Can we learn to love Quorn?

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It was invented to feed the poor, so should be just the thing in hard times. But what is it? Sanjida O'Connell joins its creators to see how fungal paste becomes 'chicken'

As I stand in the chilly factory, a train of large, blue bins is wheeled past piled high with a thick, mushroom-coloured paste. The paste is tipped into a giant steel hopper before spiralling away towards the ceiling in a silver helter-skelter. The noise is ear-splitting. This is the beginning of a process that will turn a type of fungus into chicken-like chunks, "ham" slices, fillets and mince.

I'm not one of those vegetarians who doesn't agree with meat substitutes. If you can chew it like steak, it doesn't taste like a lentil and no animals were harmed, what's not to like? Quorn is the king of cheap, chewy meat substitutes and when we're both time and cash poor could it become the new convenience food for the health conscious? Its orange packaging is distinctive, but how many of us know what Quorn is and, more importantly, what to do with it?

Quorn – normally bought as anaemic sausages, oyster-coloured chunks or whey-white mince – is not the most inspiring of ingredients. I ask two vegetarian restaurants, Café Maitreya in Bristol and Demuths, in Bath. Both are quite disparaging. Rob Booth, owner of Café Maitreya, says, "We don't use any fake meat products in our restaurant." He sends me an email, which boils down to three points – he wants to celebrate what you can do with vegetarian food, he doesn't want to use a manufactured food product and he thinks Quorn is more suitable for home cooking. As Café Maitreya's menu features such items as roast parsnip and cashew nut paupiette and mooli-wrapped quinoa served with cider broth, which require a dictionary as well as a degree in molecular gastronomy to recreate, I can see his point. Rachel Demuth, of Demuths, also doesn't agree with meat substitutes, but she was much more willing to give it a go. I try her stir-fry recipe – delicious when made with tofu, but the Quorn pieces are disgustingly soggy and the dish ends up in the compost bin.

Quorn does not seem to have a particularly good reputation – "it's some sort of mushroom" is the general consensus when I do a straw poll of friends. They're not far wrong. The fungus from which Quorn is produced was discovered some 40 years ago. In the Sixties, leading scientists were worried that, as our population boomed we would run out of food. Rank Hovis McDougall started looking for the 20th-century equivalent of turning water into wine: they to be able to turn waste carbohydrate from cereal manufacture into more nutritional protein. Scientists scoured the globe in search of a miracle, but the solution was right under their noses: in a garden barely four miles from the RHM Research Centre at Marlow, Buckinghamshire, a fungus called Fusarium venenatum was discovered. It turned out that you could brew this fungus like beer, feeding it on sugar. The resulting filamentous fungus is high in protein and low in fat and forms a soft, dough-like paste that smells faintly yeasty. It's called mycoprotein and is the basis for all Quorn products. It's these filaments that help give Quorn its texture.

Dr Tim Finnigan is head of innovation at Marlow Foods, originally set up by RHM with ICI in the Eighties to make Quorn – once the product had been given the green light for human consumption. He shows me round the company's North Yorkshire factory. "People think Quorn is about mince and chicken-style pieces, but there's a whole world of Quorn out there."

There are more than 150 products worldwide and the company, now owned by Premier Foods, has an annual turnover of £200m. That's a lot of Quorn, so it should come as no surprise how mechanised the factory is. Approximately 26 tons of mycoprotein arrive every day from the brewery division. This pale white paste is mixed in a giant chrome-coloured machine that spans a room the size of a gymnasium and looks as if it was designed by Willy Wonka's older brother. At this point, other ingredients are added: egg white, dried onions, herbs, spices, flavourings and proteins from wheat or whey. One of the reasons many vegetarians were dubious about Quorn is because the eggs were not free range. They are now – Marlow Foods has its own hens – and, according to Finnigan, if the company could find a way to make Quorn without egg, it would. A machine moulds the mixture – into fillets for instance, or it's extruded in giant sausages. It's then steam-cooked and frozen.

Freezing is the key to Quorn: Finnigan shows me a microscopic cross section of mycoprotein. Freezing creates pockets where the ice crystals were, which are held together by the egg protein. "These are compression fractures and they give the mycoprotein its fibrosity," says Finnigan. "For a lot of people, the fact that it has a texture like meat is important." There is a faint smell of chicken, which comes from the flavourings. These are chemicals such as inosinate and guanylate – the main components of umami (our fifth taste). In Quorn, they create a vegetarian version of chicken flavour.

The hi-tech pounding, spinning machines and the resulting pale paté are a world away from happy chickens and carrots in fields – and yet this is how most of our processed food is created these days and, as such a food, Quorn is remarkably free of added "stuff".

