'It caused a little consternation amongst the family' - meet the people having a vegetarian Christmas
Following a boom year for 'flexitarianism', more people are shunning meat for something unconventional this Christmas, writes Aoife Carrigy
As food trends go, 2017 was the year of the flexitarian. A kind of no-strings-attached vegetarian, the flexitarian might eat meat once or twice a week or in a supporting role to the vegetables, but avoid committing to strict rules.
The rising of the plant-based diet as embraced to varying degrees by vegans, vegetarians and flexitarians reflects our increased questioning of whether a meat-centric diet is the best choice for us, the planet we live on and the animals we share it with.
According to Mintel research, a third of meat-eaters in the UK reduced or limited their meat consumption this year. A quarter of those who had either done so or were considering doing so were motivated by altruist concerns for the environment and for animal welfare.
The primary motivation appears to be more personal, with half of those respondents believing that eating too much meat is bad for their health and a third reporting weight management as a key motivator.
Campaigns such as Veganuary have helped to usher in alternative thinking around our daily diets. The trend chimes well with other perennial responses to festive excess: it's not a long way from 'Dry January' and renewed gym subscriptions to giving up yer aul burgers.
However, the plant-based diet is making a dint during Christmas too. Marks & Spencer's 2017 festive food range contains more vegetarian main courses than meat-based ones, with parsnip, Camembert and chestnut pithiviers or baked ricotta stacks with mushrooms, leeks and kale amongst the half-dozen choices.
Meanwhile, Tesco has engaged a former global executive chef for Whole Foods Market to develop a range of plant-based options such as their portobello mushroom Wellington.
Dublin's Sova Food - self-dubbed the 'Vegan Butcher' - is taking pre-orders for a tofu and seitan-based 'Turkey Roulade' for collection from its city-centre restaurant. It comes with sage stuffing, a spiced red wine and cranberry gravy, colcannon croquettes, beetroot purée and peas. Meanwhile, The Light House cafe in Galway is taking orders for their butternut squash, walnut and rosemary Wellington with a mushroom and black lentil duxelle. It comes frozen and wrapped in vegan puff pastry, ready to be popped straight into the oven.
The Light House is run by chef Mark Legh and his wife Kerry, both of whom qualify as flexitarians. "We mainly eat vegetarian now," Kerry explains. "And if we do eat meat, we source local from someone like The Friendly Farmer or Castlemine."
The couple will spend Christmas with Mark's family. "They're pretty traditional, so I'm not sure if they'll go without the turkey," she admits. "But we'll definitely have a vegetarian option." Their Wellington serves four to five people, making it ideal for sharing. "I prefer eating vegetarian at Christmas to be honest. Sometimes I feel like all the richness and all the cakes and desserts and everything can be a bit much."
For Kerry and Mark, their reduction of meat has been a natural progression from a choice to buy less meat but of better quality. She cites health reasons too, as well as a concern for the environmental impact of meat production.
Latvian-Swedish woman Linda Legzdina is looking forward to trying Sova Food's 'tofurkey' after a busy week selling her Kaiko Studio concrete-based crafts in Temple Bar's Christmas market.
Linda has been vegetarian for 20 years. "Seeing animals slaughtered was my game-changer." Her Polish partner Maciej Grzechowiak became vegetarian five years ago. "At first it was a bit daunting for him because he's an athlete and a personal coach, so he thought he'd be losing strength. But it's quite the opposite," says Linda. "And since becoming vegan a year or so ago, it's actually been better for both of us. I used to have problems with my skin and now I'm fine."
The couple and their two young children are "99pc vegan" today. And the remaining one per cent? "Maciej's parents send honey from Poland, which they get from a very remote area."
Apart from that one indulgence, they don't miss animal-based products. This year they'll seek out a vegan Italian Ripasso and Argentinian Malbec wine for their Christmas feast. And they'll use an oat-based cream for the obligatory potato gratin to accompany lots of roast potatoes and seasonal vegetables.
Linda and Maciej will celebrate on December 24, as is traditional across much of Europe - although for many Eastern European cultures, it is fish rather than turkey that sits centre table.
For journalist and writer Frank Armstrong, who writes on food-related matters at FrankArmstrong.ie, the decision to turn vegan came about five Christmasses ago, prompted by his research into the environmental impact of the food industry. "It just revolted me that this would be any kind of a celebration, where you're fattening an animal that has been genetically manipulated into a completely unnatural state," he says, citing the inability of modern domesticated turkeys to reproduce naturally due to being bred for breast size.
His argument for banishing the festive centrepiece "caused a little consternation amongst the family", he admits.
Today most of the Armstrong clan "are under conversion". And while there will most likely be turkey present at this year's large multi-generational gathering, it won't be centre table. There will be various vegan choices, including a bean dish, some sourdough pancakes with a curry sauce and the "much-maligned nut roast" which Frank is a fan of. "We use the classic Crank's recipe which we've adapted over the years, using leeks instead of onions and buckwheat flour rather than breadcrumbs."
Yoga instructor and long-term vegetarian Tanya Fitzpatrick agrees that the nut roast is under-rated. She'll be spending Christmas with her brother's family, and looks forward to her nut roast as much as they do their turkey.
"I put in two different cheeses, a blue cheese and a strong cheddar, so it has a really nice oozing texture once you slice it," she says. "It goes really well with the nice clean taste of Brussel sprouts as it is very, very rich. With all those Christmas flavours - the cranberries, hazelnuts, chestnuts - and with all the trimmings all around it, it's just delicious."
Albert Baginski is Polish but lives in Dublin with his Sligo-born wife. "In Poland, we'd have two soups, three or four different fish, two egg dishes and maybe another salad," he says. Tradition dictates that the meal begins when the first evening star appears in the sky, and that everyone must try a little of everything. If not, "there will be one happy moment missing for you in the next year" - a good ploy to get pickier eaters to try the traditional carp, a "super bony fish" with strong flavours and aromas.
Albert and his wife often cook a smaller version in Dublin, but haven't managed to convert the Sligo in-laws to the Polish way. "When people are doing things the same for 50 or 60 years, it's hard to ask them to change."
Turkey and ham haven't disappeared yet. But they're starting to make room on the table for various alternatives.