Pleasures of the fresh

With our regular food writer Sarah Beattie launching her latest book, Meat-free Any Day, Sara Niven Smith went to discover the influences and inspiration behind her creative cooking.

Pleasures of the fresh

Leafing through vegetarian cookery books for ideas, Sarah Beattie was left feeling far from inspired. A vegetarian from the age of 17, she didn't find any of the recipes particularly appealing and wondered how many other people felt the same.
'It all looked so brown and boring – not the way I ate or wanted to eat,' she explains. 'I was interested in making meals that were great to look at and pleasurable to sit down to; food you could associate with celebration, not abstinence.'
Sarah felt she could do a much better job. Now with seven cookery books to her name – her latest, Meat-free Any Day, is a collection of her recipes from Vegetarian Living – and a shortlisting for a prestigious Guild of Food Writers award, she has proved the point.

Finding a niche

Her passion and interest in food began at a young age and featured a diverse range of cultural influences. Her childhood was spent abroad in places including Burma, Nigeria, and Quebec in Canada, before she went on to attend grammar school in the UK.
After being discouraged from taking O level home economics ('It wasn't considered academic enough'), she dismissed studying food, as the only course on offer related to hotels and catering which didn't interest her.
Despite this, Sarah's enthusiasm for giving recipes a twist and forever inventing new ones remained strong, and she felt certain she could produce food that looked more beautiful than brown on the plate. To attract interest, she started entering food competitions and doing very well in them. She applied for everything from the BBC's MasterChef to The National Dairy Council Cheese Challenge where she scooped first prize.
Sarah's efforts paid off when a publishing deal and her first book, Neither Fish nor Fowl, came out in 1993. It was well received and she knew she'd found her niche, although admits her second one didn't get quite as much attention: 'My publisher released one by Linda McCartney at exactly the same time!'
Still, Sarah's new career as a food writer had been established. She made TV appearances, wrote for publications ranging from BBC Good Food to the Sunday Times, brought out more books and has been providing Vegetarian Living with recipes since the magazine's launch in 2010. Three years later that resulted in her being shortlisted for the prestigious Guild of Food Writers Cookery Journalist of the Year award.
'That was definitely a highlight in my career. What made it even more special was that I wasn't shortlisted for my work for Vegetarian Living specifically as a vegetarian food writer, but as a mainstream one.'

Changing views

Sarah believes in a carrot (albeit perhaps glazed and roasted) rather than a stick approach when it comes to converting meat-eaters. 'My approach to vegetarianism has never been aggressive. I feel you achieve more by tempting meat-eaters with fantastic food and showing them alternatives. I recently made a wild mushroom parfait for an event and a French chef who tried it thinking it was foie gras told me he preferred my version!'
She has seen attitudes towards vegetarians change over the years. She recalls taking part in a competition in the late 1980s where a famous chef was handing out prizes. 'He told a group of five of us, including three vegetarians, that in his restaurant non-meat-eaters had one option – to eat somewhere else. Now most chefs recognise the commercial need to cater for an ever-growing market.'
Her children (two grown-up daughters, a son and stepson) were raised on a meat-free diet and one of her four grandchildren is now vegetarian. Husband Michael, also a freelance writer, is not, but as Sarah does all the cooking he happily goes veggie at home!
In 2008 the couple moved from Yorkshire to a village in Gascony, a rural region in southwest France, for 'more space and light'. Sarah loves working on her garden and visiting the local markets for fresh produce, but she admits being veggie there can lead to raised eyebrows.
'The French find it difficult accepting that I'm a food writer and vegetarian. They also struggle with the fact I'm British but write about Thai, Indian, Portuguese food – you name it. They tend to focus on their own culinary heritage while diversity is something I embrace. I accept I'm not going to find many veggie dishes on menus out here and don't expect to overturn centuries of tradition. Anything I make goes down very well with the local community, however –
I just don't mention the "V" word! Good food speaks for itself.'

Inspiring journeys

Sarah's recipes have inspired Vegetarian Living readers, but where does she get her own ideas from?
'Everywhere – the market, a travel programme, a chance remark, even a scent, song lyric or dream,' she explains. 'I look at what the essence is of a dish and how to make that suitable for vegetarians without losing its integrity and history. I'm also mindful of trying to make dishes quicker and cheaper.'
Meat-free Any Day has sections covering everything from busy days, comfort food and holiday celebrations to winter picnics. All the recipes were made in her kitchen at home and she photographed the dishes herself. Sarah says it can be challenging sourcing unseasonal ingredients for recipes that will be seasonal by the time the magazine comes out and that sometimes extends to photographing them too. Her recipe for celeriac soup, for instance, involved recreating a winter picnic scene by a lake, complete with blankets and winter woollies. 'It was actually a very warm day in France and we got a lot of odd looks!' she laughs.

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