10 November 2019

Sometimes I ask myself if I’m actually against everything …

We don’t go to the lake anymore. It used to be my favourite walk with the dogs, and certainly it was Bumble’s – she squeals with delight as soon as she recognises the scenery. But we’ve not been for several months. One of the reasons is Dylan, our reactive dog. Not only is he suffering from arthritis such that along walk around the lake would probably be too much for him, but if he met another dog, despite his infirmities, he’d still want to take it on, blindness, lameness forgotten. Too many people have now discovered this little gem, and too many of them walk their dogs off lead. But that’s not the only reason, the other is fishing.

The last time we walked round the lake was just before the end of the fishing season in late August. The blood lust is sated all year round here; the fishing season melds seamlessly into the hunting (chasse) season. The wildlife seem to get no respite. On this particular day we got into a row with an expat type who was taking selfies with a poor carp that had clearly been out of the water too long. He didn’t take kindly to our objections, and it rather soured the end of a beautiful walk. Since then we’ve been avoiding the place, much like we avoid anywhere we’re likely to encounter members of the chasse. Not easy when you’re living in the middle of it, with one chasse kennel up the lane at the side of the house and another at the bottom of the road.

I’ve written at length on the VV website about the various facets of hunting in France, from the local chasse to the liveried horseback hunters of the forests around Paris, hunting in a style similar to the now-outlawed British foxhunting. The French have a propensity to kill just about everything that moves using a wide variety of unsavoury methods: glue-traps, decoy birds, they even breed sanglier in captivity and release them for hunting, or hunt them in secure enclosures where they can’t get away.

Allied with this I’m also not in favour of any exploitation of animals that we would normally consider to be domesticated – horse-racing, showjumping, eventing, dog-racing, use of dogs in so-called military and police service, the list goes on. In fact, despite having owned and ridden horses for nigh on thirty years,, I’m now doubtful as whether I would ever get on horseback again. I know that some vegans have an issue with keeping any form of domestic pets, and I can see both sides of the argument. However, I don’t really class Bumble, Dylan and Bumble as pets; they are members of the family and their needs always come first. When all the refuges are empty and there are no suffering strays, then I might reconsider my position.

So, if was making a list of things I don’t agree with – for ethical vegan, animal welfare reasons – fishing and any form of hunting would come high on my list. Not much further down would be backyard farming, especially the type practised by our two hopefully soon-to-depart neighbours. In fact, you can count in there any type of animal agriculture. Bullfighting’s there, obviously goes without saying, as does circuses. I’m also not keen on zoos, even the best-kept, best-intentioned ones. It seems to me that if the human race has destroyed habitats to the extent that some species would become extinct if not in zoos, there’s no need to go and gawp at them whilst stuffing a giant hamburger into your mouth. Let the animals live in wildlife sanctuaries, a natural life, free from people and let the gawpers look at a 3D hologram.

Similarly, I don’t see any need to utilise animals in spectacles or displays. I’m thinking here of birds of prey  demonstrations, recalling a particularly unpleasant one we attended years ago somewhere in France. There really wasn’t anything enjoyable about seeing these magnificent creatures tethered in their cages, barely able to hop down off their perch. It’s great that at last people are starting to wake up to the cruelty involved in things like dolphin displays, elephant rides and donkeys struggling to carry half hundredweight of lazy tourist under a sweltering sun. Some major travel brands are starting to distance themselves from these practices, so let’s hope that’s a trend that will continue.

3 November 2019

Celebrating the five year blog anniversary

It’s difficult to believe that when I arrived in France in August 2013, I didn’t have a Facebook account, had no idea what Twitter was and could only navigate the internet in the most rudimentary way. Of course, I used computers for work, regularly relied on Google and Amazon, and even ordered our Tesco shopping online. But it wasn’t until I set up my own business that I began to learn about websites and social media, and now, six years on, I’m building WordPress sites.

