Gaia Pulses is indubitably my favourite café in London. I say this having collectively eaten, reviewed and cooked at hundreds of cafés throughout our capital over the years. Everything here combines into such a bountiful unison that it’s almost impossible not to imagine it having been spontaneously created by some divine intervention.

And that’s where Yolanda, earthy creator of Gaia Pulses, comes in.  It is unusual to return to a place just for the presence of its proprietress, but you won’t be alone in doing so: everyone knows her, is greeted by her, asked how their veggie patch is coming along and how the grandchildren are finding their new school. Her generosity comes through in everything, from the small raffia flourishes on the packed cakes to the cheeky wink she’ll give you before swiftly looking to the gift-biscuit placed neatly on the saucer of your coffee.  

And all this before the food has even been mentioned…

But firstly, and starkly, a quick note about this business of food reviewing. Food reviewing is a strange game. You often don’t choose the places, they get chosen for you. The food you often, but not always, select for yourself and the company- regrettably- is very much forced upon you. Worst of all, though, is that in nearly four years of being a food critic, I’ve only been to a handful of places where the person who owns them is also the person who cooks, or even knows how to cook. Independent businesses who open off their own backs simply do not have the money to hire PR agencies to promote them. Those that do – almost exclusively- have corporate backing: there’s money in food. And so they invite all the reviewers, and the bloggers and the Instagrammers and we go and eat food.

So, in this worrying myriad of faceless restaurants where dining is nothing other than yet another instance of capitalist avarice, finding Yolanda and her beautiful café Gaia Pulses is something to really lift the spirit. And the stomach.

You can find it at the Old Baths in Hackney Wick. It retains the original separate BOYS and GIRLS entrances, the one through which you walk and the other at which you can dine at a linen laden table opening out through French doors. The menu is quite simply a wonder and doubly wonderful because it is also so simple. There are Greek stews with names you will one day, when you inevitably become a regular, you will be able to pronounce. These recipes have been handed down through generations of Greek grandmothers. You can taste this love lineage in the food. There’s the Fasolada with small and sweet butterbeans brewed in a light tomato, herb and olive oil sauce. Or the indulgent Fakehs: organic green lentils cooked in a broth of garlic, dill and oregano. The Fakehs is divine in the most Gaia-like, Gaia goddess of the earth kind of way. It just feels like it’s doing you good.

Yolanda abides by the ethos, Food of the Poor = Food of the Gods.  Humility and pride takes centre place stoically beside the array of organic, locally sourced vegetables. The shop is light and filled with bright chatter, bags of Greek organic grains line the counter, all of which can be purchased by the scoop full. I once watched Yolanda, midway through our conversation, deftly and studiously drain her pot of pulses midway through the cooking process to refill and refresh them with fresh water and herbs. I was quite enchanted. I can’t tell you why exactly, I can’t explain why such earthy goodness so fondly stays in my memory, but this is what I love about Yolanda and her café: it’s real. That care and dedication, that commitment to something so outside of yourself and yet so integral. The balance between the self and your environment.

Yolanda’s spark for life is burning and ever-blossoming, she will chat to you about the leaves she saw coming out on the oak by her house as she makes you the most darkly fragrant coffee you’re likely to have. She has stories of her times spent in Egypt or the methods of jam-making she and her Mum use to create the shelves lining the shop full of stickily sumptuous jams. My own Mum asks me to bring Yolanda and her Mum’s jam back home with me each time I journey that homewards.   

A little more time spent in the building of the Old Baths will always reveal some kind of unexpected occurrence as you dine. The floor above is host to multiple art and photography studios ensuring that people dressed as woodland creatures, a parade of beautifully outfitted models or even the occasional goat on a lead will jaunt past you and your morning tea and sourdough toast with brown tahini, banana, grape molasses and seeds.  There are yoga classes held weekly, exhibitions constantly and even recently a garden! Delights eternal! And excitingly, 2018 has seen Yolanda’s beautiful establishment storm from strength to strength: they’ve just launched the UK’s first organic ready meals in compostable packaging and Yolanda’s bean stews are now available on the shelves at Wholefoods.

It transpires that this is less of a review and more of a love letter to a woman who has so firmly become my friend. For this, I am entirely unapologetic: the world needs a little more soul, it needs to invest more thought and time into the things that matter and less in the inviting of fashion bloggers to the launch of a restaurant because of the consequential wishy washy wealth of followers they may gain exposure to on Instagram. (Incidentally, I’ve never seen one of these women eat anything; I take great pride in eating all of their food as well as my own).

Food should be something shared, that wholesome goodness that nourishes you and the people you choose to feed it to. There’s something truly grotesque about food becoming yet another fad. Just a high resolution photo with the Clarendon filter applied. Have you ever seen one of those posts where they talk about how the food tasted? If they felt good afterwards? No, because it’s becoming a status symbol. There’ll soon be no good food left, it will simply just become another form of mindless consumption. Wealth in the greediest, most regurgatative sense.

So, in antithetical thinking… to avoid the emerging culture of vom-worthy extravagance (how much brioche can one really eat?!) I’ve been thinking for a while of starting up my own branch of reviewing where, instead of photographing the food before anyone’s touched it, I will photograph the demolished remains with a hand-scrawled napkin note about the taste and the establishment. I don’t mean to sound mealy mouthed, but we need to protect the stomach! As someone who cares much more about my stomach than my heart, I’m choosing to dine at places that matter. Places where there the food is important regardless of its money making potential and where communities are made, sustained and nourished.

Somewhere where you can feel the pulse of the earth and know where not only where your food is from but where your money is going. Yolanda, I wish you every possible joy.

 

Words and Images by Mimi Biggadike