Feasting with the Cyrenians
The Cyrenians are a fabulous charity in Edinburgh, and we are lucky to have them here. Ostensibly dedicated to supporting homelessness, their enlightened approach recognises that not having a home is about more than not having a home: it is a complex issue interconnected to work, community, family, health and food.
Over a number of years, the team in Edinburgh have grown to deliver dozens of projects: community gardening, mental health and wellbeing, arts, employability – and cooking. With this in mind, we jumped on a bus up from Leith to the far spires of St Mary’s Cathedral, all the way up next to John Lewis, for a Cyrenians fundraising dinner. Technically, we don’t go into the cathedral itself, but the buzzy and well-designed Coffee Saints on Little King Street. It’s a great spot next to the St James Quarter. It serves good coffee in a relaxed space and is run by the Grassmarket Community Project – itself another great charity supporting people living with poverty, poor mental health, learning disability and substance misuse. Next time you are in town, give the big coffee chains a miss and drink your way to a better conscience.
We are guests at the Cyrenian’s dinner and we are running late. It’s raining, the buses are behind, and the tramworks mean they are in front too, in a solid queue up the walk. The Queen’s death was announced just moments ago and there is a sombre mood. No-one seems sure how to respond. But one step inside the door of Coffee Saints, and we know it is going to be good. There’s a lot of space here, and already a central table is gleaming with loaded plates.
Tonight’s chefs are women living in Edinburgh. They are originally from Syria, Iran and Peru. We hear from a speaker from the Slow Food movement. In truth, it is an organisation I have struggled with, curious about their engagement beyond the concerned middle class of middle Italy. But here were tales of Syrian bee keepers resettled in Europe, refugees making traditional cheeses and yogurts, and women retaining and growing inherited food-making skills, passing them onto new communities and new generations. I stood corrected.
The chefs tonight have all been involved in food education projects, teaching, catering and building sources of income for their families. Tonight’s meal was a celebration of all that and, frankly, an excuse for a delicious feeding session. There’s something intimate about a dinner like this. We sit at our own table of four with the friends who have invited us, and help ourselves to the buffet when we want. Buffet is an unfair description, recalling as it does unpleasant trays of cheap food. This was more a kitchen table for fifty; dishes cooked with love and loaded with stories, coming wave after wave.
We have stuffed vine leaves; not those solid cigars that come from tins, but freshly rolled leaves filled with rice, spices, and fruit; best eaten by the half dozen. Enormous plates of flatbread, each sheet as wide as a tyre, served as canvas for other dishes. Chicken and vegetables cooked with barberries; meat and rice cooked inside filo sheets folded into fist-sized pats; peppers cooked down into a sauce of oil and chilli. This is a feast.
Following that there was the kibbeh. Regarded as the national dish of Syria and Lebanon, they are made from pounding meat and bulgur wheat into a fine paste, formed into balls with nuts and spices, then fried. These were immense, easily the best I have eaten. Small patties of ground bulgur have a thumbprint impression on top filled with date syrup, offsetting the searingly hot chillies within. The Peruvian chef has made aji de gallina, a chicken stew served with black olives and cooked eggs – also delicious.
After much laughter and second helpings, dessert is served at the table. There is a plate of home-made baklava, and a cooked rice pudding. This was made with saffron-infused water, rather than milk, and topped with ground cinnamon. It was a perfect end to the meal, although the evening continued with a chat from the chefs and the Cyrenians food education manager who helped to facilitate the event.
The Cyrenians offer excellent food education classes from their Leith venue and are planning another dinner before Christmas. I will be attending, and grab tickets if you can. ■
Info: Cyrenians and Slow Food Charity Event, Coffee Saints Café, 8TH September
Also in Leith this month
Kvasa or Kvasa Bakery, Shop and Fermentation Lab to give it is full title – has been trading from the old solicitor’s office at 101 Leith Walk since May. They have bedded in nicely and are, hands down, winning the Leith sourdough title. The walnut bread is particularly good, and they have a range of cakes and wholesome groceries (think jars of beans and spelt spaghetti).
Boxwood Tam Bakery has opened opposite the police station, taking over from the Bad Tempered Bakers who have gone back to Northern Ireland. Boxwood Tam might sound like the moniker of a chap who’s wandered over from Ayrshire to sell oatmeal scones, but he’s actually from Brittany and is making utterly brilliant French patisserie. His range is wide, and includes specialist items like Basque tarts and kouign-amman, a much-sought after flat, laminated dough cooked until the layers puff like a croissant and the sugar caramelizes in the butter. The name translates from the Breton for butter cake.
Food at The Cyrenians feast: Vin leaves, chicken and barberries, aji de gallina