Go into any branch of the Belgian-style restaurant chain Belgo and one of the first sights to greet you will be that of a ruddy-faced man on the front of the menu, wearing a funny hat and with a string of sausages around his neck. Look inside and the menu is all about meat, fish and shellfish. Eight types of moules, nine kinds of meats, rotisserie chicken done four ways. Squint hard and you might spot a token offering to the vegetarian diner.
Over in Belgium itself, councillors in the city of Ghent are hoping to turn that idea of Belgian cuisine upside down. The municipality is about to go vegetarian one day a week. From now on, civil servants and elected councillors will be served vegetarian meals on Thursdays, and school children will give meat a miss from September.
The city says it is concerned about the global impact that eating meat has. Abstaining from meat one day a week is, according to Ghent councillor Tom Balthazar, "good for the climate, your health and your taste buds". Indeed, the UN says meat and dairy production account for 18 per cent of greenhouse gases – more than the world's entire transport system – and the amount of carbon saved by turning vegetarian for a year is, says the Vegan Society in Australia, equal to switching from a normal car to a hybrid for 12 months.
So the citizens of Ghent can sit back content in the knowledge they are doing the world a favour by having their "veggiedag", and doing their bodies a good turn, too, by ditching meat. But they should be careful not to only turn to the carnivore's preferred meat substitute – saturated fat-laden dairy. So many restaurants think that "meat-free" means "cheese-full". I sigh with boredom when I see deep-fried camembert, goat's cheese tart or some creamy pasta and parmesan dish yet again.
This won't be a problem in Ghent as long as the city continues to serve up inventive meals like the aubergine caviar and broad-bean falafel on offer at the launch party this week. It is clearly a city more open than many would be to turning vegetarian. A search of the Happy Cow listings website finds 11 vegetarian restaurants, with one, Konkommertijd, being described as "perfection" by one reviewer.
That reviewer was almost certainly a veggie. Making a meat-free option available on a menu is one thing; taking away the roast chicken and making vegetarianism compulsory is a very different matter. I can almost hear the lupine howls if they tried something similar in Britain. "What about the protein?" people would moan. "Where is the iron? I don't want to turn all weak and sickly." If only I had a soy bean for every time I heard those clichés.
When dinner guests are invited to my home, they are served only meat-free meals. I've not had a complaint yet, even from the men, but maybe that is because my diners are too polite to bemoan the lack of a complete protein. Or perhaps they can relax safe in the knowledge they can tuck into bacon and sausages in the comfort of their own homes in the morning.
I only hope that when the good burghers of Ghent chow down on their sweet potato wedges and spicy lentil bakes next Thursday they appreciate how they are benefiting the environment, their bodies and their palates even if they are dreaming of the juicy steak frites they are going to have for dinner on Friday.
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