Gemma Simmonite, from Bury St Edmunds restaurant Gastrono-me, explore the latest phenomenon sweeping the food industry
Who would have thought a couple of years ago that the nation would become quite so obsessed with veganism? It has been the quickest rising wave to hit the food industry to date. It has completely changed the supermarket shelves, the fast food industry has especially grabbed it with greedy gusto, as have most of the chain restaurants, and that’s where my concern takes me, but more about that in a small while. . .
I’ve been a vegetarian for 36 years. It was a strange and almost sudden conversion, following a stay at my older cousin’s house when I was 12. She had a wonderful home in Chepstow, South Wales, and as a staunch vegetarian was lucky enough to have animals on her land for. . . love, not for food. I helped on a lovely 1982 spring day to bottle feed a newly-born lamb who was a little slow to feed from its mother. It was a lovely moment, but literally thought nothing more of it – in truth, at the time my pervading memory of the weekend was that my cool cousin had dyed my hair with ‘Sun In’ (who out there remembers that?!) and at 12 I thought that far more momentous as I teetered on the brink of adolescence.
Which made the following weekend even more curious and surprising.
It was Sunday lunchtime and my family were preparing our regular Sunday roast, yes you guessed ahead of me, it was indeed lamb. I snuck in to steal a piece as it was being carved as I always did, being the greedy little carnivore that I was. The smell of the lamb was irresistible (I hate to say it but at times when our lamb koftas sizzle on the grill at Gastrono-me, I fall prey to some sort of sense memory that provokes a pavlovian mouthwater), but I digress, back to that Sunday carving – I hurriedly stuffed the hot tender slice in my mouth, but the taste was truly horrific, I spat it out immediately and dramatically stopped my father carving and told him that I was damn sure the lamb was off. He tried and tasted nothing untoward, my mother tried, and she declared all was fine with the taste, in fact, it was delicious. I tried again, and of
course. .. bleurgh. It was practically repugnant. What I guess had happened is that my subconscious had caught up with my conscious and the die was cast. I had made the connection, albeit in the background of my psyche, between a very live animal the week before and now the cooked meat on my plate, and I couldn’t go back to eating meat even if I wanted to. I really did try once or twice after that day, but it was over. I was a vegetarian, and knew then it would be for life.
It is probably still the most primal and powerful thing I had no control over. It certainly wasn’t something I was interested in, and I definitely wasn’t searching for it, and as I found out much to my pain, it certainly wasn’t an easy lifestyle choice. Vegetarians were seen as weird, simply awkward, bean eating, or sandal-wearing oddities. Vegans? Well they were even more off the chart. I remember an uncle thought one was a species from Star Trek. Back then we were treated aggressively, mocked and were actually huffed at in restaurants. I was literally forced to find ways to feed myself that were inventive and tasty. So dare I say now that at times I am a little irked the vegetarian movement was so arduously slow in its development whereas this recent thrust into veganism has been like an express train. I know I should be delighted when staring at the overwhelming choices in the supermarket. After all, it took at least until my twenties to be able to order something other than an omelette in a restaurant, and even when the movement did progress it was usually a hastily defrosted vegetarian lasagna. But somehow I’m not. At first I was more than curious, and happily bought things home to try. But it turned out to be expensive and fruitless, such was my disappointment in yet another mock meat innovation.
Back in 1985 Quorn launched a mycroprotein that was revolutionary. Then in 1991, a full six years later, Linda McCartney followed suit. Six years! This latest revolution has seen companies developing products in six months, such is the potential payout. But back then supermarkets weren’t terribly excited to stock Quorn, and the offering if they had it was just chunks and mince. Vegetarians weren’t a sexy proposition to companies, we had no sizzle. For one, I guess we had to be persuaded into meat alternatives because really, we’d given up meat for one reason, and the only reason was that we no longer wanted to eat animals, so replicating them in a dish seemed a bit pointless, as many meat eating relatives and friends laughingly pointed out to me. Of course I came come round to using substitutes, grateful even, and Quorn at the time didn’t really taste that meaty, I’d always have to add marmite or soy sauce for ‘meatininess’ or, as I prefer to say, a savoury umami’ness. I won’t say that I’m a purist and that I don’t pop a fake ham slice in my sarnie, but I had to travel a long way to get there, and maybe that was a good thing. I learnt to be self reliant.
Some of the creations now are stunningly meat like in their Frankenstein reality. I personally don’t want a burger that bleeds, and yet many vegans do, because they’re looking at this new diet from a different perspective. They are meat eaters who want a healthier alternative. Healthier for them and healthier for the planet, which is wonderful.