This blog began on 2 November 2014 so just yesterday was its fifth anniversary. It all began with Project 333, a great clothes challenge, started by Courtney Carver of Be More With Less, that is still going to this day. It’s the ultimate in minimalism applied to your wardrobe, based on a capsule of just 33 items that you wear for a whole three-month season: 33 items x 3 months = Project 333. I was fascinated by the idea. I’d moved over to France in August 2013 with a huge amount of clothing. There was all my work stuff, charity shop finds and my Rohan technical travel wardrobe. When I started the Project, I had 180 items in my inventory. In the first step I threw away about a third, taking four black sacks to the clothing bank. Then, I decided to learn about blogging and write about the process.

I called the blog “Totally Technical” as I was aspiring to have a minimal wardrobe based solely on technical clothes. It actually took over a year to complete the challenge. I had to do several rounds of clearing out, but by early 2015 I had completed another purge and virtually all non-technical clothes had gone. At one stage I reported the total was down to 80 items (I had spreadsheets!), and a year later I’d reduced it to 77. I continued using the capsule wardrobe 333 principle for a long time until it became almost second nature I suppose. We did have a bit of a splurge in Rohan Stratford-on-Avon in Autumn 2015, but since then new clothes acquisitions have been restricted to one annual item at the Jack Wolfskin shop on holidays in Germany, plus a few new socks, undies or yoga clothes from Decathlon or Hema.

Once Project 333 had my wardrobe under control I applied similar principles to other areas of the house, like the kitchen and campervan. However, there was then a bit of a blogging hiatus. OK, I didn’t post anything for almost a year. I nearly gave up, but instead I rebranded the blog “My Little Orange Notebook” due to my predilection for orange notebooks, files, pens … But this didn’t really fire up the muse. It wasn’t until I decided to learn WordPress and built the Vivez Vegan website that the blogging bug rekindled once again. So, on 31 December 2018 I rebranded this blog for the third time in a post titled, “We’re still vegan, and we’re still here”. And since then I’ve kept to my 2019 unwritten resolution to post every Sunday.

It’s interesting to revisit all the early Project 333 posts, especially as we are about to enter to new period of minimalism (watch this space towards the end of the year). I’m less focused on the actual numbers game with Project 333, but it certainly cured any desire I had for consumer clothing. In fact, I bought two virtually brand-new dresses last week at a vide grenier: total cost €4. Some things took longer to part with. Back in September 2015 I posted about my clarinet. I’d been debating whether to sell it on Facebook, but then started to play it again. How did that go? Well, after the first week or so I’ve never played it since. It has sat on the shelf for four years. Well, the good news is that new owners have been found and the clarinet will soon be making music once again.

27 October 2019

Hola! Homing in on some Spanish vegan recipes

Traditional Spanish food is heavily influenced by the flavours of the Levant that I described last week, due to the influence of the old trading routes around the Mediterranean. It’s another of our favourite world vegan cuisines, not least since Mr VV completed the Camino de Santiago a few years back and developed a taste for tapas.

Spanish food is great for veganising, especially if you can get hold of some vegan chorizo. I’ve even bought this in France recently, at one the BioCoops. It makes a great addition to a paella. In fact, paella is one of my go-to recipes for using up any odds and ends in the fridge, or at a pinch you can knock up a tasty paella from the freezer using frozen peppers and a cup of frozen peas. It’s best to track down the correct paella rice (Leclerc sells it, as does Aldi from time to time); it makes all the difference to getting that crispy, crunchy bottom. And don’t stir it. It’s a dish you can set going on the hob and then relax with a glass of red while you wait for it to cook.

Amongst the other recipes in my current Spanish culinary repertoire there’s Catalan Bean Stew (great for using up stale bread); Spanish tortilla, the potato omelette type, which you can make with chickpea flour; ratatouille (sometimes called pistou), and chickpea, potato and spinach stew. It was time to add a new recipe to the World Vegan scrapbook, but hunting through some online suggestions it looked like I’d covered most bases. And we certainly don’t like cold soup (Gazpacho). Hmmm … maybe time to start looking for a cake recipe.

