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Vegetarianism then and now

"Time was when a vegetarian was just that: someone who ate no meat or fish, but only vegetable products. Nowadays there are many shades of opinion and many layers of being a non-meat eater." Delia Smith 1993

On the left Elizabeth David's Tomates fromagées, in the centre, Delia's Savoury feta cheesecake and on the right Ottolenghi's Butter beans with preserved lemon, chilli and herb oil. Then, in-between and now. Peasant food; experimentation using feta - new at that time - and more 'ordinary' ingredients; a mix of new ingredients and new cuisines with a lot of spice and flavour.

It's book group and wine group night and so we have to have a light dinner, because David's wine group - it's not really a wine group, other than that a fair amount of wine is consumed - it's more a local get-together that occurs once a month serves food with the wine. Anyway I thought I would make something simple with whatever is in the fridge which is not actually very much.

Generally on such occasions I think quiche, but we had quiche a couple of days ago and so my thoughts turned to the delicious Mixed mushroom tart that I made recently, but this time with carrots somehow in the mix, and maybe my marinated feta that has been languishing in the fridge - if it hasn't gone off that is. It seems to me that it's a pretty variable recipe - more a method than an actual prescriptive recipe. The key for this one is the fact that the mushroom filling is pretty dry - you fry off all the juices - and there are breadcrumbs to absorb any extra liquid. So I shall need to keep that in mind with my adaptation to what is in my fridge - not much.

Decision made. It also ticked another box - my vegetarian meal of the week. You may or may not remember that each week I have been attempting to cook one new dish, one vegetarian, one fish and one legumes. And I've been going pretty well on everything except the legumes - although frozen peas are getting a bit more of a look-in these days. Maybe in the tart tonight. But vegetarian in particular has not been a problem so far. Well there is such an amazingly tempting variety of dishes in every single cookbook and newsletter and magazine these days.

All of which led me to ponder on how far vegetarianism has come since my early cooking days. Prompted by Jane Grigson, I think the only vegetarian dish that I ate as a child - barring soup - was cauliflower cheese. Vegetables were generally a side issue. Although potatoes were always an absolute must have - not as stars in their own right though. Purely as an accompaniment. The notion of vegetarianism was just not in my thinking at all. But even then the times they were a-changing.

"For the majority of the population, vegetables as a delight, to be eaten on their own, belong to this century, even to the period after the Second World War." Jane Grigson

I think the first real vegetarian dish that I tasted was ratatouille - foreign as well for the eggplants that it contained. I did not know them. I was introduced to it in the home of the family for whom I was an au-pair in the summer of 1964. We ate it with rice and my hostess/employer always forgot to put in any salt. At first it was a strange taste but eventually I grew to love it and I do still try to make it at least once a year. Then came Delia with her roasted version, which is so commonplace these days. And in a further demonstration of how this peasant dish has evolved, when I searched for a photograph nearly every picture that came up in Google Images was like the one below left - or variations thereof. The other picture is of Delia's Oven-roasted ratatouille. A game-changing recipe I think. Well I don't know whether she was the first to push this method with Mediterranean vegetables but she has certainly been credited with it. Nowadays it's absolutely commonplace. And people play with it - like Ottolenghi and his Roasted parsnips and sweet potatoes with caper vinaigrette - on the right, although it should be said that since that original recipe Delia has expanded on it and varied it in many different ways.

My fourteen year-old granddaughter has recently gone vegetarian, supported, nay encouraged by her parents I have to say. I also have a few vegetarian friends, and so every now and then I have had to find something vegetarian as a main course. And I have to say that my vow to eat at least one vegetarian meal per week - a vow reflected in the supermarket magazines I should also say - let's give them credit for something - has resulted in some delicious surprises. And it's been easy.

So I decided to have a look at my early cooking mentors to see what their thoughts and their offerings were and compare that with the modern gurus.

Jane Grigson credits Elizabeth David with starting us all down the 'love your vegetables' track.

"Recently there has been something of a vegetable boom. It started in the fifties with Elizabeth David, who championed vegetables in their own right, not just as adjuncts to meat. As beef prices went up in the seventies, ecologists and vegetarians tried to turn the country to beans (I suspect their puritan fervour limited the number of converts, and undid some of Mrs. David's good work)." Jane Grigson (1978)

And she's certainly right about the beans. Beans and wholemeal bread eaten by somewhat messily attired and groomed people who lived in communes. Well that was the popular image. Strange isn't it? Because these days that strain of puritanical thought is associated with young skinny women who post their thoughts and their food on Instagram and TikTok. So there's another evolution. Back then you would never have been able to get any of the health food things like less common grains and legumes anywhere other than a health food shop. These days every supermarket is laden with them.

Back to Elizabeth David though. When I checked out a couple of her books I found that she did indeed convert many to appreciating vegetables and to cooking them a whole lot better than we used to, but she didn't actually offer very many dishes that could be eaten as meat substitutes.

"Eaten for themselves alone, as a separate dish, vegetables take on a very different significance. Both their charms and their defects become more obvious." Elizabeth David.

After her death her editor Jill Norman compiled some of her recipes into Elizabeth David on Vegetables but significantly the section on Main Dishes is slight, and is mostly filled with recipes for gratins and tarts.

