Category Archives: food labelling

Vegans Anonymous International

(Whereupon our heroes, having stumbled into San José and enduring a sleepless night at the campsite thanks to drunk and disagreeable neighbours, pack the tent quickly and head up the east coast of Spain.)

The chairs are hiding under pastel green coverlets. The yellow paint on the walls is curdling into a sour (non-dairy) cream. The interior is dim because the curtains are closed, even though it is a bright sunny day outside in Madrid. Welcome to vegans anonymous international.

If a building can show emotion, this one would have blushed an embarrassed shade of crimson. This particular type of vegan restaurant (on the other end of the spectrum to the ‘look, it’s organic and o so funky!’ variety) does not want to draw attention to itself. Like the hermit crab, it shuffles along with the moral burden of veganism on its back like a giant house and retracts back into its shell when prodded, lights off and shutters down. It will take you hours to find, as all you have to go on is the local typewritten expat community newsletter of 1995 listing two establishments where veggies can go without fear or shame. The other one has closed down and this one is in hiding. You will pass it once, backtrack and pass it three more times before stopping in front and saying to yourself, ‘this has got to be it’, prising open the door and, as first impressions sink in, reminding yourself of the time you have invested in finding the place. This is the only reason you stay.

Vegaviana serves traditional dishes, a more interesting offering than international vegan fusion, albeit on the gloopy side and, as described, in surroundings that are almost too insecure to show themselves in public. After this experience, Dr Sin and Mrs Lomez decide not to seek out the other veggie places in Madrid, especially as they find delicious tapas on the well-trodden tourist trail, pimientos del padron and tomato salad two favourite dishes. Big Sur gives them a taste of the southern delights yet to come: salmorejo (a chunkier gazpacho padded with bread, sometimes served with jamon and manchego) and a dish of chickpeas and spinach with cumin, two dishes they would encounter many times in Andalucía. They concern themselves with hunting down craft beer instead. El Pedal sundowners were had in Madrid (the sun still reasonably high at this time), take-away bottles were bought at Lupulópolis in Seville after sampling in-house (lúpulo seems to have something to do with hops), The Market Craft Beer in Valencia was returned to for more of their Tyris brews, and Kaelderkold in Barcelona welcomed them back many times to try the rotating drops on tap.

Heading south into Cordoba, they seek out Amaltea, an organic restaurant with separate veg and meat menus, so that Mrs Lomez could have a decent meal. The options for veg are, again, inoffensive international along the lines of stir fry, seitan and salad. Mrs Lomez is feeling fairly desperate for a grain by this time, not realising they are encroaching upon a vast swathe of Moorish-influenced cous cous territory, but is ultimately disappointed by a standard couscous with roasted veg. Dr Sin, meanwhile, has an organic leg of lamb with some kind of chutney and vegetables, which purportedly is the best meal up to this point of the journey. In Seville, chickpeas and spinach is the order of the day at a restaurant near their shitty pension which serves great tapas and superb house wine, and which they return to. In Granada, the best food is served complimentary with a glass of wine, and here the hunt for craft beer morphs into a wine bar crawl. Don’t be tempted by the supposedly north African flavours at dry restaurants and shisha bars; Dr Sin and Mrs Lomez are sucked in by an ‘all vegetarian’ restaurant serving fish, only to find it a tourist trap of the least appetising kind.

They drive on into paella territory, which at its furthest reaches is found at the seafront restaurants of San José. Through dry desert landscapes of red rock formations and into the white-canvassed, alien expanse of greenhouses growing tomatoes for Europe, they eventually come to the sea. Vegan-friendly salads with asparagus and other vegetable delights are easy to find in ostensibly fish restaurants. Salmorejo gives way to gazpacho and vegetarian paella appears on most menus. The difficulty is that most paellas are made for two but as it is still off-peak season, the last restaurant on the beach-side strip is willing to accommodate the Sin-Lomez’s divergent requirements.
greenhouses of southern Spain

