19 January 2020

Can you suffer culture shock in your own country?

The dictionary defines ‘culture shock’ as “the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone when they are suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes.” (OED). It wasn’t until a Facebook friend remarked that not only was I dealing with my new role as MiL’s temporary carer, but was also dealing with the culture shock of having returned to the UK, that I gave the matter any thought. However, a quick Google revealed that it was, in fact, a real phenomenon, more appropriately named ‘reverse culture shock’, being the effects of returning to your home culture after becoming accustomed to a foreign one. Research even suggests that it is “more surprising and difficult to deal with than the original culture shock.”

View from the cafe at Essex Wildlife Trust Abberton Reservoir Centre

Over the years, I’ve read many social media posts discussing the pros and cons of life in France, comparison of the two countries and reasons why people may or may not yearn to return to the UK. Many folk do seem to have a rose-tinted view of their adopted country (according to Wikipedia this ‘honeymoon period’ generally only lasts three months, though I’ve known people still in this state after several years). Maybe it’s just that they can’t see things on their own doorstep that jump out at us, or the things that bother us are of no consequence to them. I’m reminded of my late mother who could never see the litter piling up in her street, perhaps because, for her, it was still 1952 and she did not wish to acknowledge the change to the area that had come with the passage of time.

There are good things and bad things about both countries and their cultures. Or, as Mr VV likes to say, France and the UK are both bat-shit crazy, but in different ways. Certainly, since we adopted the vegan lifestyle, living in rural France began to throw up many issues. Two things, in particular, stand out. First, the sheer difficulty of obtaining vegan-friendly food, whether it be a trip to the supermarket where the choice was limited, a meal out for which choice of location and menu was limited, or even just going for a simple coffee. Our second issue, and one that hampered our life to an extent that we’ve really only realised since not being there, is the Chasse. Over the years, we have had many run-ins with the chasse and its fraternity. From outright threats to us and one of our dogs from a chasse neighbour, to coming face-to-face with the barrel of a gun on a Sunday afternoon walk along a designated public cycleway. From October to March, in France, we simply stopped walking anywhere.

One remarkable thing we have noticed is how much happier the dogs seem to be here in the UK. In France, Bumble always trailed behind on her walks. She got so bad that we even got her a doggy pushchair for days when she just refused to budge. Here, she is pulling on the lead, charging ahead across the green and enjoying afternoons sitting in the window watching the squirrels. Even old Dylan has a new lease of life, currently on no drugs at all and enjoying two walks a day. Maybe they no longer feel our stress about walking in the countryside, constantly on the lookout for loose chasse hounds and bullets.

So, after eight years away has it been a shock to return? Perhaps a little, but not in a bad way. Maybe it did take a few trips to Sainsburys to get my head around the sheer volume of vegan food available and the choice. The roads are busy, but we can enjoy a  Sunday morning walk without encountering anyone dressed in orange brandishing a shotgun. The smallest café serves at least one type of plant milk, there are several dedicated vegan eateries, and virtually all pubs and restaurants have several vegan options. There seems to be no stigma attached to veganism either. Many folk dislike the shopping culture in the UK, where going shopping has become a leisure activity, but, there’s no need to join in. There’s a growing trend of environmental awareness, from recycling to zero waste shops, and a move toward less not more consumption.

Yes, the roads are full of potholes, there is litter on the verges, everyone seems to be in a hurry and driving an enormous four-wheel drive. But, you can actually get things done, people turn up when they say they will, the staff in shops are friendly and helpful. I appreciate that we may be fortunate with our location, in a particularly pleasant village with a shop, two pubs, plenty of walks and not far from the sea (though I still have not been to the coast yet). However, any culture shock was surely short-lived and we seem to have slipped easily into a comfortable routine. Even driving on the 'wrong' side of the road seems normal now. After a month in our ‘Hut’, the next task is to search out our ‘tribe’ and get involved in some local activities.

