Are Civic Societies ‘Cultural Organisations’?

When was the last time you participated in a ‘cultural’ activity? My guess is that, as a member of a civic society, you are more likely than not to have done something that might be regarded as cultural – after all, civic society members are sophisticated, discerning, erudite individuals, aren’t we?

Draw up a list of all the ‘cultural’ activities you’ve taken part in recently. What’s on that list? Trips to the theatre and cinema, perhaps? Surely you have visits to art galleries and museums, yes? Maybe you’ve been to a lecture or a concert, perhaps an exhibition? All these things comfortably fit into our shared understanding of ‘cultural’ activities. But are there any civic society activities on your list? Did you recognise that attending a civic society talk, a blue plaque unveiling, or a guided walk might also be thought of as doing something cultural?

The reason I’m asking these questions arises from discussions I have been having in Wakefield recently about the role culture can play in creating jobs and opportunities and thereby helping to support or even trigger economic regeneration. As I am sure readers will know, Wakefield is now home to The Hepworth Wakefield, a modern gallery that opened in May 2011. It has proved popular with many, but not all, local residents and has been a big draw for visitors to the city.

Across the Wakefield district, we also have museums (Including the National Coal Mining Museum for England), cinemas, theatres, castles and art galleries, the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, and Nostell Priory. So there’s a lot going on yet, surprisingly, in a recent survey conducted by an independent research company for Wakefield Council, some 41% of local residents surveyed said that they ‘never take part in art/culture’.

I personally find this statistic astonishing but it did get me thinking. What was the definition of culture used in the survey, I wondered? And did respondents’ own perceptions of what counts as culture affect the way in which they answered the question? What were the barriers to entry that put people off taking part in cultural pursuits?

Now, for what it’s worth, my view is that the definition of cultural pursuits should include things such as reading, doing family history research, taking part in guided walks and so on. I’d even include watching some television programmes such as documentaries, plays and so on (but we could have an interesting discussion just around that, I’m sure!).

There’s a Facebook page called the Wakefield Historical Appreciation Society which has over 13,000 members: that’s 13,000 people who share an interest in Wakefield’s architectural and social history. There’s a lively Historical Society in Wakefield (and others elsewhere in the district), six civic societies across the district and no doubt dozens of community and church groups, Rotary Clubs, WI associations and so on. There’s a burgeoning art scene in Wakefield, including performing arts, and at least one concert society; even the Yorkshire Philharmonic Choir is based in Wakefield! I’m sure there are many other societies, organisations and individuals contributing to the cultural mix that I’ve overlooked or am not even aware of.

All this cultural activity is made possible by people who work in the arts – whether they be the creative artists and performers or the management and enablers, the support staff both ‘front of house’ and behind the scenes. Also important in enabling cultural activities are the people who commission performers, writers, artists and so on and, of course, the people who provide the funding, either through grants and paid commissions or through audience participation and the purchase of tickets.

So, why is the relevant to us? Well, I often find that when I talk to people about what’s happening culturally in the city, the work of the civic society doesn’t usually get a mention and I have to keep asserting that we are a ‘cultural organisation!’. OK, we’re not a big player, we don’t have the money, but we are a frequent and reliable provider of talks and walks, occasional film screenings and blue plaque unveilings. We’ve written booklets and even occasionally commissioned creative work from others. But have a look at our constitution and you’ll find no mention of culture! There’s mention of architecture, design and town planning, but nothing specifically about culture. Perhaps this is one reason we don’t actually market ourselves as a cultural organisation – and if we don’t think of ourselves as a cultural organisation then it’s not surprising that others don’t either.

I think it’s time for us to think hard about how civic societies position themselves. I appreciate that some smaller societies won’t have the resources or capacity to organise the events and activities that we are able to put on in Wakefield, but many societies will and some may even do more. If we start seeing ourselves as part of the cultural offer of the place where we live, it might just open up opportunities to work with others, to establish new partnerships and maybe even open up new sources of funding. If nothing else, it might bring in more people to our events if we shift our traditional mindset of how we market the things we do.

