The meteoric rise of veganism isn’t exactly new news anymore. Between 2017 and 2018 participants in Veganuary (people pledging to go plant-based for the month of January) grew by 183%.
Since then, the animal-free movement has gone from strength to strength, with shops and restaurants rushing to offer more meat and dairy-free options than ever.
But there’s one time of year that has remained firmly meat-full in many of our minds: Christmas. Pigs in blankets, roast turkey, eggnog… the endless list of festive delicacies is far from being plant-based.
That’s why chef Gaz Oakley has created a special festive cookbook. "Christmas is quite a difficult time to be vegan," he explains. "Maybe you’re going to a house where people really don’t know what to cook for you and it gets awkward, or you’ve just gone vegan and used to really enjoy cooking a big dinner. It’s easy to get stuck for ideas and just go to the supermarket and get a nut roast, which isn’t very exciting."
What started as a few plant-based festive recipes soon grew into a long list of alternative dishes, and Oakley knew he had to put it all together into a book.
Replacing the classics
December 25 is steeped in tradition, and changing the things we’re used to seems almost unconscionable. With this in mind, surely a vegan Christmas is no Christmas at all?
People tend to fall into three broad categories: Grinches, those who quite like Christmas and those who absolutely adore the festive season. A few minutes into our conversation, it’s clear Oakley firmly falls into the final section, and could probably wax lyrical about Christmas for hours on end. This is why he’s tried his hardest to find a way to enjoy the festive season with all the trimmings, while still being plant-based.
The first thing he did when creating this book was coming up with his own versions of the classics. Take the centrepiece of any festive lunch: The turkey. "That was the first thing I really needed to master," Oakley sighs.
"I managed to come up with a recipe using wheat gluten, also known as seitan," he says. "It’s actually very popular in Asian cooking and has been picked up by the vegan scene, but I’ve never seen anyone make a stuffed vegan turkey before."
Because seitan doesn’t actually have much of a flavour (if anything, you want to mask its flavour), Oakley had to work even harder to make it Christmassy.
"I’ve tried to make sure that every flavour and element I’m adding to my recipes has a traditional taste – my dinner last year tasted more Christmassy than any non-vegan Christmas meal I’ve had in the past," he laughs. "I made sure it had all the traditional elements in it like cranberries, rosemary, sage and chestnuts."
It’s all about the side dishes
There’s no doubt the centrepiece is hugely important to Christmas dinner, but the sides are an essential supporting act.
Brussels sprouts, roast potatoes, cabbage – it’s all delicious, and Oakley argues these are key to making or breaking a good meal. His advice? If this is your first vegan Christmas and you don’t quite have the confidence to tackle seitan yet, focus on nailing the accompaniments.
"If you have rubbish potatoes you’re not going to enjoy the meal," Oakley says. "Or if your vegetables aren’t cooked right it could ruin everything." Sure, it might sound a bit hyperbolic, but this the biggest meal of the year we’re talking about – its importance can’t be over-exaggerated.
Even if you’re not vegan or even vegetarian, you can work towards making a few more of the dishes on your table cruelty-free.
Christmas is a time for peace
Oakley is coming up to his fourth Christmas as a vegan, and for him, it’s a particularly poignant time of year to be plant-based.
"I really do think Christmas should be a peaceful time," he reflects. "And hopefully people’s dinner tables start reflecting this by having no animals on them."
So many of us aren’t yet fully committed to a vegan diet but are increasingly eating more plant-based meals. Even if you aren’t ready to take the meat-free plunge this Christmas, you can still do your bit for both animal welfare and the environment by replacing the old classics with the same dishes – but cruelty-free.
Vegan Christmas by Gaz Oakley is published by Quadrille. Available now.