12 January 2020

The eco project part two: tackling food waste

I suppose it was her experience of the Second World War and rationing, which continued long afterwards, that made my mother quite zealous about avoiding food waste. She regularly admonished me to ‘eat up because there are starving people in the world …’ and she could make another meal out of any leftover scraps. She never went shopping without a list. A weekly meal plan hung on the kitchen noticeboard and she shopped accordingly. I suppose I must have inherited some of these habits because, like her, I abhor food waste.

In France we had two active compost bins and usually made enough rich, nutrient-filled compost to fill our annual flower pots and herb garden. Last year we even gave away some of our surplus. So, we were very keen to get a compost bin on the go whilst we are here in the UK. One of the first things we bought in B&Q was a robust composting bin and it went into action on day one. As we want to grow ‘vegan’ vegetables, we’re restricting the contents of the bin to our own fruit and vegetable peelings. Any food waste from the House (and there is plenty of it) goes into the council supplied food caddy that is collected every week. Because the council’s composting operation is at much higher temperatures than you can achieve in a domestic setting, they are able to accept a much wider range of waste including raw and cooked meat, stuff we would never want to contaminate our vegan compost bin.

Before we left France I had run down our larder so that I could minimise the weight of the moving boxes. I also didn’t want to leave anything in the house whilst it was locked up – sorry Mrs Mouse and the Loir family. I’ve gradually been restocking things like olive oil, vinegar and a few tins, and next week hope to make our first trip to the zero waste shop to explore their range of loose products. After the initial settling in period when we seemed to go to the supermarket every day, this week we had our first delivery from Sainsburys.

Although it’s only four miles away, a trip to do a ‘big shop’ still takes a couple of hours out of the day, time that could be better spent. An online order also enables me to control exactly what we buy, as we’re not tempted by impulse purchases. And, it’s great for adding food shopping for the in-laws who are now relying on us for meals. But, I wondered if shopping online was actually good for the environment. The general conclusion of the research I’ve read is that if your shopping journey is less than two miles then it is better to shop in person, whereas any journey over this distance is better to have your goods delivered. Sainsburys offer the option of ‘green’ delivery days when the van is already booked to be in the area, and with no packaging, so I selected a ‘green’ slot on Tuesday lunchtime and the delivery cost was just 50p! For ‘top-up’ shopping during the week, in particular to keep the in-laws endless supply of milk flowing, I’m just using the village shop. It’s a great resource, open from seven until ten, seven days a week and can supply virtually all of their needs; the walk there is good exercise, too.

One of the key things I did before starting the online order was to draw up a meal plan for the week and a list of all the products we use on a daily or regular basis. So, I listed out the components of our breakfasts and lunches, as we tend to eat the same or very similar things every day. I checked the storecupboard and added any items that were low or almost run out to the order. The pets’ food falls in this category too. Next, I drew up a plan for main evening meals for the next week to ten days. This isn’t set in stone, so I sometimes swap meals around if I have forgotten to start prep early enough or if we just want something quick because we are tired or busy. There are a couple of pre-prepared options like Gardein faux-fish fillets and a vegan pizza for junk-food Friday aka ‘chav tea’. Of course, as our meals are all vegan and based on lots of vegetables, legumes and pulses they’re actually not that unhealthy.

This week the menu plan has worked out well. I was able to stretch one meal into two as the Vivera Shawarma (faux kebab meat made from soya) that I bought for a pasta dish was enough to make some delicious wraps the following day, accompanied by a chickpea salad, avocado, leaves and pomegranate seeds. We ate it so quickly I forgot to take a photo. I’m also trying to expand our repertoire of recipes yet again, so each week I’m adding something new. This week it was a new lentil curry, which I based on a soup recipe from The Stingy Vegan, but with less water. Delicious and what a delight to easily get hold of fresh coriander without a 60km round trip to Grand Frais!

