What I learnt from being a vegetarian

First – let me apologise. This post is well overdue but I’ve been taking a break from all things writing-related but fear not, I’m back now. And this is my – yay, I made it three months without eating any meat or fish and I’m very happy about it – post.

I did manage the challenge I set myself, and I’m very grateful to all of you who have read this blog and commented to keep me spurred on to learn as much as I could throughout the three months. Without a doubt my eating habits have changed for good – the way I think about food, flavours, and what constitutes a meal has been radically altered. I feel as if my eyes have been opened, and I have always been a food-lover so I wasn’t expecting such a radical difference. These things are hard to quantify and are very personal, but I certainly won’t be eating meat for lack of imagination or other options again. If anything, I have found a world of new flavours and textures so much more exciting and healthy than good old meat-and-two-veg.

What is quantifiable is how much I have learnt. A great part of that I have been able to document here on the blog, and I’ve received many helpful and encouraging messages. I have seen the many sides and contradictions of the food industry, the very bedrock of society, and I feel far more equipped to make informed decisions in day to day life. I feel more motivated by the need for us all to make these decisions, rather than having the decisions made for us by those who run supermarkets and restaurant chains. There is an increasing risk that younger generations do not feel they have a choice, that they grow up without an understanding of where food comes from, what we need to eat, and what a joy it can be. There is also a serious trend that good food is becoming the preserve of the wealthy, or the better-off, and that despite the best intentions of some celebrity chefs and parts of the food industry that doesn’t looks set to change. The very facts of that division are built of contradictions and misconceptions and, to some degree, marketing strategies and the only way to change it is by making knowledge freely available. The more I have found out, the simpler it seems, and the more unnecessarily complicated I think we make good, fresh, healthy food. I believe in reclaiming land for growing food, in taking control of what we put on our plates and into our mouths, not just because it’s healthier, cheaper and environmentally friendly, but because it reminds us of the value of food and in the process, of the value of everything else. The need to eat is something we share with every other person on the planet – it is our commonest ground.

And as for me and meat? I don’t have plans at the present time to adopt a fully vegetarian lifestyle, but I will be keeping a careful check on my meat consumption and demanding certain standards of the meat I eat, as and when I do. When the end of the three months came I didn’t feel the need to eat meat straight away. Apart from in some restaurants, I never felt short of tasty things to eat. I thought I would find the whole experience harder than I did, and that is the most startling thing; It wasn’t hard. I didn’t miss it. And unless you try it you will never know. So I would encourage all of you who feel strongly about the need to reduce the wastefulness and environmentally damaging practices of the food industry, try going without meat. Even just for a week it will change how you think and cook. The more of us who do it, the less meat we consume, the more people we talk to, the more change we will see.

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National BBQ Week

It’s the UK’s 16th National Barbeque Week starting this week. No, I didn’t know either! And interestingly last week was National Vegetarian Week. I really love a good barbeque; enjoying the sun (mostly), the fresh air, and the unmistakeable smoky taste of flame-grilled food. I have an uncle who loves bbq-ing so much he has been known to bbq in snow boots up to his knees in freezing snow and ice, so it must be in the family. But barbeques are meat things, right? So what business do National BBQ week and National Vegetarian week have in sitting side by side?

I started thinking about this the first time I gave up meet in 2011, and I realised that BBQs can really be bad for our ethical food decisions. It’s a vicious cycle; we want to bbq which means we need to cook meat, usually more than one serving per person, so that means we have to buy a lot of meat, which means we buy cheaper meat, usually compromising on quality and traceability. Hmmmm. Last year we hosted a bbq for about fifteen people cooking a (modest) four chicken thighs and several sausages per person. That’s a lot of meat! So I started thinking about ways to enjoy the bbq taste and experience that don’t involve meat, both to bring vegetarians into the bbq fold and to keep the meat consumption of everyone else reasonable during this special time of the year. If that wasn’t enough of a reason – all that meat day after day isn’t good for your digestion so it’s time to get some veggies involved.

The first thing I learnt was that vegetables love the smoky char grilled, caramelised bbq treatment. It couldn’t be simpler. Peppers, courgettes, aubergines, mushrooms (though I personally detest them I’m told by a reliable source) all taste great just cut up chunky and lobbed onto the grill for a few minutes until they’re starting to blacken. I love asparagus done this way – and on the National BBQ week website is a recipe for grilled asparagus with lime, yum! We’ve discovered that tomatoes are dynamite done on the bbq, cut in half with a drizzle of olive oil and some finely chopped garlic atop (tip: cook them on a makeshift tin-foil tray – a bit of foil torn off and turned up at the sides – to stop the skin splitting if the bbq is hot).

