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Murray Chalmers: My commitment to vegetarianism all started in Dundee

Parlour cafe's mezze.
Parlour cafe's mezze.

Murray contemplates his (mostly) meat-free diet while enjoying extra time with his cat, Simone.

“Animals are my friends, and I don’t eat my friends” – George Bernard Shaw.

I write this column while my cat Simone jumps all over the keyboard, just like she did before she was diagnosed with terminal cancer on December 31, the cruellest and most devastating start to a New Year I could possibly imagine.

That day I barely processed what the vet said but I did hear the words “weeks” as opposed to “months”, and possibly “days” instead of “weeks” when I asked how long I had left with her. I bundled her shaved, drugged, spent little body into the car and drove home, paralysed with pain and blind with tears.

Simone, Murray’s cat.

The vet’s final words rang in my ears – “the next few weeks are going to be very, very tough”. He was right. Spring seemed so far away and I prayed that Simone would live to feel the sun on her back again and that I would survive the pandemic to watch her.

Now, more than three months later, my wee pal is still here and so am I, and today I tickled her as she rolled around in the spring sunshine, proving for all of us that where there’s life there’s hope. Animals are indeed our friends – and yet, shockingly, I admit that sometimes I do still eat my friends.

Kitty

When Patricia Routledge so perfectly distilled Victoria Wood’s incisively hilarious monologues into the blue-rinsed body of her grotesquely conservative character Kitty in 1986, little did she know what a prescient sherry-guzzling monster she was unleashing upon the world.

Her introduction set the tone: “Good evening. My name’s Kitty. I could have married, I’ve given gallons of blood and I can’t stomach whelks, so that’s me for you”.
Deranged Pritti, or perhaps it was Kitty, continued: “I’m apparently something of a celebrity since I walked the Pennine Way in slingbacks in an attempt to publicise mental health”.

From there this terrifyingly reactionary precursor to Hyacinth Bucket unravelled at the same pace as the rapidly-emptying sherry bottle placed at her side – a raging Mrs Thatcher steering a battleship, fuelled by bravado, appetite suppressants, hatred for Arthur Scargill and the contact high from Elnett.

Kitty reached her nadir when describing the crew producing her TV appearances, who brilliantly dialled-up so many 1980s right-on cliches, not least with food: “We’ve been having a running buffet… we all mucked in on the nosh. I did my butter bean whip – it’s over there in a bucket.

“And the director did us a quiche. I suppose it’s his acne but I definitely detected a tang of Clearasil. The producer didn’t cook, thanks goodness. She’s a nice girl but when someone chain smokes Capstan Full Strength and wear’s a coalman’s jerkin you’re hardly tempted to sample their dumplings. The first day I met her she said ‘I’m a radical feminist lesbian’ and I thought – ‘what would the Queen Mum do’?”

Vegetarianism

The choice of quiche and butter bean whip as objects of derision was typically astute by the brilliant Victoria Wood who could nail a target with the precision of Westminster’s beloved pet Trident, still menacingly asleep in Scottish waters.

Back in the 1980s vegetarianism was seen as rather marginal and extremist – something for the girls and the gays or those who had been to London, got a pair of Doc Martens boots and joined CND.

Not for nothing was the country’s dominant vegetarian restaurant chain called Cranks and not for nothing was it largely based in London.

Interestingly it never reached Scotland although we did have an excellent equivalent in Edinburgh’s legendary Hendersons, the UK’s longest-running vegetarian restaurant until it closed last year due to Covid.

Thankfully vegetarianism has come a long way from butter bean whip in a bucket and corrosively-vinegared beetroot leaching on to tired salad leaves. Nowadays real men not only eat quiche but they also sometimes bake it themselves, while ensuring they track the calories afterwards.

You can’t move in the shops for products free from all known irritants although the sight of anything by Leon sends me running for as many e numbers as I can find, be they legal or illegal. Vegetarianism has finally joined the mainstream.

Home cooking

I’ve been happily vegetarian for many long periods of my life and vegetarian food continues to be my staple when cooking at home.

That’s not to say you’d never encounter the pervasively homely smell of a roast chicken when you enter my kitchen, nor need it be a feast day to find me grilling perfect David Lowrie scallops to be served with the wonderful sauce Bercy (recipe in Simon Hopkinson and Lindsey Bareham’s seminal Roast Chicken and Other Stories).

These once living things that I choose to eat are part of the fabric of my own life although, with that admission, it’s recently become impossible to forget Leonardo Da Vinci’s quote that his body “will not be a tomb for other creatures”.

