My wife and I had a rare day to ourselves on our ninth wedding anniversary last year. We both took the day off work, ditched the boys with their childminder, and, after a bottle of pink fizz, jumped on the bus into town for our luncheon appointment at an upmarket riverside restaurant. This was in the midst of England’s most recent complete failure to set the football World Cup alight, and our day out coincided with the second game I’d managed to miss as a result of a dinner appointment, having successfully avoided all but the first ten minutes (i.e. the good bit) of the embarrassment against the USA the previous weekend by instead booking a table at the Indian tapas restaurant Imli in London’s Soho – their Bombay Aloo is the best Indian potato dish I’ve ever had. (Regrettably I was unable to find any similarly pleasant culinary diversion from the subsequent débacle against Germany.)
After very tasty starters and main courses, we both ordered desserts. Now, I do have a sweet tooth, much though I often deny it; while I would choose appetizer over sweet if only having two courses, I seldom submit to the tyranny of the “or”, preferring to embrace the genius of the “and”. It was our first visit to this establishment; I was surprised to find that there was little on the dessert menu that tempted me, and subsequent visits have not changed that initial impression, reducing me to the cheese board (well okay, “reducing” is hardly apt; I would return for the cheese board alone). My wife, often a disdainer of the third course, had her head turned by a panna cotta dish.
Now the more observant of my regular readers have probably already spotted where this is leading. For those unfamiliar with it, panna cotta is a custard-like concoction which has been set. And the setting agent? Why, gelatin of course; to quote my link, “produced by boiling the connective tissues, bones and skins of animals, usually cows and pigs”.
Just the thing for a vegetarian.
Now my wife is a clever and educated lady and she is fairly knowledgeable about food. So she knows very well that panna cotta contains boiled pig bones, and this vital piece of information eventually struggled its way to her conscious mind; unfortunately however only half of the dessert remained at this point, and a swift journey to the facilities quickly followed. Although it was her own assertion that the sudden symptoms were entirely psychosomatic, those symptoms were still fairly unpleasant, and the meal was inevitably a tainted experience as a result.
The experience highlighted something of an inconsistency though, and not only in this menu. With somewhere between 5 and 10% of the UK population being vegetarian, and many more regularly choosing non-meat options, starters and main courses appropriate for vegetarians are diligently marked with a “v” in the vast majority of eateries in the UK. But not so desserts! The less educated vegetarian can easily fall foul of this common oversight, as it’s not especially intuitive that sweet courses might contain an animal product (certainly not in Western cuisines, anyway).
I’ve since learned to check for gelatin in a variety of other sweets. Most people know that jelly sweets such as Haribo contain gelatin, but it also appears in some mousses, marshmallows, yoghurts, mints, ice creams, even drugs. Most foods in the UK are marked as vegetarian, as long as you know to look.
Some time after this unfortunate memory lapse, I was surprised to learn of my vegan friend being unable to eat some sweet chilli flavoured gourmet crisps. On querying this I was informed that they contained a whey powder as one of the flavouring ingredients – a milk product. Now vegans have to be incredibly vigilant about what they eat and thus are very well educated about what to look for, but it would just never have occurred to me to even check whether they would be vegan-friendly.
What has been most difficult to reconcile is our recent discovery that many wines are made using animal products in the refining (technically “fining”) process. There seems to be a tendency for wines from certain countries to use these; European wines are mostly vegetarian-friendly, where US and Anzac wines are generally not. (This has had, for me, a fringe benefit; although we are now habitually checking the provenance of wine we buy, anything brought by kind guests still needs drinking, and I’m delighted to oblige!)
Instead of providing a recipe, I’ve opted instead to link to another blogger’s recipe for a vegetarian panna cotta, using agar-agar as a setting agent instead of gelatin. There are other substitutes, such as pectin, but gelatin is still far and away the most common setting agent, and I’m sure will remain so.