Lancashire Food - Sign Language and Smoothies in Blackburn

PUBLISHED: 19:37 14 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:58 20 February 2013

Andrea Holden and Philippa James, a couple of smoothies

Andrea Holden and Philippa James, a couple of smoothies

Cookery editor Philippa James visits veggie heaven in Blackburn and meets an old pal who's hot stuff

The first time I lunched at V.Fresh in Blackburn I was slightly taken aback by the young waitress. Upon ordering, she promptly banged the table with her finger-tips and mouthed at me: 'Show me what you want.' Age occasionally brings wisdom so I just smiled and pointed at the menu.

Thanking me, the girl smiled and headed to the kitchen. 'Oh!' said my friend, Jacqui Livesey, 'I forgot to tell you, the bistro is run by East Lancashire Deaf Society.' Suddenly everything fell into place.

I love to eat at V.Fresh. I particularly like the Mexican influence in the burritos and fajitas. This really is ethical food at its best, supporting a local charity, serving all vegetarian dishes and using, whenever possible, ingredients sourced from the region.

I was interested in how V.Fresh started up. Doug Alker, the director, explained that because of the generally negative perception of people with hearing difficulties, unemployment in this sector was high.

The ELDS wanted to set up a model social enterprise scheme that offered scope to develop young, deaf people, and afford them new skills, confidence, and employability, working alongside hearing people, too.

The society decided to go down the vegetarian route because they needed to offer something different to draw people in - the daily veggie and smoothie 'specials' were an instant hit.

The power-house behind the V.Fresh team is Andrea Holden, who has had a remarkable life, which has included stints working in Denmark, Florida and Alaska. A post-tsunami trip to Sri Lanka as a voluntary worker left Andrea flat broke. On her return the ELDS were looking for a chef. 'I said to them ''I can cook, but I'm not a chef; give me a go.'' That was three years ago, and I've been here, ever since.'

Alongside Andrea are two employed staff, the delightful Saira and Tanvir, who both started out as volunteers. They introduced Andrea to British Sign Language - another reason why deaf visitors feel so welcome.

V.Fresh is already diversifying. They support local artists, who can sell their work by hanging it in the gallery (Andrea was particularly proud to show me that the current artist was her father, Stephen Holden, who had some of his stunning local photographs on display).

The venue also hosts acoustic evenings, poetry recitals, ladies' soirees and is a great venue for fundraisers, too. There is talk of a small shop, soon, and a V.Fresh recipe book.

The concept, also developed as a result of the government's 'Healthy Eating' initiatives, has become so incredibly popular that, even as I visited, expansion into next door was well under way. Doug mentioned further plans to extend, into the cellars, but I have been sworn to secrecy for now! The extra space will help extend choice with a bigger kitchen (it could hardly be smaller, I don't know how they cope) and the extra staff will speed up service.

In short, V.Fresh will be able to produce a lot more each day to satisfy the growing and varied client-base made up mainly of non-vegetarians. The place was packed when I called in. As Andrea said: 'It's just getting busier and busier!' I recommend that you get there early because good, home-cooked dishes sell themselves!

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