Love junk: the rise and rise of vegan comfort food
by Jess Carter
08 January 2019
’Tis the season for comfort food – as the mercury drops, cravings escalate, right? thanks to the ever-growing vegan offering on our patch, we now have the choice to go plant-based when it comes to all that culinary filth we’re hankering after. We speak to local pros about the rise of vegan comfort food...
A small group of people is herded out of Swoon just off Bath’s Kingsmead Square by Jenni Tame, most of them still talking about how creamy that dairyfree sorbetto was. The small assembly is made up of a mixed bag of hungry punters – some local, some tourists, some vegan, some most definitely not. This is The Herbitour – Bath’s dedicated vegan food tour. Jenni established the business in 2018, in order to showcase the best local spots for vegan grub – even in the pint-sized city of Bath, the offerings are exciting and plentiful.
“We have had a fantastic first six months,” she tells me. “The response to the tours has been amazing.” And she’s not just talking about the uptake from vegans, either. “So far we have had a 50/50 split of curious meat eaters and vegans. Meat eaters want to see what all of the fuss is about – and always leave impressed with how much variety there is with vegan food.”
Indeed, the vegan market isn’t driven by vegans alone. The proliferation of vegan food and drink – and the demand for it – isn’t just down to people deciding to stick to an entirely plant-based diet (although, a survey last spring found that the number of people who have dedicated themselves to such a lifestyle in the UK has now tipped the 3.5 million mark), but also those looking to cut back on animal products, up their veg, and just generally broaden their culinary horizons.
So, veganism has gone mainstream. It’s no longer seen as the domain of moccasin-wearing, out-there bohos – everyone wants a slice. (Of vegan cashew cake, natch.) “The misconception that [veganism] is all kale salads has flown out the window – and been replaced by dirty burgers, decadent cakes and banging meat-free roasties down the pub,” notes Gemma Ann Lewis, founder of Dark Matters brownie-making biz.
While this might seem really forward-thinking and progressive, that’s probably only because of the huge reliance in our food culture on animal-based products. Ariel Czackers, co-owner of Biblos and Calypso Kitchen along with William Clark, points out that, for many cultures, plant-based food is actually the norm.
“Culturally, vegan food has always been around in both my and William’s families – but we never thought of it as ‘vegan’. A large proportion of Middle Eastern and Caribbean dishes are traditionally vegan by default, rather than by design.”
Vegan food – including the dirty kind, the type that curbs those cravings and hits the spot usually nailed by cheese-drenched carbs and the like – has started to become a really integral part of many food businesses, and has begun to change the commercial dynamic.
“From doing the vegan Herbitour tours, I was inspired to start the Hungry Herbie, which is a vegan discount card,” says Jenni Tame. “We are still in very early days, but have already had a lot of uptake. We currently have around 50 venues offering discounts on dining, markets, lifestyle and beauty, with the list constantly growing.”
The rise in demand for vegan offerings also led to Amy Magner founding her biz, Relish.
“It all started with a small weekly supper club and has now grown into a catering company, providing food for weddings, corporate events and birthdays – and a sell-out market stall, which I’m truly blown away by,” she says. “I’ve had so many people through my door to try my food, and it’s been something that I feel has been fully welcomed by the people of Bath. People are so curious about vegan food, and it’s great that the general public are so interested in learning about changing to a more plant based Lifestyle.”
Not only has the public’s interest in plant-based food carved out new niches to be filled, but it has informed the development of pre-existing food businesses, too.
“[Vegan food] has been the biggest growth area in our business over the past two years, without a doubt,” says Dan Bekhradnia, founder of The Burger Joint.
“And I know we’re not alone in experiencing this. The increased demand has forced restaurants to raise their game with what vegan options they offer.”
Amy agrees – and has noticed a marked development in the local offering, which is now rich in food that ticks the guilty pleasure and vegan-friendly boxes.
“I think the range of vegan comfort foods in Bath has grown enormously over the last year,” she says, “to the point where, whichever restaurant you go to, you’re bound to be able to eat something really delicious and filling. I remember doing Veganuary a few years ago, and having to eat chips and salad everywhere I went – because there were just no vegan options. Now there are so many, it’s sometimes difficult to choose! From pies at The Raven to loaded vegan pizza at Dough and The Oven and hearty roasts at Nourish, it really is tough to decide, and the choice seems to be increasing on a weekly basis, which is amazing. There’s always room for more, though!”
And we’re not only seeing this in the bustling cities, where trends spread like the winter lurgy, either. It’s very much being noticed in more rural areas and smaller towns, too.
Anna Southwell is the foodie behind the now vegetarian Loves Café in Weston-super-Mare. She was hesitant about making the transition away from meat at first – and understandably so.