In fact you can cook almost any veg on the bbq in a foil package with a few sprigs of herbs and a dash of oil, and you get a really lovely smoked flavour cooking them this way. Try squash with salt, pepper and rosemary or courgette with lemon and thyme. Don’t forget the joy of vegetable kebabs – sweet peppers, onions, tomatoes, courgettes, aubergine all work fantastic like this, sucking up each others flavours, and this week’s plan is to try vegetable kebabs with fresh salsa verde, but practically any dressings/glazes/dips will be delicious. I’m a particular fan of chilli dressings with char-grilled veg. If you’re after something a bit more substantial a potato wrapped in foil and stuck into the edge of the coals creates a lovely slow-baked potato (par boil if you want it quicker), and lightly grilled bread rubbed with some fresh garlic is always a winner at our bbqs. Of course there’s also the good old veggie burger in its many permutations (see previous post).

You can even turn the bbq to delicious deserts. We all know about the joy of banana and chocolate wrapped in foil and heated on the bbq, but what about strawberry and (vegetarian) marshmallow kebabs? It’s surprisingly good.

The possibilities are endless so get your charcoal out while you can and get experimenting – lets claim the barbeque back from the meat only brigade! Post your favourite veggie barbeque winners below.

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Coffee Climate Crisis

Coffee Beans Drying in Uganda

It is widely acknowledged that the world’s poorest people tend to be the ones suffering the most from climate change. This is due to a number of factors but is in no small part a result of their heavy reliance on farming for their livelihoods. Small scale coffee farmers are a prime example of this – often they are located in the sort of tropical areas suffering great volatility at the hands of climate change, and in addition they rely on fluctuating global markets often weighted in favour of the buyer.

In Peru Cafedirect – who I cited in a previous blog as an example of sustainable, fair and delicious coffee production – have been pioneering a scheme to help coffee farmers adapt. In one particular community the effects of huge changes in rainfall have been exasperated by deforestation, causing losses to crops and consequently falling incomes. The idea promoted by Cafedirect, and documented in a recent report by them, has been to help subsistence farmers in the villages above the coffee farms to re-forest the area (providing seeds, tools, funds etc). This re-forestation can then be certified for emissions trading which is sold on to oversees companies, including Cafedirect themselves. 90% of the income from the Carbon trading goes to villagers to cover the costs of the re-forestation, labour and maintaining the trees, while 10% goes to the coffee-growing collective below to help with adaptation to benefit them all (e.g. irrigation). Take a look at the Coffee Climate Crisis video for more info.

Whilst Carbon Trading must be viewed with some caution (there is a danger of it becoming just another tool for banks to make huge profits at the expense of others, as well as an excuse for global corporations based in polluting nations to avoid real emissions cuts), this seems like a perfect example of a situation where there is benefit all round: re-forestation, improved resilience for coffee growers, a second income stream for subsistence farmers.

Cafedirect’s pledge to buy a significant number of the certifications, coupled with their personal relationship with growers adds a ring of the genuine to this scheme, and whilst it is only a small step it could, as a model, prove to be ground breaking. Carbon trading is full of holes and questionable intentions, but beneath that we can be sure of two things: 1 – rich (polluting) countries should be coughing up the cash one way or another to reduce emissions globally. 2 – rich (polluting) countries have a moral obligation to support those affected by climate change to adapt and survive.

As Cafedirect’s head of impact and sustainability rights in their report ‘if like me one of the highlights of your day is a great cup of coffee, then the challenges of those affected by climate change directly affects you.’ How many of us could truly say we’re exempt from this rallying call? Even if we don’t drink coffee what about tea? Sugar? Chocolate? And lets not forget the challenges facing us to reduce emissions from production in our own countries. We live in a globalised food world – if we want to continue to enjoy the benefits of that, like great tasting coffee, then we need to believe in our power as consumers. One choice at a time. If global coffee sellers won’t put this on their own agendas, we can do it for them. We have seen this with ‘Fairtrade’ and – whilst rhetoric can always be deceiving and the tail can sometimes wag the dog – I see no reason why responsible climate change adaptation and solutions cannot be the next item on the list.