Their adventures at vegetarian restaurants had so far brought more joy to Dr Sin than Mrs Lomez and had not strayed far from ‘international vegan’. Mrs Lomez’s appetite for ‘traditional’ Spanish fare is far from quelled. Then they arrive at La Nova Ermita in Valencia after a long day’s drive, exhausted and famished. The menú del día consists of a very generous three starters (!creamy soup! mussels! fried whitefish!), a main and fruit, coffee and beer. The options for main include a mushroom risotto, of the enoki variety and with a hint of saffron. The search for traditional Spanish vegan has come to a satisfying conclusion. And they return two days later to an even greater feast, having given advance vegan warning. To start, Mrs Lomez has lightly fried eggplant ‘chips’, arranged in a Yahtzee tower, and for main a vegan paella, at a very generous serving to boot. This is humbly presented, loving and delicious food, with focused yet subtle flavour and without gastro pretension.

They cannot surpass this menú del día in any of the multitude of hip spots, veg or otherwise, in Barcelona, though they are staying right in the middle of the veg zone: Veg Garden, super cheap seitan/tofu/veg burgers, salads and juices, which has queues of omnivores lining up outside on a Saturday night; and Juicy Jones for more of the same though not as cheap and housed in a colourful yet somehow sour socialist painted cooperative cafe. This is another common variant of the international vegetarian strain: anarchist lite with distrusting, standoffish staff. It is not always easy to identify with such a place. But it is nice to see two young boys here of their own volition, choosing vegetarian over multinational and factory farmed. Next door is a newly opened ‘ball’ place, Atubola, akin to a gourmet Maoz, which offers a couple of veg options more than the usual chickpea (not falafel) ball, and serves biodynamic/organic/eco/preservative-free wines, poured with a touch of disdain for customers who think eating this way will make any difference to anything. This is another common variant of the international vegetarian, though the bio/eco veneer was evidently just a marketing strategy.

But at least these unremarkable restaurants give the diner the peace of mind that they are consuming non animal-derived meals. Dr Sin and Mrs Lomez were drawn in by the bright kitsch decor of Vietnamese Bun Bo Raval and Mexican Rosa del Raval on Carrer dels Angels, similarly kitted in hot pinks, ice blues and evidently owned by the same people. To the dismay of vegetarian diners, on Dr Sin and Mrs Lomez’s second visit to the Mexican the informative waiter informs that all the rice is cooked in chicken stock and so the dishes marked vegetarian on the menu that contain rice (most of them) are in fact not vegetarian at all. Veggies be warned and say something to the kitchen about this deception, which is so wrong as to be malicious. It reminds Mrs Lomez of The Cous Cous Club in Amsterdam where she expressly asked if the meal was vegan, which the chef affirmed, and then told her after the meal that butter had been forked all the way through. This was the difficulty Mrs Lomez had been warned about before coming to Spain, of seemingly veg dishes being cooked in meat stock, though a place that presents itself as hip and hep to the times, with V symbols scattered across the menu, was the last place she expected to find it. And Australia too is turning out to be a veggie minefield: back in Perth post-le grand tour, trendy new dumpling house Darlings Supper Club marks dishes vegetarian that contain oyster sauce. Deception, thy name is hipster.

And you, dear reader, have you been fooled by restaurateurs that you’re eating vegetarian when it turns out you are not?

On the next stage of le grand tour, with Bessie the blue Nissan Micra still intact after traversing Spain, Dr Sin and Mrs Lomez catch the ferry to Civitavecchia destined for adventure in Italy …

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The wild and the free

‘I used to think I was wild.’

One of the narrators in Helen Humphreys’ Wild Dogs felt wild when motorcycling through empty streets early in the morning. Alone, independent and free.

Mrs Lomez used to think she was wild when she stayed up late and purposefully deprived herself of sleep, did not change out of her clothes and did not shower, ate only coffee. Trying to find a natural state without the things that surround you in abundance. Ah, student days. We grow up and realise not that we have grown into domestication but that these little quirks and gestures were never signs of wildness.

