Why your dinner does not always need to have had a pulse.
Extracted from the Ten Food Commandments, Published by Penguin Books, 2016.
- Thou shalt not sneer at meat-free cookery
A week day lunchtime and I am standing by my stove again 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. It was a long time ago, but I did it. I have ordered wings from the very cheapest fried-rat inner city chicken shop and scarfed confectionery that has first been battered and deep fried in a Glasgow chip shop. I have eaten a pizza with 12 mini-cheeseburgers around the crust, at Pizza Hut. All of these things are shameful, but they have a redeeming feature which is that they are in keeping with my flawed character. 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 go to the very darkest of places. I 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. I let it simmer. I treat it as I would any tomato sauce that is going to a good home, even though I suspect this one isn’t. I blitz it, season again, and then cook it out until it starts to separate slightly. In another pan I fry off some cubes of Quorn™ Meat Free Chicken Pieces. The pedant in me fumes quietly at the lack of inverted commas around the reference to chicken, the exclusion of which I regard as bad manners. It is chicken in the same way as I am George Clooney. But no matter. Their product; their rules. I do as I’m told and 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 doesn’t. It is just slightly crunchy over-used mattress filling. It really does need that sauce.
So I give it sauce, a big dollop of the stuff. The remaining sauce in the other pan receives a couple of handfuls of the mince. Or ‘mince’. I turn down the heat to a simmer, and wander off to play the piano, hoping a couple of choruses of something cheerful like ‘Moanin’ or ‘Mean to me’ will soothe the disquiet.
Eventually, despite my willing it otherwise, the cooking is done. The food must be tasted. I stand by the stove and fork them both away, regarding neither as worth dirtying a plate for. 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 describe it as a culinary nightmare of which Freddie Krueger would be proud. 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, or have hot wax painted onto my genitals. 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. No, eating them isn’t a demonstration of the gag-reflex. I’m not scanning the room desperately, looking for someone who might be willing to hold back my hair should the need arise. I am just depressed. 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 you might, if the wind were blowing in the right direction, and your hormone levels were set to optimum, recognise a similarity to meat.
But why bother? Really. Why choose to eat something like this? If you don’t want to eat meat why bother trying to eat something which is a sad, inoffensive, bland approximation of a shadow of meat’s distant relative? Why go to all that trouble? 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, a paddle pressed to each side of the skull, followed by a blade to the throat. I have seen the speed at which the blood bursts from a body, hinged between life and death, and learnt that species changes everything. The death of a beef animal, hung 12 feet from the ceiling by a chain around its leg, is more striking than the death of a sheep, which hangs low and face to face with the slaughter man behind his spattered visor.
Dying pigs do squeal.
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. I never have had. 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.
While I believe this, I also wondered if it wasn’t a bit glib. It’s all well and good to structure a nice argument. But what if you actually had to watch animals die? What then? Would that change things? I wanted to test my 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 licences and permissions to do so is, rightly, complicated. There are many jobs in an abattoir; actually slaughtering animals stands right at the top of the hierarchy in terms of status and respect. It was not something I could get to do. 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. And I do think that sort of experience would be hugely beneficial to the conversation we need to keep having about what and how we eat now. Perhaps you could only acquire a carnivore’s license 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 there 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 to be vegan. Foraged leaves, nuts and berries took too much energy to digest for the brain of pre-historic 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. In his book The Diet Myth Tim Spector, Professor of Epidemiology at King’s College London, notes that non-meat eaters can be afflicted by a Vitamin B12 deficiency, which has many impacts including possible neurological dysfunction. During his own personal experiments with veganism Spector became deficient in B12. He tried taking supplements but that didn’t improve his levels so he resorted to intra-muscular injections in his bottom. He eventually concluded it was too radical an approach. ‘This is daft,’ he wrote. ‘I am trying to be fit and healthy yet having injections every month feels neither healthy nor particularly natural.’ He solved the problem by eating steak once or twice a month. His vitamin levels returned to normal. This story will not be appreciated by the vegan community.
Whatever the arguments over whether modern man actually needs meat, eating it certainly remains an ingrained part of the human culture. In his 1992 book Meat: A Natural Symbol, the academic Nick Fiddes quotes anthropological studies of various primitive tribes which found they used different language to describe being hungry for meat as distinct from being simply hungry. Elsewhere he talks about how, in Uganda, a man would trade a volume of plantain that would feed his family for four days, for a scrawny chicken that, by comparison, had very little calorific value. The chicken might be less nutritious but it was still highly prized for what it represented.
Fiddes, ever the structuralist, concludes that eating meat ‘tangibly represents human control of the natural world. Consuming the muscle flesh of other highly evolved animals is a potent statement of our supreme power.’ As he says elsewhere, ‘Taste is not an absolute. It is something we develop while growing up within a culture which has its own general preferences.’ We all know the latter to be true. Some of us like spicy food and some do not. Some of us like oysters slurped raw off the half shell and some do not. So no, meat eating, however efficient a supply of protein it might be for us, may not be an imperative. It is a deep seated cultural choice, which says a lot about our position of power in the world. Certainly 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). In China the emergence of the middle classes can be measured in meat consumption, from 10kg per person per year in 1975 to 45kg by 2012, with a forecast of 69kg by 2030 (as meat consumption in the US and UK slips down from a peak of around 80kg per year.)
