It seems that being a vegetarian at Christmas is considered as socially awkward as being teetotal. You’re lumped into the ‘special dietary requirements’ category, and regarded with looks of pity when you reject the turkey in favour of a gritty nut-roast. Not to mention the almost desperate barage of questions: “But how do you survive without pigs in blankets?”
It’s becoming increasingly difficult for vegetarians to find places to eat at Christmas. Especially if you’re part of a larger Christmas party, and at the mercy of a meat-eater’s choice of venue.
Scouring through the menus of local Cardiff restaurants, I was surprised at the lack of variety in the Christmas vegetarian options.
It’s hard to find decent vegetarian Christmas food – there are normally more meat options on the menu.
For meat-eaters, there are normally a few standard options – the classic turkey, gammon, fish three-way. But for vegetarians, there’s no more than one choice, and that’s normally restricted to a nut roast.
Personally, I find this lack of creativity a little disappointing.
Now, I’m not against the nut roast. In fact, I think it can be a delicious alternative when it’s done right. But at the same time, when it’s served at every single Christmas meal, it can feel a little unoriginal.
But am I right to be so surprised?
With the number of vegetarians in the UK estimated at around 7%, it’s not difficult to see why some restaurants see Christmas vegetarian food as more of an after-thought.
I spoke to Lucy from The Potted Pig on St. Mary Street. The Potted Pig perhaps isn’t the first place a vegetarian would think of eating, but this restaurant has clearly put some thought into its vegetarian option: the Roasted Root Vegetable & Hafod Cheese Terrine.
Lucy agreed that many chefs find it difficult to create festive food for vegetarians: “At Christmas, restaurants get huge bookings of over 30 people, which creates a huge pressure of having to cater for such large numbers.
“Then, within that number, there’s usually a couple of vegetarians, and unfortunately they’re seen as more of a bolt on – in many restaurants vegetarians are a second thought. They’re plonked on the end of the table and served a nut roast.”
She explained that the pressure of having to cater for the majority conflicts with the time needed to come up with original vegetarian dishes.
“When catering for vegetarians at Christmas, the problem is that you are bound by the need to make something that’s going to appeal to everyone.”
“This is why 80% of the restaurants will serve a nut roast. It’s because it’s cheap, easy and something that’s relatively good to make in large quantities. Chefs need to make something that most people will like, and something that will be consistent. ”
“And really, nut roast ticks all those boxes. It appeals to the masses, it’s unoffensive – but the thing is, it’s not going to excite either.”
And that’s the rub.
Catering for large Christmas parties puts certain restrictions on what chefs can do. Understandably, there’s a need to make something that will be simple to make consistently, and cheap to make in bulk.
But should the fact that restaurants are bound by these restrictions be an excuse for limited creativity?
Most chefs struggle for inspiration when catering for vegetarians at Christmas. Normally they’ll serve up a soggy tortelini or the staple nut roast. But what do the customers think of this?
I spoke to some local vegetarians to see what they think about vegetarian Christmas food in Cardiff.
There’s normally a boring nut-roast, or uninspiring vegetarian option. We’re not really catered for or thought about.
Part of the problem with catering for vegetarians at Christmas is the lack of time and freedom that chefs have to be creative.
Helen Sivey is one of the chefs at Embassy Cafe. She believes that many chefs feel the pressure of catering for vegetarians at Christmas time because of the perceived need to centre a Christmas meal around a meaty focal point – this in turn only serves to restrict their creativity.
Wayne Thomas, who is one of the chefs at the Canteen on Clifton Street, agrees with this point.
He thinks that chefs are expected to follow a particular routine at Christmas.
“The thing is, chefs feel that they need something that will go with all of the traditional accompaniments.
“They’re ham-strung by this restriction – so for your meat-eaters there’s potatoes, carrots, and turkey, and many chefs want to include the same accompaniments for their vegetarians.
“So you need something that’s going to sit alongside potatoes and carrots, but that’s going to be a bit meaty in texture and go with a nice sauce.”
So are vegetarians just going to have to settle for the nut roast this year?
There are lots of interesting alternatives out there – everything from impressive stuffed squash to mouth watering mushroom wellington - and so it does seem a bit of a shame that vegetarian christmas food is largely formulaic and uninspiring.
Wayne spoke to me about what we can expect from the Christmas menu at the Canteen.
If you’re eating out this Christmas, click on the map below to find out what local Cardiff restaurants are serving for vegetarians.
Or, if you’re cooking for vegetarians, why not have a look at the following links for a little inspiration.