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A Vegetarian Butcher? This Dutch Shop Leads The Way

At The Vegetarian Butcher in Netherland’s The Hague, the only thing they sacrifice is your prejudice. It’s a snappy marketing slogan and deliberately provocative in its contradiction, but it lays it on the line: As the downside of meat-eating is increasingly understood, this is an alternative for the concerned carnivore who still wants the sizzle without the self-reproach or sacrifice.

The guys at The Vegetarian Butcher, the first of its kind in the world, have taken fake meat to a new level. Their success is measured in part by an expanding international market, a large new factory to manufacture their innovative plant-based products and a wave of successors in Canada, Australia and, most recently, Minneapolis.

Imitation may indeed be the sincerest form of flattery in the field of imitation meat, but it would be hard to beat The Vegetarian Butcher’s meat-alike products. As research and development chef Paul Bom emphatically says, “We are producing food that tastes really good. Even Ferran Adria was convinced he was dealing with high-class chicken thighs. We are not a vegetarian butcher, we are The Vegetarian Butcher.”

A fresh take on a butcher shop

The exterior of The Vegetarian Butcher's shop. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

The exterior of The Vegetarian Butcher’s shop. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

At their flagship “concept” store, designed to reference a traditional Dutch butcher’s shop with blue and white tiles and marble tops, art nouveau logo and classic delivery bike propped outside, do not expect to see rows of pink lamb chops or hefty ribs of beef. The art of replicating meat does not stretch to include bones and joints: instead products, both raw and ready-made dishes, are neatly packaged in chilled containers. The range, from chicken shawarma to smoked bacon strips, minced “meat” to fish-free prawns, is largely based on lupini (or lupin), a legume that grows well in the Netherlands. Other components in their unique formula include soya (free of genetically modified organisms) and other pulses, grains and vegetables. Most products are organic, some vegan; others may contain egg whites.

The firm was started in 2010 by Jaap Korteweg, a ninth-generation farmer, in the wake of various food disasters such as swine fever and mad cow disease. Last year, he won the title of Best Dutch Entrepreneur, and he and his staff have also gained awards in the national “golden meatball” competition and for their vegetarian smoked eel salad.

Reasons to not eat meat are well documented: health, environmental damage, animal welfare, agricultural sustainability and the like. What is refreshing, however, is the acceptance by The Vegetarian Butcher that you can have your steak and eat it too.

Many of their customers are not hard-core vegetarians or vegans. They simply want to cut down on their meat intake and satisfy a craving without actually eating animals. As Bom says, their aim is to “infiltrate” the normal world. “We want to take vegetarian food out of the green corner and make it gourmet and sexy.” They also, I might add, make it fun.

After initial resistance, Dutch butchers now sell their products alongside “real” meat to encourage people to eat better quality, albeit less often. It also solves the common problem of feeding the one vegetarian at the dinner table — especially when it’s hard to differentiate. In fact, it is not the genuine independent butcher who has to worry but the large industrial food producers responsible for the reconstituted rubbish that goes into many mass-produced meat products.

Should veggies, however, be perpetuating a meat-eating practice? There are those who believe faux meat encourages the acceptance of the unacceptable, or who prefer to simply replace meat with grains and greens.  “Yes, some vegetarians have a problem,” Bom acknowledged, “but in our experience it’s a very small percentage. We’re only giving them another eating option, a way of eating more protein in their diet.”

All the feel of meat, without the meat

Paul Bom, the research and development chef at The Vegetarian Butcher. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

Paul Bom, the research and development chef at The Vegetarian Butcher. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman

Meat analogues are not new, but previous products have largely tasted awful or simply functioned as a vehicle to carry other flavors. As for tofu and tempeh, they were never meant to fill in for meat, Bom said. At The Vegetarian Butcher, the mind-set is altogether different.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating, of course. And when put to the taste test, I was truly amazed. I cannot swear I would never be able to mistake it for heritage breed, slow-reared chicken and meat, but it was certainly was a more than acceptable everyday substitute.

Starting with The Vegetarian Butcher’s new line in development, teriyaki beef strips made — astonishingly — with carrots, potatoes and yellow peas, I was immediately won over by the succulence and satisfying chew. The MC2 Burger was juicy and savory and the sausages disconcertingly good. The Fish Free Tuna was a piquant spread, although more crab-like to my mind. The realistic, fibrous and juicy Vegan Chicken Chunks — they even have a touch of bronzing — are the flagship product, best used in salads, pita bread, stir-fries and curries.

The Vegetarian Butcher has modest ambitions — to be the biggest butcher in the world. It’s typically tongue in cheek. Veggie tongue in veggie cheek, of course. And, judging by the brand’s success to date, it’s going to be a plant-based future.

Main photo: The Vegetarian Butcher’s MC2 Burger. Credit: Copyright 2016 Clarissa Hyman



Zester Daily contributor Clarissa Hyman is an award-winning food and travel writer. She is twice winner of the prestigious Glenfiddich award among others. A former television producer, she now contributes to a wide range of publications and has written four books: "Cucina Siciliana," "The Jewish Kitchen," "The Spanish Kitchen" and "Oranges: A Global History." She is based in Manchester, England, and is the vice president of the UK Guild of Food Writers.

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