With our food waste, menu planning and shopping well under control it was time to turn my attention to the House. Each time we’ve visited in the past I’ve attempted to get some aspect in order; last September it was the freezer – three black bags of out-of-date products, some barely recognisable beneath the freezer burn. Since MiL’s accident I’ve been in charge of their meals, which gives me a great opportunity to sort out the shelves. So far, I have managed to get the fridge in order, although I’m fighting a losing battle with their milk obsession. If there is anything less than six pints they fear running out. I don’t know what sparks this but it is something I’ve noticed for many years: any hint of snow and the local shop or supermarket is cleared out of milk in a few hours. What do they do with it all? Sadly, and I know I’ll be in for some criticism from the hard-core vegans, I haven’t been able to convert them to plant milk as yet. So, I’ll also admit now that I am also ‘cooking’ (heating up) their meat-based ready meals for them. I draw the line at actually preparing any meat products, but simply popping a meal in the microwave and serving it up with some potatoes and veg I deal with on the same basis as feeding our old dog his favourite food. With a combined age approaching 180, I feel it is too late to get them to change their habits now, although FiL happily chowed down on a fully 100% vegan Christmas dinner and was none the wiser.

Next week I plan to tackle the larder shelves in the House, where I’ve already spotted some tins and jars with BBE dates several years behind. It is so difficult for older people with smaller appetites to use up everything in one sitting. So, I’ve been using my meal planning skills, and the ability inherited off my mother to use up scraps, to use up things that have been bought and forgotten, before they go out of date. I’m hoping that in time, with careful meal planning for the House, I’ll be able to reduce not only the amount of food waste produced, but the food bill too.

5 January 2020

Settling in and setting up our recycling station

It’s been a bit of a baptism of fire since we moved back to the UK less than three weeks ago. Three weeks? It seems longer. Apart from just the general disruption of moving, MiL fell and broke her hip about four days after we arrived, so in addition to unpacking all our boxes and dealing with snagging on our lodge, we’ve had to add nursing and cooking duties. At times like this it can feel as if life has got out of control, and for a control freak like me that’s not a good place to be. So, one way of coping that works for us is to divide all the tasks to be done into small elements, write a list and try to achieve four or five things a day. Another trick I use is to take control of areas that can be managed, and this is where recycling comes in.

Before we left France we were getting quite into the recycling habit and moving towards a plastic-free lifestyle. Moving certainly throws all these good intentions into a harsh light. You’re surrounded by cardboard boxes, and despite best intentions, there always seems to be a couple of things that you need to order, a few trips to B&Q and almost daily visits to the supermarket as you restock. Obviously, we want our new home to be vegan and cruelty-free, so all our cleaning products have to meet these standards and be recyclable or refillable. There are plenty of zero waste shops around, which I’ll be exploring in the next few months, but I’ve had to make do with Sainsburys for now. And, like the French house, the kitchen is a 100% vegan zone so, apart from pet food, no meat will cross the threshold.

The arrangements for household waste were something I wanted to get under control as quickly as possible. I’d noticed on previous visits that FiL didn’t have a very good grasp of the complicated arrangements for kerbside collections, and was pretty keen on burning stuff, too. Not at all good for the environment! It took me some time to get my head around the waste collection calendar myself, and this was not helped by the fact that the Christmas and New Year holidays added extra disruption. However, Colchester council seem to have a fairly good system for rotating fortnightly collections, although you need a plethora of bins and boxes to cope with the waste separation rules.

We have now got a system of no less than three bins, three boxes and a waste food caddy. Plastic and paper/cardboard are collected separately, so that accounts for two bins, glass and metal tins are also separated, so that’s another two boxes, plus there is a black bin for ‘all other’ waste, though each household is only permitted to put out three 60l black bags per fortnight. Waste food, including cooked debris and meat, is collected weekly, though I have left this for the in-laws, as one of the first things we bought in B&Q was a compost bin for all of our vegetable and fruit peelings. As I am strict about meal planning, and we only buy the food we eat, we have very little food waste.

