Laurel Gilbert has always been excited by new foods and the creative side of cookery.
As a schoolgirl she loved food so much that she decided quite early on that she would like to be a chef.
And the fact that she is a lifelong vegetarian and has never tasted meat didn’t stop her from pursuing a career working with food.
But instead of becoming a chef, as she wasn’t keen on the unsocial hours that came with the job, Laurel has worked variously for The Vegetarian Society and a fresh fruit packaging company and is now product developer for the well-known Huddersfield company Shaws.
“Food is a massive part of my life and always has been,” says 28-year-old Laurel, who lives in Lindley, “I just love preparing food.”
Which is just as well because her office at Shaws in Moldgreen has a kitchen attached to it where she cooks up sample batches of chutneys, relish and salsa.
It’s this hands-on aspect of her job, developing new lines for the 123-year-old company, that she really enjoys.
After studying hospitality business management with culinary arts at Sheffield Hallam University, Laurel found a job with the Vegetarian Society checking the ingredients of foods that were to carry the organisation’s logo.
She said: “I enjoyed the work but wanted to be more involved with food production. A friend of mine suggested I look at product development, but I’d never even heard of it.”
Laurel arrived at Shaws nearly 18 months ago and has been responsible for devising new recipes for its Everyday Range of chutneys and relish. She has also developed an entirely new collection of premium heritage products with a strong Yorkshire feel about them.
It’s clear Laurel loves her work. She says that her vegetarian lifestyle means she can think creatively about food.
“You can’t just put meat and two veg on a plate,” she explained. It’s a skill she learned early in life.
“My parents are vegetarians and brought me and my two sisters up as vegetarians,” she explained.
“I think they were a bit alternative back in the 1970s and did quite a lot of travelling around. As Buddhists they made an ethical decision not to eat meat and at that time it was very difficult for them. At university, my dad was a vegan and said it was very antisocial and you couldn’t eat out at other people’s houses or restaurants.”
Laurel says she never questioned why the family didn’t eat meat.
“I tried to rebel against most things the way teenagers do, but not about that although I did start to think about it. I had the feeling that I didn’t want to eat something that had been killed. I didn’t want to eat flesh.”
By the 1990s, when Laurel was growing up, vegetarianism had become more widespread and accepted, but she still remembers being singled out because of her food choices.
“In my late teens I was very defensive about it, because I felt like I was having to explain myself all the time,” she said. “People would be quite negative about it.
“It was easy for me to be a vegetarian but I felt like I was the only one.”
Although the numbers of vegetarians have grown, Laurel says research she conducted while at university showed that many people think of themselves as vegetarians but, in fact, are merely ‘meat-reducers’.
She found the peak age for being vegetarian was 25 to 35 and that even those who said they’d given up meat would still choose meat in restaurants because they perceived it as being better value for money than the veggie option.
Laurel was brought up on many foods that she says are now thought of as stereotypically vegetarian.
She said: “We’d have lentils, aduki bean pies, wholefoods, brown rice and that sort of thing. We also had lots of curries.
“I appreciate it more now than I did then. As a teenager I just wanted pizza and chips like everyone else.”
In fact, she now cooks a lot of curries and loves thinking up new recipes.
She is particularly fond of Asian food. Her boyfriend Andrew (Ferg) Ferguson’s family is from Malaysia.
She says he’s “a really fantastic cook”. Since they met seven years ago Andrew has also embraced vegetarianism.
Laurel says they work hard to ensure their diet is healthy and balanced.
Quite clearly they have succeeded as both she and Andrew have the energy and stamina to be competitive long-distance runners.
They train three times a week – up to eight miles at a time – and have competed in a number of 10k and half marathon races.
Although Laurel says she has dabbled with a vegan lifestyle – which avoids consumption of any animal products at all including dairy and eggs – she says it’s much easier to be a vegetarian even if it compromises some of her ethics.
She says: “It is really hypocritical because the intensive farming that goes on in the dairy industry is disgraceful. But we always buy organic milk and cheese for the higher welfare standards.”
A broad vegetarian diet with dairy and eggs also provides all the essential nutrients.
“A vegetarian diet is not necessarily healthy but it can be,’’ Laurel added. “You just have to be careful.”
There’s not much Laurel doesn’t know about making chutney.
In re-developing Shaws’ everyday range – which sells 350,000 jars a year – she experimented with new ingredients, colours and textures.
The biggest seller is Chunky Mango Chutney, while the company’s Devilish Chilli and Tomato Relish is supplied to food chain Frankie and Bennys.
“Sometimes I make four or five batches of chutney a day,’’ she said. “We taste it ourselves and then if it meets approval it goes out to family and friends.’’
Occasionally she has to re-think a product when it doesn’t live up to expectations.
Laurel revealed: “The new Plum and Rhubarb Chutney was originally just rhubarb but the colour faded and it went brown so I put plum and red wine in it to keep it looking good.”
According to the Foods Standards Agency, 3% of the UK population is strictly vegetarian and 5% say they eat limited amounts of meat.
The number of committed vegetarians has hardly changed in the past decade, but there are growing numbers of what are known as meat-reducers.
Every day in the UK alone 2.3m land animals are slaughtered for meat.
Studies have shown that a vegetarian lifestyle is not only good for the planet, it can reduce rates of serious diseases, including heart disease, some cancers and diabetes.
The Vegetarian Society, based in Cheshire, was founded in 1847. The theme for this year’s vegetarian week is the great vegetarian breakfast. For recipes check out www.vegsoc.org