How a Pie Competition Cemented Veganism into the Mainstream

Here at Hangar Seven, we think about food a lot. Often, this is in relation to an on-going project with one of our clients, and at other times it’s because we’re greedy. Last week, news of a vegan pie entry winning the annual British Pie Awards got us thinking about the current state of British food culture, in particular where veganism sits within it, and how this accolade marks a consolidation of the changing perceptions of plant-based alternative products.

The story of the uptake in veganism currently sweeping the UK cannot be described as one of quiet and steady growth over the course of many years. Instead, it has explosively kicked the door in on our established eating habits in a remarkably short space of time, with 42% of UK vegans having made the change in 2018[1], and uptake in sign-ups for Veganuary rocketing up from 3,300 in 2014 to 250,000 in 2019[2].  

 It’s one thing to see an increase in the number of vegan options and concepts across the high street, but to many in the UK the savoury pie is sacrosanct, traditionally reserved for a meaty filling. Consequently, no one expected the outcome of the British Pie Awards held last week in Melton Mowbray (the spiritual home of the beloved pork pie), in which a vegan curried sweet potato, butternut squash and spinach pie made by Mr Thorner, a butcher’s based in Somerset faced off against 886 other entries to be crowned ‘Supreme Champion’ of the competition.

This stunning upset has of course not been met without considerable displeasure in some circles of the culinary world. Richard Corrigan, a Michelin-starred chef patron of both Bentley’s Oyster Bar & Grill and Corrigan’s Mayfair in London reportedly remarked that “the oldest culinary art form left in the world and the vegans have taken it away […] it’s a disgrace”[3], however Matthew O’Callaghan, chairman of the competition asserted that the winner “isn’t just for vegans, it’s a pie for everybody.”

Amidst a combination of animal welfare, environmental and health concerns around meat consumption, the statistics paint a bleak picture for the future of the meat industry; Joseph Poore, a researcher at Oxford University who led the most comprehensive study to date on the impact of farming to the planet, declared in May 2018 that “A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth – not just greenhouse gases but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use. It is far bigger than cutting down on your flights or buying an electric car.”[4]

Yet, for so many people, taste remains the final frontier that repels them from transitioning to a plant-based diet. I remember the insipid tofu green curry cooked by a well-meaning housemate back in university – needless to say it’s not a positive memory, and to this day those structurally compromised tofu chunks still occasionally haunt my dreams. In response to the historically negative association between vegan foods and flavour, rafts of innovative brands such as Impossible™ have brought an ever-increasing array of genuinely great-tasting products to market that are eroding the perception that having to compromise is a core tenet of choosing a vegan lifestyle. As a case in point, Tesco’s sub-brand Wicked Kitchen launched in 2018 under the stewardship of Derek Sarno with the goal of creating a ‘delicious, easily accessible, [and] affordable’[5] vegan offering for the masses, and has gone on to more than double sales projections in the first 20-week period ending in May 2018, selling 2.5 million units in the process. Greggs has also experienced dizzying success with their vegan sausage roll, launching tentatively at the beginning of January this year to an ‘overwhelming response’[6], resulting in reportedly the most successful product launch in Gregg’s history, meaty or otherwise.

Whilst it might not be to everyone’s liking, the result of the British Pie Awards cements the fact that, with ever-increasing quality and a wider range of options than ever before for the consumer, veganism is now part of the mainstream culinary landscape in the UK. I even hear that my old housemate has since nailed her green curry recipe.

By Lewis Coombs