Ten years ago vegetarian options were woeful. Meat-free diners would find one option on a menu, and there was a high chance it would be a goat’s cheese and red onion tart. Twenty years ago, veggies were lucky if there was anything on a menu they could eat at all, and were about as welcome in smart restaurants as someone smuggling in a McDonalds takeaway.
In 2016, that’s all changed. Thanks to chefs like Yotam Ottolenghi and Bruno Loubet, and healthy eating bloggers like Deliciously Ella, the vegetable is now king. So much so, that the new wave of vegetable-centric cookbooks, restaurants and menus aren’t just being snapped up by herbivores, but by an increasing number of Brits who want to cut down on their meat intake and go meat-free several times a week. It’s called part-time vegetarianism and it’s here to stay.
“There was a 118% increase in vegetable-centric dishes on UK menus in 2015,” says Charles Banks of trends agency, The Food People. Veg has gone from afterthought to centre stage thanks to restaurants like Grain Store in London (there is a small amount of meat on the menu, but vegetables are the focus), and Ottolenghi, where grains, pulses and vegetables are the star. The current popularity of healthy-eating bloggers like Deliciously Ella (whose recipes are all meat-free) is also having an effect, as are the juice bars and healthy-eating cafes popping up in major cities across the UK. A quick glance on Amazon reveals the popularity of veg-centric cookbooks, even among those who still like a little meat in their diet. Recent hits include Fast Days and Feast Days by Elly Curshen (a pescatarian), Every Day by Deliciously Ella, and The New Vegetarian by Alice Hart.
“Without doubt the general climate has changed, making vegetarian food a normality and a pleasure rather than a (worthy) rarity or, worse, the butt of jokes,” says Hart, a food writer who loves creating vegetarian dishes but isn’t vegetarian. According to Hart there are several reasons why we’re eating less meat and more veg. “Food is becoming more centred on nurturing and health – in simple terms, we know that eating lots of vegetables is good for us,” she says. Cost is also a factor, with rising food prices putting meat-and-two-veg dinners beyond the household budgets of many of us. There’s a trend towards eating better-quality meat, but less often – like they do in countries like Italy, where cooks on tight budgets have always made the most of seasonal veg and pulses. “More and more Brits are eating less meat but choosing higher-welfare options when they do,” says Hart.
Social media is also driving the trend for veg-centric food. The ‘dude food’ of recent years – burgers, pulled pork et al – is giving way to pictures of salads, porridge and pretty plates of seasonal veggies. “If you see a beautiful plateful of colourful vegetarian food on, say, Instagram, you’re more likely to be inspired to make something similar for your supper,” says Hart. The popularity of Meat-Free Mondays, set up by Paul, Mary and Stella McCartney in 2009, has also played a part in raising the profile of vegetarian food online.
At restaurants, the days of the token veggie dish buried at the bottom of the menu are – mostly – behind us. In fact, sometimes the vegetarian options are so good, it’s not just meat-avoiders ordering them. Take Lindeth Howe for example. At this country-house hotel restaurant in Cumbria, there are not one, but two vegetarian menus, popular with non-veggie diners, too. You can eat meat-free a la carte, or splash out on the 10-course ‘field and furrow’ tasting menu. “The menus make vegetarians feel included, not an afterthought,” says Head Chef Chris Davies. The tasting menu is his chance to be creative and defy expectations about vegetarian dishes. “I play around with a lot of the dishes – ‘steak and chips’ is actually chargrilled halloumi with butternut squash chips and a béarnaise sauce.” Similarly, a starter of wild porcini mushroom tea and scone, includes a mushroom consommé that looks like a sugar cube served with a cheese and thyme scone. For Davies, a vegetarian menu is a chance to make the most of seasonal produce. “Vegetable seasons are shorter than for meat and fish, so our vegetarian menus help champion seasonal eating. I change them not at set times, but as things come into season, like this year’s asparagus.”
Seasonal, affordable, imaginative, healthy and delicious… vegetarian food has come a long way. Even if you’re a committed carnivore, it makes sense to eat meat-free a few times a week. Your wallet – and your palate – will thank you for it.
Katy Salter is our food and travel writer. She contributes to most of the UK’s major food titles, The Guardian and The Telegraph. In 2012, Stylist named Katy one of its ‘Top 20 Food Heroines,’ alongside Mary Berry, Lorraine Pascale and Delia Smith.