Meat has long been a symbol of power. In William Hogarth’s 1748 painting, originally entitled The Gates of Calais, a huge piece of beef is shown being transported to an English tavern, while undernourished French soldiers look on. The painting, now held by the Tate Gallery in London, became known as O’ The Roast Beef of Old England and took on the role of blunt piece of propaganda, the power of the English represented by their hearty diet of dead cow.
Eventually of course the French caught up and, through the books and teachings of chef Antonin Carême in the 18th Century and Auguste Escoffier in the 19th, created a culinary repertoire that put meat front and centre, literally. Any chef going through a French classical training has long been taught to start with a lump of animal protein in the centre of the plate and build out from there. In the late ‘90s the Israeli-born chef, restaurateur and writer Yotam Ottolenghi arrived in London, and signed up for a six month course at the Cordon Bleu cookery school. ‘It was always about the meat,’ he says now. ‘Everything else on the plate was in service of the meat or fish. I have never cooked as much meat as I did during those six months.’
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 beef requiring the most and chicken the least, but on average it takes five kilos of grain to produce one kilo of meat. With the global population rising from just north of seven billion now, towards ten 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 the UNFAO figure 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 (and will always 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 bio mass 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 meat prices are going to continue rising alongside demand from the emerging middle classes in Asia. There is a limit to production, not just in terms of desirability, but also in practicality.
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. Or the Reductarians, as some have called themselves and I never will, because it’s the sort of contrived word which makes me want to punch walls. It also smacks of doctrine and manifesto, a defining feature of the radical meat-free lobby. Suggesting people might like to try cutting down is a different, much gentler approach. It is about good taste and good sense rather than cant.
The abomination that is meat-free sausages and burgers wasn’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 who, in any case, don’t especially like the real thing and so don’t really care that it’s horrid. They are 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.
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 Gujarat would not be better if only somebody could be fagged to kill a chicken. A tabbouleh, full of the vigour of flat leaf parsley, lemon juice and cracked wheat isn’t begging to be augmented by the addition of roast pork.
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 centre piece. 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 or lamb shawarma. At 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 – fresh cheese – 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.’ It was the kind of kitchen where they would roast whole chickens, solely to make jus, and then throw the meat away. Gill’s approach was changed by a stint in southern Italy, where he says the beef was terrible but the vegetables brilliant. That was followed by time at Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons 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 Comté 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.
Pot Roasted Cauliflower
Serves 2 as a main course, or more as a side dish
Yet another dish elevating the once humble cauliflower. A version of this was shown to me by Rene Redzepi, chef of Noma in Copenhagen, acclaimed for its highly regional Nordic agenda, the menu of which features many non-meat dishes. His version used yoghurt whey for the acidity of the dressing, but that’s not something a lot of us have to hand. This version is simpler and produces more caramelisation.
A whole head of cauliflower
25g unsalted butter
1tbspn white wine vinegar
A sprig of fresh rosemary or, failing that that, a 1tspn dried herbs
- Remove the leaves from the cauliflower, then slice across the bottom to produce a flat base. Now slice it in half vertically.
- Melt the butter in a solid cooking pot with a lid, big enough to take the whole cauliflower. When it’s melted, put the cauliflower flat bottom down on to the bubbling butter. Put the sprig of rosemary on the top or, if you using dried herbs, sprinkle around the base.
- Put the lid on, turn the heat to medium and leave for 20 minutes.
- After 20 minutes, the base should be nicely caramelised. Now turn the cauliflower so the flat sides where you cut it in half vertically can also cook. Put the lid back on and cook for another 15 minutes.
- Remove the cauliflower to a warmed serving bowl, caramelised sides up. Mix the vinegar with the water. Take the pan off the heat and deglaze it with the water-vinegar mixture, scraping at the crusty bits with a wooden spoon.
- Pour the liquor over the cauliflower and season with sea salt.
There are indeed lots of modernist ways to cook with vegetables and lots of exotic influences to be brought to the table. But there is always a place for a simple but graceful old stager like this. The key to this is to make sure the leeks have drained completely.
Serves 4 as a starter, or 2 as a Sunday night supper
Three medium sized leeks
200ml vinaigrette (according to instructions, on egg and anchovy recipe at end of commandment one, page x)
One egg, hard boiled
4tbspns of chopped capers and cornichon for garnish, if using.
- Wash the leeks. Trim off the bulb bottoms and the green tops. Reserve for soup because you’re a good person who doesn’t shamelessly waste stuff like that. Slice into three equal lengths. (Note: a lot of recipes suggest keeping the leeks in one piece by slicing down to within a couple of couple of inches of the base. My method is more fiddly because you end up trying to keep the pieces of leek together, but it does end up being less waterlogged and easier to eat.)
- Simmer in boiling water until soft to the tip of a knife, around 10 minutes. Drain and leave to cool.
- Boil an egg to set but not completely hard. (Personally I find bringing to the boil in cold water, and then boiling for three minutes does it). Let egg cool.
- When they’ve cooled enough to handle, carefully slice each piece of leek in half. Put a couple of layers of kitchen paper on a plate and, taking care to keep each piece of leek together, lay them out, cut side down, on the paper to continue draining for another half an hour.
- To serve: still taking care to keep them together, place the leeks in a single layer, cut side down, in a serving dish. Dress with the vinaigrette. Finally, roughly crush the egg with a fork, mixing the crumbled yolk into the white. Sprinkle across the top. Season with a sea salt and ground black pepper.
- Sprinkle with the chopped capers and cornichons, if using.
From the Ten Food Commandments published by Penguin Books, 2016.
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