We review the entire country and culture of New Zealand, one thing at a time. Today, Duncan Greive gets amongst a new fake mince from the deep south.
As someone who loves the delicious taste and texture of animal meat, but has spent most of the past 25 years living as a vegetarian, fake meat products are extremely relevant to me. For a long time the range was small and quaint: a few bad snags, the poorly labelled mysteries of Blissful’s fakes (some of which, terrifyingly, don’t even need to be refrigerated) and the granddaddy of them all, Sanitarium’s weird canned products.
What united them all was their base: soy protein, a wondrous substance that apparently can be made into anything (I’m probably typing on it right now). It was fibrous and chewy enough to plausibly resemble meat, while also very much not being particularly meat-like. That said, I’ve eaten and will likely continue to eat a shitload of it, even though excess soy consumption is apparently bad for you, at least according to this Lance Armstrong-related website. The Blissful ham and peppersteak, the sanitarium canned mince, even the Mad Butcher’s deliberately bad half-size vegetarian sausages – I continue to love them all.
Over the past few years, the range has exploded. First, South African Fry’s and their green-packeted schnitzels and burgers came and invaded my freezer. Then the long-awaited landing of Quorn and the Linda McCartney range from the UK (the mozzarella burger patties are my favourite fake meat product of all time and Christmas is coming, Mum, if you’re reading this).
It’s an explosively growing international market, too. Beyond Meats has major investment from battery chicken behemoth Tyson Foods. The Impossible Burger generates hectic buzz thanks to its gory habit of bleeding while being cooked and made New Zealand collectively insane when Air NZ stocked it earlier this year. And Holland’s the Vegetarian Butcher tricked El Bulli magician Ferran Adrià into thinking he was eating a once-breathing creature. Then there’s the whole lab-grown meats scenario, which threatens to leave New Zealand as ‘the Detroit of agriculture’, as future of food expert Rosie Bosworth cheerily puts it.
Happily, there are some local heroes in the future proteins scene. First up was Sunfed Foods’ Shama Lee (I implore you to listen to this interview with her, she’s basically a superhero) who created ‘chicken-free chicken’ out of little more than pea protein. This instantly became my favourite veggie meat, one which is at the cutting edge of the science and the scaling side of alt proteins.
Now, Dunedin’s Craft Meats is here, with a beef mince product and the promise of more. So how does it stack up? Firstly, it looks extremely legit. Mince is, visually, a nightmare: long strands of who-knows-what all wormy and together. So it goes with the ‘no-meat mince’ – it’s visually indistinguishable from the animal version, except it has a nice artisan-style label on it. That’s basically what they were aiming for, so 10/10 for achieving that.
They sell it in the meat section at times, which makes red-blooded farmers even more angry than usual. The argument is that it’s not just targeted at vegetarians but flexitarians too, who are eating more meat-free meals around the world for health reasons, climate change, animal welfare and whatnot.
It’s expensive, at around $20 a kilo, thus around twice the price of regular mince. But consumers fretting about the above are liable to pay a little more or eat a little less for the privilege. It’s also made almost entirely from soy protein, which makes it less sci-fi than Sunfed and the other nü meats out there, and thus a bit less exciting, beyond the fancy packaging.
The big thing with food tends to be taste. I should table my bad cooking skills here, and admit that this probably wasn’t the best expression of what the no-meat mince can do. But it’s at least consistent with the bad cooking I apply to all other fake meat, so it’s a true like-for-like test.
I cooked it in a pan in oil with garlic and onion, then added a tomato passata and maybe some herbs, I forget. It looked pretty freaky going in and took longer to start browning off due to not having blood in it, but it seemed to break down functionally like a meat mince. It did smell bad, and the bad, slightly sour smell lingered. No getting around that, but also not entirely foreign to meat and/or food. I ignored that, put it on some black bean spaghetti (strongly recommend this freaky product too), added a bit of parmesan and I was ready to eat.
And it was good! At least the equal of the other fake minces I’ve had a crack at. The texture was a little finer than proper mince, and not as rich – but nothing a better chef couldn’t mask. I’m not certain how it would go being subbed into other mince contexts: I can imagine an excellent pie and a quite bad burger.
But I’m keen to give it a hoon. Even though it’s more of a throwback than it appears, more little indies making new and weird pretend meat is undeniably a good thing, in my opinion. Eventually, one might make something magical and add to the long, strange tradition of the unmeats in New Zealand.
Good or bad: Good! The taste is fine, the smell not too bad, and the fact they own a regular butchery and wanted something for their vegan daughter is also one of the sweetest origin stories a product could hope for.
Verdict: A nice packet of not-mince.
The Spinoff’s food content is brought to you by Freedom Farms. They believe talking about food is nearly as much fun as eating it, and they’re excited to facilitate some good conversations around food provenance in Aotearoa New Zealand.