When we talk about wildness, we invoke independence, rebellion, passion. For humans maybe and for some animals too: often we talk about wild wolves, wild foxes, wild boars and all sorts of other wild ‘life’. Badgers are not a species we’d associate with wildness, though perhaps with the more politically correct ‘free living’.

Politically correct it may be but it also gives false ideas about how much these animals are allowed to keep to themselves. Take British badgers, for example, going about their lives and then one day, with the passing of new legislation, humans are shooting guns at them. As a good badger friend of Mrs Lomez once said, ‘life in the wild is tough enough without some wanker with a gun trying to hunt you down’. Wild animals also have homes, families, responsibilities, patterns of behaviour; they do not live in isolation.

The reason for the shooting, supposedly, is that these free-living creatures pose a threat to domesticated cattle in the form of bovine tuberculosis. Mrs Lomez won’t go into why this is a load of crock here – all that information is available for those who care to look for it, dairy farmers and government ministers included – but it shows how the domesticated is perceived to be more valuable than the wild. These cows are someone’s property, they are the symbol of someone’s livelihood. And human livelihoods always win out over other animals’. And because badgers are not especially forthcoming in their affection toward humans, being nocturnal and shy, they are expendable.

You wouldn’t think it would be such a big deal, sticking up for badgers in the face of a massacre by stealth. This is not loaded with class connotations as fox hunting is. But the badger cull has been obscured into nationalistic solidarity with dairy farmers against a benign and unsuspecting little furry animal. Never mind that the cause of bovine TB could very well be found in intensive farming practices, nor that the British public has already unwittingly been eating cows infected by TB and still declared safe by the Food Standards Agency. It is difficult to see what British dairy farming or the UK government could stand to gain from killing badgers.

So it was that on June 1 thousands of people dressed in black and white marched on London town, from Millbank to St James’s Park, in support of badgers’ right to life, a free life. Just days earlier a report into the decline of British wildlife, State of Nature, had been published, showing a concerning drop in populations of wild animals and plants. The preplanned route of the march was diverted by police trying to appease the English Defence League, which had organised an impromptu rally. Mrs Lomez wonders who the police thought posed the bigger threat: a right-wing, anti-migrant group, or a bunch of animal advocates. The badger march was peaceful, would you believe: so many thousands of animal activists showing non-violent solidarity with a species that cannot vocalise its own defence. One domesticated species standing up for the wild.

Like Kinsey’s spectrum of sexuality, perhaps all animals, human and otherwise, exist on a continuum of wildness at one end and domestication at the other, and we move along this scale in both directions throughout our lives. Wild spirits are meant to be prized. The free-living are meant to be protected. The narrator in Wild Dogs lives with a dog who decides to join a wild pack. A dog that chooses a life in the wild over domestication. These wild spirits get a reputation for being uncontrollable and dangerous. And they are hunted down.

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Horse meat disco / What is at steak

At first it was just a few burgers in the ‘value’ ranges of some supermarkets, with levels of up to 30 per cent at most, quietly withdrawn from sale with only passing mention in the press. A few weeks later, frozen lasagnes were found to contain 100 per cent horse meat and then it was all over the news. Horse meat was found in spaghetti bolognese, mince meat, in school and hospital foods, at IKEA and not only in frozen food. Bolognese sauce and chili con carne also contained horse. Everywhere, ready-made meals supposedly from cows in fact contained a bit, or a lot, of horses.

On the radio, FSA spokespeople were audibly flustered at suggestions the authority had been asleep on the watch. Supermarkets were keeping schtum, neither denying nor confirming they had known all along. A couple of UK slaughterhouses were raided and said they had nothing to hide. Suspicions were focused on Romania until they produced documentation proving they had correctly labelled their horse meat. Nobody fesses up and nobody can say who is responsible. Sales of frozen beef go down, while local butchers pick up business. Sales of vegetables remain the same. In other news, police in the US are on a manhunt for a disaffected former colleague and the UK government’s workfare scheme is declared illegal. North Korea explodes a nuclear bomb underground.

