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On going vegan.

I turned pescetarian when I was 16, and two years later made the full leap into vegetarianism. It always felt completely right; any worries that my family might have had about lacking energy or poor health didn’t pan out. In fact, paying attention to what I ate prompted me to get fit, start running, and was probably one of the main factors in losing 6 stone. It was a big part of my identity, too. Being one of three Catherines in my university friendship group, I was soon given the nickname ‘Veg’; I had a vegetarian birthday party, and put the icing on the vegetarian cake with a vegetarian wedding (my non-vegetarian husband was also keen, I might add). We’ve enjoyed living our lives around delicious meals packed with greens and pulses, and becoming vegetarian definitely lit the first spark of what has now become my huge passion for cooking and food.

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In 2014 I attempted Veganuary, with mixed results. It felt limiting, and I didn’t like the fact that I was eating processed foods such as vegan ‘butter’ and vastly increasing my soy consumption, but I did notice that my constant stomach cramps disappeared. I also missed butter. A lot. I went back to my normal vegetarian self, but earlier this year I noticed that, without making any effort or conscious choice, I had become just about vegan. Apart from (organic*) milk in my tea, I noticed that I ate dairy almost exclusively at weekends, when Daniel and I would share a pan of porridge or when I’d eat eggs or buttery toast after a long run. I started to experiment a little: almond milk in my tea, nut butter on my toast – I didn’t commit myself to anything, but I noticed that it was quite easy to avoid animal products when eating at home.

A month or so later, and my heart felt like it wanted veganism. I’d been doing some reading and I wasn’t happy about eating animal products at all – despite being perfectly happy with our organic milk at home, having a cup of coffee or even a meal while out started to bother me. I wanted to know about what I was eating; were these eggs in my vegetarian breakfast from happy hens, or was I unconsciously tucking in to something I wouldn’t eat if I knew where it had come from? So I went vegan.

I addressed some of the issues that I’d encountered during Veganuary by avoiding processed ‘veganised’ food; I ate tahini and nut butters by the bucket-load (literally!), and steered clear of processed veggie sausages. I made sure all the tofu we bought was organic, and bought only organic almond and soya milk. It started to get very expensive, especially as my running increased towards ultra-distance and I was hungry all the time. I was eating pulses every day, and bags and bags of greens. The only things I genuinely missed were yogurt and butter, but I kept a large stock of homemade granola, bread and vegan cookies to keep myself feeling chipper (I was still hungry all the time). It was during this period that I gave blood, and was pleased (and slightly surprised) to find that my iron levels were perfectly healthy.

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Writing all of this makes it sound idyllic, but there was a dark side. Plant-based foods are of course very good for our health, but one of the main reasons for this is their fibre content. Veg, fruit, pulses, wholegrains, nuts – all high in fibre. Even the almond milk that I put in my tea was adding yet more fibre to my diet. For a long while I couldn’t understand why I felt so terrible. I was under a lot of stress with the final months of my PhD, pushing myself hard physically, and travelling a lot for work and races: I’ll say no more. I ended up in the doctor’s surgery, convinced that I was dying of something terrible; I felt bloated and tired all the time, was afraid to leave the house in the mornings, and I started putting on weight despite lots of running and exceptionally healthy eating. I had some tests done. Lots of tests. I was secretly praying to be diagnosed as coeliac: I would have happily given up scones and bread for the rest of my days, if only I could have stopped feeling so awful. The tests were all clear – I wasn’t infested with parasites, I didn’t have Crohn’s (thank goodness), and I wasn’t suffering from coeliac’s disease either. The doctor suggested adding some stodge to my diet: ‘does vegan stodge exist?’ he enquired.

