One of Eat Hackney's favourite streets in the borough is Calvert Avenue, a spoke of the wheel that is the Boundary Estate, the world's first council estate. The hub of the wheel is Arnold Circus, where a bandstand was raised in the 1890s on the rubble of the Old Nichol slum. Developers in need of inspiration, of which there seem to be quite a few, should wa(o)nder these streets of high striped brick tenements with their fairytale gables and tall chimneys. From the bandstand, still a focus of community events, follow Calvert Avenue out of Tower Hamlets and into Hackney, where Brazilian cook and recipe writer Vanessa Almeida set up Essential Vegan at number six just a couple of months ago.
It's a simple and attractive space where light pours in through picture windows, warmed by the glazed red brick that characterizes the street. The homey kitchen-table vibe comes from the open kitchen, which Vanessa believes enhances the feeling of trust in the food.
When she became vegan six years ago, Vanessa had to learn to cook, and despite having no background in food science she has become obsessed by it. She began veganising recipes, which she posted on the Essential Vegan blog. She turned the blog into a self-published recipe book, and began cooking, selling the book, and doing cookery classes and demos at markets, pop-ups and veggie fairs.
She also began making and smoking cashew-nut cheeses in 2016. She avoids the use of coconut and other oils in the cheeses because they are already rich in nut oil, and favours ageing to preserve the products: her smoked cheese is aged for thirty days, and the garlic and chive cheese for 15-20 days. These punchily flavoursome products are used in her cheese platters, burgers and cannelloni and are sold in the shop and at Black Cat and Harvest N16.
The menu at the café is eclectic but Brazilian-inspired: there are classics such as a veganised version of street-food standard coxinha, but in the evenings Vanessa focuses more on northern Brazilian food, which is strongly African in flavour: dishes might include Moqueca Bahiana, a Brazilian casserole with plantain, palm hearts, peppers and spiced coconut sauce.
Another unmissable sight and scent in Essential Vegan is the baking - when Eat Hackney visited Vanessa was up to her elbows in blueberry cinnamon rolls, enthusing about the way the fresh blueberries explode during the cooking process.
And in a corner of the café is the Black Wall gallery which features a different artist every month: artists show their work and decorate the blackboard wall. Vanessa is committed to being part of the community here - ingredients are sourced from nearby suppliers and are organic and Fairtrade where possible. She hosts a feminist group in the café and is already planning to run cooking courses, as well as sketching classes and talks on healthy eating.
Eat Hackney is sure the community is going to be happy to have her and Essential Vegan on beautiful Calvert Avenue.
'Ricotta' and spinach cannelloni
- 2 tbsp vegetable oil
- 1 onion chopped
- 2 cloves garlic minced
- 2 cans of chopped tomatoes
- 1 tbsp sugar
- 1 tbsp mustard
- 1/4 cup of red wine
- 395g tofu
- 1/4 cup unsweetened almond milk
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- juice of half a lemon
- 1/2 tbsp salt
- 120g baby spinach leaves
- 1 box of cannelloni
Pre-heated the oven to 180°C.
Sauté the garlic and onion in the vegetable oil until tender. Add the tomatoes, sugar, mustard, wine and a splash of water and bring to boil. Cook on a medium heat for 15–20 minutes.
In a food processor beat the tofu, almond milk, olive oil, lemon juice and salt for a few seconds, just enough to incorporate the ingredients together.
Add the spinach leaves to the tofu 'ricotta' mixture. Fill the holes of the cannelloni with the mixture and lay them on a baking tray. Pour the tomato sauce on top and bake for 45 minutes.