Archive for May, 2008

Vegetarian: Final Round-up

I’ve written up a roundup of my short-lived stab at vegetarianism over at The Observer’s Word of Mouth blog. It’s actually a pro-vegetarian entry, in the sense that I think they’re often short-changed with regard to the meat alternatives I sampled and the lack of options available at many restaurants, but you’d never know it from the vitriol that rained in. C’est la vie. I do wonder, though, if a column written by a vegetarian bemoaning the same lack of choice would have been received in a similar way. Perhaps the image I used to decorate the piece gave people the wrong idea.

Vegetarian: Day Seven

Breakfast: Neglected, as I sleep in.

Lunch: A very interesting pesto pasty from Deli de Luca, a Norwegian cross between Pret a Manger and a 7-Eleven.

Dinner: The hotel menu doesn’t appear to have any vegetarian options (the £15 salad includes cured sausage), so I nip across the road for a falafel kebab. It’s not bad, although anything in pita bread is difficult enough to eat as it is, so why you’d want to add sweetcorn into the equation is beyond me.

One of the things I don’t like about some vegetarians is the continual bleating about the lack of choice for vegetarians on restaurant menus. You know what? I really don’t care:

a) You’ve made your choice. Presumably you factored in this kind of ‘hardship’ when you made that decision. Now live with it. Don’t bitch about a situation you knew you were getting yourself into.

b) Eat somewhere else. I just did. It wasn’t difficult.

I’m writing this on the morning after Day Seven. I’ve just been down for breakfast. In true Norwegian style, it came with meat. Lots of it. Sausages, bacon, various hams and salamis. None of it was particularly good quality, but I piled my plate high and ploughed through the lot. It wasn’t the best thing I’ve eaten in a while (Thursday’s couscous gets that honour), but it wasn’t bad, and some time in the next couple of days I’ll eat something that’ll top anything I’ve enjoyed during World Vegetarian Week. It may well be fatty. It might contain blood. It might quite possibly be to the detriment of my long-term health. I may feel the veins around my heart tighten or swell as I eat. And yet, it will be quite delicious in a way that nothing I’ve had over the last few days has been.

It’ll be made of meat, and I will love it.

Vegetarian: Day Six

144 hours, and my pee goes orange.

Breakfast: Cheese & pickle sandwich, chocolate croissant and mango smoothie from Pret a Manger, Stansted Airport.

Lunch: Not wishing to pay about nine million pounds for a cardboard sandwich that looks like the remnants of an ill-judged autopsy, I decline the cuisine on offer from Ryanair and settle for a late snack at my hotel – the apple that’s been left on my pillow, and a bar of Kvikk Lunsj, the Norse Kit Kat.

Dinner: Pizza. My friend Anja, who I’ve known for close to a decade but only just met, takes me to a pizza joint. My pizza features many aubergines, and lots of olives. I like pizza. After dinner it’s off to a cheap (by Oslo standards – the booze is only £4 a pint) bar on Grønland for multiple lagers, where the jukebox alternates between Metallica, Pink Floyd, and Norway’s infamous Eurovision ‘nul points’ entry from Jahn Teigen, and the drinkers sing along to each with equal gusto.

Then it’s quick midnight whizz round the new Opera House, which may well be the most beautiful modern building I’ve ever had the privilege of walking onto the roof of, before retiring for the night.

And when I wake up, my pee is a vivid orange. I blame the aubergines.

Vegetarian: Day Five

120 hours: not dead yet!

Breakfast: Cherry danish

Lunch: Toasted mini-pita breads with houmus. That’s what vegetarians eat, isn’t it? Or is it students? I can never remember…

Dinner: A suggestion from Mike – Couscous with dried apricots and butternut squash, taken from the pages of the Ottolenghi cookbook. Best thing I’ve eaten all week. Thank’s Mike. And thanks Mr Ottolenghi.

I know they obviously mean well, but I’ve been getting lots of suggestions for recipes from vegetarians, almost as if removing meat from my menu has automatically reduced my cooking skills to those of a porpoise. You don’t have to! I can still cook! And I have lots of recipe books! There’s really no need!

Tomorrow, I test what it’s like to be a vegetarian abroad, as I travel to Norway, land of Gravlax and Smalahove. So if you’re in Oslo, I’ll be the one eating lingonberries and looking forlorn.

Vegetarian: Day Four

96 Hours, and it’s whole lot better.

Breakfast: Apricot Danish

Lunch: A lovely Indian meal at Roburoo. Not sure quite what is was (I had a platter of various vegetable dishes not listed on the evening menu), but no complaints, and reaonable value for money at a single crisp fiver.

Dinner: A delightful plate of freshly-made potato gnocchi at the brilliant Pane Vino In Kentish Town. My enjoyment of this luscious vegetable bounty was tempered slightly when I went to collect my dining companion to discover his wife wolfing down a delicious plate of blood-rare beef, but hey, these are the temptations us vegetarians face every single day. It’s never easy, I can tell you.