Spanish almond cake is called “Tarta de Santiago”. It’s the official cake of the Camino and St James of Galicia. So, in rather a belated celebration of Mr VV’s Camino success, I decided to have a go at baking one, and see if came up to scratch. Apparently, he did get to eat quite a lot of Tarta Santiago on his route. There were a few vegan versions but they were all a bit fiddly. One used aquafaba as its main raising agent. I don’t often use aquafaba in cakes, apart from cinnamon buns, and this called for chilling, whipping up and then folding into a dry mix. A bit too complicated, and success with whipping aquafaba can, in my experience, be a bit hit-and-miss. Then, I thought, what if I just adapt the frangipane part of the Vegan Bakewell Tart recipe? Would that work? Yes, and according to my chief taste-tester it tastes just like the cakes on the Camino, though I bet if you’re walking twenty-five kilometres a day you’ll eat anything!

Spanish Almond Cake

150g vegetable oil (grams - weigh in bowl)
150g white sugar
150g ground almonds
100g T55 flour
1 sachet levure chimique
100ml soy milk
2 tsp lemon juice
Zest of one lemon
1 tbsp icing sugar

Start by making a vegan ‘buttermilk’ by adding the lemon juice to the soy milk, in a jug, and setting it aside to curdle for five minutes or so. Then, weigh oil into a large bowl. This does seem to be a bit weird, but it works. Next, add the sugar, ground almonds, flour, levure chimique and lemon zest, mixing well each time. Add the soy milk mix which should have gone lumpy, and mix well to a thick batter. Pour into a silicone 8” round cake mould or a greased/lined cake tin. Bake at 180c for about 30 to 35 minutes. Check it is cooked through with a metal skewer; if the skewer comes out clean it’s ready, if not leave for another five minutes and check again. Cool in the tin, then turn onto baking rack. When cold, sprinkle top with icing sugar. Note: you can download a Pinterest motif for the top to print and cut out, if you want a true traditional Camino look.

20 October 2019

Flavours of the Levant

Who remembers the words of John Masefield’s famous poem Cargoes?

Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.

I learnt it off-by-heart, way back in school English lessons. I can’t recite it verbatim any more, but the verse, with  its ‘sandalwood, cedarwood and sweet white wine’, still evoke the feelings of another exotic world it inspired. I had the notion that this was somewhere in ‘the Levant’, probably something one of my teachers told us; I’m not sure they were too hot on accuracy. Of course, the Levant as a historical geographical area around the eastern Mediterranean no longer exists. Its modern day equivalent would be the countries of Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and Turkey.

As I was organising my spice collection this week, it occurred to me that many of the flavours and ingredients of Levantine cuisine are amongst our favourites. Garlic, lemons, cinnamon, olive oil, cumin, tahini, sweet and spicy peppers. One of the key dishes found in traditional cuisines all around this area is the meze – a selection of small dishes, often served on a large round tray. The word ‘meze’ comes from the Persian meaning taste or snack. It’s a grazing style of eating that is well-suited to vegan fare.

Looking a Wiki’s list of traditional Levantine dishes I noticed quite a few that are already entrenched in my culinary repertoire: tabbouleh, falafels, hummus, lentil soup, pita breads and the wonderful Lebanese Mujaddara. A simple dish of cooked lentils and rice, served with fried onions, it must be one of the cheapest vegan dishes to make. There’s more than a fair share of meat-based dishes on that list, too, but I was sure that some of them could be veganised. So, I set about finding some inspiration for some new additions to my ‘World Vegan’ recipe scrapbook.

Lurking at the back of the cupboard was a bag of bulgur wheat I picked up I Aldi. I must have mistaken it for cuscus, because we don’t usually eat bulgur. No idea why. It’s usually used as the base of tabbouleh (I use couscous), but I was sure there must be other recipes. A quick Google search threw up any number of versions of tabbouleh or Mediterranean salad. Then, I came across a suggestion of using bulgur as the base of a pilau. Rather like a risotto, or not too far removed from my favourite Mujaddara.

What’s the difference between a pilau, a risotto and a paella? It’s all down the rice, the amount of liquid and the question of whether to stir or not stir. A pilau or pilaf (US spelling) is made with rice or grains, with stock, vegetables and spices. The key is that the rice should not stick together (not too much stirring). There are lots of other names for this dish depending on the region: pulao, palavu, pallao, as it crops up in many cuisines from the Balkans to the Caribbean. The Spanish version is paella. This is usually made with a particular type of rice – Bomba. Another alternative one-pan rice dish is the risotto, which again uses special rice varieties, often arborio or carnaroli. The technique of continually stirring a risotto results in a creamy dish. And then, there’s not forgetting the Caribbean’s traditional Jambalaya.