And Robert Carrier is much the same. His emphasis too was more on cooking vegetables better than eating them as a main meal - other than soup and maybe pasta. Like all of those early gurus he was intent on changing what they all saw as the increasing industrialisation, if that's the right word, of vegetable production.

"Are we slated to be the last generation to savour the new, fresh tastes of spring? Is modern science, in giving us year-round bounty, robbing us of the taste sensations of the first tender asparagus, the delicate flavour and texture of fresh garden peas, and the crisp raw delights of tiny radishes, baby cucumbers and little new carrots." Robert Carrier

Move on a few decades and we come to Delia who, by then was well aware that vegetarianism was a thing, and who had chapters dedicated to vegetarian dishes in her Summer and Winter Collections. She was in between the cooks who mostly bemoaned poor produce and poor cooking methods, and cooks who were becoming increasingly vegetarian themselves. Her Feta cheesecake at the top of the page is one example of her purely vegetarian offerings, a couple of others were Rigatoni and asparagus au gratin and Pancake cannelloni with spinach and four cheeses, both of which are absolutely commonplace these days, but pretty groundbreaking at the time. And she had plenty more where that came from, because she not only thought that vegetables were a good thing in themselves, but she was also aware that the future was vegetarianism. Veganism though was not yet a thing.

"Although I eat meat and fish, I do believe that we all owe much to the vegetarian movement - not least for persuading us to make better use of a wider range of vegetables, pulses and so on ... because it has become far more inventive, most people barely notice the absence of fish or meat" Delia Smith 1993/95

Delia was pretty inventive herself, but these days some of the most inventive cooks around are, if not quite vegetarian, moving that way and/or creating innovative vegetarian dishes.

"What I have noticed, is the percentage of meatless meals I consume is higher with each passing year. This is not ... a deliberate choice, but simply the way my eating has changed, slowly, surely, unintentionally, over the years." Nigel Slater

Many of them have produced vegetarian cookbooks - Jamie included. Increasingly, it seems to me, The Guardian newsletter is dominated by vegetarian, or almost vegetarian - not to mention vegan - recipes. The supermarket magazines always have at least half a dozen vegetarian options and ditto for most television cooking programs too. I don't think that any of my current favourite recipe creators are purely vegetarian but their books have an increasing number of vegetarian recipes. Here are a few examples and thoughts:

First Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall - perhaps the most carnivorous of them but also a passionate advocate of growing your own:

"Vegetables are, quite simply, the most important food there is. I couldn't even contemplate giving them up. Ever ...

The range of tastes, textures and aromas that can be conjured from the roots, shoots, fruits, stems, leaves, seeds and flowers that we call vegetables is almost beyond limit, and certainly beyond the scope of a single lifetime to explore and experience fully." Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

Here are his Spring onion bhaji with radish raita which is an example of how these modern gurus have taken from cultures around the world and put a local twist on them - in this case radishes. Well the Indians probably do eat radishes, but I don't think of them as an Indian ingredient - to me they are very English. And Yotam Ottolenghi - probably the modern king of vegetarianism, although he isn't one himself - describes how we have been able to be more adventurous today because of the expansion of our knowledge about other cuisines:

"I'll start with something as simple and unassuming as rice. When I try to think of all the uses for this grain I immediately go dizzy with the countless possibilities - within and between cultures, pairing with other ingredients, all the types of rice available, the methods of cooking and when you serve it, the consistency, degree of processing, home cooking commercial uses"

Both of these men also like to take one vegetable and make it the hero. Which we all should do every now and then.

"There is no vegetable that cannot be made the star of a simple dish." Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

"At the centre of every dish, at the beginning of the thought process, is an ingredient, one ingredient - not just any ingredient but one of my favourite ingredients. I tend to set off with this central element and then try to elaborate on it, enhance it, bring it out in a new way, while still keeping it in the centre, at the heart of the final dish." Yotam Ottolenghi

As in his Stuffed onions. But he is not alone - Nigel Slater also does onions - Baked onions with taleggio sauce and Curtis Stone, in the Coles Magazine does Creamy broccoli soup with crispy florets - so all markets from the top end to the everyday are catered for. Even Coles can do fancy.

Vegetarianism, as you can see has come a long way since WW2. Aided partly by the increasing quality and variety of vegetables to experiment with, modern storage methods, multiculturalism, the internet and television not to mention the growth of the celebrity chef and the influencers of Instagram and TikTok. It filters down into all of our lives. I'm willing to bet that most of us eat vegetarian at least once a week. Veganism - that's a step too far at the moment, but maybe one day it will be just like vegetarianism is today.

And I suspect my 'new' recipe this week will also be vegetarian - possibly this Greens and chermoula potato pie, which will make two vegetarian meals this week. It will also be two tarts, so maybe I should look for something else. But that's the thing - there is so much to choose from. Maybe we shall be eating vegetarian on Sunday too when the family comes to lunch for the annual Easter egg hunt - after all I have to cater for my vegetarian grandchild. I have begun to do this and it is interesting how much other members in the family tuck into the vegetarian option. I mean who could not be tempted by this gorgeous looking dish?

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