My top ten to bring us in from the January cold

January isn’t most people’s favourite month. I’ve heard a lot of people complaining about it. It’s cold. Christmas has gone and won’t be back for a long time so it seems like there’s nothing to celebrate. It hasn’t snowed. It probably won’t. A holiday to somewhere warm would be nice but….

So, with a brief nod to a lovely woman I worked with once, who said I was ‘horribly positive,’ here’s my top ten of things to warm the heart this January. In no particular order other than random selection …

  • VEGANUARY. So many people are trying a plant- based diet this January and 61% of them, according to statistics, will still be vegan by December. The Bosh! Cookbook will be out soon and, having followed their blog for years, I know there will be some sumptuous recipes to make everyone happy, whether they are looking for a Christmas dinner, a delicious burger or a chocolate cake.
  • BOOKS. There are so many good books to read. Mary Beard. Sarah Winman. Patrick Gale. This is just my January reading list. On the exercise bike, it’s amazing how many chapters I can whizz through in an hour. I’m so lucky to have good books to read.

  • FOOTBALL. After Liverpool’s monumental win over Manchester City last week, (a team I admire for their attacking football and excellent players such as De Bruyne,) the future for the Reds looks good, especially if we can sort out the goalkeeper conundrum. Plus we have signed Virgil Van Dijk, and the Fab Four (Salah, Mane, Firmino, Ox) continue to amaze. Football is theatre, a performance in two halves. Which brings me to the next one on my list.
  • THEATRE. Last year ended on a high, seeing Josie Lawrence in Mother Courage. This year promises to be brilliant too. Hamlet is on in Plymouth next month and it will be really good. I must sort out tickets and then I’ll look forward to it throughout January.
  • MUSIC. I’m enjoying Spotify while I work at the computer and my current writing backing track is Humble Pie. I love Steve Marriott’s voice and the stomping rhythm makes sure my writing is pacy. Check this one. I know it’s from way back in 1973 but who cares if it’s this good…
  • WORK.  My book cover is out. My novel follows soon and I am so excited. I’ve had a wonderful review and such kind words and real enthusiasm blow me away. It’s a joy to work with people who aren’t just incredible professionals, but truly lovely. We are blessed if we find ourselves alongside people we trust, who are supportive, efficient and completely totally nice. Kiran, Rachel, Sabah, the Avon Team – they know who they are.

  • NATURE AND TRAVEL Whatever the season, whatever the weather, being outside, travelling, going somewhere the wind blows the salt of the sea in your face, or somewhere there is nothing but silence and a deer peering behind a tree, or somewhere you have to try a new language and rethink your own lifestyle, or somewhere you can be lost in bustle and noise and culture. It’s good for the soul.
  • ANIMALS (CATS). Last year, my best cat, Pushkin, was knocked down on a lane where three cars pass daily. She was so unlucky and of course, I said, as we all do, ‘No, I won’t get another cat. Ever.’ My daughter persuaded me to adopt Monty and Murphy, two mad clowns who had been feral and will now scrounge hummus on toast. Colin is just starting to tolerate them. They are lovely and cats make such great company. I love the way they slap their bottoms full-on the keyboard when I’m editing and give me six pages of dzzsmk..rrrtlgggggggggggg

  •  FRIENDS. My friends are scattered everywhere from the North to the South. I don’t always see them all as often as I’d like. I know we have email, messenger, Facebook, Skype, Twitter, phones. When we do meet up it’s rock and roll. I have happy friends, mad friends, friends who need a hug, who give hugs. I have funny friends, talented friends, kind friends. Where would life be without friendship? I love you all.
  • FAMILY. Family is at the centre of everything I think and do. Without them, it would all mean so much less. They are my backbone. They are my smile when I wake up each morning.

You don’t choose your family. They are God’s gift to you, as you are to them. Desmond Tutu 
I’ll tell you what I’m grateful for, and that’s the clarity of understanding that the most important things in life are health, family and friends, and the time to spend on them. Kenneth Branagh.


Vegan Wars

People who love the taste of meat and then become vegetarians or vegans are admirable. The idea that you give up something you find delicious because of ethical beliefs or the idea that it is beneficial to your health is commendable. It’s much easier for me. I’ve never liked eating meat. Some of my earliest memories are of my Dad producing a pheasant from a long pocket and my mum rendering it ready for the oven, plucking it and draining the dead bird of most the shot embedded in its white flesh, although never quite all of it. I remember the sound of a fork hitting metal embedded in flesh all too vividly. I couldn’t eat it, much to their disappointment.

I’ve been vegan for a long time. I’ve never liked eggs and the last milk product I had was probably well over twenty years ago. I’m still here.

It’s not too hard to be vegan nowadays. There is a better understanding of our dietary needs; we have B12 supplements, vegan cheese, nutritional yeast, vital wheat gluten, excellent sources of proteins and vitamins and most restaurants are serving vegan options, even if it is sometimes the dreaded, ubiquitous green salad. We even make acceptable cakes, omelettes, even burgers. Better than acceptable. It’s all so much better than when I first stopped being vegetarian: I remember saying to a waiter in a restaurant  ‘I’m vegan,’ and she replied: ‘Oh, I’m so sorry. How long have you got?’