But what does this mean for cooking? And when I say cooking, I mean cooking and not reheating. What does that mean for restaurants that revel in making everything from scratch? At Gastrono-me we are exceptionally proud of the fact we do. The dishes that I create are all the more exciting ‘because’ of the creating! I can’t turn my kitchen into a laboratory to engineer fake ribs and steaks, because it just isn’t possible, and nor would I want to. So what we do instead is make blinding veggie and vegan dishes our way – my favourite is our Beer Battered Avocado Tacos, because it’s still natural, but it’s turned on its head a little, and fun. I have always wanted and been adamant that vegetarian and vegan food should be fun, and not as it was in the 70s and 80s, a martyrdom and oh so very, very brown. It needs to be colourful, zingy and at times even a little junky!
Of course at Gatrono-me we always want to be current, and more importantly serve what excites our customers, so alongside our creations we do serve some plant-based commercially made burgers and dogs, but boy do we jam-pack them with our homemade ingredients like our pink gin pickled onions, or with lashings of home-made chipotle crema that simply doesn’t need dairy. Or our zingy red cabbage ruby slaw, so we still feel like we have a hand in them. Because it’s important we still cook and here’s where we get to my beef. . . pun fully intended!
It’s no accident that it’s the fast food outlets and larger restaurant chains that are having such a merry old time with this food movement. Greggs has its infamous vegan sausage rolls, and now ‘steak’ bakes (that, by the way, are selling out in two hours in Bury St Edmunds at present), Pizza Hut has its Pepperphoni pizza, KFC with its finger lickin’ ‘chicken’ burger. It’s all great fun and novelty, and perfect as an occasional treat, but all of the components are factory made and shipped in, and despite them adding a bit of B12, they aren’t exactly healthy.
If people are going to become vegans, I think it’s highly important they know how to feed themselves with vegetables and different proteins, as well as from processed easily ‘grabbable’ instant foods. I can remember very well the research and scaremongering being thrown around about just how difficult it was to get necessary key vitamins such as B12, iron and protein, from a plant-based diet in the 70s and 80s, but this doesn’t seem to be mentioned nearly as much now. Disappointingly, on the Veganuary website there is no clear section on nutritional guidance. When you sign up you get tips in your inbox for 31 days. For potential vegans this site is most people’s first port of call when thinking of changing their lifestyle. In comparison, the Vegetarian Society and the Vegan Society have detailed pages on how to eat healthily and how to derive all the vitamins needed, which surely will only help people succeed in the long run. It is a tricky balance and certainly not achieved from burgers, sausage rolls and meat substitutes alone.
There are glorious meals to be created from natural sources. My hope is that humans will look after themselves, and get wise when trying out veganism, and realise there’s a whole plant and grain world out there to be tasted, which is just as sexy (if not more) than an over-packaged meat substitute that has been calculatingly aimed at them with a laser like corporate, multi-billion dollar eye. Yes. it may take a bit more time and thought, but you’ll be creating a diet for a healthy future and healthier world and doing far less for the multi-national food companies’ profits, that undoubtedly get ploughed straight back into the meat industry.
So, soapbox carefully stepped down from :-), I give you our Livin’ on the Veg sandwich to try. It’s a very popular tasty simple sandwich on our Gastrono-me menu. This is a low effort recipe for the start of the new year if you’re like me and still fagged out from the festivities (and truth be told, the fizz).
It’s hummus packed full of goodness, includes all sorts of veggies and spices, and as with all of my recipes, you can adapt it exactly to what you like. Tweak the heat factor up or down, swap out things you like or dislike, but most of all enjoy!
May I wish everyone a very happy 2020.
LIVIN’ ON THE VEG
Preparation time – 10 minutes
Two slices of any kind of rustic bread, more for its hold-together properties than anything else
Home-made or shop bought hummus (Moorish make a tasty smoked one)
A handful of roasted peppers and onions
A spoonful or two of Ruby Slaw (see recipe below)
A spoonful of sauerkraut – take a risk, it’s really good!
A drizzle of sweet chilli sauce, or hot sauce of your choice
Half an avocado sliced
Lightly toast the bread on both sides, this is to make it stronger for all the fillings we’re going to add, plus gives it a lovely crunch.
Slather both sides very generously with hummus.
Start layering one side only with the sauerkraut.
Next with a layer of the Ruby Slaw – see recipe below.
Then some spinach leaves.
Then some of the roasted vegetables.
Finish your layers with slices of avocado.
Sprinkle a little sweet chilli sauce over the top, this plays against the hummus very nicely.
Season with salt and pepper and top with the lid.
RUBY SLAW RECIPE
This will keep beautifully in the fridge for up to five days. It makes a delicious colourful accompaniment to absolutely anything – delicious in a burger, as a side to meats, a wintery pie, or the topping on a jacket potato.
1 small head of red cabbage
2 red onions thinly sliced
4 carrots grated
3 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar
4 tablespoonsof olive oil
30g roughly-chopped walnuts
Salt and pepper to taste
Toss all the ingredients together, and season to taste.
Gemma Simmonite is executive chef and co-creator of Gastrono-me, Abbeygate Street, Bury St Edmunds
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