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The Travelling Vegan

by Davida Gypsy Breier

(note: This article originally appeared in the May/June 2000 issue of Clamor Magazine)

Vegan in the UK

If you are a vegetarian you have probably been reduced to eating chips, pretzels, or a bag of nuts for dinner while travelling. After the third day of meals from a plastic bag one starts getting a little bitter…and rather queasy. I work for The Vegetarian Resource Group, and one part of my job is to assist vegetarians in finding places to eat while travelling. Some of the information at my disposal comes from our restaurant guide for the US and Canada, guidebooks, reliable Internet sources, experience, and word of mouth. I suggest fantastic sounding restaurants, wondering all the while what they were like myself.

This past January I started asking my own questions about where to eat and stay in the UK. Somewhat impulsively, I planned a trip and would be travelling through England, Scotland, and Wales for 12 days. Unlike past trips, I knew where to look for the information I needed. Perhaps some of my experiences and resources will help keep other travelers from the mind-numbing brutality of chips for breakfast, chips for lunch, and chips, with a side order of nuts, for dinner.

I flew overnight and when I arrived I had but one concern - coffee. I thought ahead and brought some small aseptic boxes of soymilk. Although many coffee shops in the US offer soymilk, I found that only very veg-friendly places offered it in the UK. Also, specify that you want your coffee black, if you desire neither milk nor sugar. I was able to restock my soymilk easily, as just about every town we stopped in had at least one health food store. I tried to find brands that were palatable plain, so that I could finish them off once I had lightened my coffee. I noticed that British soymilk tended to be creamer and looked more like cow's milk than American brands.

Patrick and I spent the first few days in London. The first night there we joined our gracious hosts, Rachael (Red Hanky Panky) and Jo, and several of their friends for dinner at Heather's Restaurant, an all vegetarian restaurant in the Deptford section of London. It was somewhat expensive at £13, for an all-you-can-eat dinner buffet. The soup, a spicy Thai mushroom, was excellent, but entrees were on the bland side. I tried the vegetarian haggis, which was an onion stuffed with beans and grains. Almost all of the desserts were vegan and I tried the treacle (molasses) tart. According to our dining companions, the desserts were the highlight of the meal. Heather's Restaurant, 74 McMillian St., Deptford, London SE8 3HA; 020 8691 6665; heathers@dircon.co.uk, www.heathers.dircon.co.uk.

The next day we explored London and eventually ended up at Food for Thought on Neal Street in Covent Garden. The coffee and olive and oregano bread were terrific, but the stir-fried vegetables were rather tasteless and oily. About this point we began to suspect an aversion to spice and flavor was going to be an ongoing problem with British vegetarian cuisine. The restaurant was so crowded that we ended up eating outside on a front step with the pigeons. Food for Thought, 31 Neal St., Covent Garden, London WC2H 9PR; 0171 836 0239.

Next we journeyed south to Brighton. I had several reasons for wanting to visit Brighton, one of which was Vegetarian Shoes. I admit to a certain shallow weakness for black shoes and boots. I haven't worn leather in about 10 years and have relied upon cheap synthetic shoes. A few years ago at The Small Press Expo I noticed Jesse Reklaw's (Concave Up) boots and asked him about them. They were from Vegetarian Shoes. I had coveted a pair since. I decided that if I were going all the way to England, my one act of decadence would be a new pair of decent shoes. One pair turned into two pair. Oops, so much for self-control. I got a pair of non-leather Doc Martens Coppa shoes and a pair of Vegetarian Shoes' Derby black boots. The Docs were so comfortable that I've worn them almost everyday since I bought them. You can request a catalog from Vegetarian Shoes, 12 Gardner St., Brighton, East Sussex UK BN1 1UP; 01273 691913; information@vegetarian-shoes.co.uk; www.vegetarian-shoes.co.uk. If you are in the US you can also order from Pangea: Pangea, 2381 Lewis Ave.,Rockville, MD 20851; (301) 652-3181; PangeaVeg@aol.com; www.veganstore.com.