Vegans are a bunch of label readers, of questioners, and it’s easy to be thought a little pedantic when we ask ‘Were the chips fried in the same oil as the fish?’ or ‘Does the wine contain fish, eggs or milk? (Quite a lot of it does, although many wines now are clarified using clay.) However, if we don’t ask these questions, we’re often inadvertently offered food which goes against our principles. It’s not dissimilar to offering an omnivore dog’s milk or roasted puppy.

Image result for vegans

Sometimes, I think I can understand why we’re so disliked by carnivores. Often viewed as part martyr, part saint, we carry our ethics along with their lifestyle everywhere  we go. No wonder there’s that joke about vegans telling you they are a vegan before they tell you their name.

Many carnivores view vegans with suspicion. The question ‘Are you a vegan? and the reply  ‘Yes’  is quickly followed by a nervous ‘Oh, I couldn’t give up meat’ or ‘I don’t eat that much meat’ or ‘But oh, how do you live without bacon?’

Image result for vegans

It’s as if they think we are trying to convert all the world into vegans. Perhaps that’s a nice thought. So there’s the problem.

And this is the beginning of the vegan wars.

Of course, understandably, many vegans want to persuade the whole word to enjoy and value what they believe are the benefits of veganism. Many omnivores understandably feel threatened by the pressure and are uncomfortable with the inference that they are responsible for oppression and murder. Speciesism will become a big movement if it isn’t already and, like any cultural change, perspectives shift at a different rate, depending on our experience of life.

I’m asked quite often why I’m vegan and I always want to ask the same question back, why do you eat meat? But I don’t want to be aggressive. It’s simply that the default is to eat meat and any divergence has to be explained and rationalised, whereas it is interesting to question the prevailing culture of carnivorous diets and look for an answer other than because it’s there and available and everybody does it.

Health is a big issue on both sides, vegans suggesting that a diet of meat, egg and dairy, as well as being cruel, is detrimental to health. Meat eaters often claim that we can’t live without meat. Recently someone suggested to me that when cows eat grass they also hoover up tiny insects. Ergo, they can’t live without meat so therefore neither should I. QED? Logic does not always feature in some people’s arguments.

Image result for vegans

I have lots of omnivore friends who enjoy eating vegan food with me and it makes me happy that they enjoy meat-free meals and therefore are more likely to try them again. I treat meat-eaters with respect: they might eat less meat and one day even become vegan. Culture is changing. In a recent Guardian article, George Monbiot predicted that livestock farming is coming to an end. He writes some interesting and powerful words:

While we call ourselves animal lovers, and lavish kindness on our dogs and cats, we inflict brutal deprivations on billions of animals that are just as capable of suffering. The hypocrisy is so rank that future generations will marvel at how we could have failed to see it.

Plant-based meat substitutes are becoming more available and taste more and like the original. Of course, many vegans are asked why they don’t just eat real meat instead of substitutes if they like the taste, and often they are told that it is ridiculous to want to eat something which tastes like meat but isn’t when the real thing is so accessible. This is to ignore the three major beliefs of vegans entirely: that veganism is better for health, animal welfare and our environment.

Image result for vegansEating out as a vegan is easier now. When I first became vegan and went to a restaurant, I was offered a plate of lettuce. Another time, I was told there was nothing available – all the vegetables had butter on them. Even poor vegetarians had to choose between omelette and macaroni cheese. Those incidents, while on the decrease, still happen. Recently in a restaurant I rang up in advance, as I usually do, and was pleased to hear that they had vegan choices available. When I arrived, I was offered one choice:  a quinoa, feta and green leafy salad. I was impressed that quinoa was on the menu. I was offered the dish minus the feta and I asked what it would be replaced with. The vegan version would be the same price. I said an avocado or even some beetroot would do but there was a measure of surprise that I wasn’t thankful that they’d extract the cheese, and when the dish arrived for £9.95, it was 80% salad leaves, a small portion of quinoa and a slice of tomato. Not great. But there have also been occasions when I have been served with such a sumptuous plate of food that the omnivores have gazed with envy. Things are improving slowly.

Image result for vegan foodI know a few vegans who are quite aggressive towards meat eaters. Passion is high when animal suffering is on the menu. I know vegans whose argument is sentiment first, logic second, which I can understand to a point as their feelings are strong, but it often doesn’t help their cause. Equally, I know a couple of omnivores who are defensive, irritated and angry when confronted by a vegan, and will argue the case for a carnivorous diet even to the point that they suggest pulling up a radish makes it scream in pain. I’ve seen lots of strongly-worded and disrespectful interchanges on social media.

