The UK’s first vegan butcher, recently opened in Islington, could well be a set for a Netflix sci-fi drama. Smooth slabs of artificial plant-based meat line the counter, cocooned in compostable packaging. Images of cows, sheep and pigs frolic together on the gleaming white walls beside the phrase ‘friends not food’.
Rudy’s Vegan Butcher sold out entirely the first day it opened in November. Londoners queued around the block to try their wide range of vegan produce, which includes ‘baycon’, ‘turk’y roll’ and even pastrami. “The day of our launch was insane […] a lot of people were very excited to come out and support us”, says founder Ruth ‘Rudy’ Mumma, who also owns a vegan diner in Camden.
Not everyone welcomed the new vegan butcher. Piers Morgan was outraged by the apparent oxymoron, tweeting ‘a vegan butcher’s shop…and people wonder why I’ve written a book about the world going nuts’. One incensed northern butcher even threatened to burn the shop down.
Made from soya or seitan (wheat gluten) with a bunch of colourings and flavourings, Rudy’s vegan meats are designed to mimic the texture and taste of animal meat. Although in many ways a great product, they still have some way to go.
Whilst the burgers look pretty convincing, the turk’y appeared to me disconcertingly smooth and pasty like playdough. I found the chestnut-brown baycon strips lacked the succulence of real bacon, although smoky and salty when fried. Trialling a vegan fry-up on a group of hungover teenage boys one morning caused howls of resentment.
Nevertheless, attitudes towards plant-based meat are changing rapidly, says co-founder Matthew Foster. “Everyone’s starting to learn it’s not sustainable to continue the way we are with animal agriculture […] as the plant-based substitutes become better and better, and they are becoming incredible, why would you want anything else?”
Vegan meat can only get better as companies race to develop juicier, meatier, more satisfying recipes. Beyond Meat took the world by storm in 2016 when it first released a pea protein burger so realistic that it bled beetroot juice. Since then it has continued to refine its recipe and plans to launch two new versions of the Beyond Burger this year.
Whatever you think of the idea of vegan meat, the UK’s plant-based food market is booming. Sales of meat-free foods grew by 40 per cent between 2014 and 2019, and are predicted to exceed £1.1 billion by 2024, according to analysts at Mintel. Major supermarkets and fast food chains have jumped on the bandwagon, with Tesco committing to a 300 per cent increase in plant-based sales by 2025, and McDonalds introducing its vegan “McPlant” range later this year.
So are the British turning vegan? It appears not. On closer inspection, we can see it’s not vegans fuelling the demand for plant-based food, but “flexitarians” eating less meat for the sake of the planet, their health, and animal welfare. Only 1 per cent of Brits are vegan, a figure that has stagnated in recent years, whilst the proportion of flexitarians reducing their meat intake grew from 28 per cent in 2017 to 39 per cent in 2019, and has continued to rise rapidly during the pandemic.
Given the carbon-intensity of animal farming, many consumers believe cutting back on meat helps move us towards carbon neutrality – a goal the government wants to reach by 2050. Last month the Climate Change Committee, which advises the government’s green agenda, called for Britons to reduce their meat consumption by 9 per cent in the next five years, and 35 per cent by 2050.
David Attenborough issued a controversial warning in his latest Netflix documentary A Life on Our Planet: “we must change our diet. The planet can’t support billions of meat eaters.” If climate change remains top of the political and cultural agendas, we may start to see regular meat phased out in favour of plant-based alternatives and possibly one day lab-grown meat.
Rather than being a fad of the north-London liberal elite, Rudy’s Vegan Butcher may well be the harbinger of a food revolution to come.