No, not really. So I started eating eggs, cheese, milk and all the other non-vegan but perfectly vegetarian things again, and I started to feel a little better. I stopped waiting indoors all morning until I was confident that I wouldn’t need the loo for at least another 20 minutes. Life started to feel easier. I wasn’t so hungry, and I had a lot more energy (mainly because the food I was eating stayed put long enough). Moreover, I didn’t feel that I was doing anything contrary to my ethical values – in my view, sticking with organic dairy and well-sourced eggs is a perfectly ethical way to go about food consumption. I had observed first-hand how veganism simply wasn’t for me, and couldn’t support me physically through the amount of running (and perhaps also PhD-ing) that I wanted to do every week. Importantly, I realised that I could eat in a way that I was happy with, and make good food choices, that would also allow me to feel good physically: the way I was eating worked for my heart, my mind and my body.

Eventually, I started to feel a bit bogged down with all the eggs, and I found myself turning in an unprecedented direction. I started eating fish again, and just before Christmas I had my first bite of chicken since that chicken burger back in June 2003. It tasted bland and completely uninteresting, but it was ethically-sourced organic meat, and I genuinely felt that it did me some good physically.

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Recovery shake of dreams.

Since then I’ve been eating chicken and fish once a week: always choosing things that I’m confident are as ethically good as they can be. I recently saw a comment on Twitter about meat-eaters being basically animal killers, but I don’t think that this is true. The source of our food, from the simple British-grown carrot to the dodgy reconstituted chicken meat of a supermarket-brand nugget comes with big issues, from the question of waste and fairness, through environmental impact to animal cruelty. No diet is immune from the pressures of ethics, and a thoughtless vegan diet can be more problematic than a thoughtful meat-lover’s.

This Veganuary, I’m feeling all sorts of intermittent guilt and disappointment for not being able to take part. It’s a great experiment to take on just for a month, and it can be really eye-opening. There does appear to be a general move towards veganism, which is of course awesome, but it’s a way of eating that simply isn’t for everyone. Whether for health reasons, practical reasons or simply because you just love butter that bit too much, veganism isn’t the only way, and neither is vegetarianism. It’s perfectly ok to be an omnivore, and to find a balance that works in all directions. Other veggies will probably agree that vegetarians are often put on a pedestal by meat-eaters, as if they are somehow better than the regular omnivore, but with the new availability of good food, and the increasing awareness and casual activism seen in this area, this is a distinction that simply doesn’t have to be true.

*since we moved in together in 2010 we’ve only ever bought organic milk and butter. We’re now trying to make sure that all of the animal produce that we buy is organic.
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I continue to be impressed by the vegetarian food on offer in the Lake District, and so I thought it was about time that I put together a little summary of all of my favourite veggie pit-stops. We’ve spent five long weekends in the Lakes already this year, and every visit seems to present us with a new place to rave about; it’s getting to the point now that we rarely have time to visit all of our local favourites in one holiday. This couldn’t be more different from my experiences only a few years back, when a microwaved veggie lasagne was about all I could expect after a day out walking in the fells.

Most of these places aren’t exclusively veggie, and for me that isn’t a big deal. While I love to visit a place with a creative menu full of vegetarian delights, what impresses me the most is an omnivorous menu that doesn’t put meat-eaters at the centre of the table and hide the veggies away somewhere in the back. All of the places below present vegetarians with a choice (shock horror) of delicious food, and rather than reserving a small corner of the menu for us, our food is included in the list of meals that any customer might actually enjoy. Brilliant.

Obviously I can’t include every veggie-friendly place in the Lakes as I haven’t been to them all; do let me know if you have any recommendations of your own!

Keswick

Saddleback Cafe has quickly gained an excellent reputation in Keswick, and I can’t say that I’m surprised. Tucked away from the main bustle of the town centre, it’s always nice to escape here for a while, though it can often be overwhelmed by passing cyclists in need of a refuel. The menu is aimed at outdoorsy types, with peanut butter and banana sarnies, excellent cakes and flapjacks, and mugs of builder’s tea for little more than £1.50. They also do a great range of daily specials, one of which is always vegetarian and quite often vegan: think veggie chilli, tagine, curry – all the favourites! They really do cater for all, with a great selection of meaty, veggie, vegan and gluten-free fare on offer.