But mostly, these vegan wars don’t need to happen. So many people who eat meat or fish, eggs or dairy, are eating less of them and becoming more experimental with plant-based meals in the kitchen. Transformation is happening, albeit slowly, and most people are concerned about their health and the condition of the animals they eat as well as the taste of the food and the facility with which it can be obtained. While I enjoy making sausages from vital wheat gluten, nooch herbs and mushrooms – sausages which taste nothing like the real thing, or so I believe – there are many people who enjoy plant-based products from supermarkets which are apparently indistinguishable in texture and taste from meat.

It is likely that the industries that profit from animal slaughter will do less well as the facts of how animals are treated become better known. People are rarely wilfully cruel or inhumane, but it is easy to munch a bacon sandwich and not think about a piglet screaming. For years we have been told that milk is good for us. Now, post-Cowspiracy, many people are already changing their minds and cutting some dairy and meat from their diets. My Dad stopped eating lamb. ‘It hasn’t had a life.’ A friend no longer eats chicken. ‘I like chickens.’ The revolution has started and that means more choice is available, and there is wider understanding of the facts behind the food on the plate. I’m not sure we need a war to bring change. It’s happening already.

Image result for vegans

Christmas vegan dinner… or eat your roux with a difference

Lots of people have asked me to blog about this year’s Christmas dinner. I intended this year’s Christmas feast to be a celebration of vegan food, with imaginative and delicious differences in each dish.But you know what happens, by half three you have had four gins and a couple of ports plus some dodgy homemade Atholl Brose created from whisky, oat water, maple syrup and oat cream, you can’t even remember if you have bought brussel sprouts.

I love cooking Christmas dinner and, fortunately for me as I spend Christmas cooking in a half-stupor,  I do most of the prep the day before so I only need a bit of hubris in order to shove a few things in the oven and everyone knows hubris comes from a lot of laughs and the bottom of a bottle.

Image result for glass of atholl brose

So, this year I decided to change things just for the hell of it. My nut loaf had added protein in the form of puy lentils and it was full of mushrooms and celery, roasted almonds, chestnuts and cashews and, for the fun of it, I put in a layer of cranberry sauce as stuffing in the middle, just to see what might happen. It worked really well,  a sweet stuffing in a firm, savoury loaf. Oh, and then there was the Armagnac. A few glugs of Armagnac. In the nut loaf I mean. What else?

So, the parboiled Maris Pipers had a good squashing to make them crispy and they were roasted in a little oil and rosemary, with a good seasoning and finished with a glug of lemon juice. They were perfect: fluffy inside with a thick crispy coating. I roasted carrots and parsnips with shallots and a huge pile of jerusalem artichokes, and added some lemon thyme ten minutes before they were ready.

I love brussel sprouts, so I prepared and parboiled loads. They were finished off for 20 minutes in the oven with a couple of large glugs of vodka, some vegan bacon and black pepper. This is the best way to eat sprouts – even sprout haters don’t recognise the succulent nutty green veg. Vodka sprouts with vegan bacon is a lovely dish.

Image result for brussel sprouts

I usually make mushroom roux gravy but this year I roasted carrots, celery, garlic, mushrooms and leeks and then simmered them a little, extracting juices and flavour and I made a gravy with marsala and roux and strained the end product (Roux is plain flour and vegan butter – coconut oil, rapeseed oil, oat milk, salt and liquid lecithin). You can always add a little marmite which colours and flavours the gravy. It’s very rich and delicious.

I like the usual red cabbage, apple sauce, broccoli, roast cauliflower accompaniments, but this year I also cooked some celeriac in olive oil, then added a good dash of lemon thyme, lemon juice and a bit of seasoning and finished it off with a little added water, cooked with the lid on for 15 minutes and it’s a really delicate and delicious tasting veg.

I also made some nice yorkshire puddingy ‘popovers’ with oat milk and added a bit of gram flour to the plain flour to see if the texture would be improved. Again, crispy outside and fluffy inside, and awesome with gravy.

Image result for yorkshire pudding popovers

The meal came together really quickly and, due to my imbibing gin beforehand, I was the most happy and unstressed cook.  We have no neighbours, which is just as well as the eating part of Christmas dinner – which wasn’t ready until well after half past four due to earlier imbibing of gin and too much laughing and falling about – was accompanied by bovine orgiastic groans of  delight as everyone filled their plates too full, munched away for well over half an hour and drank Blanquette de Limoux. (I hate the phrase ‘wash it down’ when referring to wine and food. The wine isn’t to swill the food away or lubricate it’s downward passage, it just balances flavours and tastes great.)

I made a cheesecake with avocados and limes but it’s still in the freezer. No-one had space left for anything after the dinner although far too many roasties and popovers were consumed with the nut loaf.

My plan was to make crispy patties with the leftovers the next day, fried in a bit of flour and panko bread crumbs. Alas, nothing remained. Not even a small morsel of nut loaf for Colin Feral, a lick of gravy for Pushkin or a pawful of popover for Majick the cat.

By next week, I might be able to eat again.

