04. November 2016 A Global Revolution Starts with Onions

Photo: Benno Schirrmeister/ERR

​It’s a huge trend to live the vegan lifestyle today. The community is growing slowly in Estonia, but with particular pleasure.

And then our conversation turns to onions. And the face of Mick Mägi begins to beam. “Onions!” he says. “I love onions!” He describes the range of this underrated vegetable almost tenderly. Shallots, red onions, spring onions or these peculiar spicy-sharp onions from Lake Peipus, since regional food is the best. Mägi sings the praises of their aromas, praising the possibility of using only onions and various means of hand processing them to achieve different effects in meals. “I put them in everything,” he says, “but without them being dominant.” Only good cooks speak of the ingredients in which a secret signature of their art can be deciphered with this passion and this uncompromising gravity.

Mikk Mägi is an excellent cook. For two and a half years he has run Restaurant V in a late-Gothic house right next to the Krahl Theater in the heart of the old town of Tallinn. V stands for Vegan. Veganism is an intensified form of vegetarianism. It goes not only without fish and meat, but without every animal product, milk, even honey. And Mägi is a pioneer of this food culture, even though the second vegan restaurant in Estonia, Göök, specialized in home-style cooking, has now opened in Tartu. In Estonia, where the consumption of meat has been steadily rising for 20 years, as if there were something to make up for.

Growth more felt than measured

Without meat nothing is lacking if one understands what can be done with vegetables. The best proof of this is provided by the dishes designed by Mikk Mägi: his seitan carpaccio over celery potato cream on steamed yellow beets melts on the tongue in a thrilling dialogue with bittersweet red wine gravy. Or the appetizers! For instance, the beetroot ravioli stuffed with a fine mousse of cashew cream. In it, Baltic and Scandinavian elements meet with exotic seeds and fruits, it looks wonderful – and is simply delicious, not to mention unique.

There are no figures about the vegan community in Estonia. This makes the business risk difficult to calculate. In the beginning of 2016, a vegan shop opened in the Rotermann district. There are still signposts up. Rotermanni 7, they say. But in mid-October there is no trace of the business. “There is no more vegan shop,” says the friendly woman in the design store. It has been gone for a long time. “We have around 170 members,” says Ireene Viktor from the Eesti Vegan Selts (EVS), founded in Tartu in 2012. However, several people join every week. “We are growing.” On Facebook, the group “Jah, see on vegan!” has almost 12,000 members. Also the Taimetoidumess, the only relevant trade fair in the Baltic States, will again have record numbers of visitors at its fifth convening on 5 November. Almost 100 exhibitors have registered.

Of course, Mikk Mägi will be there, as well. After all, he was the co-initiator of the event five years ago. At that time he had just begun taking his first steps in the profession with a catering service. “At first, it was very difficult to get the special ingredients,” he says. He still has to have quite a lot of them brought in from Finland. “But it has gotten much easier.”

In fact, a good 100 restaurants in Estonia already call themselves “vegan-friendly.” And the growth more felt and hoped for here is a measurable fact all around the world: The Nutrition Business Journal identified a share of 6 percent of the population in the USA in its 2015 Food Tribes Report; it is similar in Israel, Sweden and Japan. But even in very traditional Italy or in allegedly meat-fixated Poland, a good two percent of the population is already considered total animal product abstainers.

That’s a lot. Until the beginning of the century, the term, which was not coined until 1944, was known only to insiders or nutritional scientists. And it is not a bold forecast that growth will continue: surveys in the UK have shown that 20 percent of the 16 to 25-year-olds identify themselves as vegan or vegetarian.

In photos, for example on the cover of his cookbook Tähtpäevad taimetoiduga, which was published two years ago and is already out of print, Mägi seems to burst with self-confidence. A clear gaze, almost somewhat challenging, directly into the camera. A cap on his head, arms folded in front of his chest. Visible tattoos, piercings and ear tunnels.

In conversation, by contrast, the 31-year-old seems very sensitive, almost shy. “Many people were sceptical about whether a restaurant like mine can make it,” he says. “We ourselves,” (Loore Emilie Raavi, his partner, is the manager), “of course, too.” Now, on a perfectly average Wednesday outside any season, lunchtime is long over and the place is packed. Muted conversations are heard. At the table next to the entrance we are able to speak a few minutes with the chef.

Meatless to combat climate change

There are many reasons to be vegan: the complete renunciation of animal products is one of the biggest contributions a single individual can make to reduce their carbon footprint. The diet of meat eaters causes an average of four times more greenhouse gas emissions, that of vegetarians still produces twice more than vegans. In the professional world, the question of whether the vegan diet is healthier than others is more disputed.

It is true that the excessive consumption of meat by the industrialized societies is suspected of promoting their typical diseases: type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular complaints, hypertension. Several studies have even suggested that carnivorous behaviour increases cancer risk. “Many Estonians do not eat enough fruit and vegetables,” says Ireene Viktor. Therefore, this health aspect is of great importance here. And for November, when we need vitamins the most, EVS therefore announced the “Vegan Väljakutse.” According to Viktor, it is not a competition, but a promotional campaign “to make veganism better known, to provide information about this way of life, and to encourage people to simply try out what it’s like to live without animal products.” They are also doing something for their health and for the environment.

And then there is the question of animal rights. “It made the difference for me,” says Mikk Mägi. “I was vegetarian for a long time. At 20, I decided to try to do without any animal products.” No cheese, no milk, no eggs, no honey. No wool. No silk. No leather shoes. No leather belt. “Most people become vegan because they are concerned about animals and do not want them to suffer and be killed,” says Ireene Viktor from the EVS. And modern animal husbandry, from which most of the consumed meat originates, is considered cruel by most people. It’s difficult to imagine a pig as happy as it lives with many thousands of fellow creatures on slatted floors in a dark barn being quickly fattened. And in poultry farms an average of 40,000 chickens are so close together that it is neither possible to change their litter during their eight-week lifespan nor for them to fall over. They would inevitably do so because they are bred so that they develop extremely big breasts.

The fear of animal rights

Animal protection: not everyone is for it today. But simply asking the question of animal rights worries many, not just the meat industry and the large-scale farms. Granting rights to animals would be a fundamental change in the way we live. This also seemed to dawn on Jeremy Bentham, the founder of philosophical utilitarianism, when, in composing his Principles of Morals and Legislation, he encounters the dilemma that it is not so easy to justify exploiting animals. “Perhaps it will some day be recognised that the number of legs, the hairiness of the skin, or the possession of a tail are equally insufficient reasons for abandoning to the same fate a creature that can feel?” he writes in 1780. And then prefers to relegate this sensational idea to the murmur of the footnotes where no one might notice it. “The day may come,” it says, “when the non-human part of the animal creation will acquire the rights that never could have been withheld from them except by the hand of tyranny.”

The exploitation of animals is fundamental to our society. It is something that is unconscious, repressed and that affects all spheres of life. Dyes, spectacle frames, glue, cosmetics, x-ray films, shaving brushes and pharmaceuticals: animal materials are processed everywhere, usually by-products or waste from the slaughter industry. They are even the raw material for most organic fertilizers: blood meal, bone meal, horn shavings. Even to find a beer or soda whose labels do not adhere to the bottle thanks to bone or casein glue, or a wine that is known to be filtered with agar instead of gelatine, requires research. “The vegan community is well networked,” says Mikk Mägi. For example, the globally active VegFund organization operates databases, creates lists and helps establish contacts. “Our menu here,” Mägi promises, “is 100 percent vegan.” And enjoying it is at least just as perfect.