So, back to my recipe of the week: Levantine Bulgar Pilau. Two tips I learnt making this were; first, soak the bulgur in hot water for at least thirty minutes before cooking. Second, nutritionally, bulgur wheat actually contains more fibre than brown rice, so it’s a good healthy choice.

Levantine Bulgur Pilau

Olive oil
1 cup bulgur wheat soaked in ¾ cup water
2 or 3 cloves garlic
1 red onion
2 fresh tomatoes
½ cup green pepper
½ cup flat leaf parsley
2 tsp cumin
3 tbsp tomato concentrate/puree

First, put the bulgur wheat to soak. Whilst waiting, finely chop all the vegetables. They will cook evenly if they’re all about the same size. Then, heat some olive oil in a pan and add the garlic and cumin and fry gently until garlic is golden. Add the rest of the vegetables and cook gently until soft. Strain the bulgur if necessary (it should have absorbed all the water) and then mix it into the pan. Stir well and add the tomato paste. Mix thoroughly and allow to cook for a further five to ten minutes, stirring occasionally. Serve with salad and pita bread, or chill in fridge – it’s great cold.  

13 October 2019

Seeking inspiration from Sweden

I’ve been banging the vegan activist drum quite a bit recently so this week, inspired by a big tidy-up of my recipe collections, I thought I’d get back to basics, and one of my real passions: vegan recipes. I’ve been busy filling the gaps in my ‘World Vegan’ scrapbook and this week, the focus has been on Swedish food. Earlier this year we took our third trip to Sweden. This time we made it all the way to Stockholm. Unfortunately it was just too far in the time we had left to drive a further 1000 km to the Arctic Circle, but it’s still on my wish list. Maybe a boat trip would be more environmentally responsible. 

Some great inspirations come out of Sweden: Ikea, Oatly and, of course, Greta Thunberg. It’s a great country for vegan food. When you think of Swedish food, probably the first thing that comes to mind is meatballs, especially if you’re an Ikea fan. Next, it’s probably fish, and it is true that the Swedes do eat a lot of fish – soused herring and Gravadlax being top of the list. But it is actually quite easy to veganise many of their traditional dishes, just leave off the hunks of carcinogenic animal carcass.

Way back in December 2016 I blogged about our Swedish Vegan Christmas. Since then, I’ve made Swedish vegan meatballs many times. The recipe bakes up a batch of about 36, so they’re a great stand-by to keep in the freezer. Brilliant with mashed potatoes, chips or pasta. There’s a great sauce recipe over at one of my favourite blogs Connoisseurus Veg­ and an alternative meatball recipe, too. But Swedish cooking is not just about meatballs or fish. Some of the traditional recipes include Janssons Temptation, a dish based on potatoes; Smorgasbord, a type of open sandwich; Knackbröd, Swedish crispbread; Raggmunk, a potato pancake and Ärtsoppa, yellow pea soup. All of these are eminently veganisable.

I’ve been making a version of Jansssons Temptation for many years. In fact, it was one of our favourite way back in the days when we first started campervanning. We used to call it ‘anchovy potatoes’. The fiddliest thing is slicing the potatoes into matchsticks, but don’t skimp on this as it will cook best if they are all about the same size. I’m not sure who Janson was or why he was tempted by this dish – some reports say it was the Swedish opera singer Pelle Janson, others that it takes its name from a 1928 film Janssons frestelse. It’s basically a potato gratin, and in the original version is flavoured with smoked sprats or anchovies. All I do to veganise the dish is swap out the tin of anchovies for capers and use soy cream or soy gratin cream preferably, rather than dairy. If you can get hold of Oatly crème fraiche all the better. Capers don’t have quite the same flavour as smoked fish, but overall it is pretty near perfect autumn comfort food.

Janssons Vegan Temptation

Four large potatoes, cut into matchsticks
One onion, sliced finely
Two-three cloves garlic
Two tbsp capers
250ml brick of soya cream or Bjorg Soja Gratin
Two-three tbsp fried breadcrumbs (garlic fried is extra good!)

