By Morwenna Kearns
What's it like inside The Stable? Straw on the ground, the scent of horses? Not quite, but it does have a similar rural-outbuilding-meets-industrial-site vibe; cosy but with plenty of space. The Birmingham branch is within staggering distance of New Street station, which is handy since it offers a massive 80 varieties of cider.
Indeed, it's 'Birmingham's cathedral to cider' according to a wall decal, as well as being the place to go for vegan pizzas in the city centre (its nearest serious competitor, Mr Singh's, is over three miles away).
But first, the cider. Our waiter Kai brought my sister and me a cider flight each – five 300ml glasses of different types of the appley stuff (for about the same price as two pints, so good value) – and explained the provenance of each of them in turn. Most were English, with one French, some still, some fizzy, of various temperatures, and all vegan. My sister and I are not normally cider-drinkers, having both gone hard and then gone home, ill, on White Lightning in our mid-teens, most cider consequently now tasting like vomit.
However, in the interest of research we gave all five a try and are, frankly, converted. The first, still and room temperature, tasted like delicious apple juice and G all but downed hers before being told it was about 7% alcohol. Another was keeved – which means it's simply the apples in oak barrels that produce the sweetness and nothing else, Kai explained – while the last one benefitted from the unexpected addition of marmalade in the mix. Flavour-wise, apple plus orange equals peach syrup, it turns out.
For my main course, I chose The Allo Aloha (£10.50) from the vegan pizza menu: big pieces of fresh pineapple, field mushrooms, avocado (optional) and fresh chilli, with Bute Island vegan mozzarella. The bright colours – yellow, green, red – and sweet fruit flavour made it a little childlike in comparison to G's sophisticated choice (she always was more metropolitan than me) but a good glug of chilli oil brought balance.
She chose The Hazel Nutter pizza (£10.50), with roasted hazelnuts – an idea I might just steal for basically any cheesy dish. The vegan mozzarella was accompanied by perhaps a surplus of spinach, plus mushrooms, sweet caramelised onions and asparagus. Living close to the Vale of Evesham in Worcestershire, she did wonder where The Stable was sourcing this asparagus in winter; it'd be nice to see more local, seasonal ingredients on the menu.
The dairy-free mozzarella-style cheese used on all of The Stable's vegan-friendly sourdough base pizzas is from Bute Island's Sheese range, which is widely available so you can replicate the dishes at home. Made from coconut oil and soya, the Sheese mozzarella is less stringy than its dairy counterpart, more sticky – but in terms of flavour, actually more cheesy. It works well, but such is the generosity of toppings at The Stable I'd happily try its pizzas without the cheese at all. The two we tried were also very thin and crisp without too much of crust – a knife and fork job, rather than pizza wheel and fingers.
For dessert we headed back into the orchard and shared an apple sorbet. A little too sweet for our tastes, perhaps, and gooey rather than icy, but with a floral, citrus flavour similar to The Stable's own-label cider. The other vegan dessert option is a chocolate brownie, with which you can never go wrong IMHO.
Each Stable restaurant (there are 17 in the UK) has its own menu but the vegan dishes – four pizzas, two salads, garlic bread and desserts – are available at each of them, plus an almost overwhelming cider selection perfect for trying something new.
Thanks to Jon and Kai at The Stable Birmingham for looking after us.