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The Art of the Veggie Burger

In two and a half months as an all out vegetarian I have now sampled a fair array of what might be termed ‘veggie burgers’. The label hides a multitude of variation – some can be outstanding, others inedible.

I am not personally a fan of ‘meat substitutes’ or anything pretending to look, smell or taste like meat so I steer clear of those completely. After that a pattie can contain most anything; nut burgers are common, patties made from beans and pulses, mushrooms, cheese, potato and bread often feature, and an endlessly surprising array of vegetables. I even saw watercress burgers in a shop today. I love how wide ranging the tastes and textures can be, and though there is something extremely satisfying in the component parts of a nice ‘burger’ meal it’s refreshing to have this extra bit of excitement. You never know quite what you’re getting, and some can be disappointing, but on the whole I’m a convert to veggie, environmentally friendly burgers.

So I’m going to treat you to two of my favourite recipes (so far).

 

The first is a recipe given to us by some Canadian friends which has a decidedly north-american feel and is super-easy to whip up. It was a total winner with meat-loving friends and you can adjust the heat up if you like it spicy. It’s the South-of-the-border Burger (pictured above).

 

To serve 6 you will need:

2 cans black beans rinsed and drained

1/2 cup (a handful to the brits) coarsely chopped red onion

1 garlic clove

1/2 cup chunky salsa

1/2 cup corn-chip crumbs

1 tsp hot sauce

2 tbsp fresh parsley, chopped

2 tsb olive oil

Pittas or buns

 

1 – Preheat your barbeque or grill to a medium heat

2 – In a bowl, mash beans with a fork or potato masher leaving some intact

3 – Mix in the rest of the ingredients, except the oil, and shape mixture into 6 patties

4 – Brush the patties with oil and grill for about 4 mins a side, or until you’re happy they are hot through, serve with your favourite toppings.

Voila! It’s simple, filling, protein packed vegan magic!

 

Recipe two needs a bit more time and it does contain cheese so this one isn’t vegan, but it is delicious, healthy and really filling. It’s the Sweet Potato and Halloumi Burger.

 

To serve 4-6 you will need:

450g sweet potato, peeled and cut into chunks

175g broccoli florets

2-3 garlic cloves

1 finely chopped red onion

1 – 2 fresh jalapeno chillies (red or green, to your taste)

175g grated halloumi cheese

2 tbsp wholemeal flour

1.5 tbsp oil

Buns or pittas.

 

1 – Cook the sweet potato for 15-20 mins or until tender. Drain and mash.

2 – Cut the broccoli into small pieces, cook for 3 mins. Drain and plunge into cold water. Add to sweet potato.

3 – Stir in onion, garlic, chilli, cheese and salt and pepper to taste.

4 – Mix well and shape into patties, then coat in the flour.

5 – Cover and leave to chill in the fridge for at least an hour.

6 – Brush the burgers with oil and cook on the barbeque or grill over a medium heat for 5-6 mins each side, then serve.

Delicious! This one is really tasty and it’s worth the little bit of extra time.

 

So there we have it, two brilliant veggie burger recipes. Who says vegetarian has to be boring?

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The Environmental Cost

The other day a follower of my blog asked me to write a post on the environmental arguments for reducing meat consumption. This is something I’ve reffered to a lot in other posts – particularly ‘the human cost’ posts – but I wanted to put together a recap.

Let’s be absolutely clear; the environmental argument is the most pressing and convincing argument for reducing your meat consumption (unless you’re a climate change denier, in which case this post is not going to illuminate things for you).

If we assume it’s a given that climate change is happening, and that it’s accelerating fast as a result of human activity, then agriculture is a massive contributor. Not just meat production but all agriculture, and the food industry as a whole.

Plants and animals need land and water to grow. Animals also need food, generally plants grown for that purpose. Crops are usually grown with fertilisers – which give off greenhouse gasses, and animal manure releases such gasses too. In fact feed crops take the lions share of fertilisers and the Nitrous oxide released by these and animal manure is among the most potent gas causing climate change. It takes around three times more fossil fuels to manufacture a meat-based diet than a vegetable-based diet.

Put simply animals require much more energy input, and in the process emit more gasses, than vegetables to to produce. They require more water and more time, and then energy to slaughter and prepare. They require land to grow food crops which could be used for feeding humans or kept as vital forests.