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Little Chamonix is another new addition to Keswick’s ever-improving foodie scene, and I struggle to walk past here without stepping in for one of their excellent coffees (locally roasted in Embleton): on our most recent trip to Keswick we were in here every day. Their menu is crammed with delicious home-cooked food made with locally-sourced ingredients – some are even home-grown. It’s a great lunch spot offering traditional Swiss dishes (baked camembert with bread and honey?!) as well as soups, chilli, jacket potatoes and huge sarnies. The best thing is the cakes, though, which are all homemade – their scones are baked fresh every morning and should not be missed!

The Dog & Gun stands out from this list as I’m including it mainly for it’s amazing veggie goulash. Served with garlic bread, potatoes and dumplings, this place offers post-fell refuelling at its finest! There are definitely other veggie options available, but I haven’t tried any of them because I love the goulash too much. Meat-eaters, vegetarians, ale-lovers and dogs are all well-catered for here.

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The Pheasant Inn offers a surprisingly large selection of meat-free options, considering how traditional it appears from the outside. Veggie options are included in the main menu, and on our visit I had three main dishes and one special to choose from. The food and service is very good (you can eat in the bar or book a table in the dining area), though take a solid appetite as the portions are generous!

Ambleside

Rattle Gill Cafe was one of the great discoveries of the UT55 weekend in Ambleside. We stumbled upon it by accident when in search of lunch on the day after the event, and I could have stayed a very long time enjoying their very tempting menu. Their chilli was generous and really delicious, and certainly the cakes looked to fit the bill as well. The menu is all vegetarian, with vegan and gluten free options available.

Zeffirellis is an important part of Ambleside’s social scene, offering a restaurant, cafe, cinema and jazz bar. You don’t notice at first, but it’s all vegetarian. This is our go-to place for fuelling up before races, as their menu offers lots of tasty pasta and pizza dishes (with gluten-free options available for both) as well as chillis and roast-style dishes. I also really like their pudding menu, which has lots of lighter options including fruits and frozen yogurts.

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Fellinis is the sister restaurant of Zeffirellis, and claims to be “a new modern ‘Vegeterranean’ restaurant” offering Medeterranean-inspired veggie dishes. As far as fine dining goes, this is the best vegetarian restaurant I’ve ever been to; it manages to get the perfect balance between really sumptuous food, delicate flavours and indulgence, all without the support of meat or fish. It’s a great place for a celebration, but price-wise it isn’t any different from any of the other restaurants in Ambleside.

Ullswater

Fellbites is a lovely little place with a really relaxed feel, just of the main street in Genridding. It’s a great place to come after a day on the fells, with plenty of warming dishes for meat-eaters and veggies alike. It functions as a cafe in the daytime and turns into a restaurant at night. Friendly, with tasty food and a good menu selection.

Loweswater

Kirkstile Inn is hands-down my favourite place to eat and sleep in the Lake District. We even spent our honeymoon here, and if I hadn’t been quite so taken by the wild rice and veggie stir fry, I could have had a different veggie option every night of our stay. Not bad considering their menu is pretty small to start with! The food here is really excellent, especially when washed down with one of their own Loweswater Gold ales. Leave room for pudding – the seasonal crumble is not to be missed! And if you’re staying the night, the omelettes are life-changing – I went from omelette-neutral to omelette-mad over the course of one breakfast.

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En route to the mountains

La Casa Verde is a really magical place, nestled somewhere in the grounds of Larch Cottage nurseries. Follow the winding path through the foliage to find a magical cafe in really unique surroundings. They serve fish but no meat, and their pizzas are really wonderful, with a seriously thin base that makes them great for lunch. The cake selection is refreshingly untraditional, too. Definitely worth stopping here for a while!

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