Eden Project: A beacon for green catering

24 July 2008
Eden Project: A beacon for green catering

One attraction that escaped most Soil Association criticism a couple of years ago was the Eden Project, the bubble dome-shaped venue in west Cornwall. Notable not just for its vegetable portion box-ticking, but also for making people actually eat healthier fare, it's become a beacon in green catering. Hilary Armstrong reports

Unfortunately, those stories you've heard are true. There really are children who don't know that milk comes from cows, that crisps are made of potatoes and apples grow on trees. If the team at the Eden Project has its way, such so-called "concrete children" won't just know the truth, they'll be milking cows, sowing seeds and planting crops.

Conceived by Tim Smit, and established as one of the Landmark Millennium Projects in 2000, the Eden Project in St Austell, Cornwall, is owned by the Eden Trust, an educational charity. In its publicity material the venue is described as "an experiment in communication and public education, a living theatre of plants and people", and it attracts more than a million visitors a year to its biomes, educational centre, gardens and gigs.

Not only has it won plaudits for its educational and social initiatives and brought a new wave of tourism to Cornwall, but the Eden Project has been commended for its children's food provision, too. Taking our Children for a Ride, the Soil Association's 2006 report on 14 tourist attractions, singled it out as a "Good Food Hero" and lambasted much of the competition for their diet of fizzy drinks and junk food.

The project's food and beverage team, numbering 190, doesn't plan to just rest on its laurels either. "Possibly, when we started we were the leaders," concedes food and beverage director Jo Bates. "But people are catching up with us now. We need to pull our socks up and go one step ahead. We're not where we want to be yet."

Most attractions would do well to reach the Eden Project's current level. The spend per visitor on food and drink hits the £4 mark some 75% of produce is locally supplied (of which 55% is locally produced) what's not available locally is Fairtrade or Rainforest Alliance-certified all meat and fish is humanely caught or farmed and the facilities are "waste-neutral".

Bates and Tony Henshall, Eden Project head chef, run 10 outlets, of which none are franchised. These include the largest, a 400-seat grab-and-go café called Zzub Zzub Med Kitchen - the project's only waiter service restaurant a Cornish tapas-style restaurant an ice-cream parlour an alpine hut and the Pasty - the clue's in the name, Cornish-style.

Henshall designs menus for each one with both healthy and day-tripper treats in mind. The Eden Project gets a big tick for simple gestures such as providing fresh fruit at every outlet, home-made lemonade instead of chemical concoctions and for sneaking fresh vegetables into basics such as savoury mince - but what do many of the visiting kids want? Chips.

For this reason just one outlet, the Pasty, sells hand-cut, skin-on, unsalted chips made from local potatoes, the only deep-fried food available on site. Other popular treats are Cornish ice-cream from Callestick Farm and, of course, Cornish pasties.

The numbers speak for themselves: one in three visitors buys an ice-cream and Eden sold 148,673 pasties last year. That said, Bates has noticed a marked increase in demand for gluten-free, dairy-free and vegan food, even for kids. Only fish has a low take-up level.

"That's one thing we don't actually sell that much of, which might seem bizarre, being in Cornwall," Bates admits. "But the cost of line-caught mackerel is high. We can't afford it, so it only goes on as a special."

The Eden people don't claim to be perfect. The Soil Association study pulled it up for not enough fresh fruit in the kid's box, of which they sell 26,000 a year - some 10,000 over six weeks in the summer - and for having no water bottles in the vending machines. Bates acted on both recommendations immediately.

Summer season

One of the biggest challenges, however, is staffing. Having about 40 chefs in winter is sustainable, but finding skilled chefs for the busy summer season has been tough. This year has also been difficult thanks to rocketing food prices, and Henshall doesn't have the luxury of juggling specials to balance prices - the menu boards can be changed only with the seasonal menu changes.

He informs suppliers early of products and volumes needed for the season ahead. Choice is relatively limited, which helps control costs. All profit goes to the trust, and Henshall works within industry standards for margins with about 30% food cost, 70% overall, and staffing at about 30%. Sales are split between food at 52%, drinks at 38% - of which alcoholic beverages are 4% - with the last 10% going on those delicious Cornish ice-creams.

Given the Eden Project's charitable status, balancing the economic, environmental and social parts of the equation is a far greater issue for Henshall than for the average chef.

Take buying locally, for example. All chefs crow that they're doing it, but in an area where revenue is buoyed by seasonal tourism, it's vital. So when Eden launched an ice rink last winter, questions were asked about its relevance to the project. In fact, what it did was boost winter visitor numbers, which in turn boosted sales of local produce, which meant local suppliers found a year-round market.

A strong environmental policy is a given. Says Bates: "We look at the packaging as closely as we look at the contents. Is it biodegradable? Can it be recycled? If the answer's no, we won't use the product, no matter how good it is."

The waste-neutral policy means that no excess waste goes off site. Food waste is composted by a massive Neter 30 in-vessel composter from Swedish company Susteco. The waste recycling station has pride of place in the middle of Zzub Zzub, in full view of visitors, so they can see staff beaver away, separating waste. This year the company is introducing a new family of children's bins, with characters Master Glass and General Rubbish. Bates says that many rival operators visit for guidance on packaging, recycling and the waste-neutral programme as much as they do for tips on serving food.

The Eden Project's director of interpretation, Jo Elworthy, strongly believes that the food outlets are more than just service providers, however. "They should be integrated with the whole project and carry the message through," she explains.

