Stephen Jardine: A taste of toleration flavours my meat-free week

A vegetarian diet is easier to pursue at home than elsewhere, finds Stephen Jardine
The fruit & veg counter was Stephen Jardine's first port of call at the local supermarket as he started 'meat-free May'.The fruit & veg counter was Stephen Jardine's first port of call at the local supermarket as he started 'meat-free May'.
The fruit & veg counter was Stephen Jardine's first port of call at the local supermarket as he started 'meat-free May'.

Six days in and my meat-free May is off to a flying start. It began well at the Pitt Street food market in Edinburgh last weekend. I’d gone for a last minute red meat binge before my month long vegetarian experience began. The burgers and steaks were delicious but the stand out dish for me was something involving halloumi. For a committed carnivore, that was unexpected but also very reassuring.

With two per cent of the population now vegetarian, I want to spend this month testing my preconceptions about what life is really like without eating meat. How much have we moved beyond nut cutlets and Linda McCartney frozen veggie sausages? For me that journey started in the supermarket. I’ve avoided ready meals since poor dobbin ended up in a lasagne so I wasn’t about to let life as a vegetarian take me back to convenience food. Luckily the first aisle in my local supermarket is fruit and vegetables so I stacked them high, and stocked up on enough bread and oatcakes to ensure I never go hungry.

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So far, so good. But what am I actually going to eat for four weeks ? With my vegetarian cooking repertoire starting and ending with meat-free moussaka, inspiration is required. The bookshelves didn’t help. Looking along the titles on the kitchen shelf, I realised just how meat focussed my life has been so far.

“Hawksmoor At Home” is probably the kitchen companion I turn to most often but it is 300 pages of vegetarian hell. Even the chips are tripled cooked in animal fat in case a vegan was tempted to open the pages.

Thankfully, the internet made up for my ignorance with a plethora of ideas, recipes and inspiration. The vegetarian society has a great database but celebrity chefs including Jamie, Nigella and Ottolenghi also have lots of suggestions on their sites.

Inspired by their ideas and for once having the right ingredients in the fridge, my first meal on the vegetarian adventure was a simple pasta dish with homemade tomato sauce and very nice it was too. The next night was a hearty celeriac soup, taken from fridge to bowl in just 25 minutes. Then came a cauliflower curry, so good I had seconds.

But eating elsewhere has been more of a challenge. On so many menus, the food that sounds most exciting and enticing involves meat with the vegetarian options seeming to be little than a token gesture. That is a missed opportunity. While only a small percentage declare themselves fully vegetarian, many more will choose a vegetable-based dish if it sounds good and they are in the mood for that.

A preference for vegetarian food is also strongest amongst the young and since they drive large parts of the eating out landscape, it’s not surprising that chains like Wagamama and Wahaca prominently position non-meat options on their menus.

Elsewhere the solution often involves vegetarians being creative. I had lunch in an Edinburgh restaurant involving a starter and two side dishes. The waiter thought I was mad. I thought it was delicious.

The low point was being invited to my friends’ house to eat and informing them I’m meat-free for May. “No you’re not”, they said, unable to comprehend why anyone would make such a decision. Suddenly I felt bad about all the times I’ve moaned and groaned about feeding non-meat eaters.

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Just as some people drink and others don’t, vegetarianism is a personal choice made for good reasons, not merely to be difficult. So one week in, I’m more tolerant and not hungry. Not a bad start to meat-free May.