Let’s bring a bit of show-business pizazz to our programming; let’s turn down the house lights, raise the curtain and put on a show!

The Dakota Bar and Grill – A refined taste of luxury at an affordable price in the heart of Leeds

The Dakota Hotel, Russell Street Entrance

If you like alliteration, you might want to try breakfast in Bradford, dinner in Doncaster and supper in Skipton, but for lunch, it would have to be Leeds and having lunch in Leeds is exactly what I did recently for the purposes of this article.

My first encounter with the Dakota Hotel, located in Russell Street, came about in the summer of 2018 when TopicUK, the magazine I write for, became a Yorkshire-wide publication and held its launch event at the hotel in June. It was a relatively short visit for me, just a couple of hours, but I was very impressed! The friendliness of the staff and the stylish décor left a lasting memory: so much so in fact, that I met a friend there for lunch just before Christmas. A three-course lunch, accompanied by a bottle of wine, cost us around £60 each including service charge but I thought that was quite a reasonable price to pay given the quality of the food, the presentation and the standard of service.  

Based on my earlier experience, it was therefore an obvious choice to recommend to TopicUK editor Gill Laidler that I should include the hotel on my list of places to review for this magazine and that’s how, one lunchtime in February 2019, my partner and I found ourselves settled into a comfortable booth in the subterranean calm of the hotel’s restaurant.

After the hustle and bustle of the streets outside, the Dakota Bar and Grill, which is located downstairs from the ground-floor bar area (there’s a lift), offers a tranquil and fashionable venue, whether you’re looking for a leisurely meal or somewhere to meet a client for a business lunch. We were greeted by restaurant staff Sofia and Ashley who looked after us throughout the meal, bringing menus, taking orders, serving food and pouring drinks. In between courses, I was able to ask questions about the hotel and the restaurant to fill up my notebook. Service was friendly, attentive and courteous.   

At lunchtime, you can choose between the full à la carte menu (which I tried at Christmas), and the simpler ‘Market Menu’. There’s also a separate Vegan menu. It was the Market Menu that we were to sample on this occasion. This offers exceptionally good value for money with two or three courses for £15 or £20 respectively, which really is a terrific price. You get to choose from three starters, three mains and three desserts. A selection of side orders (for which an additional charge of £3.50 each is made) is also available. All the food is beautifully presented. There’s a 10% discretionary service charge will be added, but, believe me, it’s worth it.

Having made our selection, we sat back to enjoy the ambience and admire the look and layout of the room, designed, we were told, by international designer Amanda Rosa, wife of the hotel group chairman, Ken McCulloch. Shiny mirrors, lots of dark wood enlivened with colourful artwork and bright squishy cushions, and subtle lighting that makes everyone look good, all combine to create a very elegant look. There’s recorded music playing quietly in the background and which, as part of the design aesthetic, changes to help to create the mood appropriate to the time of day – one of those little flourishes that you might only pick up on if you visit regularly, or happen, like me, to be doing research for a magazine review!

Ken McCulloch is well-known in the hospitality industry with a long-established track record of opening and running bars, restaurants and hotels. He was responsible for setting up the Malmaison hotel chain. Having sold his interests in that group, he and Amanda moved to Monaco, where, in partnership with David Coulthard, Ian purchased the Abela Hotel, rebranding it as the Columbus, a luxury hotel in Monte Carlo.

Their current project is to create a brand of luxury hotels in the UK. There are now five Dakota hotels in the group with Leeds being the fourth to open. The first was in Edinburgh; then came the Dakota Eurocentral in Motherwell, handy for both Glasgow city centre and the airport, followed by a Dakota in Glasgow. The fifth, opening in May this year, will be the Dakota Hotel in central Manchester.