The Quorn pieces and mince are what Finnigan refers to as their "heroes". They contain almost 90 per cent mycoprotein, which is showing many health benefits. It's low in saturated fat (less than a gram per 100g), high in protein (around 11g per 100g), high in fibre and low in carbohydrates (3g per 100g). In a paper just published by the British Nutrition Foundation, mycoprotein is shown to help lower the bad kind of cholesterol and there is tantalising evidence to suggest it can help you feel full for longer than meat does. "It's only a small number of studies and only a small number of subjects so we need more research," says lead author of the paper, Anna Denby. "Mycoprotein has a lot of health benefits, specifically for vegetarians. It's a good source of selenium but it's low in iron, zinc and B vitamins so it's important to eat a variety of protein sources such as pulses, nuts, dairy and tofu."

Marlow Foods is funding a study that will look into the long-term effects of a diet high in Quorn. Professor Gary Frost of Imperial College London, says, "We're about to start research on whether mycoprotein has a role in appetite regulation – if it makes you feel full and therefore reduces the amount you eat. This is the golden chalice of nutrition," he says excitedly. "Quorn is an attractive candidate because of its low fat content, so if it does have a role that would be fantastic." Given that British women are now the fattest in Europe and men are only slimmer than the Maltese we need that solution pretty sharpish.

Since Quorn took 20 years from soil sample to supermarket shelf and has been gracing those shelves for another two decades, the people at Quorn have had plenty of time to work out what to do with the stuff. I'm fed a range of foods that take minutes to prepare and could be dished out at parties or popped into kids' lunchboxes – from Picnic Eggs (meatless Scotch eggs) to Golden Poppin Bites (balls of mycoprotein with a buttery oat coating), "ham" slices, Satay Skewers, Southern Style Burgers and sausage rolls. I can imagine the escalopes with sunblush tomatoes and mozzarella being panic bought for vegetarian visitors or toad-in-the-hole for a carnivore reluctantly forced to break bread with the meat-free. The "chicken" and mushroom pie, dense with wine and cream, is delicious but, as Denby says, "The key thing is the way in which mycoprotein is presented and what the other ingredients are. If it's wrapped in pastry with lots of saturated fat, that changes its health profile."

I explain to the chefs at Quorn about my stir-fry. Apparently, mycoprotein doesn't need to be cooked for long and shouldn't be soaked in liquid marinades. A curry takes minutes: Quorn pieces are marinated in a curry paste overnight and then fried with onions and wilted spinach. A Thai salad is similarly quick – the Quorn is marinated with Thai green curry paste, then sautéed and served with mango, bean sprouts, salad leaves and a lime dressing. It's fresh, tasty, filling and healthy. As Finnigan says, "It's ironic that a product which was created to address diseases of poverty can now address a disease of affluence." Quorn may help us to tighten our belts, but whether we will use it to beat the credit crunch is another matter. Demuth says, "It would be far cheaper to eat vegetables than a meat substitute. One could make a delicious root vegetable and lentil stew topped with a pumpkin seed and oat crumble and still have some money left to grate on some cheddar."

Chestnut mushroom and Quorn carbonnade

Serves: 4

2 medium onions, sliced
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
250g chestnut mushrooms, quartered
350g Quorn chunks
1 teaspoon vegetable bouillon powder
1 teaspoon Marmite
1 tablespoon shoyu
250ml boiling water
330ml organic ale
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon brown sugar
1 teaspoon cornflour
salt and freshly ground black pepper
slices of brown bread
French mustard

Heat the oven to 190C/Gas5. Heat the olive oil in a large ovenproof casserole dish. Add the sliced onions and fry until golden and beginning to caramelise. Add the garlic and fry for a further minute. Add the mushrooms, turn up the heat and stir-fry until the mushrooms are beginning to brown. Add the Quorn and stir-fry quickly. Make the stock with the bouillon, Marmite, shoyu and boiling water. Over a low heat stir the stock into the casserole, then add the beer, bay leaves and sugar and bring to the boil, stirring. Lower the heat and simmer for about 30 minutes until the carbonnade is a lovely rich brown. Remove the bay leaves. Mix the cornflour with a tablespoon of water and mix into a smooth paste. Stir the cornflour into the stew and simmer until the stew thickens. Season to taste.

Slice enough bread to cover the top of the casserole. Spread the bread generously with French mustard. Place the bread, mustard side up, to cover the carbonnade and push the bread down on to the gravy. It's essential there is enough liquid for you to be able to dunk the bread. If not, add a little more boiling water to the stew before adding the bread. Cook for 30 minutes in the oven or until the bread is crisp and golden.

Adapted from 'Green World Cookbook' by Rachel Demuth;

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