Guest Post: Cheesed off!

Kirsty is a 30 year old geek and food lover who writes under the pseudonym Winskillfull. She enjoys Batman, ranting about the injustices of our society, movies, comic books, watching Buffy, writing about Buffy and talking about Buffy. You can read other rants at Winskillfull Explains It All or follow her on Twitter
Here she shares her frustrations when dining out as a vegetarian, vegan or (as she is) pescatarian.

If a restaurant marked something as vegetarian, would you trust it? If you found a recipe in a vegetarian cookbook, would you believe that recipe to be vegetarian? If you were ordering a dish that had cheese, would you be concerned that it might not be vegetarian friendly?

It might surprise you to learn that not all cheese is vegetarian. It certainly surprised the BBC: they had a recipe that contained Parmesan cheese marked as vegetarian. It also seems to be an on-going surprise to Chimichanga’s – despite me writing to them (and receiving a £20 voucher by way of apology), they still have Caesar salad listed as vegetarian.

Caesar salad. With Parmesan cheese. And Caesar dressing, which includes anchovies, which are a fish, and is often made with Parmesan cheese.

Let me make this nice and clear: there is no such thing as a vegetarian Parmesan cheese.

Parmesan is made with calf rennet, which are enzymes from the lining of the animal’s stomach. Rennet is often used in the production of hard cheese and is always used in the production of Parmesan. This should be self-evident, but lining from an animal’s stomach is not vegetarian-friendly.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a pescatarian – which means I eat fish, but no other meat. Although anchovies are fine for me and my fellow pescatarians, Parmesan cheese is strictly off our menus. Yet restaurants, websites and cookbooks persist in labelling recipes featuring Parmesan as “vegetarian”. I even have a vegetarian cookbook (a gift from a friend), titled Vegetarian Cookbook, that features Parmesan cheese in every single Italian recipe.

It’s not just Parmesan. As I mentioned earlier in this rant post, many hard cheeses also contain rennet. Supermarkets are, in my experience, very good about labelling cheese as suitable for vegetarians; the difficulty is that restaurants, bars, cafes, publishers and websites seem unable or unwilling to check their facts and follow suit. Most people think of cheese as automatically vegetarian and presume that the only people who have a problem with cheese are vegans or the lactose-intolerant.

You can’t even ask the staff in a restaurant or food outlet to check for you. I’ve tried this many times in the past and you inevitably meet with one of the following responses:

a) “Uhh, it’s cheese.” – Sometimes delivered in polite yet baffled tones, occasionally delivered with the kind of sneering contempt that makes me leave and usually leads me to boycott the premises. Thanks, Soho Coffee Co – your rude and unhelpful staff mean I shall never use your facilities again.

b) “How can I tell?” – A reasonable question. If it’s Parmesan, then the answer is always that it’s not vegetarian. However with any other cheese, the only way to tell is if it still has supermarket packaging on it, which will state whether or not the cheese is suitable for vegetarians. As a rule of thumb, soft cheese is mostly vegetarian whilst hard cheese is usually not.

c) “Let me ask the chef.” – Again, a reasonable response, but it usually ends up resulting in the staff returning to ask how one can tell if cheese is suitable for vegetarians. Occasionally you get a knowledgeable chef who is able to provide a definite answer.

At best you look like a fussy eater with insanely picky eating habits; at worst you look like a demented troublemaker. I tend to duck the issue altogether and try to order meals that don’t feature cheese.

I find it particularly galling in restaurants like Chimichanga’s, where the error on their menu has been pointed out to them yet they still refuse to change it. I understand that vegetarians are in the minority; however combine that with the number of people for whom rennet is not halal and you’re alienating a large percentage of the population. Having wrong information on menus and websites is also extremely misleading; non-vegetarians who are cooking for a veggie friend should not have to double-check that a recipe listed as vegetarian is actually vegetarian.

I don’t expect the world to revolve around vegetarians, vegans and pescatarians; but I do expect menus and recipes to be accurate.


Anonymous said…
I was vegetarian for about 15 years (you’d find this hard to believe based on what I eat now!) and I agree with you about the cheese – people don’t seem to get it. I also hate inaccurate menus and hate seeing fish dishes lumped in with vegetarian options. My biggest pet hate, though, was people who say they are vegetarian but are actually pescetarian, as it results in a lot of carnivores thinking that “vegetarians eat fish”. I was actually served fish at a couple of people’s houses on this basis, as they claimed to know several “vegetarians who eat fish”. Fortunately I’ve now seen the light and my food life is a lot simpler!

Hannah @ Love to Dine
@pinkolizz said…
I'm what I refer to as a "rubbish vegetarian" as I eat fish (sorry!)

Meals should most def be labelled as vegetarian if they actually are vegetarian. Imagine the outrage if a meat was marked as halal and was found to not be!

mmmmmmm cheese *goes to fridge*
Anonymous said…
Really enjoying reading this blog! Been reading a while but it's the first time I've been prompted to comment.

I've been a lacto-ovo veggie since seeing my own version of 'the light' in the mid-1980s - ;) @Hannah

People eat what they want to eat and there's no problem with that but I'm in total agreement about accuracy in menus and self-description. Being greeted with "But the last vegetarian who ate here had the salmon..." and responded to as if I'm being awkward for the sake of it when turning the fish option down (politely!) doesn't make for the most pleasant of dining experiences. I wonder how the EU Parliament adopting in principle the FSA guidelines which I think might give the use of the term vegetarian legal status will affect this situation?

And I aslo agree about mislabelling on menus for other diners - it can mean that people who prefer halal, kosher, Hindu or Buddhist-friendly options might end up eating a gelatine-laden dish with unknown animal source.

Back to the subject of cheese - yes, the parmesan issue is rarely recognised. I try to steer folk in the direction of Bookhams Vegetarian Pasta Cheese. Does the parmesan job very well. British-led product and shaves, grates and freezes well. Lovely shaved on top of asparagus with a balsamic glaze drizzle. Supper is calling...
Thanks for all the feedback guys, I'm sure Kirsty will be thrilled. I'm something of an omnivore myself but I do have a couple of things I can't eat for health reasons. Oranges for example will lay me out cold with a migraine within 20 minutes of eating it. I can often be found checking ingredients for orange and orange derivatives and, like you, questioning waiting staff to make sure the pesky fruit isn't in my food. Yes I do expect the chef to know as s/he cooked it!

As for restaurant menus - if a restaurant is in doubt don't label it with a little green "v" or even better, find out!

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