Brighton is essentially vegetarian utopia. There were more vegetarian restaurants than I could count. After my shoe spree, Patrick and I ended up at The New Kensington pub for breakfast/lunch. It is an all-vegetarian pub. I never expected to eat a full, traditional English breakfast, which is basically the antithesis of all things vegan. For just £2.80 (about $5) I had "sausages," hash browns, beans, toast, mushrooms, and tomatoes. I also ordered a side of chip (fries) and drowned them with salt and malt vinegar. It was one of the best meals I had on the trip. After breakfast, I moved to the bar and ordered a vegan cappuccino (£1) off the blackboard. It was perfect. If you are ever in the area, I encourage you to go to The New Kensington pub. 2V's Vegan and Vegetarian Café, Kensington Gardens, North Lanes, Brighton; 01273 681907;louisa@slipjam.freeserve.co.uk.

Although it isn't going to be helpful to other travelers to the area, I feel I should credit Erica (Girlfrenzy) and Fiona, our hosts in the Brighton-Hove area, for one of the most delicious meals of the trip. They amazed us by whipping a bunch of nuts, vegetables, fruits, and tofu into a feast before our very eyes, even if they did try and shame us into eating Brussels sprouts. They also shattered the myth that we were forming about the lack of flavor and spice in English foods.

The next evening we found ourselves in Hastings looking for a friend of a friend. After arriving at her house, Lady Jan took us out for dinner. We finally located an Indian restaurant that was open. The server was very helpful. After we ordered he came out of the kitchen to let us know that cream was used in the preparation of one dish, and would we like to select something else. Letting your servers know what you do not eat and asking questions seem to be the easiest methods.

We continued along the south coast to Dover. While wandering around Dover I found Holland and Barrett, a health food store, and bought some Cheatin' Barbecue Bites, made with wheat and soya protein. This was fortuitous because it would be that last food of substance that I would have for quite some time. On a whim we decided to take the ferry to France for a few hours, just because we could.

If I have one morsel of advice it is to warn you that a bad French accent will not help you if you are a starving vegetarian in Calais, France at 9pm on a Tuesday night in January. Two days after the veg-paradise of Brighton we found ourselves in the veg-hell of France. We wandered up and down Rue Royale looking at menus. Deep-fried (unspecified) meat, internal organs, and various cute animals were the standard on the menus. We eventually ended up at Café de Paris, where I would unsuccessfully attempt to convey the idea of veganism. I thought settling for a "green salad" would be safe. It came with green beans and beans mixed with mayonnaise, white squiggly things in mayonnaise, a few leafs, and beets. I hate beets. I don't speak a word of French, aside from "fromage," a word I learned 10 minutes before from reading all the menus. If anyone knows of a good universal hand gesture for milk that won't get me thrown out of a restaurant, please let me know. I eventually convinced our waiter, Dave, that I just wanted greens with vinegar. What I got were greens drenched in some form of toxic French vinegar. I shut up and ate them feeling my stomach pickled. I will learn to bring the Vegan Passport (available in the US from The American Vegan Society, PO Box H, 56 Dinsah Lane, Malaga, NJ 08328; (609) 694-2011) or Speaking Vegetarian (ISBN 0-87576-222-0, Pilot Books) with me when I travel in future, as I never know where I'll end up.

We spent the next day driving north toward Scotland, eating at gas stations and truck stops. By the time we reached Whitby, I was determined to have hot, edible food. We found a guest house a few blocks from the North Sea that was open and rented a room for the night for £15 a person. The gentleman at the guest house asked me what I wanted for breakfast. I told him I was vegetarian, and not to worry about it. He asked if an omelet would be okay. I told him I was vegan, and that I knew it was short notice and said I'd be fine with just juice and toast. We found a laundromat and grocery store. Dinner that night was a repast provided by Safeway. There was a microwave in the hallway at the bed and breakfast, so we got some ready-made Safeway Pilau Rice and Spicy Potato Wedges. It might have been the hunger, but they were exceptionally filling and tasty. If you are staying at a bed and breakfast, check and see if you can do some of your own cooking, it might make eating easier.