I am not sure I agree with the sentiments of singer, Roy Wood, though. If it were Christmas every day, I think I’d be incapable of movement. Once a year is enough.

Image result for vegan roast dinner

‘It must be really hard being a vegan’

It’s something I hear quite often and I don’t mind at all when people say it. ‘It must be really hard being a vegan’ ‘You have to give up so much.’ ‘I could live without meat but exist without cheese? Never.’

I can understand why people make these comments. I’m less anarchic than I used to be. As a teenager, I would talk passionately about how meat was bad for the environment, bad for the health, bad for the animals. And so it is. But I have discovered that the best way to help people think positively about veganism is to feed them. For at least one meal, they’re vegan and who knows, they might consider having another.

I’ve done my share of cooking ‘worthy vegan food’ too: the tasteless, bland stuff with buckwheat, lentils, oats and very little else, that tastes like goat feed. I’m interested now in meals which are really nutritious, which pack in all the stuff our bodies need and none of the rubbish we don’t, allow us to peak with energy at the right time of day. It’s also important that we have meals which taste really good.

I’ve cracked making my own vegan cheese, using home made rejuvelac and soaked nuts and so I can do a really nice spanakopita with my own feta. I make melting mozzarella and hard cheddar with beer and brie and camembert and emmental. Home baked bread is crammed really full of good stuff such as chia seeds, sunflower seeds, psyllium husk  and linseeds and it is usually gluten free and always delicious. I make butter with coconut and rapeseed oils and soya lecithin and if I need to, I’ll make the occasional cake and muffin and dessert and ice cream, although salads and soups and stews and smoothies and savoury mains are my favourites, especially if they fuse lebanese, greek or asian origins. I’m branching out into soul food now and raw stuff is high on the agenda, thanks to a great local veg store.

Today I cracked a new breakfast. My  favourite Sunday protein breakfast is usually tofu scramble, although I do like making my own home made baked beans. Croissants, however, hit the plates for a change this morning as I had to find out if vegan ones were ok. They are really nice and not too hard to make and I’m told they are less greasy than the shop bought butter ones. I made them with wholemeal flour and vegan butter and shortening and they really worked well. I served them up with grape and red wine jelly, which has no sugar and is nicer than jam. A batch of dough makes 24 croissants so I put most of them in the freezer.They are next to the vegan ‘Magnum’-style  ice creams I made last week, which are packed with coconut oil, peanuts, dates, chocolate and vanilla. I’ll give most of them away as treats to non-vegans.

Autumn is a time for soups and stews and also for making lots of chutneys. I’ve made some good ones from fruits like peaches, apricots, plums, pears and mangoes.I’m pleased with the pickles and especially the pickled button mushrooms which are going down a treat. The sauerkraut has turned out to be very popular and is really gut-beneficial, so I’m happy with that.

I haven’t finished trying out new recipes by a long way. There are still vegan dishes to perfect: I’ve been working on cauliflower ‘steaks’ and carrot ‘hot dogs’ and they are almost there. It’s not hard being vegan as far as I’m concerned but I’m full of admiration for meat lovers who give it up. I know someone who adores the taste of a fried steak and hasn’t touched one in years. That’s impressive. But the days of rubbery vegan cheese and the cardboard textured lentil burger have long gone. To those people who aren’t vegan and don’t want to be: choice is everything, and you don’t have to give up for ever. But making a good vegan meal once or twice a week which tastes delicious and helps you bounce with health can’t be a bad thing. And who knows. you might even do it again. And again.




Crediton Food Fair: a festival with great taste.

I went to the Crediton Food Festival this weekend because one of my stories had been shortlisted in the Crediton Writers’ competition. It was pouring with rain, I’d eaten nothing for breakfast and I had to get up at five o’clock to make it on time. But it was certainly worth it- what a great way to spend an afternoon!

I’d never been to Crediton before- it’s a beautiful friendly town marred only by one shop dedicated to the EU leave campaign, full of predictable snarling Sun newspaper clippings. Fair play to free speech though!  I went in a coffee shop and had an almond milk latte- perfect!

The Festival, when I arrived, was in full swing and it was brilliant, despite the downpour, and everything was so well organised. There were lots of stalls dedicated to cakes, which I don’t eat, but which looked incredible for cake lovers, so I bought some for them.


With lots of tastings on offer, I sampled some Porter Stout, which looked like
the stuff my Grandma used to drink, bottle in one hand and clay pipe in the other. It
was thick and chewy and sweet -you could taste the nutrients.

I bought some Fasole bătută which is Romanian hummus, with the most delicious seed
bread, to take home for tea, and some Latvian cake for friends.

Then I bought freshly cooked vegetable noodles with chilli and garlic, which was sublime smothered with sweet chilli sauce. Lunch was excellent.


A local wine winemaker had some good wine on offer and I sampled a white and a red before buying bottles of them. It never occurred to me that English wine could be superb, and inexpensive too. I will definitely buy it again.

