Since the dawn of the gluten-free, vegan, paleo and Atkins diets, the Christmas meal has been a difficult time at the table. Thankfully, given the rise in popularity of plant-based diets – for vegans, at least – the festive season is less likely to spark an argument over what to eat.
In the UK, around half a million people identify as being vegan, meaning they don’t eat or buy any animal products. While this makes eating out in restaurants something of a challenge at the best of times, when it comes to Christmas it traditionally makes things even harder, with the likes of mince pies, smoked salmon and, of course, turkey off the menu. Moreover, while it used to be generally considered by restaurants that only one diner in a party might require a vegetarian or vegan option, thanks to the rise of the ‘flexitarian’ it’s now much more likely that a whole family will be sitting down to a fully vegetarian or vegan meal this Christmas period.
In 2016, the number of people who followed a vegan diet was just 540,000 according to the Vegan Society. This number has now grown to upwards of 3m, making the UK one of the fastest growing global markets for vegan products. Last year marked the first time a mince pie was approved by the Vegan Society and restaurants and food industries have stepped up to the plate to ensure vegans don’t feel they are missing out at Christmas.
“The rise of veganism and people adopting a flexitarian approach to eating means we’re experimenting more with plant-based meals and we’re less afraid to try something different,” says M&S vegetarian and vegan meal developer Claire Richardson.
This year the company has created what it describes as the ‘ultimate vegan dishes’ for the festive season, including a no-meat turkey feast sandwich, mini vegan burgers, a vegan nut roast and filo parcels for the main event.
“Vegan Christmas no longer needs to be a struggle,” says Richardson.
Nut roast no more
In the past restaurants have turned to the trusty nut roast as their sole vegetarian festive alternative, but with the huge growth in the number of people following a vegan diet, the dish often fails to cut the mustard. Perhaps unfairly, many associate the nut roast with the dry, ill-thought through nut roasts of the 2000s, but thanks to the new wave of vegan and plant-based restaurants and chefs, there are some strong offerings being served across the restaurant and retail food scene, using a variety of types of nuts and fruits, as well as glazes and unconventional flavours such as maple syrup.
D&D’s 20 Stories restaurant in Manchester, for example, is putting a hazelnut roast on its Christmas menu this year, made with apricots and served with the traditional side dish of
sprouts, as well as with cocotte potatoes. At the slightly more complicated end of the meat-free culinary spectrum is the vegetable wellington, which is increasingly taking over from the nut roast as the eye-catching centrepiece of the vegetarian Christmas dinner.
More impressive than a nut roast, the wellington lends itself to more unusual and creative flavour combinations, and its layers of texture and colour make it more visually appealing than a standard loaf of nut roast. The filling of the vegetarian wellington allows for a considerable amount of creativity from the kitchen. The Draft House Paddington site uses a combination of mushroom, tofu and chestnut for its take on the wellington, and serves it with roast potatoes, carrots, parsnips and brussels sprouts, while at Dean Street Townhouse the wild mushroom filling is a more refined interpretation of the dish.
Even steakhouses, not known for embracing veganism in any form, are catering for those on a plant-based diet this Christmas. At Smith & Wollensky in Covent Garden its wellington is
made with beetroot and served with a walnut and white wine sauce. In many cases, chefs are using dairy-free pastry, opening up the dish to vegans as well as vegetarians.
The rise of mock meats
Given the innovation in vegan products for the vegan who craves real meat, some restaurants have chosen this year to offer dishes featuring mock meats – including ingredients such as seitan, Quorn, and certain preparations of tofu.
Ireland-based company Moodley Manor has a variety of seitan-based meat substitutes within the range on offer to restaurants. Its sausage-stuffed beef style roasts and turkey-inspired offering are the most popular during the festive season, says founder Gav Moodley.
“We’ve seen steady sales increasing with our restaurant partners over the last few months to account for the continued demand from vegan customers,” says Moodley.
While the plant-based doppelgänger of a 3kg beef joint might be appealing to some vegans, others prefer their vegetables to look like vegetables, and are put off by how realistic some imitation meats are. For these diners, restaurants are offering plenty of options that are less scientific than mock meats, and less time consuming than intricate pastry bakes.
Aqua Shard, located on the 31st floor of the London Bridge skyscraper, is serving a whole baked carnival squash filled with nut roast stuffing and cashew milk for Christmas this year. The stuffing and the style of serve mimics that of a turkey, and with the use of cashew milk the entire dish is rendered vegan.