In a large frying pan, heat a generous glug of olive oil and fry onion and garlic until softened. Then, layer the potato matchsticks with the onion mix in an ovenproof dish, sprinkling a few capers in each layer. Pour cream over the top and scatter with breadcrumbs. Cook at 180c for about 30 minutes or until the potatoes are cooked. Serve with a green salad, or steamed green vegetables such as broccoli or green beans.

On the subject of winter warming comfort food, we are now approaching the soup season. Unfortunately, Mr VV is not a big fan of soup, but this version of Ärtsoppa is so thick with its chunky potatoes that it’s a meal in itself. Yellow split peas are quite easy to find in France. Look for netting bags near the dried beans in the vegetables area, or buy en vrac in your own bags from the BioCoop. The advantages of both of these meals are that, not only are they easy to make and filling, but they are also quite cheap to rustle up, too.

Ärtsoppa: yellow split pea soup

One onion, diced
Two or three garlic cloves, minced
One cup yellow split peas, washed and drained
Two or three large flurry potatoes, peeled and cubed
Two tsp Marigold vegan bouillon powder
Two tbsp nutritional yeast (optional)
Salt and pepper
Colza or olive oil

In a large heavy lidded pan heat a little oil and sauté the onion and garlic until golden. Add the potatoes, stir well and put on the lid to steam for five minutes or so. Then add the split peas, bouillon powder and enough boiling water to cover all the contents. Stir well. Bring to the boil and then simmer gently until both the potatoes and the split peas are cooked. It’s difficult to give a precise measure of water to add, but make sure it does not dry out while cooking, top up if necessary. When the soup is ready remove half the potatoes with a slotted spoon, then add the nutritional yeast and seasoning. Use a stick blender to puree the soup to your preferred consistency. You can add a bit more water if necessary. Then add the whole potatoes cubes back, stir well and serve. You could garnish with some chopped herbs or a few chilli flakes for added zest.

6 October 2019

Girls’ day out at Under the Lime Tree

Under the Lime Tree, a vegan and vegetarian B&B and spa retreat, has been on my radar for several years. I’d been promising myself a visit, but just never seemed to find the right time or someone to go with. A solo trip felt overly self-indulgent. So, when DD’s annual visit coincided with her birthday what better reason did we need for a girls’ day out? Back in the UK she’s a holistic therapist, so I was a bit concerned it might be a bit of a busman’s holiday, but I needn’t have worried.

Living as we do, in the middle of nowhere, there’s no fast route to UTLT although it is only 40 miles away as the crow flies. Nevertheless, we had plenty of time so we set the sat nav and let TomTom lead us along the winding back roads of the Haute Vienne and Charente borders. It was a glorious day, with clear blue skies and a warm late summer sun. We passed through quaint French villages and past soft-eyed Limousin cows lazing in fields laid bare by the scorching heatwave. Eventually, after a few wrong turns that landed us in a Lidl carpark, TomTom and Google maps were in agreement and we pulled up, literally, under the lime tree.

After a warm welcome from Nikki, our spa day began with a sumptuous vegan lunch under a shady gazebo. Aubergine steaks baked with lashings of garlicky BBQ sauce, two salads of rainbow colours, all made with produce picked fresh from the potager. The feast was complimented with a cooling soy yoghurt dip and crusty olive bread. Dessert was a luscious butternut squash cake with a healthy dose of chilli, topped with raspberry sorbet. We dutifully turned down the offer of wine in favour of lemon water. Once replete, it was time to change into our cozzies and enjoy a post-lunch herbal cuppa in the spa pool.

The location of UTLT is stunning. Set in about twenty-five acres of pasture and woodland, the traditional stone buildings are set around a sunny courtyard. An enormous lime tree stands guard over the garden – I wonder how old it is? – its leafy boughs offering a shady place to relax post-treatment. Or maybe sit in the little summerhouse and enjoy a view over the valley. In every nook and cranny there are seats, loungers, hammocks and sofas, stones, statutes and artwork. The spa pool is set at the edge of the garden, just before a sweeping meadow falls away, so once you are relaxing in the warm bubbles it’s almost like an infinity pool with a huge backdrop of blue sky. You can’t help but immediately feel at ease here. The atmosphere is at once calm, yet has a feeling of energy. It’s peaceful and quiet, and as I later discovered, had no mobile phone signal. And that’s a good thing, right!

