Meet the Irish vegan warrior who loves her food
Áine Carlin was a meat-and- potatoes gal until health issues convinced her to change the way she approached food, writes Katy McGuinness
Aine Carlin, the author of Keep It Vegan, a new recipe book published this week, is adamant that she is not an evangelist for veganism, and her book deserves a place on the shelves of everyone - from committed vegans in need of inspiration to curious omnivores who want to know what all the fuss is about.
"The book," she says, "is for everyone, and I'm encouraging people to take as much or as little as they want from it. I'm interested in opening people's eyes to the world of possibilities that exist when you take meat and dairy out of the equation and focus on the wonderful ingredients that are normally relegated to the side of the plate. The recipes are about bringing those ingredients centre-stage."
Growing up in Derry, Áine remembers eating "standard Irish fair - fish on Friday, roasts on Sunday, pies and crumbles", all produced by her dad, Hugo, the bass player in the well-known showband Peter Boy and the Trend and the family's principal cook.
"My mum will hate me for saying this, but I never remember her cooking anything," says Áine. "But she was a professional singer herself with the Colmcille Ladies' Choir, which toured regularly and appeared at the White House, so she probably didn't have time."
With music in the genes - her sister Mairéad is a singer with Celtic Woman - it's not surprising that Áine left Derry at 18 to study music at Goldsmith's College in London. She gained a teaching qualification and ended up teaching music and drama at a school in Ealing, but then decided to see if she could make a go of a career in acting.
"I did a bit of everything," she recalls. "TV, film and commercials, including, ironically, a cheesy ad for frozen yoghurt. In the end though, it was the endless touring around the country with theatre companies that took it out of me."
Taking a break from acting coincided with a work move to Chicago with her husband, Jason.
"When we were in the States, I wasn't able to work because of the visa situation, so I started a food and lifestyle blog, peasoupeats. When we first moved to Chicago, we loved the food and thought that the prices were great, particularly when it came to meat and dairy products. But after a year, even though we had convinced ourselves that we were eating healthily, we were both feeling lethargic, and had gained weight. It became clear that the source of the problem was the food."
The couple started by giving up processed food, because so much of it contained high fructose corn syrup (HCFS). Then Áine started looking into farm practices in the US and was horrified by what she learnt about meat production. The couple decided that they had to become vegan, so as not to contribute to further animal suffering, and have embraced the regime ever since.
Gradually, Áine's blog, which started in 2009, became about vegan food. Some of the earlier posts that included recipes using meat and dairy were lost when she changed server, but some remain.
"I wanted people to see the journey," says Áine. "I didn't want to erase the past."
She acknowledges that in Ireland, unlike America, the majority of our beef and lamb is free-range and grass-fed.
"America is on a whole other level when it comes to factory farming. There's an insatiable appetite for fast food and cheap meat. I'm not trying to scare people into being vegan and I'm not an activist. Everybody has their own journey and needs to discover what's right for them. I don't want to be preachy, or make people feel bad about their choices. I can just tell people about my own choices."
Once Áine embarked on a vegan diet, she noticed changes to their health quite soon.
"The first three weeks were like a detox, with my body adjusting, so I experienced some withdrawal symptoms, but after three weeks I noticed a huge difference in the way that I felt. I slept better, and woke more refreshed. Jason used to take forever to wake up and the difference was even more marked with him, he was positively leaping out of bed in the morning. That was the first sign that our bodies were liking this. Also it was really noticeable that we weren't sweating as much, and whereas previously we'd have only got one day out of a T-shirt now we could get several and it wouldn't be stinky."
Other niggling health issues began to improve.
"I had a problem with with persistent hangnails, and they just disappeared," says Áine. "And whereas I used to have to exfoliate the skin on my body all the time, I didn't have to any more. Plus my hair was really shiny, and I was feeling a lot lighter in myself.
"I noticed too that if I had eaten anything a bit bad - a vegan cupcake for instance - I'd really feel the effects of it. Eating this way makes you very in tune with your body."
At a time when so many 'healthy eating' recipe books - such as Melissa and Jasmine Hemsley's The Art of Eating Well - are sugar-, wheat- and gluten-free, it's a surprise to see all of these ingredients included in Keep It Vegan. "I practise what you'd call 'normalised veganism' ," says Aine, "where I eat sugar and flour and all those things, but in moderation. If I'm having dessert then I want a proper one, but I might only have one once every couple of weeks.
"Trying out the vegan way of eating doesn't have to be all or nothing. It's not about deprivation, or totally changing the way that you eat but I would like veganism to be more mainstream, and I do think there are health benefits to be gained by reducing the amount of meat and dairy that you consume. There are plenty of studies including the famous China study that show that health is better when there is no meat, dairy or seafood in the diet."
Áine's father, who was recently diagnosed with cancer, is the latest family member to embrace the vegan diet.
"He said that he wanted to give it a go, and he's not cheating. The hospital that he's in says that it's the first time the request has ever been made. Most of the food that's on offer there is pretty unappealing - I'm not sure how anybody who's well could face a tongue salad, let alone someone who's sick. My sister, mum and I are making meals and vegan snacks to bring in to him. My mum has also decided to convert to a vegan diet and is learning to cook vegan. My dad is off white flour, white pasta and sugar, and has limited amounts of fruit. He's taken to coconut water, which he loves, and is drinking beetroot juice and eating loads of carrots."
Áine's book does a good job in making vegan food appealing. Flavour is a priority and she is smart enough to realise that first and foremost the food has to be delicious.
Recipes for Smoky Moroccan Stew and Fudgy Brownies might succeed in converting the most dedicated carnivore, and there are plenty of options for breakfast, brunch, lunch and supper dishes, with many stylish enough to use for entertaining. And for those worried that they will not be able to forsake dairy, Áine has words of comfort.
"I embraced a new lifestyle that still includes deliciously authentic ice cream, wonderful plant-based cheeses and a magnificent array of yogurts that satisfy every urge, need or craving. You see, we're lucky, we live in the age of veganism where every product you can think of has a vegan equivalent. It's so easy to keep vegan that I rarely consciously think of myself as a 'vegan' - I'm just someone who likes to eat."