Take on Veganuary in 2024 to plant-power your new year
We take the temperature of the Cambridge culinary scene and get expert advice for transitioning to a plant-based diet
Since 2014, the Veganuary movement has taken the world by storm, encouraging millions of people to pledge to a month of animal-free consumerism.
As the global non-profit organisation reports, in 2023 alone over 1,610 new vegan products and menu options were launched across its key campaign countries, making it easier than ever before for newbie vegans to dine out if daunted by the prospect of plant-based cooking at home.
However, in the context of Cambridge, it’s been a tough year for the vegan dining scene. “Sadly, 2023 has seen at least three vegan places close down, and only one new destination open up,” shares Louise Palmer-Masterton, founder of plant-based restaurant Stem & Glory.
A great loss to the ethical eating scene will be the imminent closure of The Vegan Witch, an Italian/vegan fusion kitchen founded by chef Serena De Maio.
Over the past 20 years, Serena has worked for ‘almost every vegan business in town’, which led her to take the plunge and open her own.
Overall, Serena finds the city’s vegan offerings to be lacking, identifying an overreliance on pre-cooked frozen food and preference for ‘bland’ burgers.
Nevertheless, despite the downfall in strictly plant-based establishments, the widespread introduction of vegan dishes across the city’s restaurants has been encouraging, says Darren Green, co-owner of vegan cafe, bistro and venue Thrive.
“It’s fantastic to see that vegan options are available at so many establishments,” he says. “I don’t think vegans struggle in Cambridge, but it is wonderful to see the look on people’s faces when they realise they are in a completely vegan place and can choose anything from the menu.”
“Cambridge’s vegan culinary scene has come a long way,” echoes Michelle Alston, a vegetarian food blogger and the brains behind The Last Food Blog.
“From street food vendors to high-end restaurants and the yearly Cambridge Vegan Market, it is definitely easier to enjoy vegan food here now, although there is room for improvement in terms of both quality and choice with the dishes offered by some of the chain restaurants and pubs!”
A vegan diet has become a widespread lifestyle choice due to a host of factors – whether for nutritional value, health reasons, or ethical and environmental concerns surrounding animal farming.
“Vegan nutrition is the only diet that can reduce the suffering and selfishness of the world,” opines Serena.
In the United Nations’ guide to climate action, eating more plant-based foods is a core component of the overall strategy to mitigate our negative impact on the planet.
Indeed, each individual who transitions to a plant-based diet has the potential to reduce their annual carbon footprint by up to 2.1 tonnes (or 1.5 tonnes for vegetarians).
“Many national and international scientific bodies are now stressing that the considerable reduction of meat and dairy consumption is going to be needed before 2030 if we are to meet our climate change goals,” continues Darren.
“There is also a growing body of research to demonstrate that reducing consumption of meat and dairy and adopting a vegan diet can significantly reduce early death from chronic disease.”
However, transitioning to veganism represents a major lifestyle adjustment which can be daunting for many, especially if you have a family to feed.
A slow and steady adoption of a plant-based diet is generally considered the best way forward for the vegan-curious, particularly for those seeking to effect permanent change beyond January.
“If you approach it as a gradual transition, you’ll be able to make a significant reduction in your consumption of meat, fish and dairy over time,” Louise advises.
A growing number of people now identify as ‘flexitarians’, whereby meat consumption becomes a limited and occasional indulgence, rather than a diet staple.
On the other hand, many are shocked into becoming life-long animal-free consumers after witnessing alarming behind-the-scenes insight into the mainstream livestock industry.
“I had an ‘aha’ moment and became vegan on the spot,” confides Louise. “My own experience and that of many of my friends is that we became vegan overnight once we learned what was involved in animal agriculture,” Darren concurs.
A MATTER OF TASTE
Aside from the wealth of resources offered by organisations such as Veganuary, there’s plenty of advice out there to ease your journey of vegan discovery.
“In addition to learning to cook, my advice would be to consult a nutritionist first to learn how to calibrate your meals,” contributes Serena.
Arguably the greatest cause of the negative perceptions surrounding veganism is that it is often seen as a diet of restriction, rather than opportunity.
But as with any good meal, by starting with the flavours and tastes that you enjoy, many of which will still be accessible, you are already setting yourself up for success.
“Italian food is very easy to veganise, as is Indian and Asian food too, so seeking out some delicious and naturally vegan classics from these cuisines is a very good place to start,” shares Louise, who also recommends stocking up on umami ingredients.
Umami, meaning ‘essence of deliciousness’ in Japanese, is associated with a host of foods – both vegan and otherwise. The most savoured vegan favourites include tomato paste (and ketchup), herbs, olives, sun-dried tomatoes, mushrooms, soy sauce, pickles, toasted nuts and seeds, cumin and smoked paprika – all of which make for fantastic, flavoursome additions to any meal.
For Serena, her favourite and most famous dish of veganara began by working with a classic that was true to her heritage and adapting it from there to create an equally comforting crowd-pleaser of a meal.
Elsewhere, at Thrive, the winter months mean that simple comfort foods like sourdough toasties become bestsellers, alongside the weekend brunch crowd’s favourite of scrambled tofu and tempeh bacon which is well worth a try.
“For the best chance of success, what you eat will need to be delicious, and I am a firm believer in letting the food do the converting,” concludes Louise.
If you’re a fledgling flexitarian or mulling over meat-free, there’s no better time to try a month of mindful eating.