For many years vegetarian food has been associated with worthy, knit-your-own-sandals eateries, hippy leanings and a faint whiff of hair shirt. The last decade has seen a welcome move away from that image but there remains a school of thought that a meal without meat isn’t really a meal. Even the most creative chefs seem unwilling or unable to include more than one vegetarian option on their menu, and nine times out of 10 it’s squash risotto.
Regular readers will have had enough of my habitual rant so I’m going to park it and instead sing the praises of a very special place in downtown Todmorden. Generally regarded as Hebden Bridge’s plain sister, Tod has in fact grown in stature and grace, and whilst it will probably never be a ‘destination’ in the same way as Hebbers, there’s a lot going for it. Foodies flock to Alex Pogson’s extraordinary Mediterranean souk in the market; Paul’s Fleetwood fish stall has a queue half way up the street on Saturday mornings and Saker’s Bakery sell wonderful artisan bread and cake.
The Bear Café Bar is above another unusual food shop in the stunning Victorian Co-operative building, all coloured and etched glass, black and white harlequin tiled floor, burnished oak floors and over the counter, a wonderful old found photo of the Klufas family who ran the shop as a Ukranian deli in the 60s. The current brains behind it belong to Rhian Warhurst, a young woman who sensed that a reboot of both the shop and the café was overdue. She was right. Jewelled jars of spices line the floor to ceiling original shelving, vats of olive oil (and stoppered bottles for you to fill your own), handmade chocolates and bags of every type of organic flour delay your journey up the wide wooden stairs to the light-filled caff.
It’s very inviting, sat-back and chummy with chunky wooden furniture, vast picture windows and huge images of the hard work happening in the kitchen captured by Tod photographer Joby Catto. Chefs Scott Patient and Terry Brazier, the former ex-Cornerhouse in Manchester, and Brazier from the meat-centric Fence Gate in Burnley have turned their talented hands to producing phenomenally flavoursome vegetarian dishes.
Where to start? It all comes off the page. I want to work my way through the lot. As we find out later, the kitchen raise an eyebrow regarding the amount only two people are ordering. The lengths we go to.
‘Starters & Light Bites’ includes Spanish tomato bread and goat’s cheese and quesadilla stack, both under a fiver. There are four mezze boards, Middle Eastern (which we go for), Tapas, Mexican and Indian. It’s hard to choose, although when it arrives, the description on the menu doesn’t do it justice. Everything has equal presence on the plate. A properly seasoned lacy latka is lightly fried and fat free, a quenelle of something deep red, sweet and spiky simultaneously turns out to be hot and sweet red pepper walnut sauce and does wicked things to the end of your tongue. A tian of tabbouleh salad with roasted veg is the perfect mopper-upper, rendering the warm pitta redundant though it doesn’t stop us wolfing it. All this on a zig zag of sharp pomegranate syrup which we scoop up with our fingers.
‘House Specialties’ feature the likes of Deluxe Bear Burger (no grizzlies were harmed in the making), seasonal gratin – might be sweet potato, might be swede, and a ‘local ploughmans’ which generally sends a shiver down my spine, and not in a good way.
I had to completely re-calibrate my thinking on this when the ploughmans to end them all arrives. A delicate slice of pie is the first thing that catches our eye; it’s celeriac and cheddar and divine. A mound of raw, finely grated beetroot is amped up with a kick of ginger which works beautifully – so too does the creamy, crunchy remoulade. There’s a chunk of homemade fruit cake if you’re one of those folk who like it with cheese.
Ah, the cheese. Just down the road is the Pextenement Cheese Company run by Carl and Sandra Warburton in a room the size of a big fridge. They hand-make fabulous organic cheese, some of which is on this plate. I particularly like the Pexommier, a Camembert-like soft beauty which goes well with the beetroot. The Devils’s Rock Blue is a shoo-in with the cake, according to my co-diner, Janet from the peerless Gimbals restaurant who knows about taste combos.
Moving on, a sweet potato Keralan curry has amazing depth of flavour, all the component parts coming through despite the chilli heat of it. Likewise the pumpkin and kale groundnut stew – a deeply comforting, rustic dish made lighter with a ramekin of spiced yoghurt.
I’d like to comment on the cakes, but funnily enough we ran out of room. However I can tell you that the tier of homemade beauties on the counter looked very good.
It almost goes without saying that there’s a huge emphasis on careful sourcing. The young team here do not just pay lip service to the litany of seasonal and local, they mean it.
The Bear Café Bar, 29 Rochdale Road, Todmorden, OL14 7LA. 01706 433606, www.bearco-op.com. Open seven days a week, Monday to Thursday 9am-5pm, Friday 9am-7pm, Sunday 10am-5pm. Mezze £8.95, House Specials around £9. Licensed.