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To Britain and back - Eating Out (by Annette)

Full disclosure: we've indulged our penchant for eating out quite frequently since pandemic restrictions were lifted here in Germany last April. However, this didn't dampen our enthusiasm for the prospect of some meals out while we were travelling around Britain last week, but that enthusiasm was tempered with realism: we'd researched some of our favourite places, shops, cafés and restaurants, before we left Berlin and noticed that "permanently closed" was a rather frequently used phrase. How challenging was it going to be for two wholefood vegans, one of whom also avoids gluten?

The ‘research’ referred to above included the discovery of a fully vegan restaurant in York which was pretty exciting so we booked for the two of us and three members of Graham’s family (who, incidentally voiced no objections whatsoever to going somewhere that wouldn’t have some of their typical food choices, which enhanced the welcome we got and we really appreciated it). I had selected my meal long before we left Berlin because it just ticked all my boxes. In the event, although it was still listed, it had been dropped from the menu. As if we’re not challenged enough, we aim to eat quite light at night, or more accurately, early in the evening as we know now from very direct experience that this lends itself much better to sleep quality; the parasympathetic nervous system is also known as the “rest and digest” part of the autonomic nervous system, but this definitely isn’t a suggestion to do both at the same time! Rest to digest, yes! But digest-whilst-trying-to-sleep, no! So I chose hummus with raw vegetables and gluten-free bread. This was fine, although not exactly exciting. Graham’s was more adventurous but unfortunately it didn’t work well for him as it was too much (he didn’t finish it) and the quantity was later compounded by an ingredient that didn’t suit him which is just one of the hazards of eating out. In this case it was almost certainly the usually innocuous onion which was abundant in this dish. His first night’s sleep in England was disturbed and short.

The next meal out was in Nottingham in a familiar restaurant that’s close to our hearts for reasons I won’t go into here. Our last visit there had shown a developing trend of more inclusivity for vegetarians and vegans. The more recent menu, however, was low on options for the three of us who wanted a plant-based choice and was further diminished for those of us (well, just me) avoiding gluten. Was this a result of the impact of pandemic restrictions? It behoves us to remember that smaller independent restaurants had to fight for their survival during the pandemic by becoming more creative and, alas, catering for the majority rather than minorities, even a minority that’s growing. Is this how many smaller businesses avoided the “permanently closed” phrase we’d seen rather too often already? As had previously been the case at this restaurant, a meal was adapted for us with the ease and flair that comes from working with freshly prepared ingredients, culinary creativity and a can-do approach.

It’s a shame that I couldn’t eat the bread in the Nottingham restaurant; it looked good and by all accounts, it was good. Again it raises the two sides of the inclusivity issue: I was excluded, there was no replacement for me, but is a gluten-free bread option quite simply unviable for a restaurant that doesn’t use pre-packaged and mass-produced foods? Is the kitchen big enough to contain gluten-free items completely separately to avoid contamination? My issue is not an allergic reaction (I’ve written about it in a previous blog post), but when it is allergy-related, the level of care required is huge and may well be just too much for many small restaurants.

The animal foods issue is different again. Aside from potential health-related issues with dairy, the consumption, or not, of animal products is a choice and once it becomes a matter of ethics there are additional considerations. How do we feel about eating in restaurants where animals are being prepared as food? Given the choice, we would opt more often for fully vegan restaurants, but in the meantime, the more that plant-based meals are requested, the greater the likelihood there is of a shift to less meat and more vegan or at least vegetarian meals. But what about the food choices around the rest of the table? For a vegan who sees the flesh of a dead animal on a nearby plate as traumatic (vegans see no difference in inherent value between a cow, sheep or pig and a pet cat or dog, because there is none), it really can be deeply unpleasant. Do we avoid these situations? Do we pass comment? With a somewhat heavy heart, I have to say no to this if only because that person with meat or fish on their plate used to be me and it never crossed my mind that it might be offensive or upsetting to anyone else. Maybe this is a good moment to apologise for my earlier ignorance?

We left Nottingham the following day and our train pulled into London St Pancras, a truly magnificent station, and straightaway the prospects for eating out were looking good, although we had some surprises to come. We ventured no further for lunch because we wanted to see if we could get a spot at Le Pain Quotidien. This Belgian chain with restaurants in London has a modern menu and also caters for vegetarians and vegans. We each chose the same and my accompanying gluten-free bread was by far the best I'd had since we ate our packed lunch on the train out of Berlin. So this was a hit with us, although it seemed a little odd to order a vegan meal and be served little packets of dairy butter with the bread…

We really didn't know what to expect at Olympia. We were there for Vegfest 2022 so we did know to expect vegan food, but what kind? We're more than a little reluctant to eat the highly processed type of food that courts so much debate among both vegans and non vegans. We needn't have worried. A Caribbean vendor was selling the most wonderful array of exquisitely spiced wholefoods and piled them high in cardboard boxes, so high we couldn't possibly close the lids. This was such good food, we went back for more at tea time ….and then again for lunch on Sunday!

Our final London meal was the surprise…a double surprise. We'd found a Mildred's restaurant (there are three) on a street close to our hotel. This would surely be a safe bet, it's a vegetarian and vegan restaurant after all and we'd been wowed by an experience in another of the restaurants a few years ago. We were wrong. My options (gluten-free) were getting narrower to the point where the waiter, who was unsure about the contents of the meals, advised that we get a phone out and examine the relevant part of their website via the QR code on the menu. We decided not to stay.

We needed to progress to somewhere not too far away and decided to go to a restaurant we used to go to while we were en route to veganism but hadn't made it there yet. Pizza Express on Euston Road. And this was the double surprise: the fact that they can offer a vegan menu, AND what we chose. Each of us opted for something we don't normally eat and certainly enjoyed it. I had a pasta dish (made with maize) and Graham had a vegan pizza. There's no denying it, despite our reservations about chains, this was a pretty good experience from the food to the friendliness of the Brazilian Italian waiter.

We hadn't thought much about food beyond London and probably wouldn't have expected much in Cologne where we spent the following night, but we were in for a real treat at a Düsseldorf-based company called Sattgrün with just the one restaurant in Cologne. I can only describe it as a vegan wonderland buffet. It's self service….thank goodness; there's too much to miss if you allow someone else to make selections for you. It was spectacular and we would definitely return.

I must applaud you if you've stayed this far. This is the longest of our series of 4 posts because eating out raises so many issues and has given us plenty of 'food for thought'.

Just when you, dear reader, and I thought this post had come to an end, there's a post script to add. Having inevitably changed our eating routine whilst we were away, we've been prompted to make a couple of adjustments now that we're back, mainly an evening meal that's lighter still, resulting in Graham being able to lose a few of the seemingly stubborn pounds that just wouldn't let him return to what he felt was his best weight. And he's sleeping better with the evening's food choices being particularly easy to assimilate. They say a change is as good as a rest; it appears 'they' may be right!

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