Initially, we thought that the French recycling system was probably superior, with the Syded three-bin public collection points in virtually every village and hamlet for glass, paper and card, and plastic. However, having seen the volume of recycling on the kerbside on collection day, it is clear that even in a small village like this, about the same size as Châlus with under 2,000 inhabitants, the UK method is probably the most effective option. Of course, like many places, the council does not collect every type of package capable of being recycled. One such item is Tetra Paks, which I was a bit disappointed about, as apparently 90% of councils do collect these. However, the extremely helpful Eco Colchester Facebook group quickly pointed me in the right direction here – to Sainsburys, in fact, where there are large (overflowing) bins for this type of packaging, plus plastic wrap and carrier bags.

I also learned that there’s lots happening on the recycling front in Colchester, something I’ll be exploring in the future. Several centres collect products that are difficult to recycle for a company called Terracycle. For example, a local school uses this as way to raise money, with 24-hour accessible bins for things like crisp packets, bread bags, toothpaste tubes and toothbrushes, and sweet wrappers. We decided to try to help this cause, and add to our recycling project, hence yet another collection box has appeared in our recycling station. 

29 December 2019

Changes afoot at VV: an end of year review

It’s that time of year when it’s customary to look back over the previous twelve months and review the achievements and highlights, and think about New Year’s Resolutions, although I’ve tried to avoid this since writing about No Year’s Resolutions a few years ago – or, at least, if I did make a resolution I kept it to myself. Like many people, my resolutions are always the same: lose weight, get more exercise, start running, do yoga every day … I usually start well, but lapse by the middle of January; it’s so difficult establishing a new habit. In fact, the only habit I’ve managed to stick to all year has been my daily Calm app meditation, which is currently chalking up 418 uninterrupted days.

Resolutions aside, this year has seen some big changes. For a start, the Vivez Vegan website was just a vague idea this time last year. What started as a project to learn WordPress using an Udemy course has blossomed into a fully-fledged live website with over sixty individual articles on all aspects of French vegan life, plus two downloadable PDF guides. All totally free. It’s great to receive feedback and comments, like the email saying: “Your website put a smile on my face, I just love it! Thanks for putting all this great info together – it’s informative and a great support tool!” I think I’ve pretty much explored every aspect of vegan life in France – OK, maybe I did go on about the chasse a little too much – but I’ve signed up to keep the site running for another year. New for 2020 will be a recipe section, with traditional French recipes veganised.  

Alongside learning WordPress, writing or blogging has been a big feature of 2019. I made a (silent) resolution to post a blog per week on this Blogger personal blog, and with this final end-of-year review I’ve achieved this. Similarly, the Vivez Vegan website has seen a weekly (sometimes twice weekly) blog article, my business website has a monthly blog post and since July I’ve been blogging weekly for Twilight the retirement home for dogs, too. That all adds up to a lot of words, probably getting on for 100,000. Writing plans for next year? Just stick with it. Although there may be a reduction on the VV website, I’m still aiming for a weekly post on Blogger and for Twilight. And I’d like to get another book draft going – I’ve got an Udemy course for Kindle Desktop Publishing unfinished. I’ll have to see if the ‘muse’ is willing.

On the food front, no change – we’re still vegan. And, of course, 2019 was the year I cracked vegan baking. Bakewell tart is the family favourite and it went down well at the Twilight Open Day, too, though unfortunately we chose the hottest day of the year for it. There was no Twilight Christmas event this year, but I helped to run a Facebook pop-up shop and the online sales more than made up for it. The range of vegan food offerings in France has not really changed much since last year. In fact, at Intermarche in Chalus there is actually less stuff available than before, leading us to wonder if the manager has been ‘nobbled’ like the manager at Dun le Palestel whose store was blockaded by angry farmers after a OneVoice stall was allowed on the site. I must confess that after trips to Sweden and the UK, my French cooking mojo was somewhat sapped towards then end of the year.