In preparing for my review, I did some thinking about the hotel name. “Why ‘Dakota’?” I wondered? A quick check on the internet showed that the word derives from the Native American Dakota people, and gave rise to the area today known as the North and South Dakotas, but the word also means ‘friendly’ in the Dakotan language. That’s a really good connection, I thought. What better place to meet a friend for lunch than in a place which literally means friendly? It turns out that I was missing a step: the hotel actually takes its name from the Douglas DC-3 Dakota aircraft which used to fly the New York to Chicago route from the mid-1930s, bringing affordable luxury air travel to the general public and it is this emphasis on ‘affordable luxury’ that lies behind the concept of the Dakota hotels.

Anyway, you didn’t come here to read about history (did you?); you came to read about the food. Well, let me assure you that it was excellent and fully justified my recommendation for the review.

To begin with, we had a complimentary ‘Venetian Dip’, a simple dish consisting of a tomato purée sauce and Mascarpone cheese served with freshly baked bread. Our starters were Roast Squash and Sweet Potato soup for me and a Tofu Salad for my partner. The soup was a meal in itself! The salad, with beansprouts, watermelon, sesame and cashew nuts was also a healthy plateful.

For the main course, we both ordered the Pea and Mint Risotto with pecorino cheese. Temptation got the better of us, though, and a side order of Hand Cut Chips also found its way onto our order. For desserts, and I’m not sure quite how we managed it but research is research, I had the Rhubarb and Ginger Crumble (served with Vanilla Ice Cream) and my partner had the very colourful Eton Mess, consisting of a salad of fresh fruits on a meringue base.

Over coffee, we chatted to Debbie Dobson, Director of Sales at the hotel, who provided me with some more background facts while checking to make sure that we had enjoyed our meal – we assured her we had!

All too soon though, it was time to leave. Hauling ourselves out of our seats, Ashley fetched our overcoats and we climbed the stairs back to street level where we were soon subsumed back into the pell-mell of the crowded streets of central Leeds.

Kevin and his partner dined as guests of the Dakota Bar and Grill, 8 Russell Street, Leeds, LS1 5RN.

Website: http://leeds.dakotahotels.co.uk/bar-grill/

Telephone: 0113 322 6261

Email: enquiries@leeds.dakotahotels.co.uk

The hotel offers customers a discount of 25% on parking charges at The Light underground car park nearby (entry via St Anne’s Street, Leeds.)

The stylish décor of the restaurant

All prices and details correct at the time of my visit – February 2019

Modern Artwork adorns the walls
And let’s not forget the food!

On Beauty

Warwick

According to Keats, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever, Its loveliness increases; it will never Pass into nothingness”.

We all need some beauty in our lives. Beauty, in whatever form, can make us happy. It can improve both our mental and, indirectly, our physical wellbeing. It can cause the spirit to soar and the heart to quicken. No wonder we seek it out. But how do we know that something is beautiful in and of itself? Is our appreciation of beauty something that we learn through others or is it something instinctive, something innate? Does my view of what is beautiful consist with yours? Is it possible to agree universal criteria for what counts as beauty – and would such criteria persist over time and across cultures? Or is an appreciation of what is beautiful entirely idiosyncratic and no more than a matter of personal taste?

I’ve been asking myself these sorts of questions for some time, (not altogether altruistically as I’m preparing a new talk on the subject) but with the government announcing the setting up of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission last year, trying to find answers to these questions has taken on a greater urgency. One of the aims of the Commission is “To advocate for beauty in the built environment”, in effect to test whether or not communities will be more likely to accept new housebuilding on their doorstep if the resulting developments can be said to be beautiful.

One of the ‘occupational hazards’ of civic society membership is to find oneself drawn into discussions about new developments and whether or not they are of good design. If your society is engaged in giving out design awards, then those discussions will be particularly relevant because you will probably need to justify your society’s conclusions to others: something I am very familiar with – been there, done that, and on an annual basis!

