food / travel

A Cool New Recipe For World's Oldest Vegetarian Restaurant

The heir to the Hiltl dynasty of vegetarian restaurateurs decided veggie eateries need not be sober, puritanical settings, like the one his great-grandfather founded in 1898. Vodka, for example, is vegan.

With a side of tattoos
With a side of tattoos
Celine Zund

ZURICH â€" With his converse sneakers, faded jeans, sweatshirt and blond curls, Rolf Hiltl doesn't look like a sandals-and-socks missionary determined to convert Switzerland to vegetarianism. The 51-year-old heir to the restaurant bearing his name is an easy-going type who does occasionally eat meat, describing himself as a "flexitarian."

People in Zurich find it "quaint" that his restaurant will soon have served up food for 120 years without a single animal being killed. "If we had served meat in this time, imagine all the corpses that would have piled up by now, much bigger than this house," says Hiltl. His family's story reflects the history of vegetarianism here in the heart of Europe, from a priestly vocation to fashionable, to its current status as, well, normal.

Ironically, though, Zurich has not embraced this mainstreaming: This Swiss city where in 1898 the Hiltl became the world's first exclusively vegetarian eatery, counts relatively few restaurants today serving no meat.

Still, the Hiltl family company continues to grow, now including six restaurants, a cooking school, a grocery with a meatless butcher's shop and a night club, all drawing in between 3,000 and 5,000 customers a day. Hiltl will not give more figures, as this is a "family firm." A new, seventh restaurant is set to open in the fall of 2017 in downtown Zurich, on the lively Langstrasse street, and like the flagship restaurant, will have a basement club. Rolf Hiltl partnered up with the Frei brothers in 2000 to launch the other chain of vegetarian self-service eateries Tibits, now with nine premises and employing 400 people.

The restaurateur's decision to expand into the night club world was strategic: to rid his establishment of the whole "seed-eating" image, and replace it with the aura of partying, wild fun and nocturnal hedonism that appeals to younger clients. "Our DJs go from hip hop to R&B, they have tattoos on their arms and don't eat meat like many other young people of their generation. But there's vodka, and that's not meat," he says.

The next revolution

The owner, who himself prefers to spend an evening at home cooking for the family or skiing in Zermatt, is a real believer in the power of diversity: proud to be employing 250 people from 60 countries and using as many Swiss or European ingredients as possible. He is very active on social networks, and every tweet with the #Hiltl hashtag is projected in real time onto the wall in one of his restaurants.

Rolf Hiltl learned his own cooking craft in Zurich at the Grand Hotel Dolder, where he was trained to make the classics of French cuisine. Today, he promotes their vegetarian version: Whether à la tartare, sliced, or filleted and sauced, the dish will come with the tofu or seitan that make meat eaters howl. "As a cook, I know that what brings flavor to a dish is above all how it is prepared, and the sauce, spices and herbs. Our customers also want some tradition, and we give it to them," he says.

His great-grandfather Ambrosius, a German migrant to Zurich, decided to start the future temple of vegetarian food for health reasons. He had gout, and his doctor predicted the worst misfortunes if he did not stop eating meat. Initially, the austere Hiltl was called the "House of Vegetarians and Café of Abstinence."

In its first years, the café"s "herbivore" customers were said to enter surreptitiously through a back door. Prejudices in the food business can do great harm, and Rolf Hiltl is obsessed with eliminating as many as possible. When he took over from his father in 1998, he introduced wine and beer into the vegetarian establishment. Horror! "My grandmother and I got on very well, but she did not speak to me for three weeks," he recalls.

She was not the only one who needed convincing. The city government that issues liquor licenses initially refused the request to serve booze, insisting that a vegetarian restaurant needs no alcohol. "It has taken time for people to associate vegetarian food with pleasure. But in Zurich, we've moved onto something else. The next revolution is vegan."

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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