Monday, 9 May 2016

Fortify Yourself in Kent

A long overdue visit to my parents, taking advantage of the longer bank holiday weekend, led us 300 miles east to Kent.  My childhood village of Pembury (and still the residence of my parents) is surrounded by woodland and hop and fruit farms.  It remains idylic and firmly reminiscent of my 1970's childhood days of riding chopper bikes over steaming tarmac in the hot summer sun, refreshed by ice cube chilled Ribena served in tupperware beakers.  Although my childhood home and garden remains much the same, even the street outside; around that things have changed.  The roads are much busier, a new bypass pushes its raw way through treasured woodland and the 1970's laid back sun-soaked attitude replaced by an in your face, metallic, mass produced consumer society.  Or maybe I'm just getting old. Despite this Kent remains beautiful in places and the drive from my parents village to the county town of Maidstone still reveals many such places along the way.  

We were heading specifically to Maidstone to investigate the lunch offerings of Fortify, a well established vegetarian cafe, now exclusively vegan.  I hadn't been to Maidstone for probably 30 years and the first thing that struck me was how busy it was.  We weren't used to this!  Even Cornwall's one 'city' Truro is less busy.  After a bit of a battle we finally found somewhere to park.  By now it was early lunchtime and we all decided to head straight to Fortify.  It was much smaller than I had anticipated but we were fortunate enough to still find a table large enough for the four of us and soon we were studying the menu and specials board.  Phil, mum, and myself decided to go for the rather lovely looking cauliflower based quiche that was on specials board.  It came with three generous portions of salad.  Mum is vegetarian and, despite being relatively set in her ways at home with food and in her mid 70's, she is always open to trying different things on outings.  Dad however, in his 80th year and very set in his omnivore ways, was a little more perplexed by our surroundings.  I'm sure we had explained to him we were visiting a vegan cafe beforehand but, upon reading the menu he seemed a little uncertain.  His face lit up however when I pointed out there were choices involving baked beans (all be it from the kids menu!).  Baked beans are my dad's desert island food and he would quite happily eat them every day, including for Christmas dinner.  So he ordered the Bloomer Toast and Beans from the kids menu and, upon my suggestion that it might not be quite enough for him, he also ordered the Simple Sausage Toastie.  I did wonder how he would react when his sacred cup of tea was served with plant milk!

By now the cafe was really busy with even the few seats outside on the pavement taken.  Orders are taken and paid for at the counter and so I dutifully queued up to place my order.  I have to say at this point I was torn between two worlds.  I was positively enthused by the fact that a vegan eatery was so buzzing and busy. As a vegan, who wouldn't be delighted by this?  It was indeed very much evident that this plant based approach to catering was not only very popular but positively 'bursting at the seams'.  That said my 10 minutes at the counter ordering the food and waiting for the drinks orders to be completed were a little torturous; as other customers on their way to the toilet and staff bringing out the completed orders squeezed past the narrow gangway.  I also really felt for the staff as the queue was building and the space they were working in small. After these few minutes of slight stress however, I returned to our table and I have to say the food appeared really very quickly.

The food had us very much making appreciative noises.  The portions were really generous, wholesome and tasty.  My mum even looked a little panicked about whether she would be able to eat all her food (bless her she is never one to waste food).  My dad meanwhile was really relieved and tucking into his 'beans on toast'.  He was however instantly suspicious of his cup of tea.  Damn it, I had ordered hemp milk with his tea in the hope of 'sneaking it under the radar' as I think (but who knows after 30 years of veganism) hemp milk is the closest to moo juice I can remember.  I was however busted.  Likewise with the sausage toastie.  However, he still admitted he had enjoyed it and indeed had taken joy in the fact that mum had enjoyed her lunch too.  Our only regret was at that point, we had no space for any of the delicious cake offerings available.  Anxious to make way for more hungry diners we therefore vacated our table.

After a quick walk around the town centre, with an emphasis on visiting the charity shops, we all decided that it was all a bit too busy and, with our limited parking now running out, thought it was time to quit whilst we were ahead.  We couldn't however resist a final visit to Fortify to pick up some treats for later.  Sausage rolls, rocky road, chocolate and peanut cake, a raw bounty cake, and some of their fabulous homemade cashew cheddar later (which had been on our quiche earlier), all packaged to take out, we were on our way back to the leafy quiet of Pembury.  What a lovely day of eating it proved to be, as later that evening we tucked into the additional Fortify treats.  The cheese managed to make it back to Cornwall but lasted a mere two days before that was completely consumed too.

It was a lovely weekend visit, and a lovely chance to take my parents out for lunch at the same time as experiencing tasty, fresh and nutritious food from Fortify.  I believe that during the evening opening Fortify does operate a waiting service and I have to say I think the lunchtime would have been a little less stressful for diners if that had applied (and possibly staff too?).  That really is the only criticism I could offer about Fortify.  However, I am no expert on running a cafe and I imagine there are reasons that this is not practical for them.  I would love to see this cafe grow and grow and given the current busy customer base they have coupled with the standard of food they offer, I believe this is inevitable.  I imagine the next time I visit they may well be in much bigger premises and that can only be a very positive thing on all counts.

Be sure to visit and Fortify yourself at 32 High Street, Maidstone, ME14 1JF.

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