It’s Time For An Honest Approach To Vegetarian EatingJAY RAYNER
A weekday lunchtime and I am standing by my stove doing something appalling. I have done bad things with food before, of course. I once ate two Pot Noodles for dinner, and didn’t even feel guilty.
I am a man of appetites and sometimes those appetites make me do things. You cannot have one part of me without the other.
What I am doing now is not in character. It goes against everything in which I believe. But still I am doing it because, if I’m going to make a convincing argument about what non-meat cookery should and shouldn’t look like, I first have to stand in another person’s shoes.
And so: I am cooking with Quorn. I am cooking with a meat substitute, made using a fungal growth called mycoprotein, which is meant to have a meaty texture that recalls the muscle mass of something which once had a pulse.
I am doing this properly. By the manufacturer’s own admission Quorn doesn’t taste of much unless introduced to other flavours, so first I am making a tomato sauce: chopped onions and garlic cooked down in glugs of olive oil with a tin of good tomatoes, and generous amounts of salt and cracked black pepper. In another pan I fry off some cubes of Quorn Meat Free Chicken Pieces. I sauté these eager-to-please little squares until they’ve started to colour, and wonder whether this might be an approximation of the Maillard reaction, the caramelisation of meat which gives it that savouriness carnivores like me crave so desperately.
I try a piece. It isn’t. It is just slightly crunchy over-used mattress filling.
Eventually, despite my willing it otherwise, the cooking is done. The food must be tasted. I introduce the Quorn to the sauce and stand by the stove, forking it away. I close my lips and press the pieces of mock chicken against the roof of my mouth and stare sadly at the pan.
I could now lurch into hyperbole. I could rant on about this piece of cookery being where both hope and calories go to die; I could say I would prefer to have my tongue lacerated by a threshing machine, or spend nine hours in a lift with Donald Trump. But I won’t, because these Quorn dishes are so much worse than that.
They are dull. They are nothing, a tiny belch of mediocrity. These fragments of tortured fungus do have a texture. They bounce and vibrate beneath the teeth, and I suppose if you were sufficiently with the project, and your hormone levels were set to optimum, you might recognise a similarity to meat.
What made me most mad about all this, however, wasn’t just the dreary eating experience. It was the damage it did. Because this plateful of tiresome, boring sludge simply gave ammunition to those militant carnivores who would spit and laugh in the face of non-meat cookery. It really was lousy PR for the cause of the vegetable. And, as we edge ever deeper into the 21st century, that is something we simply cannot afford.
I have watched animals die. I have stood at the head of the kill line in an abattoir and looked on as the electric shocks were administered to the head, followed by a blade to the throat. When I went to the abattoir a few years ago I interrogated my motives. I was writing a chapter about the environmental impact of meat consumption for a new book, and felt that describing the process by which animals die to feed us would be the most striking way into the subject.
But there was something else too. Some people have a problem with the killing of sentient creatures for food. I have always said that I do not. As far as I can see, these animals only exist in the first place because we brought them into the world to be eaten. This would only be problematical if you viewed animals in some way as our equals and, while some people do hold this view, again, I do not. As long as the animal has had both a good life and a good death all is fine.
But I wanted to test my glib attitudes in the face of brutal realities. In truth I had wanted to go further. I had explored the possibility of doing the killing myself but getting the permissions to do so is, rightly, complicated. Watching close up, again and again and again, was very much the next best thing.
By which I mean, the very worst.
And the result? It didn’t change my views one bit.
I left the abattoir holding the same opinions as I did when I arrived, albeit in need of a stiff drink. I have argued piously that all meat eaters ought to be prepared to go inside a slaughterhouse. If you want to eat animals you should be willing to know what that means. Perhaps you could only acquire a carnivore’s licence once you had spent a day in an abattoir.
That said, I suspect the vast majority of people would come out with their views little changed. Or even if they swore off meat for a while, the vast majority would eventually drift back, probably lured by the smell of a bacon sandwich, properly made. The eating of meat is simply that ingrained.
Die-hard carnivores like to argue this is because humans have a physiological need for meat. It’s true, as studies have found, that we will declare ourselves sated as a result of eating fewer calories of meat, than say vegetables. It is an exceptionally efficient source of nutrition.
There is also much evidence that eating meat many thousands of years ago enabled our ancestors to develop the kind of intellectual capacity that eventually made us human; indeed human enough for some of us to choose veganism. Foraged leaves, nuts and berries took too much energy to digest for the brain of prehistoric man to get what it needed. Meat simply allowed us to obtain the volume of protein needed for the human brain to become itself.
That said, the anthropologist Richard Wrangham has argued convincingly in his book ‘Catching Fire: How Cooking Made us Human’ that the really important development was not the eating of meat alone, but the use of fire to cook foods generally (including vegetables), making them all easier to digest and so releasing more nutrition.
So no, meat eating, however efficient a supply of protein it might be for us, may not be an imperative. But it is certainly a deep-seated cultural choice, which says a lot about our position of power in the world. The more powerful we become the more we tend to eat it. Numerous studies have shown that the higher up the income ladder we rise the more meat we eat, and not simply because it’s costly stuff (for it becomes affordable at quite a low point on that income ladder).
If ever there were a symbol of that, it is the existence of that Quorn I cooked with so reluctantly. Why would we have desperate meat substitutes were it not for the cultural primacy of the meat they are trying to replace? It is based on the assumption that if a vegetable-led menu is going to succeed it has to ape flesh.
