The long and tender moan of a saxophone filled the dimly lit room with an air of sophistication as I breathed in and out of my mouth rapidly, like I was practising some sort of Wimhoff training regime, to try and cool an over-zealous mouthful of piping hot broccoli arancini. I chased that bite with a glug of water (a great technique if you’re competing in Nathan's Famous International Hot Dog Eating Contest) and got it down me as fast as possible before letting out a pained cry that sounded like a cross between a hyena’s howl and Mika. No, that wasn’t a moment that I am particularly proud of, and I’m pretty sure the couple at the table next to me were more than a little put off their dinner by my antics, but it’s not one that I regret either. Yes, reader, the broccoli arancini was that good.
I was going through this delicious ordeal the other month at The Canteen – an excellent restaurant, events space, and community hub in Bristol that’s been a fixture of the Stokes Croft night scene since it opened. The sax was courtesy of the free live music policy they run six nights a week while the arancini was a part of the fully vegetarian menu that takes its lead from the seasons. The menu works like most in that you’ll find the names of all the dishes they serve written down on it (shiitake mushroom dumplings, red lentil tofu saag, crispy with house kimchi and furikake) but the reason The Canteen has made it into this column is because its menu also has a little something extra. The Canteen was the first restaurant in Bristol, and one of the first handful in the UK, to add carbon emissions to its menu.
Thankfully devoid of any accompanying calorie counts, every dish on the menu at The Canteen has its specific carbon footprint printed down next to it. Although it’s not a completely foolproof system as of yet, The Canteen has worked out the food miles and environmental impact of every ingredient the kitchen uses with MyEmissions – a company that uses its expertise in food, sustainability, and tech to help some of the most exciting food businesses understand, reduce and carbon label their food.
We've always operated as sustainably as possible within the paradigm of what we do.
“We've always operated as sustainably as possible within the paradigm of what we do,” The Canteen’s manager Liam tells Pinch, “so a way of measuring each dish is a really helpful tool to see how sustainable you actually are as a business. It has proved to help us plan menus, know what items to avoid and for customers to have a choice and way of being educated in what they are eating, too.”
“It's still a new tool so it isn't an exact science,” adds Liam, “but I think in the future there will be companies doing this with a finer comb, as we approach trying to be net zero in the near future as both company and country.”
By sourcing as much of its produce from local suppliers as possible, The Canteen cuts down on food miles while also supporting the local businesses like Three Hares Farm, Tempeh Meades, Hodmedods, Mara, and Bristol Fungarium that make Bristol such a vibrant and community-driven city. It’s a win-win, really. That increased transparency doesn’t just educate consumers on the sorts of produce that rack up more carbon emissions than others but it also means that The Canteen is held more accountable for its own actions. No one (myself included) particularly likes being reminded that the planet is burning and we’re currently in the midst of a potential world-ending climate crisis, but sometimes you need to be faced with the facts. Especially when the little changes you can make in your own diet or dinner could potentially have a wider impact on the planet. I chose the broccoli arancini that night because it had one of the lowest carbon emissions on the menu.
One of the biggest culprits when it comes to carbon emissions, in just about every sense of the word, is beef. “One beef burger patty has over 3050g of carbon,” explains Liam, “whereas all 14-16 of the dishes on our menu came in under that if they’re all added together. Cows are pretty grim animals really!” Liam’s not wrong. Beef produces the most greenhouse gas emissions out of all the inhabitants of the animal kingdom with a global average of 110lb (50kg) of greenhouse gases released per 3.5oz of protein. Cattle produce much more methane than poultry, lamb, and pretty much every other animal on the planet.
Avoiding beef is, therefore, an obvious win. But when it comes to knowing which vegetables are the biggest carbon emitters, it’s generally the stuff that doesn’t grow locally to wherever you are. On The Canteen’s menu, it was actually the humble aubergine that turned out to be the largest emitter due to the fact they can’t grow naturally in the UK without a lot of help and energy.
It’s not, however, always as simple as buying locally. In order to truly help reduce your carbon footprint, eating seasonally is just as important. “We always championed local produce, but the travel miles are pretty negligible compared to growing techniques, packaging, and so on for each supplier. Seasonal produce grown in its natural environment is the answer,” says Liam, “so – for example – carrots in summer, apples in early autumn and so on. However, if a local supplier is growing tomatoes in England in a greenhouse with loads of fertilizer and water, it's probably actually more sustainable to import them.”
There are no hard or fast rules to being a more ethical eater but it’s always better to try than not at all. Right? Not content with simply ensuring that the dishes which come out of the pass are as low-carbon and high-flavour as possible, The Canteen also places a focus on the wellbeing of its staff and recently became an accredited Living Wage Employer.
“We spent a lot of time focusing on sustainability within sourcing and so on, and realised maybe we hadn't treated our staff as sustainably as possible,” says Liam, “we made the decision in lockdown as it felt like a good way of giving back and retaining staff after losing so much of our workforce due to Brexit.”
The process, which involves submitting a good deal of documentation, isn’t all that difficult to do but it does require the business to be mindful of its profit margins. When The Canteen increased the wages of its employees to meet the Living Wage Employer requirements, it had to increase the price of the dishes on the menu as a result. That wasn’t an easy decision to make during a cost of living crisis – the fear of passing on the cost to the consumer is rife in the mind of every restaurateur – but it’s one of the only realistic ways forward.
It’s impossible to say exactly what a restaurant can do to make a tangible difference to the devastating impact of climate change but, if more restaurants start acting like The Canteen, then I’m fairly confident that the world would be in a much better place.