We need to feed an increasingly large number of people whilst lowering greenhouse gas emissions. The only sustainable way to do these two things is by eating less meat and growing more crops for human consumption. A recent study published in Environmental Research Letters states that fertiliser use needs to be reduced by 50% to prevent further climate change, and that means meat consumption has to drop too. Switching from beef and pork to chicken and fish, which have a lower carbon footprint, can help but is not an overall solution.

It’s not just production we need to think about – it’s also the way food gets to us. I think we need to think long and hard about basing our diet around local products. This will often mean seasonal products, but that’s part of the charm. This is not to say we should eschew all imported goods, of course it’s nice to enjoy a bannana or a mango from time to time and that’s a benefit of living in this time, but we can’t make such things the staple of our diets if we are serious about lowering emissions. If you want to eat meat, eat British meat.

I’m aware this is low on statistics – you can find these easily enough with a google search and I’ve dropped plenty into previous posts too. This is not a statistics post it’s a fact post. Agriculture and the food industry of key to our survival on the planet, it will always use energy, but we can reinvisage how it does so before it’s too late. Like many things, it’s easy to say that nothing we can do will make a difference but I disagree. The simple act of change, of asking for things to be better or different, of showing people how to be different, can and does have power. The more of us that do it, the bigger the difference.

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Getting To Know Your Meat

 

With the two month mark of my meat-free challenge fast approaching (and for the record I’m still going strong, no relapse) I’d like to turn the blog squarely back towards animal products.

This week I’ve spotted the same story across a number of media sources; it is the story of ‘Meine Kleine Farm’ – or My Little Farm in English – the company putting the picture of the pig your pork products are made from onto the packaging.

Sound a bit gruesome? There’s more; Denni Buchmann also uploads photos of the pigs onto the farm’s website and facebook page, along with updates on their well being and activity, so that consumers can vote on which pig they want to be slaughtered next and/or chose which pig’s products to purchase. The initiative is proving popular – products for the next two pigs are already sold out.

Certainly this idea gives consumers that all important ‘knowledge’ factor I find myself writing so often about. All the Meine Kleine pigs come from a free-range farm, where the farmer believes in animal welfare in harmony with nature, and the he’s even said he’d like to encourage people to come down and see the pigs before they buy the products.

Furthermore, I can understand the company’s alleged desire to see people respecting meat more, respecting the animals who have had to die, and thinking before buying any old meat. You’d also hope that such respect would lead to less consumption of better quality meat products. This is definitely an issue in Germany, a country where 5.6 million tone of pork products were manufactured in 2011.

But people have also commented that the idea is gimmicky – making meat-eaters feel better about eating meat rather than facilitating the potentially-vital reduction, or even that it’s a bit disturbing to humanise the animals prior to slaughter (though at least they don’t name them). It could also be argued that this is just another advertising gimmick, playing into our concerns about the food market and the current fashion for ethical produce. It’s hard to see how Meine Kleine would be sustainable or manageable on a larger scale, and therefore how it could serve as a model for the wider industry.

I’m inclined to think, though, that every little helps and to take the idea at face value as an attempt to challenge our assumptions and re-connect us with food production. I don’t think I’d like to know my meat so intimately, but when/if I eat meat again I’d like to know it comes from as engaged and healthy a farm as this one appears to be.

Check out the articles below and let me know what you think!

Telegraph; The Local 

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A Blog About Coffee

I love coffee. I love drinking it, making it, smelling it, learning about it . . .I love everything about it. I’m fascinated by the mystery of coffee, the many different stages of production that go into producing a perfect cup of the good stuff. I was blown away when I encountered fresh coffee beans right off the tree for the first time, and I continue to be amazed by the complexities of blending and roasting, let alone the underrated art of the barista. Coffee really is a drink full of love and I think we all too easily take it for granted in this country now, mixing it willy-nilly into huge, watery or milky tasteless buckets of drink.

OK – rant over. Everyone is entitled to drink their coffee however they like it most. BUT – all these facets of coffee, and the huge market for it these days, combine to make it one of the most mis-understood industries (in my humble opinion and ample experience standing behind the counter of a cafe). It is also a prime location for ethical befuddlement and guilt.

So this really isn’t a blog about just coffee, it’s a blog about ethical labelling and standards.

As good a place to start as any – what is ‘Fairtrade’? According to their website, Fairtrade standards are about ‘better prices, decent working conditions, local sustainability, and fair terms of trade’. The basic idea is that a price is fixed for purchasers based on local consultation as to the appropriate price for meeting these standards in production. Key value is placed on wages and benefits for workers, as well as a sustainable attitude and good local relationships. The price that is set should be a starting point, the minimum acceptable to be paid to the producer and as such is a good thing to know as a consumer, it also stipulates longer-term agreements between producers and purchasers, giving security to small farmers. However, if the market price is higher than the Fairtrade price the market price becomes the minimum.