Here’s a question: If I go to the Quality Chop House in Farringdon, there are vegetarian options on the menu. When I eat at the Hawksmoor Steak House, I can dig into a Leek and Endive Gratin. Even at the temple of meat, St Johns, the Stinking Bishop & Potatoes will do the job if I’m crazy enough not to order the roast bone marrow. Why is it, then, that vegetarian restaurants NEVER offer a meat option?

P.S. This isn’t really a serious question.

Vegetarian: Day Three

72 hours, and I’m beginning to struggle.

Breakfast: Fake Bacon Sandwich: There’s nothing better than the taste of bacon in the morning unless, of course, it’s manufactured by our old friends at Redwood Foods. Having sampled a few different items in their ‘cheatin’ range, Im beginning to wonder what the point is. These rashers look like they’ve been moulded out of play dough, even down to the fake fat, and they taste dreadful, like some kind of vaguely savoury, slightly salty crepe paper. I’m not going to dispute for second that vegetarian cuisine isn’t capable of throwing up wondrous combinations of texture and flavour, but why anyone would want to include this godsforsaken alternative is genuinely beyond me. If you’re vegetarian and care for a moment about the pleasure food can provide, why would you settle for a seriously flawed, faux-version of a food you’ve already decided to give up, when there’s so much else on offer? Worst of all, it keeps repeating on me, even after lunch.

Lunch: Fake ham sandwich: My final attempt at fake meat is another failure. Redwoods are responsible again, this time for some forlorn circles of water and wheat protein masquerading as ham but performing like a tasteless, stale approximation of cheap spam. I manage three mouthfulls before gagging and tossing the whole sorry mess in the bin, then made my way to Pret to pick up an egg and cress sandwich and a slice a banana cake. Never again.

Dinner: Met up with my good friend Amardeep to get to grips with the raw food movement, courtesy of the good folks at Saf, London’s premier ‘botanical fine-dining restaurant’.

It’s an interesting experience. The waiting staff are wonderful: very friendly, attentive without being overbearing, and happy to explain how everything works. In a nutshell, the idea is that food should be plant-derived, uncooked and unprocessed. We’re told that the food remains uncooked because at temperatures of 48°c and above the beneficial enzymes naturally present begin to break down, and the nutritional value and flavour of the food decreases. Now I’m no scientist, but this does sound reasonable, and while there’s plenty of ciritcism of the concept, it does make for an adventurous meal.

My starter is ‘caviar’, a cheerful combination of chive pearls, sweet potato latkes, apples and sour cream that somehow manages to taste like none of its ingredients. It’s nice enough, though, and beautifully presented. The main course is a ‘lasagne’ made of courgette bolognese, sage pesto, olive relish, pine nut parmesan and pepper coulis. It’s very tasty, and Amardeep’s croquette of truffle alfredo, wild mushroom and rosemary even better. Things are rounded off with a truly delicious ganache tart with drunken cherry sorbet, berry compote and balsamic cocoa.

By the end, I’m not really sure what I make of it all. The food looks lovely, but there’s nothing on the savoury side of the menu that makes your tastebuds tingle with joy or your stomach demand seconds. Many would argue the latter is a boon, and I’m willing to be convinced that occasional forays into raw food cuisine are not necessarily a bad thing, but once again the idea of food being something to take serious pleasure from seems to have been neglected. There’s nothing here to salivate over – where’s the tingle of anticipation? The bliss? The thrill? The smell? Despite the presentation, the food still feels no more than functional. Instead, you leave the restaurant unsatisfied, and (at least in my case) keen to wrap your gob round something more substantial. Like a kebab.

Suffice to say, I resist.

Until tomorrow, here’s some alternative wisdom from the great Jeffrey Steingarten:

Vegetarian: Day Two

48 hours, and I still haven’t snapped.

Breakfast: Cinamon Danish.

Lunch: I had to ask someone where the nearest health food shop was. Weirdly, this was not a comfortable thing to do – I felt like I had to lower my voice to a conspiratorial level, as if I were asking for directions to the local STD clinic. Later on, when I owned up to why I’d needed the information, my colleague looked relieved, and told me she’d immediately been worried about me… which is a bit weird. Why, if someone wants something from a health food store, do we tend to assume it’s because they’re unhealthy? Surely it should be the other way round? What does this say about those who frequent these stores? Or does it say more about those who don’t? Buggered if I know.

