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Vegatarian Butcher

The Vegetarian Butcher

Jaap Korteweg’s butchery in The Hague looks like an olde-worlde meat emporium, except there’s not a molecule of meat to be found in it. Its oxymoronic name, the Vegetarian Butcher, reflects the growing issue of meat-eating ethics and the evolving world of good-as-real meat analogues.

Jaap Korteweg’s butcher’s shop in The Hague trades well on its retro stylings. Outside the old-fashioned glass-and-wooden shop front, there’s a sit-up-and-beg delivery bike parked on the pavement and, next to it, the obligatory fibreglass black-and-white cow.

Inside, there are marble worktops – one with an old-fashioned meat grinder clamped onto it – rustic blue and white tiles featuring vignettes of Dutch country life, a set of antique-shop enamel weighing scales and a wooden butcher’s block, opposite which chiller cabinets are stuffed with chicken pieces, meatballs, mince and smoked bacon.

But look closer, and there’s something very un-retro. The butcher’s block, rather than being blood-stained and knife-chipped, is pristine; the meat grinder is for show too, filled with beans instead of beef. Even if you don’t speak Dutch, the shop’s name gives away the biggest break from tradition before you’re even inside: De Vegetarische Slager – The Vegetarian Butcher.

This unlikely oxymoron means that nothing in the shop, despite being labelled and heavily marketed to the contrary, contains animal flesh.

The packets emblazoned with ‘100 per cent natural chicken pieces’, the ‘tuna flakes’, the ‘minced beef’, the ‘mackerel salad’ and the ‘organic sausage rolls’ – are all conjured from the raw ingredients of either non-GM soya or, in a new more sustainable approach, locally-grown lupin beans (like the ones in the meat grinder).

And the business is booming: it has expanded from just one shop, when it opened late in 2010, to selling in 180 Netherlands outlets, with 500 supermarkets joining this summer and international distribution underway.

Chicken analogueThe Vegetarian Butcher makes use of emerging techniques and new recipes to create, they say, some of the most convincing meat replicas ever. And they are not the only ones: an omnivorous New York Times food columnist tasted its flagship ‘chicken’ (left) and concluded that “taste and mouth feel come very close to the original…”, and while I’m visiting the shop, staff are conducting a taste test on the street with the smoked ‘mackerel’. Not one passer-by guesses it is not fish.

Most surprisingly, a group of Holland’s master butchers have agreed to sell the products and help Korteweg and his team understand how to improve the products further still.

“They were hostile at first,” he says when I meet him. “How did we persuade them? They tasted it.” The butchers also recognised commercial potential around the common dinner dilemma where only one person around the table doesn’t eat meat.

But who is buying this stuff in such great numbers – and why? As a vegetarian who greets a new substitute meat with disproportionate enthusiasm, I have some inkling. But why the meaty marketing – and what might it all mean for the future of vegetarian food generally: is meat in the 21st century destined to go the same was as fur, where faux becomes the mainstream version?

The global ‘meat analogue’ industry, as it is rather unappetisingly known, is competitive: three in five adults now eat meat-free food, say Mintel; part of a market that increased by 18 per cent between 2005 and 2010. And the US, home of the unsexily-named but pioneering Tofurky, a roastable, kosher wheat protein/organic soya concoction, is way ahead of the UK: there, 110 new imitation animal products have hit shelves since 2010.

A vegetarian neighbour just back from New York “nearly cried with joy” in a Chinese restaurant in Brooklyn with a vegan menu full of sizzling meaty skewers and black-pepper steak – thanks to soy protein and seitan, a wheat gluten product originally developed in China in the early 1960s. “My New York friends can’t believe how behind we are in England,” the neighbour told me.

Korteweg hopes to help shift the balance in Europe.

We meet at the shop, on a grey Hague morning. He’s here with the Vegetarische Slager’s co-founder and ‘concept-maker’, Niko Koffeman, who devised the butcher idea. Korteweg, also a farmer, used to be a keen hunter.

“I love meat very much,” he says, explaining his motivation. “But I had problems with how we produce it.” He is passionate about creating products so convincing, that there will be no need to eat real meat. His theory is to cut out the ‘middle man’ – the animal – from the grain-to-plate story.

He is also unhappy with the dairy industry and thinks he can improve on soya milk; soya is also an environmentally tricksy crop, as vast swathes of rainforest are often cleared to grow it. Debates rage about how healthy it is, too: the Asian diet has used soya for centuries, but in its fermented form – which is not, typically, the way it is processed to make fake meat.

Korteweg also has ambitions to create a convincing beef steak, and open a vegetarian fishmonger. I ask what he thinks of the challenge thrown down by the American branch of the animal rights charity, Peta; that it will give $1m to whoever can grow in vitro chicken – real meat, but grown in a lab, not on an animal – by 2012. He and Koffeman grin: “But we have [the equivalent] already!”…..

The Independent: Read the full article