But, changes are afoot, as I hinted last week. Team VV has returned to the UK; timescale as yet unknown. We’re staying at Mr VV’s parents’ and a good job too, as two days before Christmas his mother fell and broke her hip. This explains the lack of a write-up of our Christmas dinner. Yes, we did eat all the vegan food we’d bought on our supermarket spree, and it was excellent. But it was somewhat marred by events. However, she’s back home and on her feet again now. On the positive side, I’m looking forward to trying the huge range of vegan food available here, plus making our ‘annexe’ aka The Hut a minimalist, entirely vegan zone, with as many eco-friendly, no plastic habits as possible. I’ll be exploring all the recycling options, zero waste shops and vegan cafes in Colchester and, hopefully, joining some groups where we can meet some ‘real live’ vegans, too. There’s yoga every week in the village hall, so maybe this year will be the year that I finally crack the daily yoga resolution.

23 December 2019

Coming home for vegan Christmas

I can’t remember the last time we spent Christmas in the UK. It must have been at least ten years ago. In the past, our festive celebrations have been fairly low key events, just a special meal and a relaxing day at home, although we’ve never mastered the French tradition of eating ‘Christmas dinner’ – Réveillon – on the 24th. The French traditional meal starts late and goes on well past midnight. Nevertheless, they’ve still usually got enough energy to get up and go out on the Chasse on Christmas Day. Our first year in France (way before we became vegan) I cooked a French-style meal, I think following a recipe in the Intermarche Christmas catalogue! Subsequent years I picked a European country and we had a themed meal, following its traditions, veganised, of course. So, we’ve had Swedish no-meat balls and Janssons temptation, washed down with snapps, and Polish pierogi and latkes followed by stewed fruit and vegan cream, with vodka, of course.

This year we find ourselves in the UK (more of this in next week’s post), so what better than to explore everything that is on offer in the supermarkets to make a perfect vegan Christmas. We will be six for Christmas day; three vegans, one vegan tolerant, and two older folk who have no idea what our ‘funny food’ is all about. It will be an interesting mix. My plan, ably assisted by Mr VV’s vegan daughter (VDD), is for us to have a traditional English Christmas dinner, minus the cruelty. I suspect that, rather like the last time I cooked Christmas for a mixed audience over twenty years ago, no one will notice. Back then, there wasn’t the plethora of vegetarian options available and the ubiquitous nut roast was the veggie centrepiece. I remember mine, made to a Vegetarian Cookery School recipe, being demolished by the non-veggies in an instant.

First things first, we needed to go shopping. It can come of a bit of shock to the system when you are used to the dismal offerings of Intermarche, buoyed by the occasional fifty-kilometre round trip for a foray to Leclerc, Carrefour or Grand Frais. Sainsburys is only four miles away, is open until 10pm every night and delivers. Each time I visit I’m like a kid in a candy shop; the chill cabinets of vegan food seem to grow longer every time and all the vegan food is clearly marked. (Not quite as well as Jumbo and Albert Heijn in the Netherlands, but coming close.) In fact, the only thing I could not find was vegan-friendly toothpaste, but turn to Superdrug or Tesco and there are vegan-friendly personal care ranges, at prices much lower than the Bio shop offerings and avoiding the delivery costs of shopping online.

But, back to the question of Christmas food shopping. Sunday, in a two-and-a-half hour whirlwind, we hit four supermarkets, and still had time for a soya latte and a vegan rocky road in Costa. Many expats complain about the hectic UK lifestyle and the fact that shops are open all hours, but I love the convenience, and the feeling you get of being alive. In less time than it takes to drive to Leclerc and back we’d done a supermarket sweep and tracked down everything we needed for a vegan Christmas.
For ‘starters’ we decided to go with a party theme and loaded us up with plenty of nibbles which we can simply pop into the oven or microwave. It’s always difficult when you are cooking in a strange kitchen. The main course of a Christmas dinner is actually quite easy to veganise. The basics: roast potatoes, mashed potatoes, Brussel sprouts (with vegan ‘bacon’ bits), glazed carrots, peas, braised red cabbage, sage and onion stuffing and gravy are all vegan. Yes, Bisto is vegan! Traditional ‘pigs in blankets’ were replaced with ‘pigs in duvets’ (M&S). We were too late to track down a large vegan festive roast, but spotted some individual vegan roasts in the Co-op, another store that surprised me with its range of vegan offerings. 

