Friday, 5 July 2013

Green is the colour, veggies are the game

The shallots and garlic were softening in olive oil; the dried mushrooms were soaking in just enough boiling water to cover them, and the remaining selection of mushrooms was forming a mound of trimmed and chopped browns on the beech board.

And suddenly a little thought occurred to me.

Is vegetarianism in cultures where it is not connected to religion linked to the quality of the food available and, in particular, the quality of vegetable cookery?

Some surveys suggests that the best places to be a vegetarian in the West are Canada, the US and the UK. None of which have superlative reputations for food.

In Europe, estimates vary from between 3% of UK people as ‘complete’ vegetarians, while some surveys suggest the figure could be between 7-11% of some degree of classifying oneself a vegetarian.

Interestingly, in the Netherlands it’s around 10% and around 9% in Germany, while the Belgian city of Ghent actually has a weekly vegetarian day. In Switzerland, it’s around 4%.

In France, it’s 2%.

Vegetarianism in Italy is said to be at around 10%, but in Spain and Portugal, it’s very low/below 1% respectively.

A number of things suggest themselves.

First, this is all based on self-definition, since the definition of vegetarianism varies across Europe.

If you live in a country where there is an large amount of vegetable cooking – Italy – what constitutes a vegetarian?

I cannot think, off the top of my head, of any specifically vegetarian eatery in Collioure. And yet it is not difficult to avoid meat. And frankly, I’ve eaten divine salads there that included no fish either.

For a country that is culturally so far from vegetarianism – in 2011, the French government’s Décret 2011-1227 and associated Arrêté effectively outlawed the serving of vegan meals at any public or private school in France, while similar decrees are proposed for kindergartens, hospitals, prisons and retirement homes – it still enjoys a wonderful culinary heritage in terms of vegetable cooking.

Just think of that summer vegetable stew that I was trying the other week or of that iconic vegetable dish, a ratatouille.

Of course, it helps when half the country in question enjoys warmer climes for agricultural purposes – as with Spain and Portugal too – but then there’s the Italian question.

You wouldn’t starve as a veggie in Italy, would you?

Those shallots and garlic and mushrooms were going into a sauce, with stock and a little crème fraîche, to be served with pasta.

Quite often, I do a simple tomato sauce to go over pasta. Easy, nutritious – does it count as a ‘vegetarian meal’ though?

The Italians also use vegetables easily as a single course, served simply with a drizzle of virgin oil. It could hardly be simpler.

Yet look at the cooking of vegetables in the UK and you may despair. Even restaurants often produce side dishes that are less than inspiring and poorly cooked. No, al dente does not mean little more than raw!

We don’t make much of vegetables and often simply expect them as a third component in the traditional ‘meat and two veg’. The other veg being some form of spuds.

Let’s face it, on Christmas Day of all days, people across the UK cook and eat sprouts – not because they know how to or because they like them, but because it’s ‘traditional’.

Given an increasing expectation that we can buy asparagus and strawberries in December, it’s hardly a wonder that we don’t know how to treat vegetables properly, let alone want to make more of them than a sort of cameo on the plate.

Perhaps it is the case that vegetarianism has increased in northern Europe because of limitations of the climate, and even that Italy – which doesn’t seem to feature in lists of top destinations for veggie travelers – is simply such a producer of such quality, that people eat a greater percentage of vegetables in their diet.

Now, I’m off next week. And one of the things I’m looking forward to is some serious lunches – and in some cases, nary a piece of meat or fish will be in sight.

There is little more gorgeous as a combination at this time of year than good feta cheese and fresh broad beans. The latter are beautifully complimented by the salty cheese.

Of course, streaky bacon works well too, for the same reason, but probably won’t feature.

Goat’s cheese and ripe melon, with black olives and a Balsamico drizzle to pack a punch.

And then there’s all the greenery just coming into readiness in the potager.

You don’t have to be a vegetarian to love vegetables – and you don’t have to be a vegetarian to roll you eyes at the way that, in general, we treat our greens.

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