Musings of a Former Vegetarian (without a current label)

 

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I decided, age 11, that I wasn’t eating meat.  Not no more.  Not no how.  My mother was horrified and thought I would die of malnourishment.  To be fair to her, she learned to cook a few staple dishes: her version of a veggie paella (with burnt tomatoes that tasted surprisingly good) and a cheese, potato and onion bake.  We also discovered pasta – a never seen before carb’ in our potato dominated house.

As you will note, I lived!  I soon found out about various aspects of nutrition, which sparked a life-long interest (and various certificates along the way) in diet, food and cooking.  The average supermarket didn’t have ‘veggie options’ in the early 70’s and meat-spurners were forced to buy weird things from wholefood shops that were packed in brown paper bags.  You had to be creative and engaged to survive without turning into a lentil-eating, sandal-wearing hippy.  As an up-coming teen, that was definitely not a cool vibe.  Rose Elliot, and later Sarah Brown, were my lifelines.  I cooked every recipe in those original books, discovering the amazing array of plant based foods, without the need for weird things from hushed wholefood emporiums.

I remained a vegetarian for over 30 years, fairly strictly.  I was never a vegan, I relied on eggs too much, but I’ve since dabbled with vegan cooking and enjoy the challenge from time to time, although not as a permanent lifestyle choice.  Being a vegetarian definitely made me more adventurous than my meat and two-veg mates, though it by no means guarantees a healthy lifestyle.  Over dependence on dairy can be a recipe for weight gain, and eating vegetarian versions of junk food – pizza, chips, convenience foods – will leave you equally lacking in vital nutrients and  as drowning in surplus calories as your carnivorous counterparts.

I didn’t make a conscious decision to stop being a vegetarian. I simply decided to add a little fish protein to my diet at a time when I was unwell and needed to make an extra effort to look after myself.  I’m not saying that you can’t be healthy and look after your nutritional needs on a plant based diet – I did it for over 3 decades.  What I am saying is that for me, eating sustainably sourced fish was something that I incorporated into my diet and found I enjoyed.

When I moved to the Highlands of Scotland I decided to try wild venison.  A healthy and sustainable option for meat protein.  (The deer need to be managed, to some extent, to keep numbers supportable in the environment, and make sure weak herd members don’t starve in harsh winters. ) So, I enjoy some locally caught and butchered wild venison occasionally.  And occasionally is the key word.  My diet is still largely based around vegetables meals, with one fish dish a week and a meat meal very rarely.

There is absolutely no doubt that in the UK we all need to reduce our meat consumption.  The current levels are not sustainable.  There are issues with the conditions of animals reared in other countries. There are issue with transportation of livestock. There is also some question as to the ultimate healthiness of a high meat protein diet. Above all there are environmental issues with excessive meat consumption, where land is given over to growing meat, when it would be better used for growing crops. However, it is also true that there are areas of the UK where crops cannot be grown.  Some areas of the highlands are prime examples.  The land is designated as ‘rough grazing’ and the fact is that you couldn’t grow crops on it if you wanted to.  In this instance, ruminating animals are the best way of turning poor grassland into a viable protein source.  If we all reduce our meat consumption and concentrated on buying better quality grass-fed UK animals, we could do a lot better by our farmers, who often struggle to turn a living, never mind a profit.  Farmers in the highlands, along with crofters, have always struggled with the poor land and the harsh environment, if they were supported with better networks and better prices, we could be self-sufficient in beef and lamb, without the need for imports.

Raising meat well takes time and effort.  The inputs are greater and it costs more, but it is a better option than antibiotic laced, GM fed imports.  I appreciate not everyone can afford the price of an organic chicken or a slow-growing grass-fed piece of beef, but if you only ate it once a month, once every few months, it would make it more likely.

Many people will disagree with my stance, and that’s fine.  I’m not preaching for people to stop being vegetarians, or to become vegetarians.  I’m encouraging you to be conscious about what you’re eating and the implications it has for your health and the health of the planet.

If everyone became vegetarian tomorrow, or next week, it would not save the world!  Many vegetarians eat soya, which has its own set of ethical issues.  The UK would not return to some mythical ‘green and pleasant’ land.  It is more likely to become a barren place of housing estates, out-of-town shopping centres and miles of tarmac.  In the highlands, where some of the grazing animals contribute to environmental schemes, the land would be overrun with non-native species and gorse, the deer would run riot, and new forestry would be under threat.  The natural world has a delicate balance and humanity has intervened for centuries, impacting it for both good and bad.  Without management, many highland species of plant and animal life would not survive.  Already threatened by habitat loss, they would struggle even more with herds of wild deer and sheep rampaging across the countryside.

Eating is both an ethical and political issue these days.  There is much to despise in modern farming, and there is also much to admire: there is good husbandry and bad; people who care about the environment, and people who don’t.  As consumers we need to encourage the good practices by demanding high welfare, slow growing, grass fed, non GM fed animals.  We need to be prepared to eat less meat and pay more for it.  We need to shun cheap imports that out-compete our home-grown meat on price, but not on quality.

So much of my life has been spent as a vegetarian that I still think of myself as such.  Most of my meals continue to be plant based, and when I do eat meat protein, it is always locally sourced, usually from someone I know personally.  We don’t all have the luxury of those choices, but we do all have the responsibility to think about what we eat and where it comes from.  My way of eating doesn’t have a label.  It’s individual, and so will yours be – flexitarian, pescatarian, vegetarian, vegan, carnivore – it doesn’t really matter as long as it’s a thought-out position.  That will mean you’re doing what you can with the resources you have, to eat well – for you and the planet.