Anyway, I stocked up on products from the Redwood range of fake meat, and swiftly wolfed down a box of Vegi-Deli Cheatin’ Chicken Style Pieces. Remarkably enough, the pieces tasted almost exactly, spookily, like the real thing. I say almost because they weren’t quite right in two ways: they didn’t have the succulance of a lovely bit of thigh cooked to perfection and dripping with herb butter, and secondly, it’s odd producing a product that impersonates the type of chicken at the end of the market that no right-thinking meat eater would ever go near: the nugget. It’s probably too much to ask for immaculate lumps of water, wheat gluten, sunflower oil & vegetable fat, soya protein, potato starch, flavourings, yeast extract, salt, sugar, thickener (carrageenan and onion powder), fermented rice & spice extracts to be shaped into perfect breasts, but still, if people are looking for an alternative to the real thing, I’m not sure if a visual copy of something many people associate with reclaimed meat and cheap southern-style chicken joints is the way forward. And yes, the biggest single ingredient really is water.

Dinner: I used to go out with a vegetarian. She cooked a lot of Linda McCartney dishes (I would link to the UK website, but it’s one of those pointless affairs that re-sizes your browser), and I developed a bit of a taste for the bangers: not because they were just like real thing – they weren’t – but because they had a nice, spicy taste and texture of their own. The Redwood Lincolnshire Style Sausages are similar; a bit dry, and nice enough, but completely without the fat that provides the the richness and subtle beauty of the real thing. I guess this is fair enough, what with the dish coming from a health food shop, but it does provide ammunition for the theory that these alternatives are more about function and less about pleasure. I also wonder about the name: can you really call a sausage ‘Lincolnsire-style’, when the two main identifying features of the original are that a) they’re made in Lincolnshire (the Redwood sausages are made in Northants, as far as I can tell), and b) they’re made of meat (these, obviously, aren’t). How, exactly, are they ‘Lincolnshire-style’?

Still, at least I was able to build a Beano-style plate full of bangers. Nice.

Vegetarian: Day One

I have a sneaking admiration for vegetarians because, unlike a lot of meat eaters, they’ve actually thought in detail about where meat comes from: how it’s reared, how it’s slaughtered, how it reaches the table. The squeamish reaction to Jamie Oliver’s ‘this-is-how-chickens-are-killed’ TV spots seems to confirm this, with hardened carnivores shrieking in horror while the grim reality of the battery farm is unveiled in front of them. Vegetarians, I imagine, have always been far more willing to confront the ugly brutality of intensive farming, and have made a life-style choice based on this, a decision that affects them every day, that limits the choice of food they can eat in restaurants, and makes them the butt of endless jokes from avowed meatheads like me who consider most of them to be pale-skinned, anaemic weaklings. This is to be admired. It can’t be easy.

So I’m going to join in. For a week, I’m not going to touch flesh. World Vegetarian Week starts tomorrow, and I’m going to join the mung-bean brigade. It’ll be tough – I eat meat with every meal. My fridge contains a huge vat of foie gras. There’s more in the larder. My freezer is brimful of beef, pigeon, duck and deer. Meat? It’s what I do best.

The nice lady at Peta pointed me in the right direction, offering to organise free samples from people like Redwood and Fry’s, purveyors of quality vegetarian gear, but I’m going to stick to my usual routine, shopping in the places I already frequent and seeing if life becomes more difficult.

The evidence, thus far, suggests that it will. Yesterday, on a trip to Waitrose to pick up some peppers, the store was evacuated after a fire alarm went off. This kind of thing never never happened to me as a meat eater, and I almost took it as a sign and gave up on the spot. But when the store re-opened, I accidentally stood on the foot of celebrity Sikh Hardeep Singh Kohli while attempting to retrieve some chives, and while Kohli’s religion doesn’t preclude him from eating meat, it did make me think that, like most holy men, he probably thinks very deeply about the killing of animals, and that I should at least finish the experiment.

Breakfast: scrambled eggs on toast

Lunch: I was at Lords for the test, and while I’d taken some home-made pear and cranberry upside-down cake to thwart the inevitable pangs of hunger, I did have to buy a vegetarian option for lunch. I eventually settled on a Mushroom and Asparagus Pie from the good folks at Pie Minister, whose delicious meat products I’m very familiar with. The pie I ended up with, however, was a disgrace, £4.90 for a pastry case concealing what looked like a fistful of Glastonbury mud and didn’t taste much better; a miserable, gritty gloop.

Dinner: Homemade roasted peppers with penne pasta and sage. Delicious.


This is the advertising board next to the Thai Noodle stall round the corner from where I work.

Whatever next? Sweet & sour Goebbels?

Photo Bonanza

In lieu of writing an incredibly witty entry, I’ve uploaded some photos to Flickr. First up are a few snaps from last year’s trip to Berlin, most of which provide a snapshot of life at the Stasi Museum and the Hohenschönhausen Memorial, better known as the Stasi Prison. My whistlestop tour of European misery continued at Auschwitz, before I jetted off to Beograd in Serbia, where I spent a few lazy hours before heading south to the music festival at Guca for a long weekend of binge-drinking, Macedonian choirs, boa constrictors, entire cows on spits, and red-hot gypsy brass.