Tracking down a Christmas pudding was a little trickier, as by Sunday afternoon the supermarkets had either sold out or the puddings available were not vegan. However, we came up trumps in Asda with a vegan, gluten free pud that will be great with vegan Elmlea or some traditional Birds custard made with oat milk. Asda also scored for the tastiest and cheapest vegan mince pies. Rounding off the shopping list was a Violife cheese platter with some spicy chutney, plus some savoury crackers, again from the Co-Op. All that remains is for me to cook this lot and serve up a 100% vegan Christmas dinner, washed down with some vegan champagne of course; the only thing I bought in Intermarche!

15 December 2019

Larder Challenge Number Two: Cake Fest

Usually, at this time of year, I’m up to my elbows in flour and mincemeat making cakes for the Twilight Christmas Fayre. Sadly, this year due to Mike’s ill health the fayre was cancelled, or at least postponed until Spring. I’m not sitting idle though. Linda and I are busy running a virtual Twilight Christmas Shop on Facebook, with a raffle, quirky fundraising events and sales of donated hand-made goodies, the famous Twilight calendar, book and tea towels. My role? Chief postie. This year I’m up to my elbows in jiffy bags, stamps and lists.

I hadn’t started to stock up on baking ingredients, but I did still have some flour, sugar and other bits and pieces that needed to be used up before the end of the year. So, taking inspiration from the larder challenge of a few weeks ago, this week I decided to see how many cakes I could make to use up the remaining stock. It’s a win-win for Mr VV, as we don’t normally have cake on a daily basis.

First up, I turned up a bag of dried fruit, containing about half a cup of raisins and sultanas. Not enough for a full-blown fruit cake but just right to add to a scone mix. Back in February I perfected a vegan scone recipe that is still top of my list of quick and easy bakes. You can knock up them in around half an hour, and I’ve never had a mix fail to rise into light, fluffy scones that are just perfect with a smidgeon of vegan butter or cream and strawberry jam. They don’t last long in the VV household, though they are great frozen and then quickly reheated in the microwave for thirty seconds to get that just-out-of-the-oven taste.

My next bake was a luscious coffee and walnut cake. I’d previously bought some ‘coffee sticks’ – instant coffee in individual sachets – specifically for flavouring coffee cakes and buttercream topping. I wasn’t very happy about this, as there is far too much packaging involved something I’m really trying to cut down on this year. And, contrary to Mr VV’s motto that ‘life is too short to drink bad coffee’, I had been using them for a mid-morning elevenses, rather than using ‘proper’ coffee. I pinched a few walnuts out of the breakfast mixed-nuts selection and made lashings of coffee-flavoured buttercream for the top and middle. It didn’t last long enough to photograph!

The next question was what to do with some candied ginger. This was easily solved with a Triple Ginger Cake that handily also used up the remains of a tin of black treacle, some fresh ginger lurking in the back of the fridge and a handful of pumpkin and sunflower seeds. Now that summer has gone we’re having more root vegetable casseroles than salads (seasonal eating!) so it’s good to use up the seeds before they lose quality. This sticky ginger cake was one of the first cake’s I made in my veganisation experiment earlier this year and is still a firm favourite.

