Saturday, 22 February 2014

Vitao Organic: Vegan Restaurant Review!

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a rubbish cook. For me, the kitchen resembles a kind of torture chamber with utensils meant for slicing, peeling, boiling and crushing. Unfortunately, my housemates don’t share my fear and insist on making extravagant dinners most nights while I hide in my bedroom, the intermingling stench of frying meat and exotic spices seeping underneath my door.

My diet is simple. I like: fruits, vegetables, rice, potatoes and pasta. I like it all the more if I don’t have to cook it. When I first started this blog, I had hoped to construct fancy vegan recipes and show off my superb cooking skills. Realising this wasn’t going to happen, I thought I had better come up with some other way to showcase the variety of innovative dishes that are often not associated with a vegan diet.

I decided to book a table at a popular vegan restaurant in London. Now, as you may have gathered I’m not a food snob. I don’t like it when my dinner looks like it could belong in the Saatchi Gallery. So despite being a vegan, I had never actually been to a vegan restaurant before. This was an entirely new experience for me. For comic value and moral support, I decided to coerce my meat eating boyfriend, Chris, into coming too.
We arrived at Vitao Organic ( in time for our 6:30pm booking. Quite frankly, I was terrified. I was wearing a faux fur leopard print coat and only realised my mistake after leaving the house. Plus, I had a few glasses of wine beforehand and, being a restaurant that doesn’t sell any alcohol, I was certain they could smell it on me. 

Anyway, the best thing about a vegan diet is you get to eat a lot. Most of the food is low in calories and fat, so it takes more to satiate you. Luckily, my boyfriend and I have huge appetites and we got a load of dishes to review particularly for this blog! So enjoy!

Ash: Before ordering from the menu, we decided to hit the buffet. There was a variety of colourful dishes to choose from, both raw and cooked. I went for a generous helping of salad and brown rice with curried chickpeas and stewed black beans. I don’t usually eat pulses because I find them bland, but I was surprised at how flavoursome these ones were. The black beans had a rich earthy taste and really worked with the nuttiness of the brown rice. They were not watery either, which can be common in vegan cooking because of the lack of cream, milk and yoghurt in sauces. In fact, the yellow chickpeas had a very thick and rich sauce. I assume they used coconut milk to achieve this. The red chickpeas were more tomato-y and included sizable chunks of soft aubergine. All in all, this was a very good fresh first course. The only drawback is that they charge by the weight, £1.80 per 100g. I think mine came to about £12. 

Chris: I must admit that, despite my revulsion at the concept of paying for a buffet by weight, the selection of vegan dishes available was diverse and the quality impressive. I would have bet my arm that the mash had contained butter and milk and I found the lentil and bean dishes extremely pleasurable to eat. What made it all the more enjoyable was the fact the dishes were clearly all low salt. I was thus able to eat a large plate- worth 14 pounds- of food and not feel uncomfortably full or thirsty afterwards. I was left wanting more and feeling energetic. 

Ash: Next, we decided to try out a couple of the dishes from the small plate section of the menu. What we have above is the pitiful imitations of “pizza” (left) and “nachos” (right). They are both raw dishes which means no cooking was involved at all in the making of them. I’ll start with the nachos. The nachos themselves are described as “flax seed tortilla chips with pineapple salsa, guacamole and tomato salsa”. They were, to be blunt, hideous. The flax seed crackers were airy and bland, the salsa packed no punch, the guacamole was a tasteless blog of green goo and god knows why there was pineapple. Then we have the “buckwheat pizza with tomato sauce and seed-cheese”. When my boyfriend saw these, he genuinely thought someone had spread a bit of tomato puree on ryvita crackers. The buckwheat based was strange, very dense and chewy. The seed cheese was just gross and added a sourness to the whole dish plus I couldn’t taste the tomato topping or the olives.  Every tentative bite was worse than the last.

Chris: When it came to the a la carte menu, we decided to order what we thought would be safe dishes: vegan nachos and pizzettes. It was my contention that these dishes would be exemplary of the geniuses of vegan cuisine and would demonstrate how, despite the lack of cheese and cream, food as comforting and pleasurable as nachos and pizza were still accessible on a vegan diet. How very wrong I was. I will deal with the nachos first. They were tiny and resembled crushed, ‘dehydrated’ green leaves in triangle shapes with three small mounds of dips. The first dip was salsa and bitter tasting. The second was guacamole but tasted nothing like it. The third was the worse of the three. Crushed pineapple does not belong on nachos.

