Does eating veggie food appeal to you?

The Museum Street Cafe specialising in vegetarian and vegan food.

The Museum Street Cafe specialising in vegetarian and vegan food.

Two local foodies share their experiences of being a vegan and (semi) vegetarian and we speak to the team behind a vegetarian cafe in Ipswich

Mark Lucas at the Museum Street Cafe

Mark Lucas at the Museum Street Cafe - Credit: Archant

The Museum Street Cafe specialising in vegetarian and vegan food.

The Museum Street Cafe specialising in vegetarian and vegan food.

Vegetarianism and veganism have always been complex issues and discussions about these lifestyle choices can often result in strongly worded debates, even among friends.

But, whatever your view, the veggie lifestyle – or semi-veggie lifestyle – is one that does seem to be appealing to more and more people.

Concerns about meat quality and animal welfare have come to the forefront in recent years, especially following the wake of the horsemeat scandal in 2013, and it seems these worries have made us look differently at what we’re eating.

Indeed, following the discovery of undeclared horsemeat in some processed beef products many traders revealed a rise in sales in vegetarian food products and butchers across East Anglia reported a growing interest in locally sourced meat bought from independent businesses.

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Today research suggest that meat-free food sales are still on the increase too, with an Eating Better-commissioned survey at the end of last year finding that a quarter of people asked had cut back on the amount of meat they had eaten in the past 12 months.

Of course, concerns about animal welfare and the quality of the meat we’re eating aren’t the only reason to choose vegetarian choices once in a while.

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Vegetarian cooking can be rewarding and satisfying, and a way to experiment with different flavours and cooking techniques.

Hugh Fearnely-Whittingstall’s Veg Every Day cookbook was highly sought after when it was published a few years ago, and was even voted cookbook of the year by the Observer Food Monthly readers. To get this kind of recommendation it can’t have just been read by vegetarians and many heralded the fact that a self-confessed meat and fish lover had attempted to ‘rescue vegetables from vegetarians’.

In our region, we have a number of fantastic restaurants and cafes dedicated to serving vegan and vegetarian-friendly food and the success of these businesses prove it is an ever-growing market.

Museum Street Café in Ipswich is one such eatery.

The café, which was a runner up in the Observer Food Monthly 2013 Awards in the best ethical restaurant category, was set up in 2009 by partners Nell Rose and Mark Lucas.

They produce an interesting and ever-changing menu which focuses solely on vegetarian dishes and it’s an idea that has been well received in the past five years.

“It’s been very successful and very popular indeed,” Mark said.

“In fact, what’s surprising is that we don’t get that many vegetarians – they only make up a small proportion of our customers. We get a lot of people who just want basic home cooked food.

“With the process of food production going the way it is, people are becoming more suspicious about their food,” he added.

“Most people just want to have a meal that they know isn’t full of rubbish.”

Nell heads up the kitchen and she has years of experience in cooking across England and Europe.

“She is fascinated in the process of producing good food under limiting circumstances, so vegetarianism has been really intriguing for her,” Mark said, explaining that she’s interested in creating exciting, fresh and tasty dishes.

“She uses a lot of fresh ingredients and a lot of good ingredients - you really can taste the difference.

“It’s more food without meat than vegetarian food,” he explained.

The menu changes daily and includes options for vegans and those with wheat intolerance too. Options could include the likes of butternut squash, blue cheese, almond and hazelnut tart, green bean and tomato lasagne, polenta with butternut squash and lemony lentils with a blue cheese and walnut sauce, and mushroom and potato curry with rice, yoghurt and home made chutney.

Mark and Nell’s approach to the way they run their business is ethical on a number of different levels.

“One of our things is we don’t want to be throwing food away at the end of the day. It’s not just the vegetarian thing, we are trying to cut down on waste too,” Mark said, explaining that their menu can often change mid-way through service to accommodate the fact that some ingredients may have run out.

“It’s not just a question of interesting food, we also keep the quality up and when possible look for local producers,” he added.

To be recognised in the Observer’s food awards last year was a happy surprise for the team at Museum Street Café, and they’re proud of the reputation they have established in the area.

“We have some people who come in and say it’s the best dish they’ve ever had – but the food is just so simple,” Mark enthused. “To those people who like that sort of food, it’s just up their street.

“We’re very small and very chaotic and it’s alway a bit of a surprise when people comment favourably to that degree,” he said. “It’s really been so rewarding. It’s been a good few years.”

Vegan and proud

My name is Joanna Oldham and I am vegan and proud. I am not a wispy thing, pasty-faced and mal-nourished. I love home cooking and dining out on tasty food.

In the early days when I first became vegetarian, over twenty years ago, eating out was a very uninspired event. The majority of restaurants didn’t cater for veggies and often I would be offered the carnivorous version but without the meat, think of a plate of boiled vegetables and some potatoes. There was a huge lack of understanding about vegetarian food and very little thought was given. Back then, even buying food involved pouring over the labelling of ingredients on products to ensure that they were suitable for vegetarians. Today a much larger proportion of the UK population being vegetarian or wishing to reduce their reliance on animal protein and by-products. This has meant more and more products are suitable for vegetarians and many products have adopted the Vegetarian Society Logo. Today vegetarians in the UK account for approximately *7% to 11% of the UK adult population with approximately 2-3% being vegans.

My partner and I have been vegan for nearly six years. This has meant that we have to check the labelling of manufactured food all over again. When we produce food from scratch, we know exactly what is going into that meal. In addition to removing flesh, fish or foul from our diets, like vegetarians, vegans avoid all animal by-products, such as dairy, eggs, leather etc.

