Dutch “butcher” Jaap Korteweg is on a mission to compete with industrial meat production. No animals are harmed in the process.
At first sight, it seems to be a regular butcher’s shop. The scales on the counter, the knife, the cutting machine – it’s all there. The cooling section presents a mouth-watering bonanza for barbecue-lovers: sausages, hamburgers, meatballs, poultry kabobs. Even tuna and calamari are available. What more do you need for a great cookout?
Yes, you can indeed cook out with the culinary delights that Jaap Korteweg offers in his concept store in The Hague. However, no animals are harmed here; all the food is plant-based. “Made from soy beans and peas, lupin seeds and cereals,” the 54-year-old farmer explains as he gets a package of ‘Little Willies’ English breakfast sausages from the refrigerated counter: “One of our latest and most popular products!” he proudly reports, pointing out the round logo, which says De Vegetarian Slager, the vegetarian butcher.
“Meat must become an ancillary item on our plates.”
This is the name of the company Kortewegw founded on World Animal Day in 2010. His goal is to offer even confirmed meat-lovers an alternative that is both eco- and animal-friendly. His specialties look and taste like meat products, yet vegetarians can enjoy them without remorse. No animals need to suffer, and his production does not put extreme stress on the environment as “normal” meat products do: “We need only half as much agricultural surface, and only a third of the water and fertilizer.”
Korteweg was pushed into action by the last outbreak of swine fever that ravaged Europe in the fall of 1997. The Netherlands with their extreme mass livestock farming were worst hit by the disease: With 15 million pigs, matching the number of human inhabitants, it is the country with the highest ‘pig density’ in the world. To keep the disease from spreading like wildfire, 12 million pigs were preventatively killed within 13 months. Only about 700,000 were actually infected. But where to put the millions of carcasses? Korteweg, a ninth-generation farmer in the south of the country, was also asked to help out by storing dead pigs in his cooling cells until the animal crematories caught up. “That was the moment I told myself: You don’t want to be a part of this miserable system anymore,” the farmer remembers. His own farm had already gone organic a while before. And, as his wife and four daughters, he had become a vegetarian. Yet he wanted to do more. As David once took on Goliath, he decided to compete with the bio-industry, as mass animal farming is euphemistically called in the Netherlands. Whether it is steaks and roulades, goulash soup or spaghetti á la Bolognese, tuna salad or smoked mackerel – one by one, he wants to replace every meat and fish dish on the market with a vegetarian alternative. “Meat must become an ancillary item on our plates.”
A “plant-based slaughterhouse” dishing out 50 million meals each year
But why can’t people just switch to veggies and salads? Why do we need that sense that we are still eating meat? Why do we need a substitute that looks and tastes like meat? Isn’t that hypocritical? Jaap Korteweg laughs out lout, for he gets this question a lot: “Because many people are addicted to meat. Because they are anxious about the idea of not eating meat any more. And that fear is so great that rational arguments don’t get through.” He cites himself as a prime example: “I was a passionate carnivore. And I just wanted to keep eating my sausages and my bacon.”
At first, people ridiculed him for his endeavor: challenge the meat industry – nice try. But his success vindicates him. In the summer of 2017, he will expand his business by adding what he calls a huge “plant-based slaughterhouse” in Breda in the southern Netherlands. The project will cost him ten million Euros, a quarter of which he crowdfunded “within three weeks!” It exceeded his wildest expectations, for he had initially hoped to raise one million in three months. “I could have raised ten million, but we had to stop.” The legal limit was 2.5 million Euros. He took out a bank loan to cover the remaining 7.5 million.
Korteweg plans to make 50 million meat substitute meals each year in his new factory. Today already, the vegetarische slager logo can be found in the cooling counters and aisles of about 3,000 outlets in 13 countries: at snack bars and restaurants, “regular” butcheries and many grocery stores. Among them is the largest Dutch supermarket chain Albert Heijn, where Korteweg’s vegetarian version of the popular sausage roll saucijzenbroodjes ranked first in taste tests. “We even beat the ‘real’ saucijzenbroodjes with meat,” product developer Paul Bom emphasizes.
The trial kitchen in the back of the store is where the chef and his expert team explore new meat substitutes. “All we need is a blender, a mixer and a grinder, like in any other kitchen,” the 44-year-old tells us. Well, that and the expertise he has been accumulating over time. Spices and consistency are key: “You must be able to cut the meat substitute without crumbling; and you have to be able to roll the substitute cold cuts.” The combination of carob bean flour and carrageenan made from red algae cells works really well for this. Sometimes, they happen upon new products: “We discovered our calamari by sheer coincidence while trying to develop fish nuggets - which ended up tasting like fried calamari.”
Whenever a new product is ready for market launch, things get challenging: Then we have to make 200 or 300 pounds instead of the five or six pounds of product we made in the trial kitchen– “And they may all taste different, even though we’re using the same recipe!” That means back to the trial counter, experiment, blend and stir around some more. Right now, the vegetarian butchers are developing a plant-based steak to convince even die-hard meat aficionados: “It will be another couple of years, though...” Another product is a lot closer to market launch, yet it is still a secret. Here’s a hint: “You can spread it on bread.”