As the mainstream media attacks vegans, mainstream restaurants quietly race to cater for them

At Harvester, I saw the light, and it was reflecting off the top of a “The Purist” burger bun all along. 

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Vegans, it is fair to say, do not have the best reputation. I’m not saying that society is perhaps a teeny bit insecure about its own moral compass but it has somehow managed to look at what is, by and large, a fairly harmless group of people refusing to engage in animal cruelty, and branded them the most annoying people to ever walk the earth.

They are militant snowflakes, we are told. Self-righteous, pious, and pushy; forcing their bloody vegan ways on anybody who’ll bloody listen. You can’t have a chat with one about the weather or ask about their weekend without them hijacking the conversation to bang on about the benefits of boycotting ham, or something.

In the words of Piers Morgan, they are “overly PC clowns”. In the words of the Daily Mail, they are “terrorists”. In the words of the former editor of Waitrose Food, that magazine needed “a series on killing vegans, one by one. Ways to trap them? How to interrogate them properly? Expose their hypocrisy? Force-feed them meat?”

But as the UK’s mainstream media attacks vegans, its mainstream pubs, restaurants, cafes and bars quietly race to cater for them.

On 2 January 2019, as many sat bleary-eyed on their first commute of the year, Greggs confirmed the launch of their long-awaited vegan sausage roll. The following morning queues formed in stores nationwide as the meat-free, dairy-free rolls repeatedly sold out – the fastest selling new product launched by the chain in at least six years.

Reports circulated of Greggs’ factory struggling to keep up with demand. Shares in the company soared. Sales were up by 10 per cent. Greggs had successfully navigated a surging wave in public opinion’s shifting tide: 2019, the bakery chain had realised, would be the year of the vegan.

Since then, barely a few days at a time have passed without a major chain announcing a new vegan product, meal or menu. Papa John’s launched three vegan pizzas. McDonald’s unveiled its first vegan Happy Meal. Wagamama announced a vegan fry up. Ben and Jerry’s added a new flavour to its non-dairy range. Marks and Spencer stocked shelves with “Plant Kitchen”, its new range of over 60 vegan products – ranging from no-pork sausages to cauliflower popcorn and vegan mushroom stroganoff.

Where veganism was once the domain of the wealthy, enjoyed mainly by the middle classes in high-end restaurants and health food shops, now it is everywhere – on every high street, in every town, across the country.

Harvester is no exception. For the uninitiated, the pub chain is essentially what you would get if you took a Wetherspoons, did it up a bit, replaced the drunk students and Brexity old men with young families, and then added Pizza Hut’s salad bar. It is a slightly posher Spoons – same cheap prices, more of a sit-down meal. It is not somewhere you would instinctively think to take your vegan pal.

But last month, and I’m sure you know where I’m going with this, Harvester joined the ranks in launching a fully vegan menu. For the first time, you can eat a three-course meal at the pub chain, without it containing any dairy or meat. But there’s little point in anywhere and everywhere launching a vegan menu if they’re going to be terrible, which is why the New Statesman, at Harvester’s behest, was invited to try out the menu.

And, actually, it’s alright.

I’m going to be brutally honest here: vegans visiting Harvester should not get their hopes up on hearing of a three-course meal. Particularly vegans who like starters, of which there is only one on offer. Vegans who like starters will suffer two disappointments in quick succession: the first upon realising, as I have mentioned, that there is only one, the second upon realising that it is nachos.

I am by no means bashing nachos. I am a big fan of nachos, as it happens. But do you know what, it has become apparent to me, is the key component of nachos? The icing on the cake that pulls the whole thing together? It is the cheese. Without the cheese, nachos are, to all intents and purposes, little more than crisps. Harvester is aware of vegan cheese; it has put it on its burgers. But Harvester has decided against putting any vegan cheese on its nachos, and thus its nachos are crisps. Crisps with salsa and guac, sure, but crisps nonetheless. 

(Crisps, I would like to point out, are available for free at Harvester, as part of the aforementioned salad bar. Vegans: save your money on these paid-for starter crisps, and go and help yourself to some of the identical free crisps.)

Moving on to mains. Having recovered from the starter debacle, vegans will feel positively spoilt for choice by the mains. Five of them! Five! A reasonably decent range, too: a curry, a tagine, some tofu skewers and two burgers. Last summer I wrote in the NS that those uber-realistic meat-free burgers oozing a lookalike blood sounded “gross,” and, dear reader, you’re lucky that I can admit when I was wrong.

These plant-based burgers, supplied by British firm Moving Mountains, are in fact delicious. I don’t know what last-summer me was thinking; did I enjoy eating shit veggie burgers, made of potato and flecks of carrot that disintegrate when you pick them up? Anyway, I have now seen the light, and it was reflecting off the top of a “The Purist” burger bun all along.

Such was the apparent stampede of vegans to one random Harvester in south London that it had completely sold out of dairy-free chocolate brownie, which was quite a disappointment. It did however have three other deserts on offer, and, feeling quite full from my crisps and burger, I opted for an ice cream sundae.

If, like me, you have never tried vegan ice cream before, it is of the upmost importance that you buy some immediately. Do not make my mistake in assuming that it will just taste like weird healthy frozen yoghurt – because vegan ice cream is, and I cannot stress this enough, delicious. It tastes better than actual ice cream. It is somehow creamier than ice cream made with actual cream. I don’t know have a clue what it is made of, and I don’t really want to know. Whatever it is, I am here for it. 

Harvester’s vegan menu is far from perfect. But it’s a good start, and even that it exists, in a sea of budget restauarants where 20 years ago you would have been lucky to encounter even one meat-free dish, let alone a dairy free option, is evidence of society's shifting attitude. If only the media could catch up.

Indra is the New Statesman’s digital sub-editor.