A message to the glorious pubs of England…from a humble but hopefully helpful vegetarian

Adventures, Flotsam and Jetsom, Recipes, Uncategorized

We enjoyed a lovely trip to a local pub last night. The lights twinkled and a welcoming open fire roared. Charming staff were hanging swags of pine boughs with sprinkles of red winter berries, and fragrant dried oranges slices shot through with cloves from the walls – so festive! And merry! In short, flag-stone floors, wood-panels and all, it was the perfect country pub. With a fine looking menu – imaginative and beautiful, with thought-through side dishes and lovely looking flavours.

Just one problem. And an issue we come across as members of that fortunately no-longer-quite-so-scant tribe, vegetarians, so, so often. There was a measly one veggie option on the main couse menu. In the season where the shelves of the local food cooperative I work for occasionally are groaning with stacks of hearty, wholesome, tasty winter veg – scarlet kale, a trillion different varieties of squash, nutty little Jerusalem artichokes, knobbly celeriac, long leeks in their prime, and of course the most fragrant of carrots sitting alongside the standard potatoes and onions.

Both my husband and I are passionate about food. Cooking, baking and eating take up a lot of our time and attention. We based our honeymoon destination choice (Italy) largely on the culinary opportunities we hoped to sample, and no one ever stays the night at our house without being force fed homemade sourdough bread, baked eggs in a spicy, tomato sauce, sprinkled with fresh herbs and tangy feta, or fresh halloumi and sweetcorn fritters piled with avocado, sweet baked cherry tomatoes and chili, or rosti potatoes topped with organic eggs and mushrooms…you get the picture. We just absolutely love food.

Which is why it’s soooooo dreary and disappointing when we head to a pub that we’ve heard great things about and are met with a lonely little option.

However, in the spirit of being constructive and generous, rather than glum, I’ve put together these insights, which are the same thoughts I have each and every time I find myself staring at my one option, too often pasta or…argh….the dreaded risotto, and thinking ‘I could make that at home, without spending £15 on it’.

Of course, not all veggies will share this opinion, and I haven’t even reached vegan food on this post. Which we eat a lot of at home. But to any meat-eating chefs, struggling to think of inspired veggie options for your menu – maybe these insights will be helpful. We love fancy, imaginative, creative food, we also love light, healthy food. But often, when we go to a pub, we just want lovely, simple, hearty, well-flavoured pub food. The vegetarian equivelant of your meat options. So here goes. The often-mulled on observations of this vegetarian, specifically aimed at the noble English pub kitchen.

  • We love hearty food too! It’s just about the worst when everyone else is tucking into delicious pies and pub food, juicy, groaning plates of rich gravy and vegetables, and you’re looking at a light salad, pasta or risotto option. It makes one feel excluded, un-considered and not valuable as a customer. How about a lovely wild mushroom pie on creamy mash with a lovely gravy, a chard and sweet potato gratin with melting strings of gruyere, something as simple as a deep, juicy caramelised onion and cheddar tart or the versatile gallette, stuffed full of local cheese, seasonal veg, whatever’s around at the time basically. Or how about a really delicious veggie burger. NOT a field mushroom and a slice of halloumi – seriously, that’s a sandwich, not a burger. Why not use your imagination and create your own house version – tempeh, walnuts, mushrooms are all good ingredients to chuck in. Anna Jones has an amazing one, and these Oh She Glows Thai sweet potato burgers with peanut sauce are heavenly. There are so many more options than tired old field-mushroom-and-halloumi not-a-burger-at-all.
  • Which brings me to Sunday roasts – I used to live in the vegetarian haven of Brighton, where I was spoiled, and got used to delicious veggie roasts in pretty much every pub; toad in the hole with veggie sausages (my favourite actually, due to the automatically included yorkshire pudding!), nut roasts with rich seams of spinach and mushrooms (nut roasts are a little boring, but better than no option at all), rainbow pies, with layers of red cabbage, mashed sweet potato, creamed with nutmeg, bright spinach and soft, white cheese, and the simple but delicious wellington (literally, so easy, sheet of puff pastry, sauteeed onions, herbs, mushrooms and chestnuts, finely chopped and chucked in there with some wilted spinach and goats cheese before baking.) Since moving to Oxford, we’ve found ourselves very short on veggie roast options. We simply don’t go out for roasts anymore, as they’re just not a thing round here.
  • We love English-inspired flavours and lovely pub food too! Basically, if we want a curry, we’ll go to an Indian restaurant, where it’ll undoubtedly be better, if we want pasta (or indeed, risotto), we’ll go to an Italian restaurant (ditto), if we want a salad, we’ll head to a cafe, and we really never, ever, ever want risotto in a pub. We’ve literally had it at every Christmas meal ever, while our friends tuck into heaving plates of roast meats and vegetables, at every wedding we’ve ever been to and every work event in our lives. Please. For the love of all that is vegetarian. No more risotto! We’ve honestly eaten so much of the stuff. And it’s never even as good as a homemade version. When we go to a pub, we’re looking for delicious, hearty pub food that’s a bit of a treat, ideally inspired by seasonal produce, featuring lovely local flavours, thyme, sage, sorrel and classic English deliciousness.
  • Do give us more than one option. It’s only fair really don’t you think? What if we have an allergy linked to something in the one option? Or simply don’t fancy it. Or would like to choose which dish we’re going to spend our money on. Put yourself in our shoes. Would you think well of a place that literally offered you one choice, take it or leave it? No matter how lovely that choice is, it doesn’t make us feel valued, it makes us feel like an unimportant afterthought. Which, when you consider our money is the same as a meat-eater’s money, doesn’t seem fair. It makes us resent that one choice. Even when it looks like it might be nice. The psychology of food is so important don’t you think? Looking at a menu and feeling so excited you can’t even decide what to have is one of the pleasures of eating out. Scanning the menu and realising that choice is not open to the likes of you is a little disappointing.
  • Consider that many meat eaters enjoy vegetarian food too – I have so many friends who order veggie options in restaurants and pubs, not because they can’t eat the meat ones, but because they often prefer a veggie option.
  • Lastly, you’re really doing yourselves an injustice. As chefs, don’t you do your jobs because you love food? And have trained, developed and refined your skills, so that we, as humble punters, get to benefit from your professional expertise? Shouldn’t that love and fascination extend to all food? If a large chunk of your clients are going away with the idea that the pinnacle of your skillset is to boil some pasta and chuck in some cream, garlic and mushrooms, then that’s not a true reflection of your talents. One of my favourite foodie-follows on Instagram is River Cottage chef Gill Meller. Although he often posts pictures of pork belly – and on one occasion, squirrel and potato rosti – he also posts up delightful little onion squashes stuffed with fennel, barley, herbs and cheese and pots of wild mushroom, blue cheese and cider soup. In short, his immense passion for and knowledge of food bursts out of his feed, whether it’s meat, fish or vegetables. It’s a beautiful thing. Do check him out.

Here endeth the missive. And if any chefs need a vegetarian taster/sounding board/ideas bouncer-off-er….HERE I AM!

PS. For any veggies looking for great pub food in the Oxford area, I must recommend The Perch in Binsey. They have a fantastic, imaginative, beautiful array of veggie options, on what is still a small, refined little menu. I leave you with a picture of their potato, parsnip and wild rice cakes, swimming in a pool of mushroom, sage and cider cream and topped with tangy beetroot relish, which is on their current winter menu. Get thee down there. They have a seperate vegan menu too, the lovely things.