By now the basics, flour, sugar and oil, were starting to run out, but there was still time for one more cake. Something new this time. A traditional New Year cake that you see all over France is the Galette des Rois or Kings’ Cake. It takes its name from the biblical story of Epiphany, celebrated on 6 January when the three kings were said to have visited the infant Jesus. From Christmas onwards you see these round cakes for sale in supermarkets and boulangeries all over France, some packaging even including a gold cardboard crown. There’s a tradition in France that the cake contains a tiny ‘féve’ (bean) and whoever gets the féve in their slice is king for the day, and gets to wear the crown. These days the féve is likely to be a plastic or porcelain figurine, often a cartoon character. I suppose it is bit like the traditional sixpence in the Christmas Pudding. I’ve always been wary about someone breaking their teeth or worse, choking, so féves  won’t feature in my vegan Galette de Rois recipe.

The basis of the traditional Galette de Rois recipe is a puff pastry tart filled with a frangipane stuffing. There are many regional variations, but I decided to follow something similar to the version in the west of France, based on a sweet crust pastry tortue with a puff pastry top. This was a good way to use up the last of some ground almonds, and although I didn’t have enough flour to make both base and lid, using shop-bought puff pastry is always easier than making your own. (I still have memories of the three-hour recipe to make ‘proper’ puff pastry for my Vegetarian Cookery School diploma.) The almond frangipane is based on my Bakewell Tart recipe. To get that authentic golden glaze, just mix two tablespoons of non-dairy , milk (I used oat) with one teaspoon of agave syrup and brush lightly over the top. Although we didn’t wait until Epiphany to taste the vegan Galette de Rois, it was certainly a success and no teeth were broken in the process!

Galette de Rois

For top: one pack of vegan puff pastry Pâte feuillette

For base:
210g T55 flour
100g vegan spread
15g sucre glace
2 tbsp chilled water

150g vegetable oil (grams - weigh in bowl)
150g white sugar
150g ground almonds
100g T55 flour
1 sachet levure chimique
100ml soy milk
1 tsp cider vinegar

First, make the pastry base by rubbing in the vegan spread to the flour. You can also do this in a food processor. When the rubbed-in mix resembles breadcrumb texture add the sugar and mix well. Then add enough ice cold water to achieve a dough. The quantity will depend on the amount of water in the brand of vegan spread you use. Then, chill the dough for at least 30 minutes. After this, remove from fridge and roll out into a circle. Use the pastry to line a shallow round greased pie dish and blind bake for 10 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool.

Next, make the frangipane. Add the cider vinegar to the soy milk and set aside to curdle. Weigh the oil into large bowl. This may seem a little odd, but it works. Then add the sugar, ground almonds, flour and levure chimique, mixing well each time. Add the milk, which should have curdled and become lumpy. Mix well to a thick batter.

Remove the shop-bought puff pastry from the fridge, unwrap and unroll. Spread the frangipane over the base making sure all covered. At this stage you can add your féve, if using one, or a dried bean! Then roll over the puff pastry lid, seal the edges and crimp into a nice fluted edge and pattern the top if you wish.

Bake at about 190c for about 30–35 minutes, cover top with foil if the puff pastry starts to burn, but you want a nice golden brown. Check the frangipane filling is cooked through with a metal skewer. Cool in the tin.

8 December 2019

Why aren’t all vegetables vegan?

I’ve come across many arguments against veganism, from humans having evolved to eat meat to the perceived threat of protein deficiency. Some of the more unusual objections are things like figs aren’t vegan, or the headline that kept popping up all summer, vegans can’t (or shouldn’t) eat avocados (and not because of their carbon footprint). This was postulated on the premise that any plant pollinated by bees isn’t vegan because the process exploits bees. I suppose that the makers of the QI comedy quiz show thought that this was amusing. But, of course, if you followed that type of argument through you’d reach the logical conclusion that you shouldn’t actually eat anything. Yes, plants are pollinated by bees, crops are fertilised with manure, combine harvesters may exterminate the local mouse family – it’s an ethical nightmare.