As I’ve argued before, I think that good design is something which can be assessed using objective criteria but can such objective tests be applied to a definition of beauty or is beauty very much in the eye of the beholder?

When we talk of beauty, we are really talking about aesthetics, not just visual but about the appeal to all our senses: sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell. We might also conceive certain behaviours such as self-sacrifice, kindness, generosity or bravery to appeal to our sense of ‘moral beauty’, while a poem or a piece of prose might be described as having a form of ‘intellectual beauty’.  Even the love of one person for another can be described as beautiful.

“How do you spell ‘love’?” asked Piglet.

“You don’t spell it,” said Pooh, “you feel it.”

A.A Milne, Winnie the Pooh

It is clear then that, in our search for the meaning of beauty, we have to go wider than just visual attractiveness. My copy of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (1988 – yes, that old!) defines beauty as:

“That quality or combination of qualities which affords keen pleasure to the senses, [especially] that of sight, or which charms the intellectual or moral faculties.”

So, when we search for beauty, we need to explore all the world around us; from that which occurs naturally, as in a flower, a face, a sunset, a landscape, via that taken from nature but which is crafted and improved by man (or woman), such as a precious gemstone, cut and polished and perhaps set into a piece of jewellery, or a landscape shaped and perfected by the likes of Capability Brown, to that which is entirely ‘man-made’, an artefact such as a painting, a sculpture, a written work, a piece of music, or a building, and not forgetting the behavioural forms of beauty already mentioned.

If these then are at least some of the various the types of beauty we might find in our lives how do we recognise such beauty when we come across it? In his The Analysis of Beauty published in 1753, the painter William Hogarth distils the essential visual aesthetic quality of beauty down to the serpentine line, the S-shaped curve line found both in nature and in art as well as in architecture (for example in the ogee arch). Such analysis attributes the property of beauty to being an intrinsic quality of the actual object itself whereas other theories suggest it is in fact the pleasure response in ourselves that confers beauty onto something. If we accept that an object can be beautiful in itself, even when it is unobserved or unexperienced, then it might be possible to derive certain formulae that will allow the objective assessment of what beauty is. However, if we think that beauty exists only in the relationship between the thing observed and the person experiencing it, then it will be much harder to agree that X is beautiful but Y is not for we are entering the realms of personal taste with all its variety and mutability.

Let us assume that a state of beauty only exists when something is experienced and that the appreciation of beauty is something we can learn and, therefore, something that we can be taught. We enter life with the capability of recognising what is beautiful but we need to be guided by others to interpret and value beauty when we encounter it. Our parents and teachers will have a role to play in helping us to see the world through their eyes and to formulate our own responses to the natural and artistic world. They will help us to hone our critical faculties. As importantly, experts and opinion formers will also guide us in our pursuit of beauty; they will direct our gaze to what is delightful and help us to evaluate what is good. It is important though to keep a grip on our critical abilities and not to follow others blindly for fear of being considered uneducated: it would be at best disingenuous to claim to perceive beauty when we don’t feel its existence just because others tell us that something possesses the quality of beauty – shades of the Emperor’s new clothes and all that. Nonetheless, when there is critical acclaim, and that acclaim endures over time, it becomes ever harder to justify a contrary stance.

Perhaps this helps to explain why traditional architecture is valued more highly than more recent styles. Georgian and Victorian buildings have just been with us longer. We’ve grown used to them and, crucially, they have had time to accrete a reputation for excellence and beauty through the eyes of generations of experts and critics, whereas modern buildings just haven’t yet been around long enough to amass such critical support.

On the other hand, what if beauty is not something that we learn but is something that is innate: we are born into the world with a natural ability to discern and discriminate; to recognise the presence of beauty and know when it is absent. We don’t need to be guided – we just know. This suggests that our appreciation of beauty is an evolutionary response. Why might this be? Well, how about sex?

