Anne Thomas explores Berlin’s burgeoning vegan scene…
“I’m vegetarian between meals,” a colleague of mine recently joked. I could say I’m vegan between meals. I like the theory but find it hard to put into practice. However, veganism has been flourishing in Berlin for a while, so I’ve decided to try again. “Meat is murder! “ “It’s the corpse of an animal.” “Factory farming is torture!”
These are just a few of the confrontational slogans used to jolt people into thinking more about their eating habits. I’ve been thinking about them a lot lately and wondering why such statements come across as so provocative? Is it not a simple fact that a steak, a chicken drumstick or a Schnitzel is a piece of meat, i.e. a piece of dead animal?
Of suffering and chicken nuggets
In his bestselling non-fiction volume Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer mulls over the same questions and depicts his journey into the depths of the US meat industry, as well as his awareness that eating habits are intricately linked to cultural, social and religious traditions and that it is extremely difficult to break away from these without upsetting people. And although he was far from the first to look at this subject, he seems to be reaching a wider audience.
In fact, vegetarianism has become almost banal in the western world. Nobody bats an eyelid if you tell them you don’t eat meat. Apart from the odd so unfunny joke about the suffering of carrots, it’s not a subject of conversation at all. And it’s not difficult to find a vegetarian option on a menu. Veganism is another matter. This is considered by many a form of dogmatism, of people taking vegetarianism just one step too far, with some even saying it’s bad for your health to be vegan…
Except in Berlin. Within a square kilometre of my flat in Neukölln, there are at least three exclusively vegan cafes, a vegan cooperative, a vegan pizzeria and practically every restaurant, café and Imbiss caters for vegans. If you go further afield, there are vegan supermarkets and fast food joints and even a few pricey restaurants. Veganism is definitely in vogue. But is it just a fashion? Will it go out with skinny jeans and flat whites?
“Choosing to live a life free from animal products means choosing a path that is kinder to people, animals and the environment,” says the Vegan Society on its website. “In fact, there are so many good reasons to reject meat, eggs and dairy products and so many delicious animal free alternatives that the real question is not ‘why vegan?’ but ‘why not?’”
My reasons for “why not?” are simple – eggs and cheese. I love them and I cannot imagine life without omelettes and boiled eggs, Camembert, Brie, goat’s cheese, burrata, sour cream, cappuccinos. Turning vegetarian was not a problem for me. I’d never liked meat much, and beef and lamb I had detested – especially the lingering smell that would cling to walls and furniture. However, it’s only when I went to Russia as a student that I made a conscious decision to become a vegetarian.
In the canteen, food preparation was a rather loveless affair. A slab of non-descript meat as tough as a boot sole would invariably be served up alongside a mound of rice, potatoes or pasta – it could have been beef, mutton, pork, cat or dog for all I knew, and I knew I couldn’t eat it. I would say out of politeness I was vegetarian. I haven’t eaten – or missed – meat since. But I know that I would miss cheese and eggs.
“Whether we’re talking about fish species, pigs, or some other eaten animal, is such suffering the most important thing in the world?” asks Foer. “Obviously not. But that’s not the question. Is it more important than sushi, bacon or chicken nuggets? That’s the question.” If I am rational, I know that the suffering of hens and cows is more important than my predilection for cheese and eggs. Just looking at milk, for example, it’s hard to see how animals aren’t being made to suffer. Although some milk may be produced by cows that live reasonable lives grazing in the open air, intensive farming practices are the norm. Dairy cows are often bred to yield four or five times what they would have naturally needed for their calves in the past. Many do not get to graze.
The same is true for commercial egg-laying hens that produce up to 300 eggs a year and are then often slaughtered instead of being allowed to die a natural death. Broiler chickens (used for meat) are often slaughtered within six to 12 weeks of birth. There are alternative projects such as EiCare in Germany in which females are bred to lay eggs and die a natural death, and males are bred to be meat chickens and then slaughtered individually with as little pain as possible.
But these are the exception, and still lead indirectly to the death of animals. So even if I buy organic eggs, I cannot really kid myself that the chickens lived fulfilled happy lives, so going vegan seems to be a pretty logical consequence. And yet at Veganz, the vegan supermarket, I literally lost my appetite when I saw whole refrigerators full of fake meat and cheese (unappetisingly named Tofurkey, Sheese, Jeezlini, Cheezly) made from a whole range of ingredients such as soya protein, oil, potato starch, shea butter, and nuts… Give me beans, lentils or rice any day, I thought…
But was I being unfair? Yes, according to two members of the collective that runs Dr Pogo, my favourite vegan shop on Richardplatz in Neukölln. Tjona pointed out that these processed foods are ideal for people who make the sudden transition to veganism after seeing shocking footage of a slaughterhouse for instance. “Often they don’t know what else to eat. It’s easy for them to just buy a vegan sausage or some vegan cheese to put on their bread in the evening,” she explained. But aren’t they bad for the environment, I asked.
