dining out in somebody else’s home. The reviews on Trip Advisor and elsewhere remark upon the strangeness of the situation but are unanimous in their agreement that this quirk is quickly forgotten, with communal seating creating a convivial atmosphere that has been described as ‘a cross between going to a restaurant and going to a dinner party’. The Satsuma logo hung above Clare’s front door, like the sign to a secret members’ club, was the only indicator of the delights within. Had they gone with the name Samphire – a lesser known vegetable with a deliciously crisp and salty taste, which made the shortlist along with Paprika – it’s possible that students would have been knocking on the door expecting to find a niterie!

The other striking aspect of the online appraisals is how many meat-eaters have been won over. Sample pull quotes:

‘I am not a vegetarian; however, the food was top notch.’

‘Took two of my meat eating friends and they loved it!’

‘Best Cornish pasty I have ever tasted.’

Are they on a mission to convert? “Veganism is food for everybody; it’s all-inclusive. We welcome everybody through our doors. I think a lot of vegans get a bad press because there are some angry vegans out there. I, personally, felt very angry at the world, angry at myself for not doing it sooner [Clare has been vegetarian since eleven but a cheese addiction stopped her officially turning vegan until her late-thirties] but the best way to get a message across is gentle persuasion. We have converted people who’ve been to Satsuma and it’s something I’m proud of.”

Other than taking over Clare’s home, responsibilities have always been evenly split: Satsuma menus consist of two choices for each course – a Cath one and a Clare one – and there is healthy competition to see who will be kept busiest on each night. Asked if they have any culinary inspirations, the only one is the seasons: “Seasonal food is very important for low mileage. It’s our starting point: what’ in season?” Though dedicated foodies, neither have any formal training, instead taking a trial and error approach, experimenting with tastes and textures.

Given the aesthetic quality of their dishes, it’s suggested that they could easily be Instagram influencers but Clare shuns the very notion of celebrity culture and the idea of contributing to society’s iPhone addiction: “In this day and age, we’re all heads down in our phones, in our own little bubble, we don’t talk to each other so much, we live very solitary lives… that’s why we’re proud that Satsuma provides a communal space.” But they wouldn’t consider a ban on electronic devices. “No. We want people to take photos of the food!”

While they don’t take inspiration from anywhere but their ingredients, it’s fair to say that Cath and Clare might have been an inspiration behind the evolution of Chester’s vegan scene. Reconfiguring Clare’s home into restaurant mode every few weeks was taking its toll, so since 2016 Satsuma has instead been popping up at carefully selected venues across Cheshire, the Wirral and North Wales. One of their first hosts was Jaunty Goat on Bridge Street, which has since launched its vegan enterprise on Northgate Street. Where Satsuma blazed a trail, Hypha and Vegan Deva are now filling the gap in the market. With all three of the new kids on the block (at least relatively speaking) concentrated in the Northgate area, it’s bred a sense of camaraderie rather than competition. “I love Jaunty Goat and I love Hypha,” says Clare. “It just makes me so happy that I now have somewhere to eat out. When we started Satsuma, all these people could come and eat, but I still had nowhere to eat out!”

It’s fitting that Clare and Cath can at last enjoy the dining out experience themselves, having grown Satsuma from the sixteen seats that could be comfortably squeezed into Clare’s abode to capacities of forty plus. They have also diversified into outside catering for events large and small, and a new dining experience called Satsuma@Home: like a much healthier and more upmarket version of Deliveroo, they will deliver and serve a three-course meal to private parties. “We want as many people to enjoy our food as possible,” explains Clare, “and we love being part of people’s celebrations.”

Satsuma@Home certainly replicates the intimacy of the early days in Clare’s back room. What else does she think has been lost or gained in transition from a domestic start-up to site-hopping success? “We’re much more kitchen-based now. Even though there are more helpers, it’s less social because of larger numbers, we can’t get ’round everybody and chat with every table. I think that’s the only downside I see. The upside is being able to spread out into the Wirral and North Wales, and we’re always on the lookout for new places. I like different venues for different reasons – some it’s the ambience, others it’s the fancy kitchens!”