For the human race to survive, reproduction in necessary and for reproduction to take place, the laws of attraction apply. This is true throughout much of nature – think of birds whose colourful plumage, usually found in the male, serves only to attract a potential mate: those exotic colours serve no other purpose – you certainly don’t need colourful wings to fly. Even plants which rely on insects for pollination display colourful flowers (offering sweet treats) to tempt the bees towards them. Human beings are much the same although we tend to think of beauty as being a feminine trait whereas the male of the species is more usually described as handsome, good-looking or, perhaps, ‘rugged’. But beauty also plays another role in the continuation of our species: why do you think babies are so cute? Why are puppies and kittens so loveable? Arguably, it’s part of an evolutionary response to ensure that offspring are cared for and fed so as to guarantee their own survival to breeding age.

There are implications here for our discussion about beauty in architecture.  If our appreciation of beauty isn’t a learned behaviour but is in effect bred into us, then our apparent fondness for traditional architecture might somehow be a natural response. The original architects sought to create perfection in their work and we instinctively recognise that perfection in the inherent beauty of that work. In an equal and opposite reaction, our aversion to modern architecture might be a survival technique of its own: be wary of the unknown, let others experiment while we sit on the side lines to see whether the modern stuff stands the test of time and that is safe to live in. We know that, although not without its proponents, modern architecture has fewer adherents than for traditional and classic styles.  

Now, I’m not immune to the charms of traditional architecture myself. The architectural hierarchy epitomised in a Palladian mansion, or a finely proportioned Georgian town house, or a Victorian villa property, show just how beautiful traditional architecture can be. I can understand why people would want to live in such properties with their elegant façades, high ceilings and spacious rooms. Such aspirations are, however, probably outside what most of us can afford: not least because there simply are not enough period properties surviving to accommodate everybody who wants to live in one. This means that original examples hold their value well, making them both desirable and expensive. The closest most of us can get to this would be to live in a modern house but built in something approximating to the styles of the past. Fortunately, many of the mass housebuilders are apparently catering to this need: if you want period features, there’s plenty of choice!  

Except that the choice is illusory. To do traditional styles well, you need space, good materials and craftsmanship and these are all expensive, so the housebuilders compromise. Plot sizes are minimised and in consequence interior space is limited. Rooms are often small and ceiling heights low; standardised materials and components are used and the detailing found in the original is usually missing so what we end up with is a sort of pastiche in a somewhat bastardized style. They are perfectly all right: in fact, they are probably easier and cheaper to run than an original period property would be and will come with all mod cons built in. But I don’t think we can call them beautiful. One unfortunate effect of this trend is that we see similar house types spreading right across the country. (Anyone remember “Little boxes, little boxes, and they all look just the same”? What we might regard as local vernacular styles giving way to what we might call national piacular style?

And this is where I return to the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission. I have been asked by Civic Voice to join the panel pulling together a response to the Commission on behalf of the civic society movement. Should the panel argue that we need more homes built in the traditional style, albeit with more thought given to choice of materials and individual design based on local context, or should we be saying that to meet the housing needs of a rising population, housebuilders need to build in a more contemporary style that maximises the efficiencies of modern construction techniques, possibly through prefabricated designs created on a factory production line and which can then be rapidly, and hopefully cheaply, assembled on site? Does modern housing have to be beautiful to be acceptable to the local community or is it more important that it is functional and affordable?

And if people are naturally resistant to modern schemes because of their design and, to some at least, an apparent lack of aesthetic appeal, is there anything that we, or anyone else for that matter, can do to help change perceptions of what beauty really is (and needs to be) in modern housing developments?

Of course, if beauty really is in the eye of the beholder, and there’s nothing that can be done to change individuals’ perceptions of what is beautiful and what is not, then it’s just possible that we are wasting our time even trying to change people’s minds. Perhaps the question we are asking is the wrong one and no more than a distraction from the real issue. We should forget about beauty, and focus on design? (For which, see my previous article….) 

