Saying you were once a vegetarian is like admitting you were a once better person. But here’s my guilty secret. After ten long years of eating mash and vegetables for Christmas dinner and crying into a bean burger at barbecues, I was lured off-course by the siren sizzle of bacon.
Sixteen years of meat-eating later and my son – once the ultimate carnivore – has stirred my shame by embracing a semi-vegetarian diet. He’s not alone. One in eight Britons class themselves as vegetarian or vegan according to the Waitrose Food and Drink Report 2018-19. A further 21 per cent are ‘flexitarian’ – people with a largely plant based diet who are capable of being seduced by a cocktail sausage at parties.
Veganism has also skyrocketed in the past four years. The number of people who shun all animal products has risen from 150,000 to 600,000 according to the Vegan Society.
In my veggie days; vegans were a small, hard-core faction prepared to endure a dismally abstemious diet and risk fungal foot infections (a side-effect of plastic shoes) because of their unwavering principles.
Now vegan food is affordable, edible and everywhere. Waitrose is just one of many high street stores and restaurants trying to woo shoppers with a range of meatless ready-meals like beetroot risotto and rainbow vegetable stew. Even Greggs, the home of the steak bake, has dominated the headlines with its vegan sausage roll.
Better yet, there’s a fresh crop of vegetarian and vegan entrepreneurs popping up around Derby to help people give up meat for life and not just for Veganuary.
People like Bal Dhamrait (32), who welcomes me to Vedi; a vegetarian café which he runs with his uncle Resh Dorka on Castleward Walk, Derby. Forget all the old hippy dippy clichés; the patrons of Vedi are more likely to be found chilling on a sleek grey sofa than chanting on an orange bean bag. There’s no sign of rabbit food. Bal uses family recipes to give a vegan twist to modern café favourites like paninis, burritos, jacket spuds and Bal’s famous ‘Roti ‘Rap’ – a roti bread filled with homemade curry and pickle. Then you have the cakes; glitter-strewn and lemon drizzled cupcakes and decadent brownies made by Molly Russell, who runs V Bakes.
“Molly’s cakes are delicious, we can’t keep up with demand,” Bal says as we wait for Molly to join us for a chat. “Baking cakes without eggs and butter is not easy, we did try. Then my sister saw Molly’s stall at Well Fest at Derby’s Roundhouse and rang me to say ‘There’s a girl selling the most amazing cakes.’ You can’t tell they’re vegan – they just taste really good.”
When Molly arrives, it’s obvious why the new business owners developed such an instant rapport. Both believe in gently encouraging people – even lapsed vegetarians like me – towards a meat-free diet by providing delicious alternatives.
“We’re not saying people must change overnight when they may have been eating meat their whole lives,” says Molly (22), who works from her family home in Mackworth which she shares with parents Ian and Angela and sister Katy (19) – none of whom are vegetarian.
“It might be people want one or two meat-less days a week and that’s great. I think what Bal and I are trying to do is produce food which is so good, people don’t feel they’re missing out. We don’t want to give anyone the excuse to fall off the wagon.”
Bal insists the café, which offers 100 per cent vegan food, is for everyone – regardless of their diet. “People come because they’re curious or they’ve heard about us from friends,” he smiles. “The first thing they’ll say is ‘what’s that amazing smell?’ We’ll encourage them to taste a little of our curry or scrambled tofu. Once they taste it, they love it. They’re not thinking about the food being vegan – they’re just enjoying it.”
The pairs relaxed approach to meat-eaters reflects the fact their conversion to a plant-based diet came from an initial desire to eat less meat.
“I used to love meat,” Molly laughs. “In February 2016, I’d just returned from three months in Thailand and I’d eaten so much meat, I needed a break. I told my mum I was thinking of becoming veggie and she said I’d be eating bacon sandwiches again within the week. But I’d watched some documentary films about the meat industry. Once you’re doing something for ethical reasons, your determination is so much stronger.”