The pizzettes were equally as poor. Not only did they resemble ryvita with a salsa spread, the actually tasted like it as well! Moreover, the pitiful amount of fake vegan cheese and olive in the middle of the cracker tasted so bland it needn’t have been there. The only redeeming factor was the fresh rocket decorating the plate which I ate and which contained more flavour than the vast majority of the dish.

Ash: As you can see, I’m no food photographer. By the time our main dish came, we were so hungry we pretty much started eating straight away. Luckily, I remembered the task at hand and got a photo of the dish before we completed devoured it. This was the strangest thing we ordered, the mysteriously named Oasis of Sahara. It was described as “Wrapped avocado, squash hummus, brazil nut falafel, coriander and sunflower seed cream”. It was another raw dish and I’m not sure how to describe it. It was a wrap, a dehydrated falafel sort of wrap. It was like they rolling pinned falafel and made a chewy sheet out of it, then shoved it full of cucumber and onion and then covered it with a mustardy, avocado sauce. It wasn’t actually that bad. It had the same sourness that permeated the other dishes, but at least there were some strong flavours present. You could taste the falafel and the mustard type dressing was spicy and made you smack your lips. However, once again, it was not worth the money. Three small wraps for £12.95…ouch.

Chris: I was left, after these two starters, in a daze but eager to see if the place could redeem itself with a decent main course. We had ordered what we thought was falafel in a wrap with various veg and sauces. The menu, it seems, had tricked us again. What we received was not falafel in a wrap but wraps made of falafel with cucumber and onions inside. It was essentially falafel skin without the soft, tasty bit on the inside. It was unimpressive and frankly a rip off. For at £12.90 I wanted more than a small- no bigger than a Sainsbury’s basic- wrap filled with cucumber and onions. Couldn’t they have packed a tomato in there for a bit of variety?

Ash: I don’t usually have vegan desserts because they are notoriously tricky to make and find, so this was a real treat. It was a “raspberry chocolate mousse torte with a cacao nib crust, served with mixed fruit”. The chocolate mousse was actually a cacao avocado mousse. It was creamy and very, very rich. It tasted like a dark chocolate cream. Actually, the whole thing tasted a bit like a raspberry ripple bar, if you’ve ever had one of those. The raspberry flavour was very prominent but it wasn’t sharp, which is good because cacao can be quite bitter in itself. The cacao nibs were interesting; you can’t really see them but they were like a thin crispy base. They were crunchy rather than biscuit-y and it offset the creaminess of the mousse perfectly. 

Chris: Next there came dessert: avocado cake with cocoa, a chocolate type substance, and raspberry. I must admit, I was amazed by the result. It didn’t taste anything like avocado and it did taste like a chocolate cake, albeit a very bitter one. Nevertheless it was with admiration and amazement that I lapped up the dish although I’d take a normal chocolate cake any day. 

All in all it was an experience and the food wasn’t a complete let down. I felt that it did show the inventiveness of vegan cooking despite the fact that I found myself craving a big bowl of plain rice several times throughout the meal. 

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Veganism and the Romantics Part 3: The Representation of the Body

During the Romantic era, everyone seemed to be fascinated by physiognomy and anthropology. Connections were being drawn between human and non-human bodies and, for some, the similarities were too great to ignore. The man we will be studying today, Joseph Ritson, even believed that the consumption of animal flesh would eventually lead humans to eat their own kind: “As human sacrifices were a natural effect of that superfluous cruelty which first produced the slaughter of animals, so is it equally natural that these accustomed to eat the brute, should not long abstain from the man”. This quote was taking from his 1802 “Essay on the Abstinence from Animal Food as a Moral Duty”, a text that covers everything from the history of man’s diet to the moral implications. However, this post will focus specifically on Ritson’s idea about vegetarianism and the body, both in terms of physiology and health.

According to Ritson, “the two most general distinctions of the carnivorous type of quadrupeds are deduced, one from the conformation of the teeth, and the other from the conformation of the intestines”. He argues that the conformation of the intestines is too short to digest meat easily and that our “blunt teeth” resemble “the horse, the ox, the sheep, and the hare”, rather than “the cat, the dog, the wolf and the fox”. Ritson believed that humans essentially lacked the biological tools to be carnivores and instead were conditioned by habit. 

In 1809, Darwin was born. Years later, in 1871, he would publish his controversial work The Descent of Man, where he outlines human evolution from apes. However, seven years before he was even born, in Ritson’s publication, parallels between the two species are being explored. As a result of the similarities between man and ape, Ritson believed that their natural diets would be the same. He discusses “the ourang-outang which resembles man” and “never meddles with animal flesh, but lives on nuts and other wild fruits”. He also talks about baboons “principally feed[ing] upon fruits, roots and corn”. He believes that a plant based diet belongs to “all the ape or monkey genus except man”.