Natural Beauty?

Good Design Rules!

Design is my theme and I’d like to ask you to consider the subject from the perspective of four different quotes that I shall introduce to you shortly. For me, there is a difference between matters of design, which I think it is possible to assess using objective criteria – design rules, if you like – and matters of taste, for which there’s really no accounting! We often talk about our favourite books, music, food, colours, cars, holiday destinations and so on but when it comes to favourites, these are matters of personal taste. Good design might in some cases have led to something being a favourite, and, indeed a favourite of many, but taste and design are not the same thing.

Before I start, I should make clear that I really writing this for fellow civic society members. I’m not an architect or designer but, like many lay people who volunteer their time to serve on the committees of civic societies, I often find myself drawn into debates about good design. For civic society readers, it is the design of the built environment that will be your main priority, but when it comes to design, some rules are universal in their application.

Let me frame this article by reference to four quotes I’ve selected (not quite a random) from the internet:

Quote 1: “Form ever follows function, and this is the law” Louis Sullivan

Sullivan (1856-1924) was an American architect sometimes referred to as “father of skyscrapers”. The design of any item should take account of its function – there is no point in designing something, no matter how beautiful, if it doesn’t work well. The stylish shoes that give you bunions; the smart alarm clock that is so quiet when it goes off that you have to be awake already to hear it; the  boutique hotel room so over-designed that you can’t find the light switch – I could go on….. The same considerations must surely apply to buildings and to public spaces. Is a building ‘legible’ – as you walk up to it, can you tell where the entrance is? Is its purpose obvious – or do you have to work out what it is from the written signs? Are streets safe for pedestrians as well as vehicles to use? Do buildings have active and interesting street fronts that make them pleasant places to walk by? Are public spaces laid out in such a way that they invite people to tarry and wander, or are they unpleasant places that make you want to scurry through as fast as you can?

Quote 2: “Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context – a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.” Eliel Saarinen

People often criticize new buildings because the design doesn’t “fit in”. The concern here is that the new development takes no account of context. I remember someone telling me (although I can’t remember who it was) that when the designs for St Pancras Station in London were first put forward, there were people who complained the new building wouldn’t fit in. Arguably, it still doesn’t but it is majestic enough not to need to fit in: it makes a statement of its own that is aesthetically appealing and a delight to see. There will be times when new buildings will work better if they blend in, but there will be occasions when gateway, or landmark, buildings are required to stand out, to make a statement and to shout about local distinctiveness. Which is right will depend on … er … context.   

Quote 3: “Decisions on artwork by committee end up being made on the premise of not turning people off rather than turning people on.” Paul Attwood

For ‘artwork’ in the above quote, you can also read ‘design’. The planning sub-committee of my own society met a while back to look at a new proposal. We were happy enough with the concept but it was rather ‘safe’. We felt that for what was quite a prominent site in the city centre, something a bit more exciting would be better. We went to see the architect and explained how we thought the design could be improved. He listened patiently then reached for a folder from which he removed his original drawings for the site. Guess what, they were almost exactly what we were looking for! We asked why he’d toned down his original scheme for the rather bland design that had been submitted for planning. He said he had compromised because his clients had made some changes and then the council’s planning officers had asked for further changes to be made.

In effect the vision of the architect had been watered down by a committee of first the clients and then the planning officers. This must have been frustrating for the architect but it also short-changed the people of Wakefield who are perhaps more willing to embrace bold new designs than the planners allow. As a civic society, we sometimes have to campaign for innovative design, something that might just upset the applecart, and developers and planners, as well as members of the public, are sometimes surprised about how adventurous we’re prepared to be.

Quote 4: “We are all designers, the difference is that only a few of us do it full-time.” Sabo Tercero

And this probably sums up why we, both as individuals and organisations, are so often dissatisfied with the new developments going on around us. Rather like when it comes to questions of how to run the county, we all have a view – and we all think we could do better!

