Is life better as a vegetarian?
Recovering omnivore ... Richard Cornish, a lifelong meat lover, has embraced vegetarianism and lost more than six kilograms Photo: Eddie Jim
"Why the bloody hell would you want to give up meat?'' quizzed a group of mates at a barbecue early this summer. Long-time meat lovers, together we had butchered lambs, made hams and pumped out hundreds of metres of backyard sausages. Now I was leaving them to join a foreign tribe with a foreign diet. I was to immerse myself in the world of vegetarianism, to explore this growing global food movement.
Propelled by concerns about animal welfare and a heightened awareness of the environmental impact of animal farming, more people are choosing to eat less meat - or, like me, forgo meat, fish and seafood altogether.
About 10 per cent of Italians are vegetarian, while the figure is about 5 per cent in the US and about the same in Britain. In India, 40 per cent of the population have an all-vegetable diet. In Australia, Bureau of Statistics figures show about 5 per cent of the population follows a vegetarian diet and a 2010 Newspoll survey showed seven out of 10 Australians are choosing more plant-based meals.
I've entered a wonderful world of new dishes, new skills and new flavours. But it started badly. The smell of pastry wafted from the bakery in the central Victorian town where I was working during my first week of abstinence.
Lured inside, I quizzed the baker on what he had to satisfy a hungry vegetarian. ''Pasties,'' was the answer. I bought one, sat on a bench in the sun, and bit into it. Beef! Gristly beef. I returned to question the baker, assuming there had been a mistake. ''Well, it's got vegetables in it,'' came the sneering reply. It wasn't just ignorant or rude. It was contemptuous. I looked around for meat-free options. Every pie was made with meat. The sandwiches had ham, corned beef and chicken filling. The egg filling in the egg-and-lettuce sandwiches was made with egg, lettuce, mayo and bacon. My best - and only - option was a scone. Lesson one in the ignorance I quickly discovered vegetarians sometimes still face.
When it came to preparing meals at home, I was forced to reflect upon the omnipresence of meat in Australian culture. It's the centrepiece of the family dinner and the protein upon which almost every restaurant bases its menu. Industry body Meat & Livestock Australia says each Australian eats on average 110 kilograms of lamb, pork, beef and chicken a year.
Last September, British writer, TV presenter and long-time meat champion Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall released his River Cottage Veg Every Day! cookbook.
His objective was to get Britons to eat more vegetables and ''a lot less meat''. Vegetables, he writes in the book, are the foods that do us the most good, and our planet the least harm.
Armed with his book, along with Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, Alice Hart's Vegetarian, a 1977 copy of The Moosewood Cookbook and Yotam Ottolenghi's The Cookbook, I set about reimagining our family mealtimes.
My family - wife, two kids - has generally always enjoyed a meat, poultry or fish dish surrounded by multiple plates of salads and vegetables. After removing the meat (except for the meals for our young children) the pressure was on to make our vegetable dishes more nutritionally complete using nuts, seeds, pulses and whole grains.
Cutting meat out also removed one of the elements that makes eating so enjoyable - the delicious savoury-inducing compounds glutamate and inosinate, found in large quantities in red meat, cured meat, shellfish, pork and poultry. They are responsible for that mouth-watering umami experience that makes foods such as steak so bloody delicious.
A trick I have learnt from chef mates Frank Camorra and Matt Wilkinson is to use lots of well-cooked onions and shallots - perhaps to fold through a salad of sweet potato dressed with roasted pumpkin seeds.
Tomatoes are high in glutamate, and mushrooms high in guanylate, so we have embraced ragouts of field and pine mushrooms, thickened with tomato sugo and served over truffled polenta. We're also loving whole grains such as farro, freekeh, brown rice and barley.
Their slight umami nuttiness can be enhanced by cooking them, draining them and pouring over a dressing enhanced with a little glutamate-rich soy or miso while the grains are still warm. Aged cheeses are also one of the richest sources of glutamate. The only snag, of course, is that, by definition, Italian parmesan cheese is made with rennet from the stomachs of slaughtered calves.
Animal products such as rennet in cheese and gelatin in desserts can present a challenge in some restaurants. The president of meat-free diet education group Vegetarian Victoria, Mark Doneddu, goes out of his way to eat at dedicated vegetarian restaurants. ''In a vegetarian restaurant they simply do not use any animal-derived product,'' he says. ''Also you don't have to explain what you eat and don't eat.
''There you're no longer in a minority. You're part of a like-minded group.''
I took his advice - but couldn't agree. I'm happy to never fully join that particular group. There was an aesthetic of ethical superiority and heart-on-sleeve spiritual awareness in many such places that failed to resonate with me.
For a quick family feed it was easy to get good meat-free food in entry-level ethnic restaurants from countries where meat is seen as a luxury. Any Middle Eastern or Mediterranean worth its salt will serve nutritious and delicious plates such as Lebanese falafel.
At the higher end, three-hatted French chef Jacques Reymond shows how vegetarian food can be elevated to the highest form of the culinary arts.
His vegetarian degustation was a highlight but my meat-free summer brought other joys; a heightened appreciation of fresh, ripe local fruit and vegetables - and a greater connection to the seasons. Apart from spring lamb, there is no seasonality with meat. Eating plants is different: with the cold months approaching, I am slightly trepidatious about the vegetables coming into the markets.
But the experts tell me I'll be fine. ''Winter is no problem,'' the Lake House's Alla Wolf-Tasker says. ''Kohlrabi, brussels sprouts, broccoli and other members of the cabbage family along with stored tubers and pumpkins combined with grains are a joy to cook with.''
My mate texted the other day saying he was hosting a barbecue. It didn't look like I was invited. After a lifetime of using vegetarians as the punchline for gags, I had really become one of them. It's not so funny when the shoe is on the other foot but I'm really probably the one who's laughing: I've lost more than six kilograms and have a feeling of well-being I haven't had in years.
Will I keep it up? Over summer and up to now I haven't missed meat once. I have cooked it for family and friends and was never tempted, except on one occasion when I was slicing a whole jamon. The rich smell of cured flesh, the nutty aroma of the outer layer of fat took me back to all those days and nights working and playing in Spain. I lifted a small slice to my nose to inhale not just the punchy bouquet but all the memories. A mate politely coughed when he saw me. ''Sprung!'' he said. I had to joke about taping a small piece to my upper arm like a nicotine patch to stop the cravings.
From: Good Living