Investigators get lost in the supply chain: animals transported all over Europe are slaughtered in one country then pass through agents in another country, who send them on to food factories in other countries, which export their products all over. All UK supermarkets are ordered to test their cow products for horses and 17 of the more than 5000 products tested come back positive. The numbers are perhaps not quite as alarming as feared. Some consumers don’t care, some are disgusted. Waitrose says its frozen meatballs contain pig DNA. A food authenticity expert says lamb products should also be tested. An ex-FSA expert says all this was bound to happen after an EU ruling that pink slime – mechanically reformed flesh taken off the bone with a high-pressure hose – cannot be used as material for human food. There was suddenly no cheap source of meat. And then along came the horses.

Vegetarians perhaps are less surprised at each passing day’s revelations. Non-vegetarians feel horror, disgust, shock. The horror – that what you are eating is not what you think it is. Imagine finding out that Quorn actually contains 97% horses, processed beyond all recognition. What next? Linda McCartney pies? Even meat-eaters can’t believe they are vegetarian. Honest food labelling is important for all.

There is some bleak humour to be found in the timing of the scandal breaking as David Cameron tries to distance the UK from the EU with intimations of an in/out referendum. At first the problem seemed to stem from the continent; they eat horses in France, after all. But then the scandal hits home. Look, Dave, you have been European all along.  ‘Now it’s British beef’ cries the MailThe Daily Telegraph is aghast that ‘Horse meat [is] found in UK firms’. But horses have long been slaughtered in the UK to be turned into food products, though mostly to be fed to our pets, who would also be grateful for some accurate food labelling. After all, where do all the horses go, including the discarded failures of the quest to create champion thoroughbreds? They shoot horses, don’t they? There is confusion over what role these UK businesses play. Assurances from supermarkets that they will only source meat from British animals will not necessarily prevent future contamination. The answer put forward is improved food traceability and shorter supply chains.

No real cause for alarm yet from the health department, despite warnings over the horse painkiller bute ending up in the human food chain and the apparent uselessness of the horse ‘passport’ system. The response is strikingly different to when news of BSE in British cows broke. For a long time it didn’t break at all, though agriculturalists knew what was happening. When finally it did, the potentially fatal consequences were downplayed. It took almost a decade to get British beef off the shelves. But at the first indication of horse meat, supermarket refrigerators are cleared overnight. Still no major health implications announced.

At stake is Britain’s mythology of itself (the same goes for all other non-horse eating societies). Harriet Ritvo puts the time lag in the BSE period down to myth: of great British beef, a nation built on the backs of cows, animal breeds prized throughout Europe. Its importance in Britain’s economy could not be downplayed. At the time nationalist non-vegetarians in Britain were pressuring each other into eating potentially infectious cow meat, while on the other side of the world in Australia the Red Cross has struck off any potential blood donors who had no more than stepped on British soil between 1986 and 1996. vCJD, the human variant of BSE, can take years to incubate once transmitted and 2012 was the first year without a reported death from vCJD in Britain,  more than 15 years after the UK government first said anything official, and many more years since farmers started mumbling about what was happening to their cows, having fed them the brain tissue of their dead brethren.

Britons do not eat horses. This is as much a part of their mythology as that they do eat cows. The UK would not be the only nation to affiliate one of its chief exports with its imagined national identity: Australians eat lamb because sheep are a part of that country’s mythology: white settlement was built on the backs of sheep transported on ships from England. The least an Australian can do to honour that history is to kill and eat an ancestor of these ovine migrants.

Perhaps eating British horses is less of a health risk than eating British cows, now being scourged by bovine TB. That this situation has arisen from intensive farming practices will not stand in the way of a good old-fashioned badger massacre. The problem is always in another type of animal – the wild ones, the foreign ones – and the solution is, inevitably, to kill all the animals and be more careful about which ones you eat. Is improved food traceability the only change that is needed?

Further reading:

‘Mad cow mysteries’, Harriet Ritvo, The American Scholar 67 (2): 113-122, 1998.

‘Veganism is the answer to the inevitable question’, Jasmijn de Boo, The Huffington Post Blog23 February 2013.

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