Veganism may be on the ascendance in the UK, with more than 3.5 million people now embracing a meat and dairy-free diet and supermarket chains offering plant-based ranges alongside their standard burgers and bangers.
But for others, veganism is an affectation– a diet popular with earnest leftwingers too “woke” for yoghurt but an alien concept to many who have grown up eating meat and do not intend for that to change.
Does a move by one of the UK’s biggest pub chains this week suggest dairy and meat-free eating is moving firmly into the mainstream?
Marstons, which runs more than 1,550 pubs, has introduced a vegan menu in 413 of its outlets, saying it is responding to customer demand. One of them is the Dog and Partridge in Failsworth, a suburb of Oldham better known locally for its big Tesco than its devotion to the gastronomic zeitgeist.
Until Wednesday, the pub’s bestseller has been the BBQ ranch burger: prime steak, topped with crispy bacon and melted cheese. Now, alongside Buffalo cauliflower wings, the star item on the new menu is the Moving Mountains B12 burger. Made with the oyster mushrooms, pea protein, and oats, it is supposed to taste and look like meat. It is even designed to “bleed” like a rare-cooked burger, only with beetroot juice rather than animal fat.
Brenda Whittaker, 81, was not keen: “My granddaughter keeps trying to get me to eat vegan food and I say to her: ‘I’ve got to 80 eating meat and I’m not about to stop now.’ She brings her own soup when she comes to us and has her own special teapot so she can brew her own tea.”
For Whittaker and her 84-year-old husband, Thomas, veganism comes with a raft of questionable rules. “They’ve got some funny ideas. At Christmas we were only allowed to buy our great-granddaughter wooden toys and we had to wrap them in brown paper,” said Thomas. The couple still cannot quite believe their granddaughter got married with no shoes on.
Nonetheless, they were persuaded to try the B12 burger as long as they could still have their fish and chips after. “Not bad,” said Thomas afterwards. “Like sausage meat … quite nice. Certainly better than Quorn burgers,” added their friend Barbara Hodson-Ridgway, 55. But she did not really see the point: “I don’t get why vegans want to eat something that tastes like meat, if they don’t want to eat meat.”
Murial Goodall, 85, and her friend Doreen Harper, 74, have herbivores in the family too. “My daughter decided she wouldn’t eat meat when she 14. Now she’s a vegan and so is her partner. My son, his wife and their daughter are all vegetarians,” said Goodall. Harper’s sister swore off meat after the foot and mouth crisis more than 15 years ago.
They too had actually ordered fish and chips but agreed to give the B12 a whirl. “Quite tasty,” said Goodall. “Just a bit too sweet for me.” Their burger was not bleeding beetroot or anything else; the patty a slightly nutty and vaguely cardboardy disc that could just about pass for a value beef burger bulked out with too much rusk. The sloppy jackfruit topping was more successful, the Indian fruit cooked slowly down into a convincing impression of pulled pork.
The pub staff were sceptical of the new menu when it arrived. “We didn’t really think it would fly but we got the regulars to try it the first night,” said Danny Rowe, 18. Rowe usually has a steak for his staff meal, but along with his friend Kyle McHugh, 20, gave the B12 a thumbs up.
Haute cuisine it is not. Chef Pete Blaxall said the kitchen had a new microwave fitted to defrost and blast the frozen vegan burgers before putting them on a special grill tray to avoid cross-contamination on the hot plate. But the pub supervisor Jennifer Bierman, a committed meat-eater, reckoned the new menu would be a hit. “We have a gluten-free menu. Why not a vegan one? Tastes are changing,” said Bierman.