To celebrate ‘Makers Month’ at The Forum, City of Stories is talking to a different Norwich ‘maker’ each week during March. This week we spoke to Steve Lepper, co-founder of soya dairy and tofu-producers ‘Tofurei’.
Images: Isabel Johnson
After postponing this interview twice because of the treacherous snow (that blanketed Norwich for longer than was polite), I was finally able to pop into Tofurei this Monday morning. Although the sun was shining and the temperature was a very tropical 8 degrees, I was glad to get into the warmth of this little Vegan shop on Pottergate in the Norwich Lanes, and sit in a cosy corner with a cup of coffee and the smell of savoury spices all around. I am joined by Steve, who – along with his partner Jenny – founded the vegan business.
My very first question is to ask how you pronounce the shop’s name - ever since Tofurei opened its doors in October 2016, I have always referred to the soya dairy and vegan deli as ‘Tofe-your-ee’. However it turns out that the actual pronunciation is ‘tofu-rye’. Think along the lines of a German ‘bäckerei’, replace baking with tofu production and you’ve nailed it.
Tofurei began life as an idea for a shop selling vegan produce, inspired by the plethora of similar plant-based delis you can find on the streets of Berlin. After getting “carried away with the idea of tofu as a protein replacement”, the shop grew into a fledged micro-soya dairy here in Norwich, where the team turn Norfolk-grown soya beans into soya milk, and eventually their own tofu. This in turn is then turned into many wonderful products beside its pure iteration: on sale you’ll also find pasties, burgers and delicious herby soysages (which were being made during my visit). You can get coffee here (supplied by another wonderful Norwich institution: The Little Red Roaster), as well as vegan cheese, pizza and other snacks. There is a cake selection that is so famed and wonderful that it deserves its own paragraph. More on that later.
Now, if your tofu experience is anything like mine, the following will be familiar: after deciding to make a *insert meal here* on – say – Tuesday, you spend Monday night carefully freeing the silken tofu from its snug carton, and lovingly wrestling it onto three pieces of kitchen roll where it sits and neatly weeps into the paper. You poke it a bit because it’s really soft, before cutting it into cubes and admiring its lovely compact wobble. You put the cubes on more kitchen roll and promptly drip the previous wet kitchen roll all over your own socks. Reaching for more kitchen roll, you place it gently on your cubes, and top that with a can of tinned fruit which might have been in your cupboard since 2001. You go to bed proud because you have Prepared Your Dinner The Night Before.
On Tuesday, you cook the tofu, it falls apart in your pan and you are annoyed and surrounded by wet kitchen roll.
Apparently this experience is not uncommon, says Steve. A lot of people who – like me – have limited (not to mention unsuccessful) experiences of cooking with tofu, are simply using a difficult product. As it turns out, the silken tofu that I have been using is nowhere near as firm as the tofu made at Tofurei, which is already pressed so it is “almost impossible to squeeze any more water out of it”. Their own ‘chork’ tofu, is firmer still. You can stir-fry it, casserole it, deep fry it – no bother. And no kitchen roll, either.
What is perhaps even more remarkable is that the tofu made by Tofurei is locally produced. It is the only Norfolk tofu in existence. Using soya beans from “just down the road” at Tivetshall St Margret, Tofurei undertake the process of grinding the beans under water in order to extract the milk, and then making tofu by boiling it until the solids separate and it can be strained and pressed. The result is wonderful, fresh-tasting tofu that you can buy by the gramme, and some amazing soya-based deli products to boot.
I’ll end the blog post in the same way I like to end an afternoon: with cake.
The cakes at Tofurei are phenomenal, made using their Norfolk Soya Milk and other plant based ingredients. They are the star of the shop’s Instagram, and have fans city-wide (including the Norwich football team!). While I was there I had my eye on this chocco-strawberry cheesecake…
Where next for Tofurei? After a successful year and a half in the corner of Pottergate, Steve and Jenny have ambitions to nourish their plant-based roots, and grow across the city into premises on St Gregory’s Alley by winter 2018. Here, they plan to sell hot food, have a larger seating area, and run workshops which are already gaining a lot on interest. Once their brand-spanking-bigger-and-better production unit is up and running in Lenwade, Tofurei are looking at developing new flavours of tofu, as well as their own tempeh.
As for the little shop on Pottergate? Well, it’s staying. The retail aspect will be bigger, and you’ll still be able to grab a coffee and a snack here. More importantly the shop will still be selling their vegan-style Mr Whippy (Miss Whiplash) ice cream come summertime.
So pop into the shop on Pottergate to meet not just any maker, but the ONLY makers Norfolk Tofu you’ll find right now. I guarantee that you’ll leave with some cheesecake.
Tofueri, Norwich is proud to have you.
Steve and Jenny behind the counter at Tofurei
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