From rediscovering a love of cooking to grappling with airport food, Stylist’s Alessia Armenise documents the surprising ups and the downs of a meatless year
Before taking the leap into veganism, I had been thinking about meat for a while. I have never been a so-called “meat-lover”, but I was brought up on my grandma’s lasagna and entered my adult life one planche de charcuterie at a time after moving to Paris when I was 21. I already had a lot of pescatarian friends but the idea of completely cutting out anything from my diet never really crossed my mind. I always thought it was best to eat everything in moderation and that the most important thing was the quality of the food itself.
But the vegan movement has grown steadily over the last few years, and eventually, it became impossible for me to ignore it. A study from The Vegan Society shows that 22% of Londoners are embracing veganism, while there are now 600,000 vegans across the whole of Great Britain – numbers so big they woke up even the giants of the food industry, with companies like Ben & Jerry’s and McDonald’s now providing plant-based options.
When I moved to England in 2017, I decided to cut down on meat and make it a “treat” by allowing myself only the occasional burger or ramen (not so occasional in the latter case, to be fair) when eating out. I know a lot of people who swear by the benefits of cutting animal products from their diets and despite myself I started feeling intrigued.
I devoured a number of documentaries on the subject (I would recommend What the Health in particular). Watching the destruction being caused by the meat industry, and seeing the terrible ways that animals and people are treated in the process, made it much more shocking than simply hearing someone talk about it. It’s like a horror movie in the real world, where we are the monsters.
It was the health side of veganism that was the main trigger for me to make a change. Lower my chance of getting diabetes, heart problems or even cancer, just by cutting out meat? Count me in. However, I found it difficult to forget everything I had been told since I was a child, with refrains such as “drink your milk, it makes your bones stronger!” and “you need meat, protein is important!” ringing in my ears.
But nobody ever told me that a bowl of lentils has more protein in it than a piece of pork. And less fat, of course.
In August 2017, after a shocking health problem struck my family, I became quite anxious about my (and everybody else’s) health and decided it was time to get real about what I was eating.
I finally went vegan.
Phase One: adjusting
The first thing you realise when you go vegan is how little you actually know about the ingredients that are in your food. Think plain potato crisps are vegan? Wrong! Instead, it’s M&S prawn cocktail crisps that are branded with the vegan logo. Don’t try to understand; processed food makes no sense and is really quite annoying.
I made a lot of initial mistakes, led by the trust I had in food (and the brands that made it). I thought potatoes were just potatoes, but I soon learned to read labels and ask the waiter exactly what is in my food if I had any doubts. It’s a headache at first but you slowly learn how to juggle your new food habits, and realise you will not starve.
The real pain is not the food itself, but having to tell people that you are vegan when you refuse food. It’s difficult to share your point of view because, as soon as you say you follow a plant-based diet, people tell you that you are trying to lecture them (like all vegans do at all times, of course). At the same time, though, it’s difficult to shut up when everybody is trying to convince you that you should stop being a hippy and just “enjoy” food. I definitely learned a lot about patience over the past 12 months.
Phase Two: discovering
The first few months of being vegan are mainly dedicated to understanding what you can and cannot eat, but for me, it was also about rediscovering my love of cooking.
During my first months in London, the stress of the move, the unfamiliar city and my new job left me with little energy for anything else. My dinners, once quite creative, were reduced to a basic fish-rice-green triangle that never really shifted. However, my new vegan food regime meant that I had to get creative. I ploughed through every blog I could find, bought a few cookbooks and suddenly a whole new world was opened up to me. From eggs made of chia seeds to banana pancakes, you name it – there is nothing you can’t do.
Living in London, the most exciting part was hunting down the best vegan restaurants around. Mildred’s was the first, more obvious choice, but the city is full of incredible places that push the boundaries of food to deliver delicious plant-based alternatives. You can have an incredible and very traditional afternoon tea at Café Forty One, complete with mouth-watering homemade scones; a (very) full English breakfast at the Black Cat Café without sacrificing the ‘bacon’ or even a beyond delicious milkshake at Cookies and Scream. Alternatives exist, and they are tasty.
Phase Three: accepting
As the seasons changed, I definitely learned different things. After a year of no travelling – except for trips to Italy to see my family – the summer months taught me that London is a little vegan oasis, full of choices that we take for granted.
Being a vegan who travels frequently is not easy. Vegan sandwiches might be standard fare at Stansted, but try being stuck in a tiny airport like Ciampino (Rome) for nine hours straight with not a vegan option in sight. It takes a lot of perseverance and organisation and I am in awe of those who manage to always be prepared, even when they are on the go.
Did I slip? Absolutely. Alone in Istanbul once, I’m not even sure what I ate, but I was told it was aubergine. I will never know if they actually understood what I was talking about when I mentioned my vegan diet.
I am far from the perfect vegan. Actually, I tend to use that term only because I think it has now become mainstream and people finally understand what it means. Saying ‘I am plant-based’ sounds a bit pretentious but would definitely be more accurate.
Apart from my diet, being vegan didn’t affect any other areas of my life. I didn’t get rid of all the leather accessories I bought two or more years ago, I didn’t check every single beauty product I own to make sure it’s labelled as vegan (even though I try to use natural products) and I won’t have a tantrum if I accidentally eat (for some reason) a non-vegan crisp.
I don’t like extremes and I think that consuming less is better than throwing your old life in the bin and getting a whole new wardrobe. For me, being vegan goes hand-in-hand with being sustainable, which means wearing your leather boots until the soles fall off and finishing up every product you might have: reuse, recycle and reduce.
If I learned one thing over the past year it’s that we need to put our money where our mouths are if we want to see anything change in this world – but that it’s also fundamentally important to be gentle with both ourselves and with others. Things are, slowly but surely, changing and improving and we don’t need to be perfect to help the process. I try to stand practically and not only theoretically for what I think is right, but we are all human and life is not a straight line. I’m doing the best I can and I know that right now that’s the best I can do… and that’s pretty good to me.