“I’d wanted to make the change for a number of years, but was concerned with how it would go down in Weston,” she says. “Being outside the mainstream has always brought its own challenges here.
“But last January we ran a Loves Yourself month, where we focused on vegan food, and our menus were so well received that it gave me the confidence to finally make the change.”
And the team continue to be surprised at the popularity of plant-based alternatives among their customers, too.
“We keep almond, soya and oat milk as dairy alternatives for hot drinks, and have sold six times more of them than dairy milk this year, so are seriously considering stopping cow’s milk from January onwards. The alternatives are so good now.”
Noda Marvani opened Persian mezze bar Koocha in 2018, and it’s been 100-percent plant-based right from the get-go. The team here has watched as vegan food has been introduced to longtime meat eaters, and again, found new audiences in unlikely places.
“We notice lots of parents and grandparents being encouraged by their adult children [to try our vegan food],” says Noda. “Whilst they are very apprehensive initially, they all seem pleasantly surprised that, not only is the food full of wonderful flavour, but it’s also filling.”
Of course, there are plenty of dishes that simply have no call for meat, dairy or other animal products. But there are a whole lot – especially in this comfort food genre – that do. So, recreating these dishes and products using plants has become something of an on-going endeavour for many forward-thinking food businesses – and with remarkably successful results.
“There has always been really good plant-based vegan ingredients and products,” says Biblos’ William Clarke. “But the big shift recently has come from products that have the texture and taste of meat, which hits a spot with many vegans and non-vegans alike.”
We’ve all seen that test-tube meat in the media, right? We’re talking proper burger patties – grown in a lab by people in long white coats – that even bleed like real beef. While that’s quite an extreme version of a meat impersonator, there are plenty of decidedly more natural examples being served on our patch, ones that you don’t need a science qualification to make.
Take Honest Burgers’ Plant Burger. It features a vegan patty that’s been made from vegetables by Beyond Meat. Despite its ingredients, this burger seems pretty meaty; it’s brown on the outside and blushes pink within (thanks to the clever addition of beetroot), and, while it’s a bit softer than your average beef patty, and more subtly flavoured, it has a great ground texture – not unlike the burger chain’s hand-chopped mince versions.
“Texture is the big issue,” says Honest Burgers co-founder Tom Barton. “And this one is very convincing. There are a lot of new plant-based burgers on the market, but the Beyond Meat patty is handsdown the best – it has a great bite, a tender texture and sears like meat. And, unlike many of its competitors, it’s gluten-free and uses no GMO ingredients.”
At Honest Burgers it’s topped with smoked vegan gouda cheese and vegan chipotle mayo, made with aquafaba, to give what might be the city’s closest vegan example of a real, meaty burger. Elsewhere in the city, Koocha serves a vegan doner kebab; its grilled seitan (a wheat gluten product that can be cooked much like meat) makes a great-textured replica of the meat that’s carved from the rotisserie in a takeaway joint. It comes with all the usual trimmings, including tzatziki and chilli sauces, tucked up inside a warm pitta.
I’ve also had some great tacos from plant-based joint Nourish in Bath, where barbecued jackfruit does a convincing impression of pulled pork, and is topped with pico de gallo, guac and a coconut yoghurt and coriander sauce.
“There seem to be three main reasons why people choose to lead a vegan lifestyle,” says Jenni. “The animals, the environment, and the health benefits. Certainly, I’ve had people who’ve turned to the vegan lifestyle for all of these reasons on my tours, and it is always very personal to them. They might have seen a video, decided to improve their health or discovered the massive effect animal agriculture has on the environment.”
And, in some cases, these are the same reasons that businesses decide to change up their offering to focus on plants – it’s not all simply to do with meeting demand and cashing in. Take Gemma of Dark Matters – for her, the moral implications meant she had to make her bakery vegan or close it entirely, she tells me.
“The decision to transition the business to being completely vegan was an easy one,” Gemma says. “After running for a few years we became very conscious of the increasing quantities of ingredients we were buying, and the possible impact this may have on the world around us. I had friends who were vegan but also friends living and working in the farming industries, so I was aware of the arguments involved on each side, but had never really given either much more thought.
“We were spending a lot of money every week on eggs, milk and dairy products and, as I envisioned the business growing, I thought it our responsibility to find out as much as I could about the industries we were funding. Unfortunately, we didn’t like what we saw. A big issue for us was sustainability, but our research into the animal welfare issues and industry practices, and the cruelty that is rife in these kinds of industries, was the real deciding factor.
“We were initially somewhat worried about the decision to transition the business. However, I’d made the personal decision that, if it didn’t work out, I wouldn’t be able to continue running a non-vegan bakery business.”