"What we're trying to do is to feed visitors in a way that fits in with the social enterprise model - supporting the local community, social issues and the health of visitors."

This is what differentiates the Eden Project from any other attraction. All the outlets are "educational but fun", themed with texts, images and events that link to the food grown on site. Thus at the Pasty, for example, you can see pasties being made, try crimping them yourself, hear stories about them, see the ingredients being grown and, of course, eat one.

Elworthy meets the food and beverage team to discuss menus each season to tie the offer in with forthcoming themes and attractions. An education programme involving local and international schools, producers and farmers is ongoing.

Forthcoming plans for the centre involve some tweaking, according to Bates. She's taking a more strategic role, getting out of the isolated, "pointy bit" of the country and finding fresh ideas.

"We're not so arrogant as to think, ‘We're there. We've made it.' With all the stories about obesity, a lot of attractions have jumped on the bandwagon and are introducing healthy options, low-fat options, really pushing the five-a-day. I think it will be a while before the public feels safe in the knowledge they can get healthy food at an attraction on a family day out, but hopefully they'll stop bringing their picnics on site."

Forthcoming events at The Eden Project

The Eden Sessions (July 25)

The last of this year's live music events, Eden Sessions, is upon us. This year's line up saw Kaiser Chiefs, The Verve and The Raconteurs play to a packed house, or rather, garden. KT Tunstall supported by Guillemots and Sons and Daughters is last of the season.

Get Den Building (until September 4)

Rubbing sticks together to make fire, tying knots, orienteering and building dens - kids learn vital survival skills without having to say "dib dib dib". For the less energetic, there are hammocks for snoozing in and, from August 1, campire food from the fire pit in the arena. From July 20 to September 4, Eden opens until 8pm on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursdays with reduced admission and kids free after 4.30pm.

Shape Shifters (until September 4)

An exhibition of plant pictures by Angela Easterling comprising more than 100 photograms that show how plants adapt to their environment.

Sustainability in Surfing (until September 4)

An eccentric exhibition of 1960 VW Westfalia camper van with surfboards and wetsuits is on show in the Mediterrean Biome to highlight the non-biodegradable and toxic materials used in the sport.

The Eden Project Menus

Jo's Café

Cheese and potato pie (gluten-free) with side salad, £4.25 jacket potato with side salad and Cornish yarg or hot bean salsa, £3.95 enchiladas - roasted vegetables in a spinach wrap, £4.25 kids' picnic basket, £3.95 nuts and seeds, 95p Cornish ice-cream, £1.20 hot chocolate with marshmallows, £1.80

Med Kitchen

(by the Mediterranean biome)

Stone-baked 6in pizza with Cornish ham, roasted vegetable and mozzarella cheese, £6 fresh tomato and mozzarella small bowl of short pasta with tomato sauce (for the under-threes), £2 ravioli with goats' cheese, £7.50 Cornish yogurt with toasted almonds drizzled with local honey, £2.50

Base Camp - feast round the camp fire

(Tuesday to Thursday)

Local sardines in freshly baked white bread, £3 griddled corn on the cob drizzled in Cornish or chilli butter, £1.70 Cornish hog roast and apple sauce, £3.50 roasted hot flamed fruit, £1

Top of the class

Tate Catering

Cafés at all four Tate galleries - Modern, Britain, Liverpool and St Ives - have a dedicated children's menu, and all offer smaller portions of adult mains for younger diners. So if the junior gastronome has outgrown the classic kids' menus of spaghetti and meatballs, haddock goujons and knickerbocker glory, they can tuck into a half-size dish of Oriental pork belly with Asian greens washed down with organic fruit juice.

Executive head chef Sean Davies puts a strong emphasis on local sourcing and healthy eating at all sites. Café 2 at Tate Modern (above), winner of the Best Family Restaurant category in the Time Out Eating and Drinking Awards 2007, has a children's menu that offers main, dessert and drink for £5.95.

Upper Deck

Searcy took over the catering at the London Transport Museum café, Upper Deck, when it reopened in September 2007. Its All Day Red Rover Menu is a split between healthy and indulgent, with some organic elements such as ketchup and baked beans.

All items marked with a smiley face next to them are available for "young travellers" in half portions for half price. That's not to say they're all healthy - there is a full English (£3.25) and a dry-cure bacon butty (£1.90) - and a total of 12 out of 17 dishes for kids is impressive. Organic Covent Garden crudités with tzatziki (£2.75), beans on toast (£1.65) or yogurt with strawberries, honey and granola (£1.90) are the lighter options.

Upper Deck, London Transport Museum, Covent Garden Piazza, London WC2E 7BB. Tel: 020 7598 1355. Website: www.itmuseum.co.uk

The National Trust

This British institution was commended in the 2006 Soil Association report for improving the quality of meals provided on its sites. Operating more than 140 venues, from tearooms to licensed restaurants, the trust places an emphasis on seasonal, local and ethical produce, including UK beef and Freedom Food-certified meat where possible.

Chips are strictly off-limits at all sites. Instead, children are encouraged to take half portions of any adult main or have a healthy "grazing box". Some of the most-visited properties now hold regular farmers' and food markets, while others use fresh, seasonal fruit and vegetables grown on site.

Eden Project, Bodelva, St Austell, Cornwall PL24 2SG. Tel: 01726 811911. Website: www.edenproject.com

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