''WHY the bloody hell would you want to give up meat?'' asked a group of mates at a barbecue this summer. Long-time meat-lovers, together we had butchered lambs, made hams and pumped out hundreds of metres of backyard sausages. Now I was leaving them to join a foreign tribe with a foreign diet. I was to immerse myself in the world of vegetarianism, to explore what it was like to be part of this growing global food movement.
Propelled by concerns about animal welfare and a heightened awareness of the environmental impact of farming, more people are choosing to eat less meat - or like me, forgo meat, fish and seafood altogether. Ten per cent of Italians are vegetarian, while the figure is about 5 per cent in the US and about the same in Britain. In India, 40 per cent of the population have an all-vegetable diet, while for China a figure is unavailable - but there is a push there, too, for people to consider at least one meat-free day a week. In Australia, Bureau of Statistics figures show that about 5 per cent of the population follows a vegetarian diet. But a 2010 Newspoll survey showed that seven out of 10 Australians were choosing more plant-based meals, up from four out of 10 in 2004.
What's been my experience? I've entered a wonderful world of new dishes, new skills and new flavours. But I won't deny it started badly. The smell of baking pastry wafted from the bakery in the central Victorian town where I was working during my first week of abstinence. Lured inside, I quizzed the baker on what he had to satisfy a hungry vegetarian. ''Pasties,'' was the answer. I bought one, sat on a bench and bit into it. Beef! Gristly beef. I returned to question the baker, assuming there had been a mistake. ''Well, it's got vegetables in it,'' came the sneering reply. It wasn't just ignorant or rude. It was contemptuous. I looked around for meat-free options. Every pie was made with meat. The sandwiches had ham, corned beef and chicken filling. The egg filling in the egg- and lettuce sandwiches was made with egg, lettuce, mayo and bacon. Even the bread rolls had bacon on them. This place was a temple to baked flesh. My best - and only - option was a scone. Lesson one in the ignorance I quickly discovered vegetarians sometimes still face.
When it came to preparing meals at home, I was forced to quickly reflect upon the omnipresence of meat in Australian culture. It's the centrepiece of the family dinner and the protein upon which almost every restaurant bases its menu. Industry body Meat & Livestock Australia says each Australian eats on average 110 kilograms of lamb, pork, beef and chicken a year. Department of Health guidelines recommend we eat no more than 150 grams of red meat, poultry, eggs, fish or legumes a day. But our 110 kilograms a year equates to almost double that.
Last September, British writer, TV presenter and long-time meat champion (he wrote The River Cottage Meat Book, one of the definitive books on meat, in 2004) Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall released his River Cottage Veg Every Day! cookbook, promising, or at least purporting to try, to change readers' lives. His objective in presenting 412 pages of ''quite strictly vegetarian recipes'' was to get Britons, who lead Australia in food trends by several years, to eat many more vegetables and ''a lot less meat''. Vegetables, he writes in the book, are the food that do us the most good and our planet the least harm.
So it was armed with his book, along with Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, Alice Hart's Vegetarian, a 1977 copy of The Moosewood Cookbook and Yotam Ottolenghi's The Cookbook, that I set about reimagining our family mealtimes.
My family - wife, two kids - has generally always enjoyed a meat, poultry or fish dish surrounded by multiple plates of salads and vegetables. But after removing the meat (except for the meals for our young children), the pressure was on to make our vegetable dishes more nutritionally complete using nuts, seeds, pulses and whole grains.
Cutting out meat also removed one of the basic elements that make eating so enjoyable - the delicious savoury-inducing compounds glutamate and inosinate. These are found in large quantities in red meat, cured meat, shellfish, pork and poultry, and are responsible for that mouth-watering umami experience that makes foods such as steak and salamis so bloody delicious.
One of the tricks I have learnt from chef mates Frank Camorra and Matt Wilkinson is to use lots of well-cooked onions and shallots - perhaps to fold through a salad of sweet potato with roasted pumpkin seeds.
Tomatoes are high in glutamate and mushrooms high in guanylate so, as the season has begun to change, we have embraced wonderful ragu of field and pine mushrooms, thickened with tomato sugo and served over truffled polenta. We're also loving whole grains such as farro, freekeh, brown rice and barley - ingredients that weren't strangers in my kitchen but for which I now declare a renewed appreciation.
Their slight umami nuttiness can be enhanced by cooking them, draining them and pouring over a dressing enhanced with a little glutamate-rich soy or miso while the grains are still warm. Aged cheeses are also one of the richest sources of glutamate, so we've used these to add salt, acid and that umami hit. (The only snag, of course, is that, by definition, Italian parmesan cheese is made with rennet from the stomachs of slaughtered calves.)
We've also had fun with a retro curried egg salad that I put together while experimenting one day. Based on the classic curried egg sandwich, it consists of cos lettuce leaves with crumbled egg dressed with Japanese mayonnaise, seasoned with Malaysian curry paste and finished off with soft fried croutons. Another new favourite is a nicoise salad with potato, beans, black olives, egg and a handful of warm flageolet beans.
My best - and only - option was a scone.
It's all very well to change home-cooking habits but what about dining out? Ingredient-aware vegetarians will know that animal products such as rennet in cheese and gelatin in desserts can present a challenge in some restaurants. Melbourne, however, is served with more than 50 dedicated vegetarian restaurants, three times the number that existed when Mark Doneddu, president of meat-free diet education group Vegetarian Victoria, gave up meat 16 years ago.
