Sarah Cotterell and Aitana Infante are preparing fragrant tea from verbena leaves freshly picked beside the entrance to The Straw Kitchen cafe where they both work. It’s an idyllic setting, on the grounds of Whichford Pottery in Warwickshire, and far removed from where they were living just a few weeks previously, in London. The pair, partners in life and work, met while playing basketball and began cooking together – first hosting supper clubs and then providing healthy, balanced food for fashion shoots in the city, under the name The Little Cooking Pot. Seeking a different pace of life, they have moved to the countryside beside the cafe where they now cook, using ingredients grown in the greenhouses and vegetable beds a short stroll away.
Aitana grew up in Valencia, Spain. Her parents ran a bar, where after opening hours they cooked for friends. “The kitchen was a really safe space for me – I observed a lot and understood that food had this power to bring people together,” she says. “When I left Spain, I realised how important food was to my cultural identity, and that was really beautiful. I cling to cooking as a way of reminding myself where I come from.” Having studied nutrition, Aitana went on to cook for refugees in Calais, France, discovering how food can also be a political act. “It changes the way you can communicate with others,” she adds. “Offering a dish cooked with love and care can give a sense of pride and safety to people who are far from home. In that moment I realised this is what I want to do with my life.”
The Little Cooking Pot was born from the love of the magic that happens when people come together around a table to eat home-cooked food. Sarah studied photography and after the end of an internship at a creative agency in London, decided to go travelling in India by herself. “Because it was quite unusual for people to see a woman travelling alone, I found myself welcomed into family homes where I often ended up in the kitchen,” she explains. “I loved being part of the bustle, learning different recipes and hearing the stories behind them, whilst we shared what we had cooked.” Back home she started The Little Cooking Pot supper club as a way of continuing to share the kindness and recipes that were shared with her. She went on to travel to Mexico, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar, doing little jobs in between, learning new dishes and techniques.
Both had the same dream of working with food in a thoughtful way, bringing people together. When they met, they quickly bonded over their shared passion for home-cooked food. They started spending time together, with long nights in the kitchen. “I’d always cooked alone,” Sarah says. “But when Aitana came into the kitchen it was really natural and easy. We often joke that we are telepathic," Sarah says. “As neither of us are professionally trained but rather have learnt to cook from observation, we have a very similar way of working," adds Aitana. When they’re not in the kitchen, they continue to travel together, meeting people from around the world and learning the recipes they love to cook.
Their latest recipe book, A La Mesa, began as a travel diary, but evolved into a work structured by the seasons. The chapters loosely follow the Pagan wheel of the year and offer lots of seasonal vegetarian recipes which shine a fresh light on British produce. The pull of a slower way of life drew them from London to the countryside, where they felt they could observe these seasonal changes more keenly. They met Maia and Christine, who run The Straw Kitchen, through friends of friends, and fell in love over their common dream to be part of the movement that is trying to make the food system more sustainable from soil to plate. “We realised we were quite isolated before with the hectic reality of running a small business, and wanted to be in a collaborative, cooperative environment in which we could achieve more by working with likeminded people,” says Aitana. “Being closer to nature was also really important, being able to understand it by observation and not just imagination. Being more in touch with ourselves, as well as others.”
Towards the end of the day, they walk to the greenhouse and the vegetable beds, gathering ingredients for a simple evening salad. “It’s reminded us of what we love about working with food,” Sarah says. “I feel like we can have a positive impact in the community, and by growing even a small amount,” adds Aitana. “There is an opportunity to make life more colourful and beautiful.”
Arroz Con Cosas
Growing up in a mountain village in the region of Valencia, rice was a main staple on Aitana’s family table. Keeping paella and other more elaborate dishes for the weekend, this simple recipe of arroz con cosas was a weekday solution for her busy parents. It’s traditionally made with white paella rice but we prefer the nuttiness and nutritional qualities of brown rice, though it takes longer to cook. It’s a brilliant recipe to learn as you can use different vegetables as they come into season, just avoid using ones with a high-water content, such as courgettes, as they can make the rice go mushy. In summer, we love to use green beans and bell peppers and in the spring, artichokes, asparagus and mushrooms. It’s delicious with a dollop of aioli and a spoonful of fiery chipotles en adobo on the side – a little inheritance from Aitana’s parents’ time in Mexico.
Extra virgin olive oil
A jar or tin of good quality artichoke hearts, drained and cut into quarters
150g asparagus, cut into 5cm chunks
150g mushrooms, quartered
2 garlic cloves, whole and skin on, slightly crushed with the side of a knife
250g paella rice or short grain brown rice
375ml hot vegetable stock, homemade or from a good quality stock cube
A pinch of saffron (optional)
1 teaspoon powdered turmeric (optional)
First you are going to fry all your vegetables separately. Start with the vegetables that will take the most time from the ones that you are using. Cover the base of a heavy-bottomed pan (with a fitted lid) with a generous layer of olive oil and warm over a medium heat. Fry, stirring from time to time, until soft and slightly golden. Using a slotted spoon, transfer them into a side bowl, leaving as much
oil as possible in the pan. Then continue with the rest of your vegetables, keeping the mushrooms until last as they absorb the most oil. Add a bit more oil to the pan if it’s running low.
When all the vegetables are cooked and set aside, sprinkle them with sea salt and gently mix. Fry the whole garlic cloves for a minute or so before pouring in the rice, along with two good pinches of salt. Fry the grains in the oil for a minute, mixing often, which will stop the rice from absorbing too much water and overcooking.
Add the cooked vegetables back into the pan and mix them with the rice. Next pour in the hot vegetable stock – 375ml for white paella rice or 750ml for short grain brown rice. Add the saffron or turmeric and stir. At this point, taste a little of the cooking liquid for salt, stirring in a bit more if needed.
Bring to the boil, reduce the heat to its lowest simmer and cover with a lid. From now on, don’t stir as it will break the grains and make the rice mushy. Simmer with the lid on for about 20 minutes for paella rice or 50-60 minutes for short grain brown rice.
The idea is that once the rice is cooked, it will have absorbed all the water, as that is where the flavour is. After the simmering time, try some grains of rice from the top. If you see that the water has almost evaporated but the rice still has a hard bite, add a tiny bit more hot stock. On the other hand, if the rice is almost cooked but there is still some water left, take off the lid and turn up the heat a little to help the last bit of water evaporate. This sounds complicated but the more you make this dish, the more it will make sense.
Once cooked, turn off the heat and let the rice sit untouched for 5-10 minutes with the lid off. To serve, lightly mix and spoon the rice onto plates with a wedge of lemon on the side and, if you fancy, a dollop of chipotles en adobo and aioli.
Interview by Alice Simkins Vyce.
Photographs by Aloha Bonser-Shaw.
Visit The Straw Kitchen at Whichford Pottery, Whichford, Warwickshire.