Jay Rayner: thou shalt eat veg!

February 12, 2018

In an excerpt from his new volume The Ten( Food) Commandments, the restaurant critic and corroborated carnivore explains how he learned to love vegetables

A weekday lunchtime and I am standing by my stave doing something appalling. I have done bad things with food before, of course. I once feed two Pot Noodles for dinner, and didnt even feel guilty. I am a man of appetites and sometimes those cravings make me do things. You cannot have one part of me without the other.

What I am doing now is not in character. It runs against everything in which I believe. But still I am doing it because, if Im going to make a convincing argument about what non-meat cookery should and shouldnt definitely sounds like, I first have to stand in another persons shoes. And so: I am cooking with Quorn. I am cooking with a meat substitute, built employing 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 vehicle manufacturers own admission Quorn doesnt savour of much unless introduced to other flavors, 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. In another pan I fry off some cubes of Quorn Meat Free Chicken Pieces. I saut these eager-to-please little squares until theyve started to colour, and wonder whether this might be an approximation of the Maillard reaction, the caramelisation of meat which dedicates it that savouriness carnivores like me crave so desperately. I try a piece. It isnt. It is just slightly crunchy over-used mattress filling.

Eventually, despite my willing it otherwise, the cook is done. The food is necessary tasted. I introduce the Quorn to the sauce and stand by the stave, forking it away. 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 say I would prefer to have my tongue lacerated by a threshing machine, or expend nine hours in a lift with Donald Trump. But I wont, because these Quorn dishes are so much worse than that.

The Palomar Cookbook: Cauliflower Steak with lemon butter, labneh& almonds Photo: Helen Cathcart

They are dull. They are nothing, a tiny belch of mediocrity. 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, and your hormone levels were set to optimum, you might recognise a similarity to meat.

What induced me most mad about all this, however, wasnt only the dreary eating experience. It was the damage it did. Because this plateful of tiresome, boring sludge simply devoted ammunition to those militant carnivores who would spit and laugh in the face of non-meat cookery. It actually was lousy PR for the cause of the veggie. And, as we edge ever deeper into the 21 st century, that is something we simply cannot afford.

I have watched animals die. I havestoodat the head of the kill line in an abattoir and seemed on as the electric shocks were administered to the head, followed by a blade to the throat. 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 intake for a new book, and felt that describing the process by which animals succumb 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 animals for food. I have always said that I do not. As far as I can see, these animals merely 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.

But I wanted to test my glib stances in the face of brutal realities. In truth I had wanted to go further. I had investigated the possibility of setting up doing the killing myself but getting the permissions to do so is, rightly, complicated. 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 didnt 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 entails. Perhaps you could only acquire a carnivores licence 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 swear off meat for a while, the vast majority would eventually floats back, likely seduced by the smell of a bacon sandwich, properly stimulated. The eating of meat is simply that ingrained.

Die-hard carnivores like to argue this is because humen have a physiological need for meat. Its true, as surveys have found, that we will proclaim ourselves sated as a result of eating fewer calories of meat, than say veggies. 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 various kinds of intellectual capability that eventually built us human; indeed human enough for some of us to choose veganism. Foraged leaves, nuts and berries took too much energy to digest for the brain of prehistoric 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 volume Catching Fire: How Cooking Induced us Human that the really important development was not the eating of meat alone, but the use of flame to cook foods generally( including veggies ), attaining them all easier to digest and so releasing more nutrition.

So no, meat eating, however efficient a furnish of protein it might be for us, may not be an imperative. But it is certainly a deep-seated culture selection, which says a lot about our position of power in the world. The more powerful we become the more we tend to eat it. Numerous surveys have shown that the higher up the income ladder we rise the more meat we feed, and not simply because its costly stuff( for it becomes affordable at quite a low point on that income ladder ).

If ever there were a emblem of that, it is the existence of that Quorn I cooked with so reluctantly. Why would we have desperate meat replaces 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 thats exactly why meat replaces fail so spectacularly. For non-meat cookery to be successful it has to do so according to its own agenda , not according to one to be prepared by that which it is replacing.

