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.’

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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.

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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.

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Gruyere cheese

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

Vegans. Are they the paragon of animals or have they lost all their mirth?

I am Judy, and I am a vegan.

I try to keep it quiet, except in restaurants. Over the years I have developed the skill of asking for something I can eat, latterly even expecting it. I have had well over 20 years of practice.

I am not a quiet vegan in my blogging, however. I blog recipes and occasionally restaurant reviews, although I tend to only comment on the good ones. I am a member of several vegan FaceBook groups and I use this channel to highlight my blog posts and put up pictures of  my scrumptious food. I never understood why vegans were such a loathed bunch until I encountered these groups. I’m not referring to the delightful recipe sharing facebook pages like ‘Vegan Friends’ and ‘Vegans Who Don’t Argue’. Lovely people!

If someone shares one meal with me, they are vegan for that period of time.

No, the nasties lurk in nefarious corridors, waiting for any opportunity to spit venom at those omnivores, their hated enemies. I shuddered at the comment which was posted when the World Health Organisation revealed a few weeks ago that some meats are carcinogenic, and in the same bracket in that regard as cigarette smoke or asbestos. One of the somewhat less empathetic vegans in one of the more belligerent groups posted ‘Karma’, a bisyllabic reaction akin to the Sun’s vituperate ‘Gotcha’ after the sinking of the Belgrano.

Equally nauseous are posts along such lines as: ‘I can’t find a boyfriend because I could never kiss a carnivore.’ Even worse are the egocentric one-up-person-ship rants which vie for being the best vegan in town. ‘Oh, I never cook with coconut oil. I find hemp is so much better in my vegan batters.’ I very quickly leave groups like this and share my blog with nicer people. But it is no wonder the world is wary of such vegans.

My own philosophy is that people can make decisions for themselves. I am happy with my own choice and I am comfortable with the balanced food I make and the small contribution I offer to the environment and to animal welfare. But it isn’t my place to make omnivores swallow my ethics, although I am always happy for them to eat my food and make a point of inviting them round. I even kiss some of them.

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The question…

If someone shares one meal with me, they are vegan for that period of time; even better, they are nourished and happy, and we can dispense with foodist labels. I will share my philosophy about why I am a vegan only when asked to do so. Often I will ask in reply: ‘Tell me why you eat meat.’ The answer  is normally because that person always has – it is how they were brought up. It is the norm. Why change?

My site, veganbaconbites.com is about sharing love food, sharing healthy ingredients and not sharing negative judgements. We vegans may be helping the world and its animals even if we eat tasteless rubbish in a sanctimonious and belligerent fashion. But there is a better way. Why would we love animals and hate fellow humans based on what they have for dinner? Why would we settle for gritty, grey gunk? Rather, let’s share delicious food and celebrate each mouthful together.

And while I am on that point, I often hear people say ‘I could do without meat but I love cheese and could never give it up.’ I really do sympathise: you can’t deep fry or oven bake the wad of rubbery blandness which defines some vegan cheeses and make it taste like camembert.  You can’t spread or melt or make tasty, piquant sauces from the chunky, lumpy plastic that constitutes some of the vegan cheese you can buy. French people I know have laughed at the notion of vegan cheese substitutes, however noble they are and however adequately they work in quiches and frittatas.

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My delicious vegan brie

But watch this space. I have discovered how to make rejuvelac, and from this acrid-cat’s-pee-fermented-quinoa-water-monstrosity will come the most delicious vegan cheeses, which I will readily share over on my recipe blog.

Keep a space on your plate. We are lucky to have food, to have a say over what we eat. Whether you are vegan or not, we can share the food and love.