This post was originally published on the very ace Culture Vulture blog.
As a vegetarian, you know that certain eating establishments just aren’t for you. You’re unlikely to find solace in a Brazilian steakhouse, a barbecue grill probably won’t do it for you, and if meat or beast is the prominent component of a bar’s name, you can make a safe assumption that it’s not going to be veggie friendly.
I used to feel this way about Friends of Ham. Close to celebrating its first birthday, Friends of Ham has earned itself a stellar reputation in Leeds. Favourable reviews and social buzz a-plenty, it’s clearly doing something right, but you wouldn’t necessarily think that ‘something’ appealed to vegetarians. After all, vegetarians are NOT friends of ham. Friends of pigs maybe, but certainly not friends of the meaty product of their demise. And when a bar so brazenly flaunts its love of meat, you’d be forgiven for assuming that veggies wouldn’t get much of a look in.
But maybe you’d be wrong…
They could have let Phil’s comments slide, but so impassioned were Friends of Ham’s declarations of its vegetarian credentials, that I felt compelled to put it to the test.
Now veggies of Leeds, if you’re giving Friends of Ham a chance, your first, and biggest, challenge is walking past the very meaty display that decorates its window. Of course ham is a big deal here, the clue is in the name, but the sight of cured pig legs hanging in the window would understandably be enough to put many veggies off. I’m a bit of a weird veggie though. I don’t eat meat, but it’s not because I disagree with the concept of killing animals for food. Nor do I find such displays offensive, so I just shrugged it off and walked in.
If you can get through that first challenge, then you need not linger in the presence of hanging hams for very long. Whilst Friends of Ham may look like a small charcuterie from the outside, closer inspection leads you to discover a staircase that descends into a vast, carcass-free den. Low-lit and furnished with an eclectic mix of long wooden benches, worn leather sofas and dining tables with chairs, it radiates a charming, homely vibe. A far cry from many of the bland and identikit bars that can be found throughout Leeds, the underground lair is imbued with character through little details such as cutlery housed in a paprika tin, table tops adorned with postcards of classic book covers, and wallpaper that masquerades as a floor-to-ceiling library. There’s even a shuffleboard table, which was the centrepiece for a lairy group of workmates who raucously ‘whooped’ every two seconds as they shuffled (or whatever it is you do when you play shuffleboard).
In short, Friends of Ham felt relaxed and unpretentious, the sort of retreat where you could while away hours at a time without even realising.
So the surroundings got a big, veggie-friendly tick, but what about the food? The menu looked very promising. Although Friends of Ham labels itself as a ‘Bar + Charcuterie’, charcuterie is actually just a small element of a menu laden with veggie-friendly goodies. There’s an extensive selection of cheeses sourced throughout the UK, France and Spain, as well as tapenades, olives and even vegetarian scotch eggs. Being a vegetarian is usually easy when it comes to choosing from a menu, but not so here. Choosing was near-impossible and we went for the only sane option – a feast to share!
Just 10 ravenous minutes later, a waiter overloaded with wooden boards arrived at our table. We *may* have over-ordered… either that or Friends of Ham’s portions were VERY generous. Our table was transformed into an exquisite banquet, which beckoned immediate consumption.
In 10 years of vegetarianism, my only dalliance with scotch eggs has been with the Quorn varietal… and there’s a dalliance I’d rather forget. Nothing like the paltry, processed morsels on offer from the overrated veggie fail-safe, Friends of Ham’s scotch eggs were enormous balls of veggie joy. Spiced chickpeas provided a dense blanket for the boiled egg, coated in well-seasoned breadcrumbs and accompanied by wholegrain mustard and salad leaves. One each was probably unnecessary, but we both valiantly finished every last bite… it would have been rude not to. The eggs are made by The Handmade Scotch Egg Company in Herefordshire, and the most popular veggie item on the menu, according to Friends of Ham’s Claire!
Then there was the cheese board. Out of eight moreish options on offer, we painstakingly narrowed it down to three: Gruth Dhu (Black crowdie), Cornish Yarg and Brie de Meaux. The Gruth Duh was a gorgeously creamy cheese with a spicy crunch, owing to its coating in crushed peppercorns and toasted pinhead oats. The Brie de Meaux was less pungent than other varieties I’ve tasted, but just as irresistibly oozy. And the winner? It had to be the Cornish Yarg, which had a deep flavour and a gorgeous rind composed of edible leaves. Served with salty black olives, fresh bread and two sweet chutneys, it was a celebration of the almighty fromage.
Concluding our mammoth feast was the tapenade. The same salty black olives that featured on the cheese board were whirred and blended into a smooth, jet black tapenade, and served with zinging cornichons and toasted, olive oil-drenched bread. Perhaps a little too salty for my liking, but as a component in our veggie feast, it played its part well.
To wash down our banquet we went for the humble house red. More often than not, house wines can be acidic, vinegary and not worth touching, but I put my faith in Friends of Ham and it paid off. A velvety smooth Spanish blend, one bottle very quickly led to two more glasses (each). On a school night, too! Definitely worth the hangover.
So Friends of Ham clearly has the veggie credentials to back up its passionate declarations. I caught up with Claire Kitching, one of the founders of Friends of Ham, who told me more:
“At Friends of Ham we know the origins of all the food on our menu. So every pig, every bit of cheese, every scotch egg, the bread etc – we know exactly where it was produced, and by who, and the methods they use to produce it. It is a bit daunting as a vegetarian to come in and see our meat display, but for those who choose not to eat meat because of the way that animals are treated on their way to our plate, to tell them the story around the way the animals are treated appeases them a little!
For example, a black-hooved pig that we get the Iberico Bellota ham from is treated like a king. They have a special diet of only acorns, with two pigs per hectare minimum (i.e. each pig gets 1.25 acres.
We have a good range of vegetarian cheeses as well as non-vegetarian cheeses. A lot of the microbreweries we stock now don’t fine their beer which make them vegetarian, and we stock a lot of Marble who don’t put finings in any of their beers. One of the staff’s favourite dishes is the Empeltre Olive Tapenade, which is made of solely black olives, nothing else added.”
Whatever the ‘wow factor’ may mean to you, Friends of Ham definitely has it. Whilst I concede that hardcore veggies may, quite validly, be put off by the meaty legs that hang in the window, I urge you to dash past, make yourself comfy downstairs and give Friends of Ham a go. Despite its meaty façade, veggies are definitely not an afterthought, but a cherished customer that’s treated with just as much respect as the meat aficionados that the bar lures in. Yet another triumph for the Leeds indie scene!