Wednesday, 29 October 2014

La Petite Bouchée in Sydenham Wells Park

In those far off days before the global financial meltdown struck, Grand Designs, the show fronted by Kevin MacLeod, would regularly feature 'dream' homes on the edge of a loch or in acres of rolling parkland. Structural extravaganzas that were built at eye-watering costs, which often drove their owners to the brink of catastrophe, both financial and physical. Perhaps they foretold the looming precipice as, when reality kicked in, some time in 2008, they began to look a little too flashy and inappropriate in the new age of austerity. The emergence of George Clarke's Amazing Spaces however, seemed much more in tune with the times, featuring small scale budget conscious projects and unconventional conversions, such as our very own Laura Clark's underground home on Crystal Palace Parade. Many of the spaces which have featured on the program have been imaginatively converted old vehicles, from caravans to trucks, and even aeroplanes. And it was one of these schemes which inspired Anita Field and her wife, Caro, to buy a rusty old 1971 Citroen van. The pair had been working on a variety of projects since the day in 2010, when Anita broke an arm, thus seriously disrupting her life, and career in magazine publishing. Sitting around in considerable pain, Anita would often spend half the night writing, to take her mind off it. The subject of her writing, was food, a passion shared with Caro, who, before going to university had trained as a chef, and spent a memorable year with her sister, cooking for a rich American family. The writing quickly became a blog about food, Lover of Creating Flavours, which has developed into a successful and highly regarded online venture. In addition to creating and testing recipes, there are regular columns by guest contributors. It has even lead to invitations to cook with chefs such as Raymond Blanc. 
One of the regular features is entitled Heaven Preserve Us, and is concerned with the making of pickles, preserves and marinades. A product line was developed, and it was that point that the van comes in. Anita and Caro wanted a vehicle to act as a shop for their range, but a last minute change of heart, saw them decide to open a 'pop-up' restaurant instead. Many such ventures go down the festival route, travelling to events and markets as a mobile food stall, but they decided they'd rather stay put and operate from one location. Apart from anything else, alcohol licenses normally pertain to the location not the vehicle, so it would have meant repeated applications. They settled on Sydenham Wells Park, being close to where they live, and much to their surprise, Lewisham Council received the idea enthusiastically, as did the park's user group. From that moment, the plans came together remarkably quickly. The name came to Anita one night in bed, and by the next morning there was a twitter account and a Facebook page. The vehicle would seat 4 for dinner in simple Bistro style surroundings. The carpet which had covered not only the floor but also the walls, was ripped out, and everything was repainted using Annie Sloan paints, which apparently needs no priming, and goes on everything including the plastic seats.
The idea was an instant hit. The food is classic and simple. It has to be, as it all happens on a couple of gas rings under a neighbouring gazebo. Moules and frites, and fruit de mer are the mainstay, and is all supplied by Veasey & Sons, who you will find at the market in Crystal Palace every saturday. As well as friday night, moules night, and the seafood on saturdays, Anita also serves up sunday brunches, Vacherin fondues and special Beaujolais Nouveau nights. And looking ahead, she's doing a sausage theme for Bonfire Night (already booked up sadly), and plans are afoot for La Gargote (soup kitchen night) and Le Pique Nique. For special parties, the plan is to put up trestle tables seating up to 20, and there's a possibility of doing small cooking classes next year too.
I popped along one late summer evening, intrigued by what I'd heard, and watched Anita and her assistant setting up for that evening's diners. I'm shocked to admit I'd never visited Wells Park before, but then we have an embarrassment of riches locally when it comes to green spaces. What a delightful park it is, and such a romantic venue, adjacent to the lake for this inspiring culinary venture. No surprise then that it's already fully booked for Valentines Day.

The Van


The Park

The Evening

Anita's assistant setting up

The cat with a sharp nose
Anita prepping

Anita in full flow!

Happy Diners
Chef's perk