Cutting out or cutting down on meat consumption is one of the best things you can do for the environment
It is unfortunate that the single most memorable vegetarian meal I can recall contained not one, not two and not three or four different vegetables but actually, NONE AT ALL.
That's right. Not a vegetable in or out of sight.
It was sold - by a pub in Cornwall's touristy Tintagel if you must know - as a Vegetarian Lasagne. It had pasta, sauce and tomato puree.
I am thinking now that perhaps the rubbery, curled sheets of lasagne that lurked beneath the clumpy cheese sauce should have been a clue not to expect anything edible, never mind delicious. But like most of the other vegetarians I know, we are forever optimistic. We still, despite all the evidence to the contrary, hope against hope that we are going to find something worth handing over our cash for when we have no alternative but to eat out.
See that phrase.....no alternative but to eat out. It's supposed to be a treat going out for a meal; something social; something to look forward to. And I suspect if I still lived in London or could pop over to Manchester (home of the original Vegetarian Society), Los Angeles, Mumbai or New York it might be but, like large numbers of vegetarians, I live in a rural community and have come to dread eating out.
This dread has crept over me slowly and it's only recently that I realised my response has been to spend the last few years slowly acquiring all the skills and more that I need in the kitchen to make sure that my food is as interesting (often even more so) than the non-veggie menus. I watch Come Dine With Me religiously (hardly ever a vegetarian contestant) and Masterchef (even worse!) and so I have now taken refuge in books and tried to teach myself the art of Fine Dining - Vegetarian-style.
I am now not a bad cook and I enjoy the time (many hours) I spend in the kitchen but I have had this nagging suspicion for quite some time that there must be a Modern British Vegetarian Food movement out there and that I need to go and find it.
My initial searches landed me, very happily, at the Ashburton Cookery School (www.ashburtoncookeryschool.co.uk) in South Devon.
I say happily because (a) Ashburton is one of my all-time favourite Devon towns nestling on the foothills of Dartmoor, where Steven Spielberg filmed War Horse (b) the cookery school has been established for over a decade, is brilliant at what it does and thus can boast a high number of returners to the 40-plus courses and most importantly (c) it offers a 2-day Modern Vegetarian Plus course suitable for veggie cooks with some skills but also for those who just want to learn more about cooking with vegetables or who may be cooking regularly for vegetarian family members.
Bingo. This was what I had been looking for.
The other thing I discovered (and this is not so clear from the school's marketing material) is that you spend both days cooking a menu that you then all sit down and eat together. And there are plenty of doggie-bags provided so you can bring samples home and prove you did not spend the weekend shopping in Ashburton's fine antique shops.
So, here is what I learned. Modern British Vegetarian Cuisine does exist. The demand for it is growing and it is being taught at Ashburton which won Food & Travel magazine's Cookery School of the Year last year (2012).
The chef who taught the course, Joe Bartlett, is not a vegetarian himself but he is passionate about cooking vegetables properly and the science behind what works and why. This is probably the biggest difference between being self-taught and spending time around a trained and talented chef; Joe was throwing out culinary gems that in just two days completely revolutionised my own vegetarian cooking and actually has made me feel more confident about tackling dishes that hitherto had always seemed tricksy (think souffles!) and best left to the professionals.
"Anything that grows above the ground needs only a few minutes in boiling water," he told us. "If you over cook your veg, you end up with green water and grey vegetables and who's going to think that looks or tastes nice?"
He has a point and probably the key point because there is, as it turns out, a science and an art to vegetarian cooking. Take the time to master it and your veggie plate will be the one turning heads at your next dinner party.
You can get all the details of all the menus and other courses on offer at Ashburton Cookery School at www.AshburtonCookerySchool.co.uk but in the meantime, here's the menus we cooked on the two day course I attended:
Menus Day One
Poached duck egg salad with brown lentils, baby gem lettuce, oak-aged balsamic vinegar and crunchy peppered croutons
Cream of celeriac, cumin & goat's cheese soup
Sweet potato, chickpea and aubergine tagine with a jewelled pomegranate & fennel cous cous
Baked spice summer fruits with vanilla and basil ice cream
Day Two Menu of the Day
Parsnip & Goat's Cheese Souffle with a Quail egg and Green Bean Caper Salad
Butternut Squash, pine nut, garlic and sage ravioli served with fresh wild garlic pesto
Apple tart tatin with toffee sauce
To take home:
I took samples of every dish we'd made home but the Honey-roasted Parsnip & Parsley Bread and the Courgette, Feta & Sun-Blush Tomato and Thyme Tart were both included specifically for taking home.
Far be it for me to suggest this but you could always print these menus out and leave them (discreetly) around the eateries of your local town ... you never know, you might inspire someone to raise their game when it comes to veggie cooking.
If you already cook and you cast your eye over the menus for the two days of the course you will see we mastered more skills than I have the space to mention; from home-made pasta - hand-crimped ravioli no less, to sugar work with hazelnuts - we covered all the techniques I have spent the last decade teaching myself. It was fun, fast and furious and above all, the end results not only looked beautiful but were delicious. I only had my mobile with me so the photo does not do the dish justice; all the meals we made looked stunning.
The two-day Modern Vegetarian Plus course at Ashburton Cookery School costs £315. This includes the cost of all the ingredients and your meals (excluding breakfast) for the weekend. This same course runs again in June and August.
The school also offers B&B accomodation in Ashburton with standard rooms from £69 per night. Partners are welcome to join their cooking 'other halfs' and there's plenty for them to do in and around Ashburton during the day.
All the ingredients used on the courses are organic and locally sourced, where possible. Good quality ingredients are the key to good quality dishes.
The school says both the Italian and Indian courses they offer can easily be adapted for vegetarians.
I say let's get together and persuade them to offer an advanced Vegetarian Course. I think they would be keen, if they felt the demand was out there. We would need 16 of us to make up the full complement of a course. If you are interested DM me: @suzresurgence
You can contact Ashburton Cookery School on 01364 652784
Joe Bartlett trained in the West Country and has now been a chef tutor at Ashburton Cookery School for six years. Follow him: @JoechefBartlett
Susan Clark is Managing Editor at the Ecologist where she writes a regular Foraging for the Kitchen food column; she is the author of The Sunday Times Vitality Cookbook and the What Really Works series of guides to Natural Health. Follow her: @suzresurgence
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