My Week As A Vegan

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Issue 309
July/August 2018
The Food Issue

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My Week As A Vegan
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Cover: Photograph by Leela Cyd www.leelacyd.com

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Thousands have signed up to the Vegan Society’s Plate up for the Planet campaign, in a move publically supported by leading environmentalists. But how easy was it for one vegetarian to adopt a vegan diet? Food writer Clare Finney tried it for a week. Here’s her personal reaction.

I can remember vividly the precise moment I became vegetarian. I was 12 years old, on holiday, and the hotel had two options: roast lamb, or vegetable lasagne. Having renounced the first a few months previously on the grounds that one could not eat a baby animal – yes, it took 12 years for me to join the dots between those cute bundles of fluff and a cutlet – I realised there was nothing for it but it to accept a slab of pasta drenched in tomato and filled with sad-looking courgettes.

I took a mouthful. “This… this isn’t too bad,” I exclaimed, surprised – and with a child’s logic, concluded that if I could stomach vegetarian lasagne I could be vegetarian. I could, after months of agonising about cows and chickens, absolve my guilt and – perhaps more importantly – cast self-righteous, disapproving glances at meat-eating mortals like my family.

I’ve not looked back – or at least, I hadn’t until Resurgence & Ecologist commissioned this article.

It started off happily enough: a scorching hot day removed my hourly tea cravings and coincided delightfully with my discovery of Booja-Booja ice cream. Made with cashew nuts, sweetened with agave and flavoured with vanilla, it was almost ludicrously delicious – and I say that as a dedicated ice cream face. Dinner was easy: salad of avocado, spinach and roast sweet potato with a black olive and walnut relish, copied and pasted from a Diana Henry recipe. She adds goat’s cheese. I would have liked to, but I didn’t miss it too much, discovering like many a vegan before me that avocados offer a creamy, dense richness that, while it can never replace cheese, consoles you in much the same way as a dog does when your partner is away.

The next day proved more of a struggle. Damp, chilly and Monday-esque, it clamoured desperately for pasta – and at first I saw no reason why I couldn’t answer it. I had egg-free dried pasta at home, and a recipe that, far from relying on cheese, actively repels it.

“Ottolenghi. Saffron. Tagliatelle,” I chanted under my breath, under my umbrella, trudging wearily home. Only upon opening the book did I remember the sauce’s base ingredient. Butter. I turned to other books and then, in desperation, to the internet. Yet finding an appealing pasta recipe that relies on neither cream, butter, cheese, crème fraîche, egg nor meat is not remotely easy.

I stress the word ‘appealing’ here because what strikes me so repeatedly over the course of the week is just how much of a compromise vegan dishes seem to be. Not all of them: there are plenty of South East Asian dishes you don’t even register as vegan, they are so fulfilling – but certainly those that have been created with a view to being a vegan, or are rendered vegan by taking something away. Coconut milk yoghurt, olive oil spread and cashew nut cream are all edible, but even at their best (and thus expensive) they are pale imitations – and that’s before I even get started on alternative milks, or mylks as they’re sometimes named.

For my coffee, it has to be oat milk – specifically, Oatly Barista. It’s slightly sweet, it’s creamy, and it doesn’t have a messy break-up the moment it meets your coffee. More surprisingly still, when I ask for a cappuccino with it, it actually comes with foam. Don’t get me wrong: it’s still inferior to cows’ milk to my vegetarian point of view, but I’m conscious that’s what I’m used to. I could get used to oat milk. What I feel I could not and will never tolerate, for as long as I and a cow live, is an alternative milk in my tea.

“I just don’t drink it any more,” says my newly vegan friend sadly, when I ring him up in despair over the most disappointing cuppa in my entire life, plane journeys included. “I’d rather remember it as it is,” he continues. So much of this experience feels – well, a bit tragic. The flaccid packs of cheeze or chease; vegan friends waxing lyrical about Whole Foods’ smoked ‘gouda’ slices because they “really aren’t too bad!”; the paucity of choice eating out. From the point of view of choice, being vegetarian is bad enough: you’re whittled down to two dishes at most, and that’s in progressive restaurants. If you’re vegan, you’re lucky to even have one.

And if like me you live in London, you are lucky. The highlight of my week was undoubtedly the Spread Eagle in Homerton, East London: a vegan pub, with food by Club Mexicana. Memorably, the restaurant critic Grace Dent described it as “so much fun, I don’t think Morrissey would drink here,” and I entirely agree. The music is fun. The staff are friendly. The decor is colourful and luxurious and the menu is delectable. At one point, I have to be reminded it’s vegan, and that I can actually order the ‘pork’ tacos, ‘chicken’ wings and everything else on the menu. “I’m having so much fun!” I exclaim – and then I remember my black tea in the morning, and the fact that, while the Spread Eagle is indeed proof that vegan food can be ‘fun’, breaded and deep-fried is breaded and deep-fried, whatever your culinary orientation. One of the claims made by some evangelical vegans is that their diet is de facto healthier, an assertion immediately and deliciously countered by the Spread Eagle’s Mexican deep-fried ‘ice cream’.

But then I was always going to be biased. I’m a food writer who pens a regular cheese column, visits idyllic farms that have been in the same family for centuries, and has the means to buy their high-quality, ethically sound (from my vegetarian standpoint) milk. The vast majority of lifestyle choices in today’s world carry environmental consequences, and veganism is, I’d say, no more de facto environmentally friendly than it is de facto healthy. Take the cases of almond milk, for example – consider the huge amount of water necessary to grow almonds, and the current drought in California, the world’s biggest producer. Then there’s the quantity of unrecyclable plastic packaging involved in cheese alternatives and of course tofu: I interviewed a producer last year. You can’t use anything else at the moment, he explained, though they were looking. Dairy cheese comes in plastic in the supermarket, of course, but cheesemongers and farmers’ markets wrap cut hunks in greaseproof paper, and rind is its own packaging when the whole cheese is on display.

These are not problems particular to veganism, of course. Nor are they reasons not to be vegan. If my week has shown me anything it is that for every militant Morrissey vegan, there are the laid-back chaps at the Spread Eagle; that for every flubbery, plastic-wrapped, plastic-tasting scheeze, there are vegan meals like those dreamed up by Meera Sodha, whose Guardian vegan recipes series was my lifeline for the week, or by Chantelle Nicholson in her new book Planted: A Chef’s Show-stopping Vegan Recipes. The theories behind veganism have yet to convince me, but the practice did prove that within its right constraints there can be extraordinary creativity.

Clare Finney is a freelance food writer, writing in a personal capacity. For more information on veganism, see www.vegansociety.com

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