Recipe idea below – new potatoes, steamed and cooked in butter.(I make my own vegan butter and that will work well) – and cider. What a treat.

Apples baked in cider

There were sausages and roast wild boar and scotch eggs, burgers and falafels and paella and crêpes and cakes and cakes and cakes and the nicest, most happy people enjoying the festival, rain or no rain.People were scoffing all sorts of fine food beneath dripping tarpaulins to the sound of a swing band and there were charity fundraisers,  In -campaigners and face painters, adding to the positive flavour of the festival.

I received second prize too for my story, The Hotchiwitchi Cake, the first prize going to someone who couldn’t collect it because they lived in New Zealand,and there were lots of international entries, which added to the flavour of the festival. There was a real atmosphere of collective fun. It was a celebration of food and wine and words, a small Devon town showing that you don’t have to be big to be beautiful and that community spirit, good taste and a sense of fun is alive and well and living in Crediton. I will certainly go next year. Wouldn’t miss it, rain or no rain!

The dark truth about chocolate…

In a recent episode of Coronation Street, Cathy proposed marriage to widower Roy Cropper,  who was so focused on Carla’s post-wedding problems and the need to collect her in his car, that he brushed the would-be bride’s pleas to one side. As Cathy moaned to her nephew Alex about what had happened, he tried to console her: ‘You need chocolate.’

Chocolate is a panacea to all sorts of problems: its sweet taste is an antidote to many of life’s ups-and-downs and it takes away the bitterness of a situation, sugaring over the nasty taste of disappointment. 

Whether we’ve had a hard day at work, a difficulty in a relationship or we are feeling down in the mouth, chocolate (or it’s derivatives, from sweet drinks to coated biscuits) is often perceived as a good way of lifting a mood.

Besides being delicious chocolate, and particularly dark chocolate, contains plant chemicals called flavonoids, which could lower the risk of several health conditions, including cancer and heart disease. Chocolate also contains serotonin and precursors to serotonin, so it could possibly  increase serotonin levels, which may  be beneficial in improving people’s moods. 

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, or a chemical which nerves produce. It helps to move food through the intestines, constricting blood vessels and improving cheerfulness. Dark chocolate may decrease the effects of chronic fatigue syndrome, due to either the flavonoid content or the increase in serotonin levels so, the fact is, chocolate is good for us and Alex was right: it was exactly what Cathy needed when Roy failed to respond to her heart-felt proposal of marriage, because it would cheer her up.

The bad news is that chocolate is high in calories. A single package, containing three individually wrapped Ferrero Rocher Hazelnut Chocolates has a total of 220 calories. Of those 220 calories, 140 calories are from fat.A 28 gram bar of milk chocolate has 128 calories, 69 being from fat. It does, however, contain 7% calcium and 1% iron.

The average Briton eats almost 10kg of chocolate  every year.Some people suggest that craving chocolate is a female issue: such  cravings may be linked to low blood sugar, stress or changing hormonal levels prior to a woman’s menstrual cycle.

Chocolate provides a hit of sugar for quick energy. Research has even suggested that the  perception of chocolate as ‘sinful’ meant that women were somehow primed biologically to take more pleasure in it, the after-effect being to feel guilty. Of course, one simple answer is that people, men and women alike, enjoy chocolate because it tastes good. Moderation is key: an occasional nibble of chocolate won’t wreck your life. It isn’t wise, however, to stuff it down in daily shovelfuls.

Chocolate is one of many cultural habits which seem to be more delicious or appetizing because they are reprehensible. The idea that something is better because it is forbidden and therefore constitutes a guilty pleasure may also be the case for chips, burgers, stinky cheese, cigarettes and of course, that big empty-calorie vice, alcohol.

The belief that fat makes you fat has dominated our dietary advice for decades, but we now understand that dietary fat doesn’t necessarily make you fat. In fact, good fats in the right amounts are vital to a healthy body.

There’s still ongoing research on this topic, but we are now advised  that the overconsumption of sugar is often the main reason why people store extra weight.Excess sugar is working its way into much of our food unnoticed: consider the sky-high sugar content of processed meals and foods such as energy drinks, gluten-free snacks, canned sauces and canned food, ketchup, salad cream,  even bread and rice crackers. Some research suggests that sugars are actually addictive, calling sugar ‘the new nicotine’. Excess sugar  consumption can cause people to feel even more hungry, experience mood swings, store excess fat, and worse of all, lead to Type 2 diabetes. 

So processed foods hide a huge helping of sugar and are to be avoided at all costs.We need to become a nation of label readers or, even better, make our own foods and control exactly what goes in them.

So the moral of the tale is to enjoy a little of what you fancy: it may even do you a bit of good, in moderation, especially if we enjoy a healthy lifestyle with enough exercise and a balanced diet but, as Dr Robert Lustig says in his book, Fat Chance, which warns of a future obesity pandemic, ‘ sugar, not fat, is now considered the devil’s food.’


Would your dog eat this?