 

 

 

 

Food ethics, security and sustainability is a huge topic.  If you want to find out more, the food ethics council is a good place to start:

http://www.foodethicscouncil.org

The Great British Breakfast

wp_20160319_001Or not.  At its best a morning repast in the UK can be something sublime.  At its worse, well, it’s a disgrace quite frankly.  I’ve stayed in B&B’s up and down the UK and generally have some great experiences.  My preference is to stay in a B&B rather than a hotel as you generally get better service, ‘vfm’, and the personal touch that is lacking in many larger establishments.  Travelling in Scotland over the last 30 years I’ve had some fab breakfasts – and some dreadful ones.

Let’s do a bit of myth busting: no 1.  The price you pay is no indication of the quality of the breakfast you will receive.  I’ve stayed in some fairly pricey places and had mediocre meals.  The converse is also true.  No 2. Just because someone is serving ‘local produce’ does not mean that they can cook it!  I’ve had some lovely fresh local food with exceptional provenance which was ruined by careless cooking.  You know the sort of thing – bouncy eggs, burnt sausages, dried out beans.

If you’re paying to stay somewhere overnight and having a breakfast, then the establishment should be judged on the quality of that meal.  It’s 50% of the equation after all, yet standard tourist board ratings take no account of this.  You get points for facilities and matching furniture, but if you serve bouncy battery eggs, it doesn’t seem to have an impact.  The fact that somewhere has a hairdryer and Wi-Fi seems to carry more importance than whether they provide a decent breakfast.  Frankly if I’m staying away from home I’m interested in starting the day off with something I can actually eat.

I’ve stayed in two establishments recently, out of necessity; one was a fabulous house with a large bedroom with a balcony and many luxury features.  The host was friendly and helpful, but none of these things mitigated the fact that she couldn’t cook and was using poor ingredients.  If you’re running a B&B shouldn’t you at least be able to cook an egg?  The bread was a cheap frozen supermarket loss-leader and so dry that I couldn’t eat it.  As a semi-vegetarian I am frequently disappointed with the breakfast offerings at most accommodation and usually rely on an egg or bread to get me through, so when that fails to be edible I do get somewhat antsy.

How hard can it be to provide a creative vegetarian option?  Mushroom pancakes, stuffed mushrooms, cheesy tomatoes, would a daring huevos rancheros be too much to ask?  Clearly it is.  How about a nice loaf of homemade soda bread or some Scotch pancakes?  I could cope with that.  If there is a vegetarian option – and generally there isn’t – it consists of Quorn Sausages or their equivalent.  Now I know I’m fussy.  Some people love these sausage substitutes.  Not me.  I don’t eat sausages or bacon and don’t need something that has the flavour or texture of them on my plate in the morning as it’s likely to make me boke.  Make a Glamorgan sausage and freeze them or I’ll give you the recipe for my chestnut sausages, which cook from frozen.  These options are cheap and easy and there really is no excuse not to do something for those of us who represent between 7 and 10% of the population.

There are glimmers of light.  A recent stay in a small B&B before getting the ferry to the Western Isles delivered up a well-cooked breakfast using local ingredients, including her own hens’ eggs.  OK, there were no veggie options, but the eggs were good and the bread was a nice seedy grainy offering. I’m not asking for the world here, just a bit of thought and a bit of care about what you’re doing.

A friend of mine opened her own B&B earlier this year and has made a point of serving vegetarian and vegan options.  She kindly indulged me by asking for my recipes for various things, and by all accounts the veggie options are proving very popular.  It can be done.  It takes a bit of thought, a bit of effort, but if this is your business, your source of income, wouldn’t you want to do it well?  It can actually be a selling point, especially when there are so few places serving decent vegetarian breakfasts.

The most recent breakfast faux pas was not a B&B but a local establishment specialising in local produce and offering a Sunday breakfast until lunchtime.  My partner and I thought we’d treat ourselves whilst on an errand.  It turned out not to be too much of a treat.  Bacon so hard and melded together it was inedible, over-cooked eggs and microwaved black pudding.  All in all, not a success.  Needless to say we won’t be going back there.

The only experience I’ve had which was worse was in a B&B in the Lakes which offered ‘speciality breakfasts’.  I’m still not sure what the ‘speciality’ was, possibly how terrible the breakfasts were. The breakfast room was locked and guests were only allowed in at the appointed hour.  The ‘speciality’ changed every day.  One the first day it was oatcakes and on the second day it was boiled eggs.  Hard.  Without toast.  There were no options; you got what you were given.  I was so outraged I actually complained to the tourist board.  As the business was being sold on they felt disinclined to do anything.  Maybe the owners were disillusioned with the B&B business.  I was certainly disillusioned with my Cumbrian breakfast.

I’ve not ‘named and shamed’ here, but I confess I am sorely tempted.

I suppose there should be some balance. I’ve had some great breakfast in some great places: a lady in Shetland that makes her own yoghurt and muesli, a couple of guys on Skye who make their own bread and jam, and serve generous well-cooked portions of local salmon, eggs, sausages and bacon.  It can be done.  It should be done.

Breakfast can be a fantastic meal, so here’s a plea to all the B&B owners in the UK to put the ‘Great’ back into the British breakfast.  Please.

 

 

Bracarina House is run by the lovely Heather and Robert Forbes.  They pride themselves on the quality of their home and serve delicious vegan and veggie breakfast.

Vatersay House is run by amazing hosts Brian and Andy.  The breakfasts, which include many homemade elements, are fantastic.