When I lead guided walks around Wakefield, the design of the Hepworth gallery often crops up. Some people love it, others hate it. Having met the architect, David Chipperfield, and heard him speak about the design and how he arrived at it, I think it is quite an exceptional piece of architecture and one that is perfect for its purpose.

When people criticise it, I offer to give them a piece of paper and a pencil and ask them to draw me the gallery they would have designed. It would have to allow light into rooms that could be controlled to avoid direct sunlight falling on some rather valuable artworks. It would have to provide hanging space for paintings and floor space for sculpture and circulation space. You’d have to avoid lots of pillars as they obstruct sight lines, prevent free movement and make it more difficult to place and exhibit work. Rooms and openings would have to be high to allow for larger works. And you want people to flow through the gallery without having to double back on themselves to reach the exit. Oh, and if you are going to build it next to a river that sometimes overflows its banks, take account of the potential for flooding in your design. Finally, have some regard to context, please, whether that be the adjacent buildings – do you want to stand out or blend in – or topography and landscape – do you level the ground or work within its contours?

Interestingly, no one has yet accepted my challenge! But what if they did? Would they come up with anything radically different, bearing in mind there would also be budget limitations to work within? In fact, if I press people a bit harder about what they don’t like about the Hepworth, it often boils down to the colour of the external walls: they don’t like grey! (“Which colour would you paint it then?”) In other words, we’ve distilled the argument down to one of personal taste rather than whether the gallery is a good design, which is where I came in.

Design is a fascinating subject: for an easy-to-read but thought-provoking study, I’d like to conclude by recommending a book by Matthew Frederick – 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School.

Corarima – the true taste of Abyssinia comes to Wakefield

For my last review of 2018, and continuing my circumgyration of world foods (without leaving my home city …), I visited Corarima, a new Abyssinian-style restaurant in Cross Street, Wakefield which offers an exclusively vegetarian and vegan menu.

We’re all being encouraged to heat a healthy diet these days. ‘Diet and exercise’ is the mantra of the moment as well as being put forward as the cure-all for all ills. As a vegetarian of over 30 years who likes to keep fit, it’s sometimes hard to resist the ‘told you so’ refrain….

One advantage of this focus on healthy eating is that it has become easier than ever to follow a vegetarian, or even a vegan, diet and still eat out enjoying good food. Gone are the days (mostly) when you’d be lucky to find even one ‘choice’ of vegetarian dish on the menu of your local restaurant. Today, you should find most restaurants worthy of your consideration will offer a choice of dish. And there’s also much more awareness now of the needs of people who have to follow special diets for medical reasons, such as the gluten-free diet, and chefs worthy of their salt will rise to any challenge. Meanwhile, vegetarian and vegan diets are seen as being good for the planet as they help people to reduce their carbon footprint.

This emphasis on healthy (or healthier) eating has also seen the rise of the ‘flexitarian’, someone who chooses to eat less meat and to experiment with the vegetarian and/or vegan diet on at least a part-time basis. 

Imagine then my deep joy then when I saw that Wakefield was to get its first ‘vegetarian restaurant’! Yes, Wakefield can now boast it has a restaurant that is dedicated to serving healthy vegetarian, vegan and gluten free food. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Corarima – not only Wakefield’s first exclusively vegetarian and vegan restaurant but also our first-ever Abyssinian eatery.

Corarima is a brand new venture set up by husband and wife team Asamnew Asres and Rahel Bein together with their friend Bizunesh Kebede. Their mission is to offer customers the opportunity to taste “the sensational flavours of Abyssinian cuisine – lovingly prepared by Ethiopian and Eritrean chefs who know how to conjure up the authentic taste of Abyssinia”. Having now had the chance to sample some of their dishes myself, I can report mission accomplished.