Whilst we are big fans of home cooking, we also enjoy going out for meal. However, there can be pitfalls. The last time I ate meat was unintentional. I was having lunch at a restaurant in Ipswich which I won’t mention. I chose from the menu Veggie Sausage and Mash, however that wasn’t what was brought out to me and after one bite, I made the restaurant very aware I had been served the meaty version. Whilst the waiter was apologetic, that didn’t take away the fact I had eaten meat.

Chinese restaurants bring out prawn crackers as a matter of course when you arrive, which are not vegetarian. Vegetarians don’t eat fish. Some dishes are cooked in fish sauce and some ‘Vegetable’ soups are made using meat stock. Parmesan Cheese is not vegetarian as it contains animal rennet and in addition to avoiding a sprinkling of Parmesan onto a dish, it is also an ingredient of pesto. I am not happy if my ‘Veggie’ burger is cooked on the same grill and turned with the same spatula as a ‘Meaty’ burger. Indian meals are often cooked in Ghee (clarified butter) making them not vegan. If you speak up and plan ahead, such hazards can be side-stepped. Pizza Express are very accommodating and happy to replace regular cheese with the vegan ‘cheese’ substitute we bring from home. Hold the Pesto!

If you’d have asked me six years ago if Ipswich would be able to support its very own Vegetarian cafe, I might have been a bit sceptical however five years on the Museum Street Cafe continues to thrive, despite the worse recession the UK has had in decades. In Suffolk, we are very lucky to have the Museum Street Cafe plus the glorious Red Lion. As a veggie or vegan, it is a pleasure to be spoilt for choice, knowing that the menu will be more than one or two dishes. I am sure that my carnivorous friends might not decide to go back to a restaurant if they were offered such a narrow choice of dishes, which is invariably the case for vegetarians and vegans.

In our parents’ day, eating out was something which they may have done once or twice a year. Today eating out is no longer reserved for special occasions and with vegetarianism and veganism being on the increase, restaurants who continue to offer paltry and uninspired menu choices need to have a broader outlook to what they think veggies would like to eat.

My veggie dilemma

Mother of two and passionate foodie Adrienne Ablitt explains why she can’t give up meat entirely

It’s your average June morning. I wake up in a hotel room next to my pitifully hungover husband (who I married the day before). Feeling human is first on the agenda, sod the joys of matrimony. After wedding cake fails to cut the mustard we settle down to a Jimmy Doherty documentary about pork, eating takeaway pizza laden with pork. And this is when I stopped eating meat... again. I had been vegetarian for a year previously which ended when the foetus I carried craved nothing but chicken. Strangely enough this foetus is now my four year old son who hates meat. Before giving up meat for a second time I played around with a vegetarian timetable; veggie weekdays and meat eating weekends. Guilt free Monday to Friday and beef dripping all over the place in my ‘spare time’. I now eat meat again having witnessed the miracle performed on my Hyperemesis Gravidarum (compliments of foetus number two) by a bacon sandwich. We are yet to discover said foetus’ take on meat as he is just five months old but I can reveal that his slumber is always disturbed by the smell of bacon cooking.

The point I’m making is this: I love meat. I love eating meat and I love cooking meat. Marinate it, sear it, roast it, slow cook it, take a piece out of the fridge and eat it. But I love animals. I struggle to separate animals from human beings. How are we supposed to comprehend an animal’s range of emotions when we are unable to communicate with them? Who’s to say the love an animal feels for its offspring is not as powerful as the love a mother feels for her baby? So how much cruelty are we inflicting upon a cowwho is removed from her calves and then attached to a mechanical milk pump and drained dry everyday for our mass consumption? I express milk. It’s not fun. And here is where my dilemma really begins. If I can’t eat the cow then I really mustn’t milk the cow. And if I can’t milk the cow then I really mustn’t wear a belt or boots, or carry money in a practical and not unsightly compartment. And if I’m doing all this then I really should ensure I’m not washing my face in whale blubber or wearing clothes made in unethical sweatshops because let’s face it human exploitation is as serious an issue as animal exploitation, if not more so. And then there’s planet exploitation! So basicaslly I need to knit my own garments that I’ve woven from the hair off my own head. I can make shoes from recycled plastic, or perhaps fashion some clogs from a fallen branch in my garden.

Joking aside for me the first problem with veganism is, while I have the utmost admiration for those who are able to embrace the lifestyle, I simply don’t enjoy restricting myself. It is not a diet, it is an ever developing way of life, one perhaps I’m too lazy to adhere to. The second problem is I am extremely passionate about cooking. I love planning meals and dinner parties, reading cookery books and googling recipes, but mainly I love cooking. Take out the meat, the dairy, the eggs and you’re left with very little to work with. The results can be delicious, healthy, guilt free and a real test of creativity but it’s just not for me. I will almost definitely dabble in vegetarianism again. I certainly will stick to buying British meat in the meantime, preparing it with thought and care, enjoying every mouthful and not wasting a scrap. But should I go back (and should you be considering turning veggie I say go for it, you won’t regret it) I will remember the following rules of meat loving vegetarianism: Cook from fresh and keep things bright and colourful. Chuck some garlic and chilli in and sprinkle with fresh herbs. Give your taste buds some time to adjust before you throw in the locally sourced cotton towel. You will notice a difference to your health, your waistline and your bank balance.

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