To complain or not to complain, that’s always the question. As a ‘weirdo eater’, I am always pretty humble about anyone who will feed me something I can accept: ‘Thank you, O normal carnivore establishment, for thou hast condescended to cook something I can eat.’

And that’s me, really. Ever grateful that someone has cared enough to make me a meal. This is the bottom line, the base line, the starting point. I am always glad.

I’ve been with friends who have whinged – the coffee is cold, the portion is too small, bring out the chef and hang him or her from the rafters because the meat is raw or the meat is black. And I am peaceful and smiling. Usually.

I did slightly lose it on an aeroplane once when an air hostess shoved a plate of Quorn in front of me and told me it was vegan. That was ten years ago when even the Vegetarian society weren’t happy with the use of battery hens’ eggs in Quorn. I have to admit, I did tell her where she could shove her food. Interestingly, on the way home the flight was taken by a Dutch airline who were horrified that the UK company couldn’t accommodate my food request and the crew had a whip round of their own sandwich boxes to find me some fruit. How sweet!

As a non-conformist eater, I do occasionally have to clarify what vegans can eat but I don’t mind. One of the worst meals I ever had was a buckwheat and carrot salad which was tooth breakingly bad. I offered it to a friend’s dog, and the dog was sick over it, making the point quite colourfully.

I recall being at the end of a lovely meal in a local curry restaurant and the poor waiters were run off their feet by a raucous party. After waiting for 50 minutes, I phoned them to ask for a cup of coffee. I know that’s a bit mischievous, but the coffee  was lovely!

However, this brings me to the point of my blog. I went out for a meal last weekend. I don’t see my brother often enough, or my sister-in-law, whose birthday it was, so I booked the table in the restaurant section of their local gastro-pub and drove for 200 miles to arrive in time for lunch.

Great pub, great setting, popular place, busy carvery. I’d already told them I was vegan and I would be happy with a ‘veg curry’ and, to my delight, there it was on the specials board.

Oh, what splendid food. We sat around the table and the others enjoyed baked brie and then came the fish, the chips, the steak pie, all the usual fare, piled high on plates. Then the veg curry, with rice. Ahh!

I wasn’t going to complain because everyone was having a great time and so was I, and it was just about edible to a vegan with determination to enjoy the birthday lunch. But would you have eaten it? Would your dog take a nibble?

I didn’t see anyone else with the ‘vegan option’. I’m not surprised.

The rice was ok, plain white Uncle Ben’s. Fine. The curry was mulch brown, the colour of diarrhea, but with no curry flavour, just a bit floury. The vegetables were from the carvery: just swede, sweet potatoes and potatoes. Not an onion, not a green vegetable, not a leaf of spinach in sight. And the vegetables weren’t cooked. I mean they were hard enough to be almost raw but not quite and slathered in a non-curry sauce. But I expect someone thought it was perfectly adequate for the vegan who will eat anything and be grateful, being used to there being either nothing on the menu or the ubiquitous microwaved jacket potato or green salad. And I’ve even been offered salads and potatoes and carrots that were not vegan, so I do humility and thankfulness really well.

If my local curry house can make an 8/10 vegan meal and I can cook an 8/10 at home, then this vegetable slurry was a 2. Maybe. I should have complained for the sake of all the other ‘dietary differents’ out there, and I have no qualms whatsoever about politely telling someone their food isn’t edible, but I didn’t because the occasion was bigger than my private satisfaction.

( I did ask if they had any chutney or anything which might make it taste more like a curry, though.)

It’s time to mention the people who get it right. My local Middle Eastern restaurant can fill my belly to bursting with vegan food. Most curry restaurants, bar the ones who insist on beef gravy in everything, are wonderful. In France recently I asked if it would be possible to have a vegan pizza (in French) and the waiter replied ‘Here, madame, everything is possible.’ What a great attitude.

I think it is the proper thing to  politely point out if my food isn’t nice, because that happens so rarely nowadays: the world is so much more vegan friendly. But I think it is important to expect what I eat to be not too far below the level of satisfaction that my carnivore friends can enjoy, with their high-piled plates of fish and steak pies. And it is important to be vocal about the expectations, politely, that vegan or vegetarian or any other type of food is treated with equal care and pride when it is served up.

Sadly, this was not the case with the curry-less, vegetable-sparse vegetable  curry, and rarely have I waited until I arrived home to register how uninspired I was by the worse than bland uncooked vegetable lunch.

Importantly, though, everyone had a great time and this is the primary function of a meal: to share, to laugh, to enjoy the company.

It does help a bit though if the food is eatable! (Apparently, the brie starter was fantastic, fish was nice and the ice cream puddings were delicious.)

Who’d be a vegan, eh? Next time, I’ll just ask for a salad. They can’t get that wrong- can they?

Pantry talk…not for the faint hearted.

