It’s now just over a week since we started the thirty day vegan travel challenge presented to us by Veganuary and so far we’ve had a great time experimenting with Italian cuisine at Franca’s home, and also begun to see just how easy it is to find vegan food on the road now we’re in Belgium.
The first few days we’re actually quite uneventful and didn’t require us to change much from our vegetarian diet as all we really needed to do was remove cheese and eggs, but the people who did need to change were Franca’s parents.
Veganism In Italy
We always thought that our choice of going vegan either full-time or as part of the Veganuary challenge was going to take its toll on Franca’s family as – apart from great Italian vegan restaurants like So What?! in Rome – veganism is very much in its infancy in a country where not many meals go by without cheese or eggs being part of either the condiments or the recipe itself; but in fact, they took it much better than we both expected, only rolling their eyes on the odd occasion, but on the whole were more than happy to adjust our daily lunch routine of pouring cheese on most dishes.
In fairness to Franca’s mother (who prepares each and every meal), her cooking doesn’t just console itself to egg or cheese based dishes, she does in fact have several vegetable, bean and legumes dishes that are incredibly tasty, and filling too. Some of our favourites most certainly include an overflowing bowl of chickpeas and pasta with a vegetable broth, a bowl of spinach risotto (with freshly picked spinach from Franca’s garden) that I couldn’t help but have two large helpings of, baked courgettes stuffed with rice and bread crumbs, several slices of focaccia during a larger family dinner, plates of friselle (which are very similar to bruschetta), and of course lots of plates of pasta.
Goodbye Typical Italian Breakfast
It doesn’t take much imagination to picture an Italian breakfast; of course there is the bare minimum of a cup of espresso to start the day, but it’s almost always accompanied with a fresh pastry or a couple of sugary sweet biscuits. Cereals aren’t really the done thing in Italy so we didn’t like to break with tradition and often would welcome the day by snacking on some Pan di Stelle (similar to a chocolate bourbon biscuit) or some simple homemade biscuits – though we would occasionally break the routine with a bowl of cornflakes and soya milk that we picked up not long after we arrived.
Once the vegan challenge started and the biscuits began to be skipped we started to eat our cornflakes each morning, tried some of Franca’s sisters homemade jam, as well as increasing the amount of fruit we’d eat in the morning. Luckily for us fruit can be pretty cheap in Italy as so much is grown locally rather than imported, and on top of that Franca’s father has his own garden and larger fields out in the countryside where he grows all sorts of delicious fruits.
As fruit is eaten after every lunch and evening meal we certainly weren’t missing any of our five-a-day, but just for the sake of a change and a challenge we decided to take some of the delicious watermelon we were stuffing our faces with (you can get a whole watermelon for around 1 Euro at the market – crazy!) and proceeded to make a watermelon smoothie with prunes, half a peach, and spinach.
Googling what foods we had we came out with the recipe. We threw all of those bright coloured fruits and blended them together. It came out brown … but drinkable.
During one of the final meals in which the entire family came to share food together there did finally come a time in which the reasoning for our abstention from certain foods at the table became the topic of conversation. Not something we were looking forward to due to the lack of general knowledge of veganism in Italy (something we’d like to see Veganuary help change), but a subject we were happy to help explain so that no one was left wondering or left in the dark about.
It was by no means an easy conversation what with Franca doing most of the talking for the both of us due to my limited Italian, but she did manage to get her message across about her feelings on the healthy reasons for following a vegan diet, whilst also doing her best to inform where she could on the typical conditions and treatment of animals in the food industry.
Interesting enough there was a lot of agreement that conditions are certainly not how they should be and that organic and bio is certainly the right way to go for everything in our diets, but there was a slight feeling that perhaps veganism is going a little too far.
It was really interesting to talk with everyone, to hear their opinions and to also share ours, being sure not to preach, but rather to inform and let people make their own decisions.
Hitting The Vegan Road
When Friday came round we said our early morning goodbyes and set off for our flight (with vegan snacks ready for the flight) to our current location of Brussels and the next week or so spent in Belgium trying to see how we take on the travelling side to this vegan challenge now that we’re out of the Italian kitchen.
Though our time here has only been short we’re already come up against challenges that we’ve both successfully won and disastrously lost, most notable the challenge to find a pair of vegan shoes for the both of us as we’re both pretty much walking on the road right now in our only pair. One sad, but acceptable part of our vegan shoes dilemma is that Franca isn’t able to pick up her favourite Converse shoes. We even managed to speak with a local vegan in town, but she said either we’d have to order online or get them from Ghent.
Our first failure came with not eating enough our first day. It was already a struggle having woken at 3am to take the flight and spent the middle of the day waiting to check in, once we finally got into the centre of Brussels itself we just wanted to see what we could before it got dark and proceeded to walk, and walk, and walk without grabbing anything substantial along the way.
We were carrying with us some nuts and other snacks from Italy for the flight and opening couple of travel days (thanks to the great vegan travel tips from our post last week), but they weren’t quite doing enough to stop us getting a little tetchy with each other; but the failure didn’t come until we stopped at a small and completely empty kebab shop near the hotel we’re staying at. What followed was another lesson we’ve learned before but forgotten – never stop in empty shops.
