A Little Vegan Trip to Oxford
I wanted to write about my recent variable experiences of being a vegan out and about and travelling. It seems that my ongoing adventures in the wider world continue to challenge my vegan sensibilities and clash with my desire for simple and pleasurable meals and holiday experiences.
I recently had to attend some meetings in Oxford, and was booked in to a Guest House for one overnight stay by the people I was meeting with. First, we met for lunch, in the Oxford Brookes University ‘Brookes Restaurant’, which was a fine dining restaurant which helps to train hospitality students. The staff had been warned in advance that one of the party were vegan and there was no problem at all. The service was excellent and the waitress offered me a choice of starters, only one option for main, and a choice for dessert. What was interesting was the fact that the starter was on the specials board, and it was a red pepper soup – which three of us in the party had – so that was already vegan, while the pudding I had consisted of two elements of two different desserts – strawberries usually served with cream, and the tropical fruit compote which was the accompaniment to a passion fruit brulee tart. It was all delicious, and it was lovely to be treated as just another diner, not have people acting as if I was being awkward and difficult. I think this makes a huge difference to the experience of eating out. It was also evident that the chefs in the kitchen were properly trained and therefore capable of identifying elements of a vegan meal and giving consideration. The main course was a vegetable timbale which was utterly delicious. I left feeling very satisfied.
After a long afternoon of intensive work, I returned to my hotel (where I had left my car) and at last gained access to the room. The usual plethora of dairy products were there, including a biscuit with milk in, and milk to go in tea and coffee. I had emailed the guest house the week before and asked if I could have soya milk for my tea, but obviously they didn’t think to put it in the room. I went out to a marvellous Indian restaurant on London Road, called the Mirabai, which had outstanding service, and the largest most interesting chutney tray I have ever had. The dahl soup for started was delicious, and the main was a spinach and chickpea curry with green chillies, with coconut rice, and it was delicious. I was also served a lovely bottle of Rioja which was well worth the price. The Mirabai allowed me to have a relaxing evening in a pleasant atmosphere.
I didn’t sleep very well in the guest house, and was up early. At breakfast I had mushrooms, beans, tomato (just a half) and toast with Vitalite. There was soya milk for my tea. There was also a vegan sausage, which was microwaved so much that it was absolutely rock hard – I could tell when I chipped the end off that it had been microwaved within an inch of its life. It was inedible. I suppose that I could have complained and asked for another one, but it didn’t seem worth the effort. It was a shame really. However, the overall experience wasn’t too negative. And it was nice to have vegan spread for my toast for a change. Unfortunately, despite warning them the previous week, there was no vegan food on the buffet following the meeting that day, and although someone offered to go to the canteen and see if they could get me a salad, again, I felt disappointed but I didn’t want to make a fuss because everyone else was already eating. Plus salad is generally not very filling – unless you load it with interesting veggies, seeds and nuts or grains. I ate some fruit (grapes, a strawberry and half a very green apple) but knew that such food would not sustain me for long. I had a two and a half hour car journey ahead of me. Luckily, I had made myself some salad sandwiches the previous day and had some left over in my picnic basket, along with a flapjack and a bottle of water, and these kept me going until I went home. They were rather sad and limp however, having spent 24 hours in a warm car, and were less than appetising. I had been assured I would be ‘looked after’ with the lunch, but in my experience, unless you prepare in advance and ensure that clear instructions are given about what kind of food you would like, the ability to respond to a vegan diet is poor. I know it’s an issue for a lot of people but your average person either doesn’t understand what vegans eat, or doesn’t really get how hard it can be to find vegan food. I refer back to my recent experience with a large chain hotel in Birmingham, where, at a conference, their idea of a vegan alternative was a plate of lettuce with a few slivers of tomato and pepper (cut so thin I could see through them). There was no dressing, no protein, no carbohydrate. The ‘normal’ people were having wraps, with chicken and vegetables, or seafood. I couldn’t understand why they couldn’t have grilled me some vegetables with a little seasoning, and stuck them in a wrap.
Overall it seems that wherever I go, there is a kind of ‘pot luck’ about food and service. I have realised that I am so accustomed to poor availability, and poor food choices, as well as poor service, that when I get a good experience it seems almost too good. I get excited and far too grateful that someone has the ability to provide for me. It also reminds me that there seem to be large numbers of people who don’t know how to cater for anything other than standard meals and expectations. It seems that everyone, whatever their dietary needs, is stuck in some kind of rut, afraid to try new things and afraid to deviate from some kind of middle of the road standard. It also seems that there is a generation of ‘chefs’ who do not actually understand how to cook! I am amazed at the limitations in people’s knowledge, and their lack of ability to respond to difference. To me, this borders on a kind of enforced conformity, limiting the scope to be an individual and to want something a little different. Having said that, I also know that there are some very good vegan and vegetarian restaurants who are profitable, and some which are less than effective in delivering good food to their specialist public. It would seem, overall, that the biggest challenge for the vegan travelling or eating out would be to find a variety of choice, and to secure a nutritious meal. As lovely as the lunch was in the restaurant, there was no focus on ensuring that the meal was high in protein. There was plenty of rice in the timbale, however, and the food was filling and very, very tasty.
I am also amazed at the way that people perceive vegan food. They seem to think that all we eat is salad. This is quite strange. When we talk about people eating meat, we don’t assume that all they eat is a lump of beef on their plate. I feel that people need educating, including those providing food service and hospitality. People need to learn about food in general, I suppose, and about variety in particular.
A final note – this is what I cooked tonight.
Moroccan chickpea stew – sautee onions and leeks with garlic, garam masala, mixed spice, and fresh chilli, as well as some dried chilli. Add water, vegetable stock, sweet chilli sauce, tomato puree, a tin of chickpeas, lemon juice, and stew slowly. Adjust seasoning and spice to taste.
Couscous – easy peasy.
Roasted vegetables: carrots and parsnip cooked in garlic oil and salt. Purple potatoes and sweet potato cooked with mixed spice and salt, and curry oil.
Beetroot salad with walnuts, dressed with balsamic vinegar and lemon juice.
It was very, very nice.
A Little Vegan Trip to Oxford