This is good – in principle. Certainly better than nothing, but there are problems. Firstly, the Fairtrade stamp on a product does not mean the whole product is made with Fairtrade certified ingredients. Moreover, with market prices rising and fluctuating as much as they have recently (due to drought, bad harvest and commodity trading – see my earlier post on this) market prices are rendering Fairtrade difficult to monitor at best, obsolete at worst. Fairtrade agreements also only stipulate benefits for those directly involved in coffee production, not necessarily seeing these filter into the wider community. Furthermore, the certification process can be restrictive, particularly in an industry like coffee where you often find blends of different beans and where there is a market for rare or new flavours and beans.

So Fairtrade is not all-encompassing. What else is out there?

Rainforest Alliance is a popular one for coffee sellers. This is a similar accreditation to Fairtrade but it has a wider focus, with a fairly strict set of ecological and environmental requirements relating to fertilizers and chemicals, water sources and contamination, forestry and wildlife. Like Fairtraide it stipulates sustainable wages, as well as relevant benefits and social standards for workers. Like Fairtrade it is not all encompassing. RA is acreddited through the Sustainable Agriculture Network, and if you look at their website you’ll find there are a number of other similar initiatives, many of them originating in tropical countries where most small farmers are based. Various other organisations including the ILO and the have regulated on these issues, and set up projects or consultations. This is certainly not straightforward, and as a consumer is liable to become even more of a headache in the future.

Finally, it’s important to remember that these certifications are often something of a PR stunt. Consumers want to know they’re getting an ethical product so it suits sellers to give them that, but the Fairtrade or Rainforest Alliance stamp does little to tell us about a companies other business credentials. Take Starbucks for example; they now trump their ‘ethical’ and Fairtrade credentials in the UK, but don’t serve Fairtrade coffee as standard in the US although they do ‘certify’ much of their coffee through another organisation and have contributed to Fairtrade projects. On top of this, despite their publicity of community support and projects, they have been reported to be anti-union across their stores. It’s a bit tricky to know what you’re really getting. Starbucks know that to keep their customers they have to certify their coffee, and they have to talk about it. There are other companies that do this too. There is a small UK company I have worked with called Kingdom Coffee who, as well as selling some Fairtrade and RA certified roasts, have their own ‘ethical’ standard which allows them to buy rarer beans direct from growers in a wide range of countries. They belive this is ‘better’ than Fairtrade, because as well as offering good prices and demanding social responsibility from their producers, they also invest through established charities a portion from every case of beans they sell into community projects in the areas their coffee is grown, such as work with street children. This picks up the deficit of Fairtrade by supporting the whole community which will in turn increase productivity and living standards for all, and they even believe in the importance of their ‘ethical’ standard so much they apply it to Fairtrade beans they purchase on top of the certified requirements, calling it Fairtrade Plus.

There are plenty of other companies working to their own high standards and creating beautifully tasting, responsible coffee. There are plenty serving Fairtrade or RA products but not upholding those ethical values elsewhere; does your milk come from factory farmed cows or the eggs used to make your cake from battery farmed hens (probably not you’re favourite things if you’re already looking for a fairtrade coffee).

As a consumer it’s never easy to know, and to an extent we must all make our decisions in good faith and of course I would encourage you to try new coffees. The key to this is, as it seems with all questions of food ethics, knowledge. This is the way we can manouvre real accountability into the coffee (and tea) marketplace. The best place to be sure of what you’re getting is from a small, artisan coffee shop and – even if the prices can be higher – I assure you you’ll get a much tastier cup of coffee. These are usually the cafes who value their staff most, and try to uphold their ethical values (if they say they have them) across all their products. Either way, there’s no harm in asking or doing a little bit of research but I will say – the Fairtrade symbol isn’t everything. If you’re looking for a coffee to drink at home, whether you use instant, french press or espresso, I’d highly recommend Cafe Direct. Their coffee is delicious (they also do great tea), their credentials are spot on and it won’t cost you the earth – check out the website for more info.

I’ll leave you with this quote from Sheik Abd-al-Kadir (whoever he is)

“No one can understand the truth until he drinks of coffee’s frothy goodness”

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