It was probably about twenty years since I’d last had any type of beauty treatment, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect. Nikki told us her speciality is hot stone massage, so I decided to just let her plan how the treatment would go. As I entered the treatment room a beam of light from the Velux window encapsulated the massage couch. It’s haven of tranquillity and I quickly felt at ease. All I needed to do was relax and enjoy the magical touch of Nikki’s healing hands. Of course, it wasn’t long before she found the knots in my shoulders and elbows, caused by too many hours spent in front of the computer. Once these were soothed, all too soon my treatment was over and it was my turn to relax out in the garden. Considering that I rarely sit and do nothing – there is always a keyboard beneath my fingers or a pencil in my hand – I did pretty well to relax in the lounger under the lime tree for over an hour, without even once looking at the mobile phone.

What a wonderful day we both had at UTLT. Before long it was time to leave, but not before treating ourselves to Nikki’s two veggie cookery books. Well, we just had to get that chilli cake recipe! We opted against the fast route back via St Junien, and again followed the quiet backroads roads through the countryside, watching the late afternoon sun dappling through the first golden leaves of autumn, with not another car on the road. A perfect end to a perfect day.     

29 September 2019

Documenting our vegan journey

One of the benefits of a weekly personal blog is that it acts as a kind of online diary, so it’s easy to go through the entries and track progress. On the one hand, it feels as if we have been vegan forever, but on the other hand, we’re well aware that we were meat-eaters for a long time and that we’re relatively new to the vegan lifestyle. It is one of our greatest regrets. But, I’m never really sure when the change occurred. I never thought to actually note down the date, if there was one, not realising what a life-changing move it would be.

Looking back, in January 2016 I described ourselves as ‘low profile vegetarians’ or vegetarien à la maison, and I was bemoaning the fact that France was 20 years behind. Things have improved since then, and we don’t care about upsetting the carnies any more. Of course, I did follow a virtually vegetarian diet back in the late 1990s, and even did courses at the Vegetarian Society Cookery School, but as I’ve since read, vegetarianism is not vegan, and does not enable you to make the same mental connections. No wonder, then, that I eventually returned to eating some meat, even if not on the scale of many carnies.

We moved to France permanently in 2013 and initially tried to embrace the local culture, eating out at cheap relais and shopping on the markets. But this was short-lived. I was posting vegetarian recipes back in September 2015, and even when we lived in the UK we did not eat a great deal of meat, certainly not every day. Looking back, I can’t understand why we didn’t make the connections. Well, actually I can understand – I wrote about it a few weeks ago. The last time I posted a recipe containing meat was July 2016 when we were travelling in Spain. We’ll be going again soon, so it will be interesting to see how things have changed. It looks like the seeds of veganism were planted much earlier in the year. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when, but by August 2016 I was making vegan pesto, had tracked down quinoa and we’d tried tofu.

By October 2016 we’d totally eliminated dairy products from our diet, leaving just eggs (free range, from our neighbour). By the 2017 New Year we were pretty much vegan, and I was looking at expanding it into other lifestyle areas. Although I was still using free-range eggs for Twilight baking. In fact, this year, 2019, was the first year that I made all of their open day cakes with vegan recipes.

On 23 July 2017 the blog title recorded, “Going Vegan; the final push”. Why? We’d just watched ‘What the Health’. Since then, we’ve watched many more vegan documentaries, I’ve read The China Study a couple of times, and I’m steadily building a vegan library. I’ve also done an online vegan nutrition course and, of course, developed the Vivez Vegan website. We’e come a long way and now every decision e make, about eating, purchases or activities, is viewed from the perspective of veganism.  It’s good to look back on the journey, so I’m counting 23 July 2017 as our vegan birthday ~ we’ve made two full years so far. There’s no turning back now. As John Robbins, author of The Food Revolution, says, “Once you know, you can never forget.”