The other downside for devoted clientele might be that regular Satsuma is now only on offer every few months rather than every few weeks. However, the reason for this also represents an upside. As well as touring the North West, Clare and Cath are teaming up with touring musicians to turn their evenings into a musical showcase. As ever with Satsuma, it is about the experience as well as the food. In June, they were joined at City Road church hall by singer-songwriter Emaline Delapaix. On her website, she advertises her availability to play stripped-back, semi-acoustic living room-style concerts in vegan-friendly spaces, with 5% of CD sales from each show going to a local animal shelter. Hailing from Australia but living in Berlin with a partner who’s half-German/half-Yorkshireman, I ask how they first heard of Delapaix? “Actually, she contacted us! She was in the UK doing a little tour. She threw a few dates at us and it worked out.” It seems Satsuma’s fame is spreading far beyond the North West!

Their special 13th September night with The Far North, a folksy Americana band from Runcorn, will take place at The Deaf Centre, Chester. Email to book (satsumaents@gmail.com). Price per head has risen from £20 to £25 for showcase events but this is still unbelievably reasonable for a hearty meal and musical entertainment. They obviously enjoy collaborating with a range of venues and talent but are they tempted to move from pop-up to permanent? Clare considers the question. “A few years ago, I would’ve. Cath doesn’t want to – she’s started an artisan cheese company that’s taken off.” Cheese? For vegans? “It’s made from cashew nuts. I sell ethical jewellery. We both have other business to run. Satsuma fits in with our lifestyles.” There’s a vacant unit next to Jaunty Goat… “Never say never.”

Cath’s TOFFEE APPLE SHORTCAKE

INGREDIENTS

For the shortcake biscuits:

225g vegan butter or spread (we use our sister company Pips’ No Udder Butter), softened

110g caster sugar

225g plain flour

110g cornflour

For the caramelised apple filling:

50g vegan butter or spread

4-5 tart apples – peeled, cored and diced

2 tsp cornflour

90ml cold water

75g soft light brown sugar

1/2 tsp cinnamon

For the whipped cashew coconut cream:

235ml soya milk

105g coconut oil (for a less “coconutty” flavour, try to find refined coconut oil)

35g cashew nuts

50g caster sugar

1 tsp vanilla extract

METHOD

Start by making the whipped cream; this can be made up to a week in advance and stored in the fridge.

First, pop all your cream ingredients into a blender or food processor, blend until really smooth, and we mean REALLY smooth… this can take a while so keep a good book handy!

Then your beautifully smooth mixture will need refrigerating overnight or, if you just can’t wait, a cool trick is to partially freeze the mix, about 30 mins to an hour should do it. In the meantime, freeze the bowl and whisk of a stand mixer. It is so much quicker and more efficient to make the cream when all your utensils are icy cold! You can use an electric hand whisk/mixer but be prepared to be patient… get a stool ready and that trusty book again. Once the mix is sufficiently cold/partially frozen, whip it up good (soft peaks for this recipe)… this can take anything up to 10 minutes even with a good stand mixer, but we promise it’s totally worth it! Keep a close eye on the mix as it can split if over whipped.

Now you can set to work on those delicious shortbread bikkies! Grease or line two baking trays (no need for this step if using silicone bakeware). Cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, then sift in the flour and cornflour, mix in until just combined. Don’t be tempted to keep mixing as “just combined” makes for perfect, buttery, melt in the mouth biscuits! Dust with flour and roll out to desired thickness – 0.5-1cm is about perfect we reckon. Cut into rounds, size is up to you, and chill on the trays for at least 30 mins. Then pop into an oven preheated to 170° for about 20 mins and just starting to brown at the edges. Leave for a few mins to firm up on the trays before moving to a cooling rack. You can make these up to 4 days ahead of time.

Last but not least, the star of the show, those juicy caramelised apples! In a large pan, melt the butter over a medium heat. Add the apples and cook, stirring constantly for 6 or 7 mins, until tender. Mix the water and cornflour, and add to the pan along with the sugar and cinnamon. Bring to the boil and simmer for 2 mins or so, until thickened.

Now all that’s left is to stack them up, presuming you’ve managed to resist scoffing all the elements individually as you’ve gone along! Sandwich a dollop of the cream topped with an oozy spoonful of the apples between 2 yummy biscuits and sprinkle with sugar or, as we like to, top with your favourite nut brittle.

Then devour the lot. You absolutely deserve it!