Twenty minutes. Twenty minutes going back and forth in between the shelves of my nice little organic shop, from the vegan coconut oil imported from Asia to the local, animal, butter; from the industrial falafel to the farm chicken, from the neon light glistening no-dairy-cheese to the fresh goat crottin. For the past few weeks, I have been undergoing a serious case of food schizophrenia.
These past years, like many of you I’m sure, I have been moving, little by little, to those new healthier products, less « cruel » ones, until I became a vegan two years ago. As a cooking student, facing mocking smiles all day, recipes that never seem to work, or the sheer lack of existence of adequate ingredients was no small task.
My day-to-day life was filled with a multitude of existential problems such as how to make vegan whipped cream without having everything taste coconut-y, how to reproduce the flavor of brown butter without butter, to make a creamy ice-cream without using cream or, should I use mushrooms or soy sauce for umami ? Failures, I can admit it now, happened more than I would care to admit. However, moral stayed high, convinced as I was to be working for the greater good, for everyone and myself. I went on experimenting, with my mind at peace.
But something happened. A couple months ago, early September, I found myself in a tiny Italian village near San Remo with my friends. Wandering once more in the cold brightly lit alleys of a supermarket, I watched them from afar picking their locally made mozzarella and artisanal parmiggiano, as I reach out for the familiar tub of soy yoghurt, the same one I had eaten all summer long in Paris, the same one I would buy once more in Avignon. Something felt off.
That same night, frenetically deciphering the menu of the one and only restaurant of Bussana Vecchia in search of a prosciutto-less salad or a pasta dish without any chees, I chose olive raviolis. The olives of which, the waitress promised, came from the village on the other side of the valley we overlooked.
At the very second the plate was lowered in front of me, right under my nose, I knew it : the appetizing smell and glossy reflexions around the green pasta sheets clearly indicated fried sage butter. My weakness.
The night was warm and lovely, the surrounding chaos reminiscent of any scene out of Fellini’s Roma, and the joy of being with my friends helping…I casually dipped my hand in the bowl of parmiggiano that had been sitting in front of me, defying me. It tasted good, delicious even. After the first pinch came the handful, then another, and another. On top of not feeling guilty, no-one else seemed to care. Damn.
And I’m back in my little organic shop, hesitating between the ubiquitous soy yoghurt and the dairy one. Now I’m holding a paper-wrapped stick of butter at the farmer’s market. Here I am again, wandering the streets, avidly reading the menus with a fresh new look. Shit.
A quick internet search informs me that the french organic label make it compulsory to leave the veal under the mother for at least three months, that the animals are grass-fed and have permanent access to the fields. For now, it has been enough to free myself from a sometimes overwhelming conscience, and to justify myself to myself.
But deep down, let’s admit it, this new hunger is more connected to a will to cook, to eat, to discover, than anything else. It’s our project of travelling Italy in a van to try all the different types of pizza, to try the (sometimes very) strange mixtures that come out of our school kitchen experiments, to honor and get to know better traditions that fascinate me, to brown, to sauté, to roast, to smoke, to dry, to ferment…
I am not renegading the beliefs that led me to this lifestyle : no pink ham in cellophane will make its way to my plate. As a matter of fact, I had not been able to bring myself to eat flesh so far, only dairy and eggs, thoughtfully sourced.
What I have done however, for the first time in my life, is to go out of my way to meet the people who produce my food, to question them about their methods, and make my decisions accordingly. I have started looking for alternative platforms that allow me to buy humanely produced food that also allows the humans behind it to live decently.
I still believe veganism can be a great way of making your food choices more environment friendly, of rethinking our consumption, but it is not, for now at least, my only option anymore.
As I write those lines, I have not yet found any sort of definite answer on the matter. Probably because there is none. If you came here looking, as I did, for a short-cut to solving your conscience issues, I’m sorry.
On my side of things, I have been cherishing my fairly expensive eggs, looking for the best way to showcase them, mindfully, finding a ridiculous amount of pleasure in honey and butter sourdough tartines ("you don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone » man), and I shiver with excitement at the idea that, just maybe, this winter will give me a raclette to share with my cheese-fanatic sister for Christmas.
I leave you with a simple but delicious recipe for an autumn fikka (the traditional coffee + sweet swedish break), wine poached prunes, served with yoghurt. Now, soy or dairy is my mystery and your choice.
What you need for 4 people :
- 4 plums (about 250g)
- Around 500mL of red wine (or enough to cover the plums in a saucepan)
- 1 lemon
- 1 vanilla pod
- 100g of brown sugar
In a saucepan, place the wine, the sugar, the zest of a lemon and the vanilla pod sliced in half. Bring to the boil, add the plums in and bring back to a simmer. Leaves the plums in until the skin starts to peel off, they should be soft to the touch but not mushy, about 5 to 10 minutes depending on their size and ripeness.
Pull them out, peel and slice. Serve a plum per person with a dollop of yoghurt or crème fraîche, some sliced basil and cocoa nibs or granola for some crunch.
This would also work with pear or even apple. You can also try switching the poaching liquid with juice, coffee, or cider.. If you do go with wine however, you could also add in a cinnamon stick, some cloves, anis, and let it reduce some more to have a glass of gluwein after dinner.