Ordering our beloved falafel wrap we spoke with the man inside making sure to enquire about the sauces he used, that we’re allergic to eggs and dairy (another great tip from the list!) and that was that. Turns out the hummus in this particular vendor comes pre mixed with yogurt and whatever else, and of course we don’t notice until he’s spreading it onto the wrap. He’s having to throw it away, we know that we’re probably not his favourite customers of the day.
After being offered one sauce after the next that all contained mayonnaise, we finally settle for ketchup and we’re good to go. Thankfully falafel is one of our personal on-the-go favourites so we happily devoured the entire thing, though we missed our beloved hummus a little.
The following day and we had a free buffet breakfast from our hotel. Unfortunately for us it’s a typical continental collection of cheeses, hams and cheeses. Oh, and hams. But, though we couldn’t use any of the jams or spreads for toast, we did manage to make some salad sandwiches with the vegetables available, we also were thankful to have a generous bowl of cereal each with some soy milk that we bought ourselves from a Carrefour supermarket around the corner, plus we ate every single different item of fruit available.
Something For Later
Pairing up some fruit that we got hold of with the nuts, taralli and crackers we brought with us from Italy, along with a jar of peanut butter that someone left in the ‘I’m leaving today, help yourself‘ cupboard of the guest kitchen; we were starting to feel slightly more prepared for staying vegan whilst travelling.
Out wandering through the old city streets of Brussels we stopped in almost every asian and middle eastern grocery shop we could find. They’re more-often-than-not some of the best places to get veggie food, so why not some vegan choices too? We were really looking for some tahini as we’ve been told that it’s great to carry round with you, whilst also keeping our eye out for some new goodies, but we didn’t get quite so lucky with that. However, where we did strike the jackpot was at a Chinese supermarket no less than a ten minute walk from our hotel, and where we’d find even more goodies.
We love Chinese shops, not just because they’re super cheap and great for budget backpacking, but because they have so much choice that fits perfectly into both the vegetarian and vegan diet.
In here we grabbed some vegetable instant noodles which – as we learnt in Asia – are great for just throwing into your backpack or daypack as they take up no space, weigh nothing, and can be eaten straight out of the packet dry like crisps once you mash them up a bit. Also, they’ll last forever.
Not only are they great shops for vegans, but they’re also great for anyone looking to buy tofu.
Go into any healthy food shop or supermarket and you’re probably paying somewhere from 3-5 pounds for a 250g block or silken or firm tofu, but go to a Chinese or Thai supermarket and pay (at times) a third of the price, and for double the size!
Vegan Food In Belgium
In truth, it’s probably too early to say that Belgium is without its vegan options, but the on the surface evidence says that there may be some tricky times ahead (apart from Ghent which is a veggie paradise!). Brussels most certainly isn’t super vegan friendly and we’ve noted that whilst there are some restaurants that are veg-friendly, there aren’t many great restaurants for vegans to go in the capital.
You can find some vegan products in some bakeries and eateries such as Exki, but they’re so out of our price range that we’ve not been able to buy anything from there or any other biomarket or health food shop at all, and one such occasion we found a delicous looking Vegan Society marked and approved chocolate bar only to notice that it was more than €3 and barely the length of my index finger. It was totally over our budget, but it sounded delicious.
It’s safe to say that Brussels isn’t the best for vegan options, especially for those on a budget, but if you know where to go you’ll manage easily enough.
Our jackpot find (other than the Asian and middle eastern shops) came from a flashback memory to our time in Germany, when we would often find veggie options in branches of both the Aldi and Lidl supermarkets; knowing that we spoke with someone at the hotel with a Lidl carrier bag, got the location, and went hunting for vegan goodies.
Whilst it wasn’t the best store we’ve ever been to, this one branch of Lidl had just enough for us to find that we’d not have to worry during our remaining days in Brussels about what we’d be eating. They had a few vegetarian ready meals – mostly veggie burgers and falafel – and one soy chocolate pudding choice; but it was the hummus and couscous tabbouleh that caught our eye.
Paired with our early food treasures we managed to have enough food to cover us for our remaining days in Brussels (all for €5.13!) with a few noodles left to store. Thankfully next we’ll be heading to Ghent which we’ve been happily informed has more vegetarian eateries per capita than either London, Paris or Berlin. An interesting fact, and one we’re eager to prove right or wrong.
How Do We Feel?
Right now we’re both just really happy to be back on the road after a couple of weeks at Franca’s place. As for the vegan travel challenge; well we feel that it’s probably too early into our being on the road again to really make an accurate assessment of if we’re pro or con, or finding it hard or relatively easy to maintain a vegan diet on the road, but we are having a lot of fun doing so. We’re loving the challenge and it’s given us a whole new way of looking at the places we visit, the types of places we stay and the local food we choose to eat, or skip.
We’ll post another update next week on our progress and how travelling as vegans in Belgium treats us, but in the mean time you can see what kinds of foods we’re eating via our Instagram page, or you can catch the occasional meal or message on Facebook.
Have you signed up for Veganuary yet?