Doneddu goes out of his way to eat at these restaurants for a few reasons. ''In a vegetarian restaurant they simply do not use any animal-derived product,'' he says. ''Also you don't have to explain what you eat and don't eat.'' He says that trained vegetarian chefs understand how to make food that is nutritionally balanced, such as soaking almonds in water before cooking to neutralise the anti-enzyme agents that would otherwise block nutrient absorption.
Doneddu acknowledges there are sometimes negative attitudes towards vegetarians. ''When dining with non-vegetarian friends I still insist on eating at a vegetarian restaurant,'' he says, ''because there you're no longer in a minority. You're part of a like-minded group.''
I took his advice - but I couldn't agree. Having eaten at many dedicated vegetarian restaurants in the three months of my conversion, I'm happy to never fully join that particular group. There was an aesthetic of ethical superiority and heart-on-sleeve spiritual awareness in many such places that didn't resonate with me.
For a quick family feed we found it was easy to get good meat-free food in entry-level ''ethnic'' restaurants from countries where meat is seen as a luxury. Any Middle Eastern and Mediterranean worth its salt will serve nutritious and delicious plates such as Lebanese falafel.
At the higher end, three-hatted French chef Jacques Reymond shows how vegetarian food can be elevated to the highest form of the culinary arts. He says diners ''give up nothing'' when they choose vegetarian. His $140 10-course vegetarian degustation is a revelatory tour de force, a series of dishes that build on each other, culminating in a potato and aged comte terrine, seared in a pan and served with a tempura enoki mushroom, sage and parsley puree and granules of wasabi. It costs $50 less than the regular menu and, according to Reymond, is growing in popularity. ''People are concerned about their health,'' he says, ''but don't want to sacrifice the dining experience. It is a perfect situation.''
Reymond's vegetarian degustation was a highlight but my meat-free summer brought other joys - one of them a heightened appreciation of fresh, ripe local fruit and vegetables and a greater connection to the seasons. Apart from spring lamb, there is no seasonality with meat. It is there year round and produced to be consistent. Eating plants is different and, with the cold months approaching, I am apprehensive.
But the experts tell me I'll be fine. ''Winter is no problem,'' says Lake House's Alla Wolf-Tasker. ''Kohlrabi, brussels sprouts, broccoli and other members of the cabbage family, along with stored tubers and pumpkins combined with grains, are a joy to cook with,'' she says. Wolf-Tasker says spring is in fact the worst time of the year for Victorian vegetarians because this is when many vegetables are being sown and fruit trees are coming into blossom.
My mate texted the other day to say he was hosting a barbecue. It didn't look as if I was invited. So after a lifetime of using vegetarians - and their militant left-wing splinter group, vegans - as the punchline for gags, I had really become one of them. It's not so funny when the shoe is on the other foot but I'm probably the one who's laughing - I've lost more than six kilograms and have a feeling of wellbeing that I haven't had in years.
Will I keep it up? Over summer and up to now I can say I haven't missed meat once. I have cooked it for family and friends and never been tempted, except on one occasion when I was slicing a whole jamon. The rich smell of cured flesh and the nutty aroma of the outer layer of fat took me back to days and nights working and playing in Spain. I actually lifted a small slice to my nose to inhale. A mate politely coughed when he saw me. ''Sprung!'' he said. I had to joke about taping a piece to my arm like a nicotine patch to stop the cravings.
Vegies: food of patrons and saints
ST JUDE'S head chef Almay Jordaan is not vegetarian but she oversees a vegan degustation dinner at the restaurant on Tuesdays. She says ''a four-course vegan meal is not as scary as it might sound''.
What are some protein-rich foods many people don't consider?
Two of the most overlooked products that contain loads of protein are cheese and quinoa. With cheese, be sure to check that vegetarian rennet has been used and don't overlook fresh cheeses or even making your own firm labna. Roll labna into small balls and marinate it with your favourite aromatics, much like you would with olives.
It's no surprise that quinoa, with its seriously high amino-acid count, has taken off with such a bang. We use cooked quinoa in salads or we make a crisp pan-fried cake. Puffed quinoa is great as a snack or in desserts; add toasted, puffed quinoa to the topping of a cooked crumble. We buy our puffed grains at Spelt Quinoa (40 Johnston Street, Fitzroy). Millet is another great option. Toast it in a pan with cumin and salt to season and then add to salads.
At St Jude's we're getting into sprouts. Chickpeas, mung beans and buckwheat are easy to sprout. Soak, pat dry and place between damp, breathable cloths (such as Chux) in a dark spot with decent airflow and they will sprout in a day or two.
Go off the beaten track with lentils; black beluga lentils have a lovely earthy flavour and keep their shape (St Jude's sources Victorian-grown pulses from Mount Zero Olives) and we're using a lot of Persian red lentils.
If you're sick of tofu, use it in a different application, such as a silky ''cheesecake''; blend silken tofu with vanilla and set with xanthan gum or guar gum (available at health food shops) on a typical biscuit base.
Make ''cheese'' with cashew nuts and Nutella-like pastes with macadamias, cashews and hazelnuts; the internet is teeming with know-how.
Check out tempeh, seitan (wheat gluten) and TVP (textured vegetable protein). When TVP came on the scene in about the 1960s, it was pretty awful stuff. But it's come a long way and is one of the reasons Lord of the Fries' (vegetarian) burgers do so well.
Create an experimental night once a week (such as Meat Free Monday) when you try a typical vegetarian or vegan-only ingredient.