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Local heroes – Virtuoso Foods

I have long been a fan of Lebanese and “Middle Eastern” food in general. I would get my regular “fix” at the fabulous café/shisha bar, Reem in Bedford High Street. However, when, much to my dismay, this closed down, I realised I would have to take matters into my own hands and started to make my own falafel and houmous, which filled a gap, for a while…. When I recently came across “An introduction to Middle Eastern Cookery” course, I knew I had to take part as my repertoire desperately needed expanding… After all there are only so many chickpeas a girl can eat!

Guilda Akopians, of local vegan cooking company, Virtuoso Foods invites people into her own home to learn a variety of nutritious vegan cooking techniques and styles, ranging from raw food to home baking. Middle Eastern, or more accurately, Persian food is the cooking of Guilda’s heritage and is particularly close to her heart.

Myself and 2 other students joined Guilda on a sunny Saturday morning for an instructive, hands on course in her light and airy home. We were greeted with a refreshing cup of Gen Maicha tea (green tea with roasted brown rice) and were then given our aprons and recipe cards for preparation to commence.

The lunch menu comprised;
Persian Supergreens Soup (Arsh)
Saffron and Lemon Marinated Tofu with Barberry Rice (Zereshk Pilau)
Rosewater Sponge Cake

Guilda has a very relaxed style and the course was both fun and informative. She was happy to answer questions about the ingredients, the processes and Persian food culture. We, the students were an enthusiastic bunch, happy to get involved with the chopping, stirring, straining, mixing etc, etc.
I was particularly interested in the rice dish, which I had been reading (and dreaming) about tasting, for some time…. It’s a fascinating combination of perfectly steamed rice with a nutty, buttery potato crust I had also never eaten barberries so was interested to learn more about this exotic berry.

Guilda taught that patience is key when slowly cooking the rice to avoid burning….I also realised I needed to buy a decent lidded pan!

Another important tip we learnt was about the tofu, is that it must be pressed overnight to release all the water. Only then can it fully take on the marinade, which in this case was saffron and lemon. (I duly purchased a tofu press several days later and its made all the difference)
The highlight of the day was of course, the eating! We sat down to this lovingly prepared feast with Suzy, Guilda’s mum. What can I say about the food; the soup was delicious, wholesome and hearty. I loved it for its super fresh “green” flavour which was pure nutrition in a bowl. It’s the kind of dish that makes you feel invincible!

The tofu was beautifully marinated and had taken on the lemon with a subtle whiff of exotic saffron – the flavour of which I think, can always transport you to a different place. Patience had also paid off with the cooking here as the tofu texture was crisp on the outside and pillowy soft within.

The rice was delicious. it reminded me of my favourite part of an excellent paella – the soccarat – the crispy, caramelised rice crust that sticks to the bottom of the pan. Only, writ large! Combine this with the crispy potato element and the tart and tangy barberry topping and you have one happy diner!
We finished off our meal with the subtly floral rosewater sponge which, topped with rose petals was pretty as a picture. Its vibrant (naturally) red interior a surprise to us all!

My absolute highlight of the day was sitting round the table hearing Guilda’s mum Suzy quietly quizzing her daughter about the exact amounts and techniques she had used. This gentle chiding is unmistakeable in any language. And lets face it, mum always knows best!

Thank you Guilda for a wonderful day, with many firsts for me; from the nutty green tea, to the tangy barberries, the stunning Pilau and the super fragrant sponge!

A note on ingredients; some of the more exotic ingredients such as saffron, barberries, rosewater and petals can be obtained at Morrisons or Asda.

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