Not really, insisted Andreas, who’s studied the issue in depth. He explained that such products with their high water contents and plant base could be produced sustainably. “One problem is the flavourings,” he conceded but pointed out that they were used in such negligible quantities that this was not a significant issue. Moreover, he made clear that such products should only be eaten in moderation anyway. “The bulk of a healthy vegan diet should be based on grains, pulses, vegetables and fruit.”
Johanna Höflich, a Berlin-based doctor who was vegan for a time in the past and did her doctoral research on the importance of selenium in the omnivore, vegetarian and vegan diets, told me that these ersatz products were not necessary for a healthy vegan diet. Everything a person needed could be obtained from plants, she explained, except B12, which needed to be taken by vegans as a supplement since low intakes can cause anaemia or damage to the nervous system.
“A vegan has to think more about their diet than an omnivore since good quality meat is an ‘all-rounder’ and full of vitamins and nutrients, but unless somebody simply gives up animal products without reflecting on their diet, veganism doesn’t have to be unhealthy at all,” she said. “Moreover, there are lots of good vegan cookbooks with cool recipes to make it easier for people to cook.”
What about the argument sometimes bandied about that veganism is elitist and expensive? Andreas from Dr Pogo insisted it needn’t be at all all: “What was important to us from the beginning was that basic essential foods could be bought at reasonable prices. We also have a discount card,” he said. “Our ethos is that everyone should be able to afford an environmentally-friendly, vegan lifestyle.” “I have three pillars – vegan, regional and green,” added Tjona.
This outlook is shared to a large extent by Maren Berens, who co-runs Pêle-Mêle, a newish vegan café in a quiet, leafy Neukölln sidestreet whose décor seems to be de rigueur for vegan cafes in Berlin – polished floors, white wooden tables, tasteful lighting. “Everything here is vegan but we try to use as little ersatz as possible,” she told me. “It’s very easy to cook vegan food without sausages for example. It’s a question of eating habits. Many people eat according to habit – they want a particular consistency and visual aspect because they’re used to it – i.e. meat or cheese. However, many of these products are not organic and we try to be as organic and regional as possible. We make our own spreads, using nuts for instance.”
The first time I stumbled on the café, I ordered the kohlrabi and apple soup – I knew this was probably a mistake but I was hoping a good chef would turn these unpromising ingredients into something appetising. I should have listened to my instinct. You have to be a genius to make kohlrabi palatable. So when the very friendly assistant asked me how I had found it, I responded honestly – it was bland and lacking pep, I said. Instead of getting defensive, she offered me a bowl of pumpkin stew as an apology.
This was another matter altogether – absolutely delicious with just the right amount of spices to warm my heart completely. Topped with nuts and seeds, it was also full of healthy vitamins and minerals and wholly convincing. I liked the attitude and I liked the café’s atmosphere – it’s a place to go with friends for a chat or just with a book.
“Our customers are sometimes vegan, sometimes not,” Maren Berens explained. “We don’t have a sign in the window. Our aim was to create a cosy café and then to show that it is possible to eat vegan. We don’t want to be dogmatic or convert anyone but simply to show them that it is possible to think in a different way and not eat meat and cheese seven days a week.” I find it hard to disagree.
Just a few blocks away is Vux, a café that has established itself as a Mecca for die-hard vegans who want to eat cake. And there is no doubt that these are good, as are the bagels and quiches; but what keeps me coming back over and over again are the smoothies. They are out of this world. The green smoothie (avocado, spinach and lemon) was the food revelation of the year for me, followed by the pink one (raspberries, beetroot and mint). They are aesthetically pleasing, filling, packed to the brim with essential vitamins and reasonably guilt-free.
For more sophisticated flavours, it’s best to head to Lucky Leek in Prenzlauer Berg or Kopps in Mitte. Both are often fully-booked so reserving is essential, and although I have not been blown away by everything I’ve ordered – things can be a bit hit-and-miss when chefs are experimental – some of the dishes are certainly unexpected. I once ordered wraps expecting some kind of burrito but was served nori sheets filled with avocado and other vegetables – they were extremely beautiful to look at and fresh to the taste.
The autumn menu is rather less surprising and I would suggest Lucky Leek get a different translator: “Quiche from carrots, artichoke cream, salad from red cabbage,” does not instantly make my mouth water and nor does “Cream soup from button mushrooms, croutons from ciabatta bread, black salsify”. But if you’re willing to forgive the overuse of the word “from” and let your tastebuds decide, it’s certainly worth a visit. At Kopps, there seems to be a little too much emphasis on kohlrabi, cabbage and cauliflower for my liking.
However, both places get full points for noble intentions. And that’s what I am full of now – noble intentions for a renewed relationship with plant-based food.