The next morning we went downstairs for coffee and much to our delight we found fresh fruit, Provamel Yofu (a soy yogurt), toast, coffee, and juice. I was very impressed that with no advanced warning the owners found soy yogurt in between our arrival at 6pm and our appearance in the dining room at 9am. The gentleman from the night before came in to check and make sure everything was satisfactory. He said they had only been open for a few months. He asked me about vegetarianism and veganism and what they might want to have on hand for other vegans. I gave him some information I had with me and thanked him again for going out of his way for us. This is a good lesson for those vegetarians among us - many people are interested in learning more, so take the time to help create change when you are given the chance. I hope he gets more and more vegetarian guests, and they find the hospitality as charming as I did. If you happen to be passing through Whitby consider staying at the Aldersmith Guest House, 24 Crescent Ave., Whitby, North Yorkshire, YO21 3ED; 01947 602919.

We arrived in Edinburgh, Scotland in next night. After checking into a hotel we went in search of dinner. I had read about Black Bo's, which happened to be located nearby, so we walked there. The deep fried chili tofu balls and potato leek soup were tasty, but I was almost too tired to eat. While on the expensive side (£26 for two), it was quiet, pleasant and most importantly not a bag of chips. Black Bo's, 57-61 Blackfriars St., Edinburgh EH1 1NB; 0131 557 6136.

We spent the next day wandering around the lovely, ominous city. One aspect of British dining I enjoyed the most was the proliferation of baked potato shops. They usually offer several different vegetarian toppings. That afternoon, I happened to have a container of hummus with me that I had bought earlier. I decided to give a hummus topped baked potato a try and it was a delicious discovery. The baked potato shops offered a cheap, easy and filling meal.

We drove to Glasgow that night and explored the city the next day. For the last year I had read about The 13th Note, an all vegan restaurant in Glasgow. I was anxious to see what all the fuss was about. There is nothing as satisfying for a vegan than to walk into a restaurant and be able to choose anything you want, instead of trying to figure out what three dishes on the menu might be vegan. Patrick had a Thai curry and I tried the "Cream Cheese" Spinach Dumplings. Both were great, and Patrick, a fry connoisseur said their "spicey" chips were the best he had on the trip. The coffee, complete with frothed soymilk, was so good that I had two cups. This all came to £15.60. One other interesting feature was the debate between communism and capitalism that raged on the bathroom walls (at least the men's room, according to Patrick). If you go, you might also want to check out the fabulous bookstore across the street from the 13th Note - Pulp Fiction. 13th Note, 50-60 King Street, Glasgow G1 5QT Scotland; 0141 553 1638; www.13thnote.com.

Tips, Resources, and Advice

Lodging: We had spent the first half of the trip staying with friends and friends of friend, all of whom were vegetarian, so that part was easy. Many of the places we traveled to were by the seaside, and thus tourist towns. However, it was January and many of the bed and breakfasts were closed for the month. There are many all-vegetarian B & B's that sounded lovely in my guides, but I wasn't able to check them out. If you are capable of making plans in advance (which I apparently am not), call ahead to guarantee the B & B can cater to you. It seems many are vegetarian or at least veg-friendly. We arrived into some cities rather late and relied on the hotel restaurants. Either they were accommodating or I was too weary to care I was eating another baked potato.

On the road: There were basic vegetarian junk foods at truck stops and motorway rest areas. We discovered Philias Fogg tortilla chips and probably ate our way through a case. If anyone knows where to get them in the US, please let me know. I did find some pre-packaged foods at the rest areas that surprised me. The Taste of the East Selection Pack came with 2 onion bhajis, 2 vegetable samosas, and 2 vegetable pakoras. It carried the Vegetarian Society symbol. While greasy, it wasn't bad.