Events catering company Peardrop London offers a similar festive dish, although owner Rose Lloyd-Owen uses smoked nuts for texture, cranberries for festive flavour, and quinoa, served with a vegan tomato gravy. Tied up with string and roasted, Lloyd-Owen’s dish has visual comparisons with a turkey, just as the carnival squash does at Aqua Shard.
In using predominantly whole vegetables, nuts and fruit, in some cases restaurants are able to reduce their costs and buy better quality ingredients. This is why a set three course vegetarian menu in a restaurant is often priced lower than its meat equivalent, says Darren Deadman, culinary director at Searcy’s. However, this is not always the case.
“It might seem odd that the vegetarian options are priced the same as the meat ones, but things like jackfruit are very hard to come by and laborious to prepare compared to meat,”
says George Zhuravlov, founder of the Good Yard group of health-focused restaurants.
“The price aspect is actually quite similar.That said, on dishes that use more typical produce you have to give a little something extra to the offering to justify the price – either to let
veggies know they’re not second class citizens, or to reward carnivores for branching out.
The elevation of the vegan meal
The effort taken by some chefs to elevate vegetarian and vegan dishes and to give them an even footing against their meat-based counterparts is becoming increasingly evident. At fine dining French restaurant Gauthier Soho – whose owner Alexis Gauthier announced earlier this year that he intended for the restaurant to eventually go fully-vegan – vegetarian and vegan options retain the flavours and ingredients associated with Christmas.
“Perhaps the most popular Christmas dish we do is our roast parsnip with dried mint, liquorice broth, garlic cream and parsnip crisps. This remained on our menu throughout last winter,” says James Lewis, marketing director at Gauthier.
“We have also done a Christmas celeriac baked with cranberries, maple syrup, almonds, apricots and stuffed cabbage leaves.”
One of the restaurant’s most popular meat-free dishes will also be on its Christmas menu, as a starter. Its ‘faux gras’ mock foie gras terrine is made from lentils, walnuts and shallots, and is served in a way that mimics the look of the real foie gras terrine that the restaurant used to serve 20kg of each week.
Rose Lloyd-Owen has also worked hard to improve Peardrop’s vegan starters, and has created a selection of plant-based macarons, filled with wild mushroom paté, beetroot and horseradish platter and parsnip ganache. The company has already had a commission for a sweet and savoury macaron tower this Christmas, it says.
Of course, there is more to a Christmas dinner than a starter and a roast turkey: side dishes are often the stars of the show, and as most are vegetable-based, naturally, they are a good area of the menu for operators to invest in.
“Meat dishes made vegetarian by omission or substitution sometimes lack backbone, but vegetable dishes that are innately complete are as satisfying as carnivorous ones,” says Jacob Kennedy of Plaquemine Lock and Bocca Di Lupo.
Dishes such as whole roast cauliflower, for example, and more innovative takes on sprouts that can be served family-style to the table are becoming more popular.
Vegan gravies can be watery and flavourless without the umami and fat provided from meat juices, so chefs have become increasingly innovative with finding ways to add flavour and depth to their sauces. Tom Griffiths, chef-patron at nose-to-tail restaurant Flank, hosted a fully vegan supper club in the summer, where he spent a considerable amount of time figuring out how to create the meatiness of gravy without the animals.
“You need the meat for the richness of a sauce, in all honesty,” he says.
“If you’re on a budget you can use things like vegemite to create the umami flavour, but there are a few premium ingredients that really take it up a level.”
Griffiths’ recipe includes the likes of malt extract, a type of fermented rice called koji, dried mushrooms and Madeira. Whatever you choose to do, don’t make vegetarian dishes an afterthought, advises Sam Platt, manager of the Vegetarian Society Cookery School.
“Write the veggie dishes first. So many chefs leave veggie options till last when writing a menu, which can make it feel like a chore. If you’re a meat-eater it might take a bit more thought to design veggie and vegan dishes. Don’t leave it until the creative juices run dry.”
And lay off the cheese.
“Not every veggie dish needs cheese,” she adds.
“If cheese is an ingredient in your veggie starters, avoid it in your main courses and vice versa. Try other ways to pop a bit of protein in a dish; pulses and grains, tofu, nuts, seeds, and tempeh all have great protein content – and are super tasty too.”
As perceptions change towards plant-based diets, operators are increasingly being given the opportunity to get creative. With so many new techniques and ingredients available, it looks like we might have seen the last time a vegan Christmas meal comprises a bowl of sprouts and a bottle of gin.