Ritson was also a great believer in the health benefits reaped from a plant based diet. He noticed that in cultures where less meat was eaten, there was also less disease and death. He claims that the “Orientals live to a great age…owing to their abstinence from animal food”. In fact, he was on to something there. Nowadays, out of the ten countries with the lowest obesity rates, eight are in Asia and the remaining two are in Africa. This is undoubtedly because their diets consist of plain starches such as rice, whole grains, fruits and vegetables.

If Ritson thought things were bad then, he should have a look at this

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Veganism and the Romantics Part 2: Battle against Consumerism

Food and consumerism are irrefutably linked and we are all slaves to the system. Today, unsurprisingly, the lowest wealth bracket suffers the highest rates of obesity; after all, good quality food just doesn’t come cheap. However, what we are experiencing today is not an anomaly. We can trace this trend as far back as the 18th century, where meat prices soared and the poorest people were left without. A working class diet consisted mainly of bread, milk, porridge, potatoes and vegetables; no meat involved. In fact, it’s ludicrous to suppose a poorer person would have access to meat when they could, at times, barely afford bread. As a result of supply and demand, a free market philosophy and poor regulation, the price of bread could rise rapidly, resulting in “bread riots”!

As a result, eating meat became a symbol of greed and extravagance and it was an act only reserved for the upper classes.  The Romantic poets were outraged by the situation and saw a meatless diet as a way to distance themselves from a consumerist society.

Many poorer people were driven to workhouses in order not to starve. Ironically, they received a more balanced diet here than they were able to afford otherwise. The table below was taken from a workhouse in Hertford, 1729.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Veganism and the Romantics Part 1: Communion with nature.

Welcome back! In the next few blog posts, I want to address the concept of veganism and vegetarianism in the Romantic period. This was a period where the movement gained some serious momentum and the writing of the time reflects a growing awareness of the importance of a plant based diet.  However, this importance rarely stemmed from a concern over health alone and there were several factors that played into changing opinions. To avoid cramming too much in all at once, I have decided to separate the information into three more easily digestible chunks:  Veganism and the Romantics Part 1: Communion with nature, Veganism and the Romantics Part 2: Battle against Consumerism and Veganism and the Romantics Part 3: The Representation of the Body.

A communion with nature is, undoubtedly, present throughout Romantic poetry. In particular, it is the emphasis on the importance of preserving nature that fuelled ideas about a plant-based diet. Moving away from the simple aesthetics of sublime landscapes and wild flowers, the preservation of animals as nature also applies. Although animal rights were nowhere near as prominent as they are today, several texts at the time addressed the issue of cruelty towards animals and this exposure was used as a kind of vegan/vegetarian propaganda.
One of these texts is ‘Badger’ by John Clare ( The poem is about a badger that is constantly ‘followed and hooted by [the] dogs and men’ and the animals suffering is documented right up until its brutal death:

‘He falls as dead and kicked by boys and men,
Then starts and grins and drives the crowd again; 
Till kicked and torn and beaten out he lies
And leaves his hold and cackles, groans, and dies’.

This imagery is graphic and the relentless violence towards the badger exposes the barbaric side of human nature. Unlike the badger, who is content to ‘root[s] in the bushes and the woods’, humans are shown as violent and essentially inharmonious with nature. It is this idea of harmony that made a vegan and vegetarian diet so popular among the Romantic poets and their readers; for one to appreciate nature and benefit from its pleasures, one had to be against its destruction.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Verified Vegan

"We can see quite plainly that our present civilisation is built on the exploitation of animals, just as past civilisations were built on the exploitation of slaves, and we believe the spiritual destiny of man is such that in time he will view with abhorrence the idea that men once fed on the products of animals' bodies"  Donald Watson, 1944 

The term ‘vegan’ is a relatively new one, coined in 1944 by a man named Donald Watson; it promotes the abstinence of all animal products. That means no: meat, fish, eggs, dairy, honey or any materials derived from the killing of animals such as silk or leather.

Veganism in modern society is looked upon as something of a cult; when I first found out about the movement several years ago I pictured dread-locked hippies dancing around fires, smearing fruit over each other’s faces and mating with goats. For some reason, that obviously appealed to me and I eventually made the transition myself.

Despite my pledge, I had never really taken the time to learn about the roots of veganism up until recently. What I thought was a modern food revolution had actually taken foundation years before, during the 18th
 and 19th centuries!

Spurred on by this discovery, I have started to dig deeper into the world of veganism and vegetarianism, especially focusing on their appearance and influence in literary texts. Several of these texts will be featured on this blog.