New Year is a time of renewal, a time to face up to new challenges. For some, this might mean cutting meat out of their diet for ethical or environmental reasons, and for others it might mean more social media arguments. That’s right, it’s Veganuary.
In this age of polarisation, it’s interesting that one of the most influential plant-based chefs in the UK isn’t even a vegan. In fact, author and chef Bettina Campolucci Bordi got into it by complete happenstance.
“My business partner was vegan and gluten-free when I joined forces with her 10 years ago and we started running a retreat, so that’s the type of cooking we focused on,” explains Campolucci Bordi, of Bettina’s Kitchen, an online hub of courses and recipes to help people explore plant-based cooking.
“I got into it for business reasons and the love of cooking,” she adds.
Her focus on the sheer joy of cooking plants, rather than bashing the nearest meat eater or livestock farmer, is certainly refreshing. And it’s proving popular, with almost 140,000 followers of her Instagram account.
“A lot of people in my position preach a certain lifestyle, whereas I don’t want people to be like me,” says Campolucci Bordi. “I just want to give people options to cook with different types of ingredients and focus on vegetables as a hero of the plate.
“I try to not label my food. So if I’m serving something, I don’t say this is vegan, it’s just genuinely good food,” she says.
A lot of people in my position preach a certain lifestyle, whereas I don’t want people to be like me.
“As soon as you start labelling things, you’re separating people. It shouldn’t be about that; it should be about getting people around a table enjoying good food,” adds Campolucci Bordi.
It’s an approach that also feels less alienating for those who may like to eat meat but are trying to eat less of it, as it becomes increasingly accepted that current levels of meat consumption, particularly in the West, are unsustainable.
The inclusive nature of Campolucci Bordi’s approach shows an awareness of how to negotiate the complex socio-cultural norms surrounding meat and veganism. And to find out where this has come from, we have to go back.
Born to a Bulgarian and Danish mother and a Norwegian father, who worked for an airline company, she grew up in the cosmopolitan city of Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania.
“It definitely opened my eyes, from a cultural perspective and a food perspective,” says Campolucci Bordi.
“It’s a multicultural place, so at school we did things like celebrating international day and there would be 60 dishes from around the world where the mums would make their national dishes,” says Campolucci Bordi, who recalls a happy early childhood where a connection to food was a mainstay, from going to food markets to cooking from scratch.
Where Tanzania is full of fond memories, her move to Sweden at 11 years old got off to a rocky start. Or as Campolucci Bordi puts it: “It was like taking a palm tree and putting it in the Antarctic. It was a very big difference.”
But while she has shape-shifted between continents and cultures, the one constant theme has been food and celebration through food.
“I have a food-obsessed family,” explains Campolucci Bordi. “Food is what I wanted to do, but my parents definitely didn’t want me to go to culinary school.
“The closest thing I could find was hotel management because there was a food and beverage side to it.”
After years of managing hotel restaurants in the south of Spain, a friend came to her with the idea of running a wellbeing retreat serving vegan food, making a refreshing change from the seven-day juice detox in full swing in the late 2000s.
This idea of food as celebration has stayed with her and is particularly relevant throughout the festive period, and she maintains that you can still have a good time at Christmas and New Year if you’re not eating meat.
I don’t tend to go to a lot of supermarkets and that’s the key. I go to a lot of farmers’ markets, and I get veg boxes.
“You need to add things to your table rather than taking away lots of things,” says Campolucci Bordi, who says this is down to good produce and a different approach to cooking.
“I don’t tend to go to a lot of supermarkets and that’s the key. I go to a lot of farmers’ markets, and I get veg boxes.
“That is the single best way to tick off the seasonal, local and diversity in your diet while also supporting farmers doing good things,” she adds.
“I always work with what I’ve got,” says Campolucci Bordi, who believes there’s nothing worse than trying to think of a recipe out of nowhere. “A fridge raid meal is always going to end up ten times better.”
While she might not preach about animal welfare standards, she’s vocal about seasonality and working with whole foods.
As such, she’s wary about the boom of fake meat and the amount of money being invested, recalling a recent event with a faux meat company where she asked a salesman why it’s sustainable and he replied, “because it is”.
“I was like ‘that’s not really how it works’,” she says. “More money should be invested into soil health and regenerative farming,” she adds, albeit a bit foggy on the details herself.
But Campolucci Bordi doesn’t need to be the food and farming expert. Nor is it the case that her inclusive approach to vegan cooking is the only way. We still need activists who are outspoken and outraged, putting issues onto our agenda with a level of urgency.
But when it comes to helping people finding joy in shifting habits, cooking and beyond, it seems we could all take a leaf out of Campolucci Bordi’s book.
Bettina Campolucci Bordi’s top tips for Veganuary
“A really simple way is to reduce your animal-based products a bit while raising your vegetables. If you go vegan straight away, it might not suit you. Maybe try going meat free during the week and whatever you’re eating on the weekend is a treat.”
“Look through your recipe books and pick out veg recipes and make a plan to buy those ingredients. Or work around what’s been delivered in your veg box.”
“Pull everything out of the fridge and try to work it out. It’s always pushed me and it’s a much more fun way to work.”
Try Bettina’s smashed sprouts with garlic mayo or herb crostinis with leek and tahini dip.