Transforming what had been an empty shop unit in a 1970s office block, the trio have created a little oasis of calm and tranquillity where you are assured of both a very friendly welcome and delicious food. My partner and I were greeted by Asamnew who showed us to our table – it didn’t take much finding: with a capacity for just 24 or 25 customers at any one time, you also get very personal service at Corarima.

The restaurant doesn’t serve alcohol (but, if you book in advance, you can take your own bottle of wine which they will serve to you for a very modest corkage fee of just £1.50), so we chose our drinks from a list of smoothies and juices. Asamnew recommended we try the Telba and the Beso, so we ordered one of each. (Sometimes, you just have to go with the flow and be daringly experimental!) Telba, it turned out, was a creamy and refreshing drink made of toasted and ground flax seeds while the Beso was another creamy drink but this time made of barley and honey. Both, we were assured, were very healthy and good for us!

Now, I don’t profess to have any prior knowledge of Abyssinian cuisine so I had a steep learning curve to follow but Asamnew proved to be a worthy and expert coach as he explained the menu and helped us to choose our food. We opted for the milder dishes – if you don’t want hot and spicy, do say so, as recipes can be adjusted to taste.

Having ordered our food, more of which shortly, Asamnew brought us something to nibble on – crudités with homemade hummus – while we listened to his story.

Back in Eritrea, he was a structural engineer, running his own company which employed 15 staff. However, in 2007, he and Rahel and their three children found themselves fleeing their country and in the UK as asylum seekers. They were ‘allocated’ to Wakefield where, Asamnew said, they were made to feel welcome and helped to settle in. Over the years, they have come to regard Wakefield as their home. Asamnew found work in his profession in Leeds and Wakefield but meanwhile, Rahel’s passion to open a restaurant burned deep inside. Earlier this year, Asamnew gave up his job to work on the restaurant project full-time and the result is Corarima. As Asamnew explained, they wanted to open their business in Wakefield, the city that had taken them in; they wanted to give something back.

Corarima takes its name from the Ethiopian spice korarima (corarima), also known as Ethiopian cardamom, or false cardamom, one of the ginger family.

We were now ready for our main courses, delivered to us with a flourish by Asamnew and Rahel. I had opted for the Aubergine Stew (fresh aubergine cooked with onion, tomato and rich flavoured spicy herbs) while my partner had ordered the Mushroom Stew (mushroom cooked with garlic and seasoned with assorted spice). We also ordered side salads. Both dishes came with injera, a flatbread made from teff flour (teff, we discovered was high in fibre, iron, protein and calcium and being a very small grain, is easy to cook). The bread had a slightly spongy texture but was an ideal accompaniment to the stews which were spicy but not too hot (I speak as someone who has never acquired the taste for hot and spicy dishes!).

Lurking at the back of the table we saw a couple of stuffed chilli peppers. I regarded these somewhat suspiciously – I’ve been caught out before! But after some prompting from Asamnew, I took a small forkful – and moved a little further along the learning curve: it was deliciously sweet!

We finished the meal with coffee and small chickpea biscuits topped with sesame seeds and honey – they don’t do puddings – but it was the perfect end to a really enjoyable evening. All that was left was to take some photos and to gather up my notes as we said our farewells. I have a feeling that we’ll be going back. We still have lots to learn!

Finally, if you’re in Wakefield at lunchtime, you can eat in or you can try the Corarima Lunchbox. For just £3, you can pick up a lunch box between 12:00 noon and 2:00pm each day containing the chef’s selection of vegetable and pulse stews served with rice or injera bread. 

Open Monday to Saturday from 12 noon to 9 pm

Kevin and his partner dined as guests of the restaurant.

Corarima – 10 Cross Street, Wakefield, WF1 3BW

Website: www.corarima.co.uk

Tel: 01924 695713

The Corarima Crew – From left to right: Bizunesh – Rahel – Asaminew