I noticed many packaged foods with a green circle and white V with the text "approved by the Vegetarian Society" on them. I asked John Davis of The Vegetarian Society of the United Kingdom and The International Vegetarian Union to explain about the labeling,

There is no strict legal definition, but we have Trading Standards Offices in every part of the country who can prosecute anyone using a false label on any product. Our local office told me they would consider that labeling something containing fish as vegetarian would be illegal, but it gets more difficult when it comes down to rennet, free range eggs etc. The most used symbol is the Vegetarian Society's trademark (see www.vegsoc.org/business) which is licensed for over 2000 products and is legally protected. It allows for ovo-lacto products but no battery eggs, free range only. Apart from that anyone can put on a label saying 'suitable for vegetarians' but there are no guarantees other than Trading Standards Offices. It is very common practice as there is such a high percentage of shoppers looking for vegetarian products - all the supermarkets have their own V signs and they are usually reliable, most of them copy VegSoc's definitions very closely. 'Suitable for vegans' is still relatively rare, and will almost certainly be genuine - The Vegan Society licences its logo too.

Difficulties: There might be animal fats in breads and pies. Also check candies, as gelatin(e) is a common ingredient. Some chips (fries) might be cooked in animal fat, so you'll want to check. There are different words for different food ingredients across the world. In Europe, some food ingredients are noted as "E" numbers. The ones to definitely avoid include:

E120 - cochineal (red food coloring made from crushed beetles)
E542 - edible bone phosphate
E631 - sodium 5'-inosinate
E901 - beeswax
E904 - shellac
E920 - L-cysteine hydrochloride

These "E" numbers may be animal derived:

101, 101a, 153, 203, 213, 227, 270, 282, 302, 322, 325, 326, 327, 333, 341a, 341b, 341c, 404, 422, 430, 431, 432, 433, 434, 435, 436, 470, 471, 472a, 472b, 472c, 472d, 472e, 473, 474, 475, 476, 477, 478, 481, 482, 483, 491, 492, 493, 494, 495, 570, 572, 627, and 635.

To read more go to: www.ivu.org/faq/food.html. For information about food ingredients in the US you can order a copy of the Guide to Food Ingredients from The Vegetarian Resource Group (see below).

If you have Internet access or can use a computer at your local library, one of the best resources for vegetarians is The International Vegetarian Union website (www.ivu.org). The Global Directory lists websites and contact information for vegetarian groups around the world. Many of the websites contain restaurant lists and additional information that might be very useful. There are also links to travel bulletin boards where you could post your questions and concerns.

Other good websites for restaurants include www.vegeats.com and www.vegdining.com. Vegeats.com has a great search feature, and I'm always finding new information.

Resources:
Books
Viva! Guide to Vegetarian Brighton
By Jo Lacey
Viva! 12 Queen Square
Brighton BN1 3FD
01273 777688
info@viva.org.uk
www.viva.org.uk
Lists hotels, places to eat, and shops.

Vegetarian London, By Alex Bourke and Paul Gaynor
Vegetarian Britain, By Alex Bourke and Alan Todd
Both by Vegetarian Guides Ltd.
8 Titian House
18 Nassau Street
London W1N 5RE, England
Tel +44-20-7580 8458
www.vegetarianguides.co.uk
info@vegetarianguides.co.uk
They are currently working on Vegetarian Europe.

Scotland the Green
Possibly out of print
Jackie Redding
This was a friendly, helpful guide to food and lodging in Scotland.

Websites and Organizations
The Vegetarian Society of the United Kingdom
Parkdale
Dunham Road
Altrincham
Cheshire WA14 4QG
0161 925 2000
info@vegsoc.org
www.vegsoc.org
Founded in 1847, it is considered the oldest vegetarian organization in the world.

The International Vegetarian Union
www.ivu.org
A global directory of vegetarian groups, contacts, history, and information.

The Vegan Society
Donald Watson House
7 Battle Road
St Leonards-on-Sea
East Sussex, TN37 7AA
1424 427393
info@vegansociety.com
www.vegansociety.com
Vegan group in the UK, founded in 1944.

Viva!
12 Queen Square,
Brighton, BN1 3FD
01273 777688
info@viva.org.uk
www.viva.org.uk
Publishers of Viva!LIFE, a magazine.

Vegan Village
www.veganvillage.co.uk
Restaurants, shops, and lodging in the UK

The Vegetarian Resource Group
PO Box 1463
Baltimore, MD 21203
www.vrg.org
vrg@vrg.org
VRG carries several travel guides and can point you to sources for others you might need. If you have any other travel questions, write VRG and perhaps I can help.




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