Thoughts From Another Dimension

Imagine a parallel universe, a world in which – as in our own universe – humans have for the most part been omnivorous throughout recorded history. However, there is a small but growing and increasingly vocal minority who for various reasons have committed themselves to only eating an animal-based diet. These people– let’s call them carnarians – are inclined to justify their choice on purportedly ethical grounds which may not always stand up to close scrutiny or extol the alleged health benefits of their diet despite evidence that some plant-based food might be good for them. The more outspoken of them may even be prone to lecturing others on the moral superiority of their lifestyle at the slightest provocation.

But here’s a curious thing. In this parallel world scientists have developed a potato substitute made entirely from meat which can be cut into strips and deep fried. Carnarians like to eat these with their steaks and burgers and refer to them as “carn chips” or “carn fries”. They may also have a side order of carnarian peas – little spheres of green-dyed chicken – or meat mushrooms. Perhaps they even wash it all down with a fermented animal secretion called carni-wine.

You’ve probably guessed where I’m coming from. In the real world, vegetarians have a tendency to describe plant-based dishes in terms which normally relate to animal-derived foods – veggie burgers, vegetarian sausages, vegan cheese, vegetable suet, almond milk etc. But why?

If people want to subsist on an entirely plant-based diet, I don’t have an issue with that. I’m not necessarily convinced by their arguments, but it’s their choice and it’s still (mostly) a free country. But why this compulsion to describe what they eat by reference to meat or dairy produce and even try to make it look and taste the same?

Is it because they – consciously or subconsciously – miss what they’ve chosen not to eat? It has been said that the smell of bacon is the thing most likely to cause vegetarians to waver in their convictions. Incidentally, I’ve never heard of “vegetarian bacon”; perhaps it would be too much of a temptation to return to the real thing.

Are they perhaps hoping by using these terms to persuade us carnivores to try the ersatz version? If so, it won’t work on me.

I read recently about a restaurant which claims to have produced the ultimate veggie burger. After hundreds of hours of research and experimentation they came up with a plant-based recipe which tastes exactly like – a Big Mac. Seriously! All that trouble to make a concoction of vegetables which were probably not unpleasant in their natural state taste like a mass-produced blob of mechanically recovered meat? I shake my head in bewilderment. Now if they’d managed to make it taste like a gourmet burger made from prime Wagyu beef, I might be prepared to give it a go but I rather doubt that would be possible.

And today my weekly email of recipe suggestions from OddBox* pointed me to a recipe for stuffed peppers. Of course, I have my own ideas for stuffing peppers, including wild rice and baby squid with the tentacles arranged like the Alien bursting forth from the hapless astronaut’s belly, but this was clearly a veggie recipe and specified vegan cheese. I must admit I’ve never tried vegan cheese. I would accept a morsel if offered it, if only to confirm my suspicions and because I’ve always poured scorn on those who claim to dislike a food without having tasted it, but I really can’t imagine it having the intense nutty flavour of a mature farmhouse Cheddar or the piquancy (let alone the variable texture) of a good Gorgonzola or the pungency of a ripe Epoisses.

Why try to turn food into something it’s not? I just don’t get it.

* In case you’ve never heard of OddBox, they’re a food rescue operation who supply their subscribers with weekly deliveries of fruit and vegetables which would otherwise go to waste due to cosmetic “defects” or over-production.

Some Thoughts About Beer

I’ve been thinking about a couple of beer related issues lately.

The first came up over a pint with Ben Viveur, who had been thinking along similar lines. We both agreed that most of the beers we like are either less than 4% ABV or over 5%. Those in the 4-5% range (and that’s probably a significant majority of British ales) we tend to find a bit lacklustre.

It’s no surprise when beers in the upper range are enjoyable. Greater strength generally goes with more body and more pronounced flavours. And they cover a variety of styles – IPAs, stouts and porters, old ales, barley wines – and that’s before we include Belgian dubbels and trippels, lambics, imperial stouts, Baltic porters and suchlike.

But I also enjoy some comparatively weak beers: milds, like Moorhouse’s Black Cat, and light hoppy ales like Dark Star Hophead or Oakham Citra.

What then is the problem with those in the middle? I admit it may be partly a question of taste (as in the preferences of one’s palate). My tastes have changed since I began drinking beer over 50 years ago and many of those beers are the type of traditional “bitter” that I cut my teeth on but now find overly sweet or bland. But I don’t think that’s entirely the answer. I’m inclined to believe that a lot of beers in that 4-5% range actually are rather poor quality. Though I now tend to eschew the traditional amber bitter, I don’t mind drinking a good example of the genre (e.g. West Berkshire Good Old Boy) occasionally, but most of them do very little for me.

And don’t get me started on those dreadful 4.5% Christmas specials with gimmicky names – as beer sommelier Sophie Atherton memorably put it a few years ago “with few exceptions they’re all turkeys”.

The other issue is related in a way. It seems to me that, while small “craft” brewers are producing all kinds of exciting new beers (and a few which stretch the definition of beer a little too far in my opinion), most of the long-established breweries are remarkably conservative in their offerings. When they do produce a new beer, it’s usually little more than a half-hearted attempt to embrace a new style.

Take for example Palmer’s Dorset Gold. Now, I have to say that I have a lot of time for Palmers of Bridport. I admire the way they’ve maintained their estate in west Dorset all these years without being taken over or getting too big for their boots. And I’m very partial to their strong dark ale Tally Ho!, which fortunately my local manages to stock on a fairly regular basis. With Dorset Gold, a newish addition to the portfolio, they had an opportunity to create a modern golden hoppy ale, but what they actually came up with (and I had a pint of it only yesterday) seems to me just a paler version of Palmer’s IPA*. And yes, it is 4.5%.

So why are established breweries reluctant to step out of their comfort zone? I appreciate that in many ways it’s easier for a small outfit to diversify and experiment. But most large breweries these days have a one or two barrel pilot plant where they can try out new ideas before putting the successful ones into mainstream production.

And another thing: when the big boys do come up with something a bit different, why is it so often only released in keg form? I’m looking at Fullers here – I’d love to see Black Cab and Wild River in cask again. It’s not only youngsters prepared to part with the best part of a tenner for a pint who enjoy drinking interesting beers.

* Which is of course nothing of the sort. The name, like Greene King IPA, is a hangover from last century when it was fashionable to call your best bitter “IPA”, even though it bore little resemblance to the original concept of “India Pale Ale” – a strong, hoppy beer designed to withstand the sea voyage to the subcontinent – or indeed the “real” IPAs being made today.