Nopi: The Cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi Butternut squash wiht ginger tomatoes and lime yoghurt Photo: Jonathan Lovekin

Happily, things are changing, albeit by necessity. There is finally an understanding of the environmental impact of raising livestock for intake, especially “where theyre” fed on crops that could be fed immediately to humans rather more efficiently. There are differing figures depending on species, with cattles requiring the most and chicken the least, but on average it takes 5 kilos of grain to make 1 kilo of meat. With the global population rising, from just north of seven billion now towards 10 billion or even more by the end of the century, we cannot afford to be stuffing all those harvests down the esophagus of animals. And then theres the carbon footprint. One examine 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, writer of Meat: a Benign Extravagance , points out that it 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 adversaries of the meat business argue that all of it is an unnecessary use of land upon which harvests could be grown for human consumption, Fairlie notes that ruminants can eat a lot of biomass 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 harvests. 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 with growing demand from the emerging middle classes in Asia, global meat prices will rise.

Which means one thing. The future of non-meat cookery “re not in the” hands of those who have sworn off feeing animals wholly. Its in the hands of those of us who are cutting down. And thank God for that. The abominations that are meat-free sausages and burgers werent created by meat eaters, looking for something that wasnt meat but nearly looked like it. They were created by vegetarians who believed this is just the only route to advance their cause, and in any case who dont especially like the real thing and so dont actually care that its horrid. 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 dont include meat. A moussaka involves the carnage of a lamb to be moussaka. A bungalow pie necessitates ground beef. A sausage exists as a route to use up every inch of the pig, including its bowels. Something formed out of oats and soya and desperation is not a sausage. Its 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. Its not an echo of the real thing, the recipe contrived by substitutes and arch compromise and sadnes. It is itself. There is, for example , nothing with a pulse which will improve a perfectly induced wild mushroom risotto: rice, wine, stock, mushrooms, cheese and the job is done. The altogether meat-free curries of the Gujarat would not be better if only somebody could be fagged to kill a chicken.

Ambitious restaurants in Britain and elsewhere have, in recent years, started filling their menu with these non-meat-based dishes, and for the most portion the movement has been led by meat-eating multi-starred chefs; the likes of Simon Rogan at LEnclume and Brett Graham at the Ledbury. The latter has a entirely meat-free savouring menu. Its a good thing that its meat-eating chefs who have led this rather than the vegetarian hardcore, Yotam Ottolenghi says. Theres been a reversal of the ingredient hierarchy and weve helped to normalise it. A humble veggie like the cauliflower which spent the totality of the 1970 s in Britain being tortured in boiling water until it had surrendered both its nutritional value and dignity, has become a centrepiece.

At Berber& Q, a charcoal grill house in Londons 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 and lamb shawarma. At the 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 strained yogurt and toasted almonds. At Ottolenghis 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 expended 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 Mridien Hotel on Londons Piccadilly. There, it was completely protein-led, he says. It was all about foie gras, fillet steak and truffles. Gills approach was changed by a stint in southern Italy, where the beef was terrible but the vegetables were brilliant. That was followed by period at Raymond Blancs Le Manoir in Oxfordshire which, for all its commitment to French classicism, has a vast kitchen garden on site.

Later, Gill opened his own eatery, the Dairy, in south London, followed by the nearby Manor and then Paradise Garage in east London. At all three, the menu walkings the two sides of the line. Sure, it serves meat. But its also about dishes of carrots with roasted barley and sorrel, or salsify with smoked curd and pickled walnuts; its about beetroot with fermented apple and pine, or charred leeks with caramelised comte cheese and wild garlic. These are dish descriptions which make their own suit. My mindset has simply changed, Gill says. I dont feel the need for a glob of beef in the middle of the plate.

And vegetarian sausages? I dont get them at all. Theyre pointless. Its the various kinds of stuff that really vexes me. Its food created by people who cant cook.

Its a rude thing to say. Its also likely a little unfair. But sod it, Im not going to argue.

Extracted from The Ten( Food) Commandments by Jay Rayner( Penguin, 6 ). Click here to order a copy for 4.80.

Jay will present a live event based on the book at RIBA, 66 Portland Place, London W1B 1AD on Friday 24 June, 7pm8. 40 pm. Click here for details and tickets

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