We went ashore at Salerno, Italy, from our cargo ship. We were travelling in the Mediterranean and looked forward to a meal as a break from ship’s fare, good solid food as it was even for us vegetarians.
Here I must digress and, for the benefit of carnivores recount the vicissitudes of vegetarians when eating out. Gastronomically we are second class citizens. In Ireland when going to a restaurant, which is a rare event for the reasons that I will recount, we would phone ahead and say we are vegetarians and the response is usually something to the effect:
‘That is no problem, sir. We cater for vegetarians.’
When the waiter arrives and you declare your hand, he proudly points to the only vegetarian item on the menu which is most likely to be, rice; risotto or kedgeree, or one of an infinite variety of pastas. When you say: ‘But there is no choice, the carnivores have six options.’ If it is a half-decent restaurant the waiter is likely to say: ‘What would you like, sir? We can do you a cheese or mushroom omelette.’ If it is not, he or she will either shrug their shoulders or say nothing. Not that we don’t enjoy rice, pasta or omelette but when you eat out you want something you don’t have at home.
For chefs, (many of them temperamental devils; even more so than church organists), these three are the cop-out vegetarian dishes. You bite your tongue and say inside your head: ‘Would you ever go to hell. I’ll never come to this bloody restaurant again.’ If it is just the two of you, you could get up and walk out, and if you do get a table somewhere else, when you arrive it is likely to be a similar story and you are hungry and won’t get food for at least another hour. If friends are with you, you don’t want to make a fuss and for one reason or another you take the dish on offer.
Now to return to the only restaurant we could find open in Salerno that would allow us to have a meal and get back to the ship in time to sail. There was nobody else in the restaurant and the middle-aged waitress approached and showed us to a table. We drew on our minute store of useful Italian just to be sure there was no misunderstanding and said: ‘Siamo vegetariani. Ne carne, ne pesce.’ A phrase we learned by rote the first time we went to Italy; ‘we are vegetarians. No meat, no fish.’ She had no English and pulling out two chairs at a table gestured that there was no problem. We knew that there was no chance of having vegetarian food, but we could have something that wasn’t meat or fish. To keep life simple, since in Italian the word for omelette is omelette we asked if we could have cheese omelettes. She smiled and nodded enthusiastically. Having had so much pasta on board we craved the spud and ordered roast potatoes. In Italy they cook wonderful diced potato roasted in duck fat. Though vegetarians we are not bigots!
In due course the waitress arrived with what transpired to be lasagne, lasagne without meat, be it said, and straight from the freezer, with three or four small pieces of barely roasted potato each. Delizioso, she said as she put it in front of us. She also told us it was the best restaurant in Salerno. We took the line of least resistance, said nothing, not that she would have understood if we had, and ate the lasagne. It was OK, but it wasn’t omelette in any language. For dessert, being in Italy, we took the opportunity to have ice cream. The Italians make some of the best ice cream you can have anywhere. Again we called on our meagre knowledge of Italian and ordered gelato. The waitress smiled again and nodded. She arrived back with what we discovered later is called semifreddo; literally ‘half cold’; layers of sponge and ice cream. We paid the bill and left, glad to return to the ship where Pasquale, the cook, provided good basic, but tasty non-meat or fish meals.
At dinner in a reputable hotel in Carcasonne, in the south of France, when the rest of the party were half way through their main course our meal finally arrived. It was four half tomatoes grilled with bread crumbs on top, garnished with parsley and lettuce leaves. The Froggies are not noted for their sympathy towards vegetarians!
In Venice we were guests of a friend at a well known gourmet restaurant where they served us a main course of beautifully presented, but pathetically inadequate, salad. Our hostess noticed and back home wrote to complain. The restaurant refunded her for two meals.
At dinner in a well known, first class Country House Hotel in Southern Ireland we were served very poor pasta, one of chefs’ cop-outs. Next morning at breakfast the owner asked if our meal last night had been all right. We told her and her response was to the effect: ‘I can’t get him, (meaning the chef), to take vegetarians seriously.’ She deducted two dinners from the bill and compensated each of the three of us handsomely with a box of the finest fresh vegetables from the garden and some jars of home-made preserves. I go there from time to time for lunch now when they produce very good vegetarian dishes; the owners have obviously whipped the chef into line or else they cook it themselves!
When vegetarians go to a party and it comes to the buffet supper your hostess points to a dish on the table and says proudly: ‘This is vegetarian.’ You thank her, take some and go and sit down somewhere. It is very tasty so you go back for a little more, but it’s not to be found. The bloody carnivores have scoffed the lot. Again you swear inside your head.
Recently at a college working lunch, notice of which said that sandwiches would be served, there were no egg, no tomato no cheese sandwiches. All of them were filled with pieces of dead animal.
The truth of the matter is; if you are a vegetarian the only satisfactory place to eat is at the home of understanding friends, other vegetarians or at home!
The first two dishes illustrated above are from a vegetarian cookery book that my wife, Hilary, has written available as an app: Hilary’s Vegetarian Recipes. For details click on ‘Vegetarian’ menu option on the main website.