The joy of meat-free burgers

No longer a grim, joyless staple of the freezer cabinet, meat-free burgers are finally proving a delicious option for omnivores, as Alice-Azania Jarvis finds out

Processed, dehydrated, deepfrozen and joyless: the veggie burger has done little to ingratiate itself to foodies over the years. The favoured snack of the hemp-wearing and the pious, it has proven less a replacement for the beefy equivalent and more a symbol of all that carnivores deplore in their plant-eating companions. No sooner had it appeared on menus in the 1970s than it was being deployed a quasi insult: to be described as “veggie-burger-munching” was not, suffice to say, terribly flattering.

And so it was that, for vegetarians, barbecues meant choosing between a flaccid imitator or something altogether different (and, undoubtedly, more appetising): a wedge of grilled halloumi, a kebab of summer vegetables. Burger fans had to like it or lump it. Things got worse with the rise of the “posh burger” in the early Noughties. As luscious patties were served up everywhere from the Wolesley to the newly-launched Gourmet Burger Kitchen, the best vegetarians got was a bun stuffed with a few mushrooms. Even in shops, the options were limited: Linda McCartney – the patron saint of meat-alternatives – was your best bet, with her mildly flavoursome soy-based offering. And from 2002, Quorn burgers began putting in appearances: plausible, though somewhat eerie, with their mycoprotein fillings.

And then, small signs of change. The Portobello mushroom ceased to be the only option on restaurant menus. Sweet potato, carrot, black bean and chickpeas appeared in the mix. On the high street, things started looking up: by 2006, Waitrose was offering a “tikka grill,” while Sainsbury’s had introduced a sweet potato and goats’ cheese offering. Quietly; slowly, the veggie burger was getting a new look.

These days, vegetarians have almost as much choice as meat eaters. At Hache – London’s self-styled “burger connoisseurs” – they can choose between four, ranging from falafal to sweetcorn. At Grand Union, “garden burgers” come filled with goat’s cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, grilled vegetables and humus. And at Gourmet Burger Kitchen there’s a veritable glut of offerings: falafel, lentil, aubergine and more.

The veggie burger has stepped up from its place as second-fiddle. It has become an alternative, chosen not just out of necessity, but out of preference – by vegetarians and meat-eaters alike.

“The fact is, cutting down on meat is no longer seen as a compromise, as there are some great veggie choices out there,” explains Darren Lightburn, vegetable buyer at Marks and Spencer. “We know that 23 per cent of the UK are actively looking to reduce the amount of meat they eat.” Unsurprisingly, M&S has been quick to respond: in May it will launch a new range of haute veggie options, including a particularly toothsomesounding Thai Style Edamame Bean Burger, combining edamame soya beans with chickpeas, lemongrass and chilli.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the trend is even more advanced. In New York, restaurants offer veggie burgers made with everything from prunes, rice and beetroot to corn, cauliflower and garlic. The New York Times recently hailed the “self-actualisation” of the veggie patty and next month sees the publication of The Best Veggie Burgers on the Planet, by food writer Joni Marie Newman. Of course, new and improved as the veggie burger may be, it still rather begs the question of why. Why, when there are so many other vegetarian options, ape a dish which is essentially a celebration of meat, in all its juicy, carnivorous beauty?

It’s an argument only too familiar to Philip Taylor, chef and co-owner of Brighton’s haute-vegetarian restaurant Terre a Terre. Taylor was an early proponent of the revamped veggie burger, several years ago putting a patty made of ground halloumi on the menu. These days, though, he tends to steer clear: “The idea of creating meat substitutestyle items really doesn’t feature highly on our agenda. Ingredients such as quinoa, wild rice, buckwheat and barley all offer great taste and texture, it seems a pity to diminish these just to create a popular culture item.” Instead, the restaurant prefers to serve more authentic, if not dissimilar, items: “We’re partial to a socca, a corn cake or a latke, which are all dishes in their own right. They make reference to a variety of world cultures but stay true to vegetarianism.”

Still, for every non-meat-eater who’d rather avoid the burger, there’s another one pining for a bite. At the Waterloo Bar & Grill, head chef Cane Marc sees plenty of vegetarians looking to replicate the burger experience. As a result, his black bean & courgette burger does its best to replicate the experience of the real thing: “We combine the cooked black beans with coriander, paprika, garlic and chilli jam to make a patty. The chilli jam really gives it a smoky flavour, as if it’s been griddled. It absolutely walks out the door. Our customers love it.”

Crucially, though, they also see plenty of meat-eaters opting for burger, choosing it instead of the beef, chicken and wild boar options: “Not everyone wants to eat meat all the time. This is served with pesto and avocado. It’s healthy and it’s appetising in its own right.”

And, if anything sums up the new veggie burger, it’s that.