I’m going to describe the process of making vegan cheese. Later, I’ll tell you how popular veganism is, how it’s the dietary habit of the age, how all its staples and hangouts have changed and how to cook a vegan dinner for omnivores in a way that won’t leave them feeling shortchanged on deliciousness or still hungry. But first I have to talk about the cheese, because I found it quite traumatic.
You grind cashews in a food processor, then add garlic powder, salt, onion powder and deactivated nutritional yeast. The latter ingredient won’t make anything rise; it brings nothing to the party except its distinctive flavour, which vegans call “cheesy”, but is more accurately “yeasty”. That done, you heat soya milk with oil and several flakes of agar-agar – a tasteless vegan alternative to gelatine – which dissolve into the liquid over 10 minutes, except they don’t, not really.
Nothing coheres the way you expect. Substances float around each other until you crush them all with a blender. Add a bit of white miso, lemon juice, truffle oil, chives: survey your wreckage, which will be the wrong colour (cream with a hint of grey) and the wrong consistency (gluey). Then set it for a few hours, whereupon it becomes something else entirely. It still doesn’t taste of cheese, and it has a spongy bounciness that is unlike any cheese I have met (not even Edam comes close), but it’s actually … fine. There is nothing wrong with this substance. Slice it over some asparagus and toasted walnuts and you have a perfectly edible thing. But the process took me miles away from anything I understood about food, into the realms of papier-mache or slime. As Otto von Bismarck supposedly said of the sausage, if you want to enjoy it, it’s best not to see it being made.
The experiment was part of my attempt at being a vegan and a foodie. I wanted to find out if there was a way for veganism to open up a world of culinary possibilities, rather than shutting them down. It is possible to be quite an unhealthy vegan, as I discovered the first time I tried cutting out meat and dairy, for fitness purposes. If you don’t plan it, you end up living on chips. This time, I vowed, would be different.
There has been a lot of experimentation in this area recently, from the London chef who has created “faux gras”, made of lentils, walnuts, shallots and mushrooms, said by some (including him) to be better than the real thing, to the rise of the Impossible Burger, a patty made of plant materials that “bleeds” (the company has reportedly attracted investment of $400m). Vegan food is becoming more readily available in supermarkets: Waitrose last month launched a dedicated vegan sectionin more than 130 of its stores, while Tesco now employs a “director of plant-based innovation” and Iceland is expanding its vegan offerings due to bumper sales of its meat-free No Bull burgers. Meanwhile, it was reported in May that the biggest way to reduce your environmental impact is to give up meat and dairy products. If everyone stopped eating these, global farmland could be reduced by an area the size of the US, China, the European Union and Australia combined (and everyone would still get fed).
Food fads come and go, but veganism, with its unarguable moral premise, seems quite solid; the number of vegans in the UK tripled between 2006 and 2016.
If you start with ethics (one friend, a vegan and a philosopher, used to say: “I wouldn’t kick a cat to death just because I enjoyed it”), pleasure becomes irrelevant: nothing tastes as good as moral feels. But do you make a vegan diet pleasurable by trying to replicate animal products using plants? Or do you retrain your palate so that it’s no longer on a quest for the meat’n’cheese mouthfeel?
The rise of seitan – a washed-wheat ingredient that can taste uncannily like meat, although not always – has created a new division, between the vegans who miss Nando’s and the ones to whom Nando’s represents the thing they were gladdest to escape. Jackfruit, another “foodie” alternative to meat, is weird: you can find it everywhere, from the Bonnington Cafe, the vegan pilgrimage destination in Vauxhall, south London, to Starbucks, but I have never seen a fresh one – it comes tinned and usually brined. Super-pure vegans complain about the saltiness, but that doesn’t trouble me. My problem is the texture. It starts off crunchy and squishy, then turns jammy, and there’s an aftertaste like tinned artichoke water. Apart from jackfruit, significant recent vegan developments have been in dairy-like foods – nearly everything, it turns out, can be squeezed into a milk – or, rather, a m*lk.
When cooking for children, I did what I always do when I’m trying to make them eat something they won’t like: make everything smaller than usual, so that it’s cute, then shout at them. Tiny pizzas with fake bacon were topped with a vegan mozzarella, which went transparent in the cooking process and shrivelled a bit, so it looked like I had festooned them with condoms. The bacon had an overwhelming fake-maple flavour and a chemical chewiness. It went down like a dead mouse in a quiche. Cicely, 10, would eat the tofu frankfurters, but only in microscopic amounts and to be nice. Thurston, also 10, wouldn’t even put the falafel koftes in his mouth.
I made some peanut butter and jelly bars with vegan egg and an unholy quantity of peanuts. Anything that smells overpoweringly of egg but isn’t an egg makes you think someone has done something terrible to your recipe, spilt chemicals in it or farted. The coconut oil brought an oleaginous clag and an aroma of bodywash. I should never have gone near vegan baking before talking to the chef Nicky Elliott, who counselled against going in on egg replacements. “When I bake, I use flax or chia seed. You can replace three eggs, but no more,” she says. “I wouldn’t use vegan cheese, because it just isn’t great – yet. Kids like to get involved, so often they’ll eat something they had a hand in making that they wouldn’t eat otherwise.”
The final lifestyle experiment was a vegan dinner party, with a cook-off element, in which I tried to replicate meat and dairy dishes from scratch. My husband took on food that was always intended to be vegan: Madhur Jaffrey’s courgette meatballs (for which he used some oat cream) and Colman Andrews’s Catalan paella. I made the aforementioned asparagus with “cheese”, some vegan chorizo that didn’t work because I used the wrong kind of tofu, and some pulled “pork” that was actually mushrooms smothered in black treacle, sugar and soy. We fed it to some young people, since they seem to be more receptive to these shenanigans, plus my husband’s new Momentum friend (he joined without telling me; who does that?), on the basis that she was probably vegan (in fact, she will eat anything and is normal in all kinds of other ways).
Everyone was polite about the vegan cheese, but I wouldn’t repeat it. The pulled mushroom sliders went down well, a kind of in-your-face taste explosion. You couldn’t have picked apart the mushroom from the fiery coleslaw, but it didn’t matter, because it was so sweet and salty that tasting any individual ingredients would have been like trying to hear someone whispering at a rave. The next morning, idly scooping up some mushrooms from the bottom of the pan, I realised what an unnatural thing it was to do, slather black treacle on a mushroom, which is perfectly delicious without.
The courgette meatballs were stupidly good, a beautiful, luxurious texture that wasn’t at all like meat, a sauce that you could live off on its own. The paella was triumphant, too, comfort food in the middle, a bit of crunch at the bottom and top, which is what vegan cooking so often misses – the spectrum of texture that you get from fat and flesh.
I feel guilty even typing those words now: “fat and flesh”. But there are lessons I have learned from attempting to live – and eat well – as a vegan. In future, I would steer clear of replacement animal products and opt for tofu way ahead of shredded seitan; I would start in Asia and work west, rather than starting in McDonald’s and trying to mimic the constituent parts of its products. Even though I don’t intend to go fully vegan, I can’t find a way to pretend that eating creatures is cool. After all, you wouldn’t kick a cat to death just because you enjoyed it.