Nevertheless, just as pancetta frying to a crisp while I beat egg yolks, cream and parmesan together can only trigger the simple celebration that is a classic penne alla carbonara, some dishes intrinsically rely on the depth of flavour that only the addition of meat can provide. And I do know that cream is controversial in carbonara!

Less meat and fish

I’ve noticed recently that I’m consuming less meat and fish. Predictions that 13.7 million of us will be meat-free by the end of 2021 come as no surprise. This is a trend that isn’t going away.

A recent survey found that 14% of adults (7.2 million) in the UK currently follow a meat-free diet while a further 6.5 million intend to become vegetarian, vegan or pescatarian during 2021.

Almost 500,000 of us gave up meat in 2020, which is double the figure for 2019. A staggering 1.5 million people in the UK are currently vegan, an increase of 40% from the year before.

Our eating habits are changing. I first became vegetarian when I discovered underage drinking, adolescent sex and how easy it was to cultivate a neurotic boy outsider stance about everything.

Seventeen

You’ll do anything to annoy your parents at 17 which was the ideal age to discover punk, make a feature of your spots and overthrow familial shackles.

For me this was achieved by bolting the bedroom door, playing Bowie’s Diamond Dogs, reading Oscar Wilde and adopting an air of aloofness that might have impressed Garbo and Siouxsie Sioux had they wandered along the Kingsway at the time.

Although my vegetarian seeds were sown in Dundee, like much else my mother blamed this latest affectation on a trip to London in 1976.

That’s when she, my sister and I went on a family holiday and I returned wearing a Sex Pistols T-shirt, pink trousers and brothel creeper shoes.

I also became vegetarian in tandem with my mother’s shame rising.

In 1985, when I joined the music industry, vegetarianism was just one of the aberrations on offer to this errant Dundonian looking for a thrill – but it was definitely the healthiest.

When I became very friendly with Morrissey after I started working with him in 1987 my commitment to vegetarianism grew deeper, not least because his beliefs meant I would now find myself dealing with inquiries from organisations including PETA and the Vegan Society.

Fur coats

Inevitably I read more and I listened more and I learned – it was a heady time and one which informed many of my beliefs at the time.

Soon I wasn’t just vegetarian but was proudly wearing a T-shirt featuring the words, “Yuck, Your Disgusting Fur Coat” until it became like an ethical pelt on my principled skin – a cheap riposte to the increasing visibility of real fur in the consumerist culture of the time.

I definitely didn’t wear that T-shirt the night I went clubbing with Grace Jones when a woman verbally attacked the defiantly fur-clad icon as we left the Kensington Roof Gardens – the melee that followed quickly sorted the men from the boys and Grace was assuredly more man than all of us. Sometimes just avoiding a lawsuit is enough of a result to end the night on.

Parlour Cafe

It has to be said that Tayside isn’t brilliant for vegetarian food, in that it’s often bland and unimaginative if it exists at all.

One exception is the Parlour Cafe where Gillian Veal has been producing some amazing, mainly vegetarian, mezze platters during lockdown.

Parlour cafe’s mezze.

One we tried a few weeks ago was titled A Hint of Spring (£30) and featured some ace flatbreads with seasonal pickles and three wonderful dips – lemon and herb crème fraiche with charred spring onions and lemon oil, yellow pea hummus topped with smoked paprika crispy chickpeas and some roasted carrot and green harissa.

A great selection of salads included charred vegetables and capers with toasted freekeh and some lovely turmeric potatoes served with kale, cumin and chilli oil.

Three small plates featured a delicious leek and pepper frittata and some very more-ish spinach and cheese turnovers. With all this excellent vegetarian food the beef kofta with tahini yoghurt complemented the other dishes rather than being the traditional main element of the meal. Great stuff!

My favourite vegetarian cookbooks are:

  • The Greens Cook Book. Deborah Madison. Out of print but used copies from £9.66
  • River Cafe Cook Book Green. Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers. Out of print but used copies from £3.62
  • The Vegetarian Option. Simon Hopkinson. £9.43
  • Greenfeast. Nigel Slater. £16.99
  • Vegetarian. Alice Hart. £6.11
  • Ottolenghi Flavour. Yottam Ottolenghi/Ixta Belfrage. £15
  • Rebel Recipes (vegan) Niki Webster. £12.99

Parlour Cafe will reopen on April 26. Bookings and mezze bookings through their Facebook page The Parlour Cafe or 01382 20358


More in this series…

Murray Chalmers: Dining in style with West End boys and some ice-cool girls

A hidden gem near Falkland in Fife: Pillars of Hercules is not one to be missed

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