Regular readers will know that this year I “went” vegan for Lent. This is not entirely new for me – I tried a vegan challenge 4 years ago and, at the end of it, decided that I didn’t want to “be” a vegan. You can read why here.
Well, it’s now April 24th, over a week past Easter Sunday and everybody I meet asks “So, how’s the vegan thing going?”
Honestly? I woke up on Easter Sunday without craving fish or meat or even cheese – but I did have a little happy spot in my heart when I realised that I could have a proper, uncompromisingly good, cup of coffee. I told the waiter at a local cafe that I hadn’t had a coffee I really enjoyed for 40 days – he took the responsibility very seriously and brought me a lovingly crafted flat white which I enjoyed in the cafe garden in the spring sunshine with a puppy on my knee – I tell you, this is the stuff that adverts are made of.
So what has changed in the last 4 years?
There are more vegans out there now – apparently over half a million in the UK (up from 150,000 ten years ago) – around half of whom are in the 15-35 age group so the numbers are likely to continue to grow. This increase in numbers has had a knock on effect on the availability of vegan food. I live in a largish village in Cornwall- it’s a holiday destination so there are lots of places to eat and vegans can be accommodated in most of them. There are a number of cafés where I can have a choice of plant milks, vegan cakes, brunch or lunch items. Even the more traditional pubs can accommodate vegans if asked to.
If I go a little further into Truro (Cornwall’s only city) or Falmouth the choice is massively increased with shops, cafés and restaurants catering exclusively for vegans or for vegan/vegetarians. I have eaten at a couple of chain restaurants who have specific, if somewhat uninspired, vegan menus (it’s amazing how many variations of falafel and avocado there are!). I have also eaten at a really lovely little vegan restaurant with a small but creative menu and desserts to die for. In general, eating out as a vegan has never been easier.
Even snacking on the go is easier now. Most supermarkets carry a wide range of fruit/cereal bars, the “sandwich” section is likely to have falafel wraps, hummus and crudités, salads full of couscous/pulses/roast vegetables etc. as well as snack packs of olives or bags of vegan “crisps”.
In addition, I had fun discovering “accidentally vegan” foods. Foods which are not aimed at the vegan market but which, never the less, contain no animal products. Just Google “accidentally vegan” and you will find a number of sites which give you permission to eat all sorts of things like crumpets (FTW) or original hobnobs. Even buying vegan wine is easier now as producers/retailers are improving their labelling.
I am still highly disappointed by the number of vegan products (e.g. some dairy-free spreads, peanut butter etc.) that use palm oil as a substitute for animal products. I actually have a bigger problem with the destruction of habitat which is bringing a whole species (orang utans) dangerously close to extinction than I do with eating butter. I think some lobbying is required.
As the number of vegans increases so the image of the hard-core, hippy activist is challenged – vegans come from all walks of life. This weekend I went to a vegan festival at Mount Pleasant Eco Park, just five miles from my home. It is fair to say that there were more Indian print skirts around than you would find in an average Tesco on a Saturday afternoon and (of course) there was a stall issuing leaflets / membership of organisations promoting a vegan lifestyle, but it would be wrong to suggest that this was the whole picture. I spoke to a number of non-vegans who were there because they were curious or just want to eat less meat and I spoke to vegans who I know spend their week days suited and booted in the corporate world. A vegan lifestyle is definitely becoming more mainstream and more accessible.
Of course there are still vegans out there who think that you can bully and shame people into changing their behaviour and I still resist that kind of judgemental activism. I think people should be aware of where their food comes from and I genuinely believe that, for most of us, the truth lies somewhere between the photographs promoting a farming idyll where every lamb is hand reared with love and the bloody, violent photographs of abused animals and overcrowded factory farming. If you eat meat/dairy you have a responsibility to know where it comes from and to choose food from sustainable and responsible sources and this is not too difficult to do.
The vegan festival was also a great opportunity to try some more processed vegan food. I still fundamentally dislike vegan “meats” – if I want to replicate the flavour of chorizo in a recipe I will just add smoked paprika; the texture and flavour does nothing for me. I also tried some vegan “cheeses”; there was a blue cheese which Martin quite liked but which just tasted like mouldy vinegar to me, a slightly rubbery cheddar type cheese which tasted like a very, very mild cheddar – not a bad substitute but I wouldn’t buy mild cheddar either so not for me. I did buy some vegan “feta” which tasted quite nice and had a feta like texture. I used this in a spanakopita recipe (to follow) so you can read more about it there.
Basically, when I can choose from the full range of foods I rarely choose processed products – I just don’t like them much, the same seems to be true of vegan foods. You might feel differently so don’t take my word for it – give them a try.
We also bought some vegan desserts from Wildebeest to take home – we bought 3 between the two of us because we couldn’t decide and they were all delicious. Then we had lunch in the Cantina – a fantastic communal space where we chatted to friends over buddha bowls full of tasty goodness (I need their recipe for tapenade – it was amazing). After lunch we chatted to Joceline from the Little Green Vegan Bakery who had almost sold out – which was good for us as there is only so much sugar you can eat in a day!
All in all it was a great little festival and it was packed 3 deep at every stall so I suspect it will be repeated! If you are curious about a vegan lifestyle then this is the place for you.
So where does that leave me?
Last time I did this I said I would aim for a 70% plant based diet and that I would not appropriate the term vegan because it means so much more than just not-eating-animal-products. For the most part I kept to this; we stopped eating meat at home (unless we had visitors), ate sustainably sourced fish once or twice a week and ate plant based /vegetarian meals in between although, I admit that the amount of dairy has gradually increased over time (cheeese!).
The reason for repeating the challenge was, as I said at the beginning, because I had been feeling a little low; having an energy dip and was lacking in motivation. Last time I did this I found that a plant based diet left me feeling energised and generally happier.
This time I haven’t had such a profound response but I suspect that there are two reasons for this: Firstly, it isn’t such a drastic change in diet this time – I eat less animal products now than I did four years ago anyway. Secondly, my reduced energy is a function of an on-going health problem and 40 days of a vegan diet isn’t going to solve that.
However, the challenge has made me look up and think about what I am eating and in that sense it has been a great success. I have re-engaged with myself and the way I fuel my body, every single thing I have eaten has been planned (even cake) and I have put more effort into being creative and into ensuring I have a reasonable balance of nutrients. I may not have solved my energy issues but I can take credit for not making them any worse.
I am going to push the boundaries and challenge myself to eat an 80% plant based diet from now on. I have increased my food repertoire and have realised that I don’t necessarily have to buy meat just because we have visitors – my daughter and my sister came to stay during Lent and they both enjoyed the vegan food I cooked for them and my sister was very happy to eat out at a vegan restaurant.
My five year old granddaughter is a different issue. I was on grandmother (nonny) duties for a week over the Easter holidays so I spent a lot of time with her (and no time blogging) and I am still working on vegan dishes (beyond beans on toast/peanut butter sandwiches) that she will eat as she is going through a fussy phase about food in general. I confess that eggs and fish fingers made their way into the house that week!
So, here I am, still not a vegan, not even a vegetarian but with a strong focus on doing my bit to prevent the environmental destruction caused by over farming and excessive live-stock production. We don’t all need to be vegan but if we all made an effort to reduce our consumption of animal products the environmental impact would be considerable. I guess you could say at 80% that I am engaging in a pareto principle plant based lifestyle and, do you know what? That’s good enough for me.
I hope it’s good enough for you too.