And that’s exactly why meat substitutes fail so spectacularly. For non-meat cookery to be successful it has to do so according to its own agenda, not according to one set by that which it is replacing.
Happily, things are changing, albeit by necessity.
There is finally an understanding of the environmental impact of raising livestock for consumption, especially when they are fed on crops that could be fed directly to humans rather more efficiently. There are varying figures depending on species, with cattle requiring the most and chicken the least, but on average it takes 5 kilos of grain to produce 1 kilo of meat. With the global population rising, from just north of seven billion now towards 10 billion or even more by the end of the century, we cannot afford to be stuffing all those crops down the gullets of animals.
And then there’s the carbon footprint. One study by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation attributed 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions to the livestock industry. This figure has been disputed. Simon Fairlie, author of ‘Meat: A Benign Extravagance‘, points out that it attributes literally all deforestation globally to the meat business. And yet significant amounts are down to logging and land development.
He puts the proportion of greenhouse gas emissions at closer to 10%, though he accepts that this is still too much. While some diehard opponents of the meat business argue that all of it is an unnecessary use of land upon which crops could be grown for human consumption, Fairlie notes that ruminants can eat a lot of biomass that cannot be consumed by humans but which would otherwise be wasted, and can be grazed on upland fields which could not be used for crops. Once he does all his sums, Fairlie concludes that our meat consumption needs to fall to about half of what it is now. Which it almost certainly will do anyway, because with growing demand from the emerging middle classes in Asia, global meat prices will rise.
Which means one thing. The future of non-meat cookery is not in the hands of those who have sworn off eating animals altogether. It’s in the hands of those of us who are cutting down. And thank God for that. The abominations that are meat-free sausages and burgers weren’t created by meat eaters, looking for something that wasn’t meat but almost looked like it. They were created by vegetarians who believed this to be the only way to advance their cause, and in any case who don’t especially like the real thing and so don’t really care that it’s horrid. The same people responsible for vegetarian moussakas and cottage pies, dishes which are an apology for themselves.
These are dishes which are trying (and failing) to be good in spite of the fact they don’t include meat. A moussaka requires the slaughter of a lamb to be moussaka. A cottage pie requires ground beef. A sausage exists as a way to use up every inch of the pig, including its intestines. Something formed out of oats and soya and desperation is not a sausage. It’s a lack of imagination on a plate.
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Non-meat cookery needs to be good because of that fact. The best non-meat cookery does not have a meaty twin. It’s not an echo of the real thing, the recipe contrived by substitutions and arch compromise and regret.
It is itself. There is, for example, nothing with a pulse which will improve a perfectly made wild mushroom risotto: rice, wine, stock, mushrooms, cheese and the job is done. The entirely meat-free curries of the subcontinent would not be better if only somebody could be fagged to kill a chicken.
Ambitious restaurants in Britain and elsewhere have, in recent years, started filling their menus with these non-meat-based dishes, and for the most part the movement has been led by meat-eating multi-starred chefs; the likes of Simon Rogan at L’Enclume and Brett Graham at the Ledbury.
The latter has a completely meat-free tasting menu.
“It’s a good thing that it’s meat-eating chefs who have led this rather than the vegetarian hardcore,” Yotam Ottolenghi says. “There’s been a reversal of the ingredient hierarchy and we’ve helped to normalise it.”
A humble vegetable like the cauliflower which spent the entirety of the 1970s in Britain being tortured in boiling water until it had surrendered both its nutritional value and dignity, has become a centrepiece.
At ‘Berber & Q‘, a charcoal grill house in London’s Hackney, it is roasted whole and served with tahini and pomegranate seeds, and holds its own on a menu alongside dishes of slow-roasted beef short rib and lamb shawarma.
At the Palomar, the London outpost of an Israeli restaurant group, it is flamed on the Josper grill with lemon butter, and served with their own labneh – strained yogurt – and toasted almonds. At Ottolenghi’s restaurant Nopi, it comes roasted with saffron, sultanas and crispy capers.
The Middle Eastern influence is obvious, but the movement is far broader than that. Chef Robin Gill spent his early years working for Marco Pierre White, when he was in his multi-Michelin-starred, French classical pomp at the Oak Room restaurant of Le Méridien Hotel on London’s Piccadilly.
“There, it was completely protein-led,” he says. “It was all about foie gras, fillet steak and truffles.”
Gill’s approach was changed by a stint in southern Italy, where the beef was terrible but the vegetables were brilliant. That was followed by time at Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir in Oxfordshire which, for all its commitment to French classicism, has a vast kitchen garden on site.
Later, Gill opened his own restaurant, the Dairy, in south London, followed by the nearby Manor and then Paradise Garage in east London. At all three, the menu walks both sides of the line. Sure, it serves meat. But it’s also about dishes of carrots with roasted barley and sorrel, or salsify with smoked curd and pickled walnuts; it’s about beetroot with fermented apple and pine, or charred leeks with caramelised comte cheese and wild garlic. These are dish descriptions which make their own case.
“My mindset has simply changed,” Gill says. “I don’t feel the need for a lump of beef in the middle of the plate.”
And vegetarian sausages?
“I don’t get them at all. They’re pointless. It’s the kind of stuff that really annoys me. It’s food created by people who can’t cook.”
It’s a rude thing to say. It’s also probably a little unfair. But sod it, I’m not going to argue.
[Extracted from The Ten (Food) Commandments by Jay Rayner (Penguin).]
[Courtesy: The Guardian. Edited for sikhchic.com]
June 20, 2016