You know how sometimes you start thinking about words and where they come from? It occurred to me yesterday for the first time that I knew the difference between a pantry and a larder. I’m sure everybody else knows it and I’ve just being a bit mentally sluggish – it has taken me a lifetime so far to work it out- but it’s obvious if you know a bit of French. Pantry – le pain– where you keep the bread. Larder – lard, les lardons– bacon – where you keep meat, so a bit cooler. How easy is that?

We don’t have pantries or larders in many houses now although some old houses may still have them, the lovely little rooms with shelves for so many filled jars and pots and a few friendly spiders.We have fridges and deep freezers and all sorts of cooling and stabilizing devices, so we don’t need larders and pantries. I am currently working on what I might make to go in a pantry, though, and I’m considering making mine as creative as possible.

Since doing a master’s and deciding to write full time, taking a break from the treadmill I used to leap onto on a daily basis, I have become a bit more self-sufficient. Cookery writing and blogging sharpened my desire and, before long, I was making my own cheese, freezing my own ice cream and finding new ways to source sauces than from a supermarket shelf.

Now I make my own (plant-based) milk, butter, tofu, mayonnaise, tomato ketchup, mustard, pie fillings, granola, sauces, pasta, pates and a variety of cheeses – I made a passable mock parmesan yesterday from brazil nuts – in addition to the bread and occasional cakes. (I rarely do sweet stuff unless it’s to share).

There is a guideline which I apply when shopping. It goes-‘if it has more than three ingredients, I should think about not buying it.’ Of course, hard-and-fast rules are mad. I’ve just made a tofu ricotta with basil and lemon zest and lemon juice and lemon salt and sunflower seeds and nutritional yeast and tofu – that’s seven ingredients and it makes for a great lasagna topping. But the idea of shop-bought tinned  baked beans with more than three ingredients or tomato ketchup with more than tomatoes and something sweet and something zingy and a bit of salt is raising the probability stakes of there being ingredients in there which I may not want. Also, it’s nice to be in control of how much salt and sugar – and which sugars – are shoved in your food!

I will never be one of those homely people who knit their cats pullovers and darn old socks and spend nights  running up curtains bending myopically over the sewing machine. But it is so easy to shove some oats in a jug to soak and the next day you add a bit of (oat) cream, whiskey, maple syrup to the drained water and you have a brilliant liqueur to share. A few almonds or cashews left overnight in some water, and you have the basis for a healthy  cheese or milk or sauce. A few unsweetened stewed apples in a jar, and a cake will rise with real conviction, no eggs needed.

Alternatively, a few mustard seeds and a couple of extras and you have a better dijon than you can buy for a fraction of the cost. Homemade mayonnaise is so much nicer than the coagulated oily gloop which comes in plastic squeezy bottles and as for homemade pickles, jams and  chutneys- they just don’t taste of anything but the ingredients, which is so good.

Health-wise, I feel much better about choosing a creamy mock-butter made from liquid lecithin and coconut oil, nut butter with three ingredients and homemade bread on my breakfast table than the stuff we can buy in supermarkets.

Now spring is coming, it’s time to get out of the pantry and onto the picnic mat, or at the barbecue. Outdoor fun  starts in March and ends in October, or even later. It’s time to collect the fresh ingredients out there and make something delicious for the pantry, and next winter will be so much warmer with home made stocks and soups and sauces, preserves and pickles.

I will fill all the empty spaces in the cupboards and then resort to putting up a few shelves for the rest of the jars. Doubtless, I will give lots of jars away. Sharing is what food is really all about, I think.

Then there is winemaking… an opportunity for another blog, another time maybe, but it is lunch time now and I have a 2006 vintage elderberry waiting for me with some homemade lasagna and granary bread, homemade butter, piccalilli and pickled onions preserved three months ago, and a leafy salad.

Bon appetit!


All about the cheese.

I used to blog about food: in particular, I used to blog vegan recipes. Apparently, veganism is a bit of a trend at the moment: Beyoncé has given it a whirl and famous full-time vegans include Joaquin Phoenix, Alec Baldwin and Prince, Natalie Portman, Grace Slick and Morrissey.

I’ve been a vegan for years – difficult to tell how long as I have never wilfully eaten meat, although I was a wilful child when confronted with it. I grew up with pheasants hanging in the kitchen, and I was regularly confronted with the feather flying, gut pulling, nauseating down burning routine which followed until the meat arrived on my plate, punctured with little hard bits of shot. It didn’t go down well.

I came from a meat eating family: my mother made a great potato pie with the scrag ends of meat; my Dad brought home pheasants and rabbits: my grandmother baked hedgehogs in clay. My being a vegan is a something of a disappointment.

I am a quieter vegan nowadays: I invite people to eat single meals without meat and enjoy the cooking rather than shout slogans about animal abuse. Of course, I respect all life and don’t eat, wear or use any animal produce, but I also respect free will.