Raising these sorts of arguments against vegans is a common deflection technique often used by the meat lobby and meat eaters. It all strikes of ‘whataboutism’: “attempts to discredit an opponent’s position by accusing them of hypocrisy without directly refuting or disproving the argument”. It reminded me of another stupid comment that I’ve seen many times: vegetables aren’t vegan. This isn’t the even more ridiculous ‘plants feel pain’ comment, but is based on the fact that many vegetable crops are fertilised with animal manure (from farming), or with slaughterhouse by-products, like blood, fish and bone. This led me to research whether there were any vegan vegetable growers and what type of fertilisers would be acceptable to vegans.

Like many of these grey area arguments, it’s all a question of degree. I always come back to the basic definition of vegan, from the Vegan Society: “as far as is reasonably practicable” do no harm. Avoiding produce that may have been grown with animal manure is going to very difficult, unless you grow your own. It’s not going to be on the label of supermarket or market stall produce. So, I wondered if organic products would be any better? However, I was aware of the comments of a local expat acquaintance earlier this year who was trying to persuade me to buy their allotment surplus by stressing the fact that it was all grown using organic principles, including blood, fish and bone fertiliser. Yikes, the very thought of powdered slaughterhouse residue was enough to turn my stomach. Needless to say, I never took up the offer.

I wondered then, what exactly are the rules for bio or organic growing? Organic production does not permit the use of any artificial pesticides, fertilisers and herbicides (weedkillers). It also prohibits routine use of any drugs, antibiotics and wormers. The UK’s organic certification is managed by the Soil Association according to the universal European Union organic standards (EC 834/2007 & 889/2008). The rules cover three aspects: fertilisers, compounds and microorganisms. Whilst plant-based fertiliser and seaweed compounds are common, manure and poultry-based compounds are also permitted. What’s the problem with manure-based fertiliser? Apart from the animal exploitation objection, animal agriculture by-products pose other risks. The first is the potential for health problems from the animals themselves – zoonoses (diseases that cross species), antibiotics and parasites. In the EU, antibiotic contamination should be less of a problem than the US, as there are strict regulations governing use. However, farmed animals are carriers of parasites which contaminate their manure and pose problems to the food chain. In fact, food poisoning such as E. coli when found in salads can usually be traced back to manure contamination of the crops.

In the course of my research I came across the concept of biocyclic vegan agriculture. Essentially, this boils down to using plant-based compost to grow vegetables. Seemed to be common sense to me. In the example featured in the Guardian, its proponent was using compost made from vineyard and olive grove waste in Greece and Cyprus. The production process was quite lengthy – up to four years – so not a short-term solution, but there are other well-known fertiliser methods like green manures that have been around for years.

I wondered if the concept of truly vegan vegetables exists, apart from the Greek project. Turns out that it does, and it is called ‘veganic farming’, ‘veganorganic’ or stock-free organic farming. There are several groups promoting it in the UK, Europe and North America. There are about twenty veganic growers in the UK and Ireland, including the long-established Tollhurst Organic Partnership in Reading, which has been offering veg boxes, a farm shop and education with Soil Association certification for over forty years. There are also a couple of producers recorded as being in France, but I was unable to track down any more details about them on the internet. Not surprising given the French reluctance to engage with modern media.

There’s also an EU initiative called Safe Food Advocacy Europe (SAFE) which states its objective as “striving for safer food for European consumers”. It’s supported by the EU Commission. SAFE promotes stock-free organic farming, which excludes not only livestock but the use of artificial fertilisers, livestock manure, slaughterhouse residues, GMOs and anything of animal origin. Interestingly, France is not one of countries that participates in the programme (currently the UK, Germany, Italy, Cyprus, Belgium and Greece). With growing interest in veganism, and rising numbers of vegans the demand for purely vegan vegetables is only bound to increase. I’ll certainly keep a look out for vegan vegetables, but in the meantime I can only continue to do “all that is reasonable and practical not to cause harm”.