Supermarket shelves are now bowing under the heft of vegan meals - from sausages that are like sausages to kebab ‘meat’.
This rapid transition is welcomed by those who stopped eating animals decades ago. But it has also caused concern because of the weird and wonderful ingredients that have bled into what was once considered a healthy diet.
Yet not all vegan ready meals and fast foods are being produced by disruptive start-ups using hipster packaging and E-numbers in this fast growing market. Clive’s has been making its organic vegetarian and vegan pies since 1982 - and was providing gluten free options when only the good folk of Truro were demanding them.
Food is an ethical issue - it is a political as well as an economic enterprise. And it often takes place behind closed doors.
When we sit down to even a simple meal we are taking into our bodies ingredients that have been produced and shipped across the world. We rely a great deal on trust - in terms of health and hygiene and also the environmental and human impacts of supplying the supply chain.
I wanted to see what actually takes place behind those doors. How does a bakery producing vegan food ensure that it is not contaminated with dairy or meat products? How can any food company ensure that its supplies are pristine?
Are all ‘processed’ foods bad for our health? Would we want to eat our fast food if we had seen it prepared? I was therefore grateful when Sally Carson, 53, the majority shareholder and managing director Clives agreed to give me a tour of her bakery in Buckfastleigh, Devon.
Clive Low set up the company more than three decades ago with a generous portion of hippy concern for the planet encased in a firm crust of entrepreneurialism.
He sold the pies in Dartmoor, Buckfastleigh and Totnes from his bicycle. The company - Veggie Wholefoods - was for him an extended family. He often welcomed in people in distress - letting them find their feet before they moved on. “It got a bit too much for him,” says Sally, who bought the business with her husband Chris, a chartered accountant. “It’s different running a business now.”
The bakery’s 31 staff members produce 12,000 pies and 2,000 tarts every week from the top floor of a converted wool mill on an industrial estate. All the tarts and most of the pies - 8,000 in fact - are gluten free. There is only one item on the menu when I arrive that is not vegan - the Homity Pie.
Clives is by no means a typical food company. It’s a niche, single batch, family business in a cottage industry. But it has experienced the huge increase in popularity in vegan products.
The whole operation is about to leave the rented bakery where it has been based for more than three decades. The company - now named Buckfast Organic Bakery Limited - has bought its own site in Dartmouth where it can increase production by 300 percent.
It will also abandon the Homity - the best selling in the range - in order to go fully vegan. The range of wholemeal - and therefore not gluten free - pies will be reduced from seven to just four. The new shop floor should become operational in the coming months. “It’s very daunting,” Sally, who is herself vegan, confides.
I donned the appropriate clothes before being taken around the bakery. The old stone white painted walls, the large metal machinery, and the friendly ease of the bakery staff combine to make the old-place feel very friendly and familiar. It’s very different from the almost fully-automated warehouse that churns out potato waffles, for example.
The production of Clive’s pies is more of an art - in fact it is something of a dance - than a science. A total of 120 ingredients are supplied to the bakery from 15 suppliers, to hand-make 20 different products.
Everything is organic, from the nut roast to the hummus. Most of the fresh ingredients for the pie filling is bought from Riverfood, the organic Devon-based farm. This includes 400kg of mushrooms.
The wholemeal flours are supplied by Cann Mill in Shaftesbury, Dorset. The gluten free flours are specially blended by Shipton Mill in Gloucestershire. But not all the ingredients are local. They get through 250kg of Italian grown tomatoes every week. The beans and pulses come from as far afield as Turkey and China.
The first pies to be made are vegan and gluten free. The cheese - the only non-vegan ingredient in the building - has its own dedicated fridge. The chef responsible for making the Homity pie had to wear a special shock-red apron and gloves before taking the cheese out.
It is added to the pie only at the very end of the making process. The gluten free and wholemeal pastries are made in entirely separate rooms. Some of the ingredients - such as the chickpeas - are sifted by hand, which takes up hours every day.
Only later in the day are the wholemeal and cheese pies allowed anywhere near the ovens. The whole bakery is washed down thoroughly at the end of the day, and the whole process starts again the next morning.
“The way we make our pies as you would make them at home. This is processed food. It’s pastry so it has some fat, and there is salt for taste. But we just use larger pots and a few machines. I eat two every day.”
Sally, like any food maker, is heavily reliant on her suppliers. Clive's ensures that the ingredients listed on the box reflects exactly what goes into the pies.
The company had to issue a product recall last year after sesame seeds had been added to the spice mix. They no longer use that supplier. And it prompted Sally, a mother of three, to do a thorough audit of her supply chain, visiting the farms and the factories.
“I now go and audit my suppliers myself,” Sally tells me. “It is really important to develop personal relationships with suppliers, as trust and confidence is a big factor for us and our costumers.”
The pies are allowed to cool and are then boxed on site each day.
March will also bring new packaging - making much more of a deal of the fact the pies can be eaten straight away, have always been organic, and are still handmade.
Every single Clive’s Pie that has been made has already been sold. The finished pies go down three flights in a lift, out the front into the back of the waiting vans, to wholefood shops around the country.
I’m salivating when I leave. Why didn’t I blag myself some free pies?
Brendan Montague is editor of The Ecologist. This article was first published in Resurgence & Ecologist magazine.
Image: Clive's Pies, Facebook.