A taste of the Mediterranean
PUBLISHED: 18:09 01 December 2014
Tessa Allingham meets the multifaceted woman behind Casa de Mar in Bury St Edmunds
“I’m about to commit heresy. Look, I hate plum jam. I only joined the WI to make my mother happy. I do, I hate plum jam. I’m crap at cakes, I can’t make sponge. In fact, seeing as it’s unlikely George Clooney would actually come to Skipton to do a talk on what it was like to be in ER . . .”
Maria rattles off her lines from Calendar Girls, word-perfect, at breakneck speed and in a pitch-perfect Yorkshire accent.
“I played Chris [Helen Mirren’s part in the acclaimed 2003 film] and loved every minute of it,” she says, green eyes alight, arms gesticulating, as she recites the speech some 18 months on from the Woolpit Drama Club production. “And after taking your kit off on stage, you really can do anything.”
For the past year, Maria Broadbent’s “anything” has been Casa del Mar, her restaurant in Bury St Edmunds. The thespian in her ensures it’s a bouncy, fun place to eat with live music on Sundays, regular food-led party nights that are booked out weeks in advance – a recent Moroccan evening complete with belly-dancing was a particular hit – and quiz nights that are “cultural but not too high-brow”.
“I love a party, I love dancing, I love good food, and I love this place being full,” Maria declares, palms smacking the table to reinforce her point. She is a driven bundle of seemingly boundless energy, the sort of dynamo guaranteed to get any party started. She talks at a blistering speed in a conversation that veers from party planning and stripping on stage, to the taste sensation of sumac – the tart spice used in middle eastern cooking is Maria’s current favourite – and the serious issues of healthy eating and reducing food waste.
She is also in business, unashamedly, to turn a profit. “I’ve always wanted to run a restaurant, and I work on the basic rule of thumb that for any successful business you must love what you do, and want to make money. I tick both boxes.”
Casa del Mar started out as Café del Mar, but the business has developed more as a restaurant and tapas bar rather than café, Maria explains. “We felt that café in our name was a little misleading. Changing to Casa del Mar has allowed us to expand our appeal. We are targeting people who go on holiday in Spain, Italy, Greece, Morocco, who like to have fun, and want to eat the food they remember enjoying on holiday, in a relaxed, informal setting.”
The interior brings a hint of Greek taverna or Italian trattoria to Bury. Floors are wooden, the tables and chairs are simple rustic ones that can be shoved together to create the convivial atmosphere Maria loves. Paper lanterns are strung around an ivy-entwined indoor pergola, there are candles on tables and blackboards announce the daily specials – perhaps a fish tagine or a Cretan boureki with courgettes and goats cheese – or the takeaway drinks and ice cream offer.
Food is made on the premises with a simple ethos – fresh, home-cooked Mediterranean-inspired dishes. Small tapas or mezze dishes – houmous with herby, spicy dukka; whitebait; chorizo squid in garlic butter for example – sit alongside more substantial slow-cooked lamb kleftiko or halloumi with roast vegetables.
“I chose Mediterranean food because that’s where I’ve travelled and that’s the food I understand and enjoy the most,” Maria explains. “Of course I love food and cooking, but I’m a competent and professional cook rather than a chef. I’m inquisitive and I understand food, how ingredients work together and why certain foods are good or not so good for us.”
She rarely pauses for breath as she talks food, ingredients and menus with the same confidence that was apparent when she demonstrated some favourite dishes on the Aga Rangemaster stage at the Bury St Edmunds Food & Drink Festival last summer. It’s not surprising to hear that her performance earned her the recognition of a television production team.
“Watch this space!” she laughs. For now, though, feeding her customers takes priority over wooing a television audience.
If she’s not in the kitchen supervising and cooking – she has a “fantastic” head chef in Paul Gort – or greeting guests, she could well be on the campaign trail. Politics is in her blood. She moved to East Anglia from the Midlands to take a job as PA to the “inspiriational” East Anglian MEP Vicky Ford, moving on to work for Andrew Lansley MP, the former Conservative health secretary.
Maria’s campaigning is now focused not on elections, but on encouraging the public and businesses to reduce food waste. She’s an active supporter of Wrap and its Love Food Hate Waste campaign, speaking at conferences across the UK on the subject, and hosting free events at the restaurant.
Maria is proud of what she’s achieved at Casa del Mar – it’s up there with producing two children and stripping on stage, she says – but has no plans to replicate the success with a second restaurant.
“This is my hub. I want to run this place as well as I can.” You get the feeling that she will do just that.