'Plant-curious': UK's first 100% vegan hotel
n the kitchen of Saorsa 1875, Luca Sordi is decorating a scoop of zesty almond butter with a sprinkling of fermented spruce tips.
“With butter, there are so many more interesting alternatives,” says the Italian-born, London-trained chef as he perfects his menus for the opening weekend of the UK’s first 100% vegan hotel. Dishes include watermelon sashimi, rainbow polenta gnocchi and – perhaps inevitably, since this establishment is in the Scottish Highlands – his own reinterpretation of haggis.
“It’s possible to make a meringue using the cooking water of chickpeas, or a panna cotta with a kind of seaweed,” says Sordi, who re-trained as a chef after becoming a vegetarian, and has seldom cooked meat. “But it’s not about recreating something we are missing. This is getting the best from what is in nature.”
The number of Britons eating a wholly plant-based diet quadrupled between 2014 and 2018 to 600,000, or 1.16% of the population. Glasgow was voted the most vegan-friendly city in the UK, and the surge in “green getaways” has become one of Visit Scotland’s key trends for 2019.
“Scotland has an amazing vegan scene in Glasgow, and in Edinburgh,” said Jack McLaren-Stewart, who has launched this family project in Pitlochry, Perthshire, with his business partner and mother, Sandra. Both are long-term vegetarians who became vegan about five years ago. He said: “But as you start to come into the Highlands it becomes progressively hard to be vegan. At best you get one vegetarian option on a menu. This is about giving people the opportunity to come to a beautiful place and not feel like they have to compromise at all.”
Everything at Saorsa 1875 is vegan: from the liqueurs at the hotel bar to upcycled lounge furniture and the cleaning products. Heating comes via newly fitted electric radiators from the 100% renewable Ecotricity.
This has demanded an investigative approach to food and furnishing. Wines might appear vegan but many are filtered using isinglass, from the swim bladder of fish. Plenty of duvets are made without feathers nowadays, but their microfibres may have added wool and sourcing vegan slug repellant remains a challenge.
What is most evident from a visit to the premises is how unobtrusive these changes are. Upstairs in the 11 guest bedrooms, where Sandra McLaren-Stewart’s interior design training has come to the fore, there is the same statement wallpaper, voluminous bedding and extravagant throws one might expect in any stylish boutique hotel, except that here the wools, silks and leather have been replaced with linen, cotton, velvet and manmade fibres.She said: “People see our lifestyle choice as abstinent. We’re not partaking fully
in life because we’re having to leave all these things off the menu, all these things you can’t enjoy. We wanted to create some place to say ‘you can’. Even with clothes, you can buy non-leather shoes, or Fairtrade cotton, there’s a huge push.”
While growing awareness of how animal agriculture might effect the climate emergency is prompting more and more of us to consider plant-based alternatives, it’s fair to say that veganism continues to attract some residual sneering . Witness William Sitwell, who quit as the editor of Waitrose Food magazine after an email exchange in which he joked about“killing vegans”. “I think it forces people to question there own choices and sometimes that makes them uncomfortable,” said Sandra diplomatically.
Interest in veganism from the hospitality and tourism sector has only really kicked off in the UK in the past two years, said Dominika Piasecka, a spokesperson for the Vegan Society. “We are getting alot of queries from restaurants. They need to see that vegan options are selling, and often they don’t know how to cook a decent vegan dish. So far, it’s mainly in the cities and large towns but other places are slowly catching up.
“Knowing that no animal had to suffer for the hotel equipment or cosmetics gives vegans peace of mind, and supporting ethical businesses makes there holiday that much more enjoyable.”
The potatoes in the hotel vegetable patch are thriving, and a selection of apple and cherry saplings are taking root. Most fruit and vegetables are sourced locally, said Jack – “although Perthshire is not exactly known for its lemons” – with coffee from Aberfeldy and bread from a bakery in Crieff.
He said he was keen to attract the “plant-curious” as well as committed vegans and vegetarians. “When you become vegan and throw yourself into the movement you discover it is really vibrant and there are so many people doing these amazing innovative things.
“We really wanted to have a place that showcased that, and that other people can come to. We don’t have a doorman checking if you’re vegan or you’re not coming in. But maybe coming with your partner who is not vegan, or a couple who think we’ve heard so much about it let’s give it a try.”
The family are both delighted and a little overwhelmed by the initial reception to their all-vegan venture, with the first weekend fully booked. “The feedback has been amazing,” said Jack. “We’ve been bombarded with messages of support from all over the world. It’s a really nice validation.”