I have lots of friends who aren’t vegans but enjoy vegan food and the thing I hear most frequently is ‘I’ couldn’t be vegan: I could give up meat but I love cheese too much.’

creamy cheese with herbs

Cheese is ubiquitous on the table: cheeses with wine, cheeses with fruit or cheese board with biscuits: goat’s cheese, sheep’s cheese, hard cheese, garlic cheese, Pont L’Eveque, Haloumi, Brebis, Gruyère, Boursin, Mozzarella. A cheese lover relishes such cheeses to cook with, to savour, to share, and most vegan cheeses are ok, some are even quite pleasant, but your average French gourmand would turn up a wrinkled nose and say something like ‘caoutchouc’ or ‘merde.’

I have spent a few months working out how to make my own vegan cheese and the results are surprisingly good. I can make a reasonable cheddar, with herbs and beer too, and a passable boursin, a fairly nice emmental, gruyère, brie, mozzarella. It’s protein-packed, as one of the main ingredients is soaked cashews, which are then ground in a strong blender.

The vital ingredient, however, is a stinky water called rejuvelac, which makes the cheese taste tangy and works along with carrageenan and other ingredients to make a flavour and texture which resembles dairy cheese.

Rejuvelac is made by soaking a grain – I use quinoa – in water and washing it out daily, keeping it somewhere warm, until the grain sprouts. The ensuing water is then left for a few days until it goes cloudy, then it can be kept in the fridge for two weeks to make cheese.

Cheddar with beer

Vegan home made cheese keeps for a couple of weeks in the fridge and it freezes well too, so I always have some basic cheese on hand to make pies and quiches, macaroni cheese, lasagne, sauces, or even to serve on the cheese board. Even better, when I try out these cheeses on friends who think they are gastronomic experts, they like them and say they are a plausible replacement. Of course, I haven’t sourced a sumptuous stilton yet, but my brie is pretty rock and roll.

12244131_1680516268885388_1222691993_n (1)
Gruyere cheese





Probably the best food I ever tasted…

Picture this: there we all were, in the middle of a country in West Africa. It was the end of the day on a beach, a superb sunset and four of us looking for food. We were an Iraqi pleasure seeker, a ravenous omnivore, a Buddhist from Burma and, the difficult one, as always, me, the vegan. There were so many places we might not eat and be compatible. Last night, our Iraqi friend sang Frank Sinatra’s My Way in a sleazy club; the night before, the Burmese brainy one beat everyone in a general knowledge quiz in a hotel pub somewhere we could not remember by the next day. I was happy to eat vegetable yassa or some rice or beans or just fruit and vegetables. Then we stumbled on Ali’s Cafe  at a crossroads in the middle of a dusty town.

Ali’s looked like a 1970s fish-n-chip café, all formica tables and cracked ceramic tiles and a cold floor and one of those blue fierce electric things on the wall which zaps bugs. There was no-one else in there, at least, no-one visible to the eye. Ali beamed and showed us to a table, brought out a bottle of Lebanese wine and said ‘A meal with no meat? No problem.’

I had no idea what was to follow, as I expected – and I would have been delighted with – a plate of hummus and bread and a bit of a salad. However, Ali turned out to be the best host in the world and a blindingly brilliant cook.

When the food came out, there were cheeses for the others, soft white goat’s cheese and creamy soft cheese topped with oil and zaatar and pastries filled with cheese and pine nuts and all sorts. But it was not one of those meals which I often find myself confronted with, where it’s all about me having to question and then avoid most of the stuff on the table. At Ali’s, I was spoilt for choice. Baked pastries with spinach and nuts and vegetables, delicious vegetables and nuts rolled in vine leaves, baba ganoush, pickled vegetables, salads such as fattouch, olives, tabbouleh, dips, sauces, fried potatoes, fried pastries, aubergine dishes, okra dishes, rices. Oh, and hummus and flatbreads. And falafel, mutabbel, mujaddara, makdous, fuul, toum, batata harra, roasted nuts.

Of course, then there was the fabulous coffee- I seldom drink coffee but this sweet black coffee was an exception – and the others nibbled honey-soaked baklava. The meal lasted for three hours – the food didn’t stop, and we ate slowly, with pauses between dishes – and of course this meant that the conversation flowed from philosophy to politics to literature and then degenerated totally to shared laughter and shared good memories.

I cook Lebanese or Middle Eastern or Mediterranean food a lot at home. Lebanese wine and the coffee are favourites too. I seek out good restaurants such as Mashawi in Exeter and Kilis just off Upper Street in Islington where the food is exceptional and the service friendly. I have great memories of both of those places; in particular, two of us were in Kilis waiting for two more people who were detained in traffic for an hour and we drank some good Lebanese wine and were uselessly happy for the rest of the meal. Good food, good company, good conversation shared. Good times.

It’s interesting how much of our culture is based on food. Family meals, sharing, celebrating. Meals at home and out with friends. No wonder Cesar Chavez said, ‘If you really want to make a friend, go to someone’s house and eat with him… the people who give you their food give you their heart.’

You don’t have to eat a lot, or drink too much. But there’s an old Irish proverb: ‘Laughter is brightest in the place where food is.’ And given their history, our Irish foreparents should probably know best.