Fun at the Food Assembly

13 May

A few months ago I moved to Penge. Now I can practically hear the cries of ‘where is that?!’ even as I type, don’t worry – a fair few of my friends didn’t know either, but I’ll tell you something….if you don’t know Penge, you’re missing out!

'Penge Park'

‘Penge Park’

Tucked away in South East London between Crystal Palace and Beckenham (not too far from Croydon if you’re still a bit lost), Penge is a lovely place to live; there’s a real sense of community not always found in the sprawling metropolis that is London, a thriving arts scene, beautiful green spaces (don’t be fooled by the name of Crystal Palace Park, a good portion of it – including the dinosaurs – is actually in Penge!) and, very importantly, there are a lot of delicious eateries around this area!


One of the most exciting things I’ve discovered since I moved here is the Penge Food Assembly. I was introduced to the idea by a friend when I first moved here; it’s taken me this long to get involved but now that I have I’m definitely a fan! There’s good news for everyone too – there are food assemblies all over London…

‘But what is a food assembly?’ I hear you ask! Well, it works like this: each assembly has a leader who has signed up for the role and who organises venues and signs up local producers and farms to the scheme; as a buyer, you then go online and select your shopping from the available produce; the food assembly then meets up for the buyers to collect their orders and meet the producers that they’re buying from……so it’s sort of a food market where you pre-order. The best thing about the assemblies is that the produce all comes from within 150 miles of the collection point and you get to meet a lot of the suppliers – so you know that you’re getting quality seasonal foods and reducing your carbon footprint into the bargain! Also, it’s great for the producers because they’re not staying at a market all day wondering how much they’re going to sell…… fact, the food assembly is so good that in 2015 it won ‘Best British Food Initiative’ at the BBC’s Food and Farming awards!

Since I still had quite a lot of the basics left in my kitchen (butter, milk, cheese, rice, condiments….), I decided that for this first foray into the world of assembly ordering I would stick to just buying myself some meat and veg. Luckily for the indecisive (and over-excitable-regarding-food) person that I am, there are options to purchase set ‘boxes’ of items wherein you get a variety of different things; so after browsing through the online market, and being oh so tempted by the array of cheeses and chutneys (I kept having to give myself little pep-talks and reminders that I really should finish the ones I have before buying more), I finally decided to go with a small veg box (which you can choose with or without potatoes….I obviously chose with!) and a ‘standard meat box’ which also contains eggs. Pleased with my purchases (and self-restraint) there was nothing left to do but wait eagerly for collection day, in Penge the online market closes at midnight on a Tuesday and the assembly is every Thursday evening so happily I didn’t have long to wait.

Why did I not order some bread?!

Why did I not order some bread?!

When Thursday rolled around it was beautiful weather and I took full advantage of the fact, meeting my friends early for a quick drink in the garden of our collection point, which just happens to be one of the local pubs – the Goldsmith’s Arms. After a scrummy cold cider we went in to the assembly and I met our lovely assembly leader Nigel and we had a chat while we waited for everyone to arrive. The food was all bundled up and ready to go so it’s perfect if you need to just pop in and pick something up (a few families did whilst I was there), but because the collection runs from 5pm – 8pm you can do as we did too and go down and have a chat, meet people, maybe have a drink, before picking up your order & heading home for dinner. While we were there I spotted the bread being laid out in its paper bags and immediately cursed myself for not ordering any….I made a silent promise to myself next week.

Wild Garlic

The wild garlic looks so pretty as well as tasting great!

When I opened my veg box (which is actually a jute shopper bag packed with seasonal goodies) I was simultaneously excited and a bit apprehensive – the ‘ready to cook’ stir fry greens looked delicious, we spotted some wild garlic in there which made my day, but………there was also a head of cauliflower. Hmmmmm. I know it’s in season so I really should have expected that it would turn up at some point but you see…..cauliflower’s not really my thing, it just doesn’t float my boat. I’ve since discovered that you can check what’s going to be in your selection on the farm’s website, but I quite like the surprise of getting things that you wouldn’t normally buy  – whether they’re new things to try or something that you’ll try a new way of cooking because you’re not normally a fan…… so that’s exactly what I did with my cauliflower! I went online and looked up recipes, hoping to find a way to make this veg appeal to me.

I also made some cauliflower rice for thee first time - I added some toasted cumin & I must say I really enjoyed it!

I also made some cauliflower rice for thee first time – I added some toasted cumin & I must say I really enjoyed it!

One of the first things that came up was roasted cauliflower steaks, they looked interesting and quite easy to prepare so I gave it a go – what a revelation! I sliced the cauliflower into cross sections, drizzled with some oil, added a sprinkling of salt & pepper and roasted them (along with some garlic because I adore roasted garlic) for 30 minutes; served with some buttery mash and steamed carrots they were absolutely delicious! And did you know you can even roast the leaves? Let me tell you – roasted cauliflower leaves are a completely unexpected treat………the leaves themselves become delicate and crispy while the stems are reminiscent of sautéed leek or broccoli, honestly….I would buy cauliflower again for roasted leaves alone!

Grilled sausages & bacon, poached egg, sourdough toast…..I can claim this is healthy, right?

For me, the meat box seemed to be designed with the weekend in mind – eggs, bacon, pork and leek sausages…….hello full English! I added some mushrooms and tomatoes that I had left over (so no, not entirely seasonal) and a chunky doorstop of sourdough toast (all the while still wishing I’d ordered bread from the assembly) and I have to say it was the most mouthwatering breakfast, the sausages were definitely a highlight – slightly crumbly because they’re not filled with a lot of the rubbish that you find in many supermarket offerings, and so full of flavour, no sauce was needed, in fact – I think it would have been sacrilege to use any on these foods!

My favourite dish so far though has to be the stir fry…….

Food photography skills still not great but trust me it was delicious!

Food photography skills still not great but trust me it was delicious!

I sautéed the pak choi with some honey and soy sauce, stir- fried the veg just as they were (with the addition of a dash of peanut oil in the pan) and topped it all with roast chicken (as well as the calling-out-for-an-English-breakfast items, the meat selection also contained 4 chicken thighs and some minced beef). Because of the quality of the produce, I really didn’t need to add much at all by way of flavour – it was all already there! I felt so healthy and full at the end of the meal that I wasn’t even craving something sweet, which is really unusual for me. The best part is that because the small veg box is still pretty packed, I’ve still got half of the pak choi & stir fry greens left!

I would definitely encourage you all to look into your local assembly and give it a go! It’s so easy, collection is convenient, you’ll get to know your producers and neighbours and what’s more, there’s no obligation to order each week and no minimum order when you do; in fact, because you get so much in a box, half of the meat that I ordered went straight into the freezer to be used next week -which means that this week I’ll probably just be ordering some veg………..oh, and the bread of course…….and maybe just one little chutney…….