Bal nods: “I used to eat a lot of meat because I was training in the gym,” he says. “But then I gave up chicken followed by bacon and sausages. The more meat I gave up – the better I felt. I eat as much as I used to and feel stronger and fitter.”
Molly says her switch to vegetarianism, followed by veganism in January 2017, had a profound effect on her health.
“Once I cut out cheese and milk my skin cleared-up, my digestion was better and I had so much more energy,” she says. “I remember being quite lethargic when I was in the 6th form and it didn’t occur to me it might be down to my diet. I’m not saying I’m invincible – but I don’t have that 3pm slump.”
But it was the decision to start V Bakes – after finding it impossible to find a homemade vegan birthday cake in Derby – which dramatically changed Molly’s mental well-being.
“I’d been having a really rough time with anxiety and depression,” she says.
“When I launched the business in May 2018, I realised I’d finally found what I was meant to do and my mental health improved. Baking gave me a reason to get out of bed every day. I still get stressed but I direct it to something positive – making my business more successful.”
Hearing about her flavoursome creations – cherry and ginger brownies, honeycomb and pretzel topped cup-cakes – it’s clear Molly instinctively knows how to marry ingredients. Online reviewers say her cakes are ‘delicious’ ‘beautiful’ and ‘too pretty to eat’.
“I spent months trying to get the perfect taste, texture and rise,” Molly says. “At one stage the kitchen was more like a food laboratory. I spent so much time handling vegan spreads and vegetable oil, my hands were really soft. The intention wasn’t just to make a good ‘vegan’ cake, but to make great cake.”
Molly assumed she would be supplying vegan/vegetarian outlets – but the majority of her clients are running mainstream cafés.
“I think all cafés have seen an increase in customers asking for vegan options,” Molly says. “The café owners tell me a lot of non-vegans buy my cakes because they look so nice.”
With the Vegan Society pronouncing veganism ‘the fastest growing lifestyle movement’, it’s no surprise to find Bal and Molly already planning for future expansion.
“This month (April 7th), I’m doing a pop-up ‘Sustainable Sunday’ event at pre-loved clothing boutique The Amber Room on Ashbourne Road, Derby. The ultimate goal is to host regular events and to be joined by other ethical traders,” Molly says. “Long-term, I’d like to have my own bakery and shop in Derby where people can buy my cakes and locally-sourced vegan food and goods.”
Bal has his heart set on opening more Vedi cafés. “In five years, I can see a vegan diet being the norm and I’d love to have a national brand,” he says.
“I believe a lot of people will look back and see eating meat as a silly moment in their past.”
Molly agrees: “I think the diet of future generations will be plant-based,”
“Things are changing so quickly. Two years ago, I wouldn’t even bother going out to eat because of the lack of choice – now I can go to all the chain restaurants like Zizzi and Pizza Express. Then you have people like Bal and his family who have created something refreshingly different at Vedi. I’m so grateful there is now a place where I can eat everything on the menu and the food is divine.”
She smiles: “It’s amazing to see how far Derby has come in just twelve months. We can’t change the world overnight but we’re laying the groundwork for a more sustainable city.”
Postscript; After meeting Bal and Molly, I’ve re-introduced two or three meatless meals into my week. My husband says my chickpea and coriander burgers we had last week were ‘so delicious’ he scarcely noticed the lack of meat. Likewise, I pretended to scarcely notice when I saw him scoffing a pork pie later that night.
Vedi is on Castleward Walk, Derby.
V Bakes will be at Mama Meet & Market, The Family Showcase, on April 14 at The Roundhouse in Derby.
Molly will also be at The Lifestyle Show 2019, at The Roundhouse on May 18.
In addition to Vedi, stockists of V Bakes vegan cakes include: World Peace Café, Ashe Hall, Ash Lane, Etwall
Buttermilk Coffee House, Saracens Head Yard, Brailsford
Point Six Coffee House, Kedleston Road, Derby
Café Aroma, Chapel Street, Spondon
The Buttery, 130 Ashbourne Road, Derby.
Contact Molly at email@example.com